Napoleon, though of Italian origin (Corsica only became part of France during Napoleon's childhood) had been attending school in France since the age of 9. After a preparatory year at the College of Autun, little Napoleon, not quite 10 years old yet, had been taken by his father one day at the end of May, 1779 to the Military College of Brienne in Champagne.
This military college, run by monks, was certainly not enjoying the best reputation for learning, being mainly for boys from poor homes whose education was paid for by the King of France. What a change this was for the little boy. Having left behind the happy family home under a blue sky on the sunbaked island in the Mediterranean, he saw himself now confronted by the strict unwelcoming and monastic discipline of a poor military college far in the north of France. Perhaps the ruin of the castle above the village of Brienne crystalized the sentiment he had of his new surroundings: cold, dark, uninviting, watching its own funeral when day-by-day, parts of its old walls and bastions would crumble down or be carted away for the construction of a new palace down below.
Dressed in the blue and red uniforms of the college, and trying to adapt to this environment, he nevertheless found himself an outcast. Small, dark-haired, little black eyes, speaking a mixture of French and Italian (by the way, Napoleon never learned to speak French properly all his life), he could not find a friend amidst the tall, blond and blue-eyed Champagnards. He never even found acceptance.
His life here was a life of study, and study he must, because he had to bring pride to his family and his native island. Perhaps, one day, when he would have finished his studies, he would find a position as an officer at some garrison, however unimportant, somewhere in France and would then be able to help support his family, his mother and his sisters. (In fact, when still only a youngster, his father died and he, though not the oldest son, took over as head of the family, being the more responsible, and sent what little money he made as an officer of lower rank.)
The only change in this so unconducive rhythm for a little boy were the Sundays, when the boys were free to wander in the countryside, and if they were lucky enough to have a couple of coins, they would walk to Mother Marguerite, an old farming woman, who would serve them fresh milk and fresh eggs (sunny side-up). If that couldn't make their little faces light up, then there was only the one big fete of Brienne: the King's Day (the day of St. Louis).
The Baron of Brienne, having married the daughter of a rich banker, would open his new palace to everyone in the area to celebrate the King's Day (25 August).
He would serve the finest dishes and tidbits, hire troops of artists from far and near, even from Paris, to entertain and spoil his guests, on this most important day.
A new and ephemeral world opened up to Napoleon. He had never seen such luxury, never been in a palace. His home on the island had always seemed to him the most beautiful on earth. Here now he was confronted by what seemed to him a dream-world. Servants in braided uniforms, marble floors, a library stretching over two floors surrounded by galleries, and — and the utmost of luxury, the apartment reserved for the royal Family, in case they should happen to pass through Brienne. Walls covered by silk, a bed — a bed like an altar, 4 posts, roofed by a dais heavy with sparkling fringes topped by arrangements of long white feathers. Was it possible that one could sleep in such a bed?
All this little Napoleon drunk in in a dreamy sort of amazement, but though this must have set his imagination to work, he knew such life was not for him, a poor little boy, studying to become an officer by the grace of the King of France. And the next day, he set his mind on the continuation of his labors, not losing from sight his goal.
What a day this had been for Napoleon, though!
25 years later the palace at Brienne is again preparing for a celebration. It is not St. Louis, and this celebration is not for the King of France. We write the year 1805, and there is no King ruling in France. But there is an Emperor, recently crowned in Paris' Notre-Dame, by the Pope himself, who had specifically come for this event to Paris (rather induced by Napoleon).
Today, the Emperor, on his way to Italy to put also the Italian crown on his head, has left his wife, Josephine, and most of his court behind at Troyes, announcing for himself a little detour — to Brienne.
Feverishly arrangements had been made at Brienne for this exciting event. From far and near the people had come thronging the route to see the Emperor arrive. Waiting at the entrance to the palace are the Baroness, her family and all the nobles of the district.
Here comes the first sign of the Emperor's approach; a handsome rider approaching in gallop. He is the cousin of the Baroness, a simple horseman to the Emperor, proud to announce the arrival of his master.
A first carriage with officers; then a second carriage, the pale sullen face of Napoleon, framed by black hair, black eyes smiling down on the crowds, "Vive Napoleon!" "Vive l'Empereur!"
Smiling, excited faces of the bowing nobles and curtseying ladies; this is his welcome to his fairy tale palace the second time around. But how moderate must this palace seem to him, the Master of such palaces as the Royal Palace at Paris (Les Tuileries), Fountainebleau, Trianon, Saint-Cloud, etc.
The event is spent dining and playing games such as whist. Napoleon has remained a frugal diner and is soon bored by the long drawn-out meal of many courses. He, therefore, happily takes the opportunity to break off the supper when the head waiter in his excitement pours sauce over his place-setting and practically over Napoleon. The Baroness is near to tears. Napoleon, however, is happy to get away from the table, laughing in happy relief.
And this night, Napoleon spends in that very bed that he had marveled at 25 years earlier, in the very same room that had set his imagination to work, and that he had considered beyond reality then.
The next morning he takes a ride to the college which, he was informed, had been badly damaged during the days of the Revolution, when it was used to build canon-carriages. He intended to have the college restored to serve anew to educated young officers, but when he saw the extensive damages sustained, he realized that the amount he had set aside for its restoration would not be enough by far, and he gave up unhappily any plans of restoration.
Unhappy as he was about this, he rode off at a fast pace, speeding through the fields and woods, soon losing his companions. When they had been searching for him close to two hours without success, they sounded the rallying shot, and soon Napoleon reappeared, his beautiful Arab horse sweating, frothing from its mouth and nostrils. It had been ridden hard.
Where had the Emperor been? Only an enigmatic smile was the answer. Later stories were growing that he had revisited the country and the villages he knew so well from his Sunday walks as a schoolboy. It was said that he had also been to Mother Marguerite's, who, the Baroness had informed him was still alive. Seeing Motor Marguerite again, he expressed his surprise that she had not, like all the others, gone to Brienne to see the Emperor. "Are you not curious, Mother Marguerite?" "No, Sir. I am an old woman and my eyes would not allow me to see the Emperor as well as at the time when he used to come to Mother Marguerite with his school comrades to drink a glass of fresh milk. But I was just getting ready to take some fresh milk and eggs to the Palace, as the Emperor may enjoy these as in the old times, and then I'll stay a little and see whether I can get a glimpse of the emperor." "How is that, Mother Marguerite, you haven't forgotten Bonaparte then?"
"Forgotten, no, Sir. Do you think one forgets a young man like that, so well-behaved, so serious and sometimes even sad, but always so good to the poor. I am only an old woman, but I could have predicted that that one would make his way." "He hasn't done so badly then has he, Mother Marguerite?" "Ah, no, you would say he had."
The Emperor steps quite close to the old woman now, rubbing his hands, trying to imitate the sound of his schooldays' voice. "Along, Mother Marguerite, milk and eggs please. We are starving to death."
The old woman searches in her memory, tries to look at him more closely. "Well, you were so sure just now to recognize Bonaparte. We two are old acquaintances, you know."
The old woman has already fallen on her knees in front of him. Napoleon lifts her up and in his softest tone, very moved himself, he says: "In fact, I have the appetite of a school boy. Don't you have anything to eat for me?" Mother Marguerite smiling happily, immediately gets out a cup with fresh milk and starts frying some eggs.
After saying his au-revoirs, the Emperor hands her a purse filled with golden Napoleon coins, jumps on his horse and disappears.
This, his second stay at Brienne, may have given Napoleon some of the happiest hours in his life, at least it is confirmed that he has never been seen in such good spirits and has never been seen to smile so much as during this short stay.
Parting from the Baroness of Brienne, he tries to persuade her to sell the palace to him, especially as she did not have any children of her own to inherit it. But she was not to be convinced, stating firmly that she intended to remain here for the remaining years of her life.
Taking leave from the surrounding countryside with one sweeping view, he is said to have whispered to himself, "What a wonderful battlefield this area would make," and off he went to rejoin Josephine and his whole court at Troyes.
These fateful words were to come true. 9 years have passed. We are writing 1814. It is the evening of January 29. The enemies are invading France from all sides. Bluecher, the Prussian General has invaded Champagne and has taken possession of Brienne. Napoleon immediately moves his troops towards Brienne when this message reached him. Bluecher and his officers are celebrating their recent successes in the palace of Brienne. Knowing that Napoleon's troops have dissipated, are badly fed, badly clothed, his countryside is muddy, making it practically impossible to move troops, the men shivering under the January storms, the cart wheels getting stuck in the mud — Bluecher and his men are dining and wining, lifting their glasses to their conquest of Paris, which can only be days away. Suddenly, canon shots are surrounding them; the beautiful chandelier above their dining table shatters into thousands of pieces. Everybody scrambles for their coats and arms to run into town where their troops are stationed. Most of the Prussian officers fall into the hands of the aggressor. Only Bluecher is just able to get to safety, his second in command not being able to make it.
How could this have been possible? How was Napoleon able to get to Brienne in such short time? Had Bluecher received incorrect information? Had Napoleon been that much nearer to Brienne? Were his troops that much larger and stronger than he had been informed? Battle was raging. The palace was taken over by Napoleon. The little town resounded of shots, crashes, screams, cries of the wounded and dying. All night the battle raged. Who had won this night? Who had lost? All night Napoleon paced his room, paced the palace courtyard, straining his eyes to see the result.
Only the next morning, when the first bleak fingers of light were groping over the countryside, Napoleon established that the Prussian troops had withdrawn from Brienne.
Bluecher had underestimated the will power of Napoleon, had underestimated the fierce determination of Napoleon's much reduced troops to repulse the intruding enemy, had also not taken into account the love and support of the French people for Napoleon. The men along Napoleon's way had joined forces with him. He helped to push the cart wheels through the mud when they got stuck. The women had made fires for the freezing troops to warm themselves; had made hot drinks and given them whatever they could to dress them more warmly, to comfort them. With impossible speed, Napoleon had reached Brienne, perhaps, just because it was Brienne that Bluecher had taken.
Though Napoleon's troops were vastly outnumbered, Bluecher did not dare to attack the French troops in the presence of Napoleon. Though losing constant ground, Napoleon's very presence made the enemy tremble. Here was the man who had been able to conquer all of Europe, had lost it all again, but was still the most feared and most venerated man in Europe.
For several days Bluecher did not attack. Napoleon waited. His troops were too small to attack. But Napoleon knew it was only a question of time, and that he would have to withdraw from his position to defend Paris very soon. The Austrian troops were marching towards Brienne to come to the aid of Bluecher. When they arrived, they still waited for a few days before attacking, but when the morning of the attack came, Napoleon went from one division to the other, from one man to the other, to give everybody encouragement and to ask for their very best, even in their last dying minutes.
Everybody was prepared for the worst; the battle raged again, Napoleon losing ground by the minute. No soldier has ever fought with more courage, prepared to sacrifice more, to sacrifice all. When dusk fell and battle rested for the night, Napoleon prepared to withdraw, having lost most of his men in this battle and having to abandon those that had been wounded. The town of Brienne was destroyed — the people homeless and despairing. The very last money that Napoleon still had he left with the people of Brienne to look after the wounded, and to bury the dead.
It would have been very easy for the Prussian and Austrian troops to stop Napoleon from withdrawing, to finish off the rest of his men. But they did not move, savoring the victory they knew was theirs.
Napoleon never forgot that it was Brienne that had suffered most under his final battles. When he made his final will many years later on the Isle of St. Helena, he willed a very substantial sum of money to Brienne for the reconstruction of the town and its buildings and monuments. After his death, the donation of this money to Brienne was considered legal and paid to the town, now suddenly richer than it had ever been, beautifying the town and setting a monument to Napoleon, a statue showing him as a college boy, demonstrating the pride of Brienne that Napoleon's genius had been fostered there.
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