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A Jester’s Fortune
(Lewrie – 08)
Heu, quibus ingreditor fatis!
Qui gentibus horror pergit!
Alas, to what destinies doth he move forward!
His coming is the terror of nations!
Argonautica, Book I, 744-745
Gaius Valerius Flaccus
It was a chilly, blustery March morning, only just a little warmer than the winter days that had preceded it. Here, even near the ocean at Nice, springtime was only beginning to make its mark, and that-like the temperatures-was only a matter of degree. Icy mountain streams that the coaches had crossed on their madcap dash from Paris, roaring down the steep slopes of Provence days before, had begun to swell and churn with meltwater from the towering crags of the forbidding Maritime Alps.
Yet, it was a clear, cerulean blue morning, and the winds off the Mediterranean were now and then stronger than those that slumped off the snow-covered slopes far inland. Each sea-gust was as tantalisingly warm as the easy, unguarded waft of a sleeping lovers breath. By the end of the month-no later than the middle of the next, certainly-the rugged mountain roads, now nigh-impassable, would melt clear, then begin to dry. The passes that led east and south would be usable. And, God willing, the young general in the lead coach thought, there would be good campaign weather.
His army could finally begin to march.
He almost scoffed at the condition of his army! He'd seen them, here around Nice in their winter quarters, in conquered, compromised, and complaisant Savoy; ragged, hungry troops with the pinched faces of starving foxes. Some in blue tunics and Republican trousers, as required in Regulations; some still in Bourbon white of pre-Revolutionary Royalist regiments. Patched and raveled, all of them, by now, their shoes and boots worn out, wearing wooden sabot clogs, feet wrapped in tattered remnants of blankets or Italian peasant straw sandals. Hats as varied as civilian or military fashions, they wore whatever they could trade for, mend or steal. Wool peasants' berets, long-tasseled Jacobin caps- even their sleeping caps.
He had 36,570 infantry, the young, newly promoted general pondered-for he was a man in love with numbers-3,300 cavalry, 1,700 artillerists, engineers and field police, stablemen, farriers, armourers, aides or commissionaires-41,570 officers and men, all told.
He frowned. An uninspiring infantry, though, a cavalry arm on the worst collection of spavined nags he'd ever beheld. Too few guns to suit him, since he'd come up from the Artillery. But these men had secured Marseilles in '93, had besieged, then retaken Toulon in the same year, skirmished and fought little wastrel battles in those hills against the Piedmontese and Austrians, even routed their General de Vins and secured the Riviera from Savona to Voltri the previous autumn. They'd spent a winter's penury, grumbling and pinch-gutted, their pay so far in arrears, their precious news from home so long delayed, it would be a miracle if he could wield them in battle more than once without breaking possibly the only real army of any sort he'd get.
The young general leaned out of the coach windows to study those men who lined the approaches to the parade ground, as the staff carriages rattled into camp.
Pinched they might be, surly and starving, feeling abandoned by their own country, and their leaders, the Directory of Five, in distant Paris. But they were for the most part rugged men, an army made of men of the South; Provencals, Gascons, mountaineers from Dauphin and Savoy. And some of his Corsicans, of course.
He'd come south as quick as lightning, eager for the challenge no matter how daunting, fired by the charge in his orders from Barras and the rest of the Directory, from the Army:
Take this raggedy-arsed army into Piedmont and conquer all of the rich upper Po Valley; defeat the Piedmontese, then the Austrians. Conquer the Austrian duchy of Milan; cow the rest of Italy; secure a quiet border so troops could be turned against the last rebellious holdouts inside France; by his actions, divert the Austrians from an invasion across the Rhine. And loot. For God's sake, loot to fill the empty coffers before the great ideal of their Cause went down to abject defeat and the sneers of the world for a lack of money. Before it became an historical footnote for the want of a few sous! It was his plan, to the tee-accepted, at last.
"A reminder, Junot," he said to the harried aide-de-camp at his side, "M'sieur Saliceti is to go to those whimpering hounds at Genoa. Now we hold the whip-hand over them, hein? He is to arrange a loan on their treasury, at the most favourable terms he may obtain for France. We let them pay, or be conquered, as well. And Saliceti is to demand free passage for our troops through Genoese territory. Or else."
"Demand, sir?" Junot murmured in puzzlement, scribbling on a pad with a pencil-a French invention, the lead pencil. "But I thought-"
"Out, demand." The general snickered. "For a reason, Junot. If nothing else, he must get grain for both men and horses. And boots. I insist on boots. With bread and boots, I can manage."
There was the staff to welcome his coach; the young cavalryman, Murat-the fearless. Mad as a hatter, as the English might say, like all cavalrymen. Like his senior, the mad Irish general Kilmaine, at his side. At the head of the pack stood General Louis Alexandre Berthier, the oldest at forty-three, and a former Royalist officer who'd fought with distinction in the American Revolution; Berthier, with a mind as quick as a musket s fire-lock, as calm and steely as the jaws of a bear-trap-his chief of staff, who forgot nothing.
Massena behind him, whip-thin and wiry, cursed with a nose like a down-turned sabre, and darting, shifty eyes. He was a former man of the ranks who'd spent fourteen years as a sergeant-major, since common men could not rise higher in the old Royal Army. A clever smuggler, it was said. Yet Massena was also known as a man whose shifty eyes were able to divine the least advantage of terrain, and that large nose of his could smell a way to do a foe a mortal hurt.
Massena he'd have to watch, though; it was well known he wished command of this army for himself. How best to use those eyes and nose to his advantage, yet keep Massena subservient, might prove to be a problem-as if the young general didn't have problems enough for three already. He would require Massena s loyalty to implement his complete plans for this army.
Even more of a puzzle was his last general of division, Charles Augereau. Incredibly loud, foulmouthed and uncouth, with the quick, scathing and glib patois of the Paris gutters; a slangy ex-sergeant himself, now risen to glory-and still as unbelievably lewd as any drillmaster, as chattery as a-pirate's parrot. A fighter, though.
With these I'm to conquer Italy, the young general thought in chagrin, ready to shiver in despair. A gust of mountain wind made him almost do so, but he conquered the impulse by dint of will; he'd show no sign of timidity, dread or doubt before these ambitious officers-not even the slightest pinch of second thoughts could he afford to display before his new-awarded army.
Salutes were exchanged, to-one s-face politenesses said before the troop review began. A horse was led up, a magnificent dapple-grey gelding, bedecked with all the martial trappings due a commanding general. The young man flung off his overcoat to expose his blue tunic, heavy with gold-lace oak wreathing, the sword at his side, the red-white-blue sash about his waist. By sheer perseverance-his thighs would never be strong enough to make him an excellent horseman-he'd become comfortable in the saddle at the old military school at Brienne.
No matter the egalitarian or fraternal ideals of the Revolution, the young general knew that the men in the ranks still stood in awe of the mounted, of those who could master a horse. A short fellow, as the general was, could loom over even the tallest of his hoary grenadiers. First impressions were important.
Instead of forcing the troops to churn the mud of the camp in order to pass his reviewing stand, their new general went to them, clattering from unit to unit, sabre-chains and bitt-chains jingling. And in most of the demi-brigades and battalions he saw, those that had served at Toulon-in his batteries on the south side of the harbour, or in the midnight charge in the rain upon L'Eguillettes Fort, where his 2,000 reserves had rallied old General Dugommier s 5,000 after they'd broken, and had conquered-he found familiar faces. And with his encyclopaedic memory, he came up with names and ranks to match those faces, and old japes to dredge up in comradely bonhomie.
He left a sea of smiles behind in every unit, those veterans he'd called to by name standing prouder among their fellows.
"Soldiers of France!" he called, once he'd completed the review and taken a stance atop a pile of boulders near the edge of the parade ground. "Soldiers of the Army of Italy… hear me! You are hungry. You are shoeless, ragged and tired. You have not the price of bread, meat or wine, and your pay is in arrears. And that is in assignats, not coin. Soon the Piedmontese, the Austrians, maybe even the 'Bloodies,' the English, will come against you. They intend to beat you. They still mean to defeat you, and with you… la belle France, and our Revolution! Then grind our nation into the dirt, and impose their kings and princes over us once again! Our foes are implacable. Therefore, so must you be. So must we all be!
"With me from Paris, I have brought General Chauvet, our paymaster. With gold! With coin!" the young general added quickly, before his soldiers could jeer and whistle at the mention of "Paymaster."
"Funds with which to buy rations, boots and blankets, at last."
He lied well, did the young, diminutive general; there were but 8,000 Meres in gold coin, nearly all the bankrupt Treasury could give him, and 100,000 livres in bills of exchange-unfortunately drawn on the Bank of Cadiz, from a doubtful "friend," royalist Bourbon Spain-which no one might honour, not even the Savoians.
"France assigns this to you, soldiers, knowing even then they are still deeply in your debt for your past service," he continued, not even daring to turn and look at the commissioners, those civilian watchdogs and spies from the Directory, who could ruin a man, ranker or general, with a single letter-as damning as any lettre de cachet had imprisoned or murdered people before the Terror, when aristocratic back-stabbing was at its height in the days before the Revolution. A mention of "debt" owed could be construed as defeatist talk, spreading gloom and bitterness among his own troops!
"On all sides we are beset, soldiers," the general went on in a surprisingly powerful voice from such a wee frame; for he was deep-chested, if nothing else. "For now that is all that France has, and they send it to you, to ready you for another season's campaigning… to sustain you for a time, so we may defeat our foes, and protect all we cherish! All they have, to you, most of all!
"Soldiers of France, I have seen you… proud veterans of four years of fighting!" He bellowed. "We know each other, from earlier battles, hein? And I am most satisfied with your bearing… ragged though you are… because I see your pride! Your unflinching devotion to our Republic… and the steadiness of your eyes! Such men as you can never be beaten! With troops such as you, France will never be beaten! With hearts as stout as yours…!"
"Cheap theatrics," General Augereau grunted softly. "Jesus fucking Christ! General Scherer was an ass with ears, but a modest ass. Now, who pops up to replace him but-"
"He's good, Charles," General Andre Massena whispered back from the side of his mouth. "Have to give him that. Brilliant."
"Brilliant doesn't pay the whore," Augereau grumbled. "He marries Paul Barras's former mistress, this new bride of his… a favour for Barras, now he's one of the Five. And he gets us as his reward for taking the blowsy cunt… pardon а moi, the 'incomparable Josephine,' to wife. And if he shows me that miniature portrait of the bitch one more time, I'll rip his tiny leg off and beat his tiny skull in with it! That'll shit on his puppet show!"
General Andre Massena feigned a cough, partly in warning for the incorrigible Augereau to stop murmuring and carping; and partly so he could hide his helpless snickering fit behind a gloved hand.
Hello, what was this, he heard, though…?
"Soldiers, to the east and south lies our duty!" Their elegant little general was roaring, pointing like a bronze statue for a far horizon, which prompted some of his troops to turn their heads to look.
"There lies Piedmont, ruled by that bloody-handed tyrant, their Victor Amadeus II… father-in-law to the beast who would come to rule us again, Comte de Provence… who would be King Louis XVIII! There lies aristocratic Austria, who would trample our beloved France beneath the boots of their enslaved peasants, yet deny them the rights you as free, Republican Frenchmen enjoy!
" Piedmont, soldiers!" The general shouted. "The Po Valleys, the great cities, teeming with untold wealth! Austrian provinces in thrall to despots! There! There is where I will lead you this year! There is where we will be victorious. I will lead you into the most fertile plains in the world! Rich cities and great provinces will be in your power! There, in Italy, soldiers… is where we are going to take the fight to our foes. There you will find honour, glory… and wealth! In Piedmont, in Lombardy… there we will gain victory!"
Loot and plunder, clean linen, purses bulging with gold, or things as simple as a belly or knapsack full of bread, meat, cheese and brandy, with a ration-waggon to follow along behind with more. Their little replacement general had lit a fire under them, Massena had to admit. He'd taken them by the throat and made them stand taller, of a sudden. The raucous cheers, the screams of avarice and pride, with the promise of glory-to-come now aflame in them, were deafening.
Even with the organised might of Royal France at their backs, armies larger and better trained than this one, Massena recalled, had come to grief twice in the last hundred years. Maillebois and Villars had both failed to invade Italy. So what did the summer hold for this tag-rag-and-bobtail army? he wondered. And wondered, too, had the Directory given him the command he'd lusted for so eagerly, would he have attempted anything this damn-fool daring?
"Mon gйnйrals" their new commanding officer said, once he'd quit his crag. "Junot, the list. See to it that these five generals of brigade are dismissed at once. I see no fire in their bellies or wits in their skulls. We begin tightening discipline and drill now. This instant. Berthier has the details for you. But I want this army of ours to be drilled, shod, clad and ready to march by the end of the month! There will be no half-measures. Discipline is the nerve of the army, and I will see it taut as a bowstring-or else!"