Read CHAPTER LII - THE PAGE of Charles O' Malley‚ The Irish Dragoon Volume 1, free online book, by Charles Lever, on ReadCentral.com.

Under the deep shade of some tall trees, sheltered from the noonday sun, we lay down to rest ourselves and enjoy a most patriarchal dinner, some dry biscuits, a few bunches of grapes, and a little weak wine, savoring more of the borachio-skin than the vine-juice, were all we boasted; yet they were not ungrateful at such a time and place.

“Whose health did you pledge then?” inquired St. Croix, with a half-malicious smile, as I raised the glass silently to my lips.

I blushed deeply, and looked confused.

“A ses beux yeux! whoever she be,” said he, gayly tossing off his wine; “and now, if you feel disposed, I’ll tell you my story. In good truth, it is not worth relating, but it may serve to set you asleep, at all events.

“I have already told you I was a page. Alas, the impressions you may feel of that functionary, from having seen Cherubino, give but a faint notion of him when pertaining to the household of the Emperor Napoleon.

“The farfallone amoroso basked in the soft smiles and sunny looks of the Countess Almaviva; we met but the cold, impassive look of Talleyrand, the piercing and penetrating stare of Savary, or the ambiguous smile, half menace, half mockery, of Monsieur Fouche. While on service, our days were passed in the antechamber, beside the salle d’audience of the Emperor, reclining against the closed door, watching attentively for the gentle tinkle of the little bell which summoned us to open for the exit of some haughty diplomate, or the entree of some redoubted general. Thus passed we the weary hours; the illustrious visitors by whom we were surrounded had no novelty, consequently no attraction for us, and the names already historical were but household words with us.

“We often remarked, too, the proud and distant bearing the Emperor assumed towards those of his generals who had been his former companions-in-arms. Whatever familiarity or freedom may have existed in the campaign or in the battle-field, the air of the Tuileries certainly chilled it. I have often heard that the ceremonious observances and rigid etiquette of the old Bourbon court were far preferable to the stern reserve and unbending stiffness of the imperial one.

“The antechamber is but the reflection of the reception-room; and whatever be the whims, the caprices, the littleness of the Great Man, they are speedily assumed by his inferiors, and the dark temper of one casts a lowering shadow on every menial by whom he is surrounded.

“As for us, we were certainly not long in catching somewhat of the spirit of the Emperor; and I doubt much if the impertinence of the waiting-room was not more dreaded and detested than the abrupt speech and searching look of Napoleon himself.

“What a malicious pleasure have I not felt in arresting the step of M. de Talleyrand, as he approached the Emperor’s closet! With what easy insolence have I lisped out, ‘Pardon, Monsieur, but his Majesty cannot receive you,’ or ‘Monsieur lé Due, his Majesty has given no orders for your admission.’ How amusing it was to watch the baffled look of each, as he retired once more to his place among the crowd, the wily diplomate covering his chagrin with a practised smile, while the stern marshal would blush to his very eyes with indignation! This was the great pleasure our position afforded us, and with a boyish spirit of mischief, we cultivated it to perfection, and became at last the very horror and detestation of all who frequented the levees; and the ambassador whose fearless voice was heard among the councils of kings became soft and conciliating in his approaches to us; and the hardy general who would have charged upon a brigade of artillery was timid as a girl in addressing us a mere question.

“Among the amiable class thus characterized I was most conspicuous, preserving cautiously a tone of civility that left nothing openly to complain of. I assumed an indifference and impartiality of manner that no exigency of affairs, no pressing haste, could discompose or disturb; and my bow of recognition to Soult or Massena was as coolly measured as my monosyllabic answer was accurately conned over.

“Upon ordinary occasions the Emperor at the close of each person’s audience rang his little bell for the admission of the next in order as they arrived in the waiting-room; yet when anything important was under consideration, a list was given us in the morning of the names to be presented in rotation, which no casual circumstance was ever suffered to interfere with.

“It is now about four months since, one fine morning, such a list was placed within my hands. His Majesty was just then occupied with an inquiry into the naval force of the kingdom; and as I cast my eyes carelessly over the names, I read little else than Vice-Admiral So-and-so, Commander Such-a-one, and Chef d’Escardron Such-another, and the levee presented accordingly, instead of its usual brilliant array of gorgeous uniform and aiguilletted marshals, the simple blue-and-gold of the naval service.

“The marine was not in high favor with the Emperor; and truly, my reception of these unfrequent visitors was anything but flattering. The early part of the morning was, as usual, occupied by the audience of the Minister of Police, and the Duc de Bassano, who evidently, from the length of time they remained, had matter of importance to communicate. Meanwhile the antechamber filled rapidly, and before noon was actually crowded. It was just at this moment that the folding-door slowly opened, and a figure entered, such as I had never before seen in our brilliant saloon. He was a man of five or six and fifty, short, thickset, and strongly built, with a bronzed and weather-beaten face, and a broad open forehead deeply scarred with a sabre-cut; a shaggy gray mustache curled over and concealed his mouth, while eyebrows of the same color shaded his dark and piercing eyes. His dress was a coarse cut of blue cloth such as the fishermen wear in Bretagne, fastened at the waist by a broad belt of black leather, from which hung a short-bladed cutlass; his loose trousers, of the same material, were turned up at the ankles to show a pair of strong legs coarsely cased in blue stockings and thick-soled shoes. A broad-leaved oil-skin hat was held in one hand, and the other stuck carelessly in his pocket, as he entered. He came in with a careless air, and familiarly saluting one or two officers in the room, he sat himself down near the door, appearing lost in his own reflections.

“‘Who can you be, my worthy friend?’ was my question to myself as I surveyed this singular apparition. At the same time, casting my eyes down the list, I perceived that several pilots of the coast of Havre, Calais, and Boulogne had been summoned to Paris to give some information upon the soundings and depth of water along the shore.

“‘Ha,’ thought I, ’I have it. The good man has mistaken his place, and instead of remaining without, has walked boldly forward to the antechamber.’

“There was something so strange and so original in the grim look of the old fellow, as he sat there alone, that I suffered him to remain quietly in his delusion, rather than order him back to the waiting-room without; besides, I perceived that a kind of sensation was created among the others by his appearance there, which amused me greatly.

“As the day wore on, the officers formed into little groups of three or four, chatting together in an undertone, all save the old pilot. He had taken a huge tobacco-box from his capacious breast-pocket, and inserting an immense piece of the bitter weed in his mouth, began to chew it as leisurely as though he were walking the quarter-deck. The cool insouciance of such a proceeding amused me much, and I resolved to draw him out a little. His strong, broad Breton features, his deep voice, his dry, blunt manner, were all in admirable keeping with his exterior.

“‘Par Dieu, my lad,’ said he, after chatting some time, ’had you not better tell the Emperor that I am waiting? It’s now past noon, and I must eat something.’

“‘Have a little patience,’ said I; ’his Majesty is going to invite you to dinner.’

“‘Be it so,’ said he, gravely; ’provided the hour be an early one, I’m his man.’

“With difficulty did I keep down my laughter as he said this, and continued.

“‘So you know the Emperor already, it seems?’

“‘Yes, that I do! I remember him when he was no higher than yourself.’

“’How delighted he’ll be to find you here! I hope you have brought up some of your family with you, as the Emperor would be so flattered by it?’

“’No, I’ve left them at home. This place don’t suit us over well. We have plenty to do besides spending our time and money among all you fine folks here.’

“‘And not a bad life of it, either,’ added I, ’fishing for cod and herrings, stripping a wreck now and then.’

“He stared at me, as I said this, like a tiger on the spring, but spoke not a word.

“‘And how many young sea-wolves may you have in your den at home?’

“‘Six; and all of them able to carry you with one hand, at arm’s length.’

“’I have no doubt. I shall certainly not test their ability. But you yourself, how do you like the capital?’

“‘Not over well; and I’ll tell you why ’

“As he said this the door of the audience-chamber opened, and the Emperor appeared. His eyes flashed fire as he looked hurriedly around the room.

“‘Who is in waiting here?’”

“‘I am, please your Majesty,’ said I, bowing deeply, as I started from my seat.

“‘And where is the Admiral Truguet? Why was he not admitted?’

“‘Not present, your Majesty,’ said I, trembling with fear.

“‘Hold there, young fellow; not so fast. Here he is.’

“‘Ah, Truguet, mon ami!’ cried the Emperor, placing both hands on the old fellow’s shoulders, ‘how long have you been in waiting?’

“‘Two hours and a half,’ said he, producing in evidence a watch like a saucer.

“‘What, two hours and a half, and I not know it!’

“’No matter; I am always happy to serve your Majesty. But if that fine fellow had not told me that you were going to ask me to dinner ’

“‘He! He said so, did he?’ said Napoleon, turning on me a glance like a wild beast. ’Yes, Truguet, so I am; you shall dine with me to-day. And you, sir,’ said he, dropping his voice to a whisper, as he came closer towards me, ’and you have dared to speak thus? Call in a guard there. Capitaine, put this person under arrest; he is disgraced. He is no longer page of the palace. Out of my presence! away, sir!’

“The room wheeled round; my legs tottered; my senses reeled; and I saw no more.

“Three weeks’ bread and water in St. Pelagie, however, brought me to my recollection; and at last my kind, my more than kind friend, the Empress, obtained my pardon, and sent me to Fontainebleau, till the Emperor should forget all about it. How I contrived again to refresh his memory I have already told you; and certainly you will acknowledge that I have not been fortunate in my interviews with Napoleon.”

I am conscious how much St. Croix’s story loses in my telling. The simple expressions, the grace of the narrative, were its charm: and these, alas! I can neither translate nor imitate, no more than I can convey the strange mixture of deep feeling and levity, shrewdness and simplicity, that constituted the manner of the narrator.

With many a story of his courtly career he amused me as we trotted along; when, towards nightfall of the third day, a peasant informed us that a body of French cavalry occupied the convent of San Cristoval, about three leagues off. The opportunity of his return to his own army pleased him far less than I expected. He heard, without any show of satisfaction, that the time of his liberation had arrived; and when the moment of leave-taking drew near, he became deeply affected.

“Eh, bien, Charles,” said he, smiling sadly through his dimmed and tearful eyes. “You’ve been a kind friend to me. Is the time never to come when I can repay you?”

“Yes, yes; we’ll meet again, be assured of it. Meanwhile there is one way you can more than repay anything I have done for you.”

“Oh, name it at once!”

“Many a brave fellow of ours is now, and doubtless many more will be, prisoners with your army in this war. Whenever, therefore, your lot brings you in contact with such ”

“They shall be my brothers,” said he, springing towards me and throwing his arms round my neck. “Adieu, adieu!” With that he rushed from the spot, and before I could speak again, was mounted upon the peasant’s horse and waving his hand to me in farewell.

I looked after him as he rode at a fast gallop down the slope of the green mountain, the noise of the horse’s feet echoing along the silent plain. I turned at length to leave the spot, and then perceived for the first time that when taking his farewell of me he had hung around my neck his miniature of the Empress. Poor boy! How sorrowful I felt thus to rob him of what he had held so dear! How gladly would I have overtaken him to restore it! It was the only keepsake he possessed; and knowing that I would not accept it if offered, he took this way of compelling me to keep it.

Through the long hours of the summer’s night I thought of him; and when at last I slept, towards morning, my first thought on waking was of the solitary day before me. The miles no longer slipped imperceptibly along; no longer did the noon and night seem fast to follow. Alas, that one should grow old! The very sorrows of our early years have something soft and touching in them. Arising less from deep wrong than slight mischances, the grief they cause comes ever with an alloy of pleasant thoughts, telling of the tender past, and amidst the tears called up, forming some bright rainbow of future hope.

Poor St. Croix had already won greatly upon me, and I felt lonely and desolate when he departed.