With Napoleon in Russia
THE MANof theMONTH
THE Lord used to say he was tired of kings. Now, perhaps, He is grown a little tired of those who mock them. The verminous trail of the debunker is not very tempting nowadays. As Mr. Coolidge remarked in one of his calculated asides, ‘The Washington Monument still stands.’ The sad and skeptical young men in search of big game have not been able to convince us that Cæsar was a ruffian and Napoleon a mountebank.
Still, the situation needs mending. An excellent corrective for this agnostic school of history is the publication of such manifestly authentic evidence as General de Caulaincourt’s Memoirs. Here is testimony regarding the man Napoleon which any jury must accept. Here is the Little Corporal in his habit as he lived, sketched day by day, hour by hour, as he went through the hell of the Russian Campaign. Napoleon’s star was still bright when he left Moscow, and did not fail till it fell like a plummet in the Beresina and rose wavering to sputter out in Paris.
Throughout those appalling days de Caulaincourt scarcely left the side of his Emperor. As Master of Horse, it was his duty to be in personal charge of what remained of the Emperor’s comfort and convenience. An aristocrat of temperate thought, experienced, cautious, wise in the ways of men, he had passed many years as Ambassador at the Russian Court. He knew the country and the people, and for Czar Alexander (that strange compound of intelligence, courage, and irresolution) he felt a kind of affection with which Napoleon was forever teasing him. To be honest was a virtue rare in the diplomacy of those days. De Caulaincourt was honest. He loved his country, he admired his Emperor, but his eyes were clear. He was a man who did not believe in miracles. One could not have a more competent witness to the quality of greatness and the spell which the Emperor, on the highroad to his ruin, cast about him like a sovereign and natural right. His fortitude, his infinite vitality, his restlessness of body and mind, a certain winning playfulness mingled with cool and cynical philosophy, a native royalty of disposition, show themselves at every turn. The moody spleen which disease was to bring had not yet descended upon him. Amidst the gathering rout, thoughtless of personal danger and the biting cold, he talked incessantly: of the Russian temper, of Alexander, of kings, dukes, marshals he had made of the clay about him, appraising each at his worth; of life and glory, never of death or failure; and, in spontaneous bursts of feeling, of affection for his ‘excellent’ wife and his single hope of immortality, the infant King of Rome.
Readers have grown a little weary of the ‘longawaited’ volume which brightens the announcements of so many publishers. Here for once is the adjective deserved. For more than a century historians have waited for de Caulaincourt’s testimony, the existence of which they knew. In 1838 so-called Recollections of Caulaincourt were published, but when the two volumes were safely bought they turned out to be the recollections, not of de Caulaincourt, but of a sprightly lady who had heard a good deal about Napoleon, and, having met de Caulaincourt, put into his mouth pretty much the whole of the imperial legend. Not without reason, a contemporary reviewer in the London Athenœum coupled it in his review with the Memoirs of Madame Tussaud! The real ‘Recollections were suppressed by a long chapter of accidents, political and social considerations, supplemented by the temporary disappearance of the authentic material during the German invasion of ’70. The reëmergence of this living record gives to the Napoleonic legend something genuine of its ancient lustre.
He might not have relished the compliment, but among the grand talkers of the world Napoleon deserves a seat at the head table. How astringent his humor; how pungent his comments on others; how candid his self-appraisal!
‘The French are like women: you must not stay too long away from them.’ ‘The French lack seriousness; consequently that quality impresses them most. I am supposed to be severe, even hard. So much the better. It saves me from having to be so.’ The reader feels that what in any other would have been rodomontade was in him simple truth. ‘The only difference between me and other rulers is that difficulties stop them.’ What a definition of the superman!
The translation of this book is adequate, though in its effort at raciness it becomes a trifle contemporaneous. Students will regret the abridgments. The book cannot be said to enlarge Napoleonic knowledge, but it intensifies it and gives it superb validity. Intelligent readers can ill afford to neglect it, saving only Mr. H. G. Wells — and he is busy with other matters in Hollywood.