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A Disobedient Soldier by David Ker

 

"Now, lads, there's the battery; remember the Emperor himself is watching you, and carry it in true French style. The moment you get into it, make yourselves fast against attack; and mind that any man who comes out again to pick up the wounded, even though I myself should be among them, shall be tried for disobedience as soon as the battle's over."

So spoke Colonel Lasalle to his French grenadiers just before the final charge that decided the battle of Wagram. Then he waved his sword, and shouted, "En avant!"

Forward swept the grenadiers like a torrent, with the shout which the Austrians opposed to them already knew to their cost. Through blinding smoke and pelting shot they rushed headlong on, with mouths parched, faces burning, and teeth set like a vise. Ever and anon a red flash rent the murky cloud around them, and the cannon-shot came tearing through their ranks, mowing them down like grass. But not a man flinched, for the same thought was in every mind, that they were fighting under the eye of their "Little Corporal," as they affectionately called the terrible Napoleon.

Suddenly the smoke parted, and right in front of them appeared the dark muzzles of cannon, and the white uniforms of Austrian soldiers. One last shout, which rose high above all the roar of the battle, the bayonets went glittering over the breastwork like the spray of a breaking wave, and the battery was won.

"Where's the Colonel?" cried a voice, suddenly.

There was no answer. The handful of men that remained of the doomed band looked meaningly at each other, but no one spoke. Strict disciplinarian as he was, seldom passing a day without punishing some one, the old Colonel had nevertheless won his men's hearts completely by his reckless courage in battle; and every man in the regiment would gladly have risked his life to save that of "the old growler," as they called him.

But if he were not with them, where was he? Outside the battery the whole ground was scourged into flying jets of dust by a storm of bullets from the fight that was still raging on the left. In such a cross-fire it seemed as if nothing living could escape, and if he had fallen there, there was but little hope for him.

"I see him!" cried a tall grenadier. "He's lying out yonder, and alive, too, for I saw him wave his hand just now. I'll have him here in five minutes, boys, or be left there beside him."

"But you mustn't disobey orders, Dubois," said a young Captain (now the oldest surviving officer, so terrible had been the havoc), hoping by this means to stop the reckless man from rushing upon certain death. "Remember what the Colonel told you—that even if he were left among the wounded, no one must go out to pick them up."

"I can't help that," answered the soldier, laying down his musket and tightening the straps of his cross-belts. "Captain, report Private Dubois for insubordination and breach of discipline. I'm going out to bring in the Colonel."

And he stepped forth unflinchingly into the deadly space beyond.

They saw him approach the spot where the Colonel lay; they saw him bend over the fallen man, shielding him from the shot with his own body. Then he was seen to stagger suddenly, as if from a blow; but the next moment he had the Colonel in his arms, and was struggling back over the shot-torn ground, through the dying and the dead. Twice he stopped short, as if unable to go farther; but on he came again, and had just laid his officer gently down inside the battery, when, with his comrades' shout of welcome still ringing in his ears, he fell fainting to the earth, covered with blood.

By the next morning Colonel Lasalle had recovered sufficiently to amaze the whole regiment by putting under arrest the man who had saved his life; but the moment it was done, the Colonel mounted his horse, and rode off to head-quarters at full gallop. In about an hour he was seen coming back again, side by side with a short, square-built man in a gray coat and cocked hat, at sight of whom the soldiers burst into deafening cheers, for he was no other than the Emperor Napoleon.

"Let me see this fellow," said Napoleon, sternly; and two grenadiers led forward Pierre Dubois, so weak from his wounds that he could hardly stand.

"So, fellow, thou hast dared to disobey orders, ha?" cried the Emperor, in his harshest tones.

"I have, sire. And if it were to be done again, I'd do it."

"And what if we were to shoot thee for insubordination?"

"My life is your Majesty's, now as always," answered the grenadier, boldly. "And if I must choose between dying myself and leaving my Colonel to die, the old regiment can better spare a common fellow like me than a brave officer like him."

A sudden spasm shook the old Colonel's iron face as he listened, and even Napoleon's stern gray eyes softened as few men had ever seen them soften yet.

"Thou'rt wrong there," said he, "for I would not give a 'common fellow' of thy sort for twenty Colonels, were every one of them as good as my old Lasalle here. Take this, Sergeant Dubois"—and he fastened his own cross of the Legion of Honor to Pierre's breast. "I warrant me thou'lt be a Colonel thyself one of these days."

And sure enough, five years later, Pierre Dubois was not only a Colonel, but a General.