We did not know many civilians, we of the army, but, my word, this was one whom we could not afford to ignore! I had only to glance at those twinkling eyes, the comical, upturned nose, and the straight, precise mouth, to know that I was in the presence of the one man in France whom even the Emperor had to consider.
'This is Monsieur Etienne Gerard, Monsieur de Talleyrand,' said Lasalle.
I saluted, and the statesman took me in from the top of my panache to the rowel of my spur, with a glance that played over me like a rapier point.
'Have you explained to the lieutenant the circumstances under which he is summoned to the Emperor's presence?' he asked, in his dry, creaking voice.
They were such a contrast, these two men, that I could not help glancing from one to the other of them: the black, sly politician, and the big, sky-blue hussar with one fist on his hip and the other on the hilt of his sabre. They both took their seats as I looked, Talleyrand without a sound, and Lasalle with a clash and a jingle like a prancing charger.
'It's this way, youngster,' said he, in his brusque fashion; 'I was with the Emperor in his private cabinet this morning when a note was brought in to him. He opened it, and as he did so he gave such a start that it fluttered down on to the floor. I handed it up to him again, but he was staring at the wall in front of him as if he had seen a ghost. "Fratelli dell' Ajaccio," he muttered; and then again, "Fratelli dell' Ajaccio." I don't pretend to know more Italian than a man can pick up in two campaigns, and I could make nothing of this. It seemed to me that he had gone out of his mind; and you would have said so also, Monsieur de Talleyrand, if you had seen the look in his eyes. He read the note, and then he sat for half an hour or more without moving.'
'And you?' asked Talleyrand.
'Why, I stood there not knowing what I ought to do. Presently he seemed to come back to his senses.
'"I suppose, Lasalle," said he, "that you have some gallant young officers in the Tenth?"
'"They are all that, sire," I answered.
'"If you had to pick one who was to be depended upon for action, but who would not think too much--you understand me, Lasalle--which would you select?" he asked.
'I saw that he needed an agent who would not penetrate too deeply into his plans.
'"I have one," said I, "who is all spurs and moustaches, with never a thought beyond women and horses."
'"That is the man I want," said Napoleon. "Bring him to my private cabinet at four o'clock."
'So, youngster, I came straight away to you at once, and mind that you do credit to the 10th Hussars.'
I was by no means flattered by the reasons which had led to my Colonel's choice, and I must have shown as much in my face, for he roared with laughter and Talleyrand gave a dry chuckle also.
'Just one word of advice before you go, Monsieur Gerard,' said he: 'you are now coming into troubled waters, and you might find a worse pilot than myself. We have none of us any idea as to what this little affair means, and, between ourselves, it is very important for us, who have the destinies of France upon our shoulders, to keep ourselves in touch with all that goes on. You understand me, Monsieur Gerard?'
I had not the least idea what he was driving at, but I bowed and tried to look as if it was clear to me.
'Act very guardedly, then, and say nothing to anybody,' said Talleyrand. 'Colonel de Lasalle and I will not show ourselves in public with you, but we will await you here, and we will give you our advice when you have told us what has passed between the Emperor and yourself. It is time that you started now, for the Emperor never forgives unpunctuality.'
Off I went on foot to the palace, which was only a hundred paces off. I made my way to the ante-chamber, where Duroc, with his grand new scarlet and gold coat, was fussing about among the crowd of people who were waiting. I heard him whisper to Monsieur de Caulaincourt that half of them were German Dukes who expected to be made Kings, and the other half German Dukes who expected to be made paupers.