Stale Poison


IT was 3 A.M.1 when the Emperor finally sent for me. He was in bed; as usual his room was dimly lit by a night lamp.

’Come here and sit down,’he said, as soon as I entered — a most unwonted procedure, this, on his part. He foresaw, so he told me, that they would sever the Empress from him; that there would be indignities of every sort in store for him; that they would surely seek to assassinate him, or at least to insult him, which for him would be worse than death.

It was not as though there were anything distasteful to him about the life he might lead at Elba; solitude held no terrors for him. He was under obligation to write the story of his campaigns — to repay the sacrifices of so many brave men by doing homage to their memory. No; he found pleasure in the prospect of that opportunity for proving to his old comrades that he was mindful of the services they had rendered to the country. But he could not become reconciled to seeing himself at the mercy of an insolent conqueror, or perhaps even a jailer; and he would have to be prepared for anything. He saw himself in danger from assassins because the traitors who had forsaken him would stop at nothing to rid the Bourbons of him: they would never let him reach the Island of Elba. He had weighed his position well, and had carefully considered where he stood. He could not bear to think of seeing his name in a treaty which mentioned only himself and his family, — which contained no stipulations for France and the army, —not he, in whose name such treaties had been devoted so often to the glory of the nation and the troops.

‘Always remember all I told you yesterday,’ he said; ‘in short, remember all I have said to you since your return from Paris, and note it down.’

After pausing a moment, he bade me take from under his pillow and put in my pocket the letter he had just written to the Empress. He then ordered me to go and fetch from his study, from a dressing case which he described to me, a little red morocco folder marked with the portrait of Marie Louise and his son, and with all Her Majesty’s letters inside it. After a further moment of silence: ‘Give me your hand,’ said the Emperor; and he clung to it. ‘Embrace me’ — and he drew me with emotion to his heart. I tried in vain to choke back my tears; I wept despite myself, drenching his cheeks and hands. The Emperor seemed greatly affected, and with moving kindliness he said, “I want you to he happy, my dear Caulaincourt. You deserve to be.’ There followed another pause, and then: —

‘Soon I shall exist no longer. Take the Empress my letter then. Keep her letters, with the portfolio they are in, to give to my son when he is grown. Tell the Empress that I trust in her devotion; that her father has not played fair with us, — that she should try to have Tuscany for her son, — that it is my last wish for them both. There is no excuse for Europe to deny him that proper settlement — seeing that I shall exist no longer! Tell the Empress I die in the conviction that she gave me all the happiness within her power, and that she never gave me the least cause for disquiet, and that I regret the loss of the throne for her sake only and because of my son, whom I would have made into a man worthy to rule France.’

He requested me to remain devoted to them, to ward off the consequences of the bad advice that would inevitably be given them, to stand guard lest they ever act contrary to France’s welfare; to speak of him to his son when the latter was come of an age to comprehend what the Emperor had done for the glory of our dear France — to be as plain-spoken with him as I had been with his father. ‘ You have my esteem, Caulaincourt,’ he added; ‘you always have done everything that an honorable man should. In your conscience, — in your own feeling of secret satisfaction, — you will find the reward of your integrity; there, and in the esteem of men of good will. I have nothing to offer you but the cameo that is in my jewel box. Take and keep it as the last memento of your Emperor.’

He spoke in a faint voice, the utterance of a man in anguish, and often haltingly, after the fashion of a sufferer whose faculties are numbed with pain.

I cannot say how much this scene distressed me. Vainly I ventured several questions: ‘Listen to me—the time runs out’; such was his only answer. I tried to discover what it was he had taken. He had the hiccups, and was in great pain. I besought him to let me go and call somebody — to permit me to help him in some way. In vain I strove to get away for a moment, or rather to escape; he held fast to me with his whole strength and did not reply. Once in a while he uttered a few words of affection for me, expressing his regret that now, after all the hardships I already had suffered for his sake, he was making me witness the sorry spectacle of his last moments.

For my own peace of mind, I begged him, would he not allow me to send for the Grand Marshal? My intention was to take advantage of that opportunity for summoning Yvan [the Court Surgeon]; but the Emperor stubbornly refused to see anyone soever. ’I want only you, Caulaincourt!‘ — and he ordered me to feel his pulse, adding that he began to notice the effect of what he had taken; that his head was growing heavy and his body insensible; wherefore he hoped the full effect would not be long in coming, and that he would be able to sleep at last.

Upon my renewed insistence that somebody be sent for, he told me not to thwart him: he demanded that of me as a final service. With my knowledge of his position, he went on, I was bound to perceive that his death might perhaps be the saving of France and of his family. My force of character was sufficient, so he had thought, to make me understand the advisability of the course he had chosen, and to prevent my seeking to prolong his anguish, since what he was feeling now was as nothing to the agony of the past fortnight. I tried vainly to break loose — to call some of his attendants. He clung to me with such strength that he would have been left with the side of my torn jacket in his hand if he had not gripped me from the other side as well.

The doors were closed; the valet de chambre did not hear me. The hiccups increased; his limbs grew rigid; his chest and stomach heaved. The first seizure of retching was ineffectual, though for a moment the Emperor seemed certain to surrender to it. An icy chill had given way to a cold sweat, then to a burning fever. He seemed to be trying his best not to vomit; his teeth were clinched. During a breathing spell he told me to send his handsomest dressing case to Prince Eugène for a memento, and to keep his finest sabre and his pistols for myself, in addition to the cameo portrait of him. ’You are to tell Josephine that she has been much in my thoughts. . . . Give the Duke of Taranto one of my sabres,’he added; ‘it will be a souvenir of his loyal behavior toward me.’

The voice was barely audible; the closing sentence, like those before it, had been interrupted by recurrent hiccups and violent nausea. His skin was parched and chill; all of a sudden it was covered with an icy sweat: I thought he was about to expire in my arms. And this time I managed to escape for an instant to call the valet de chambre or Roustam, and send for Yvan and the Grand Marshal of the Palace.

The Emperor cried out to me, reproaching me for disturbing his last moments. He complained fretfully about the slow effect of the opium mixture that he had taken.

’How hard it is to die,’ he exclaimed; how wretched to have a constitution that fights off the ending of a life which I am so anxious to see done with!‘

His fretfulness and impatience were so extreme as to beggar all description. He called for death more eagerly than anyone ever has pleaded to be let live. Then he mentioned opium to me. I asked him how he had taken it, and he answered, ‘In a little water.’ I examined the glass, which, along with a scrap of paper, still stood on his dressing case. There was a trace of something in the glass. The Emperor, growing now more nauseated, was no longer able to keep himself from vomiting. I was too late with the vessel, though part of what he first gave up was caught, and, as the seizure was renewed, a little something grayish followed from it.

The Emperor plainly was in despair because his stomach relieved itself of that preparation. My questions then led him to confess that ever since the surprise attack at Malojaroslavetz he had carried the poison suspended in a little sachet bag around his neck; that he had had that packet made up for himself in case of accident, out of his unwillingness to risk falling alive into the enemy’s hands. The dose, so he had been assured, was more than enough to kill two men.

He told me afterward that he thought it was the same preparation Condorcet had used, and likewise Cardinal de Loménie. He added that he felt repugnance for any other means of dying, by which the body was left bloodstained or the face disfigured; that, in the supposition that he would be exposed to view after his death, he had wished his faithful Guard still to recognize the calmness of expression which they had known his face to wear in the midst of battle.

The vomiting continued — or the spasms, rather, for now but little came of them. I found the waiting long before anybody arrived; but everyone was asleep — it took time for them to get up and dress. At last the Grand Marshal came in. The Emperor spoke not a word; so I told Bertrand what had happened, and what I had learned from the valets de chambre. ‘What a task it is to die in bed,’ the Emperor said to us; ‘when in war the least thing is enough to end one’s life!’

Yvan had entered; I questioned him, and announced him to His Majesty, who told him to feel his pulse. The Emperor complained incessantly of the longing to vomit.

‘Doctor,’ he told Yvan, ‘give me a different dose — something stronger, that will make what I have taken finish its work. It is your duty to do so; it is the bounden duty of those who would serve me.’ The surgeon voiced his refusal by saying that he was no assassin; that he was in His Majesty’s service to take care of him and keep him alive — wherefore he never would act contrary to his own conscience. Furthermore, he had told him as much a while ago, when the Emperor had asked him for something to induce death; and he could do no better now, said he, than repeat what he had told him then.

We were all of us panic-stricken and depressed; we stood silently gazing at each other in abject misery. For every one of us felt that death would have been a blessing indeed for the Emperor — yet nobody gave the desired response to His Majesty’s urgent pleading. His nausea redoubled. We summoned Constant, the valet; and M. de Turenne came in with him. The Emperor renewed his importunities to Yvan. The Court Surgeon declared that he would rather quit him on the spot than leave himself open to any more such proposals. He went out and never came back.

The Emperor’s suffering was extreme. He was calm and frantic by turns, and his face had undergone a profound change; it had fallen in, so to speak, contracting the features.

We all of us stayed with him until nearly 7 A.M. I searched his dressing case and interrogated the Mameluke and Constant, who was his body servant. They told me that for several days past his whole talk had been of nothing except ways to commit suicide. Yesterday, they said, he had given his pistols much scrutiny, and had taken some bullets from his dressing case. Roustam added that when the Emperor did not find the powder flask which customarily was with his weapons, and which he, Roustam, had just made off with (for he had noticed His Majesty fondling his pistols, which was most unusual), he had asked for it. I learned from the valets that several times he had gone so far as to tell them he meant to take poison; that he had begged them both, but Constant in particular, to bring him a panful of coals while he was in his bath, so that he might asphyxiate himself.2 All these details went to show that, as devoted servants of their master, they thought they had taken every precaution; moreover, that they had let him out of sight as little as possible.


I went out for a minute to speed the copying of the ratifications, for which Orloff was waiting. I would gladly have had the Russian well clear of the Palace just then, for I was fearful lest some news of what had happened might leak out to him. We had enjoined the strictest silence upon the valets and the domestic staff, who must in any case have had but a vague knowledge of what went on.

The Emperor sent for me to come back a moment later. He asked me if the night’s event was known in the Palace. He was plainly in despair because his strong constitution had fought death off when his whole heart was set on dying. He spoke to me again of his predicament, of the move he thought it probable that Austria would make to part the Empress from him. Life, he repeated, was insufferable to him. He dwelt incessantly upon the means of ending it, and complained that he had been deprived of them all.

‘That is mere childishness on the part of my entourage,’ he told me. ‘Mine is no common predicament. To treat me now like some nobody with the spleen is an insult to me, not a proof of attachment. Tell me honestly, Caulaincourt: in my place, would you not prefer death to the fate in store for me? To the insults I may be made to suffer? To the disgrace of ratifying this treaty that mentions nothing but my personal interests? I never will sign it. Russian captivity suits me better. That will set seal to the dishonor of those who have betrayed me, and of the monarchs who recognized me, who made treaties with me, allied themselves with me and my family, and who reject my family to-day as they do me because Fortune deserts me and smiles on them instead. Was that how I acted toward them when their capitals were mine — when I could have dethroned them?’

So moved was I by the justice of the Emperor’s remarks that his statement of the case affected me as deeply as it did him. Seeing eye to eye with the Emperor, I told him frankly that if this vain attempt at suicide became known there were many who would consider it mere stage play. The Emperor talked of his death, of devices for killing himself; and he demanded that I, as his loyal friend, should put him in the way of achieving it after the fashion of those old Romans who drank the hemlock. Had the cup been there, I would have handed it to him. But to plot out a death, contrive for it, bring the means to him, arrange the whole matter in cold blood — there was a task that lay beyond the compass of my devotion. ‘Even so, Caulaincourt,’ he repeated, ‘it is the greatest proof of devotion you could give me. Prolong my situation and you force me to sign the treaty — you prolong my anguish.’

The Emperor was suffering severely from pain and thirst. His face looked shriveled; he was drowsy, and had sunk into the lethargy of total exhaustion. He took a swallow of water and seemed to feel the need of sleep. Despite that, however, I made mention of the propriety, and the vital importance, too, of his seeing the Duke of Taranto, who wished to return to Paris and already had asked twice for an audience. I begged him to brace up — to let Macdonald see him for a moment, even if he had to stay in bed and claim that he was ill. I suggested that the marshal, after seeing His Majesty, would be able at a pinch to give the lie to whatever anyone could say about last night’s event. ‘Let me have your arm,’ he told me.

He tried to take a few steps in his room, but his legs were too weak to support him. He had changed alarmingly, and I was barely able to hold him upright. I dragged him to the window, which he made me throw open. The air seemed to revive him a little, but Roustam had to be called to help me put him back to bed — nor was this easily managed with the Emperor so nearly unconscious. His arms and legs seemed to be asleep; there was no spring to them. I conversed with him for a moment longer, urging him to take some nourishment and to rest, so that he would be able to receive the Duke of Taranto at noon; and then, telling him that I was going to attend to all the business I thought it imperative to wind up, I left the Emperor’s quarters.


No details of this secret drama had transpired. I found evidence to that effect as soon as I had left His Majesty. Upon returning to my apartment, I jotted down the particulars and all that the Emperor had said during this dreadful night. Thereafter I was with the Duke of Taranto, who was anxious to take leave of the Emperor.

At about 11 A.M. I returned to His Majesty, to urge him to receive the marshal. They had made the Emperor drink something, and his stomach had not been upset by it. He was more composed; he had seen the Duke of Bassano, and knew that all was in readiness for the exchange of ratifications. He had talked also with the Grand Marshal, who had resolved to go with him to Elba. This lofty devotion touched him, nor could he speak of it without emotion.

‘My mind is made up,’ he told me then, after a momentary silence. ‘I have just had a talk with Maret. He will give you the State Secretariat’s orders for ratifying the treaty. I shall live, since death cares as little for me in my bed as it does on the battlefield. And there will be courage, too, to make life endurable after such happenings as these. I will write the History of the Brave! ’

He instructed me to make everything ready for the signing of the ratifications, so that he could send the Duke of Taranto on his way, and so that Orloff might clear out of Fontainebleau. Feeble though he was, and of a deep, persistent pallor, he left his bed. He could barely stand; we had to put him into a chair and throw open a casement. The air revived him, and he came to his senses sufficiently so that we could dress him to receive the marshal.

Count Orloff was dispatched at last, and took his departure. The Secretariat prepared the ratifications with the other Allied Powers; the Emperor washed me to have charge of those formalities, too. I also worked with the Grand Marshal over the arrangements for the Emperor’s departure. It seemed to me that the journey to Elba was a foregone conclusion.

The Emperor was eager that I should return straightway to Paris, in order to hasten the settling up of all his affairs that remained unfinished. It was necessary to secure the immediate dispatch of the Allied commissioners who were to accompany His Majesty. Whatever pertained to the title transfer of the Island of Elba had to be settled, and likewise the outfitting of the corvettes that were to serve as transports. In short, it was needful to clear away the thousand-and-one difficulties that every objective presented when one was dealing with a malevolent government whose agents took delight in obstructing everything. The Emperor was eager, also, for me to go and see his wife and son at Rambouillet. He talked for a long time with me about all these details. First he would be resigned; he would realize how vital it was for him to leave as soon as possible — and a moment later he would relapse into his earlier frame of mind.

‘I was not able to die,’ he said, sorrowfully; ‘has Fortune held some fresh outrages in store for me? You might far better have given me the means of ridding myself of this unbearable existence. If they have me assassinated along the way, or if they put me through humiliating experiences, you will have to blame it on yourself, Caulaincourt! ’ These out bursts of complaining recurred with each moment that passed, and were voiced sometimes with steady resolution, sometimes with the accents of despair.

He saw that I did not bend before his importunities. Consequently, after several hours of indecision and many successive conferences with M. de Bassano, the Grand Marshal, and me, he began discussing the particulars of the plan which he was definitely forced to settle upon. It seemed to him, however, that his strength was not equal to the effort of crossing France slowly with his battalion of escorts; of being received with cheers, oftentimes, but perhaps with occasional coldness or embarrassment; of viewing once more every detail, so to speak, of the France he loved so much; of appearing before her as a piteous object — he who had been her glory and delight. This brought forth the reflection that doubtless those who received him well would get a black mark for it, and that he would feel hurt by those who received him ill. After weighing everything carefully, he thought it preferable, for the public interest and his own, that if he resigned himself to leaving he should travel by post chaise, without any suite, and incognito. With that in view, he then maintained that the sooner he left the better; for he felt that here was perhaps the only way of escaping the ambuscades laid for him by the Provisional Government.


A circumstance happened to settle his resolve: just at that moment he had a letter from the Empress. It affected him greatly, and at once restored the confidence which he had placed from the outset in the Emperor of Austria’s religious principles. ‘Surely,’ he told me, ‘his principles will make him anxious to have his daughter go with me at the earliest occasion when she can show me proofs of attachment and give me the consolation I need. Besides, it is one of my father-in-law’s moral convictions that a young wife ought not to quit her husband’s side.’

He made me read the Empress’s letter, which was full of tender and touching phrases. She stated in the most positive fashion that it was her wish and pleasure to rejoin His Majesty and be his consolation, as soon as she had seen her father.

This letter brought him back to life again — that I must say. It was as though another future opened out before him, with a glimpse of unknown happiness. He felt certain, while the moment lasted, that Her Majesty would join him instantly at Elba if he resigned himself to going there. Feebly then, after so many days of untold misery, he still was divided between the prospective pleasure of seeing her, of his reunion with her and his son, and the ever-recurrent idea of writing finis to a burdensome existence. And now, after so prolonged an agony of grief, Nature vindicated herself: the instinct of self-preservation prevailed over that great character’s fatal resolves. He was gladdened by the attachment, let me say, that his wife showed for him, and by the thought of writing his memoirs — of giving their due to the brave men who had stood France in good stead. When he reflected upon this, it seemed to make the future endurable. To live, it struck him now, was a courageous act in keeping with his character. People who have had frequent opportunities of conversing with the Emperor will be less astonished at this veering about than at his having resolved to die; for we had always heard him condemn suicide as an act of weakness.

The bitterness upon which the Emperor had fed for some time past had given way now to kindly thoughts. It appeared to me that his mind was altogether made up. The main thing was to speed the Empress and her father to their interview, upon which the Emperor kept harping constantly because of the ill-starred hope of getting Tuscany for his son. Another prime consideration was to escape as quickly as possible from the dangerous vicinity of Paris, and from the plots which he knew his enemies would surely lay for him. Consequently, the Emperor urged me to be off and lend speed to everything. That lively imagination of his, passing with inconceivable readiness from one point to another, already flattered itself in possession of its every desire. Since the Empress’s letter, there could not be the slightest doubt, so it seemed to His Majesty, either of her success when she approached her father or of her reunion with himself for the journey to Elba.

At that moment, however, he was so wretched that one would have been ashamed at the very thought of anything which might have broken a single thread of this hopeful clue to future consolation. I too bent every wish toward that reunion — and the more especially because it appeared to us an effective safeguard for the Emperor’s security. A vestige of respect and consideration for Austria was certain, during the journey, to preclude any attempt against his life: Marie Louise’s presence would have that effect upon French secret agents and the foreign troops. We interpreted everything in such a way as to ease the blows of adverse Fortune. In spite of memory and reflection, — carried away, as it were despite myself, by the need of letting my mind rest momentarily upon some happier thought, — I now seized as readily as the Emperor upon any kindly and consoling sentiment that was able to cheer and comfort him. This letter from the Empress seemed to me a present from on high, so timely was its arrival. She had put new heart into the Emperor, she had brought him to life again — wherefore I longed to see her, and to thank her on my own behalf for being so kind to us. That us is pardonable, I hope; for my feelings at that instant overleapt all bounds of rank and mere propriety. My gratitude was one and the same with my Imperial Master’s: I had suffered no less than he, and I needed as much consoling for his grief.

The Emperor, reverting now to other ideas, was apparently astonished that the Allied commissioners had not yet arrived. That was silly, however, for here it was only April 13, and ratifications had thus far been exchanged with none but the Tsar of Russia. Very judicious, though, was the Emperor’s further remark: that for him to travel incognito by post chaise simplified everything; that no doubt they would be only too glad of his speedier departure from French soil, and he likewise. Besides, that way of traveling would leave at the government’s disposal the escort of the Guard, fifteen hundred strong, which they were to give him, and which might arouse suspicion if placed in his hands. That, said he, was a weighty consideration for a new government, full of uneasy misgivings. ‘They are wrong,’ he added; ‘for my sole intention is to reach the Island of Elba, and to lead a private life there.’

The Emperor discoursed with his usual acuteness upon the whole question of the new French government’s best interests. To hear him, you would have thought he was discussing someone else’s affairs. It was inconceivable how disinterestedly he held himself aloof from every question, and with how impartial and superior a sense of judgment. There was not a trace of bitterness in his observations, not a personal remark, not an arrière-pens\ée: in his fondness for France, he could see but her. Since his day, so he thought, was past, he cared only for her future — for the prosperity that he maintained was to be hers. ‘Talleyrand is probably right,’ he told me. ‘With me out of the way, the Bourbons filled the bill better than any other faction, for they have roots. No alternative party had a leg to stand on.’

I must confess that I could not believe my ears. My imagination was stunned by this transition from the deathbed and last wishes of the age’s hero to the fitness of the dynasty chosen to replace him. These lofty and temperate comments upon what should be the guiding principles of his successors’ government, and upon the men who had brought him to his present pass; this calm self-abnegation, heedless of all personal concern, while danger hemmed him in from every side; this preoccupation with France’s welfare and the Restoration’s progress, when but a moment, earlier his own immediate peril had been too much for him — such contrasts, I repeat, left me dumbfounded. I doubted my memory’s power of retaining all I heard.

‘Here,’ he went on, ‘I cause uneasiness; and I feel uneasy. But before I can leave Fontainebleau you must have everything arranged, and you must inform me whether they mean to abide by their pledges concerning Elba and what is planned for the Empress. Be on your way, my dear Caulaincourt! Stay in Paris; that is where I need you. The Tsar Alexander feels kindly toward you; that can simplify the whole business. He has no motive whatsoever for opposing the award of Tuscany to the Empress, and he is honor-bound that the French government shall abide by what he has promised me. I do not doubt that the Empress will rejoin me in another three days. In view of her situation, her father cannot refuse to let her have Tuscany; that will be decided immediately. Then nothing can delay our reunion. Her father will put no obstacles in the way of that — surely not, if she applies direct to him. If Metternich interposes, though, his intrigues will ruin everything.’

The Emperor said this to me in so rueful a tone that I saw plainly that his self-flattery, like mine, had lasted but a moment. Thereupon he urged me to go and get ready, and he added that he was about to write to the Empress; not wishing to constrain her in any way, he would leave her free to do whatever she might please or think fit; if she rejoined him, he wished it to be owing wholly to her affection.

‘If you see her, do not insist that she join me; I would rather have her at Florence than at Elba, if she came there with a frown on her face. I no longer have a throne; there are no illusions left. Cæsar can be content as a common citizen. It may cost his young consort something to be plain Cæsar’s wife! At the Empress’s age one still needs toys to play with. If she is not. going to pride herself, of her own accord, on her devotion to me, then it is better not to be urgent with her. That would chill her enthusiasm for the Tuscan matter, which is far more important for my son, and even for her. When a few months have passed, she will wish of her own accord to spend some time with me. Things can be arranged so that every year I may go and spend a few months with her in Italy, when it becomes apparent that I have resolved to meddle with nothing, and that I am content, like Sancho, with the governing of my island and the pleasure of writing my memoirs.‘

I saw the Emperor once more before I left. He was extremely pale and worn out, but calm and resolute. He repeated everything that he already had told me. With the journey to Elba decided upon, the arrangements for it had to be made in two ways, one for going with the Empress and the other without her. He still flattered himself with the hope that she would rejoin him at Montargis — in which case the journey to Saint-Tropez would have been made in ten days, instead of by traveling day and night.

I went down with the Emperor into the garden, where he alternately sat and walked for some little time. The open air did him good: though weak, and in need of an arm to help him down the stairs, he was better once he was out of doors.

  1. On the night of April 12-13, 1814. ‘The concealment of this vain attempt of Napoleon’s to escape from his destiny, and from the final necessity of setting his name to his dynasty’s downfall, was taken for granted. The Emperor himself gave a brief injunction to that effect. The secret was carefully kept for a long while: so absolute was the sway of prudence and discretion in that austere establishment’ (Ségur, Histoire et Mémoires). These pages, and an earlier article in the September issue, are from the American edition of Caulaincourt’s second volume of Memoirs, to appear in November. — EDITOR
  2. It may be recalled that the bathtub of the period commonly was fitted with a close canopy — a sort of pup tent — to keep the drafts out and the steam in. — EDITOR