Nothing is as approved as mediocrity, the majority has established it and it fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way. — Pascal

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Napoleon as Officer and Author


Without waiting to see if he would like the school and the tutors at Paris, or making the hundred and one excuses which usually crowd a schoolboy's brain before definitely settling down to work, Napoleon applied himself to the various subjects necessary to enable him to enter the artillery. This branch of the service held out most possibilities from the point of view of sheer merit, and he chose wisely. At the examination held in September 1785, his name appears as forty-second on the list of candidates, which is neither particularly good nor particularly bad, and would suggest that a certain portion of his time was devoted to studies outside the immediate radius of the official course.

Napoleon had the good fortune to find a friend in Alexandre Desmazis, who shared his room with him and became Administrator of the Crown Buildings during the Consulate. Many other instances might be given of Napoleon's kindness of heart to those who were not so successful in the race of life as was their benefactor. It is a point, and an important one, lost sight of by many of his biographers. There was certainly a better side of the mighty Corsican—he was not all blood and iron.

Apparently the studies of the chums at the Ecole Militaire were successful, for they were appointed in the succeeding October, to the regiment of La Fere, stationed at Valence, Napoleon as second lieutenant. The two newly-fledged officers had so little money that they were forced to tramp a considerable distance on foot. It was very ignominious and humiliating, but pride is best swallowed quickly and forgotten, like a blue pill. Napoleon was now fatherless, and he felt his responsible position very keenly. Although not the head of the family in reality, he was nominally, for Joseph was far behind his brother in every material respect.

Besides his ordinary military duties Napoleon had to attend lectures on many subjects connected with his profession, including fortifications, chemistry, and mathematics. He seems to have worn off some of the rugged corners of his character. We find him with many friends, including one or two members of the fair sex. Upon one lady in particular, namely Mme. Gregoire de Colombier, he made a most favourable impression, and he received many invitations to her country house at Basseaux. She flattered him, but also tendered much practical advice. Napoleon was too young to fall in love seriously, but he passed many bright hours with Caroline, the daughter of his hostess, and a warm attachment sprang up between them. He ate fruit with her in the garden, and afterwards remarked that those days were some of the happiest in his triumphant but pathetic life. "We were the most innocent creatures imaginable," he says, "we contrived little meetings together; I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight was beginning to dawn. It will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together."

Bonaparte also visited the Permons; and Madame Junot, afterwards Duchess of Abrantes, has left us a witty pen-picture of him as he appeared in full regimentals at the age of sixteen.

"There was one part of his dress," she writes, "which had a very droll appearance—that was his boots. They were so high and wide that his thin little legs seemed buried in their amplitude. Young people are always ready to observe anything ridiculous, and as soon as my sister and I saw Napoleon enter the drawing-room, we burst into a loud fit of laughter. Buonaparte could not relish a joke; and when he found himself the object of merriment he grew angry. My sister, who was some years older than I, told him that since he wore a sword he ought to be gallant to ladies, and, instead of being angry, should be happy that they joked with him. 'You are nothing but a child, a little school-girl,' said Napoleon, in a tone of contempt. Cecile, who was twelve or thirteen years of age, was highly indignant at being called a child, and she hastily resented the affront by replying to Bonaparte, 'And you are nothing but a Puss in Boots!' This excited a general laugh among all present except Napoleon, whose rage I will not attempt to describe." A few days later the young officer went to a bookseller's shop, purchased a dainty edition of Puss in Boots, and presented it to the culprit. This was his way of apologizing.

For a time he relaxed his close application to study without neglecting his books altogether, and turned author. There is a pessimistic strain in all his literary efforts at this period, due no doubt to home-sickness, overwork, and perhaps lack of means, his income certainly never totaling more than twenty shillings a week. He even contemplated suicide, evidence of which is found in a manuscript dated the 3rd May, 1786.

"Always alone in the midst of men," he complains, "I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy. Towards which side is it turned to-day? To the side of death. In the dawn of my days I can still hope to live a long time, but I have been away from my country for about six or seven years. What pleasures shall I not enjoy when in four months' time I see once more my compatriots and my relations? From the tender sensations with which the recollections of the pleasures of my childhood now fill me, may I not infer that my happiness will be complete? What madness leads me, then, to wish my death? Doubtless the thought: What is there to do in this world?"

This makes strange reading, but it shows that even the greatest men have periods of depression like ordinary folk. He continues in this strain, passes sentence on France for having humiliated his beloved Corsica, and says scarcely less hard things of his own countrymen: "They are no longer those Corsicans, whom a hero inspired with his virtues, enemies of tyrants, of luxury, of demoralized towns." Towards the end he shows a tinge of enthusiasm; his fighting instinct gets the better of him: "A good patriot ought to die when his Fatherland has ceased to exist. If the deliverance of my fellow-countrymen depended upon the death of a single man, I would go immediately and plunge the sword which would avenge my country and its violated laws into the breast of tyrants." He again lapses into melancholy, concluding with a disgust for everything.

The second lieutenant did not take his own life; he lived down his troubles instead. Indeed his favourite motto, and one well worthy of note by every reader of this volume, was "The truest wisdom is a resolute determination." In August 1786, a rift in the cloud showed the proverbial silver lining, and the chance of a little excitement, which was bread and meat to him, came along. A miniature rebellion had broken out at Lyons, and it was deemed necessary to call out the military. The company at Valence to which Napoleon belonged was marched to the seat of the trouble. Before it arrived the insurrection had blown over, thereby shattering the officer's hope of distinguishing himself.

From Lyons he proceeded northward to Douay, in Flanders, where he contracted malarial fever which tended to undermine his constitution for several years afterwards. Bad news also reached him from Corsica. His mother appealed to him to come home and give her the benefits of his advice and assistance. Archdeacon Lucien—Napoleon's great-uncle, who had hitherto acted as head of the family—was daily growing more feeble: the good Letizia feared the worst. Her means were distressingly small, her family inordinately large for the scanty resources at her disposal. On the 1st of September 1786, he set out for his beloved island. Passing through Aix, he was cheered by a visit to his uncle Fesch and his brother Lucien, both of whom were studying at the Seminary with a view to entering the priesthood. Exactly a fortnight afterwards, Napoleon landed at Ajaccio with a small trunk of clothes and a larger one of books. The works of Plutarch, Plato, Cicero, Nepos, Livy, Tacitus, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Raynal, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, and the poems of Ossian were all represented.

Napoleon applied himself with his usual industry to straightening out the tangled skein of family troubles. He found it by no means an easy matter, especially as the French Government was involved. The latter had been anxious to introduce the silk industry in their new dependency, and Charles Bonaparte had been one of the first to seize upon the idea because he thought there was "money in it." In 1782 he had made a plantation of young mulberry trees for the purpose of rearing silkworms, but instead of handing over the whole of the money which had been agreed upon in advance, 2700 livres still remained to be paid by the State. On the strength of a certificate of ill-health, Napoleon's leave was extended from the end of March 1787, to the beginning of December, and later until the 1st June 1788. He wandered about the island, visiting his old haunts and companions, but more often finding his greatest consolation in lonely communion with Nature. Sometimes he would turn to his literary pursuits, adding a few paragraphs to a History of Corsica, which was occupying some of his leisure moments. He also composed a short story dealing with English history, entitled The Count of Essex. A novel having its setting in Corsica followed, and another attempt at fiction, which he called The Masked Prophet, perhaps the best of the three as regards literary style.

On the 12th September 1787, he left Corsica for Paris, in order to clear up the matter of the mulberry trees. He found it impossible to exact money from a bankrupt exchequer, and although he pressed the claim no success attended his efforts. Napoleon accordingly returned to Ajaccio, where he spent part of his spare time drawing up plans for the defence of places round the coast, and postponed his departure until the day he was due to join his regiment at Auxonne. Ever of a calculating nature, the young officer rightly surmised that in those days of lax discipline his absence would not be noticed, or if it were that the insubordination would be passed over.

In the following August (1788) it became evident that the serious work he had put in while his companions were lounging about or frittering away their time was beginning to have its due effect. He became a member of a commission appointed to inquire into the merits or demerits of certain pieces of artillery, and one of the duties—no slight one—which fell to his share was the drawing up of the report. Misfortune, however, had not altogether ceased paying him unwelcome attentions, and, for some reason or other, probably a matter connected with some work on the fortifications of which he had the oversight, Napoleon was placed under arrest for a day.

His own scheme of education went on apace, as his manuscript notebooks, now in the Lorenzo Medici Library at Florence, abundantly testify. One of the works singled out by him for attention was a French translation of Barrow's History of England, from the Times of Julius Caesar to the Peace of 1762. His remarks show that he had a special admiration for such men as Hereward the Wake, familiar to all of us in the pages of Kingsley, or in the more recently published historical romance, The Story of Hereward, by Mr Douglas C. Stedman; Simon de Montfort, whom Napoleon terms "one of the greatest Englishmen"; and the Earl of Arundel, who "died a martyr for the liberty of his country." Cromwell, he says, "was in his early days a libertine. Religion took possession of him, and he became a prophet. Courageous, clever, deceitful, dissimulating, his early principles of republican exaltation yielded to the devouring flame of his ambition, and, after having tasted the sweets of power, he aspired to the pleasure of reigning alone. He had a strong constitution, and had a manly but brusque manner. From the most austere religious functions he passed to the most frivolous amusements, and made himself ridiculous by his buffoonery. He was naturally just and even-tempered." Many of these remarks might be applied not inaptly to Napoleon himself, and if he is not absolutely just to Cromwell, they show that he had a very good understanding of the Protector's general character, and that he read to learn and not simply to "kill time," or for amusement.

In April 1789 was heard the distant rumble which heralded the French Revolution, before it broke out in all its hideous extravagancies. Riots had taken place at Seurre, but as in the case of the affair at Lyons, they were quelled before Napoleon or his colleagues put foot in the place. Two months of enforced idleness were spent in the former town before the company was marched back to its headquarters at Auxonne without having had the slightest chance to distinguish itself. 'When it could have proved useful it broke into open mutiny. This was in July 1789, when a riot took place and the soldiers joined the rebels.

Napoleon had now completed his History of Corsica, and on the disgrace of Marbeuf, Bishop of Sens, to whom he had hoped to dedicate it, he decided to ask Paoli to become his patron. He sent him his precious manuscript feeling assured that it would be well received, but the acknowledgment was a rebuff couched in courteous terms. Moreover, the original was mislaid by Paoli, and this unfortunate happening went far to shake the faith of its writer in the great Corsican leader at a later date.

It is now necessary for us to try to understand in some measure the aims and objects of the vast disturbance known to history as the French Revolution. For generations the monarchy and aristocracy of France had refused to listen to the cry of the oppressed people whom they governed. The State was grossly mismanaged; money which should have remained in the pockets of the distressed people was exacted from them and given to unworthy Court favourites, who spent it in a variety of ways which did not benefit the nation. The nobles and titled clergy paid no taxes, the burden thus fell with undue weight on the middle classes—even now the milch-cow of the State—and the peasants, who toiled day and night for bread. Serious reform was always postponed, although it had been attempted by King Louis XVI. in a feeble and half-hearted way.

A bitter hatred of the persons, institutions, and traditions which contributed to this undesirable state of things was the inevitable consequence; as so often happens, those who desired the righting of wrongs carried their measures too far. "Liberty, equality, and fraternity" were the passwords of the leaders of the new order, but obviously the ideal could not be brought about when nearly everybody held a different theory as to how the abuses were to be rectified. The writings of such philosophers as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, all of which had been diligently perused by Napoleon, had done much to fan the smouldering embers into flames. Soon the whole land was ablaze, massacres became of daily occurrence, the King and Queen paid the price with their heads, the monarchies of Europe were shaken to their very foundations. And what did the people get in exchange for this giant upheaval? The iron despotism of one man, who continued the Revolution in his own person; made the Continent one vast battlefield; drew from France her best manhood and her treasure, and left her territory smaller than when lie first put foot on her soil.

At the moment it was impossible for Napoleon to realise the true meaning of the dreadful events which were approaching with such unrestrained rapidity. He foresaw the end of the old state of affairs, and rightly conjectured that they would be swept away never to return; but Corsica was the centre of his interests rather than France. Rent asunder by conflicting ambitions and civil war, his native island might yet tear herself from her hated conquerors. So at least he told himself in his moments of reflection.

In September 1789, Bonaparte again obtained leave of absence until the 1st June 1790. His health was by no means good when he embarked at Marseilles; a mutiny had occurred in his regiment, and altogether his outlook was as gloomy as ever. Freedom from his irksome military duties, however, and the bracing effect of the sea-air rapidly revived his drooping spirits and failing energy.

The echo of the Revolution had been heard in far-off Corsica; there were disturbances, and serious trouble seemed likely, as soldiers were on the move intent upon restoring the sway of the hated royalist authorities. Napoleon called a meeting of patriots, harangued them, and headed a petition to the democratic National Assembly to restore independence to Corsica. He began to organise a National Guard, which was almost immediately dissolved by Vicomte de Barrin, the French Governor. The ardent young man of twenty thereupon set out for Bastia, the official capital of the island, where a passage of arms took place between the soldiers and the people. The latter won the day, and Barrin was forced to order the arming of the Civic Guard as they wished.

Shortly afterwards news arrived that the National Assembly had decided that Corsica should become a part of the Kingdom of France and enjoy the same constitution. All thought of independence seems to have instantly vanished from Napoleon's mind. He laid down the cudgels without further ado, saying that France "has opened her bosom to us, henceforth we have he same interests and the same solicitudes; it is the sea alone which separates us." Joseph being elected a member of the Municipal Council, the Bonaparte family was able to lift up its head again. Further leave of absence on the score of ill-health was again requested by Napoleon and granted. In reality he was taking an active part in affairs, and enjoying it, for Corsica was more or less in a state of anarchy. At Ajaccio he joined a Radical Club called the Patriotic Society, and wrote and printed a Letter  to Buttafuoco, one of the most hated men in Corsica, who, since the death of Napoleon's father, had represented the nobility of the island at Versailles. It is full of abuse, the writer in his passionate ardour going so far as to say that, having burnt Buttafuoco in effigy, most of the Corsicans would like to burn him in person. Moreover, Paoli was returning, and he foresaw an opportunity of serving him. Paoli received a magnificent reception at Bastia when he arrived on the 17th July. The time for aiding the General of the Corsicans had not yet come, however, and Napoleon again set sail for France, reaching Auxonne, a picturesque little town on the river Saone, in February 1791.

Several years afterwards, in 1803 to be precise, when he was planning the invasion of our own fair land, Napoleon thus summed up his youthful days to Madame de Remusat: "I was educated at a military school, and I showed no aptitude for anything but the exact sciences. Every one said of me, 'That child will never be good for anything but geometry.' I kept aloof from my schoolfellows. I had chosen a little corner in the school grounds, where I would sit and dream at my ease; for I have always liked reverie. When my companions tried to usurp possession of this corner, I defended it with all my might. I already knew by instinct that my will was to override that of others, and that what pleased me was to belong to me. I was not liked at school. It takes time to make oneself liked; and, even when I had nothing to do, I always felt vaguely that I had no time to lose.

"I entered the service, and soon grew tired of garrison work. I began to read novels, and they interested me deeply. I even tried to write some. This occupation brought out something of my imagination, which mingled itself with the positive knowledge I had acquired, and I often let myself dream in order that I might afterwards measure my dreams by the compass of my reason. I threw myself into an ideal world, and I endeavoured to find out in what precise points it differed from the actual world in which I lived. I have always liked analysis, and, if I were to be seriously in love, I should analyze my love bit by bit. Why?  and How?  are questions so useful that they cannot be too often asked. I conquered, rather than studied, history; that is to say, I did not care to retain and did not retain anything that could not give me a new idea; I disdained all that was useless, but took possession of certain results which pleased me."

It was this skilful combining of the practical and the imaginative which enabled Napoleon to project his vast schemes for the reformation of Europe; it was the elimination of the former and the substitution of an overweening self-confidence which deprived the mighty conqueror of "the throne o' the world."