But first of all I must bind you to secrecy. Whilst I live what passes between us today must be known to none but ourselves.'
I thought of Talleyrand and of Lasalle, but I promised.
'In the next place, I do not want your opinions or conjectures, and I wish you to do exactly what you are told.'
'It is your sword that I need, and not your brains. I will do the thinking. Is that clear to you?'
'You know the Chancellor's Grove, in the forest?'
'You know also the large double fir-tree where the hounds assembled on Tuesday?'
Had he known that I met a girl under it three times a week, he would not have asked me. I bowed once more without remark.
'Very good. You will meet me there at ten o'clock tonight.'
I had got past being surprised at anything which might happen. If he had asked me to take his place upon the imperial throne I could only have nodded my busby.
'We shall then proceed into the wood together,' said the Emperor. 'You will be armed with a sword, but not with pistols. You must address no remark to me, and I shall say nothing to you. We will advance in silence. You understand?'
'I understand, sire.'
'After a time we shall see a man, or more probably two men, under a certain tree. We shall approach them together. If I signal to you to defend me, you will have your sword ready. If, on the other hand, I speak to these men, you will wait and see what happens. If you are called upon to draw, you must see that neither of them, in the event of there being two, escapes from us. I shall myself assist you.'
'Sire,' I cried, 'I have no doubt that two would not be too many for my sword; but would it not be better that I should bring a comrade than that you should be forced to join in such a struggle?'
'Ta, ta, ta,' said he. 'I was a soldier before I was an Emperor. Do you think, then, that artillerymen have not swords as well as the hussars? But I ordered you not to argue with me. You will do exactly what I tell you. If swords are once out, neither of these men is to get away alive.'
'They shall not, sire,' said I.
'Very good. I have no more instructions for you. You can go.'
I turned to the door, and then an idea occurring to me I turned.
'I have been thinking, sire--' said I.
He sprang at me with the ferocity of a wild beast. I really thought he would have struck me.
'Thinking!' he cried. 'You, you! Do you imagine I chose you out because you could think? Let me hear of your doing such a thing again! You, the one man--but, there! You meet me at the fir-tree at ten o'clock.'
My faith, I was right glad to get out of the room. If I have a good horse under me, and a sword clanking against my stirrup-iron, I know where I am. And in all that relates to green fodder or dry, barley and oats and rye, and the handling of squadrons upon the march, there is no one who can teach me very much. But when I meet a Chamberlain and a Marshal of the Palace, and have to pick my words with an Emperor, and find that everybody hints instead of talking straight out, I feel like a troop-horse who has been put in a lady's caleche. It is not my trade, all this mincing and pretending. I have learned the manners of a gentleman, but never those of a courtier. I was right glad then to get into the fresh air again, and I ran away up to my quarters like a schoolboy who has just escaped from the seminary master.
But as I opened the door, the very first thing that my eye rested upon was a long pair of sky-blue legs with hussar boots, and a short pair of black ones with knee breeches and buckles. They both sprang up together to greet me.
'Well, what news?' they cried, the two of them.
'None,' I answered.
'The Emperor refused to see you?'
'No, I have seen him.'
'And what did he say?'
'Monsieur de Talleyrand,' I answered, 'I regret to say that it is quite impossible for me to tell you anything about it. I have promised the Emperor.'
'Pooh, pooh, my dear young man,' said he, sidling up to me, as a cat does when it is about to rub itself against you.