Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Return from Elba

The discussions of the congress of Vienna were printed in the European newspapers, which in time reported that many of its members were determined not to leave Napoleon in peaceful possession of Elba, but were planning to transport him, instead, to some remote place, as his presence so near France and Italy would prove a constant menace to peace. This news duly reached Elba, where you can imagine how eagerly it was read and discussed. Napoleon was now very restive, not only because the congress seemed inclined to revoke the gift of Elba, but also because not a penny of the money promised had been paid him. Besides, his letters to his wife and son were intercepted and destroyed, thus showing that it was hardly likely that they would ever be allowed to join him; and he was constantly under the irksome surveillance of a commissioner sent by the allies to make sure that he should not leave Elba.

His sister Pauline, who had come to visit him, and who could journey to and fro at will, soon began to make frequent excursions to the mainland, secretly bearing many confidential communications, and thus enabling Napoleon to get in touch with his old friends. In this way, the emperor learned that the injudicious, tactless behavior of the Bourbons—of whom he was in the habit of saying that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing"—was alienating even their friends, and that French soldiers and officers, almost to a man, would welcome his return.

As you know, Napoleon was not a man to hesitate; he now began to arrange for a return to France, planning his measures with the same care as his famous battles, his own description of his methods being: I am always working. I think a great deal. If I appear ready to meet every emergency, to confront every problem, it is because, before undertaking any enterprise, I have long considered it, and have thus foreseen what could possibly occur. It is no genius which suddenly and secretly reveals to me what I have to say or do in some circumstance unforeseen by others; it is my own meditation and reflection. I am always working, when dining, when at the theater; I waken at night in order to work!"

It was necessary to act, however, before the congress took further measures to interfere with his liberty, so Napoleon took advantage of the brief absence of the allies' commissioner,—who had gone to Genoa,—to sail out of his Elba capital with the little fleet of fishing and merchant vessels always at hand. On these Napoleon had quickly embarked his small force, but it was only when the shores of his island were fading from view, that it became generally known on board that they were not making an excursion, as usual, but stealing a march upon the allies.

Then, while all the men who could write were below decks, eagerly making as many copies as possible of a vivid proclamation, Napoleon paced the deck with his principal confidants. While he was there, the vessel was suddenly hailed by an English ship, the captain asking, among other questions, for news of Napoleon. Taking the speaking trumpet from the astonished captain's hand, Napoleon personally answered this inquiry, laughingly wondering afterwards what the English captain would have said had he known who was speaking!

Without any hindrance the small fleet proceeded, and Napoleon landed safely in France with his handful of men. The proclamation the soldiers had copied was now scattered broadcast. It ran as follows: "Frenchmen! In my exile I heard your complaints and your wishes. You blamed my long slumber, you reproached me with sacrificing the welfare of the country to my repose. I have traversed the sea, through perils of every kind; I return among you to claim my rights, which are yours." This proclamation spread like wildfire, making known every where the fact that Napoleon had returned; news which was welcomed by those who regretted him, by those who had grievances against the present government, and by the vast class for whom any change seems desirable and is therefore welcome.

Napoleon's march northwards began immediately, his ranks increasing rapidly as he proceeded. No one ventured to oppose him, at first, so the emperor could march at the head of his troop, calling out to the gaping peasants by the roadside, "Citizens, I count on the people, because I am one of the people!" To those who seemed to mistrust his former vaulting ambition, he frankly confessed that it had been a mistake on his part to try to make France mistress of the world, and he reassured all by speaking only of peace and order, with freedom of thought and action for everybody.

It was near Grenoble that Napoleon encountered the first troops sent to check his advance. Halting his force, the emperor advanced alone and on foot to meet them, unbuttoned his familiar gray overcoat, and exhibiting his well-known uniform, cried, "Is there any one among you who wants to kill his emperor?" These words, added to his magnetic presence, had the desired effect. The soldiers simply dropped their arms, and fell upon their knees, madly kissing his hands and garments and shouting, "Long live the emperor!" Then, drawing from hidden recesses in their knapsacks the precious eagles and the cockades of red, white, and blue which they had been treasuring so proudly, they showed they had not yet forgotten him or their glorious campaigns under his leadership. The fact that Napoleon actually recognized a number of them, and called them by name, recalling the scenes in which they had played a glorious part, helped to rekindle extravagant devotion for the beloved "Little Corporal," whom they again swore to follow everywhere.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


A little further on Labedoyere brought Napoleon a whole regiment, and every town he approached welcomed him so warmly that not a single blow was struck. Everything promised to fulfill Napoleon's prediction to the soldiers, "Victory shall advance at charging gait, and the eagle, with the national colors, shall fly from steeple to steeple until it reaches the towers of Notre Dame!"