In his own sphere the activity of Neipperg was almost as remarkable as Napoleon’s in a greater one. Apart from his exploits on the field of battle he had been attached to the Austrian embassy in Paris, and, strangely enough, had been decorated by Napoleon himself with, the golden eagle of the Legion of Honor. Four months later we find him minister of Austria at the court of Sweden, where he helped to lay the train of intrigue which was to detach Bernadotte from Napoleon’s cause. In 1812, as has just been said, he was with Marie Louise for a short time at Dresden, hovering about her, already forming schemes. Two years after this he overthrew Murat at Naples; and then hurried on post-haste to urge Prince Eugene to abandon Bonaparte.
When the great struggle of 1814 neared its close, and Napoleon, fighting with his back to the wall, was about to succumb to the united armies of Europe, it was evident that the Austrian emperor would soon be able to separate his daughter from her husband. In fact, when Napoleon was sent to Elba, Marie Louise returned to Vienna. The cynical Austrian diplomats resolved that she should never again meet her imperial husband. She was made Duchess of Parma in Italy, and set out for her new possessions; and the man with the black band across his sightless eye was chosen to be her escort and companion.
When Neipperg received this commission he was with Teresa Pola at Milan. A strange smile flitted across his face; and presently he remarked, with cynical frankness:
“Before six months I shall be her lover, and, later on, her husband.”
He took up his post as chief escort of Marie Louise, and they journeyed slowly to Munich and Baden and Geneva, loitering on the way. Amid the great events which were shaking Europe this couple attracted slight attention. Napoleon, in Elba, longed for his wife and for his little son, the King of Rome. He sent countless messages and many couriers; but every message was intercepted, and no courier reached his destination. Meanwhile Marie Louise was lingering agreeably in Switzerland. She was happy to have escaped from the whirlpool of politics and war. Amid the romantic scenery through which she passed Neipperg was always by her side, attentive, devoted, trying in everything to please her. With him she passed delightful evenings. He sang to her in his rich barytone songs of love. He seemed romantic with a touch of mystery, a gallant soldier whose soul was also touched by sentiment.
One would have said that Marie Louise, the daughter of an imperial line, would have been proof against the fascinations of a person so far inferior to herself in rank, and who, beside the great emperor, was less than nothing. Even granting that she had never really loved Napoleon, she might still have preferred to maintain her dignity, to share his fate, and to go down in history as the empress of the greatest man whom modern times have known.