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Charles Morris

Napoleon's Return from Elba

All was quiet in Elba. Nothing was talked of at Porto-Ferrajo but the ball to be given by Pauline, the sister of Napoleon, who had exchanged his imperial dominion over half Europe for kingship over that little Mediterranean island. Evening came. The fête was a brilliant one. Napoleon was present, gay, cheerful, easy, to all appearance fully satisfied with his little kingdom, and without thought of wider empire or heavier cares. He stayed till a late hour, and went home with two of his old generals, Bertrand and Drouet, to tell them the news which had come to him from the continent. This news was not altogether to his liking. The Congress at Vienna had decreed his transportation to the Azores. Elba was too near France.

Such was the state of affairs on the night of February 25, 1815. At sunset of the next day there might have been seen a small flotilla moving before a south wind along the shores of Elba. It consisted of a brig, the Inconstant by name, a schooner, and five smaller vessels. The brig evidently carried guns. The decks of the other vessels were crowded with men in uniform. On the deck of the Inconstant stood Napoleon, his face filled with hope and joy, his hand waving an adieu to his sister Pauline, who watched him from the château windows, on the island shore.


Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees, Paris.

The next day came. The sea was motionless. Not a breath of wind could be felt. The island was still close at hand. At a distance might be seen the French and English cruisers which guarded that side of the island, now moveless upon a moveless sea. It was doubtful if the flotilla had not better return. But the wind rose again, and their progress was resumed.

Four in the afternoon found them off the heights of Leghorn. Five leagues to leeward lay one frigate; near the shores of Corsica was another; to windward could be seen a third, making its way towards the flotilla. It was the Zephyr, of the French navy, commanded by Captain Andrieux. Now had come a vital moment in the enterprise. Should the Emperor declare himself and seek to gain over Andrieux? It was too dangerous a venture; he bade the grenadiers on the deck to conceal themselves; it was a situation in which strategy seemed better than boldness. At six the two vessels were close together. Lieutenant Taillade of the Inconstant knew and saluted Captain Andrieux. A speaking-trumpet colloquy followed.

"Where are you bound?" asked Taillade.

"To Leghorn. And you?"

"To Genoa. Have you any commissions I can execute there?"

"Thanks, not any. How is the Emperor?"

"Very well."

"So much the better."

The two vessels moved on, and soon lost sight of each other in the growing darkness. The other frigates had disappeared.

The next day dawned. There was visible a large frigate in the distance, but it was not moving towards the flotilla. No danger was to be feared from this source. But the vessel's head had been turned to the southward, to Taillade's surprise.

"Gentlemen," he called to the officers on the bridge, "are we bound for Spain or for Africa?"

Napoleon, who had perceived the same thing, summoned Taillade from his conference with the officers.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"Sire, we are headed for Africa."

"I don't wish to go there. Take me to France."

"Your Majesty shall be there before noon tomorrow."

The face of Napoleon beamed on hearing these words. He turned to the soldiers of the Old Guard who accompanied him, and said,—

"Yes, grenadiers, we are going to France, to Paris." Enthusiastic "vivas" followed his announcement, which told a tale of future glory to those war-hardened veterans. They had fought for the Emperor on many a mighty field. They were ready to dare new dangers in the hope of new triumphs.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 1, the shores of France were visible from the vessel's deck. At three in the afternoon anchor was dropped in the Bay of Juan. Cheers and salvos of artillery greeted those welcome shores; the boats were quickly dropped, and by five o'clock the whole expedition was on shore. The soldiers made their bivouac in an olive grove on the borders of the bay.

"Happy omen!" said Napoleon; "the olive is the emblem of peace."

He plucked some violets, and then sat down and consulted his maps, which were spread on a table before him. There were two routes which might be taken; an easy one through Provence, and a difficult one over the snowy mountains of Dauphiny. But on the former he could not count on the loyalty of the people; on the latter he could: the difficult route was chosen.

It proved a cold and wearying journey. The men were obliged to march in single file along narrow roads which bordered precipices. Several mules, one of them laden with gold, lost their footing and were plunged down the cliff. Napoleon was forced to dismount and go on foot to keep warm. For a short time he rested beside the brush-wood fire of a cabin whose only tenant was an old woman.

"Have you any news from Paris?" he asked her. "Do you know what the king is doing?"

"The king? You mean the Emperor," answered the old woman. "He is always down yonder."

So, here was a Frenchwoman who had not heard a word of the last year's doings. Was this the stuff of glory? Napoleon looked at General Drouet, and said, in pensive tones, "Do you hear this, Drouet? What, after all, is the good of troubling the world in order to fill it with our name?"

We cannot follow their progress step by step. That small army of a thousand men was marching to conquer a kingdom, but for days it had only the mountains and the snows to overcome. As yet not a soldier had been encountered, and they had been a week on shore. But the news of the landing had now spread far and wide, and soldiers were marching to stop the advance of the "Brigand of Elba," as the royalists in Paris called Napoleon. How would they receive him,—with volleys or acclamations? That was soon to be learned. The troops in that part of France were concentrated at Grenoble and its vicinity. The Emperor was approaching them. The problem would soon be solved.

At nine o'clock of March 7 Napoleon separated his small force into three divisions, himself taking station in the midst of the advance-guard, on horseback, wearing his famous gray overcoat and the broad ribbon of the Legion of Honor. About one o'clock the small battalion approached a regiment of the troops of the king, who were drawn up in line across the road. Napoleon dismounted.

"Colonel Mallet," he said, "tell the soldiers to put their weapons under their left arms, points down."

"Sire," said the colonel, "is it not dangerous to act thus in presence of troops whose sentiments we do not know, and whose first fire may be so fatal?"

"Mallet, tell them to put the weapons under their arms," repeated Napoleon.

The order was obeyed. The two battalions faced each other, at short pistol-shot, in absolute silence. Napoleon advanced alone towards the royal troops.

"Present arms!" he commanded.

They obeyed, levelling their guns at their old commander. He advanced slowly, with impassive face. Reaching their front, he touched his cap and saluted.

"Soldiers of the Fifth," he cried, loudly, "do you recognize me?"

"Yes, yes," came from some voices, filled with barely-repressed enthusiasm.

"Soldiers, behold your general; behold your emperor," he continued. "Let any of you who wishes to kill him, fire."

Fire?—Their guns went to the earth; they flung themselves on their knees before him, called him father, shed tears, shouted as if in frenzy, waved their shakos on their bayonets and sabres.

"All is over," said Napoleon to Bertrand and Drouet. "In ten days we shall be in the Tuileries."

In a brief time the Emperor moved on, the king's regiment, now wearing the tricolor cockade, following with his former troop. As they drew near Grenoble throngs of peasantry gathered, with enthusiastic cheers. Another regiment approached, the seventh of the line, commanded by Colonel de Labédoyère. He had taken the eagle of the regiment from a chest, brandished his sword, and crying "Long live the Emperor! Those who love me follow me!" led the way from Grenoble. The whole regiment followed. Meeting Napoleon, the colonel and the Emperor sprang from their horses and warmly embraced.


Napoleon’s return form Elba.

"Colonel," said Napoleon, "it is you who will replace me on the throne."

It was night when they reached Grenoble. The royalist authorities had closed the gates, but the ramparts were thronged with men. The darkness was profound, but Labédoyère called out loudly,—

"Soldiers, it is I, Labédoyère, colonel of the Seventh. We bring you Napoleon. He is yonder. It is for you to receive him and to repeat with us the rallying-cry of the former conquerors of Europe: Live the Emperor!"

His words were followed by a ringing shout from the ramparts. Many ran to the gates. Finding them closed and barred they furiously attacked them with axes, while the peasants outside hammered on them as fiercely. Thus doubly assailed they soon gave way, and the stream of new-comers rushed in, torches and flambeaux illuminating the scene. Napoleon had no little difficulty in making his way through the crowd, which was delirious with joy, and reaching an inn, the Three Dauphins, where he designed to pass the night.

On the 9th he left Grenoble, followed by six thousand of his old soldiers. His march was an ovation. He reached Lyons on the 10th. Several regiments had been collected here to oppose him, but they all trampled the white cockade of the king underfoot, assumed the tricolor, and fraternized with the Emperor's troops.

Marshal Ney was the only hope left to the royalists. He had, they said, promised Louis XVIII. to bring back Napoleon in an iron cage. This hope vanished when Ney issued a proclamation beginning, "The cause of the Bourbons is lost forever;" which was followed, on March 18, by his embracing the Emperor openly at Auxerre.

All was over for Louis XVIII. Near midnight of March 19 some travelling carriages rolled away from the court-yard of the Touileries in a torrent of rain, and amid a furious wind-storm that extinguished the carriage lights. It was Louis XVIII. going into exile. On the 20th, at nine o'clock in the evening, the Emperor Napoleon drove through the streets of Paris towards the abandoned palace through hosts of shouting soldiers and a population that was wild with joy. The officers tore him from his carriage and carried him on their arms, kissing his hands, embracing his old gray overcoat, not letting his feet touch ground till they had borne him to the foot of the grand stairway of the Tuileries.

It was twenty days since he had landed, and France was his, the people, the soldiers, alike mad with delight, none, to all appearance, dreaming of what renewed miseries this ill-omened return of their worshipped emperor meant.

It meant, as we now know, bloodshed, slaughter, and ruin; it meant Waterloo and St. Helena; it meant a hundred days of renewed empire, and then the final end of the power of the great conqueror. On August 7, less than five months from the date of the triumphant entry to the Tuileries, Napoleon stepped on board the British frigate Northumberland, to be borne to the far-off isle of St. Helena, his future home.

Twenty-five years after the date of these events Napoleon returned again to France, but under very different auspices from those described. On the 29th of November, 1840, there anchored at Cherbourg, amid the salutes of forts and ships, a French war-vessel called the Belle Poule, on which were the mortal remains of the great conqueror, long since conquered by death, and now brought back to the land over which he had so long reigned. On December 8 the coffin was transferred to the steamer Normandie, amid a salute of two thousand guns, and taken by it to the Seine. On December 15 the coffin, placed on a splendid car drawn by sixteen horses, moved in solemn procession through the streets of Paris, attended by the noblest escort the city could provide, and passing through avenues thronged with adoring multitudes, who forgot the injuries the great soldier had done to France and remembered only his fame. The funeral train was received by King Louis Philippe, the royal family, and all the high dignitaries of the government at the Church of the Invalides, in which a noble and worthy final resting-place had been prepared for the corpse of the once mighty emperor. "Napoleon," says Bourrienne, "had again and finally conquered. While every throne in Europe was shaking, the Great Conqueror came to claim and receive from posterity the crown for which he had sacrificed so much. In the Invalides the Emperor had at last found a resting-place, 'by the banks of the Seine, among the French people whom he had loved so well.'"