Some Reminiscences HTML version

Chapter 3
The devouring in a dismal forest of a luckless Lithuanian dog by my grand-uncle
Nicholas B. in company of two other military and famished scarecrows, symbolised, to
my childish imagination, the whole horror of the retreat from Moscow and the immorality
of a conqueror's ambition. An extreme distaste for that objectionable episode has tinged
the views I hold as to the character and achievements of Napoleon the Great. I need not
say that these are unfavourable. It was morally reprehensible for that great captain to
induce a simple-minded Polish gentleman to eat dog by raising in his breast a false hope
of national independence. It has been the fate of that credulous nation to starve for
upwards of a hundred years on a diet of false hopes and--well--dog. It is, when one thinks
of it, a singularly poisonous regimen. Some pride in the national constitution which has
survived a long course of such dishes is really excusable. But enough of generalising.
Returning to particulars, Mr. Nicholas B. confided to his sister-in-law (my grandmother)
in his misanthropically laconic manner that this supper in the woods had been nearly "the
death of him." This is not surprising. What surprises me is that the story was ever heard
of; for grand-uncle Nicholas differed in this from the generality of military men of
Napoleon's time (and perhaps of all time), that he did not like to talk of his campaigns,
which began at Friedland and ended somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bar-le-Duc. His
admiration of the great Emperor was unreserved in everything but expression. Like the
religion of earnest men, it was too profound a sentiment to be displayed before a world of
little faith. Apart from that he seemed as completely devoid of military anecdotes as
though he had hardly ever seen a soldier in his life. Proud of his decorations earned
before he was twenty-five, he refused to wear the ribbons at the buttonhole in the manner
practised to this day in Europe and even was unwilling to display the insignia on festive
occasions, as though he wished to conceal them in the fear of appearing boastful. "It is
enough that I have them," he used to mutter. In the course of thirty years they were seen
on his breast only twice--at an auspicious marriage in the family and at the funeral of an
old friend. That the wedding which was thus honoured was not the wedding of my
mother I learned only late in life, too late to bear a grudge against Mr. Nicholas B., who
made amends at my birth by a long letter of congratulation containing the following
prophecy: "He will see better times." Even in his embittered heart there lived a hope. But
he was not a true prophet.
He was a man of strange contradictions. Living for many years in his brother's house, the
home of many children, a house full of life, of animation, noisy with a constant coming
and going of many guests, he kept his habits of solitude and silence. Considered as
obstinately secretive in all his purposes, he was in reality the victim of a most painful
irresolution in all matters of civil life. Under his taciturn, phlegmatic behaviour was
hidden a faculty of short-lived passionate anger. I suspect he had no talent for narrative;
but it seemed to afford him sombre satisfaction to declare that he was the last man to ride
over the bridge of the river Elster after the battle of Leipsic. Lest some construction
favourable to his valour should be put on the fact he condescended to explain how it
came to pass. It seems that shortly after the retreat began he was sent back to the town
where some divisions of the French Army (and amongst them the Polish corps of Prince