But wonderful days were yet in store for this poor storm-tossed France, with the rise of the greatest soldier she has ever known, the greatest conqueror that "ever followed the star of conquest across the war-convulsed earth"—Napoleon Bonaparte. France had but lately annexed the island of Corsica, which lies in the Mediterranean Sea, and had up to this time belonged to Italy. Here, in the year 1769 Napoleon was born. He was but a year old, when Marie Antoinette left her home at Vienna to marry the dauphin of France; he was but seven, when America declared her independence. He was one of nine children—"olive-skinned, black-browed, shrill-tongued" children—a famous family, indeed, where one was to be an emperor, three were to be kings; while of the girls, one was to be a queen and two princesses.
Little enough is known of Napoleon's childhood. His chosen toy was a small brass cannon, his favourite retreat, a solitary summer-house among the rocks by the seaside of Corsica, still known as "Napoleon's Grotto."
One story indeed is told of him in his school-days. The master of the school, where little Napoleon learnt with his elder brother Joseph, arranged a sham fight for his pupils—Romans against Carthaginians. Joseph was ranged on the side of Rome, while his little brother was to be a Carthaginian. But, piqued at being placed on the losing side, the little boy fretted, fumed, and at last stormed, till Joseph offered to change places with him, and he was put on the winning side.
At the age of nine he was sent to a military school in France. Though Joseph wept passionately at the parting, his little brother dropped hardly a tear, though he was deeply attached to his home and his mother.
At school he was proud and silent, holding aloof from his companions, and hating France, because she had taken Corsica from the Italians. He read history eagerly. He delighted in Plutarch's Lives, which told him about the Greek and Roman heroes of old. He loved Cæsar's account of the conquest of Gaul, and spent whole nights pouring over his wonderful exploits. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Paris.
"He will be an excellent seaman," reported his master; "and is worthy to enter the School at Paris."
He was a boy of plain tastes—indeed he had been nicknamed the "Spartan" by his school-fellows—and the luxuries of Paris impressed him deeply. He resented being taught at the expense of Louis XVI., the king who had taken Corsica; but a year later he became lieutenant of artillery, and after eight years' absence returned to his home in Corsica.
His force of character had already made itself felt.
"You, Joseph, are the eldest," said a relation who saw the boys together; "but Napoleon is the head of the family."
His father was dead. He too had cried aloud in his last delirium for his little Napoleon, "whose sword should one day triumph over Europe;" while Rousseau had prophesied of Corsica, "This little island will one day be the astonishment of Europe."
August 10, 1793, found him in Paris at the storming of the Tuileries by the Revolution mob, when the king and queen with difficulty escaped.
"If Louis XVI. had mounted his horse the victory would have been his," Napoleon had cried with disdain.
The next two years were spent between Corsica and France. He tried many things, and failed in all. He was nearly twenty-five, and wholly unknown, when his chance came to him. Full of unbounded ambition, he was ready to act wherever glory was to be found. He might have thrown in his lot with England or with Italy. He threw it in with the Republicans of France. Louis had been beheaded, and the reign of terror was at its height. The Republic was carrying on war with the Royalists without pause, without mercy.
Toulon was the great southern military storehouse of France, and Toulon had declared for the Royalists. Not only this, but they had proclaimed as King, Louis XVII., the poor little eight-year-old dauphin, now languishing, fatherless and motherless, in a Paris prison. The English were helping the men of Toulon to hold the town, and to guard the hilly frontage of fifteen miles, which commanded the sea. Napoleon, now serving the Republic, arrived at Toulon in September, and at once took command of the artillery. Everything was in confusion, but he saw clearly what alone would give him the Royalist city. The French must sweep the harbour with their fire, force the British ships to retire, and Toulon must fall into the hands of the Republic.
It was the night of December 17, 1793. Torrents of rain were falling, a wild wind raged over the Mediterranean Sea, while flashes of lightning added new terrors to the night. In the midst of this Napoleon made a determined attack on the British defences, which were soon swept by his guns. So deadly was the fire, there was nothing left the Royalists but surrender. A terrible scene followed. A magnificent French fleet lay in the harbour at Toulon. Desperately the Royalists turned on it. They set fire to a powder-ship, and soon the flames of the burning ships lit up the surrounding country. Prisoners broke loose from the town, and by hundreds and thousands, the inhabitants of Toulon flocked to the beach, begging for means of escape from the Republicans. Above the howling wind arose their pitiful cries for mercy. Napoleon never forgot the terrors of that night. "The whirlwind of flames and smoke from the arsenal resembled the eruption of a volcano, and the vessels blazing in the roads were like so many displays of fireworks. The masts and forms of the vessels were distinctly traced out by the flames, which lasted many hours, and presented an unparalleled spectacle." So he wrote long years after, during his imprisonment at Helena.
Thus Napoleon Bonaparte sprang into fame. From this time onwards he advanced by rapid strides to that greatness which has given him such a conspicuous place in the history of the world.