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The Story of Napoleon by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall


 

 

NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE

MEANWHILE the brother of Louis XVI., whom the French had beheaded, was proclaimed King of France. He was not stupid, [103] but he was not clever enough to rule at such a time, when all France, and indeed all Europe, was turned upside down, and full of discontent, every one struggling for something, they hardly knew what.

When the French soldiers, who had been imprisoned in German fortresses, were set free and came back to France, the discontent grew worse. For they, having spent so many years fighting, could not settle down to a life of peace. They longed for their great leader again, and he was soon weary of playing at empire in his little island.

He had been there just eleven months when he made up his mind once more to try his fortune. He escaped from Elba easily enough, and landed near Cannes on March 1st, 1815.

It was near Grenoble that Napoleon met the soldiers sent to stop him. He had with him a little army, for he had brought his soldiers from Elba, though few others had joined. But now he advanced against the enemy alone. "Soldiers," he cried, "if there is one amongst you who desires to [104] kill his Emperor, he can do so. Here I am." And he threw back his coat as if awaiting the blow. But not a weapon was raised. Instead, a shout of "Long live the Emperor!" rang out, and every man marched over to his old leader's side.

At Lyons the Bourbon generals fled, and Napoleon entered the city in triumph. Ney, one of Napoleon's old generals, whom he had called "the bravest of the brave," marched to stop him, vowing to bring his old master back in an iron cage, like a wild beast. But he had not gone far before he too declared for Napoleon, and joined his army.

And so, as on and on Napoleon passed, the little man in the big grey coat, which the soldiers knew and loved, drew them to himself. His army grew larger and larger. Men tore the white cockade of the Bourbons from their hats, and trampled it under foot. Once more the tricolour was everywhere.

In the middle of the night King Louis fled from Paris towards Belgium, and at [105] last, on 19th March, Napoleon once more reached Fontainebleau. The next day he entered Paris.

While the allies were gathered at Vienna, trying to bring order into disordered Europe, they had been suddenly startled by the news that Napoleon had left Elba, and was making his way to Paris. They had not agreed very well, but now this new danger made them forget their quarrels. Quickly they gathered their soldiers, and by June armies were marching against France from all sides. From Russia, Prussia, Sardinia, Austria, from Holland and Belgium and the German states, and, not least, from Britain, came troops.

But Napoleon did not wait for France to be invaded. He marched northward. He hoped with his usual quick daring to win some splendid battle, and with one stroke shatter the power of the allies, and seat himself again upon the throne of France.

So Napoleon's last campaign was fought in Belgium. The Duke of Wellington commanded a great part of the allied troops [106] which were gathered there, while grim old Blücher led the Prussians. And it was upon the 18th of June, upon the field of Waterloo, that Napoleon made his last stand, fought his last fight—and lost.


[Illustration]

WATERLOO.

The night had been wet and blustry. In the morning rain still fell; the fair fields of Waterloo about the farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont were boggy and sodden, and it was not until nearly twelve o'clock that the battle began. All day long, under a cloudy, stormy sky, it raged. It was a fight of all the nations, and in Wellington's army alone five languages were spoken.

And while at Waterloo the thunder of war roared and crashed, Blücher, with his Prussians, was toiling over rain-soaked roads, his cannon sinking axle-deep in mud, his men splashing and ploughing through deep pools, stumbling wearily onward to join the battle. "We can go no farther," they cried despairingly.

"We must, my children; I have given my word to Wellington. You would not [107] have me break it," replied Blücher. So they struggled on, but it was late in the afternoon before they reached the battlefield.

The end of the long contest was now near. Napoleon ordered his Old Guard, which he had kept in reserve, to advance. But when he saw them bend and then break and scatter before the British charge, he turned deadly pale. "Why, they are in confusion!" he cried, hardly able to believe it possible. "All is lost. Let us save ourselves."

In utter rout and panic the French fled from the field. The wearied British soldiers left the pursuit to the Prussians. Under the light of the moon and till the dawning of the day the chase went on. For many miles the roads were ghastly, and horrible. Again and again the French tried to take refuge in the villages by the way. Again and again they were driven forth, fleeing before the terrible hurrah of the exultant Prussians, who slaughtered them without mercy.

[108] To France Napoleon fled, tears of anger and despair running down his pale cheeks. On the 10th of June he reached Paris.

There next morning the news that the Emperor had returned alone, and that the great army of France was no more, spread fast.

And now Napoleon learned that, as he was no longer great and successful, the people of Paris did not want him. Of the soldiers who adored him few were left. So once more he abdicated. His second reign, which had lasted only a hundred days, was over.

By his own people Napoleon was ordered to leave Paris—to leave France. But British men-of-war were watching every port, and escape was impossible. So at last he gave himself up to the commander of the Bellerophon, and was taken to England. To the Prince Regent he wrote: "I come to seat myself on the hearth of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws, which I claim from your Royal Highness as the most powerful, the [109] most constant, and the most generous of my enemies."

Sadly Napoleon watched the shores of France disappear. He never set foot in his adopted land again, never more saw its sunny shores. He was only forty-five, but his, life of splendour and excitement was done.

It had been Napoleon's dream to conquer Britain, and add these islands to his empire. Now as a fugitive he was not even allowed to land there. He was kept on the Bellerophon  until a letter was brought to him which told him that "General Bonaparte" was to be sent to St. Helena, a little island in the South Atlantic.

At Elba, small though his empire was, Napoleon had been still a ruler. There he could still make laws and levy taxes, was still surrounded by an army and a court. At St. Helena he was a prisoner, and a prisoner in a lonely island 2000 leagues from Europe, 900 leagues from the nearest continent.

St. Helena is very small, not more than [110] twenty-one miles all round, and from a distance it looks like a shapeless mass of black rock rising out of the sea. To Napoleon it seemed a hateful place. And little wonder. After his life of splendour and excitement, it was terrible to be shut away in this lonely island in the middle of the wide ocean. He who had played with kings and kingdoms, making and unmaking them, moving them here and there at will, like chessmen on a board, had now nothing to do. He who had been dreaded by half the world was now of no importance. It mattered not whether he lived or died. So the dreary years dragged on in petty quarrels about petty things, in reading, writing, and chess-playing.

Then after five years the great conqueror lay dying. As he lay, already muttering, and unconscious, a great storm swept the island. It dashed the waves against rocky shore; it bent, broke, and uprooted the willows about his house. But Napoleon lay unheeding it; his wandering mind was dreaming of other days. "France—army— [111] Josephine," he muttered. Then he lay still.

The wind too sank to rest, and when the golden sun of May, shining once more over calm blue waters, slipped beneath the waves, the great restless spirit passed with it.

A few days later, followed reverently by those few of his friends who had clung to him to the last, sharing his lonely exile, he was laid to rest, under the willow trees where he had often sat. British soldiers carried the coffin, upon which was laid the sword and cloak he had worn at Marengo. British soldiers fired a volley and lowered their banners in salute over the grave of their great enemy. And there they left him in a nameless tomb.

Eighteen years later, in the darkness of an October midnight, by the faint light of lanterns, the coffin was once more dug up and carried away to France, with the permission of the British Government.

At the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris it was received by the nobles and the King of France, who, Bourbon though he was, [112] desired to do honour to the great Emperor dead.

"Sire, I present the body of the Emperor Napoleon," said the Prince de Joinville, who, had brought it from St. Helena.

"I receive it in the name of France," replied the King.

So for the last time the greatest soldier the world has ever seen was laid to rest, beside the Seine, among his people, as he himself had wished.


THE END.

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