In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Sit Down Doctor
It was cold in the small salon, the wind outside moaning low as it sought cracks in the ill fitting windows and ruffled the half closed drapes. The room was damp with patches of fungus on the wallpaper, its smell assailing my nostrils. Eventually de Montholon showed me into the dining room where Napoleon sat, slumped would be a better description, in a chair.
He did not rise. “Sit down, doctor.” I did so, after a short bow towards the seated man. I was struck at once by the physical appearance of the Emperor, balding, pallid white skin, yellowing eyes, and excessively fat. His breathing was somewhat laboured and he bore little resemblance to the fine figure I had so often seen depicted on paintings. He looked ill, and without the benefit of an examination, I would have suggested some disorder of the liver as a possible reason.
A servant poured two glasses of wine, and backed from the room. Napoleon raised his glass, and I sipped the wine. It tasted musty, as if the damp had also intruded into the bottle.
The conversation we had was conducted entirely in French, assisted when required by Mr Balcombe. Napoleon’s French was very bad, with a harshness about it I did not expect from someone apparently so loved by the French people.
“So, you are a friend of Wellington?”
“No, sire, not at all. I do know our great duke, have spoken with him on many occasions, and dined in his company less often, but no, we are not friends.”
“I am told you were at the battle of Mont Saint Jean?”
“I was indeed at Waterloo, your majesty.”
“Were you behind the lines, doctor, or did you see any of the action?”
“I was in the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte until it was taken by your forces late in the afternoon.”
He leaned forward with interest. “Tell me about it.”
As best I could, with my imperfect French, I gave him an account of the fighting, and he displayed much interest.
“Brave fellows, those Germans.”
“And the French?” Perhaps he was testing me.
“Also brave men, as were all the other men who fought and died on that dreadful field. I would like to meet the Frenchman who wounded me, to congratulate him on his poor marksmanship.”
Napoleon smiled, giving me a small glimpse of the charm for which he was noted. His mood changed suddenly. “I could have won. Grouchy and Ney failed me. They failed France. I should have died on that field at the head of my Guard.”
I said nothing. I could have reminded the Emperor that HE had failed France, that HE had deserted his Army after Egypt, after Moscow and after Waterloo. It seemed appropriate that I should do nothing of the sort, and he carried on with his tirade. This continued for around fifteen minutes, and I quite quickly understood that my function was simply to listen, and not to interject. This I willingly did, because it is not often that one such as I can listen to one such as Napoleon. Finally he got on to Wellington, and described him as a bad commander, and one who had made many mistakes. At this point I could take no more.
“Perhaps what you say is true, sire, but you must accept that no one on the French side was able to profit from these mistakes and, in the end, Wellington won.”
“Huh! He won because of the Prussians arriving in time, and because Grouchy and his 30,000 were at Wavre.”
“Where you sent them, your majesty.”
“Grouchy should have followed the sound of the guns. Grouchy lost France, he lost France and lost me my crown.”
I was silent. There seemed to be nothing I could say, and it was fascinating to hear this great man, for such I believed him to be, allocating blame to everyone but himself. He carried on with more of the same. Eventually he said. “Wellington chose a very bad position. He was lucky that Blucher arrived when he did.”
“No, sire. He had told Blucher he would stand where he did, if the Prussians would come to his aid. Blucher said he would come. There was no more to be said. Each had given his hand. They each knew the other would keep his promise.”
Napoleon glared at me from his puffy face. “You sound like Soult and Foy. They were full of praise for Wellington. You seem to share their sentiments, my dear doctor.”
“Indeed so, sire. I have named my sons John Wellington and Arthur Wellesley in honour of the greatest man my country has produced.” I nearly said ‘the world has produced’, but I feared he would have terminated our meeting.
He smiled again, an action that transformed his face. “Very well, doctor. Let us discuss medical matters. Have you ever met Larrey?”
“Indeed I have, a fine surgeon and a brave man. I met him in Brussels after he had been wounded and captured by the Prussians. I was recuperating in the city myself at the time. I understood that but for the intervention of Prince Blucher, the Prussians would have put him in front of a firing squad. I last heard of him in Paris, where he is in difficult circumstances, I understand.”
“Those dammed Bourbons, they forget nothing and forgive nothing.”
We talked for a few more minutes, but it was obvious that he was tiring. Napoleon raised his hand, and I noticed the short podgy fingers. “Enough, doctor. I must rest.”
I rose, while he remained seated.
“You have two sons you say?”
I nodded. “Indeed so, sire, five and three.”
“Come here, doctor.” He took up his purse and fumbled inside, drawing out two gold coins. “Here, these are gold Napoleons. Give one to each of your boys in memory of Napoleon. I have a son too, you know. He is a little older than your boys.” He indicated with his hand that I should leave. I bowed and did so.
Balcombe walked with me to my carriage and I thanked him. “Mr Balcombe, I have just spoken to a God. An evil and perverted God, but a God nonetheless.”
Written by BM
It was unseasonably cold for Brussels in June, but the rain was entirely predictable. It sheeted down from the night sky, blowing almost horizontally against the unshuttered windows of the ballroom, causing the light from within to shimmer on the wet pools in the roadway. The music mingled with the murmur of voices and peals of laughter to challenge the bleakness outside.
A tall man stood at the end of the room, facing the orchestra. He was simply, but elegantly dressed in a plain blue coat and white breeches. His eyes, and the long angular nose, suggested an authority which was confirmed by the orders and decorations worn on his dress. The Star of the Garter hung at his throat. The woman at his side was no longer young, but from her upswept golden hair, to her dancing shoes, her charm and still evident beauty radiated.
“Will there be a war, Arthur?” She spoke anxiously.
He did not look at her, but continued to acknowledge the respects of the guests, the officers stiffening in salute, the ladies curtseying. “I fear so, Charlotte.”
“You will be careful, will you not? England needs you.”
“Fear not for me, my dear Lady, the finger of Providence has protected me these past twenty years. And as for England, I fear for her. Horseguards did not see fit to provide me with the tools for the job they require of me. It is a wretched little army. I fear that many of your young ladies, Charlotte, will remain virgins, or will become widows before this business is settled.”
She laid her hand on his forearm. “Virginity is a temporary situation, Arthur, and one simply rectified. Widowhood is a more permanent condition.” He turned to her, and covered her hand with his, and would have spoken, but she interrupted him.
“Arthur, who is that man?”
A very large man, in a black uniform, stumbled across the dance floor towards them, his shako in his hand. His hair was plastered against his skull, the rain, or sweat running down his face, which was streaked with blood from a long cut on his forehead. His boots were muddied, and his hussar’s jacket flecked with horse saliva. He was a man who had ridden hard. The music faltered, and then stopped.
Wellington broke away from her. “Duchess, I would be most obliged to you if you could ensure those idiots continue with their playing.” He strode across the floor and took the officer by the arm. “My dear General Muffling, you look exhausted. Please, come with me.” As they walked, Wellington spoke to a young British officer who had hurried to his side. “Somerset, my compliments to the Prince of Orange, and the Earl of Uxbridge. I require their instant attendance. And Sir William de Lancey, also, if you can tear him away from his bride.”
They entered a small anteroom, where officers hurried in behind them. “Somerset, a glass of claret for the general. Now, General, please sit down, and tell me what has happened.”
Muffling’s chest heaved. “My Lord, the French have crossed the Sambre and are in Charleroi. They have driven in our pickets.”
“And Prince Blucher, what of him?”
“He advances even now from Wavre to meet them, my lord.”
“Lord Hay, that map in the corner, if you please, sir.”
The map was spread on a small table, and the men gathered around. Wellington tapped the map. “Here, Muffling, here at Mont St Jean, I will stand here and yield no further, if the Field Marshal will send me one corps.”
“You have the Prince’s word on that, my lord.”
“Very well then, that will suffice for me. Here we will meet them.” He pencilled a circle around a small village on the map. “And here, at Waterloo, I will make my headquarters.”
He turned to his officers. “To your duties, gentlemen, and may God go with you.”
As the room emptied, he turned again to the map, and tapped it with the pencil. “Napoleon has stolen 24 hours on me. By God, he has humbugged me.”
Written by BM