On August 25, the eve of the battle of Borodinó, M. de Beausset, prefect of the French Emperor’s palace, arrived at Napoleon’s quarters at Valúevo with Colonel Fabvier, the former from Paris and the latter from Madrid.
Donning his court uniform, M. de Beausset ordered a box he had brought for the Emperor to be carried before him and entered the first compartment of Napoleon’s tent, where he began opening the box while conversing with Napoleon’s aides-de-camp who surrounded him.
Fabvier, not entering the tent, remained at the entrance talking to some generals of his acquaintance.
The Emperor Napoleon had not yet left his bedroom and was finishing his toilet. Slightly snorting and grunting, he presented now his back and now his plump hairy chest to the brush with which his valet was rubbing him down. Another valet, with his finger over the mouth of a bottle, was sprinkling Eau de Cologne on the Emperor’s pampered body with an expression which seemed to say that he alone knew where and how much Eau de Cologne should be sprinkled. Napoleon’s short hair was wet and matted on the forehead, but his face, though puffy and yellow, expressed physical satisfaction. “Go on, harder, go on!” he muttered to the valet who was rubbing him, slightly twitching and grunting. An aide-de-camp, who had entered the bedroom to report to the Emperor the number of prisoners taken in yesterday’s action, was standing by the door after delivering his message, awaiting permission to withdraw. Napoleon, frowning, looked at him from under his brows.
“No prisoners!” said he, repeating the aide-de-camp’s words. “They are forcing us to exterminate them. So much the worse for the Russian army.... Go on... harder, harder!” he muttered, hunching his back and presenting his fat shoulders.
“All right. Let Monsieur de Beausset enter, and Fabvier too,” he said, nodding to the aide-de-camp.
“Yes, sire,” and the aide-de-camp disappeared through the door of the tent.
Two valets rapidly dressed His Majesty, and wearing the blue uniform of the Guards he went with firm quick steps to the reception room.
De Beausset’s hands meanwhile were busily engaged arranging the present he had brought from the Empress, on two chairs directly in front of the entrance. But Napoleon had dressed and come out with such unexpected rapidity that he had not time to finish arranging the surprise.
Napoleon noticed at once what they were about and guessed that they were not ready. He did not wish to deprive them of the pleasure of giving him a surprise, so he pretended not to see de Beausset and called Fabvier to him, listening silently and with a stern frown to what Fabvier told him of the heroism and devotion of his troops fighting at Salamanca, at the other end of Europe, with but one thought—to be worthy of their Emperor—and but one fear—to fail to please him. The result of that battle had been deplorable. Napoleon made ironic remarks during Fabvier’s account, as if he had not expected that matters could go otherwise in his absence.
“I must make up for that in Moscow,” said Napoleon. “I’ll see you later,” he added, and summoned de Beausset, who by that time had prepared the surprise, having placed something on the chairs and covered it with a cloth.
De Beausset bowed low, with that courtly French bow which only the old retainers of the Bourbons knew how to make, and approached him, presenting an envelope.
Napoleon turned to him gaily and pulled his ear.
“You have hurried here. I am very glad. Well, what is Paris saying?” he asked, suddenly changing his former stern expression for a most cordial tone.
“Sire, all Paris regrets your absence,” replied de Beausset as was proper.
But though Napoleon knew that de Beausset had to say something of this kind, and though in his lucid moments he knew it was untrue, he was pleased to hear it from him. Again he honored him by touching his ear.
“I am very sorry to have made you travel so far,” said he.
“Sire, I expected nothing less than to find you at the gates of Moscow,” replied de Beausset.
Napoleon smiled and, lifting his head absent-mindedly, glanced to the right. An aide-de-camp approached with gliding steps and offered him a gold snuffbox, which he took.
“Yes, it has happened luckily for you,” he said, raising the open snuffbox to his nose. “You are fond of travel, and in three days you will see Moscow. You surely did not expect to see that Asiatic capital. You will have a pleasant journey.”
De Beausset bowed gratefully at this regard for his taste for travel (of which he had not till then been aware).
“Ha, what’s this?” asked Napoleon, noticing that all the courtiers were looking at something concealed under a cloth.
With courtly adroitness de Beausset half turned and without turning his back to the Emperor retired two steps, twitching off the cloth at the same time, and said:
“A present to Your Majesty from the Empress.”
It was a portrait, painted in bright colors by Gérard, of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the boy whom for some reason everyone called “The King of Rome.”
A very pretty curly-headed boy with a look of the Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing at stick and ball. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand a scepter.
Though it was not clear what the artist meant to express by depicting the so-called King of Rome spiking the earth with a stick, the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and very pleasing.
“The King of Rome!” he said, pointing to the portrait with a graceful gesture. “Admirable!”
With the natural capacity of an Italian for changing the expression of his face at will, he drew nearer to the portrait and assumed a look of pensive tenderness. He felt that what he now said and did would be historical, and it seemed to him that it would now be best for him—whose grandeur enabled his son to play stick and ball with the terrestrial globe—to show, in contrast to that grandeur, the simplest paternal tenderness. His eyes grew dim, he moved forward, glanced round at a chair (which seemed to place itself under him), and sat down on it before the portrait. At a single gesture from him everyone went out on tiptoe, leaving the great man to himself and his emotion.
Having sat still for a while he touched—himself not knowing why—the thick spot of paint representing the highest light in the portrait, rose, and recalled de Beausset and the officer on duty. He ordered the portrait to be carried outside his tent, that the Old Guard, stationed round it, might not be deprived of the pleasure of seeing the King of Rome, the son and heir of their adored monarch.
And while he was doing M. de Beausset the honor of breakfasting with him, they heard, as Napoleon had anticipated, the rapturous cries of the officers and men of the Old Guard who had run up to see the portrait.
“Vive l’Empereur! Vive le roi de Rome! Vive l’Empereur!” came those ecstatic cries.
After breakfast Napoleon in de Beausset’s presence dictated his order of the day to the army.
“Short and energetic!” he remarked when he had read over the proclamation which he had dictated straight off without corrections. It ran:
Soldiers! This is the battle you have so longed for. Victory depends on you. It is essential for us; it will give us all we need: comfortable quarters and a speedy return to our country. Behave as you did at Austerlitz, Friedland, Vítebsk, and Smolénsk. Let our remotest posterity recall your achievements this day with pride. Let it be said of each of you: “He was in the great battle before Moscow!”
“Before Moscow!” repeated Napoleon, and inviting M. de Beausset, who was so fond of travel, to accompany him on his ride, he went out of the tent to where the horses stood saddled.
“Your Majesty is too kind!” replied de Beausset to the invitation to accompany the Emperor; he wanted to sleep, did not know how to ride and was afraid of doing so.
But Napoleon nodded to the traveler, and de Beausset had to mount. When Napoleon came out of the tent the shouting of the Guards before his son’s portrait grew still louder. Napoleon frowned.
“Take him away!” he said, pointing with a gracefully majestic gesture to the portrait. “It is too soon for him to see a field of battle.”
De Beausset closed his eyes, bowed his head, and sighed deeply, to indicate how profoundly he valued and comprehended the Emperor’s words.
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