The Ney Trilogy: Ney's Return to Paris
The Winter sun of 1807 was shining on Paris as the Grand Army returned marching footsore and weary through her streets. Was the war really over, they wondered, or was this a dream from which they would wake to find another campfire burning low? They looked around at the thousands of people who lined the way, they saw their smiling faces and heard their voices blending into a roar. The soldiers knew they hadn’t died but it felt almost like they’d gone to heaven.
Bands played “la Marseillaise”, drums beat, cymbals clashed, trumpets blared as long columns marched in uniforms stained with dust and blood. They stunk, but they could be excused for that. The shopkeepers cheered, the labourers, the servants and maids, the washerwomen, the men in top hats, and the ladies in their elegant dresses and bonnets. Dogs raced along yapping while boys skipped with sticks on their shoulders in place of muskets. For now the soldiers could forget those left behind on the battlefields of Europe, those who would never know again the pleasure of the warmth of the sun or of food to fill an empty stomach. Bonaparte, that man they had loved and hated, feared and admired, had brought them home as victors. He believed in his ‘star’ but for them it was simply a matter of life and death of a struggle against the enemy which was sometimes another soldier but most often the cold, heat, thirst, hunger or disease. It was bivouacking in the mud or a scorching sun overhead when a march had to be made when orders had to be followed. The history books could record the glory and the brilliance of the manoeuvres the masterful strategies of the conqueror. For those who lived it though, it was simply a drudgery punctuated by the fear of dying a painful forgotten death in a foreign land perhaps to be buried, perhaps to be left to the wolves.
Ney's gray stallion twitched nervously prancing as the crowd roared their approval. They had heard of him, but now they could tell all they had actually seen him. A few even dared to dash out to shake his hand before the Gendarmes led them away. To the children he seemed so tall in the saddle. They wished he would draw his sword and lead a brilliant charge for them to see. But the job had been done. And so the soldiers looked in the crowd for the prettiest of girls. There were many and they wondered, how long before they shared a bed with one of those beautiful creatures? They had been away far too long.
In the streets around the Tuileries there was barely room to move as the crowds pressed hard up against the fence which girded Napoleon’s Imperial palace. Near the gates Gendarmes d'elite on their black mounts fought to keep them back brandishing swords and cursing those who ventured onto the street. The palace gates opened beneath the Arch of the Carousel and Ney rode through into the forecourt where battalions of the Imperial Guard stood immaculate in dress uniforms and tall bearskin busbies with bright red plumes. As their regimental banners fluttered on staffs topped with the Imperial eagle the veterans presented arms and watched as Ney climbed down from his horse. The band of the Imperial Guard struck up the “Triumph of Trajan”; the drum majors in their braided uniforms and peacock plumes marking the beat.
As he walked through the halls of the Palace the noise of the crowds died away. Servants and courtiers chattered in subdued tones as he passed his footsteps echoing through the lofty rooms. From the walls statues and portraits of French heroes looked down and now, he was amongst them. To think his parents had pushed him towards a career in law. How could he have sat behind a desk and watched the world and history pass him by?
The doors of the throne room swung open and inside chandeliers shone with the light of a thousand candles, the walls gilt with the plundered gold of Europe. Servants in green livery stood to attention and crowds of ladies in rustling silk dresses whispered while diplomats and princes in braided coats looked down their noses. Strangers to a battlefield they respectfully acknowledged Ney as he approached. Napoleon, the little man who now controlled Europe stood at the foot of his throne in plain green coat and white breeches the medal of the Legion of Honour on his chest. His body was still trim, his mind sharp. By his side Josephine wore her diplomatic grin and a dress of brilliant Lyon silk. Napoleon could play the game of the diplomats and courtiers but he also knew the smell of blood and guts spilled on a battlefield.
Ney clicked his heels and bowed. The courtiers concealed their envy with approving grins. How could they ever understand? Their manoeuvres were those of the salons and soirees their chatter of the bedrooms and dalliances. Which young actress of the Comedie Francaise was the Emperor bedding this week as Josephine wept? It was a world for which Ney, the cooper’s son, had a bitter dislike.
Napoleon embraced him as the courtiers fumed. Then the Emperor stepped back smiling and extended his arm to the slight, blonde young woman who moved shyly from behind Josephine. It was Aglae, Ney’s wife. She had waited so long to see him and spent so many nights alone. How many times had he died a gruesome death in her nightmares? Now she looked into his eyes and he just wanted to hold her. He had thought so many times of her and of the night when they would finally share a bed again. Now, the day had come.
In the evening of the day following the Grand Army's return, Paris was still busy celebrating the new era of peace. Only the Emperor himself knew how long the festivities would continue, the parades, the banquets the concerts. Choirs sang the “Song of Return”, Franconi the horseman gave exhibitions of trick riding with his six white stallions, and the daredevil Foriosi walked the tightrope. Children gathered around puppet stalls and laughed at the raucous guignol or watched toy boats bob in the fountains of the Tuileries.
At the end of the Champs Elysee the Arc de Triomphe cast a long shadow having begun to rise from amongst the orchards and on top of Mount Napoleon the mills turned grinding the last of the day’s flour for tomorrow's bread. Through the streets the farmers drove home their horse drawn carts emptied of produce at the markets and stores, which the Emperor had built to cater for the growing city. The gardens of the Tuileries were filled with thousands of people who strolled its avenues of rose beds, the planting of which had been overseen by the Empress herself. And as night approached the chandeliers of the palace lit up a gathering of the elite of France and Europe, courtiers, marshals, diplomats, authors, artists and musicians.
At the end of the Hall of Marshals Napoleon and Josephine sat side by side in gilt armchairs overlooking the gathered nobility. From the hothouse that was the Imperial kitchen came a stream of servants bringing plates of roast lamb and chicken, duck and turkey while a constant flow of wine and champagne from the cellars found its way into clinking glasses. The din of conversation all but drowned out the clashing cymbals and blaring trumpets of the military bands outside. Every now and then the guests watched open mouthed from the balconies as fireworks streaked into the sky overtaking hot air balloons that rose sedately billowing clouds of coloured smoke.
“The Emperor has just completed the longest most daring military expedition in history! Through Europe swarming with soldiers disciplined and brave! He belongs to the heroic times of yesteryear!” A man enthused drunkenly spilling a measure of his wine.“As does Marshal Ney!” He added as Ney and Aglae walked past making there way to the balcony where a fresh breeze blew in gently from the gardens.
It seemed Paris was the centre of the universe that night. And a “golden age” Michel Ney had dreamt of seemed to become a reality. He was happy to be home with Aglae. But in the back of his mind he wondered: how long would it last? He knew the Emperor well. How long could he be content with peace?
Ney looked at the face of the Emperor as he wriggled in his seat barely suppressing a look of boredom while Josephine’s eyes showed a hint of tears. Behind her, her ladies in waiting watched for the slightest gesture, an indication of her desire. There was one, slim dark-haired with eyes that always seemed to be laughing, her lips always hinting an impertinent grin. Madame Duchatel?
The Emperor stood and walked across the floor the crowds parting reverentially as he strolled. But then as he stopped and paused grins of self-satisfaction began to disappear from the faces of the gathered elite. The champagne and sumptuous meals were forgotten. The roar of boisterous conversation peaked and dancers stopped in their tracks as the guests of the Emperor began to fall silent. Noisy talk changed to whispers as they gathered in a circle around something and dared to look. There, the little man in the green coat stood like a statue in their midst staring blankly into space. They watched and waited without saying a word. They dared not. They waited for him to speak to move to set the Empire in motion to maintain its order. They waited. One minute, two minutes, three minutes. How long did they wait? How long did he stand there in a world of his own? It seemed like an eternity. Not a word, not the blinking of an eye, his arms folded across his chest a stony expression on his face as if he was mocking them all making them play some childish Imperial game. After all, this Empire was his to do with as he pleased.
Did they understood the nature of the Empire in which they lived? That it was the creation of one man’s mind and ambition, the product of his military genius of his luck of his victories of the blood on the soles of his boots of his gifts and of his failings? Would it take just one defeat to make it all crumble like a house of cards?
That night in the Imperial chambers the little man had returned to the world again oblivious to the fact of his temporary absence. Once again he was in command. His secretaries arched over a long desk with quills in their aching hands taking down the ideas and orders which streamed from his mind endlessly, more quickly than they could possibly write or comprehend. Their quills continued to scratch as he dashed from the room but then they glanced at one another and grinned because they knew what was going on.The Emperor's breeches were already down around his ankles and Madame Duchatel’s legs were curling around his waist. Not far away Josephine lay alone in her bed and felt the trickle of tears down her face. She knew the man would never be content with just one lover and how long could he live without his favourite mistress - WAR?
Ney treasured the nights with Algae. Did he know in his heart that the days of that “Golden age” were already numbered?
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2005
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