By Dennis Perkins
Prologue and first two chapters
The gate creaked, and the sexton stopped digging and looked up. He leaned on his spade, and called out to the elderly stranger who was approaching, “Can I help you, sir?”
The old man noticed the figure in the partly dug grave, and smiled. “As I was passing through this area, I decided to look for my last resting place.”
“You should have a word with the Curé, sir. Do you have a family plot here?”
The stranger laughed. “You misunderstand me. I do not need to reserve a plot. I am already buried here. It was nearly fifty years ago. Back in 1820. An unmarked grave, I believe.”
The sexton looked up, open mouthed, as the stranger continued. “My name is Rodange, but you will not find it in the history books, or even in the newspapers of the time. Yet, after my early demise, I altered the course of history.”
The old man walked back towards the cemetery gates, leaving no time for a response. The sexton stared after him. Then, with a shake of his head, he resumed his digging.
"The General's coming!" The grimy urchin skidded through the open doorway into the side passage where his master waited expectantly.
Old Antelme, the innkeeper, allowed no-one to forget that he had been at the storming of the Bastille. Nine hundred and fifty four participants had been given a certificate to attest to their moment of glory, and he was one of them. At the flimsiest excuse, he would wave the tattered document, long since sanctified by countless dirty fingermarks, under the noses of his audience. For thirty years, through republic, empire, and restored monarchy, he had held fast to his revolutionary principles, boasting that he remained the equal of any man.
Nevertheless, he greeted the General with inclined head.
The visitor, dressed like the furniture makers who inhabited the locality, shook the water from his hat, and was conducted along the bleak passage to the small and dingy back room. He bent his knees to pass his lanky, stiff-backed body under the low door-frame, and noted with satisfaction that the others had all done him the honour of arriving punctually. Four of them were sitting around a bare deal table, leaving one chair still unoccupied. The other two remained standing, vainly seeking comfort from the moribund fire. All were dressed against the January cold, their clothes dripping water onto the stone flagged floor. The shutters had been closed, and the only illumination was provided by a couple of cheap candles impaled on greasy spikes set into the bare wall above the fireplace. The abundant smoke they generated stifled the meagre light they offered.
Without speaking, but with a discernible wince, General Nougeron lowered himself into the vacant chair, and, disregarding the wet and muddy footprints left by his companions, tossed his hat onto the floor.
"I’ll fetch some more peat for the fire, General."
“No Antelme. Do not trouble yourself. You may leave us.” As the innkeeper closed the door, Nougeron took out his watch, and laid it on the table. It was exactly four o’clock. He observed his motley companions. These men, pale and shivering, passionless and sterile, were to be the fathers of France's future glory. Through him, they would create a new era.
Without remarking on the weather, or asking about Ducornet’s gallstones, he opened the meeting. There was considerable routine business to be discussed, but, above all, that decision about young Rodange, delayed for too long, had to be made. Nougeron intended to leave that till last.
By the time financial matters were reached, the fire had abandoned its attempts at survival, and the gloomy room was filling with the condensing breath of its occupants, and with the smoke and stench of the candles. The pendulous flesh under Ducornet’s chin trembled as he reported at inordinate length. He was the provider of most of the funds, and Nougeron enjoyed the discomfiture felt by the well endowed banker, awkward in the soiled and ill-fitting clothing he wore in his attempts to make his visits to the tavern inconspicuous.
At last, the banker finished quoting his numerous figures, but his audience’s relief was short-lived, for Nougeron asked him to clarify certain points. The others shuffled in their chairs as Ducornet, by repeating what he had said already, demonstrated his talent for tedium. As he went on, the General occupied himself by watching the Spaniard Zurbaran, who was leaning against the wall, abstractedly pick off pieces of crumbling plaster. Having stressing the same point several times, Ducornet’s monotone faded away, and Nougeron glanced at his watch. He smiled to himself. The banker's attempt at clarification had occupied a further twelve minutes.
At last they came to the critical item. Observing the pinched faces and frozen hands of his colleagues, the General spoke to the point, his deliberate tone conveying no hint of the Norman peasant accent of his youth. "Gentlemen, we can no longer delay selecting the inside man. I insist that we make a decision today. Two meetings ago I recommended Maurice Rodange, the young brother of General Lavisse's widow. You were not enthusiastic, yet he remains the only suitable candidate, and we must choose him. Whilst we do nothing, the plight of that child out there continues. Remember that."
"I am not happy about bringing in an outsider." The interjection came from Chocquet, a pale, balding man of uncertain age. "The task is so fundamental to our enterprise that we must use someone well-known to us. How can we be certain of a stranger? What is wrong with Duphot?"
Whilst Ducornet coughed candle smoke from his lungs, Nougeron glowered at Chocquet. "He may be your cousin, but that does not make him suitable."
"Nor is an outsider, who may not be trustworthy," retorted Chocquet. "Are you suggesting that I am putting Duphot forward merely because he happens to be my cousin?"
The General clenched his fists. "I find your petty attitudes tiresome. Having worked for the police has made you suspicious even of your colleagues."
At this point, Zurbaran intervened, leaning forwards with the palms of his hands resting on the table. He spoke in excellent, but accented French. "Gentlemen, we must avoid fighting amongst ourselves. The man we need must have proper teaching qualifications. Duphot may be one of us, and he may be intelligent and resourceful, but he is a wine merchant, not a teacher, and, unlike this Rodange, his German is not fluent. He will not do. Nor will anyone else at present in our group."
"We would face a high risk of our enterprise being betrayed."
The General glared at Chocquet. Everyone stiffened expecting an explosion, but the Spaniard forestalled it. "Have you forgotten that we were all originally recruited from outside. You too, Chocquet. A risk was taken bringing each of us in. But we all had a part to play, so the risk was justified. We cannot allow our great venture to fail for want of the right men. Trust the General's judgment."
Chocquet kept silent, and Nougeron's body relaxed as he spoke. "Rodange is the seventh candidate I have considered. The remaining six are all in some way unsuitable, but we have been through that before. You, Chocquet, have the advantage over the others. Your connections have provided you with an opportunity of investigating him. I presume that you have not discovered anything adverse."
"That is so," conceded Chocquet. The plotters were, by now, weary of the tedious process of finding someone suitable. Concerns about enlisting an outsider had been expressed every time the matter came up for discussion, and so the progress of their enterprise had been brought to a standstill. Now wet clothes, a foul atmosphere, and frozen limbs all combined to bring those present to that point familiar to all committee members. They changed their minds. Despite their steadfast objections in the past, they would now accept Nougeron's recommendation without further consideration, provided that Rodange was pledged to secrecy.
The decision was made, the General promised to attend to matters immediately, and the meeting ended. As always, there was no written record of what had passed. The General closed his watch and put it away. It was nearly a quarter past six. Despite his injured back, his stamina had given him what he wanted.
To avoid attracting attention, they had to leave at intervals, so they queued at the door, rubbing their hands and stamping their feet, eager to seek their varied Saturday night relaxations. Zurbaran was the second last to leave. As he went to the door, he grinned at Nougeron. "I think our tactics proved rewarding, Louis. I wish you goodnight."
The General nodded in response. After a minute or so, he eased his back, and having paid his respects to Antelme, he walked into the ill lit, but crowded street. The sleet had given way to a hard frost, and the smoke of countless fires hung limply about him as he started to walk, not towards his nearby home, but towards the Pont Marie and the Left Bank.
As the General reached the Left Bank, his unsuspecting protégé was arriving at the Cottin family’s apartment for the usual Saturday evening gathering. Maurice Rodange and Phillipe Cottin had become friends when they were both new undergraduates at the University, and Maurice, the young provincial new to Paris, found with the Cottins the family atmosphere which was lacking in the household of his sister, with whom he had come to live.
The apartment was on the second floor in a block in a narrow street off the Rue de Sèvres, and Maurice slowly groped his way upwards, thankful for the reassurance of the banister. He was warmly welcomed by M. Cottin himself, who told him (not for the first time) that by providing only a single candle on each landing, and none for the stairways, the new concierge ensured that visitors did not arrive in too breathless a state. After Mme. Cottin had relieved Maurice of his coat and hat, he was led from the ante-room into the small drawing room which, like the rest of the apartment, had been furnished more for serviceability than fashion.
Henri Verdon had arrived already, and was reclining in an armchair with his slender legs outstretched. Blinking rapidly, he jumped up as the others came in, and greeted Maurice warmly. He was immediately begged to sit down again, whilst the new arrival was ushered onto the sofa opposite. As Maurice enquired of Mme. Cottin’s health, her daughter Laure came in. She looked as delightful as ever, and Maurice reflected on his good fortune in having gained her affection. He stood up, solemnly kissed her hand, then squeezed it, and sat her down beside him.
Soon they were joined by Phillipe, and then, with the arrival of Charles Borel, and his fiancée, Amalie, the party was complete. The two new arrivals were made welcome, and settled in place. As always the large armchair had been left for Charles, in recognition of his bulk, but Amalie had once told Laure that she knew that the seat was always left for her fiancé because he was the most important person there. She was a strikingly good-looking brunette, but Nature's generosity had been spent by the time her brain was formed.
The small room was now crowded, and, after a few pleasantries, M. and Mme. Cottin followed their usual practice, and retired to the comparative space of their bedroom. Drinks and light refreshments had been laid on, and a convivial evening was soon under way, enlivened by one of Henri's racy stories about scandal in high places. They were a close knit group, and their familiarity extended to their addressing each other, even those of the opposite sex, by their Christian names.
Then in the middle of some banter, Borel's loud voice broke in. "Oh, by the way, Maurice, while we were coming here we saw that former general near your sister’s apartment. With that walk, you can’t miss him - he looks as if he has a pole stuck up the back of his coat. You know - the one with all that hair, who goes on about Napoleon. He was dressed like a workman! Is your sister plotting some dastardly conspiracy with him?"
Laure clasped her forehead in a gesture of despair. "Oh no, Maurice! You’ve been unmasked! He was about to sail for St. Helena next week with a rescue party. Charlotte was to steer the ship."
Maurice laughed. “He’s been to a couple of my sister's social gatherings. I met him there. A peculiar fellow. As a staunch Bonapartist, he's the kind of person she would invite, but I can’t imagine why he should go tonight. She didn’t have a soiree arranged. Imagine Charlotte, of all people, organising one for guests dressed as workmen! There’s a thought!”
“Perhaps there’s something between them, Maurice?”
Maurice assumed a look of outrage. “Borel, how dare you couple the name of my sister, a lady revered in Society, with a follower of the infamous Bonaparte! A man dressed as a workman too. I demand satisfaction, sir.”
For a moment, Charles looked nonplussed. “It was a joke, Maurice.” Then he burst into laughter. “You and Henri. You’re as bad as each other!”
Henri spoke. “You sister’s virtue is safe, Maurice - unless she has exceptional powers. In the army, they called Nougeron ‘the inverted flea’, because he always jumps away from people - of both sexes.”
Then Amalie made her contribution. "I think I've heard of this St. Helena, but why should Maurice want to go there?"
“Oh, no Amalie. This St. Helena is not a place, but a person. One of our few living saints. She’s been imprisoned for her faith in the Barbary States by the infidels. To rescue her is the duty of every Christian.” Henri spoke in the gravest of tones, but Laure’s tittering brought a look of doubt onto Amalie’s face.
However, the topic was not exhausted. Phillipe spoke. "This Nougeron needs to be treated with care. You remember Lavallette? He was condemned to death after Bonaparte was overthrown for his activities as his Postmaster? Everyone knows how his wife visited him in the condemned cell, and how he escaped wearing her clothes. There have always been rumours that Nougeron was involved in spiriting him out of the country."
“Greater love hath no wife than this, that she lay down her clothes for his life,” intoned Henri.
Maurice laughed. "Actually, I thought Nougeron was in exile at the time. Anyway, if he’s so dangerous, why hasn’t our protective government locked him up?"
"I wonder how many clothes that man's wife was left wearing?" asked Amalie.
"She was a dutiful wife, and the shield of her virtue would therefore protect her from the gaze of men," pronounced Verdon in a tone of solemnity. Amalie gazed at him open mouthed, but her attempt to speak was forestalled by his sudden howl of laughter. She sat, smiling weakly, whilst the others joined in the mirth.
“I hope she was wearing more than my cousin Hélène,” boomed Charles. “Through the servants, I’ve managed to discover the real reason why she was sent off to that old aunt in the country. My uncle caught her in a compromising situation with the son of that loud-mouthed notary Brissac. They say that...” With a mock scowl on her face, Laure slapped his head with her fan. “That will do, Charles.”
As always, as the evening progressed, Borel's voice became louder, and his opinions stronger. Laure was persuaded by him to play the family's worn-out pianoforte, and, led by him, the others provided a vocal accompaniment of sorts. Laure’s playing was as undistinguished as Charles’ singing, but, unlike him, she knew her limitations, and would only perform before close friends.
The evening passed merrily, noisily and quickly. The party broke up at about eleven, and Maurice was the last to leave. He confirmed their arrangements for the theatre on the following Wednesday with Laure, kissed her goodnight, and walked happily home through the frosty streets. All thoughts of Nougeron were forgotten.
“I had a visitor earlier this evening.” Charlotte glanced at the mantelpiece clock. “He called shortly after you had left.”
“Not old Nougeron, by any chance?” Maurice, having already discarded his collar, as well as his outdoor coat, in favour of his ancient and dilapidated dressing gown, made straight for the fireplace on entering the dining room. He leaned forward and gazed into the fire, whilst holding his arms outstretched towards the warming flames. He drew in a breath of wood smoke, and then glanced upwards. “And what’s that on the mantelpiece?”
His sister gave the dressing gown a look of disapproval. “Old? He’s not yet fifty.”
Maurice grinned. “Then time has not been kind to him.”
Charlotte ignored her brother’s flippancy. “He called without warning, so he had to wait until I was dressed for receiving. Fortunately I had no engagement. But how did you know he was here?”
Maurice grinned. “Charles Borel saw him. What did he want with you?”
“He wanted you, not me. He wants to talk to you, and suggested that you meet him at the main entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens tomorrow morning at nine o'clock - on the Rue de Vaurigard side. I promised him that you would be there."
“That’s an uncivilised hour for a Sunday morning.” Maurice sat on a dining chair facing his sister across the table. “What’s it all about?”
“I have no idea. He merely said he wanted to see you,” replied Charlotte, looking him straight in the eye before turning her attention to the cold meats encased in aspic on her plate. Despite his doubts, Maurice knew better than to challenge her veracity.
“You haven’t told me what’s in that package on the mantelpiece. A present from the General, perhaps?” Maurice leaned back complacently, tilting his chair at an angle. He was suffused with the comfortable glow created by a mix of good company and alcohol.
Charlotte stared at him, and he quickly brought the chair back to its vertical position. “Leave the package, Maurice. I will show it you after the maid has cleared away.”
Mme. Lavisse considered it fashionable to eat a late supper, even when one was not in company, and so was at the table when Maurice returned home. She wore one of her finest gowns, the maroon velvet, and was heavily rouged, for, although in matters of dress she was à la mode, in matters of make-up she clung to the fashions of Napoleon’s time. Her hair, most of it her own, was piled high on her head in an elaborate coif. Her appearance was as dignified as her movements were ungainly.
For a short while, the steady tick of the clock, the crackle of the logs on the fire, and the noise of cutlery on Sèvres porcelain were all that was heard. Maurice turned his head to look at the mysterious package. The wrapping, which was tied with string, appeared to be made of baize, like the material used for menservants’ aprons. Then he resumed the conversation. “What can that fellow want with me? I scarcely know him.”
“You’ve met him twice here.”
“Yes, I know, but that’s what’s odd. The first time I saw him was at that soiree of yours about six weeks ago. The one when Daval’s wife spilled all that wine on the carpet. Old Nougeron was the last to come, and the first to leave. We were introduced, then he paid me no attention whatsoever. There was no reason why he should, of course. He was off-hand with everyone else too”
“But the second time couldn’t have been more different. That dinner party for six you gave shortly before Christmas. He monopolised me. Do you remember? He ignored everyone else, even you. He asked me about myself, wanted my opinions on all manner of things. But he was forcing himself to be polite - I’m sure of it. I’m also sure that he already knew more about me than he was prepared to admit. You have to agree that he’s peculiar.”
Charlotte was occupied in attacking a boiled egg, so Maurice continued. “I remember you saying on several occasions that he would never accept your invitations, and that he was notoriously unsociable. Why were you so keen to invite him a second time?”
“I simply wanted to meet him again. No-one has been more constant in his support for the cause, or has suffered more. He may lack social graces, but he is a man worthy of admiration.”
Maurice chuckled. “I’ll take your word for that. I’d looked forward to meeting him that first time - one of Napoleon’s famous generals - but I’d expected someone dashing, or striking. Well, he was striking, but not in the way I expected. In that shiny black suit, he looked like a doctor or lawyer fallen on hard times. Not one of Napoleon’s generals! A Guard general, at that. And that mass of grey hair, and those side whiskers! They put mine in the shade. At that dinner party, because he was attentive to me so much, I thought he had designs on you. That he wanted my friendship to further his cause.”
Charlotte’s expression was grim. A tactical retreat was necessary. “That was only a fleeting impression. Perhaps he was merely trying to be more polite than on the first occasion.”
Maurice could not resist another sortie. “You certainly couldn’t compare him with Alphonse. Now he did look like a general.”
“No doubt he did, but I have no intention of making comparisons between my husband, and General Nougeron.” Having finished eating, Charlotte drained her glass, and set it down with precision on the immaculate white cloth. She tried to adopt a casual tone. “What do you know about him, beyond gossip? The General I mean.”
“Next to nothing. Except that he’s a strong Bonapartist. He started as a cavalry trooper, I believe, came to Napoleon’s attention, reached the rank of general, then had some accident. Charles says he looks as if he has a pole fitted up the back of his coat.”
As always, Charlotte rose to the bait. “That is in poor taste, Maurice. At the peak of his career, his horse rolled on him, injuring his back. It resulted in permanent damage. He should, of course, walk with a stick, but he refuses to do so. Afterwards, he was employed procuring cavalry horses. A difficult and trying job, I am told, particularly in the closing stages of the war.” She paused to pat her mouth with her serviette. “In view of your meeting, I wanted to make sure that you knew something of him.”
“But if you have no idea why the General wants to see me, why do I need to know his history?”
“At times, you can be tiresome, Maurice. Whatever he wants with you, it will assist if you know something about him.”
"What has he done since the Bourbons came back?"
Charlotte seemed to choose her words carefully. "Very little, I think. He has a couple of rooms over a stationer's shop near the Place de la Bastille, and leads a solitary existence. They say he is an accomplished chess player, but I do not know what else he does. The police forbid him to leave Paris. The fools think that he is more conspicuous here than in some small village."
"Your knowledge is as impressive as always, Charlotte, but if you've only met him twice, how do you know such a lot about him?"
Charlotte leaned her elbows on the table. "I make it my business to be well informed about people of interest."
"But he must be fairly comfortable, with a general's pension?"
Charlotte looked at him, as she would an artless child, and suddenly struck the table with her fist. "He does not have one. He is an unrepentant Bonapartist, so he was stripped of his rank, and of the pension that went with it. He was also a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, but they also snatched that distinction away, together with the pension that went with it. So, strictly speaking he is now merely M. Nougeron, but like many others, I shall always call him ‘General’."
Maurice’s tone was serious now. "So how does he live?"
"I do not know. Perhaps friends help him. Most generals did, of course, manage to make provision for themselves before the war ended."
"You mean by looting?"
"By taking the spoils of war," was the quick retort.
He was advancing into dangerous territory, so Maurice withdrew to the safety of inconsequential talk. “Its bitterly cold out there. With thick fog, but, at least, they seem to keep most of the street lights working in this area. It was a good evening tonight though. The usual people were there, and Henri was in excellent form. I wish I could match him as a raconteur. Oh, and Laure sends her regards. What have you been doing tonight?”
“You could do better than being satisfied with that Laure, you know. A pleasant enough girl, but of the swooning smelling salt kind. Not much about her. No substance. Anyway, before you become too involved with a girl, why not wait until you have some solid achievement behind you?.... Ring for the maid, would you?”
Maurice concealed his annoyance behind laughter as he got up to pull the tasselled bell cord. “I doubt whether there is anyone in Paris you’d consider suitable for me. Certainly not under twenty five! Anyway, Laure and I are not, in any way, bound to each other.” He stood by the fire, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his dressing gown. A finger stuck out through a hole. “Perhaps the General wants to see me about Alphonse for some reason?”
“I doubt it. As far as I am aware the two never met. There were hundreds of generals. And Alphonse was an infantryman.”
She got up from the table, strode across to her armchair before the bright fire, and settled herself in it. Maurice waited while she cleared her throat. "Do you remember that night when news of our victory at Austerlitz reached us at Loches?"
Maurice looked at his sister quizzically, and nodded.
There was animation in Charlotte’s eyes. “That night was one of the decisive moments in my life.” She glanced at the maid who had come in to clear the table, then continued. “We were all in bed, when I heard shouting and cheering outside. The church bells were pealing. I knew something exceptional was happening. I wanted us to be part of it, so I came for you, and we groped our way down the stairs in pitch darkness.” She permitted herself a smile. “I doubt whether father ever found out. Do you remember the huge bonfire in the town square, and the wild dancing?”
“Of course I do. I also vividly remember being sick in the gutter. I can still taste it. My first experience of inebriation! A child corrupted by his wicked sister!" Maurice observed his sister carefully. “What makes you mention it tonight?"
Charlotte observed the smirking maid who was removing the cloth, and remained silent. After the girl had closed the door behind her, Maurice returned to the chair at the table. His mood had changed, and his suspicion that his sister had some inkling of the General’s purpose had grown into a certainty. Yet, as always, it was pointless pressing her, for she would only tell him what she intended him to know. As Henri had once said, she was like the sphinx.
“Mother had died a couple of years earlier. I was twenty one. The eldest daughter, the woman of the family, responsible for the upbringing of a nine year old brother. I was set to pass my life as the spinster daughter of a schoolmaster, or as the dull wife of some petty provincial. But that night changed me. For the first time I felt part of something momentous. We were celebrating a triumph, a decisive military victory against the odds, the result of human endeavour. Was I to sit back and meekly accept my lot? With determination what might I not do?”
Charlotte looked at her brother intently. “You and I, Maurice, are very different from Father, and your other sisters. If the meek are indeed blessed and are to inherit the Earth, they have much to hope for in their next world, but in the reality of this world they will achieve little. They will leave no lasting mark behind them. You and I can."
Maurice was about to question her assertion, but before he could do so, she spoke again. "Put that bundle on the table. Be careful not to scratch the surface. I have been meaning to show it you for some time."
Maurice lifted the object from the mantelpiece, and carefully laid it on the polished table. Its weight surprised him. His sister unfastened the string as she spoke. "As she has cleared away, the maid will not come in again, but if she mentions seeing the package, tell her that it is a vase - a present for a friend which I wanted to show you."
The object now lay revealed. It was a bronze eagle about eight inches in height. To see more clearly, Maurice picked it up, and took it to the four-branch candelabra which had been moved by the maid from the table to the mantelpiece. With the benefit of the light, he could see the number 121 embossed into the front of the base.
"Do you know what it is?” asked Charlotte.
“I’ve not seen one before - not at close distance - but I assume from the number that it is an eagle from a regimental standard. Presumably of the 121st Regiment."
"That is so. A regiment which lost its eagle in battle was disgraced, but now we have a king to do our enemies' work for them! Did you know that when the Emperor was banished to Elba in 1814, the Bourbons ordered the melting down of the imperial eagles of every regiment? It was intended as the final humiliation of Napoleon’s army, and of all the men who served in it. Of that army which had once been the fear of all Europe. So, to prevent their destruction, many eagles were hidden, often at risk to the person doing so. This one was hidden in 1814, and came to me a couple of years later. The person who held it believed that it would be safer in my hands."
"Charlotte, why have you chosen to show me it now?"
"Why?" She spoke with unusual passion. “France has plunged into shame. We have a government so vindictive and petty that it executes generals for supposedly treasonable activities, and then requires their widows to pay the wages of the soldiers employed in the firing squad! Generals who were the companions in arms of Nougeron and my husband.”
“And what about you? A university lecturer in French literature, who cannot so much as mention the name of Voltaire. You even have to edit the writings of more acceptable authors, to remove what our present rulers consider unsuitable. So what do your pupils learn of their country’s literature?”
“This eagle was once known and feared throughout Europe. Now I have to lock it away in a cupboard! We have come to that. But has it ever occurred to you that the struggle must go on? Anyone can help in his or her own way, and I wanted to demonstrate to you how, even I, a woman, could make my own small contribution. We must seize whatever opportunities come, to regain what we have lost.”
Maurice ran his finger over the wings, feeling the indentations of the casting. In his imagination he envisaged the eagle, held aloft on its pole, surmounting the regimental standard fluttering beneath it; the rallying point of its soldiers. What deeds, what bloody battles had it once witnessed?
The experience of martial glory had been denied to him. Shortly before he was to be recruited, scarlet fever had struck. It developed into pneumonia. By the time Maurice had recovered from his lengthy illness, Napoleon was on his way to St. Helena.
Maurice gently laid the eagle down, and watched as his sister tied it up in the baize wrapping. His mind was racing. “What do you mean by helping in the struggle?”
“All I am saying, Maurice, is that when you recognise an opportunity, you should take it.” Charlotte then clasped the eagle to her chest, picked up a candlestick, and bade him goodnight. Although she had no free hand, she did not wait for Maurice to open the door for her, but pushed the handle downwards with her elbow to lever the door open. Her parting words were, “I wonder, will this eagle always be hidden away?” She twisted her foot round the door to swing it shut, and was gone before Maurice could respond. The movement drew an eddy of smoke into the room, bringing with its smell a fleeting image of the great bonfire in Loches.
What did Charlotte intend him to do? Although her remarks about supporting the cause sounded rehearsed, he did not doubt her sincerity. Her feelings about Napoleon, shared by millions of Frenchmen, were well-known, but she had never, till now, given him reason to suppose that she was herself engaged, even in the smallest way, in the Bonapartist movement.
Only four and a half years had passed since Napoleon had returned from Elba, briefly regained power, and suffered defeat at Waterloo, but, despite persistent rumours of plots to rescue him from St. Helena, everyone seemed to believe that the distance, and the British navy, made the task impossible. Yet Charlotte was both prudent, and sensible, so did she have some reason to believe that the Emperor’s return was more possible than Maurice had, until now, supposed?
He sat in Charlotte’s armchair, by the still warm fire, and gazed around. Everywhere, good taste predominated. Although small, the room was comfortable, and was furnished fashionably, though not extravagantly, and the dark woodwork contrasted well with the light wallpaper. Apart from the dining suite that occupied much of the floor area, the only furniture was Charlotte’s easy chair, a small writing table and stool, and the long bookcase below the curtained window. Nearly all the books in it were his, and of the rooms in the apartment, this was his favourite. It had an intimacy lacking in the larger and more luxurious drawing room, the location of Charlotte’s gatherings.
Maurice kicked off his slippers and caressed the hearthrug with his stockinged feet. The apartment, and everything in it represented all that was comfortable and known to him. Yet, it had been acquired by pillage - and betrayal. Like most of Napoleon's generals, Alphonse Lavisse had thrown in his lot with the Bourbons once it was clear that the Bonapartists were finished, though, unlike some, he had been steadfast until after Waterloo. Charlotte had difficulty forgiving him his change of allegiance, but his pension had been preserved, enabling her to live in comfort - unlike him.
In 1816 he had gone to Brittany on the new king's business. While he was there someone discovered that he was the son of an officer in the Revolutionary army who had brutally suppressed a Royalist insurrection twenty years earlier. An old score could therefore be settled. For his father's sins, the son was beaten to death in the street by a drunken mob. In the climate of the time, the event was not noteworthy.
Maurice involuntarily glanced at the small picture of a dead tree painted by Kolbe, hung by the door. It was the one item which his sister had retained from the quantity of art works brought back from Germany by her husband at the end of 1813 as the French armies retreated towards their homeland. It had been the least valuable of them.
The disposal of the rest had enabled Charlotte to progress from mere comfort to modest luxury, enabling her to enjoy the social advantages of an address in the fashionable Faubourg St. Germain. Her apartment was, admittedly, in the least expensive part, but it was, of course, a ground floor one, with its own separate entrance.
The measured tick of the clock again marked the silence. Maurice’s frivolity of half an hour earlier was forgotten, and now streams of anxiety and excitement spurted into his mind in turn. Why should a notorious Bonapartist display a sudden and unexpected interest in him? If Nougeron had never met General Lavisse, considerations of old comradeship could not arise. Yet, despite his unexpected attentions at the dinner party, the man was not one to cultivate friendships, and was not likely to possess a burning desire to discuss the writings of Racine or Molière with a junior lecturer. And then why should Charlotte, after locking it away for over three years, choose to reveal the eagle to him tonight?
The clock started to strike midnight. The fire was now dying, and Maurice shivered. He looked up at the clock, and suddenly he visualised that picture which had so influenced him as a child - Charlotte's print of David's painting, ‘Napoleon at the Pass of St. Bernard’. Although he had not set eyes upon the picture for several years, he could still vividly recollect every detail - the prancing horse with flowing mane, the swirling cloak of the young Bonaparte, the threatening sky, and the toiling gunners in the background. As a child he had never tired of it. It had fired his imagination, and fed him an expectation of the fame awaiting him as an adult. An expectation which in time had faded to a day-dream.
Maurice forced his thoughts back to the immediate situation. The reality was that Charlotte’s clumsy attempts at subtlety made the General’s purpose clear. Although his employment made discretion essential, Maurice’s opinions were no secret among his friends, so, if Nougeron was active in some Bonapartist scheme, he might well want to involve him in some way. But should he accept whatever the General might propose? He had long wanted to escape from his dull routines, and to do something adventurous - didn’t everyone ? - but was it not fanciful to do so? To abandon the safe, and the known, was not to be undertaken lightly. What if he was to be offered something that could alter the direction of his life? What would he do?
Suddenly it occurred to Maurice that involvement in a conspiracy would be treasonable. He would be putting himself beyond the law! Perhaps even a minor involvement could, if all failed, lead to the guillotine. The realisation locked his stomach muscles, but he forced himself to be calm. He must balance the risks against the fruits of success, and his possible part in the restoration of Bonapartist fortunes. For the first time, he realised how fear and exhilaration walk arm in arm.
But could acts of treason be justified? Maurice had to concede that during the last couple of years matters had improved. After Waterloo, the exiled aristocrats had come back in the restored king's baggage train, bent on revenge. Yet the success of their demands for a return to the old ways, to habits of obedience, and the restoration of their old property had brought an easing of the tensions. Perhaps the passing of time would bring further relaxations.
But was his imagination running away with him? He might be mistaken about the General's intentions, and, even if there was a plot, he would be on the periphery; someone useful for providing information, perhaps for carrying a message - nothing more. Perhaps he might be told so little of the plot that his actions would appear to be innocent. Perhaps within a week he would have played his little part, and his life would then continue as before. In nine hours he would know. He would meet the General and hear what he had to say.
Maurice extinguished the candles, and retired to bed, but he knew that sleep would not come easily.
Eight hundred miles away a small boy lay awake in his sumptuously furnished bedroom, listening to the steady snoring of the attendant in the antechamber. He was anxious about the coming morning, for he had wet his bed again.
Shrouded Eagle – Dennis Perkins
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