THE MAN OF DREAMS
When I had escorted my cousin Sibylle
from the presence of the Emperor, I was surprised
to find the same young hussar officer waiting outside
who had commanded the guard which had brought me to
‘Well, mademoiselle, what luck?’
he asked excitedly, clanking towards us.
For answer Sibylle shook her head.
’Ah, I feared as much, for the
Emperor is a terrible man. It was brave, indeed,
of you to attempt it. I had rather charge an
unshaken square upon a spent horse than ask him for
anything. But my heart is heavy, mademoiselle,
that you should have been unsuccessful.’
His boyish blue eyes filled with tears and his fair
moustache drooped in such a deplorable fashion, that
I could have laughed had the matter been less serious.
’Lieutenant Gerard chanced to
meet me, and escorted me through the camp,’
said my cousin. ’He has been kind enough
to give me sympathy in my trouble.’
‘And so do I, Sibylle,’
I cried; ’you carried yourself like an angel,
and it is a lucky man who is blessed with your love.
I trust that he may be worthy of it.’
She turned cold and proud in an instant
when anyone threw a doubt upon this wretched lover
‘I know him as neither the Emperor
nor you can do,’ said she. ’He has
the heart and soul of a poet, and he is too high-minded
to suspect the intrigues to which he has fallen a
victim. But as to Toussac, I should have no
pity upon him, for I know him to be a murderer five
times over, and I know also that there will be no
peace in France until he has been taken. Cousin
Louis, will you help me to do it?’
The lieutenant had been tugging at
his moustache and looking me up and down with a jealous
‘Surely, mademoiselle, you will
permit me to help you?’ he cried in a piteous
‘I may need you both,’
said she. ’I will come to you if I do.
Now I will ask you to ride with me to the edge of
the camp and there to leave me.’
She had a quick imperative way which
came charmingly from those sweet womanly lips.
The grey horse upon which I had come to the camp was
waiting beside that of the hussar, so we were soon
in the saddle. When we were clear of the huts
my cousin turned to us.
‘I had rather go alone now,’
said she. ’It is understood, then, that
I can rely upon you.’
‘Entirely,’ said I.
‘To the death,’ cried Gerard.
‘It is everything to me to have
two brave men at my back,’ said she, and so,
with a smile, gave her horse its head and cantered
off over the downland in the direction of Grosbois.
For my part I remained in thought
for some time, wondering what plan she could have
in her head by which she hoped to get upon the track
of Toussac. A woman’s wit, spurred by
the danger of her lover, might perhaps succeed where
Fouche and Savary had failed. When at last I
turned my horse I found my young hussar still staring
after the distant rider.
‘My faith! There is the
woman for you, Etienne!’ he kept repeating.
’What an eye! What a smile! What
a rider! And she is not afraid of the Emperor.
Oh, Etienne, here is the woman who is worthy of you!’
These were the little sentences which
he kept muttering to himself until she vanished over
the hill, when he became conscious at last of my presence.
‘You are mademoiselle’s
cousin?’ he asked. ’You are joined
with me in doing something for her. I do not
yet know what it is, but I am perfectly ready to do
‘It is to capture Toussac.’
‘In order to save the life of her lover.’
There was a struggle in the face of
the young hussar, but his more generous nature won.
‘Sapristi! I will
do even that if it will make her the happier!’
he cried, and he shook the hand which I extended towards
him. ’The Hussars of Bercheny are quartered
over yonder, where you see the lines of picketed horses.
If you will send for Lieutenant Etienne Gerard you
will find a sure blade always at your disposal.
Let me hear from you then, and the sooner the better!’
He shook his bridle and was off, with youth and gallantry
in every line of him, from his red toupet
and flowing dolman to the spur which twinkled on his
But for four long days no word came
from my cousin as to her quest, nor did I hear from
this grim uncle of mine at the Castle of Grosbois.
For myself I had gone into the town of Boulogne and
had hired such a room as my thin purse could afford
over the shop of a baker named Vidal, next to the
Church of St. Augustin, in the Rue des Vents.
Only last year I went back there under that strange
impulse which leads the old to tread once more with
dragging feet the same spots which have sounded to
the crisp tread of their youth. The room is still
there, the very pictures and the plaster head of Jean
Bart which used to stand upon the side table.
As I stood with my back to the narrow window, I had
around me every smallest detail upon which my young
eyes had looked; nor was I conscious that my own heart
and feelings had undergone much change. And
yet there, in the little round glass which faced me,
was the long drawn, weary face of an aged man, and
out of the window, when I turned, were the bare and
lonely downs which had been peopled by that mighty
host of a hundred and fifty thousand men. To
think that the Grand Army should have vanished away
like a shredding cloud upon a windy day, and yet that
every sordid detail of a bourgeois lodging should remain
unchanged! Truly, if man is not humble it is
not for want of having his lesson taught to him by
My first care after I had chosen my
room was to send to Grosbois for that poor little
bundle which I had carried ashore with me that squally
night from the English lugger. My next was to
use the credit which my favourable reception by the
Emperor and his assurance of employment had given
me in order to obtain such a wardrobe as would enable
me to appear without discredit among the richly dressed
courtiers and soldiers who surrounded him. It
was well known that it was his whim that he should
himself be the only plainly-dressed man in the company,
and that in the most luxurious times of the Bourbons
there was never a period when fine linen and a brave
coat were more necessary for a man who would keep in
favour. A new court and a young empire cannot
afford to take anything for granted.
It was upon the morning of the fifth
day that I received a message from Duroc, who was
the head of the household, that I was to attend the
Emperor at the headquarters in the camp, and that a
seat in one of the Imperial carriages would be at
my disposal that I might proceed with the Court to
Pont de Briques, there to be present at the reception
of the Empress. When I arrived I was shown at
once through the large entrance tent, and admitted
by Constant into the room beyond, where the Emperor
stood with his back to the fire, kicking his heels
against the grate. Talleyrand and Berthier were
in attendance, and de Meneval, the secretary, sat
at the writing-table.
‘Ah, Monsieur de Laval,’
said the Emperor with a friendly nod. ‘Have
you heard anything yet of your charming cousin?’
‘Nothing, Sire,’ I answered.
’I fear that her efforts will
be in vain. I wish her every success, for we
have no reason at all to fear this miserable poet,
while the other is formidable. All the same,
an example of some sort must be made.’
The darkness was drawing in, and Constant
had appeared with a taper to light the candles, but
the Emperor ordered him out.
‘I like the twilight,’
said he. ’No doubt, Monsieur de Laval,
after your long residence in England you find yourself
also most at home in a dim light. I think that
the brains of these people must be as dense as their
fogs, to judge by the nonsense which they write in
their accursed papers.’ With one of those
convulsive gestures which accompanied his sudden outbursts
of passion he seized a sheaf of late London papers
from the table, and ground them into the fire with
his heel. ‘An editor!’ he cried
in the guttural rasping voice which I had heard when
I first met him. ’What is he? A
dirty man with a pen in a back office. And he
will talk like one of the great Powers of Europe.
I have had enough of this freedom of the Press.
There are some who would like to see it established
in Paris. You are among them, Talleyrand.
For my part I see no need for any paper at all except
the Moniteur by which the Government may make
known its decisions to the people.’
‘I am of opinion, Sire,’
said the minister, ’that it is better to have
open foes than secret ones, and that it is less dangerous
to shed ink than blood. What matter if your
enemies have leave to rave in a few Paris papers,
as long as you are at the head of five hundred thousand
‘Ta, ta, ta!’
cried the Emperor impatiently. ’You speak
as if I had received my crown from my father the late
king. But even if I had, it would be intolerable,
this government by newspaper. The Bourbons allowed
themselves to be criticised, and where are they now?
Had they used their Swiss Guards as I did the Grenadiers
upon the eighteenth Brumaire what would have
become of their precious National Assembly? There
was a time when a bayonet in the stomach of Mirabeau
might have settled the whole matter. Later it
took the heads of a king and queen and the blood of
a hundred thousand people.’
He sat down, and stretched his plump,
white-clad legs towards the fire. Through the
blackened shreds of the English papers the red glow
beat upwards upon the beautiful, pallid, sphinx-like
face the face of a poet, of a philosopher of
anything rather than of a ruthless and ambitious soldier.
I have heard folk remark that no two portraits of
the Emperor are alike, and the fault does not lie with
the artists but with the fact that every varying mood
made him a different man. But in his prime,
before his features became heavy, I, who have seen
sixty years of mankind, can say that in repose I have
never looked upon a more beautiful face.
‘You have no dreams and no illusions,
Talleyrand,’ said he. ’You are always
practical, cold, and cynical. But with me, when
I am in the twilight, as now, or when I hear the sound
of the sea, my imagination begins to work. It
is the same when I hear some music especially
music which repeats itself again and again like some
pieces of Passaniello. They have a strange effect
upon me, and I begin to Ossianise. I get large
ideas and great aspirations. It is at such times
that my mind always turns to the East, that swarming
ant-heap of the human race, where alone it is possible
to be very great. I renew my dreams of ’98.
I think of the possibility of drilling and arming these
vast masses of men, and of precipitating them upon
Europe. Had I conquered Syria I should have
done this, and the fate of the world was really decided
at the siege of Acre. With Egypt at my feet
I already pictured myself approaching India, mounted
upon an elephant, and holding in my hand a new version
of the Koran which I had myself composed. I have
been born too late. To be accepted as a world’s
conqueror one must claim to be divine. Alexander
declared himself to be the son of Jupiter, and no one
questioned it. But the world has grown old, and
has lost its enthusiasms. What would happen
if I were to make the same claim? Monsieur de
Talleyrand would smile behind his hand, and the Parisians
would write little lampoons upon the walls.’
He did not appear to be addressing
us, but rather to be expressing his thoughts aloud,
while allowing them to run to the most fantastic and
extravagant lengths. This it was which he called
Ossianising, because it recalled to him the wild vague
dreams of the Gaelic Ossian, whose poems had always
had a fascination for him. De Meneval has told
me that for an hour at a time he has sometimes talked
in this strain of the most intimate thoughts and aspirations
of his heart, while his courtiers have stood round
in silence waiting for the instant when he would return
once more to his practical and incisive self.
‘The great ruler,’ said
he, ’must have the power of religion behind him
as well as the power of the sword. It is more
important to command the souls than the bodies of
men. The Sultan, for example, is the head of
the faith as well as of the army. So were some
of the Roman Emperors. My position must be incomplete
until this is accomplished. At the present instant
there are thirty departments in France where the Pope
is more powerful than I am. It is only by universal
dominion that peace can be assured in the world.
When there is only one authority in Europe, seated
at Paris, and when all the kings are so many lieutenants
who hold their crowns from the central power of France,
it is then that the reign of peace will be established.
Many powers of equal strength must always lead to
struggles until one becomes predominant. Her
central position, her wealth and her history, all mark
France out as being the power which will control and
regulate the others. Germany is divided.
Russia is barbarous. England is insular.
France only remains.’
I began to understand as I listened
to him that my friends in England had not been so
far wrong when they had declared that as long as he
lived this little thirty-six year old artilleryman there
could not possibly be any peace in the world.
He drank some coffee which Constant had placed upon
the small round table at his elbow. Then he leaned
back in his chair once more, still staring moodily
at the red glow of the fire, with his chin sunk upon
‘In those days,’ said
he, ’the kings of Europe will walk behind the
Emperor of France in order to hold up his train at
his coronation. Each of them will have to maintain
a palace in Paris, and the city will stretch as far
as Versailles. These are the plans which I have
made for Paris if she will show herself to be worthy
of them. But I have no love for them, these Parisians,
and they have none for me, for they cannot forget
that I turned my guns upon them once before, and they
know that I am ready to do so again. I have
made them admire me and fear me, but I have never
made them like me. Look what I have done for
them. Where are the treasures of Genoa, the
pictures and statues of Venice and of the Vatican?
They are in the Louvre. The spoils of my victories
have gone to decorate her. But they must always
be changing, always chattering. They wave their
hats at me now, but they would soon be waving their
fists if I did not give them something to talk over
and to wonder at. When other things are quiet,
I have the dome of the Invalides regilded to keep
their thoughts from mischief. Louis XIV. gave
them wars. Louis XV. gave them the gallantries
and scandals of his Court. Louis XVI. gave them
nothing, so they cut off his head. It was you
who helped to bring him to the scaffold, Talleyrand.’
‘No, Sire, I was always a moderate.’
‘At least, you did not regret his death.’
’The less so, since it has made room for you,
’Nothing could have held me
down, Talleyrand. I was born to reach the highest.
It has always been the same with me. I remember
when we were arranging the Treaty of Campo Formio I
a young general under thirty there was
a high vacant throne with the Imperial arms in the
Commissioner’s tent. I instantly sprang
up the steps, and threw myself down upon it.
I could not endure to think that there was anything
above myself. And all the time I knew in my
heart all that was going to happen to me. Even
in the days when my brother Lucien and I lived in
a little room upon a few francs a week, I knew perfectly
well that the day would come when I should stand where
I am now. And yet I had no prospects and no
reason for any great hopes. I was not clever
at school. I was only the forty-second out of
fifty-eight. At mathematics I had perhaps some
ability, but at nothing else. The truth is that
I was always dreaming when the others were working.
There was nothing to encourage my ambition, for the
only thing which I inherited from my father was a
weak stomach. Once, when I was very young, I
went up to Paris with my father and my sister Caroline.
We were in the Rue Richelieu, and we saw the king
pass in his carriage. Who would have thought
that the little boy from Corsica, who took his hat
off and stared, was destined to be the next monarch
of France? And yet even then I felt as if that
carriage ought to belong to me. What is it, Constant?’
The discreet valet bent down and whispered something
to the Emperor.
‘Ah, of course,’ said
he. ’It was an appointment. I had
forgotten it. Is she there?’
‘In the side room?’
Talleyrand and Berthier exchanged
glances, and the minister began to move towards the
‘No, no, you can remain here,’
said the Emperor. ’Light the lamps, Constant,
and have the carriages ready in half-an-hour.
Look over this draft of a letter to the Emperor of
Austria, and let me have your observations upon it,
Talleyrand. De Meneval, there is a lengthy report
here as to the new dockyard at Brest. Extract
what is essential from it, and leave it upon my desk
at five o’clock to-morrow morning. Berthier,
I will have the whole army into the boats at seven.
We will see if they can embark within three hours.
Monsieur de Laval, you will wait here until we start
for Pont de Briques.’ So with a crisp order
to each of us, he walked with little swift steps across
the room, and I saw his square green back and white
legs framed for an instant in the doorway. There
was the flutter of a pink skirt beyond, and then the
curtains closed behind him.
Berthier stood biting his nails, while
Talleyrand looked at him with a slight raising of
his bushy eyebrows. De Meneval with a rueful
face was turning over the great bundle of papers which
had to be copied by morning. Constant, with
a noiseless tread, was lighting the candles upon the
sconces round the room.
‘Which is it?’ I heard the minister whisper.
‘The girl from the Imperial Opera,’ said
‘Is the little Spanish lady out of favour then?’
‘No, I think not. She was here yesterday.’
‘And the other, the Countess?’
‘She has a cottage at Ambleteuse?’
‘But we must have no scandal
about the Court,’ said Talleyrand, with a sour
smile, recalling the moral sentiments with which the
Emperor had reproved him. ‘And now, Monsieur
de Laval,’ he added, drawing me aside, ’I
very much wish to hear from you about the Bourbon party
in England. You must have heard their views.
Do they imagine that they have any chance of success?’
And so for ten minutes he plied me
with questions, which showed me clearly that the Emperor
had read him aright, and that he was determined, come
what might, to be upon the side which won. We
were still talking when Constant entered hurriedly,
with a look of anxiety and perplexity which I could
not have imagined upon so smooth and imperturbable
‘Good Heavens, Monsieur Talleyrand,’
he cried, clasping and unclasping his hands.
‘Such a misfortune! Who could have expected
‘What is it, then, Constant?’
’Oh, Monsieur, I dare not intrude
upon the Emperor. And yet And yet The
Empress is outside, and she is coming in.’