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- Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica - 1/19 -


by John Kendrick Bangs


Napoleon's father, Charles Bonaparte, was the honored progenitor of thirteen children, of whom the man who subsequently became the Emperor of the French, by some curious provision of fate, was the second. That the infant Napoleon should have followed rather than led the procession is so foreign to the nature of the man that many worthy persons unfamiliar with the true facts of history have believed that Joseph was a purely apocryphal infant, or, as some have suggested, merely an adopted child; but that Napoleon did upon this occasion content himself with second place is an incontrovertible fact. Nor is it entirely unaccountable. It is hardly to be supposed that a true military genius, such as Napoleon is universally conceded to have been, would plunge into the midst of a great battle without first having acquainted himself with the possibilities of the future. A reconnoitre of the field of action is the first duty of a successful commander; and hence it was that Napoleon, not wishing to rush wholly unprepared into the battle of life, assigned to his brother Joseph the arduous task of first entering into the world to see how the land lay. Joseph having found everything to his satisfaction, Napoleon made his appearance in the little island of Corsica, recently come under French domination the 15th day August, 1769. Had he been born two months earlier, we are told, he would have been an Italian. Had he been born a hundred years later, it is difficult to say what he would have been. As it was, he was born a Frenchman. It is not pleasant to contemplate what the man's future would have been had he been born an Italian, nor is it easy to picture that future with any confidence born of certainty. Since the days of Caesar, Italy had not produced any great military commander, and it is not likely that the powers would have changed their scheme, confirmed by sixteen centuries of observance, in Napoleon's behalf--a fact which Napoleon himself realized, for he often said in his latter days, with a shudder: "I hate to think how inglorious I should have become had I been born two months earlier and entered the world as an Italian. I should have been another Joseph--not that Joseph is not a good man, but he is not a great man. Ah! Bourrienne, we cannot be too careful in the selection of our birthdays."

It is the testimony of all who knew him in his infancy that Napoleon was a good child. He was obedient and respectful to his mother, and sometimes at night when, on account of some indigestible quality of his food or other cause, it was necessary for his father to make a series of forced marches up and down the spacious nursery in the beautiful home at Ajaccio, holding the infant warrior in his arms, certain premonitions of his son's future career dawned upon the parent. His anguish was voiced in commanding tones; his wails, like his subsequent addresses to his soldiers, were short, sharp, clear, and decisive, nor would he brook the slightest halt in these midnight marches until the difficulties which stood in his path had been overcome. His confidence in himself at this early period was remarkable. Quick to make up his mind, he was tenacious of his purpose to the very end.

It is related that when barely seven months old, while sitting in his nurse's lap, by means of signs which she could not fail to comprehend, he expressed the desire, which, indeed, is characteristic of most healthy Children of that age, to possess the whole of the outside world, not to mention the moon and other celestial bodies. Reaching his little hands out in the direction of the Continent, lying not far distant over the waters of the Mediterranean, he made this demand; and while, of course, his desire was not granted upon the instant, it is the testimony of history that he never lost sight of that cherished object.

After providing Napoleon with eleven other brothers and sisters, Charles Bonaparte died, and left his good and faithful wife Letitia to care for the future greatness of his family, a task rendered somewhat the more arduous than it might otherwise have been by the lack of income; but the good woman, who had much of Napoleon's nature in her make-up, was equal to the occasion. She had her sons to help her, and was constantly buoyed up by the expressed determination of her second child to place her beyond the reach of want in that future day when the whole world lay grovelling at his feet.

"Do not worry, mother," Napoleon said. "Let Joseph and Lucien and Louis and Jerome and the girls be educated; as for me, I can take care of myself. I, who at the age of three have mastered the Italian language, have a future before me. I will go to France, and then--"

"Well! what then?" his mother asked.

"Nous verrons!" Napoleon replied, turning on his heel and walking out of the house whistling a military march.

From this it will be seen that even in his in fancy Napoleon had his ideas as to his future course. Another anecdote, which is taken from the unpublished memoirs of the grandson of one of his Corsican nurses, illustrates in an equally vivid manner how, while a mere infant in arms, he had a passion for and a knowledge of military terms. Early one morning the silence was broken by the incipient Emperor calling loudly for assistance. His nurse, rushing to him, discovered that the point of a pin was sticking into his back. Hastily removing the cause of the disturbance, she endeavored to comfort him:

"Never mind, sweetheart," she said, "it's only a nasty pin."

"Nasty pin!" roared Napoleon. "By the revered name of Paoli, I swear I thought it was a bayonet!"

It was, no doubt, this early realization of the conspicuous part he was to play in the history of his time that made the youthful Bonaparte reserved of manner, gloomy, and taciturn, and prone to irritability. He felt within him the germ of future greatness, and so became impatient of restraint. He completely dominated the household. Joseph, his elder brother, became entirely subject to the imperious will of the future Emperor; and when in fancy Napoleon dreamed of those battles to come, Joseph was always summoned to take an active part in the imaginary fight. Now he was the bridge of Lodi, and, lying flat on his back, was forced to permit his bloodthirsty brother to gallop across him, shouting words of inspiration to a band of imaginary followers; again he was forced to pose as a snow-clad Alp for Napoleon to climb, followed laboriously by Lucien and Jerome and the other children. It cannot be supposed that this was always pleasing to Joseph, but he never faltered when the demand was made that he should act, because he did not dare.

"You bring up the girls, mother," Napoleon had said. "Leave the boys to me and I'll make kings of them all, if I have to send them over to the United States, where all men will soon be potentates, and their rulers merely servants--chosen to do their bidding."

Once, Joseph venturing to assert himself as the eldest son, Napoleon smiled grimly.

"And what, pray, does that mean?" he asked, scornfully.

"That I and not you am the head of the family," replied Joseph.

"Very well," said Napoleon, rushing behind him, and, by a rapidly conceived flank movement, giving Joseph a good sound kick. "How does the head of the family like the foot of the family? Don't ever prate of accidents of birth to me."

From that time on Joseph never murmured again, but obeyed blindly his brother's slightest behest. He would have permitted Napoleon to mow him down with grape-shot without complaint rather than rebel and incur the wrath which he knew would then fall upon his head.

At school the same defiance of restraint and contempt for superior strength characterized Napoleon. Here, too, his taciturn nature helped him much. If he were asked a question which he could not answer, he would decline to speak, so that his instructors were unable to state whether or not he was in ignorance as to the point under discussion, and could mark him down conscientiously as contumelious only. Hence it was that he stood well in his studies, but was never remarkable for deportment. His favorite plaything, barring his brother Joseph, was a small brass cannon that weighed some thirty odd pounds, and which is still to be seen on the island of Corsica. Of this he once said: "I'd rather hear its report than listen to a German band; though if I could get them both playing at the same time there'd be one German band less in the world."

This remark found its parallel later on when, placed by Barras in command of the defenders of the Convention against the attacks of the Sectionists, Napoleon was asked the chairman of the Assembly to send them occasional reports as to how matters progressed. His reply was terse.

"Legislators," he said, "you ask me for an occasional report. If you listen you will hear the report of my cannon. That is all you'll get, and it will be all you need. I am here. I will save you."

"It is a poor time for jokes," said a representative.

"It is a worse time for paper reports," retorted Napoleon. "It would take me longer to write out a legislative report than it will to clean out the mob. Besides, I want it understood at this end of my career that autograph-hunters are going to get left."

As he turned, Barras asked him as to his intentions.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To make a noise in the world," cried Napoleon; "au revoir."

That he had implanted in him the essential elements of a great fighter his school-companions were not long in finding out.

When not more than five years of age he fell in love with a little schoolmate, and, being jeered at for his openly avowed sentiments, he threatened to thrash the whole school, adding to the little maiden that he would thrash her as well unless she returned his love, a line of argument which completely won her heart, particularly in view of the fact that he proved his sincerity by fulfilling that part of his assumed obligations which referred to the subjugation of the rest of the school. It was upon this occasion that in reference to his carelessness of dress, his schoolmates composed the rhyme,

Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica - 1/19

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