Jack reached the outskirts of Grenoble without mishap. There were soldiers on the road, but all of them wore the white cockade. Jack had not been challenged, presumably because he was unarmed, and because his demeanour and riding skill proclaimed the gentleman. The King’s officers seemed to have assumed, without further enquiry, that a gentleman must also be a royalist.
But inside Grenoble, it could be very different. Jack trotted his hired horse into the city at an easy pace, trying to look as though he were a country squire, come to town on some business errand. Grenoble was another fine city, smaller than Lyons, but guarded by a huge fortress overlooking the vital bend in the river. He saw, with relief, that royalist forces still held all the strong points. Indeed, there looked to be almost as many soldiers as in Lyons. For the cost of a few coins, Jack learned that a whole regiment was there, waiting for the usurper to walk into their trap. He was already known to have arrived at Gap. He would surely march on to Grenoble very soon.
Jack marked the dispositions of the troops. Though no soldier himself, he judged that this regiment was well led. Their general had ensured that his men covered all the avenues in and out of the city, with the main force near the centre, where any invading army must pass. If Bonaparte made it to Grenoble, he would not be permitted to leave.
But Jack himself did have to leave, for he did not dare to assume that the usurper would take the bait. Bonaparte was too good a tactician. He had avoided the defences on the coast at Toulon; he might find a way of avoiding Grenoble as well.
Jack left his tired horse at a livery stable and hired a fresh one. Then he rode quietly through the city to find the road south to Gap, all the while wondering what he would find, and whether he would live to make his way north again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He came upon them not many miles along the Gap road. The echo of shouted orders in the distance warned him of what lay ahead, long before he saw anything. He had plenty of time to take his horse off the road and to make the most of the available cover. His mission, here, was to see without being seen. And, if the royalists were not victorious, to return to Grenoble, and Lyons, with all speed. A spy was worthless if he failed to report what he had learned.
The road had been climbing steeply for some time. Now it narrowed, too. There was barely enough cover for a single horse. If there chanced to be a lookout, Jack would probably be spotted. But the King’s soldiers, perhaps a battalion strong, were paying no attention to their backs. They were disposed across the width of the narrow pass, muskets at the ready, blocking the road.
Facing them, just out of range of those muskets, was Napoleon Bonaparte himself! He was dressed very simply in a plain grey coat and broad black hat, and mounted on a rangy grey horse. Behind him, rank upon rank of the Imperial Guard were massed, with immaculate military precision, ready to advance in defence of their Emperor. They did not look in the least like men who had struggled over trackless mountain passes. They looked like seasoned soldiers, fearsome in their zeal to fight and conquer.
Jack held his breath and waited. Would the royalist commander order his troops to advance and fire upon their erstwhile Emperor? Would Bonaparte send his Guard forward in the face of blistering fire?
For a long, long time, not a man moved.
Then, from his vantage point, Jack saw that the black semi-circle of Bonaparte’s hat was twisting very slowly from side to side. He was surveying the soldiers who stood ready to annihilate him. As coolly as if he were the reviewing officer at a military parade.
Jack watched, appalled and yet fascinated, as Bonaparte gently urged his horse forward a pace or two. Just enough to be within range of those muskets.
Would they hold their nerve and wait for the order to fire? Might a single, nervy trigger-finger end the life of the most successful military commander since Alexander?
Slowly, almost casually, Bonaparte dismounted and walked forward. Alone.
The silence was absolute.
He stopped. He planted his booted feet firmly half a yard apart in the rutted mud of the narrow road. He let his gaze travel slowly along the front rank of the troops ranged against him. Then, incredibly, he almost smiled. As if he recognised them. As if they were comrades in arms.
“Soldiers of the Fifth!” he cried, his voice echoing round the pass to shatter the silence. “Don’t you know me?” He took two more steps towards those murderous muskets. “If there is any man among you who would shoot his General — his Emperor — let him do it!” He laid an ungloved hand across his heart. “Here I stand!”
For five long seconds no one moved. No one even breathed. Then the first shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” were taken up and repeated, louder and louder, by a hundred eager, jubilant voices, until the noise filled the pass and echoed off the distant slopes. The soldiers of the Fifth surged forward to surround their Emperor, tearing the white cockades from their hats as they ran. Their royalist officers tried to beat them back with the flat of their naked swords. In vain. Their men would not be held back by shouted orders that were as useless as gossamer threads against a hurricane, and as quickly drowned.
The Emperor Napoleon had come into his own again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It would take Jack hours more of hard riding to make his way north to Lyons. All the way, he was marvelling at what he had seen. Whatever he might believe about the motives of the little Corsican, he could not fault the man’s personal courage. Or his understanding of men. The old soldiers of the French Empire longed for the victories and the glory they had known under their Emperor. When he faced them, and addressed them by name, they had responded like chicks called back to the broody warmth of the mother hen. They loved him. They loved everything he stood for. And, to a man, they were ready to die for him.
That was a very potent mixture. There was no Allied commander who inspired such selfless devotion. Wellington might be admired and respected by his troops, even feared. But he was not loved.
In Grenoble, as he passed through and changed horses once more, Jack surveyed the assembled troops with a much more jaundiced eye than before. The whole of the Seventh Regiment was stood to arms. Would they dare to shoot where their fellows of the Fifth had not? Somehow, Jack doubted it.
Bonaparte would march into the city with his Guard at his back, and now the Fifth as well. And Grenoble would fall to the power of his legend.
Love it. Brilliant piece. Wish it had ended up in the book after all!
I love it also, but I can see why the editor thought the mood was wrong.
Thanks, Sue. I’m really glad that people like the missing encounter. And I did agree with my editor in the end. I only muttered for a little while 😉