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The Grenadiers by Constance Fenimore Woolson

 

  To the land of France went two grenadiers,
    From a Russian prison returning;
  But they hung down their heads on the German frontiers,
    The news from their fatherland learning.

  For there they both heard the sorrowful tale,
    That France was by fortune forsaken;
  That her mighty army was scattered like hail,
    And the Emperor, the Emperor taken,

  Then there wept together the grenadiers,
    The sorrowful story learning;
  And one said, “O woe!” as the news he hears,
    “How I feel my old wound burning!”

  The other said, “The song is sung,
    And I wish that we both were dying!
  But at home I've a wife and a child,—they're young,
    On me, and me only, relying.”

  “O what is a wife or a child to me!
    Deeper wants all my spirit have shaken;
  Let them beg, let them beg, should they hungry be!
    My Emperor, my Emperor taken!

  “But I beg you, brother, if by chance
    You soon shall see me dying
  Then take my corpse with you back to France
    Let it ever in France be lying.

  “The cross of honor with crimson band
    Shall rest on my heart as it bound me;
  Give me my musket in my hand,
    And buckle my sabre around me.

  “And there I will lie and listen still
    In my sentry coffin staying,
  Till I feel the thundering cannon's thrill
    And horses tramping and neighing.

  “Then my Emperor will ride well over my grave
    'Mid sabres' bright slashing and fighting
  And I'll rise all weaponed out of my grave,
    For the Emperor, the Emperor fighting!”

'This simple ballad want straight to the heart of old Jacques; tears rolled down his cheeks as I read, and he would have it over and over again. 'Ah! that comrade was happy,' said the old grenadier. 'He died when the Emperor was only taken. I too would have gone to my grave smiling, could I have thought that my Emperor would come riding over it with all his army around him again! But he is dead,—my Emperor is dead! Ah! that comrade was a happy man; he died! He did not have to stand by, while the English—may they be forever cursed!—slowly, slowly murdered him,—murdered the great Napoleon! No; that comrade died. Perhaps he is with the Emperor now,—that comrade-grenadier.'

'To be with his Emperor was Jacques's idea of heaven.

'From that moment each time I visited the Agency I must repeat the verses again and again; they became a sort of hymn. Jacques had not the capacity to learn the ballad, although he so often listened to it, but the seventh verse he managed to repeat after a fashion of his own, setting it to a nondescript tune, and crooning it about the house as he came and went on his little rounds. Gradually he altered the words, but I could not make out the new phrases as he muttered them over to himself, as if trying them.

'What is it you are saying, Jacques'? I asked.

'But he would not tell me. After a time I discovered that he had added the altered verse to his prayers; for always when I was at the Agency I went with him to the sanctuary, if for no other purpose than to prevent the uttered imprecation that served as amen for the whole. The verse, whatever it was, came in before this.

'So the summer passed. The vague intention of going on to the Red River of the North had faded away, and Jacques lived along on the island as though he had never lived anywhere else. He grew wonted to the Agency, like some old family cat, until he seemed to belong to the house, and all thought of disturbing him was forgotten. 'There is Jacques out washing his cloths.' 'There is Jacques going to buy his coffee,' 'There is Jacques sitting on the piazza,' said the islanders; the old man served them instead of a clock.

'One dark autumn day I came over from the Chenaux to get the mail. The water was rough, and my boat, tilted far over on one side, skimmed the crests of the waves in the daring fashion peculiar to the Mackinac craft: the mail-steamer had not come in, owing to the storm outside, and I went on to the Agency to see Jacques. He seemed as usual, and we had dinner over the little fire, for the day was chilly; the meal over, my host put everything in order again in his methodical way, and then retired to his sanctuary for prayers. I followed, and stood in the doorway while he knelt. The room was dusky, and the uniform with its outstretched sabre looked like a dead soldier leaning against the wall; the face of Napoleon opposite seemed to gaze down on Jacques as he knelt, as though listening. Jacques muttered his prayers, and I responded Amen! then, after a silence, came the altered verse; then with a quick glance toward me, another silence, which I felt sure contained the unspoken curse. Gravely he led the way back to the kitchen—for, owing to the cold, he allowed me to dispense with the parlor,—and there we spent the afternoon together, talking and watching for the mail-boat. 'Jacques,' I said, 'what is that verse you have added to your prayers! Come, my friend, why should you keep it from me?'

'It is nothing, mon pere,—nothing.' he replied. But again I urged him to tell me; more to pass away the time than from any real interest. 'Come,' I said, 'it may be your last chance. Who knows but that I may be drowned on my way back to the Chenaux?'

'True,' replied the old soldier calmly. 'Well, then, here it is, mon pere: my death-wish. Voila!'

'Something you wish to have done after death?'

'Yes.'

'And who is to do it?'

'My Emperor.'

'But, Jacques, the Emperor is dead.'

'He will have done it all the same, mon pere.'

'In vain I argued; Jacques was calmly obstinate. He had mixed up his Emperor with the stories of the Saints; why should not Napoleon do what they had done?

'What is the verse, any way?' I said at last.

'It is my death-wish, as I said before, mon pere.' And he repeated the following. He said it in French, for I had given him a French translation, as he knew nothing of German; but I will give you the English, as he had altered it:—

  'The Emperor's face with its green leaf-band
  Shall rest on my heart that loved him so.
  Give me the sprig in my dead hand,
  My uniform and sabre around me.
  Amen.'

'So prays Grenadier Jacques.

'The old soldier had sacrificed the smooth metre; but I understood what he meant.

'The storm increased, and I spent the night at the Agency, lying on the bed of boughs, covered with a blanket. The house shook in the gale, the shutters rattled, and all the floors near and far creaked as though feet were walking over them. I was wakeful and restless, but Jacques slept quietly, and did not stir until daylight broke over the stormy water, showing the ships scudding by under bare poles, and the distant mail-boat laboring up toward the island through the heavy sea. My host made his toilet, washing and shaving himself carefully, and putting on his old clothes as though going on parade. Then came breakfast, with a stew added in honor of my presence; and as by this time the steamer was not far from Round Island, I started down toward the little post-office, anxious to receive some expected letters. The steamer came in slowly, the mail was distributed slowly, and I stopped to read my letters before returning. I had a picture-paper for Jacques, and as I looked out across the straits, I saw that the storm was over, and decided to return to the Chenaux in the afternoon, leaving word with my half-breeds to have the sail-boat in readiness at three o'clock. The sun was throwing out a watery gleam as, after the lapse of an hour or two, I walked up the limestone road and entered the great gate of the Agency. As I came through the garden along the cherry-tree avenue I saw Jacques sitting on that bench in the sun, for this was his hour for sunshine; his staff was in his hand, and he was leaning back against the side of the house with his eyes closed, as if in revery. 'Jacques, here is a picture-paper for you,' I said, laying my hand on his shoulder. He did not answer. He was dead.

'Alone, sitting in the sunshine, apparently without a struggle or a pang, the soul of the old soldier had departed. Whither? We know not. But—smile if you will, madame—I trust he is with his Emperor.'

I did not smile; my eyes were too full of tears.

'I buried him, as he wished,' continued Father Piret, 'in his old uniform, with the picture of Napoleon laid on his breast, the sabre by his side, and the withered sprig in his lifeless hand. He lies in our little cemetery on the height, near the shadow of the great cross; the low white board tablet at the head of the mound once bore the words Grenadier Jacques, but the rains and the snows have washed away the painted letters. It is as well.'

The priest paused, and we both looked toward the empty bench, as though we saw a figure seated there, staff in hand. After a time my little hostess came out on to the piazza, and we all talked together of the island and its past. 'My boat is waiting,' said Father Piret at length; 'the wind is fair, and I must return to the Chenaux to-night. This near departure is my excuse for coming twice in one day to see you, madame.'

'Stay over, my dear sir,' I urged. 'I too shall leave in another day. We may not meet again.'

'Not on earth; but in another world we may,' answered the priest rising as he spoke.

'Father, your blessing,' said the little hostess in a low tone, after a quick glance toward the many windows through which the bulwarks of Protestantism might be gazing. But all was dark, both without and within, and the Father gave his blessing to both of us, fervently, but with an apostolic simplicity. Then he left us, and I watched his tall form, crowned with silvery hair, as he passed down the cherry-tree avenue. Later in the evening the moon came out, and I saw a Mackinac boat skimming by the house, its white sails swelling full in the fresh breeze.

'That is Father Piret's boat,' said my hostess. 'The wind is fair; he will reach the Chenaux before midnight.'

A day later, and I too sailed away. As the steamer bore me southward, I looked back toward the island with a sigh. Half hidden in its wild green garden I saw the old Agency; first I could distinguish its whole rambling length; then I lost the roofless piazza, then the dormer-windows, and finally I could only discern the white chimneys, with their crumbling crooked tops. The sun sank into the Strait off Wangoschance, the evening gun flashed from the little fort on the height, the shadows grew dark and darker, the island turned into green foliage, then a blue outline, and finally there was nothing but the dusky water.

 
 
 

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