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Authors: Patrick Rambaud

Napoleon's Exile

BOOK: Napoleon's Exile
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Patrick Rambaud

Translated from the French by

Shaun Whiteside

Copyright © 2003 by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle

Translation copyright © 2005 by Macmillan

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.

First published in English in 2005 by Picador,

an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd., London, England

Originally published in 2003 as
L ‘Absent

by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris

Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Rambaud, Patrick.

[Absent. English]

Napoleon's exile : a novel / Patrick Rambaud ; translated by Shaun Whiteside.

  p. cm.

eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9805-1

I. Whiteside, Shaun. II. Title.

PQ2678.A455A6413 2006


Grove Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

841 Broadway New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West

To Tieu Hong

To Messieurs Paul Morans, Jean Renoir

and Dino Risi, les patrons

To Madame Arundhati Roy,

my statue of Liberty

Also by Patrick Rambaud



29 M
1814, the Emperor spent a sleepless night on a farm near Troyes that had been sacked by Prussian cavalry. While there, he received some alarming news: the enemy was massing on the shores of the Marne, and the reduced forces of Mortier and Marmont were turning back towards the tollgates of Paris, which they would not be fit to defend. The Marshals were yielding ground. Augereau, routed from Lyons, was retreating to Valence. Davout had shut himself away in Hamburg, and Prince Eugene's army was trudging across Italy. And Murat? He was involved in negotiations with Austria to save his Neapolitan throne.

Europe was invading France. In the south, some of Wellington's divisions, swollen by elite Spanish and Portuguese troops, had occupied Bordeaux and the surrounding region. In the north, Holland was in revolt, and Bernadotte's Sweden remained a threat. To the east, the Russians, the Austrians and the Prussians had passed through the Vosges and crossed the Rhine; converging on the capital from three directions. For two months they had been fighting a war-weary campaign; from dazzling victories to costly defeats, in frozen fog, in the rain, in the mud, they took and retook villages, bridges and hills; they were short of provisions, and the men were exhausted.

Marshal Ney, known as ‘the redhead', Prince of the Moskva, knelt on the ground and fed the fire with pieces of a chair. His features tired, in a face that had grown puffy, with his paunch thrust forward and his hands held under his coat-tails, the Emperor asked him: ‘How long will it take us to get back to Paris?'

‘According to Macdonald's last message, the allies are at Meaux, they're holding the Marne ...'

‘We'll skirt the obstacle via Sens and Melun and make it to Fontainebleau. How long's that?'

‘The army won't be there for at least four days, sire, and in such a state!'

‘I'll put our battalions under your command, and I'll go on ahead. At a gallop, with an escort, I'll be in Paris tomorrow morning to organize the resistance.'

‘That's madness, sire!'

‘You sound like Berthier, Marshal, but I'm still capable of unnerving people.'

With cocked beaver hat pulled low over his eyes, coat buttoned to the chin and collar turned up, and with his whip fastened to his right wrist, the Emperor was ready to leave the farm at sunrise. Marshal Berthier, Prince of Neuchâtel and Wagram, had predicted his master's caprice, and was waiting in the cold grey light, wrapped in a muddy coat. Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza, and Lefebvre, Duke of Danzig, stood ready, along with ‘virtuous' Drouot - a general and a baker's son - and Count Bertrand, the Grand Marshal of the palace. Similarly swaddled in grey or brown, the four men stamped their heels against the frozen earth. The dragoons and chasseurs were already mounted, their helmets drab and battered, their bearskin hats moth-eaten, their coats torn, threadbare and dirty, and their teeth chattering in faces blue with cold.

Berthier and Caulaincourt hoisted the Emperor on to his horse and they set off, passing through the still slumbering town of Troyes, and galloping along the road to Sens. Soon the group was stretched out and scattered: the horses were exhausted, some fell, while others couldn't muster a trot, or else they lagged and bridled; even the Emperor's horse kept to a walking pace despite the harsh digs of the spurs that drew blood from its flanks. At noon, the ten survivors of this pitiful race stopped at the inn in Villeneuve-l'Archevêque. Napoleon dismounted, and some villagers approached; passive yet suspicious, they looked at him. Meanwhile the officers embarked on a quest for coaches and fresh horses, questioning the Mayor, who had come running upon learning that the Emperor was passing through. The Russians had requisitioned the vehicles, and those that were left weren't exactly . . .

‘They'll do,' pronounced the Emperor.

There were three such vehicles: a wicker cabriolet the butcher agreed to lend them, and two carts. The post-horses, which had fortunately been fed, were immediately harnessed. Napoleon climbed into the wicker cabriolet with Caulaincourt, and the Marshals shared the carts between them. The rest could fend for themselves. The postilion cracked his whip and the pathetic cortège set off back along the Sens road.

‘Faster!' cried the Emperor. ‘Faster!'


his white English-style wig, which was combed back with fake nonchalance. He studied himself in the mirror. Pale grey eyes, pinched nostrils, a lipless mouth. His neutral face lent itself to change, and it made him smile. ‘I can play any part I like,' he thought with satisfaction.

Just then there was a knock at his door and someone called his name. Octave drew back the bolt and opened the door to reveal Marquis de la Grange, the former commander of the Vendee, who had been involved in several failed conspiracies and who was now plotting in Paris, beneath the very noses of the imperial police. Tall, lean, rather severe, wearing a blue woollen frock-coat with an astrakhan collar, the Marquis had not visited Octave's apartment before.

Octave occupied a long and sparsely furnished room on the first floor of the Hôtel de Salerne, in the rue Saint-Sauveur: a candlestick on the pine table, a bed, an enormous wardrobe. The velvet of the armchairs was as faded as that of the canopy of the bed, and Octave had to make do without a valet or chambermaid, with logs piled up beside the fireplace.

‘My good man,' said the Marquis, ‘these lodgings of yours are a little rough ...'

‘But they are both temporary and discreet.'

‘I grant you that, and in any case I'm not here to inspect you but to give you a warning.'

‘Has someone spotted me?'

‘No, no, don't worry about that. The bluebottles down at the Préfecture are far too stupid to do anything of the sort. I wanted to tell you that we appear to have managed a complete revolution.'

‘A revolution ...'

‘In the astronomical sense: the return of a planet to the initial point of its orbit.'


‘Meaning that we are about to return to our starting-point: the monarchy.'

‘I still don't get what you're on about.'

‘I'll take you there, and then you'll understand.'

The Marquis lifted Octave's three-cornered hat from a peg, threw him his coat, thrust his own wide-brimmed black felt hat back on and dragged Octave to the staircase.

Outside the front door, in the rue des Deux-Portes, a rented cabriolet awaited, a large number painted on its door. The coachman asked no questions, since the journey had already been decided: the coach - amid a great din of wheels, tinkling bells, hoofs and curses, all of which discouraged conversation - was taking them to the Louvre.

On that Monday, 29 March, the weather was finally clear after weeks of fine and freezing rain. Once they had reached their destination, the Marquis took Octave's arm and the two men passed beneath the wicket-gate. On the other side, behind the railings on either side of a triumphal arch, a crowd of a hundred or so onlookers stood and watched.

Squat, melancholy and austere, the Tuilerie Palace completed the two wings of the Louvre Palace and separated it from the Jardin des Tuileries. That morning, the Place du Carrousel was filled not with its usual parades, but with a great hustle and bustle. As always, there were large numbers of grey-caped cavalrymen in attendance, but they stood motionless, impatient, alert for an order.

As Octave and La Grange mingled among the spectators, a fellow with greying sideburns, dressed as a bourgeois, came over to them and murmured by way of explanation, ‘Marquis, the ground-floor French windows, towards the Pavillon de Flore, were lit before dawn . . .'

‘And where does that leave us, my dear Michaud?'

‘The move is happening, and happening quickly, as you can see.'

In Empress Marie-Louise's apartments, valets in green livery were wrapping chandeliers, while others carried numbered cases, clocks, tables, passing gilded chairs to men clad in overalls, who were loading them on to vans and wagons. Further behind, lancers and grenadiers of the Guard stood around the twelve berlins, harnessed since morning, and the coronation carriage, covered with tarpaulins. The Marquis was delighted.

‘They're sneaking off with all the silver and the crockery, like thieves.'

‘But they
thieves, Marquis.'

La Grange turned towards Octave.

‘Michaud's a printer, an active member of our Committee.'

‘Very well,' replied Octave, ‘but if the Empress is leaving Paris, does that mean the end of the Empire?'

‘Of course it does, my dear sir, of course it does, because the government will come apart at the seams.' Then, to Michaud: ‘The Chevalier de Blacé is arriving from London, he's been following our dealings from a distance.'

‘Ah!' said the printer deferentially.

Standing next to them, a red-haired man in a patched waistcoat muttered, ‘Off they go.'

As he spoke, a yellow-faced, bent-backed beanpole dressed in an embroidered outfit from another era descended the palace steps, accompanied by his two confidants. The three climbed into the first berlin, followed by a young woman with hollow cheeks and fat lips, and a fair-haired child who struggled in the arms of an equerry before clutching the wrought-iron railings and howling at the top of his voice. For the benefit of the London envoy, the Marquis leaned forward and commented: ‘The one with the wig is Arch-Chancellor Cambacérès, the second most important person in the regime. The lost-looking young woman with the hood is Empress Marie-Louise ...'

‘And the child is the King of Rome,' said Octave.

With the armoured berlins at its head, the procession now passed slowly through the gate of the Pont-Royal, followed by the luggage carts and the vans and their cavalry escort. The onlookers dispersed, their faces uneasy; some - Octave and the Marquis among them - strolled towards the Quai to see what was left of the Imperial court leaving for Rambouillet.

BOOK: Napoleon's Exile
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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