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- The Companions of Jehu - 130/133 -
The seconds took the pistols from the box and loaded them. Sir John stood apart, switching the heads of the tall grasses with his riding-whip.
Roland watched him hesitatingly for a moment, then taking his resolve, he walked resolutely toward him. Sir John raised his head and looked at him with apparent hope.
"My lord," said Roland, "I may have certain grievances against you, but I know you to be, none the less, a man of your word."
"You are right," replied Sir John.
"If you survive me will you keep the promise that you made me at Avignon?"
"There is no possibility that I shall survive you, but so long as I have any breath left in my body, you can count upon me."
"I refer to the final disposition to be made of my body."
"The same, I presume, as at Avignon?"
"The same, my lord."
"Very well, you may set your mind at rest."
Roland bowed to Sir John and returned to his friends.
"Have you any wishes in case the affair terminates fatally?" asked one of them.
"What is it?"
"That you permit Sir John to take entire charge of the funeral arrangements. For the rest, I have a note in my left hand for him. In case I have not time to speak after the affair is over, you are to open my hand and give him the note."
"Is that all?"
"The pistols are loaded, then."
"Very well, inform Sir John."
One of the seconds approached Sir John. The other measured off five paces. Roland saw that the distance was greater than he had supposed.
"Excuse me," he said, "I said three paces."
"Five," replied the officer who was measuring the distance.
"Not at all, dear friend, you are wrong."
He turned to Sir John and to the other second questioningly.
"Three paces will do very well," replied Sir John, bowing.
There was nothing to be said if the two adversaries were agreed. The five paces were reduced to three. Then two sabres were laid on the ground to mark the limit. Sir John and Roland took their places, standing so that their toes touched the sabres. A pistol was then handed to each of them.
They bowed to say that they were ready. The two seconds stepped aside. They were to give the signal by clapping their hands three times. At the first clap the principals were to cock their pistols; at the second to take aim; at the third to fire.
The three claps were given at regular intervals amid the most profound silence; the wind itself seemed to pause and the rustle of the trees was hushed. The principals were calm, but the seconds were visibly distressed.
At the third clap two shots rang out so simultaneously that they seemed but one. But to the utter astonishment of the seconds the combatants remained standing. At the signal Roland had lowered his pistol and fired into the ground. Sir John had raised his and cut the branch of a tree three feet behind Roland. Each was clearly amazed--amazed that he himself was still living, after having spared his antagonist.
Roland was the first to speak.
"Ah!" he cried, "my sister was right in saying that you were the most generous man on earth."
And throwing his pistol aside he opened his arms to Sir John, who rushed into them.
"Ah! I understand," he said. "You wanted to die; but, God be thanked, I am not your murderer."
The two seconds came up.
"What is the matter?" they asked together.
"Nothing," said Roland, "except that I could not die by the hand of the man I love best on earth. You saw for yourselves that he preferred to die rather than kill me."
Then throwing himself once more into Sir John's arms, and grasping the hands of his two friends, he said: "I see that I must leave that to the Austrians. And now, gentlemen, you must excuse me. The First Consul is on the eve of a great battle in Italy, and I have not a moment to lose if I am to be there."
Leaving Sir John to make what explanations he thought suitable to the seconds, Roland rushed to the road, sprang upon his horse, and returned to Paris at a gallop.
In the meantime the French army continued its march, and on the 5th of June it entered Milan.
There was little resistance. The fort of Milan was invested. Murat, sent to Piacenza, had taken the city without a blow. Lannes had defeated General Ott at Montebello. Thus disposed, the French army was in the rear of the Austrians before the latter were aware of it.
During the night of the 8th of June a courier arrived from Murat, who, as we have said, was occupying Piacenza. Murat had intercepted a despatch from General Melas, and was now sending it to Bonaparte. This despatch announced the capitulation of Genoa; Masséna, after eating horses, dogs, cats and rats, had been forced to surrender. Melas spoke of the Army of the Reserves with the utmost contempt; he declared that the story of Bonaparte's presence in Italy was a hoax; and asserted that he knew for certain that the First Consul was in Paris.
Here was news that must instantly be imparted to Bonaparte, for it came under the category of bad news. Consequently, Bourrienne woke him up at three o'clock in the morning and translated the despatch. Bonaparte's first words were as follows:
"Pooh! Bourrienne, you don't understand German."
But Bourrienne repeated the translation word for word. After this reading the general rose, had everybody waked up, gave his orders, and then went back to bed and to sleep.
That same day he left Milan and established his headquarters at Stradella; there he remained until June 12th, left on the 13th, and marched to the Scrivia through Montebello, where he saw the field of-battle, still torn and bleeding after Lannes' victory. The traces of death were everywhere; the church was still overflowing with the dead and wounded.
"The devil!" said the First Consul to the victor, "you must have made it pretty hot here."
"So hot, general, that the bones in my division were cracking and rattling like hail on a skylight."
Desaix joined the First Consul on the 11th of June, while he was still at Stradella. Released by the capitulation of El-Arish, he had reached Toulon the 6th of May, the very day on which Bonaparte left Paris. At the foot of the Mont Saint-Bernard Bonaparte received a letter from him, asking whether he should march to Paris or rejoin the army.
"Start for Paris, indeed!" exclaimed Bonaparte; "write him to rejoin the army at headquarters, wherever that may be."
Bourrienne had written, and, as we have seen, Desaix joined the army the 11th of June, at Stradella. The First Consul received him with twofold joy. In the first place, he regained a man without ambition, an intelligent officer and a devoted friend. In the second place, Desaix arrived just in the nick of time to take charge of the division lately under Boudet, who had been killed. Through a false report, received through General Gardannes, the First Consul was led to believe that the enemy refused to give battle and was retiring to Genoa. He sent Desaix and his division on the road to Novi to cut them off.
The night of the 13th passed tranquilly. In spite of a heavy storm, an engagement had taken place the preceding evening in which the Austrians had been defeated. It seemed as though men and nature were wearied alike, for all was still during the night. Bonaparte was easy in his mind; there was but one bridge over the Bormida, and he had been assured that that was down. Pickets were stationed as far as possible along the Bormida, each with four scouts.
The whole of the night was occupied by the enemy in crossing the river. At two in the morning two parties of scouts were captured; seven of the eight men were killed, the eighth made his way back to camp crying: "To arms!"
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