The Gay Cockade/The Emperor's Ghost
THE EMPEROR'S GHOST
I had not known Tom Randolph a week before I was aware that life was not real to him. All his world was a stage, with himself as chief player. He dramatized everything—actions, emotions, income. Thus he made poverty picturesque, love a thing of the stars, the day's work a tragedy, or, if the professors proved kind, a comedy. He ate and drank, as it were, to music, combed his hair and blacked his boots in the glare of footlights; made exits and entrances of a kind unknown to men like myself who lacked his sense of the histrionic.
He was Southern and chivalric. His traditions had to do with the doffed hat and the bent knee. He put woman on a pedestal and kept her there. No man, he contended, was worthy of her—what she gave was by the grace of her own sweet charity!
It will be seen that in all this he missed the modern note. As a boy he had been fed upon Scott, and his later reading had not robbed him of his sense of life as a flamboyant spectacle.
He came to us in college with a beggarly allowance from an impoverished estate owned by his grandfather, a colonel of the Confederacy, who after the war had withdrawn with his widowed daughter to his worthless acres. In due time the daughter had died, and her child had grown up in a world of shadows. On nothing a year the colonel had managed, in some miraculous fashion, to preserve certain hospitable old customs. Distinguished guests still sat at his table and ate ducks cooked to the proper state of rareness, and terrapin in a chafing-dish, with a dash of old sherry. If between these feasts there was famine the world never knew.
It was perhaps from the colonel that Randolph had learned to make poverty picturesque. His clothes were old and his shoes were shabby. But his strength lay in the fact that he did not think of himself as poor. He had so much, you see, that the rest of us lacked. He was a Randolph. He had name, position, ancestry. He was, in short, a gentleman!
I do not think he looked upon any of us as gentlemen, not in the Old Dominion sense. He had come to our small Middle-Western college because it was cheap and his finances would not compass education anywhere else.
In an older man his prejudices would have been insufferable, but his youth and charm made us lenient. We contented ourselves with calling him "Your Highness," and were always flattered when he asked us to his rooms.
His strong suit was hospitality. It was in his blood, of course. When his allowance came he spent it in giving the rest of us a good time. His room was as shabby as himself—a table, an ink-spotted desk, a couch with a disreputable cover, a picture of Washington, a half-dozen books, and a chafing-dish.
The chafing-dish was the hump and the hoof of his festivities. He made rarebits and deviled things with an air that had been handed down from generations of epicures. I can see him now with his black hair in a waving lock on his forehead, in worn slippers and faded corduroy coat, sitting on the edge of the table smoking a long pipe, visualizing himself as the lord of a castle—the rest of us as vassals of a rather agreeable and intelligent sort!
It was perfectly natural that he should stage his first love-affair, and when he was jilted that he should dramatize his despair. For days after Madge Ballou had declared her preference for Dicky Carson, Randolph walked with melancholy. He came to my rooms and sat, a very young and handsome Hamlet, on my fire-bench, with his chin in his hand.
"Why should she like Dicky best?"
"She has no imagination."
"But Dicky's a—beast——"
"With a fat bank-account."
"Money wouldn't count with Madge."
"I'm not so sure——"
"Women are not like that, MacDonald."
I saw, as he went on with his arguments, that she had become to him an Ophelia, weakly led. Women in his lexicon of romance might be weak but never mercenary. I think he finally overthrew her in his mind with "Get thee to a nunnery!" I know that he burned her picture; he showed me the ashes in a silver stamp-box.
He had, of course, his heroes—there were moments when unconsciously he aped them. It was after a debate that the boys began to call him "Bonaparte." He had defended the Little Corporal, and in defending him had personified him. With that dark lock over his forehead, his arms folded, he had flung defiance to the deputies, and for that moment he had been not Tom Randolph but the Emperor himself.
He won the debate, amid much acclaim, and when he came down to us I will confess to a feeling, which I think the others shared, of a soul within his body which did not belong there. Tom Randolph was, of course, Tom Randolph, but the voice which had spoken to us had rung with the power of that other voice which had been stilled at St. Helena!
The days that followed dispelled the illusion, but the name clung to him. I think he liked it, and emphasized the resemblance. He let his hair grow long, sunk his head between his shoulders, was quick and imperious in his speech.
Then came the war. Belgium devastated, France invaded. Randolph was fired at once.
"I'm going over."
"But, my dear fellow——"
"There's our debt to Lafayette."
With his mind made up there was no moving him. The rest of us held back. Our imaginations did not grasp at once the world's need of us.
But Randolph saw himself a Henry of Navarre—white plumes; a Richard of the Lion Heart—crusades and red crosses; a Cyrano without the nose—"These be cadets of Gascony——"
"You see, MacDonald," he said, flaming, "we Randolphs have always done it."
"Fought. There's been a Randolph in every war over here, and before that in a long line of battles——"
He told me a great deal about the ancient Randolphs, and the way they had fought on caparisoned steeds with lances.
"War to-day is different," I warned him. "Not so pictorial."
But I knew even then that he would make it pictorial. He would wear his khaki like chain armor.
He gave us a farewell feast in his room. It was the season for young squirrels, and he made us a Brunswick stew. It was the best thing I had ever tasted, with red peppers in it and onions, and he served it with an old silver ladle which he had brought from home.
While we ate he talked of war, of why men should fight—"for your own honor and your country's."
There were pacifists among us and they challenged him. He flung them off; their protests died before his passion.
"We are men, not varlets!"
Nobody laughed at him. It showed his power over us that none of us laughed. We simply sat there and listened while he told us what he thought of us.
At last one who was braver than the rest cried out: "Go to it, Bonaparte!"
In a sudden flashing change Randolph hunched his shoulders, set his slouched hat sidewise low on his brows, wrapped the couch-cover like a cloak about him. His glance swept the room. There was no anger in it, just a sort of triumphant mockery as he gave the famous speech to Berthier.
"They send us a challenge in which our honor is at stake—a thing a Frenchman has never refused—and since a beautiful queen wishes to be a witness to the combat, let us be courteous, and in order not to keep her waiting, let us march without sleeping as far as Saxony——!"
I can't tell you of the effect it had on us. We were gripped by the throats, and the room was so still that we heard ourselves breathe. Four of the fellows left next day with Randolph. I think he might have taken us all if we had not been advised and held back by the protests of our professors, who spoke of war with abhorrence.
Three years later I saw him again, in France. Our own country had gotten into the fight by that time, and I was caught in the first draft. I had heard now and then from Randolph. He had worked for nearly three years with the Ambulance Corps, and was now fighting for democracy with his fellows.
We had been shivering in the rain for a week in one of the recaptured French towns when a group of seasoned officers were sent to lick us into shape. Among the other officers was Randolph, and when he came upon me he gave a shout of welcome.
"Good old MacDonald—at last!"
I'll confess that his "at last" carried a sting, and I remember feeling the injustice of our equal rank, as I set his years of privation and hardship against my few weeks in a training camp.
He was very glad to see me, and the very first night he made me a Brunswick stew. This time there were no squirrels, but he begged young rabbits from the old couple who had once been servants in the château where we were billeted. They had trudged back at once on the retirement of the Boches, and were making the best of the changed conditions.
There was, of course, no chafing-dish, and the stew was cooked in an iron pot which hung over an open fire in the ancient kitchen. Before they sold the rabbits the old people had made one condition:
"If we may have a bit for mademoiselle——?"
"She is here with us, monsieur. She had not been well. We have been saving the rabbits for her."
Randolph made the grand gesture that I so well remembered.
"My good people—if she would dine with us——?"
The old woman shook her head. She was not sure. She would see.
Perhaps she said pleasant things of us, perhaps mademoiselle was lonely. But whatever the reason, mademoiselle consented to dine, coming out of her seclusion, very thin and dark and small, but self-possessed.
I have often wondered what she thought, in those first moments of meeting, of Randolph, as with a spoon for a sceptre, the manner of a king, he presided over the feast. She spoke very good English, but needed to have many things explained.
"Do gentlemen cook in your country?"
Randolph sketched life as he had known it on his grandfather's plantation—negroes to do it all, except when gentlemen pleased.
She drew the mantle of her distaste about her. "Black men? I shouldn't like it."
Well, I saw before the evening ended that Randolph had met his peer. For every one of his aristocratic prejudices she matched him with a dozen. And he loved her for it! At last here was a lady who would buckle on his armor, watch his shield, tie her token on his sleeve!
He sat on the edge of the table in his favorite attitude—hunched-up shoulders, folded arms. His hair was cut too short now for the dark lock, but even without it I saw her glance at him now and then in a puzzled fashion, as if she weighed some familiar memory.
But it was one of the peasants who voiced it—the old man carrying away the remains of the stew muttered among the shadows to his wife:
Mademoiselle caught her breath. "Oui, Gaston." Then to me, in English: "Do you see it?"
"Yes. We called him that at school."
She was thin and dark no longer—illumined, the color staining her cheeks. "Oh, if he were here—to save France!"
I protested. "An emperor against an emperor?"
"He was a great democrat—he loved the common people. For a little while power spoiled him—but he loved the people. And the Bourbons did not love them—Louis laughed at them—and lost his head. And Napoleon never laughed. He loved France—if he had lived he would have saved us."
Out of the shadows the old woman spoke. "They say he will come again."
"Oui, Margot." Mademoiselle was standing, with her hand on her heart. Randolph's eyes devoured her. He had taken no part in the conversation. It was almost uncanny to see him sitting there, silent, arms folded, shoulders hunched, sparkling eyes missing nothing. "It is true," mademoiselle told us earnestly, "that the tra-dee-tion says he will come back—when France needs him—the soldiers talk of it."
"In almost every country," I said, "there is a story like that, of heroes who will come again."
"But Napoleon, monsieur—surely he would not fail France?"
The thing that followed was inevitable. Randolph and Mademoiselle Julie fell in love with each other. He drew her as he had drawn us at school. She was not a Madge Ballou, mundane and mercenary; she was rather a Heloise, a Nicolette, a Jeanne d'Arc, self-sacrificing, impassioned. She met Randolph on equal ground. They soared together—mixed love of country with love of lovers. They rose at dawn to worship the sun, they walked forth at twilight to adore together the crescent moon.
And all the while war was at the gates; we could hear the boom of big guns. The spring drive was on and the Germans were coming back.
I shall never forget the night that Randolph and I were ordered to the front. Mademoiselle had come in with her hands full of violets. Randolph, meeting her for the first time after a busy day, took her hands and the frail blossoms in his eager clasp. He was an almost perfect lover—Aucassin if you will—Abelard at his best.
"Violets," he said. "May I have three?"
"Why three, monsieur?"
"For love, mademoiselle, and truth and constancy."
He took his prayer-book from his pocket, and she gave him the violets. He touched them to her lips, then crushed them to his own. I saw it—sitting back in the shadows. I should never have thought of kissing a girl like that. But it was rather wonderful.
He shut the violets in the little book.
They sat very late that night by the fire. I went in and out, not disturbing them. I saw him kneel at her feet as he left her, and she bent forward and kissed his forehead.
He talked of her a great deal after that. More than I would have talked of love, but his need of an audience drove him to confidences. He felt that he must make himself worthy of her—to go back to her as anything less than a hero might seem to belittle her. I am not sure that he was braver than other men, but his feeling for effect gave him a sort of reckless courage. Applause was a part of the game—he could not do without it.
And so came that night when a small band of us were cut off from the rest. We were intrenched behind a small eminence which hid us from our enemies, with little hope of long escaping their observation. It had been wet and cold, and there had been no hot food for days. We, French and Americans, had fought long and hard; we were in no state to stand suspense, yet there was nothing to do but wait for a move on the other side, a move which could end in only one way—bayonets and bare hands, and I, for one, hated it.
I think the others hated it, too, all but Randolph. The rain had stopped and the moon flooded the world. He turned his face up to it and dreamed.
The knowledge came to us before midnight that the Huns had found us. It became only a matter of moments before they would be upon us, the thing would happen which we hated—bayonets and bare hands, with the chances in favor of the enemy!
Somewhere among our men rose a whimper of fear, and then another. You see, they were cold and hungry and some of them were wounded, and they were cut off from hope. It wasn't cowardice. I call no man a coward. They had faced death a thousand times, some of them. Yet there was danger in their fears.
Randolph was next to me. "My God, MacDonald," he said, "they've lost their nerve——"
There wasn't a second to spare. I saw him doing something to his hat.
As I have said, there was a moon. It lighted that battle-scarred world with a sort of wild beauty, and suddenly in a clear space above us on the little hill a figure showed, motionless against the still white night—a figure small yet commanding, three-cornered hat pulled low—oh, you have seen it in pictures a thousand times—Napoleon of Marengo, of Austerlitz, of Jena, of Friedland—but over and above everything, Napoleon of France!
Of course the Germans shot him. But when they came over the top they were met by Frenchmen who had seen a ghost. "C'est l'Empereur! C'est l'Empereur!" they had gasped. "He returns to lead us."
They fought like devils, and—well, the rest of us fought, too, and all the time, throughout the bloody business, I had before me that vision of Randolph alone in the moonlight. Or was it Randolph? Who knows? Do great souls find time for such small business? And was it small?
His medals were, of course, sent to the colonel. But the violets in the little book went back to mademoiselle. And the old hat, crushed into three-cornered shape, went back. And I told her what he had done.
She wrote to me in her stiff English:
"I have loved a great man. For me, monsieur, it is enough. Their souls unite in victory!"