Lieutenant Gérard and Sergeant Rainier slowly walked across the frozen fields between the two armies of Austerlitz, under the moonlit December sky. Though the wind was gusting, and biting cold, they enjoyed a comfortable feeling of warmth from their greatcoats, gauntlets, and scarves, the exertion of the walk, and the excellent “soldier’s meal” they’d enjoyed earlier. Thin clouds crossed the sky with the wind, which also occasionally brought, like omens, sounds of two armies preparing for battle in the distance – shouts; laughter, and singing; every now and then a curse, or a single musket shot.
For the most part, the two walked silently. Their eyes had adjusted to the night, and with the moonlight reflecting from the patches of snow on the ground, they could see quite well. The beauty of the night landscape occupied their thoughts. Sometimes, their imaginations strayed to the morrow, to the storm of violence that would sweep these fields, leaving many, perhaps themselves too, broken and dying in its wake. They savored each sensation the more, for knowing they might never see another night. Every now and then, the two would stop to talk or to listen together. Sergeant Rainier had fashioned a walking stick for himself, and would use it to point out to the lieutenant a feature on the silhouette of the Pratzen plateau, or an animal den he’d discovered. Once, an owl flew over, and the night predator’s shadow crossed them for an instant as it hunted its prey.
As they walked, the level ground began to slope downward, and the open grass gave way to patches of brush and occasional trees. Shadows hid patches of ground. Lieutenant Gérard had found a nice piece of hardwood that was just the right length for a walking stick of his own. He had decided to keep it as a souvenir, and thought of carving and embellishing it. For a moment he pictured himself walking with this stick in a sunny meadow in France, surrounded by frolicking, bright-eyed grandchildren: “Grand-papa, tell us again the story of your campaign in Moravia!” Ha! I’ll be just like old Nivelle! Gérard chortled inwardly at the thought.
Along with the whistling of the wind, a new sound - the sound of moving water - reached their ears. Sergeant Rainier stepped close to the lieutenant and whispered, “The Goldbach.” The lieutenant nodded. They paused for a moment, and Gérard was just turning to the sergeant to suggest that they might turn and go back, when in an instant the sergeant gripped the lieutenant’s arm like a vise – and violently hissed “Chut!” The lieutenant froze in astonishment. The sergeant’s face seemed to have hardened into stone. He made no move or sound, but waited a moment for the sergeant to move, or give some clue of what was going on.
And then it was not necessary for the sergeant to explain, as the lieutenant saw them too: Across a moonlit space amidst the underbrush, not 75 meters away, the dark, agile forms of wolves loped silently and with uncanny swiftness. Like Rainier, Gérard was seized by the terror of a hundred tales from childhood, of wicked and irresponsible children who dare the night woods and are inevitably eaten by ravening wolves.
“Merde! How did they catch us like this!!? We have no weapons, only these sticks!” muttered the sergeant. “But we must fight – we have no other choice – back to back!”
The lieutenant looked around wildly, on the verge of panic. He was sure they could never hold off a fierce pack of wolves all night, but didn’t dare to say it. Then he saw something – jabbed the sergeant hard, and pointed – “No! Into the tree!” About 20 yards away was a tree that they instantly judged they could climb. If they could only both get off the ground and into it in time, they could hold out there.
In that instant they began running, as fast as it was possible while remaining back-to-back. The lieutenant yelled, “You first, I’ll cover!”
“Are you crazy? I will cover you!”
“No, you first!”
They had reached the tree. The sergeant leapt up to the first branch and hauled himself aloft, feeling that it was he who should have stayed down, but knowing too that the lieutenant was right, and that anyway there was no time to argue. It seemed to take terribly long to clamber up onto the branch – the greatcoat felt as if it were made of lead, but sheer terror spurred him on. Once on the first branch, he turned to give the lieutenant his hand – and was surprised and suddenly angry to see the lieutenant passing his walking stick first! “Take this, damn it – then give me a hand!” As he did so, the sergeant glanced around and noticed that the wolves had, by some miracle, not closed in (though a few had stopped to stare at the noisy, smelly, unappetizing arboreal bipeds) – they would both actually make it into the tree! A wave of relief and suddenly renewed confidence swept over him. He quickly pulled the lieutenant up into the tree after him, and they climbed a few feet higher, where surely no wolf could reach, even by leaping.
Once there, they opened their coats slightly, and sat motionless for a few minutes, chests heaving painfully at each breath from the exertion. Sergeant Rainier asked, “Are you all right?”
The lieutenant answered, “Yes, though I have torn my trousers, and my entire body aches with bruises – but that is not so bad as being dead. And you?”
“The same. Why in God’s name did you hand me that stick first? You could have been killed!”
“I thought we would need it to fight them from the tree. Where are the wolves?”
And they looked around at the ground below. The view from the tree was good, and as they looked, and looked again, they could not see a single wolf. They looked at each other in astonishment, and again strained to see any sign of the wolves, but after several minutes had passed, they had still seen nothing.
“Why would they have left?”
“I can’t imagine why, but there is no doubt that they are gone. Do we leave the tree now, and make our way back?”
“Oui, mon Lieutenant. I think it is safe.”
So they slowly and painfully climbed down out of the tree, one after the other, eyes wide and ears perked in all directions for any sign of the wolves. They recovered their sticks, and hastened back in the direction of their camp. The night, which had seemed so peaceful before, was now full of dread and terror. Every shadow seemed to hide something sinister. Gradually, they moved up out of the brushy woodland, towards the grassy fields.
“We will be safer on the open ground. Let’s go!” whispered the sergeant, with relief evident in his voice. And as they turned to move on, the lieutenant quickly grabbed the sergeant’s sleeve, pulled him down to a crouch and motioned for silence.
For the second time that evening, they had had an unexpected encounter. The sergeant whispered quickly, “What is it?”
“Look – carefully!” was the whispered reply. “Over there,” the lieutenant slowly pointed as they both poked their heads up.
And they both stared at the vision of a tall horseman, visible in the open about 100 meters away. He sat motionless as they watched, unaware of their presence, then gently spurred the horse, which began a slow walk in their general direction. At that distance, no features were visible. He seemed bound for no particular destination, as the horse came to a halt and again stood in place.
Sergeant Rainier and Lieutenant Gérard slowly crawled to the shadow of some nearby brush, from which they could observe further. They had not been seen.
“Can you tell who he is? He seems to come from the direction of the French camp – but why would he be out here?”
“I can’t tell – no, look now! Can you see it? He’s wearing a bearskin! And look over there!”
As they looked, other forms became visible. Though the two could not have known, Napoleon had received a late report of large movements in the Allied forces on the Pratzen. He had made the decision to perform a personal reconnaissance. He and his retinue of marshals and aides-de-camp were riding right toward the two, with pickets from the Garde Cavalry in an all-round screen.
“Look, Sir – it’s Napoleon himself!” Rainier said quietly, with admiration. “He’s out on reconnaissance, just as we are. Maybe he too is having trouble sleeping,” he said with a smile.
The lieutenant stared on in wonder, and sudden anxiety. “That’s why the wolves left! But can you imagine if they find us here? We must remain hidden!”
“Yes, agreed”, said the sergeant. “We could never explain our presence here – they would assume we had been trying to desert. What an end to our glorious careers! Edge further under that brush there!”
And so the two hid themselves as best they could. In fact, as they discovered, they’d found a good spot. It was an outcropping of rock, surrounded by scrub trees and brush. Locals had dug and carried away enough stone over the years to create a 3-foot-deep hole, big enough to conceal the two quite well. The scrub ringed the perimeter of the outcropping, obscured it from view, and made it unlikely that a horse would ride up on them. They crawled in, waited, and watched in silence as Napoleon and his group moved forward.
Lieutenant Gérard began shivering. The flight from the wolves and the fear had caused him to perspire; and now the cold of the frozen stone bit him as he lay motionless on it, watching. “Good God, what a night!” he whispered. “If I get back at all, I won’t sleep a wink!” In spite of the situation, and his own exhaustion, Sergeant Rainier suppressed a sardonic laugh at the remark. “Oui, mon Lieutenant”, he said. “If we ever get out of this, remember – just when you think things are at their worst, and everything seems to have gone wrong, look again – there is still room for it to get still worse.” Seems like forever since that General told me the story about holding off 100 Cossacks with only a rusty pocket knife…and then losing the knife! “We’ll be all right, Lieutenant – just keep quiet, no matter how close they come to us. They have no reason to investigate our little hideout.”
The lieutenant nodded, and rested his chin on his forearms as he lay watching. As the minutes passed, they watched the group approach them, then move to one side as they approached the crest of the slope leading down to the stream. Napoleon had come to within about 75 meters – his silhouette was unmistakable -- and a picket had actually skirted their hiding place and ridden further on, then moved away to tighten the ring around the Emperor. The cold made it hard to keep still, and Sergeant Rainier was just about to enjoin the lieutenant to hold on for just a few more minutes, when another sound reached their ears. The two turned to listen: from behind them approached the sound of many hooves, and more horses snorting. Though mounted, their quiet movement brought them close before the pair in hiding could see them. Visible through the brush – Cossacks! Their distinctive caps, cloaks, and sabers were close enough to see, and each was also armed with a lance. They rode along, silent, vigilant – right toward the sergeant and lieutenant! Just when the possibility of being found had seemed to have passed, here was a new danger, ten times greater again!
Another shiver – of renewed terror – gripped the two. They shrank into the dark hole, waited, and prayed. The Cossacks – there must have been at least a hundred – rode on in a pack, right past the quarry where the two lay hidden – then stopped suddenly, just past their hiding place, with a grunted command from one toward the front. Unintelligible words quickly uttered from mouth to mouth – horses reined in and lances lowered – in an instant, Lieutenant Gérard realized what was about to happen. No -– this cannot be – I must do something! But what?
The Cossacks were just about to spur their horses to charge Napoleon and his entourage, not 100 meters away, and still totally unaware of their presence. Suddenly, something hard struck one of the leading riders full in the side of the head, and he fell from his horse, unable to suppress a cry. His horse bolted – and some of the other horses panicked and began to rear and whinny. Everyone in Napoleon’s group looked in their direction. As the Cossacks looked at the fallen rider, or tried to rein in their horses, another hard-thrown rock struck a horse on the flank, sending it into panicked flight. The Cossacks’ formation disintegrated into disorder. The Garde Escort immediately charged the Cossacks, as Napoleon and his officers swiftly withdrew from the immediate area.
As the ensuing melée raged around them, Lieutenant Gérard and Sergeant Rainier dug to the bottom of their hole, buried themselves with leaves and dirt, and hid. My God – what if our men lose? Can we do any more now, to help? No, of course not – we have no horses, weapons, or armor. Merde, what if we are found? Is Napoleon dead?
Shouts – horses panting and whinnying – screams – curses – the sound of steel on steel – receding hooves. More curses, now almost exclusively in French. “Nom de Dieu! How did they get so close?” “Scheisse! – I am wounded by a lance!” “Why was it so easy? They had us, yet seemed to be in disorder before we reached them?” “Look at that bastard – he was mine!” “Look how many we have killed!” “Yes, and you are lucky to be alive. Look at poor Gembloux, damn it! Quick, pick up his body!” “All others accounted for? Let’s get going – they are gone!”
After a while, Sergeant Rainier and Lieutenant Gérard were alone again. They waited for what seemed like hours, then, hearing no other sounds, slowly and painfully crawled up out of the hole and looked around. Some whispering back and forth between them; then, they agreed that it was time to try it, and they stealthily stepped out of the brush.
A quick look around verified that they were, in fact, alone. As they passed through the site of the skirmish, Lieutenant Gérard found a Cossack saber that had been dropped, picked it up, and took it with him.
The two walked up through some brush and back into the circle by the sergeants’ fire, just as a huge cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” was shouted by someone close nearby, and taken up again by someone else, and again, until the cries seemed to emanate from the entire Grande Armée. Corporal Lemieux spotted the two, shouted a greeting, and thrust a bottle of wine into each of their hands, not having really noticed they’d been gone. Sergeant Rainier and Lieutenant Gérard looked at each other, and simultaneously shrugged their shoulders – then both dropped exhaustedly into pine-bough chairs, and could not help laughing out loud.
Napoleon was at that moment quite close by, having returned safely from the brush with the Cossacks. After suffering the remonstrances of his entourage, who enjoined him that he must not expose himself to danger as he had, he had decided to recover from the experience by walking among his soldiers. The moon had gone behind some cloud, and Napoleon had tripped in the dark. Someone lit a bundle of straw, and handed it to Napoleon to light his way. He held it aloft, and suddenly the shouting had started. More torches were lit. The cheers continued to ring. The shouting could be heard, and the torches seen, even from the Allied camp.
Had the French gone mad? Were they, as some of the Allied officers hoped or feared, making a night retreat in the face of the overwhelming Allied strength? Yes, it was the evening before Austerlitz – but it was also the first anniversary, that very evening, of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor! The uproar was merely a spontaneous celebration!
Suddenly, as the lieutenant and the sergeant relaxed and took in the warmth of the fire and the happiness of their continued existence, l’Empereur himself, with his entourage, stepped into the camp area by their still-roaring fire. Both the lieutenant and sergeant leapt to attention. Before they could think to salute or make their report, Napoleon reached out and grasped the sergeant’s hand in his.
“Sergeant Rainier – how art thou this evening?”
Completely taken aback, Sergeant Rainier stammered, “I am well, Your Majesty. I stand ready at my post, for the battle on the morrow.”
“You seem surprised that I remember you. Did you not think I would recall your work at Marengo? And before that, the passage of the Great-Saint-Bernard Pass, the fight at Fort Bard?” He smiled.
Visibly astonished at Napoleon’s powers of recollection, and even more so at his composure after the adventures they’d both gone through earlier, he replied, “Yes, Sire, I am surprised. I had only performed my duty, and had not thought of it otherwise. I recall the first time we met and conversed, but . . . ”
“Thou art modest. That was warm work indeed.” Napoleon paused for a moment. “Sergeant Rainier, I see you and the young lieutenant were enjoying a drink – may I share one with you?” Corporal Lemieux, who was nearby, produced a bottle of spirits and some tin cups.
“Lieutenant, I have not yet made your acquaintance. Make your report, that I may know you.” Napoleon took a long sip of the drink, which was in fact captured vodka.
“Sire, Lieutenant Gérard reports! Six months’ service, graduate of the Ecole Militaire and cavalry training, posted to this unit two weeks ago today, tomorrow will be my first engagement with the enemy.” Not counting tonight’s action, of course.
“Are you ready, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Sire. I am prepared to the best of my ability, and have first-rate troops and equipment under my command. We are prepared to serve France, Sire.”
Looking him up and down, Napoleon said, “Take care that your clothes are mended properly, Lieutenant. Remember that you present an example to your troops.” He pointed to the large tear in Lieutenant Gérard’s trousers, and smiled. Mockingly, he said, “Will you not catch cold, Lieutenant, walking around with a draft coming in past your manhood like that?”
Everyone laughed. The tension was broken. “Sire, I . . . “ But Gérard was at a loss for words. Finally, he got out, “Sire, may I ask everyone present to join me in a toast to the health of the Emperor, on the anniversary of his coronation?” Cheers rang out, and the cups were drained. Napoleon turned to leave, and said, “Very well. Sergeant Rainier, take good care of your young lieutenant. Lieutenant, I will expect your report, tomorrow evening, of your success.”
“Of course, Your Majesty! Vive la France!”
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