GRAND TOUR POETRY
NAPOLEON AT MIDNIGHT
The Emperor’s retreat from Moscow, during the spectacularly savage winter of 1812, was a
catastrophic end to his invasion of Russia. Of an estimated army of 500,000 men who set
out in June that year, less than 40,000 (figures vary considerably depending on the sources
The Emperor, generally painted on horseback, actually travelled in his campaign coach.
Napoleon enjoyed telling ghost stories.
Here he features in one.
My God, he’s never felt anything like it.
And he - unlike the soldiers of his ruined army,
still moving at midnight through snow and ice,
desperate to put distance between themselves
and the pursuing Russians -
is at least in a carriage,
lit, however partially, by the warm light of lamps,
comforted by a fur rug over his lap and legs,
isolated from the worst of the outside;
the only sound being the thud of the hooves
of his cavalry escort.
He has, for many miles,
passed the time by having,
one by one,
the marshals and generals
who ride behind him, ahead of
the long column of
what’s left of the Grand Armée,
join him in the carriage.
This gives them welcome warmth
and him some conversation - a chance to
take his mind off the current disaster
by planning his next move; the
counter-attack, the fresh campaign
when this cursed winter finally turns to
Spring next year.
Now alone, having worked his way
through the higher ranks,
he decides, for some light relief
and as a gracious gesture to show
appreciation of their efforts,
to have a junior officer
join him instead.
Raising the blind,
he looks into the darkness
which is, at last, cut through
by bursts of light, for
the convoy is approaching an outpost
of French troops, a cantonment
guarding the route
back to the West,
supposedly passing on supplies
from home, yet in reality barely coping
against the depredations of
the icy wind and bands of cossacks.
The fires, around which sentries huddle,
are dangerously enticing, but he knows
he dare not stay, however tempting the flames.
He accepts a glass of wine,
wolfs down some food that, even here,
is presented on an exquisite china plate,
while the horses are changed.
That there are any here is in itself
a remarkable achievement,
given the loss to starvation
of most of the animals that
had entered Russia on his service.
A few words with a courier,
a scribbled note given to
and then it’s time to move on.
At that moment,
emerging from the darkness into
is a young man,
in a cavalry officer’s uniform,
but on foot.
A gentleman, so someone he can talk to;
young, and therefore impressionable.
The Emperor enjoys the adulation
of the young, though the idealism
of youth will have taken a battering
in this campaign.
And yet, that itself
is an opportunity.
For though his reputation
risks being as shattered as
his once-magnificent army,
he’s confident that, within the confines of
this sturdy yet elegant vehicle,
his face made more
beguiling by candlelight,
he will be able to win back
the young man’s confidence,
admiration, and indeed
(his pride allows him to believe)
the devotion due to a general
who has, through his own genius,
raised himself to the
greatest throne in Europe.
He speaks to the nearest guard,
a sergeant known both
for his his splendid physique
and his devotion to his Emperor.
The sergeant obeys, beckoning to the
young officer, who had in any case
been walking towards the carriage,
despite the cordon of guards thrown around it,
as if he were somehow expected;
as if he had a rendezvous.
The sergeant asks the officer to surrender
his sword before entering the carriage,
but Napoleon leans towards him:
‘Sergeant! The lieutenant’s sword
is pledged to my service!
What possible threat
could one of my own officers be?’
The sergeant bows his head
and waves the young man
forward, though his eyes,
shielded beneath his
helmet, show a bitter mistrust,
mixed with an instinctive envy
of the comfortable ride
now promised to this
well-born young nobody.
Once the young man has settled in his seat,
Napoleon gives an order,
the carriage door is shut,
the escort remounts,
a trumpet sounds and the cavalcade
continues its journey west.
The Emperor is just deciding how to
open the conversation when,
against all protocol,
but with a charm that disarms him,
the officer speaks first.
‘Thank you for asking me to join you, Majesty.’
‘Think nothing of it! I was looking forward
to some fresh company.
Your arrival was providential.
I hope your conversation is
as elegant as your appearance…’
‘I shall try not to disappoint you, Majesty.
May I start with a question?’
‘That would be a second breach of etiquette,
but we’re in the field, not in Paris, so please go on…’
‘Does Your Majesty enjoy ghost stories?’
Napoleon laughs. An open,
that seems to strip the years from him.
For a moment he is again
a dynamic young general on
the cusp of his career,
rather than the careworn master of Europe.
‘I do, as it happens. And we
are in the perfect place to tell
a small yet comfortable room.
Cosy. Outside, by contrast,
is darkness. Snow. A deadly wind -
and the frozen corpses of two armies…’
‘Yes, Sire. Your carriage is escorted by the
dead as well as the living.’
Despite himself, Napoleon shivers.
But he won’t allow the boy to see
his momentary discomfiture.
His voice, when he responds,
is as light as he can make it.
‘That sounds like the perfect start to
a story; though I like to be the one to tell them,
as you’ve no doubt heard.’
He is accustomed to a world of flatterers.
‘Yes, Sire, I‘ve heard that, but tonight I’ll
be the narrator.’
‘Really? Apart from the theatrical pleasure
of telling a good tale, do you actually believe
in ghosts, lieutenant?’
‘And that they haunt the place of their death?’
‘And those who killed them.’
‘The Tsar, through his dealings with
the British, has brought this war on his people
and their deaths on his soldiers.
And, more to the point, on ours.
Perhaps this war’s spectres
are even now flitting through the
palaces of St Petersburg?’
‘Their ghosts will certainly demand vengeance.’
'Then as I say, Tsar Alexander should be worried.’
‘And what about you, Majesty?’
‘Me? I have nothing to fear from
the souls of my soldiers.
Have I not led them,
and those who went before,
from glory to glory across the
whole of Europe?’
‘Yet this retreat, Sire? No glory
for them, here. Surely, doom
would be a better word?’
‘Doom and glory march together.
Striving for the latter often
unleashes the former.’
‘How do you deal with such moments?’
‘The trick is not to panic.
Fortunately, I have what some people consider
an unnatural ability to become calm
at the very moment of crisis.
I lost the battle of Marengo in the morning,
but by refusing to concede the fact,
I managed to win it in the afternoon.
This campaign has been more problematic,
shall we say, but I shall return to
France, raise fresh regiments,
resume the war.’
‘You will, but your doom will follow.
It cannot be shaken off.’
Napoleon is too astonished -
and amused - at the boy’s audacity
to lose his famously brittle temper.
Calmness is a quality that
he only has in very specific situations.
’You foresee the future, lieutenant? I
thought ghosts stories are only concerned
with what has already happened?’
The boy looks at his boots, and says nothing.
‘A loss for words seems unlike you.
But then I know almost nothing about you.
Not even your name.
You must excuse
my not asking for it.
It’s just that people are always
presented to me,
along with their name,
so I’m out of the habit of asking…’
The boy seems about to say something, but pauses.
‘You do know your own name, lieutenant?
‘Francois. My friends call me Franz,
but I prefer Francois.
Which is why I hesitated.
Your Majesty has indulged me so far,
but I would not wish you
to think I expected you
to treat me as a friend.’
Just his Christian name! A further surprise,
another breach of protocol, but delivered
with what the Emperor now thinks of
as the boy’s trademark charm.
‘Only kings and emperors - or saints! -
are known solely by their first names, but let’s
let that pass in the camaraderie of the carriage…
Very well, you’re a dashing young man called Francois,
who sees the future. What’s your success rate
‘You are the only person I have
spoken to this way… Sire.’
‘And what brings you to such an action?
Telling fortunes at fairs or in theatres
means giving the credulous
what they want to hear.
Yet you give me not hope, but a warning.
Verging on a condemnation.’
‘I’m here to provide you with the truth.’
‘No, you’re here to entertain me.’
‘My favourite tutor once told me that
entertainment is whatever takes
our minds off our worries.
In that respect, Greek tragedies and
modern operas, he would say,
are as of great a use
as bawdy jokes or theatrical comedies.
Whatever I reveal will, in that sense,
entertain you. It will certainly
take your mind off
the present catastrophe.’
‘A joke would do that far better
than warning of fresh catastrophes to come!
Any other monarch
would have had you thrown
into the snow at this point!’
‘You’re not any monarch. You’re
the conqueror of Europe. The man
who's redrawn the mind and
changed the soul of France forever.
You are greater than the kings
you’ve defeated and have an
inalienable bond with those
who serve under you…
Which is why Your Majesty won’t have me
thrown into the night.’
Clever, thinks Napoleon.
Throws in fulsome praise but
doesn’t back down from being frank
(or cheekily familiar, as his courtiers
would describe it). Withdrawing
from too advanced a position,
but not conceding any ground.
A skilful strategist -
surely a future general!
‘Your confidence is justified.
I like you! God knows why,
but I do. Now, if you’re going
to chill my blood with talk of doom
and disaster, I’d better arm myself
with a glass of brandy. You’ll join me?’
The Emperor takes two glasses
from a small cabinet, then fills
them with brandy. He passes one
to the lieutenant, then raises his own
to propose a toast.
The lieutenant smiles. The first time
Napoleon has seen him do so. It
seems to brighten the carriage.
‘To history!’ Francois replies.
‘Young man, I chose well when I invited you
to join me. We make good company together.’
‘I hoped we would. Which why I approached
you in this wilderness.’
‘Yes, a lucky chance for both of us.’
‘Not chance, Majesty.’
‘More mystery! If not chance, then what?
‘Fate is a good word for it.’
Very well, thinks Napoleon. I’ll humour the boy.
I wanted an unusual travelling companion -
I can hardly object when he turns out to be one.
Besides, as I’ve just said, I like him.
‘Fate’s certainly a better word than doom.
The brandy must be doing you good!
Now, tell me what it is you see…’
Francois drinks more brandy,
then seems about to speak. Instead,
looking uncomfortable, he takes
another sip from his glass.
‘Ah! Foolish of me!’ jokes the Emperor.
‘Brandy’s all very well,
but I see you’re waiting for me
to cross your palm with silver!
Come, Francois! Give me your hand!’
‘No need for that, Majesty…
I’ll tell you what will happen.
There will be an alliance against you…’
‘I’ve defeated many.’
‘This new one will defeat you.’
‘And then? A tumbril like that poor fool, King Louis?’
‘No. An exile.’
‘Then there’s still hope!’
‘One you’ll fulfil. To start with.
A return to France, from the Mediterranean.
The eagle flying from the coast to Paris
in a blaze of glory.’
‘Hah! I told you! Back to glory, indeed!’
‘Yet it all ends in thunder and fury
on a battlefield south of Brussels.’
‘A shame. I’ve always liked Brussels.
The Grand Place by candlelight is the most
beautiful square in Europe. Will I die?’
‘We all die.’
‘Yes, yes. But on the battlefield?’
‘No. Another exile, a more distant island.
An early death but immortal fame.’
‘You are a flatterer, after all.’
‘Truth doesn’t have to be depressing.’
‘That’s better! I knew the brandy
was a good idea!
Now, as the wind is in my favour at the moment,
perhaps you have some other news?
My dynasty. My son, the King of Rome.
When I am gone,
who rules on his behalf until he
is old enough to take my throne?’
‘He doesn’t take it.
He dies in his mother’s country,
An Austrian prince, not a French Emperor.’
Napoleon looks stricken. Not just for
his plans, but for his son. The boy’s
only a year old, but he loves him
more than anyone else he has ever known.
More even than Josephine, who he
steeled himself to divorce in order
to marry a young, fertile wife;
an Austrian princess…
‘Twenty-one? So young? ‘
‘The cause? A war? An assassin?’
‘Several wars. All yours.
And the assassin, in a way
is you. You see, Majesty,
his fate is a punishment,
decreed against you.
The destruction of your dynasty,
rendering pointless all your efforts,
all your achievements.
Unjust, of course, to the boy;
but the most dramatic way, it was thought,
to make you pay for your hubris and the
death of so many other innocents;
none of whom had enjoyed the
privileges your son did,
in his brief existence.’
‘Other innocents? Soldiers aren’t innocents!’
‘No, but the civilians who perish in
any war are. Their ghosts need avenging,
even more than those of the conscripts
who have perished following your eagles,
your standards, across the continent.
Followed, fought and died
so your family could be
put on thrones from Spain to
the Rhine. Those we are
leaving behind us now,
as well as those who went before,
buried on the battlefields of Austerlitz
and Wagram, underneath the
pyramids of Egypt and
the farmlands of Flanders.
With your son’s death
your line is as dead as them.
You will have fame, of the
sort people read about in books,
or see in statues, but
your flesh, your line,
your living legacy,
will be extinguished.’
‘But in his short life? Is he a good man?
A noble prince?’
‘People, generously, seem to think so,
though he dies before he can
be corrupted by power,
so who knows how
he might have turned out?
For he has the everyday
sins of all men, of course…’
‘A good man! Then he loves me?’
‘The memory of you.
You are absent almost all his life,
but he yearns to have known you
other than as an infant.
To have seen you as an adult,
to have touched you, to have
shaken your hand, man to man.
Which is why, on his death,
it was decided that as some
small compensation to him
for being destroyed to punish you,
he should have the chance,
like a ghost only greater,
clearer, more tangible,
to meet you,
just the once - though that
brief moment would be bitter-sweet
with the knowledge not only that
this was the father who had
unwittingly destroyed him,
but that his one meeting,
rather than a joyful reunion.
will end in his second death.
For anything made of flesh,
for whatever purpose,
is doomed to die.’
‘Heavens! Mystery has its charms,
especially on a journey like this,
but I was expecting a ghost story,
not some bizarre marriage between
prophecy and speaking in riddles…’
‘It’s not a riddle, Majesty. Like most things in life,
it’s simple if you look clearly enough.’
‘Then direct me, as you claim
to have all the answers.
Where should I look?’
‘Eyes are the window of the soul, they say.
‘You’ve looked at mine, in an unusually
frank manner. Bravely, one might say,
given our difference in rank…’
‘Yes, but in the semi-darkness
of candlelight, and at a slight distance.’
‘Perhaps now is the moment
for us both to look closer,
one final time.’
‘The carriage will stop soon.’
‘Really? Another prediction?’
‘Basic military knowledge, Sire.
We’re due to reach another checkpoint.
At which I must leave you.’
‘That’s for me to decide -
and I won’t hear of it!
I’m enjoying this, strangely enough!
I’ve never met anyone like you -
and God knows, I’ve met enough
strange characters in my time.
You must stay!’
‘Sadly, I’m not permitted.’
‘By whom? I’m the Emperor.
The father of my people.
No-one overrules me!’
‘Lean forward, father.’
The Emperor beams.
‘Hah! How I love it when my men
call me that! A sign of true affection!’
‘More than affection. Love.’
‘Love is my duty to you.
Now, please, look at me.
Not at my uniform,
and the military status it suggests,
but at me.’
Napoleon starts to lean forward, then something
makes him hesitate.
Francois speaks again, an urgency in his voice.
‘You have seen yourself in the mirror many times?’
‘Of course! And as others see me,
in a thousand portraits.’
‘Then you know your face.
You recognise your eyes.
The intensity that all Bonapartes
have in their gaze,
but with that special gleam
that sets you apart
from your brothers and sisters.
The glint all those artists
have tried so hard to capture.
Lean forward, and look!’
The Emperor does so,
thinking to himself:
‘What an extraordinary boy!’
He looks closely.
The boy’s eyes have the intensity
of the Mediterranean,
but they’re not those
of a Corsican, or an Italian.
Nothing Bonaparte about them.
So why did he mention his family?
He clears his head of this question,
and looks afresh. If this riddle
can be solved simply by looking,
then he will look until he finds it,
just as he pores over military maps
until he reaches a winning strategy.
These eyes, the boy’s eyes,
have something well-bred,
an element of command about them,
yet are also distinctly kind, gentle.
They are the eyes of someone
who hasn’t had to struggle;
eyes from which ambition and anger,
his own most dominant characteristics,
are entirely absent.
The boy’s eyes look back,
shining, now, with tears,
but, thinks Napoleon, tears of excitement
as much as of sadness.
He has seen such tears
on the faces of hard, fearless
men when presenting them
with campaign medals.
’You see a lot, Majesty,
but not what you need to.
Think of the Empress.
Imagine greeting her,
on your return to Paris.
Look into her eyes - and then,
if you can imagine it, as if it
were only moments away,
rather than a thousand miles,
imagine entering the nursery
to hold your infant son in your arms.
Picture yourself looking into his eyes;
the eyes of the person you love
more than anything else in the world.’
Suddenly the extraordinary intensity,
the almost hypnotic intimacy of the moment
is broken by a shout of sentries,
the loud reply of the captain
of the cuirassiers escorting the Emperor
and the almost immediate slam of soldiers
presenting arms, the outside world
violently breaking in on the two men,
as the carriage jolts to a halt.
The abrupt stop throws Napoleon forward.
As he lurches, he reaches out to steady himself,
his left hand landing on the young man’s knee.
His right hand still clutches the brandy glass,
clenched so hard in his surprise at suddenly
being thrown off-balance that the delicate crystal breaks,
cutting his hand, which bleeds freely.
As this happens, their faces are brought
together, only inches apart,
while the candles, shaken into
producing a sudden gust of light,
illuminate both men more clearly than before.
Francois gently removes the glass
from Napoleon, placing it
on a small ledge beside the door.
Ignoring the blood which has dripped
onto Napoleon’s jacket, he takes
both of the Emperor’s hands in his own
then, after a moment of intimacy, releases them
before shaking Napoleon’s wounded right hand,
not as a subject would his Emperor’s,
but as a man might when
he meets a long-lost friend.
Unembarrassed, indeed strangely moved,
tears springing to his own eyes,
Napoleon focuses on the boy’s again,
blending an intense scrutiny
with a mental picture both of his wife and his son.
The connection is easy for him, as the King of Rome
has his mother’s eyes.
A fraction longer and then he sees the truth.
He knows the eyes.
The riddle, the mystery, the predictions make sense.
Shocked, he involuntarily yells out
- a cry where horror and pity,
regret, despair and astonishment
all fight to be expressed the loudest.
As he does so, the carriage door
is thrown open by the sergeant of cavalry,
who has heard the scream
and dashes in to save his sovereign.
As he looks inside,
he sees the Emperor,
blood splashed on his jacket,
his face absolutely white,
like a death mask,
his hand gripped
by the young officer he had been
instantly suspicious of when he approached
the carriage earlier that night.
The young man whose uniform is French, but
whose fair hair, previously hidden under
the helmet he had only removed when
inside the vehicle with the door firmly closed,
immediately implicates him as an Austrian
- the enemies of France.
The boy’s face,
in contrast to Napoleon’s,
is flushed, excited, triumphant, even.
‘Thank God, I have met you, Father! Thank God - and farewell!’
Assuming the worst,
as he has been trained to do,
and desperate to prevent
any further harm to the Emperor
from an obviously deranged assassin,
the sergeant places the pistol he drew as he dismounted
against the Austrian’s head and,
the Emperor’s new scream
convincing him of his diagnosis,
he pulls the trigger,
instantly killing the boy,
while spraying blood,
brain tissue and parts of his skull
on one side of the carriage
and across the clothes of the Emperor
who had vainly tried to hug
the Austrian, to save
him from what he saw
was about to happen.
‘My boy! My boy!’
Napoleon looks at the sergeant
with an anguish that freezes the man
more than the wind and snow
whipping around him.
Has the Emperor, the bravest of generals,
been driven mad by this assault?
Stunned, he’s pushed aside
by the captain of the escort.
‘Majesty! My God, how did this happen?’
‘How?’ An uncanny stillness now defines the Emperor,
a calm, a quiet tone of voice
in complete contrast to his recent screams;
a sort of blankness of expression
that only those closest to him in battle
had ever seen or could ever imagine
in such circumstances.
A pause, and then he answers:
‘I invited him, captain. He came to me,
from the darkness, and now he is dead.’
‘We’ll take the bastard away and leave him for the wolves.
We’ll get the Surgeon-General to have a look at you, Majesty,
‘No! This… this is not what it seems…
I am not harmed. Or not in any way you would recognise…
Get an officer to pick a party
of eight soldiers from these…’
He points at the large group
of infantrymen who
are running towards the carriage.
‘And bury the boy.
Here’s some money…’
He wraps a handkerchief round his injured hand
then scoops gold coins from a drawer under
his seat and presses them into the captain’s hands.
‘This is for the burial party. Get an officer to find a priest,
to read a short service.
Then they must fire a volley over the grave.
His name was Francois.’
‘Surname, Sire? Title? What should we…’
‘You wouldn’t believe me. Have him referred to as Francois,
a man dear to the Emperor’s heart.’
‘But Majesty, the man tried to kill you!’
‘Quite the contrary, I assure you.’
The captain looks at him as if he’s gone mad.
‘Majesty, the shock, it’s understandable, but..’
‘More understandable than you can possibly imagine.
And more shocking.’
‘And you, Sire?’
‘We’re at a camp, I see.
There are fresh horses here?
We can’t expect the poor creatures
to pull this vehicle in such weather for long…’
‘By some miracle, yes. See, they’re bringing them over, now.’
‘Good. I have always believed in luck, captain.
From tonight, I believe in
Change the horses at once,
then get me out of here.’
Seeing the captain’s confusion,
and not wanting any more questions,
Napoleon instinctively realises he needs to bring
some sort of normality into the situation.
The captain thinks Francois was an assassin? Very well.
‘And I think, captain, it would be sensible,
given what’s just happened,
to ask General Karkovsky
if he could lend me some of his lancers,
to increase the size of the escort.
One such incident is one too many.’
The order has its effect; the captain immediately
relieved to have a common-sense command
that produces a practical solution to an
‘At once, Majesty!’
He speaks to a local officer about
the burial party and sends a messenger
back down the line to request reinforcements.
Some minutes later, things arranged, he reports back.
‘The major,’ he points at a nearby officer,
‘will organise the burial, Majesty.
The lancers will be here shortly.’
‘We’ll clean the carriage of blood while the horses
are being swapped over…’
‘No. Leave it. All of it. I’m used to blood.’
‘Would you like one of the generals
to accompany you, Majesty?
After such a shock I’m sure you’d…’
‘No, I need to think. In quiet.
Strangely enough, the blood will help.’
‘Of course, Sire. After what happened
you’ll need some rest.’
‘Captain, after what happened, I will never
have a moment of real rest again.’
At this, the Emperor climbs,
wearily, back into the carriage.
A few minutes later the captain gives
a brisk order and, his cuirassiers
now accompanied by a detachment
of Polish lancers, the carriage seems to shudder,
in memory of what had happened,
or anticipation of what had been foretold,
as much as from the physical effort
of restarting the journey.
As it leaves, almost hidden
by the throng of cavalry around it,
the soldiers, hating being in
the open at night, but looking forward
to spending the gold
when they reach France again,
take to their task as quickly as possible.
Though the incident will appear
in no history books, the four of them
who eventually survive
the remaining campaigns
of Napoleon’s career
talk of it for years afterwards,
in the inns of their
home towns and villages.
The detail that most sticks
in their minds, and astonishes their listeners,
is that the Emperor,
having handed over the coins,
takes a small pair of scissors from
a golden-trimmed box near the door,
then comes over to the body
of the assassin and gently,
tenderly even, cuts an un-bloodied
lock of the Austrian’s hair
before returning with it to the carriage,
whose horses are then whipped
into action, the captain of the escort
as keen to leave the body behind as
the work party are to bury all trace of it
beneath the frozen Russian soil.
And the sergeant?
The man who had saved his
monarch from the assassin?
Well, say the survivors,
that was the oddest thing.
The Emperor never said a word
of thanks to him, and indeed told
the captain, at daybreak, he never wanted
to see the sergeant near him again.
The sergeant, always the most loyal of men,
who’d spent his adult life in the Emperor’s service,
on hearing the instruction
gave his horse to a wounded infantryman
there and then, strode out towards the edge
of a forest that bordered the line of march,
stood to attention some distance from the trees
and shot himself.
‘And what about Napoleon?’ asks
one of the youngsters, listening to
the story for the first time.
Did he feel guilty at this?
Did it play on his mind?
‘Funny you should mention that’,
replies the grizzled old veteran.
‘Officially, he wasn’t told, because
he’d said he never wanted anything
to do with the sergeant again, but
I and my mates reckon he must
have got wind of it, somehow.’
‘Why’s that?’ asks the boy.
‘Well, ‘cause a cousin of mine
was in the Imperial Guard.
He said he passed by the Emperor,
later that morning and that he’d
never seen anyone looking so pale
and upset. Quite unnerved, he said.
As if the poor man had seen a ghost…’