‘You insolent rascal!’ he hissed. It was the Italian word coglione which he used, and I observed that as his feelings overcame him his French became more and more that of a foreigner.
For a moment he seemed to be about to slash the sailor across the face with his whip. The latter took a step back, and clapped his hand to his sword.
‘Have a care, Sire,’ said he.
For a few instants the tension was terrible. Then Napoleon brought the whip down with a sharp crack against his own thigh.
‘Vice-Admiral Magon,’ he cried, ’you will in future receive all orders connected with the fleet. Admiral Bruix, you will leave Boulogne in twenty-four hours and withdraw to Holland. Where is Lieutenant Gerard, of the Hussars of Bercheny?’
My companion’s gauntlet sprang to his busby.
’I ordered you to bring Monsieur Louis de Laval from the castle of Grosbois.’
‘He is here, Sire.’
‘Good! You may retire.’
The lieutenant saluted, whisked round upon his heel, and clattered away, whilst the Emperor’s blue eyes were turned upon me. I had often heard the phrase of eyes looking through you, but that piercing gaze did really give one the feeling that it penetrated to one’s inmost thoughts. But the sternness had all melted out of it, and I read a great gentleness and kindness in their expression.
‘You have come to serve me, Monsieur de Laval?’
‘You have been some time in making up your mind.’
‘I was not my own master, Sire.’
‘Your father was an aristocrat?’
‘And a supporter of the Bourbons?’
’You will find that in France now there are no aristocrats and no Jacobins; but that we are all Frenchmen working for the glory of our country. Have you seen Louis de Bourbon?’
‘I have seen him once, Sire?’
‘An insignificant-looking man, is he not?’
‘No, Sire, I thought him a fine-looking man.’
For a moment I saw a hard gleam of resentment in those changing blue eyes. Then he put out his hand and pinched one of my ears.
‘Monsieur de Laval was not born to be a courtier,’ said he. ’Well, well, Louis de Bourbon will find that he cannot gain a throne by writing proclamations in London and signing them Louis. For my part, I found the crown of France lying upon the ground, and I lifted it upon my sword-point.’
‘You have lifted France with your sword also, Sire,’ said Talleyrand, who stood at his elbow.
Napoleon looked at his famous minister, and I seemed to read suspicion in his eyes. Then he turned to his secretary.
‘I leave Monsieur de Laval in your hands, de Meneval,’ said he. ’I desire to see him in the council chamber after the inspection of the artillery.’