Erfurt Germany 1904
“Good afternoon Frau Paulsen. It is a pleasure to meet you again.”
The elderly lady of the house was dressed all in black. She smiled a little at her visitor, and stood to one side to allow him to enter her large hallway. “Do come in Herr Kelber.”
“What a fine house you have Frau Paulsen. Have you lived here for many years?”
“Almost fifty,” she responded proudly. “I moved here when I married my late husband.”
“Really, that’s a long time.” Max Kelber sounded genuinely impressed.
Max was a good natured, jovial individual, who had grown fat and red faced on good food and wine and little exercise. As he spoke he mopped his brow with a handkerchief. The walk from his shop, although not all that far, had quite worn him out. A bookseller in his late fifties, he was grateful for being able to derive a living from his trade. He still enjoyed the anticipation of examining books that he had not previously seen, and had been looking forward all morning to his visit.
Frau Paulsen had recently visited his shop to inform him that she had a library with a large collection of books. She told him without giving any reason that she had decided to dispose of as much of it as he might be interested in. It was a task that he was used to being asked to undertake. Whilst most of the books he examined were likely to be of no great value or interest, occasionally he could come across something quite special.
Built in the Baroque style, the house was more than two centuries old. He was impressed by both its proportions and the character of its interior, but as he entered its library with its shelves of neatly stacked books, and he began to look through them, he was rather disappointed by their quality. Then, on close inspection, tucked away out of sight behind some larger tomes, he happened to notice an edition of Latin letters by a number of ancient authors, with the original text and its German translation facing each other on opposite pages.
From its cover it was apparent that the book had been published in Augsburg in 1784. It was so dusty that he wondered if it had gone unread and forgotten for nearly as long. What intrigued him about it though were the words written in English across the cover “two times eight,” not once but three times. It seemed very strange, and when he began to thumb through the book he also discovered the words, again in English, “10 times 10” had been written on a couple of pages. It also looked as if these pages had been glued together and then pulled apart. Further on still he discovered that two pages had been cut out of the book. Then, most surprisingly, he came across a drawing on a blank page. It was clearly a crude map of a locality, which meant nothing to him except that it included a road marked as leading to Erfurt.
The book had effectively been defaced, but clearly with some deliberate purpose rather than through mindless vandalism. He decided that he would examine the book more carefully later, and added it to the pile that he was prepared to take away with him. He then offered Frau Paulsen a price for these that she willingly accepted, and returned to his shop.
That evening by gas light he again studied the book. Suddenly, he felt something lying under a flap at the end of it. To his surprise it was a letter, or part of a letter, for there was no signature, written in poorly spelled English, and dated 13th December 1813. He could speak a little English, and with the help of an Anglo-German dictionary slowly read it through.
“Dear Ellen, our enemies seem to be determined on crossing the river Rhine so they have put an end to any communication with France. Poor Poniatowski drowned after Leipzig, but Florentin not heavy wounded will soon make his escape. My left arm is better a little you see how well I can write. May God save us from the typhus! Hope that you received the money I sent you by Duroc- All the other treasures we brought with us from Russia were well hidden in some carriages of my horse artillery being there no other chance of bringing them to a place of security- After the battle of Leip. I quitted the large road to Erfurt and went upwarts the river Saale reaching the town of Jena Oct 21st about midnigt. Here we come to another road to Erfurt via Weimar well known to me from 1806 the Prussian Hussards being at my heels - Now my darling listen carefully to what I have to tell you. Quitting the town of Jena on the road to Erfurt there is a right hand RIGHT HAND- before we come to the oil-mill a small ditch called the Swabish-Grabe- this ditch some hundred steeps upwards grows a deep ravine overgron with bushes and trees. There I came only accompanied by Florentin and some trusty soldiers -- the latter brought our boxes on horseback. In the ravine- nearly in the Head (End) of it -- found a fox or rabbits hole-in the middle border left hand-coming up LEFT Hand-enlarged it and put treasures into it stopping up the hole with large stones,earth, etc. The gold coins barrs of gold and silver, the juwels I found in a churchs cellar in Moskou all is enclosed in strong grapeshot boxes and so it can remain there for hundred years without becoming changed. If the gracious Lord would not bring me back to you, go to the town of Jena with Florentin buy the upper end of the Swabish Grabe you can make it out with my sketch and take it up all: you will be immense rich -- You will get 10-12 millions. God bless you dear Ellen!”
|Prologue|Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|
Paris August 1811
Colonel Michael Korsowski looked somewhat taller than he was, thanks to his slim figure and long legs. His clean shaven, angular and well proportioned face, carried the marks of experience although he was not yet old, being no more than thirty five. His hair was dark brown with only a hint of greyness, and his eyes a lighter brown and essentially good natured, for all that his trade was a martial one, and he had both witnessed and perpetrated a full measure of human suffering. As was to be expected of a soldier of his rank he carried himself well, and he was impeccably dressed and distinguished in appearance, wearing a white waistcoat, sage-green breeches and stockings, a well tied cravat, and a black coat.
The evening sun was glinting through the windows as Ellen Charpentier glanced around the assembled company in the elegantly furnished salon, with its white stucco walls and ceiling gilded by decorative gold leaf. She noticed first Michael’s dark hair, and heard him laugh in a pleasant, gentle fashion that she found instantly attractive. Her eyes then made out his face and she was more than pleased by what she saw. Without doubt he was a truly beautiful man.
Michael was engaged in polite conversation with a man and woman who Ellen did not know. He had no particular reason to notice her as she was not in his direct line of vision, and was standing some distance from him, but perhaps becoming subconsciously aware that someone in the room was staring at him, he suddenly glanced around and caught her eye. Her first instinct was to look immediately away, but his sheer attractiveness held her in thrall. They gazed at each other as if in a mutual trance for what seemed a long time, but was in fact no more than a couple of seconds. Then he appeared to smile at her with his eyes, took a long sip of champagne from the glass that he held with his right hand, and resumed his conversation.
Affairs of state had brought General Prince Joseph Poniatowski, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw’s minister for war, to Paris. Few members of the Polish aristocracy were more enthusiastic in their support for the Emperor Napoleon. He was admired by Poles and French alike as a dashing soldier and leader of men, who had earned the loyalty and affection of his soldiers in battle, and the confidence of Napoleon himself.
Michael was a member of the Prince’s staff, a cavalry officer, and veteran of several campaigns, whom the Prince held in high regard. His background was from the lower echelons of the Polish aristocracy, and as a patriotic young man he had felt angry and bitter when Poland had ceased to exist as an independent nation. Male members of his family had been soldiers for generations, and with the growing prospect that Napoleon’s military campaigns would restore his nation’s sovereignty, it was a profession that he had felt duty bound to take up. He cautiously shared the Prince’s enthusiasm for the Emperor’s cause, and concurred with his view that France’s enemies were also Poland’s, regarding them as no more than ravenous vultures who had picked over the bones of his beloved motherland.
While in Paris the Prince and his staff were invited to a number of receptions, and it was at just one of these that Michael found himself looking into the eyes of Ellen. She had been invited to the reception by its hostess, Madam Gavroche, whom she had known since childhood. Ellen was in her mid twenties, and the daughter of a deceased soldier who had served under the ancien regime of Louis XV1, and fought in the American war of independence. There, he had met and fallen in love with her mother, Anna, who once the war was over and they were married, had returned with him to Paris. It was a union that resulted in Ellen being brought up to speak both French and English.
She politely excused herself from a dull conversation she had been having with an elderly diplomat who remembered her late father and looked to replenish her glass. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that the handsome stranger also now seemed to be alone. Again, their eyes met, in what she sensed was a bond of mutual attraction. Then he walked towards her, and bowed.
“Permit me to introduce myself. I am Colonel Michael Korsowski. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Mademoiselle Ellen Charpentier, Monsieur.”
“At your service Mademoiselle.”
Michael looked at her with a steady, open gaze that seemed to Ellen to declare his self-confidence and maturity, and she returned this in kind. She noted that his French too was good, but with a heavy accent. She was proud of her own mixed descent, and felt that this only added to his sexual attraction. They fell into easy conversation and soon discovered that they could both speak English.
“When I was in my twenties, I had the means and the inclination to see the world,” he explained. “I spent about two years in America and learnt to speak English as well as I can now speak French.”
“And are there any other languages that you are master of Monsieur?” she asked him.
“Many years spent campaigning in Germany has given me a smattering of German; enough to get by with anyway.”
“Then you are truly a linguist Monsieur,” she declared, smilingly.
He shrugged diffidently, and she could tell to her pleasure that he was not a conceited man.
“And you Mam’selle …, can you speak any languages apart from French?”
At this she positively beamed at him, and replying in perfect English told him that her mother was an American and had brought her up to be bilingual. It delighted her that they had the ability to speak English in common, and he had spent so long in her mother’s homeland. As she herself had never set foot outside France she wanted very much to engage him in conversation about his experiences in America and elsewhere.
All the time they spoke, Michael couldn’t help thinking what a captivating creature was standing in front of him. Endowed with a shapely figure, she was dressed in a classical, low cut white dress that showed off her bosom and bare arms, had rich black hair swept up off the nape of her neck with a bow, a well rounded face with unblemished skin, a petite nose, and full lips. Above all she had warm, sparkling brown eyes that were at once friendly and intelligent. In his experience such women were invariably already married or engaged, but he could see she was not wearing any sort of ring. He wondered how many hearts she might have broken, or whether she might even herself have been crossed in love.
It pained him whenever in such company to think that he was a married man, albeit an estranged one, having lived apart from his wife Halina for several years. They had enjoyed one of those whirlwind romances of youth that had been wonderful enough while it lasted. Sadly, they had then grown apart to the point of having little to say to each other, and when the war came it had given him an excuse to leave and never return. .
At twenty four Ellen was very well aware that she was of an age where most of her contemporaries were already married and had started to bear children. She could easily have been one of them, but there was little financial pressure on her to marry as her father, who had died when she was still a child, had been a wealthy man and had left her financially secure in her own right. She was proud to have grown to have a strong, self-willed nature, with a determination to only marry for love, and although she had been courted often enough was yet to find any man who she could truly give her heart to.
With a boldness that he was only used to displaying on the battlefield, Michael decided to seize the opportunity to ask Ellen if she would be willing to dine with him the following evening.
She smiled at him in a rather mischievous fashion. “I would like to accept your invitation, but do you expect me to come without a chaperone?”
Michael looked at her carefully and couldn’t quite make up his mind if she was teasing him. His courting days were long behind him, and he felt awkward that he had momentarily forgotten the social convention that frowned on young unmarried women of any standing having an unaccompanied assignation with a man.
“No, of course not,” he responded after a slight hesitation. “I assure you that I did not intend to suggest otherwise.”
Ellen smiled at him again. “No, I am sure you didn’t, but let me tell you Monsieur that I am an independent spirit and that we live in changing times. My father is sadly long dead, I have means of my own, and I am quite old enough not to need any chaperone to protect my reputation. That is if I can trust you to behave like a gentleman?”
“I assure you Mam’selle, you need have no concern on that account.”
“Good, then we understand each other.”
“So, where do you live Mam’selle?”
“In the Rue Saint Dominique – Number 29. I live there with my mother. It is in the Faubourg St Germain quarter of the City. Do you know the quarter at all? Or is this your first visit to Paris?”
“I have been here once before. But that was several years ago. Parts of the city seem to have changed so much since then. There is so much rebuilding going on.”
“Too much, I think. The Emperor is busy trying to transform Paris into an imperial capital. And whereabouts are you staying?”
“At a small hotel in the Rue St Honore.”
“Then you will need to cross the river by the Pont Neuf. It isn’t all that far.”
“May I call for you at a quarter to seven?”
“With pleasure.” She proceeded to give him some detailed directions to help him find her address before they were interrupted by one of his fellow staff officers, Count Sierawski. He was a shrewd, perceptive individual, in his early fifties with drawn, pinched features, and hair that had already turned white. He bowed politely to Ellen.
“Excuse me, but the Prince has been asking for you Michael.”
“Right, I will come directly.” Michael turned towards Ellen and smiled. Then he too bowed to her, and as he raised his head looked into her eyes, which seemed to him to possess a dazzling warmth.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation Mam’selle.
“Not at all. I look forward to meeting you again tomorrow evening.”
As Michael moved away through the crowded room Count Sierawski whispered to him.
“A new love affair my friend?”
“Perhaps” he responded, colouring slightly at the thought that his attraction for Ellen had been so obvious.
“Does she know you are married?”
He instantly regretted ever having revealed this awkward fact.
“No, not yet. But then, as you know I have lived apart from my wife for some years.”
“Well, good luck. She is a beautiful girl, of independent means so I hear, and free to play the field.”
He spent the next day in a mounting state of anticipation at the thought of seeing Ellen again, and as soon as she was once more in his company felt a deep sense of desire for her. Since leaving his wife he had spent most of the last five years fighting for the Emperor, and regretted living a largely celibate existence, succumbing only occasionally to the temptations of the whore house. He knew that he had grown increasingly lonely, and with the Empire now largely at peace decided that he was in need of a love affair.
He found Ellen’s house without difficulty, and noted that it was a well appointed, three storied building under the eaves of an impressive roof, pierced by dormer windows. He knocked at its substantial front door, which was promptly opened by a demure looking maid. He judged her to be no more than twenty years old, and she showed him into the wood panelled hallway with stairs leading down to it dominated by a portrait of a man in the prime of life, dressed in a uniform. From his likeness he bore a striking resemblance to Ellen, and he assumed must be her late father.
Within moments he heard footsteps on the stairs and glancing up he saw that it was Ellen, elegantly dressed in a yellow evening gown. “God, she’s even more captivatingly beautiful than when we first met,” he thought to himself. Then he greeted her by taking her right hand, and placing his lips upon it, smelling as he did so the delicate perfume that she was wearing.
“You look really delightful Mam’selle.”
She smiled at him warmly. “Thank you. Do please call me Ellen…, if I may call you Michael?”
“Why of course.”
“Your uniform is very striking.”
Michael grinned at her. “I’m glad you think so. This is only meant for special occasions.”
Ellen could see for herself that it was entirely designed to impress, being Turkish blue with crimson cuffs, white epaulettes, and dark blue breeches with the outer seams embellished by slim strips of crimson. Michael had decided that he should wear his full dress colonel’s uniform, and as they stepped outside he also donned his distinctive czapska hat worn by polish lancers, covered with crimson cloth and some twenty cm in height, that made him appear particularly tall and distinguished.
He took her by carriage to dine by candle light in the popular Chez Noudet restaurant in the Palais Royal, which had been recommended to him. As they entered he was able to sense that even amongst the wealthy clientele that frequented its crowded tables he and Ellen together turned more than a few heads in quiet admiration. He knew he could ill afford its expensive prices on his army pay, but putting that out of his mind felt relaxed in Ellen’s company, and as they looked into each other’s eyes was convinced of a deep, mutual attraction.
He noticed that the restaurant was elegantly and expensively decorated with floral wallpaper and velvet green curtains at the windows, while the table that they were shown to, with its starched white tablecloth, had a candelabra standing on it holding three lit candles. The menus handed to them by the attentive waiter had an array of soups, fish dishes, beef and mutton entrees and scores of side dishes, and once they had made their order he also asked for champagne, which they were able to enjoy as they waited for their first entrée to arrive.
Ellen explained proudly that her late father had been a member of the Jacobin club, and therefore a supporter of the revolution that had overthrown Louis XVI.
“He was an officer in the National Guard when it was created at least partly to help defend the revolution. I still believe in the Jacobin cause, and for all the Emperor’s power I hope to live to see the day when we shall once again have a republic,” she boldly proclaimed.
Michael found himself admiring her spirit although he personally had little interest in politics. He just knew that he was above all else a Polish patriot and told her as much.
“My country was once great. Our lands stretched from the Baltic to the Black sea, and Russia…Russia was nothing!” He stretched out his hands expansively to emphasise his feelings. “But our fall …” He shook his head in dismay. “That has been terrible; weak, ineffective government, short sighted policies, partition, and then total elimination. Russia, Austria, Prussia; they have all feasted off us!” He spat out the words in disgust. “But we are a proud people, and I tell you we are rising again! The Emperor’s victories over our enemies and his creation of the Grand Duchy have given us hope, and we will continue to follow him so long as he guarantees our independence from Russia.”
Ellen empathised with him. “Every nation should have a right to self-determination just like the United States,” she declared with a tone of conviction in her voice that he instantly warmed to. As the conversation between them flowed on, and they began to enjoy their exquisitely cooked food, she then told him of her concern for the well being of her younger brother Maurice, who was serving in Spain with the 9th Hussars. Michael was sympathetic, and revealed that he was the second oldest of four children, who had survived childhood.
“My older brother Feliks inherited the bulk of the family estates in Poland when my father died a few years ago, and my sisters have both married. My mother died when I was young.”
“We were brought up by an aunt, my father’s sister. She became our mother in all by name.”
“Is she still alive?”
“Sadly, no. She died not long after my father. Life is short and we must make the most of it while we can.”
They looked at each other with a look of mutual understanding, and by now were enjoying their main course. Used as he was to the often meagre rations that he had to survive on while on campaign, Michael found himself struggling to finish the elaborately decorated lobster a la parisienne that had been placed before him. Ellen on the other hand displayed a healthy appetite by devouring a duckling a la rouennaise stuffed with liver and served with a red wine sauce.
As he sipped his wine and felt even more relaxed Michael began to wonder if he should admit to his marriage. It might mean the end of any relationship with her before it had barely begun, but he liked her too much to be dishonest, and instinctively felt that if he was open with her all would not necessarily be lost between them.
“I must also confess to you that I am a married man.”
Ellen coloured slightly, clearly disappointed by his revelation. “I see …” she said slowly.
“No, you don’t see. We have been estranged for many years. Our marriage is dead in all but name.”
“There’s no need to be. We gradually came to realise that we were not compatible… that it was better that we lived apart.”
“And do you have children?”
Michael looked pained. “No, my wife suffered a miscarriage. She almost died. The Doctor advised that it was too dangerous for her to bear children. After that …” His voice trailed away and he shrugged his shoulders. “These things happen …” Then, he caught Ellen’s eye. “Of course I would fully understand if you did not wish to see me again?”
“No, no. I want to see you again very much.”
“Do you really?”
“Why of course.”
With that they smiled at each other as if they were already intimate lovers and Michael felt an even deeper pang of desire for Ellen. She meanwhile wondered if she was being too impulsive, but found herself drawn not only to his good looks but also his obvious strength of character. The dessert menu then arrived and she confessed to having a sweet tooth. “The Savarin cake is excellent. It’s brushed with kirsch and flavoured with syrup. You must try some. Mind you the way the English blockade our ports it is a small miracle that it is still on the menu at all.”
“We must thank the blockade runners for that I suppose.”
“Yes, they take a grave risk. But the profits they stand to make are enormous.”
Feeling rather bloated and a little the worse for the amount of champagne and wine that they had consumed Michael was pleased to luxuriate in Ellen’s company, and end their meal with coffee and liqueurs. When she had become particularly animated during the course of their evening together he had felt that there was a special vibrancy about her personality that he had noticed before in similarly attractive women. Her face lit up with energy, and her very soul seemed to be on fire with an almost magical exuberance and sexuality that he found even more intoxicating than the champagne and wine that they consumed together. Then he did his inadequate best to hide his shock at the size of the bill that was presented him.
“Is this too expensive for you?” Ellen asked with a look of genuine concern.
“No, not at all,” he responded disingenuously. “Anyway, it has been worth every napoleon to spend an evening in your charming company.” She smiled graciously at him, and he shortly escorted her home by carriage. In the darkness of its interior he found the warmth of her body next to his and the smell of her scent intoxicating, and gently rested his hand on hers.
“You are very beautiful Ellen.”
“Really Michael, do you say that to every woman you dine with?”
“Only if it’s true.”
“And have you dined with many beautiful women?”
“None as beautiful as you.”
“Beauty is only skin deep Michael. You do not know me.”
“I feel as if I’ve known you all my life.”
He could see her eyes smiling at him, slowly put his lips to hers, and began to kiss her, at first tentatively and then more passionately as they became locked in a lingering embrace. All too soon the carriage reached its destination and she was gone, but not before they had arranged a rendezvous for the following afternoon.
He was able to go to bed that night a contented man, confident that this new found relationship was certain to prosper. He was aware that he was not a natural seducer of women and long years of hard campaigning had hardly tuned what limited skills he felt he possessed in that department. Yet somehow, in Ellen’s company, aided he suspected by the alcohol he had drunk, every compliment he had uttered had seemed appropriate, and had tripped off his tongue with surprising ease.
With Napoleon’s Empire at peace apart from Spain, he felt that time for the moment was on his side, for he did not expect his duties to take him back to Poland before the autumn came. He therefore believed that the opportunity was there to develop his relationship with Ellen to the point that even prolonged periods of separation thereafter need never sever it completely. He communicated with her mainly in French but occasionally in English as well, and she began to send him notes written in English to which he responded in kind. To use the language of France’s greatest enemy was he supposed somewhat risqué, but sensed that it only helped to enhance their relationship.
Ellen felt certain that her mother, to whom she was devoted, would disapprove of her embarking on a love affair with a married man. After their first evening together she preferred to be coy about it when in her company, and to meet Michael at some pre-arranged rendezvous rather than have him come to her home. She wanted to be certain of her feelings for him, and knew that if she allowed herself to fall in love with him it would take time to win over her mother to the idea that her only daughter might become the mistress of a married man rather than a bride.
As a consequence Michael and Anna only had one fleeting encounter, when it was especially convenient for Ellen to allow him to come to her home once more to take her out for dinner at another of Paris’s famous restaurants, the Very. Anna could still vividly recall the terrible altercation she had had with Ellen when she first insisted on her right to dine alone with a man not long after she had come into her inheritance at the age of twenty one. Ellen had made it clear that she intended to live as she chose, ignored all of Anna’s appeals, and finally threatened to live alone.
Finding herself unable to prevent Ellen from behaving so unwisely, Anna had gradually come to terms with her daughter’s unconventional life style, and was now naturally curious about Michael. Like her daughter she was struck by his good looks and gentlemanly charm, but Ellen did not want to give the impression that she was becoming in anyway emotionally involved.
“The Colonel seemed a very handsome man,” Anna casually remarked over the breakfast table the following morning. “And he was clearly very attentive towards you.”
Ellen sipped her coffee, and looked at her mother with a smile, thinking as she so often did how well she carried her years, however grey her once thick auburn hair had now become. “He is handsome enough I agree.”
“Have you dined with him before?”
“Yes mama. He is the officer who took me to Chez Noudet a couple of weeks ago. You had gone to some Soiree or other. You remember I told you about him.”
“You gave me no details.”
Ellen sipped her coffee again before answering. “Oh I thought I had.”
“Will he be remaining in Paris for long?”
“I do not really know mama. “
“And do you like him?” Ellen was on her guard, trying to appear relaxed and vaguely disinterested yet sensing all the time where the conversation was leading them. She knew that her mother was a shrewd judge of both character and emotions, and she had no desire to keep any secrets from her for too long. “Well enough,” she responded cautiously.
“He appears far older than you.”
“Ten years I believe mama.” Ellen remembered that her father had been seven years older than her mother so believed that she was not likely to find fault with Michael for that reason alone.
“And he has property?”
Still the questions were coming thick and fast, and leading into evermore sensitive territory. “So he tells me mama, a small estate not far from Warsaw.”
“Surprising then that he has never married?”
Ellen tensed slightly despite herself, and glanced at her mother’s deep, grey eyes. There was a pregnant pause and then she did her best to answer as calmly as she could. “I haven’t said he’s unmarried mama. He’s estranged from his wife, and has been for some years so he tells me. The union produced no children.”
“I see.” Anna pursed her lips, and as Ellen had feared her whole facial expression and body language exuded disapproval.
“Really mama, don’t look at me like that. He is merely a friend, and once he returns to Poland I expect that I will never see him again.”
Anna could detect a flush in Ellen’s cheeks and a certain level of emotion in her voice that belied her attempt to shrug off the relationship. “Be careful my love. You do not want him to completely ruin your reputation.”
“I will not mama. I tell you he is just a friend. That is all.”
Anna remained unconvinced by this protestation but knew her daughter well enough to be confident that she would follow her own course whatever advice she offered. Anyway, she still remembered being swept off her feet by a handsome stranger who spoke only broken English, and leaving her family and childhood friends forever to be his wife, so she did not press the matter any further.
With her friends, especially her closest friend Camille Viet, Ellen was less reticent about her new relationship. Still, Michael’s contact with them was minimal as he and Ellen became increasingly preoccupied with each other’s company, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Paris together; its fine buildings, its parks, the theatre and opera, as well as its many fine restaurants. They could both sense that the intimacy between them was intensifying, and also a physical passion that after only a few short weeks increasingly demanded consummation.
They were walking together in the early afternoon sunshine in the Bois de Boulogne. It was a snatched liaison of no more than an hour as Michael had an official meeting to attend at the French Ministry of War.
“You know that I have fallen in love with you,” he suddenly confessed, blurting out the words like waters bursting through a dam.
“Yes.” Ellen answered him boldly without a hint of surprise at his words.
“And may I dare to hope that you might return my feelings?”
She hesitated, but only for a moment. However dangerous their relationship, she knew that she could only give him one answer. “You may do more than hope Michael. I love you too… very much.”
With that they kissed each other with mounting ardour, and Michael would happily have made love to her there and then save that they were in a public place, and he knew that he could not avoid attending his meeting without incurring the displeasure of Prince Poniatowski. Then, he was suddenly struck by feelings of doubt.
“You know that as a soldier there is always a risk that I will be killed or seriously maimed. And that we are bound to spend long periods apart.”
“Of course.” Ellen spoke as if this reality did not perturb her at all.
“And you also know that if I cannot persuade my wife to grant me a divorce, you can only ever be my mistress, and any child we may have will always be a bastard in the eyes of the law?
“If it must be so then I can live with it?”
“And your family?”
“I am a grown woman, and you know my father left me money in my own right.”
‘And what will it be like for any child?’ Michael thought but did not ask.
“I want us to make love,” Ellen then whispered to him with a boldness that surprised her and excited his passion for her. “I could come to you tomorrow evening.”
Michael nodded and they embraced with a lingering kiss, reluctant to be parted from each other, even for a few hours. Anna, however, was suddenly taken ill with influenza, and quickly became so poorly that she could not get out of bed. She developed a high temperature and Ellen became so concerned that she decided that she could not leave her. She sent Michael a message postponing their liaison, and assured him that she would be in touch with him as soon as her mother had sufficiently recovered.
He felt a natural sense of disappointment when he read this and spent an increasingly frustrating period of four days waiting to hear from her again. Then, as he left another meeting at the Ministry of War, Count Sierawski warned him that the Prince was thinking of leaving Paris earlier than planned. “No definite decision has yet been made though.”
Michael felt alarmed. “Is it likely to be made soon?”
“Within a day or two I would expect. I will let you know.” The Count looked knowingly at him and smiled faintly. “You look unhappy my friend. I take it that your relationship with Mademoiselle Charpentier has prospered?”
“Yes, well enough,” Michael replied defensively.
The Count eyed him shrewdly. “Then I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
The next day the Count then informed him that the Prince had made up his mind to leave Paris within twenty four hours.
“Why on earth so quickly?” Michael asked, unable to hide his sense of anguish at this news.
“He is concerned about the state of affairs in Warsaw and there is really nothing to keep him here in Paris any longer. We must be ready to leave with him at first light tomorrow. But bear up my friend; we will return to Paris soon enough I have no doubt.”
Michael was completely downcast, and cursing his ill luck, wasted no time in sending Ellen a short letter, delivered by hand by his valet, for intimacy’s sake written in English rather than French, assuring her of his love and telling her what had happened. He knew how much he wanted them to be alone together before his departure, but it was already well on into the afternoon, and seeing only one possibility he ended the letter with the words “come to me if you can.”
The letter was handed to Ellen by her personal maid Elsa, a stout, plain faced woman of about forty, who had been with Ellen since she was a child, and who she regarded as more like a member of her family than a mere servant. Her mother, while still unable to get out of bed, was able to sit up, and her temperature was nearly normal, so feeling more relaxed than of late Ellen was in the drawing room reading a novel that she was finding increasingly tedious. She quickly scanned his letter and instantly made up her mind what she should do.
“Elsa, is the valet still there?”
“Tell him to wait. Say that I will be with him in a few minutes.”
Hurrying to her bedroom she urgently began to put on an outdoor dress and was soon joined by Elsa. Then Ellen suddenly had an idea. Her eyes raced around the room but to her frustration she couldn’t see what she was looking for.
“Elsa, where are my scissors, I can’t see them?”
“I’m sure there wherever you left them Mam’selle” Elsa responded tartly
“Elsa! Can’t you see I’m in a hurry? Help me find them, please!”
“Here they are Mam’selle. I knew they hadn’t gone far.” For as long as she could remember Ellen had been poor at finding anything that wasn’t immediately apparent to her and today was no exception. The scissors had merely been lying underneath a handkerchief, which in her impatience she hadn’t bothered to pick up.
“Now bring me my jewellery case while I cut off a lock of hair.”
Elsa did as she was asked, and Ellen was quickly able to place the hair in a silver locket with chain that had been given to her by her father when she was still a child.
“Now I must go Elsa.”
“Do you not want me to go with you Mam’selle?”
“No Elsa, the valet will accompany me. I will not be all that long. Two hours at the most.”
“And where do I tell your mother you have gone?”
“Tell her that I have gone shopping.”
With that Ellen scampered down the stairs into the hallway. There, the valet, a tall, bearded man dressed in the blue uniform of a private soldier in Michael’s regiment, was waiting. He looked at her enquiringly.
“I am going to come with you back to the hotel,” Ellen started to explain. The man looked nonplussed, and she realised that he could not speak French, or at least not all that well. She spoke to him again more slowly, opening the door as she did so, and gestured to him to follow her. With a look of understanding on his face he began to do so.
Ellen felt that she wanted to run, but her clothing and shoes constrained her. She had to be content with walking as fast as she could instead, taking the familiar route towards the river Seine, with Michael’s valet a respectful two paces behind her. As they crossed the river she glanced up at the sky and noticed that the clouds were gathering, and that there was a hint of rain in the September air.
As she and the valet approached the hotel in the Rue St Honore where Michael was staying , it began to drizzle, and a nearby clock struck five o’clock. Again, she quickened her stride, and when they reached the door of the hotel let the valet lead the way to Michael’s room. The valet then stood aside to let her enter and as she did so Michael came towards her with a look of delight on his face.
“Michael, I had to see you.”
The valet had already discreetly withdrawn, closing the door behind him, and she and Michael ran into each others arms and began to kiss. As their tongues met in an exploratory fashion Ellen felt a deep sense of love for Michael and clung to him, desperate that he should not leave her. Then he slowly broke away from her.
“I am sorry that this has happened my love, truly sorry. I have no choice but to accompany the Prince back to Warsaw.”
She looked up into his face, stroked his cheek, and smiled. “I understand, it is not your fault. Look, I have a present for you.” She then produced the locket and handed it to him. “It was a gift from my father. If you open it you will see that there is something special inside. Promise me that you will keep it by you until we are together once more?”
Michael examined the contents of the locket. “Of course my love. This is the best present anyone has ever given me. I will keep it with me day and night, I promise.”
Immediately, he passed the chain over his head so that the locket hung from his neck, and taking her in his arms once more kissed her again and again.
“I do not want you to go,” she implored him between kisses
“Nor I my love. But we will be together again as soon as I can obtain leave. I promise you.”
“I love you.”
“And I you.”
Again she clung to Michael, and then he gently kissed her once more. “Can you stay?” he asked her tentatively.
“Yes, for a little while. My mother is much better but has not yet fully recovered. I told my maid Elsa that I would return in two hours.”
Quickly, he slipped out of her embrace, and going to the door, locked it. When he turned she had taken off her silk shawl, and was sitting on the bed where he joined her and took her in his arms. He stroked her hair and kissed her, first lightly on the forehead, and then breathing in the scent of lavender that she was wearing, on her neck, which made her twist it and sigh a little. They fell back on the bed, and kissed deeply so that their tongues wrapped around each other. Gradually, he let his right hand stray beneath the hem of her flimsy white silk dress, touch her thigh, and then move even higher.
“I want to make love,” he whispered to her, and by way of assent she looked adoringly into his eyes and kissed him even more deeply until he withdrew from her embrace, and sitting up, began to take off his waistcoat.
“You will have to help me take off my dress,” she said to him with an enticing grin, and saw an instant look a lust of his eyes that only served to arouse her in turn. With mounting sexual tension he fumbled a little with the buttons that secured her dress from behind while she removed the clip that held her hair in place so that it seemed to cascade down her back. He buried his face in it, smelling its rich texture as he did so, and undoing the last of the buttons slid her dress off her shoulders. He began to kiss the back of her neck, and taste the softness of her skin. His right hand crept around her waist, and then moved higher to cup her right breast, while with his left hand he began to undo the belt that held up his trousers.
Ellen sighed a little, almost inaudibly, and turning round once more drew Michael’s lips to hers and began to kiss him greedily. He was overwhelmed by a sense of love for her and entranced by the soft touch of her skin next to his, the swell of her breasts and the allure of her sexuality. He believed himself to be in the presence of a dazzling, incomparable creature, as he strove to make love to her in a way that would bring her nothing but pleasure. Their love making was exploratory and imperfect, but still left them with an intense feeling of happiness, and seemed to them both to have sealed the bond of love between them forever.
Ellen rested her head on Michael’s chest, wondering without any real sense of concern if their union might result in her becoming pregnant, while he began to doze. “I don’t want to leave you,” she said quietly.
He stirred at her words and lightly stroked her hair. “I don’t want you to go either.”
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, which startled them both.
“I’m sorry to disturb you Sir.” It was the valet’s voice speaking in Polish. “Prince Poniatowski has asked if you would care to join him for supper tonight at eight o’clock.”
Michael cursed under his breath. “Very well, tell him yes.” He glanced at the clock ticking away on the mantelpiece. “Come back in an hour. I am not to be disturbed in the mean time. Is that understood?”
“Yes Sir.” The valet’s footsteps could be heard retreating down the corridor and Michael, seeing Ellen’s puzzled expression, translated for her what had just been said.
“I cannot refuse the Prince’s invitation, but you can stay for another hour, can’t you?”
She looked into his eyes and saw love tinged by anguish in them. “Yes my darling.” Once again they sought out each others’ lips and began to make love a second time. Now she was the one who felt overwhelmed with love, and a rising sense of desperation at the thought that she was about to lose Michael just at the very hour that they had become lovers.
“You will come back to me soon won’t you?”
“Of course I will my love. Just as soon as my duties permit, I swear it.”
They both wanted time to stand still but were conscious of the clock ticking away inexorably, and all too soon there came another knock at the door.
“Forgive me Sir.” It was the valet’s voice again.
Michael glanced at the clock. “Come back in ten minutes.”
“Very well Sir.”
Reluctantly, Ellen rose from the bed and began to dress herself, and this time Michael helped her do up the buttons on her dress before taking her in his arms in one final embrace. Then she slipped out of his arms, and made her way to the door.
“Let me see you to the entrance.”
She shook her head but he seized her hand and came with her anyway. It was now a pleasant evening but beginning to grow dark.
“I will have a carriage called for you.”
“No, there’s no need Michael, I would prefer to walk.” Her tone was emphatic but she smiled at him tenderly and put her hand to his cheek. “You will write?”
“Yes, it will be our little secret.”
“I love you.” She was already walking away from him.
“And I love you too,” he called out, watching her disappear down the street. After she had gone about fifty metres she hesitated, turned and waived, and he waived back. Then she continued on her way, without even a backward glance.
|Prologue|Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|
“Michael , how good to see you. Please take a seat?”
Prince Poniatowski smiled warmly at Michael as he greeted him, and he felt pleased as ever to be joining him and six members of his staff for dinner, which on this occasion was taking place at the temporary headquarters that the Prince had established in a large mansion not far from the Russian border. Michael had deliberately chosen to command a regiment, the 12th Polish Lancers, or Uhlans as he preferred to call them, rather than remain a member of the Prince’s staff. He sensed though that this had if anything increased the Prince’s apparent regard for him, and he was frequently asked to dine in his company. The atmosphere, he found, was always convivial, and the food and wine of the best quality.
The Prince was now nearly fifty, and had long lost his youthful good looks together with most of his hair, which he chose to disguise by wearing an all too obvious wig. Yet, in the dim light provided by the candles standing on the table in front of them, the ravages of time were less visible, and the Prince seemed to Michael to be as dashing and charismatic a figure as he had ever been. His glass was soon filled and he took his first sip of red wine. He began to relax for the first time that day, and it was quickly apparent to him that the Prince was in an expansive mood.
“Gentlemen, the Emperor has now assembled one of the greatest armies in history with regiments drawn from every corner of the Empire, and above all from our beloved motherland. I am deeply honoured to have been made commander of a force of almost a hundred thousand men, and it is my firm conviction that the forthcoming campaign will be not so much a war of conquest as a war of liberation that will remove Russia’s threat to our nation’s territorial integrity once and for all!”
Michael and his fellow officers cried out in agreement and with a wave of his hand the Prince continued. “Indeed gentlemen, I firmly believe that the campaign will prove such a success that it will enable our nation to recover much of the land that it has lost to Russia during the century and more of its tragic decline!”
Again, the Prince’s words were met with acclamations of agreement, but Michael couldn’t help but reflect that the probable reality was that his nation would continue to be a mere satellite of France. However, this went unmentioned by the Prince and as the wine began to flow freely around the table Poland’s downfall was blamed entirely on Russia, while France and its Emperor lauded as Poland’s one true friend. To Michael, his nation in the guise of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, was at least still more independent as a satellite of the French Empire than it could ever hope to be as part of Russia, and for that reason alone he was happy enough to fight for Napoleon. Yet, he had no illusions about the man’s ambitions, and wondered if, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, he might even try to conquer India in the event of successfully subduing Russia?
After his unsuccessful visit to his wife Halina he wanted to banish from his mind the sense of anger and frustration that her attitude had caused him. He had pleaded with her to allow him a divorce in the knowledge that he would not be able to obtain one without her consent, but she had stubbornly refused, citing her religious faith, and finally he had stormed out of the house vowing never to return. Now, he was trying to concentrate instead on his duties while feeling frustrated that he had not been able to return to Paris.
Sometimes he struggled to even hold a picture of Ellen in his mind but they continued to exchange letters, and he had been true to his word in keeping the locket with him at all times. At first he expected each letter from her to send him news that she was pregnant, but no such news ever came. He had also admitted to her that his visit to his wife had not gone well, and had feared that this would end their relationship, but she continued to assure him of her love, and he drew some comfort from this.
He was concerned that it was now deep into June without any sign of the campaign actually getting underway. With every day that passed he was feeling increasingly anxious that the Emperor was leaving himself too little time in which to complete the task of invading a country a vast as Russia before the onset of winter, but he decided to keep his own council about this around the Prince’s table. However, the following day as he sat at the simple kitchen table in the farmhouse that served as his own temporary regimental headquarters, he voiced his concerns to his old friend Major Adam Basinski, who as on previous campaigns would be his right hand man and confidant.
“If we do not start this campaign soon, it will be too late. You know how quickly winter can set in, and three months is too little time in which to complete the invasion.”
Adam was a tall, robust man with dark hair, twinkling brown eyes, handsome enough aquiline features marred slightly by a rather large nose. As Michael was aware he had a disposition that was altogether more optimistic than his own, and he did not appear to share his concern.
“But it will only take a few weeks to bring the Russians to battle and destroy them, as we did at Friedland five years ago.”
“I just hope so. We are only equipping ourselves for a summer campaign without even any tents, and I for one do not want to be stuck in Russia after the end of September with our task still not completed. If the conditions don’t kill us they will surely kill our horses.”
“If we are still in Russia by then, it will only be as victors, well fed and clothed, and able to find winter quarters for both ourselves and our horses. You always were too much of a pessimist, Michael.”
Michael shrugged and smiled at his friend. “Perhaps so”
“There is no perhaps about it, Michael. Our army is huge, well armed and well supplied. Once the Russians give battle, we will destroy them.”
Yet, he still continued to feel uneasy about the whole venture, fearing that if the Emperor was over confident he might also become complacent. It therefore came as a relief to him when the order finally came to advance to the banks of the river Niemen, which marked the border with Russia, some five hundred miles from its ancient capital of Moscow. All around him he was aware that the mood was buoyant at the prospect of entering what until only two decades before had been Polish Lithuania, and despite his reservations he found himself caught up in this wave of enthusiasm.
News soon reached him that the Emperor had joined the army. Then, on the evening of the 23rd June, he received a copy of a proclamation written by the Emperor himself that he read to the assembled five hundred men under his command the following morning, shortly after dawn. All were wearing the regiment’s blue campaign uniform and distinctively tall czapska hats encased in black oilskin. They were mounted too on healthy horses of African descent, and armed not only with steel tipped lances, or in the case of the officers, cavalry sabres, but also short muskets carried in holsters slung from their saddles.
“Soldiers! The second Polish War has begun. The first was brought to an end at Friedland and Tilsit. It was at Tilsit that Russia swore eternal alliance with France and war with England. Today she is breaking her plighted word. Does she think that we are degenerate? Are we no longer the soldiers of Austerlitz? She confronts us with war or dishonour: there can be no doubt about our choice. Let us then go forward! We will cross the Niemen and carry war into her territory. The second Polish war will be as glorious for French arms as the first. But the peace which we shall make will carry a guarantee and will put an end to the baleful influence which Russia has exercised for fifty years on the affairs of Europe.”
As he read these bold words he hoped that the Emperor was right and that victory would not be won at too great a cost. Above all he prayed that he would live to see his beloved Ellen again, and remembered his own words to his wife when she had refused him a divorce. One bullet, he had said, was all that it would take to put an end to his life and all his hopes for the future. Now, he feared that he could not expect Ellen to have any time for him if a bullet or a cannon ball reduced him to the state of a miserable cripple in mind or body. He had always preferred death to that possibility, and prayed that despite his fears this campaign would be so overwhelmingly successful that he need never have to bear arms again.
Once he had finished reading, his regiment began to cheer the Emperor’s words, and as they did so he could hear this being echoed by the cheers of other regiments. It was a sound that seemed to stretch for mile upon mile, and soon he heard several bands beginning to play and turned his gaze across the river Niemen towards Russia.
“What a magnificent sight!” Adam turned to Michael from the saddle of his stallion as he spoke and smiled. The sun was at its zenith and from their vantage point the two men had a fine view of Napoleon’s advancing army, spread out across the plain before them. They could see tens of thousands of men on foot and on horse drawn from every corner of the Empire. The weather was delightful, with high, well broken cloud that allowed the sunlight to glint off the metal of thousands of muskets, scabbards and artillery pieces. Bands were playing, and the splash of different colours of the many regiments, like some giant rainbow come to earth, truly breathtaking.
Michael returned his friend’s smile. “A sight to tell our grandchildren about, don’t you think?”
“Without any doubt Michael.”
Michael reflected that the grand army’s march into Russia seemed to possess an unstoppable momentum, and it is was apparent to him that spirits in his regiment were generally high. This was after all he knew one of the greatest armies ever assembled, commanded by a seemingly invincible leader who had defeated every opponent who had ever taken the field against him. He also assumed that the Emperor was intent on achieving an overwhelming victory over the Russians as soon as possible. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel uneasy that for the present they were proving remarkably disinclined to engage in any battle, preferring instead to retreat in the face of such a mighty enemy.
“Could they be luring us into a trap,” he thought to himself, although he was reluctant to voice such a fear, even to Adam, whom he knew was inclined to regard him as too much of a pessimist. After all as a commanding officer it was part of his job to maintain morale, and even if it went against his nature he saw it as his duty to appear as positive as possible. Routine and discipline were also vital, and whatever his doubts he did not want to allow them to intrude upon the essential task of ensuring that the men and horses under his command remained well fed and well turned out, so it was this priority that consumed his waking hours.
It was only when he laid down his head to rest at night that he allowed himself to think of Ellen, to place his hand on the locket hanging from his neck, and to pray with every fibre of his being that he would live to see her once more. At these moments he felt like a teenager again, ready to throw caution to the wind and risk everything for love, if only the Russians didn’t kill him first.
He sensed that many of his men would snigger if they knew how love sick their rather lugubrious, conscientious, firm disciplinarian of a commander really was. However, this was something that he was determined to keep to himself as a very private individual, whom he knew seldom betrayed much emotion, and could be serious to a fault. Still , he reasoned that he was also never brutal, rarely swore, or lost his temper, and believed that his obvious integrity , courage under fire, leadership qualities, and sense of fair play, had won him the respect if not the love of his men. Indeed, he strongly suspected that it was only his poor sense of humour, and inability to share a joke, that denied him that accolade. Instead, some surely dubbed him aloof, even off-hand, whereas he knew it was only really a natural reserve, and he believed that no one could doubt his competency as a professional soldier of long experience.
It was now high summer, and as much as any man in the army Michael disliked the unrelenting heat that parched his throat and made him feel intensely uncomfortable in his uniform. The poor state of the roads, for the most part mere cart tracks, also meant that the supply wagons were not able to move as quickly as he had hoped, and that choking clouds of dust were being thrown into the air. Properly prepared, disciplined, and able to forage significant distances in search of food, he believed that his men were coping well enough with the conditions, but he had begun to receive reports that other units were doing less well. Apparently hunger and disease were already taking their toll, horses were dying in significant numbers, and some troops amongst France’s allies were even beginning to desert.
The Russians too, although always falling back, were never that far away. He had almost lost count of the number of times he and his men had caught glimpses of the enemy. For the most part they were Cossack cavalry wearing dark blue uniforms although occasionally scarlet, and always at too great a distance to be able to join arms with them
Once he and Adam returned from their vantage point to join the main body of his regiment, it suddenly crossed his mind that it must have been two days at least since they had last seen any sight of the enemy. Then, as if in answer to this thought, the cry went up “Cossacks, Cossacks !”
With a sudden rush of adrenalin, Michael turned his head to look about him. In the distance by a copse he could see a flash of colour and recognised the familiar sight of Cossack cavalry. It was apparent that there was a large body of them, and he wondered if this time they might actually be preparing to attack. Instead, they resorted to the ploy of advancing only a short distance towards them, and then beginning to shout “Lachy! Lachy!” which he was well aware was derogatory slang for Pole. It was obvious that they were trying to anger some of his men into being ill-disciplined enough to breaking ranks so that they could then entrap them.
He snorted in contempt, and then addressed Adam who was still beside him “If they think any man in my regiment is going to succumb to that trick I trust they are very much mistaken. If any one does and lives to tell the tale I’ll want them put on a charge. Is that clear?”
“Of course, Michael”
Then the Cossack cavalry came even closer, and with a nod of consent from Michael Adam gave orders for the regiment to be drawn up in readiness to face a charge. The shrill sound of a bugle call soon rang out and in response some five hundred lances were promptly directed at the approaching enemy.
“Perhaps they really mean to attack this time?” Adam suggested.
“I’m not sure, but it’s best to be prepared.”
When they were just within range the Cossacks then fired on them. Michael instinctively flinched in his saddle, suddenly seized of a fear of death, but despite the number of shots discharged, their pistols seemed ancient and failed to inflict a single casualty whereupon the Cossacks simply turned around and galloped away. Now, it was the turn of Michael’s men to shout out words of derision, and as they did so he shook his head, and conjectured that this was really a kind of phoney war, with no obvious end in sight.
The following day he received reports of some fierce skirmishes, only for it to then become apparent that the Russian army had once again withdrawn. As a younger man he knew he would have felt only frustration at this development and thirsted for action. Now, he felt nothing but gratitude that providence appeared to be keeping him and his men safe, at least for the time being, when the overriding priority of his life was simply to survive in order to be with Ellen again.
Towards the end of July he and his men rode into the cobbled streets of the town of Vitebsk, standing on the banks of the River Dvina, which the Russians had abandoned to its fate without a shot being fired, and here the advance ground to a halt. He was aware that until about the time of his birth, when it had been annexed to Russia, the town had stood on the frontier of the Polish Kingdom, and that they were now tantalisingly close to the heartlands of ‘mother Russia.’
The regiment bivouacked just outside the town, and there was some heavy rain, the first of the campaign, but temperatures remained high. The days passed in relative inactivity and he began to wonder if this might even mark the end of the campaign. It seemed clear to him that the Russians didn’t want to give battle, and he feared that advancing still further into unknown territory could well court disaster. Indeed, he thought it would make eminent good sense to just consolidate the easily won gains. However, the Prince made it clear that the Emperor had launched the invasion intent on achieving a crushing victory, and soon enough the advance was resumed.
Michael continued to pre-occupy himself with the burdens of his command, even though he felt his heart wasn’t really in his work, and Adam was not the only officer to notice that, when he was not fulfilling his duties, he was even more pensive and taciturn than usual. Increasingly fingering the locket Ellen had given him, every day he looked out on the sheer vastness of the terrain over which they were advancing and felt perturbed. It troubled him too that as they progressed into the Russian heartlands beyond Lithuania, where the peasants had mostly spoken Polish and been welcoming, the houses and villages were becoming constantly and eerily deserted.
“It feels at times as if we are in the middle of some vast desert devoid of any population,” he remarked to Adam on one of the rare occasions when they were alone together. “I don’t like it at all, and frankly I fear that this campaign will end in disaster. We should have been content to consolidate our hold on Vitebsk.”
Always inclined to see the glass as half full rather than half empty, Adam did not share this concern. From long experience of serving with Michael he could never forget what a pessimist he could be. “But everything is going so well,” he insisted.
Michael snorted. “How can you say that? Aren’t you aware of the number of men who have already deserted, not to mention the state of the horses?”
“Not in this regiment, Michael!”
“No, of course not, I did not mean that, but it is obvious what is happening all around us.”
“With an army of this size it was inevitable that some of the men and their horses would be found wanting. We are still a formidable force. Can’t you see that?” Adam spread his hand out before him as he spoke.
“But that’s not my point. You can also see for yourself what a vast country this is, and we are being lured too far into it without being able to bring the enemy to battle.”
“We will be able to soon enough.”
“But what if we can’t?”
“Then we will capture Smolensk, and no doubt Moscow too, and then go into winter quarters.”
“Hundreds of kilometres from the Polish border! Are you serious?”
“Yes, perfectly. These cities should be able to supply us with all we need.”
Michael shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Adam smiled at his friend. “You were always one to look on the dark side, Michael. It is your nature. I am still confident of victory.”
“I just wish I could share your optimism.”
Michael remained gloomy but by mid August they had advanced as far as Smolensk, an ancient city, on the left bank of the River Dnieper. It was protected, so he was informed by one of the Prince’s staff officers, by a wall over nine metres high and over five metres thick, no less than twenty nine towers and two forts. All around him expectations were now high that the Russians would at last give battle rather than allow such a prize to be invested and taken. However, as he suspected would happen, yet again the Russian army preferred retreat, leaving only a small force to defend the city, that was soon subjected to an all out bombardment. The walls were of such strength that breaching them proved to be an immense task so to his amazement some fool of a general gave the order to fire over the walls into the city with devastating results.
As cavalrymen Michael and his men were no more than interested observers of the events unfolding before them. Yet again, he gave thanks for his good fortune in having travelled so far without being personally involved in any real fighting, and continued to wonder how long his luck would last. Not for very much longer, he decided, if a city the size of Smolensk, that could have provided a secure base for the army’s future operations, went up in flames. Soon enough, he and his fellow officers could only look on in dismay as the city began to be engulfed by a great, roaring blaze.
“This reminds me of Aeneas’s account of the burning of Troy in Virgil’s Aeneid,” the bearded Captain Aidinantz remarked, who after Michael and Adam was the most senior officer in the regiment.
Michael turned in his saddle and looked at him quizzically. “I didn’t know you were a classicist, Captain?”
The Captain grinned “I’m not Colonel. It is only what I recall from my studies as a child … Christ! What was that?”
It was the sound of exploding stocks of ammunition that the retreating Russians had set light to so that by the time the city fell it was largely in ruins.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” Michael remarked unhappily to Adam a few hours later.
“So, we march on Moscow then.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“Do not worry, Michael. All will end well. The Russians will surely give battle soon.”
Michael shook his head. He remained unconvinced. Then, he put his hand to his throat to feel Ellen’s locket, and Adam glanced at him.
“Tell me Michael, I am intrigued. What exactly is that you constantly wear around your neck?
“I’m surprised you’ve noticed.” he responded defensively. “If you must know Adam, it is a gift from a lady.”
“Ah, I thought as much.” Adam had a broad smile on his face as he spoke.
“Did you indeed? The locket contains a lock of her hair as a token of her affection for me. I promised her that I would wear it.”
“And who is this fortunate woman?”
“We met in Paris when I was there last year. Her name is Ellen … Ellen Charpentier.”
“And does she know that you are married?”
Michael grimaced. Yes, she knows. When I went back to Kutno before the campaign started it wasn’t just to deal with financial matters. I asked Halina if she would grant me a divorce but she refused.”
“So that’s why you looked so downcast when you returned.”
Again Michael fingered the locket and looked his friend in the eye. “Ellen continues to assure me of her love. I think that she is willing to be my mistress. But it would be hard on her.”
“She is from a good family then?”
“Oh yes, she is no courtesan, and nor do I want to make her one.”
“I see your difficulty, but I am sure all will be well in the end. Many respectable women are happy to enter into such relationships. Where would the Kings of France have been without them?!”
With that both men laughed, and Adam slapped Michael on the shoulder.
“First, I must survive this campaign though,” Michael added on a more sombre note.
“Don’t worry Michael, you will. I feel it in my bones and they are never wrong!” It was one of Adam’s favourite expressions and always made Michael smile. Yet again he fingered the locket and imagined himself in Ellen’s arms.
“I pray you are right my friend.”
|Prologue|Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|
“Justine, it’s all right, let me rub it better for you. The pain will soon be gone.”
The child had tripped over, grazed her knee and was distressed, tears were streaming down her contorted little face, and her mother, Camille, was doing her best to comfort her, while Ellen looked on, adding her own words of reassurance. It was a warm, sunny spring day; the leaves on the trees had all the lushness of new growth about them, and as the child began to recover her composure, Ellen raised her parasol to protect her from the glare of the sun, and the party soon resumed its leisurely stroll.
For Ellen life continued to have an outward normality and routine that she found increasingly frustrating as she waited for the occasional letter from Michael to arrive. These were always affectionate but invariably short and un-interesting, for she had quickly discovered that he was no letter writer. They had also enjoyed such a brief courtship that she struggled sometimes to even remember his face, while part of her regretted falling in love with a soldier who might so easily be killed. She wondered indeed if she was fated to be forever attached to military men, for she was after all the daughter of a soldier, and one of her earliest memories was of being with him when he was dressed in full uniform and about to go on parade.
She thought too that her mother must have lived in dread of her father being killed. In the event he had died in his bed of cancer at the age of forty seven, some fifteen years before, leaving her mother to bring up two young children as best she could, consoled at least by the wealth that he had left her. She reflected that the loss of their father had helped to make the bond between her and her brother a close one, and when more frequent letters arrived from Maurice, still fighting in Spain, she would feel herself doubly tortured by the fear that she might lose not only Michael but also her only sibling as well. These letters also said enough to make it clear to her that the war in Spain was becoming a bitter struggle, and that the British army under its commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley, was proving to be a match for its French opponents.
Ellen tried to draw strength from her mother’s stoicism in the face of the loss that life had brought her. She had in fact brought five children into the world but two of these, both boys, had died within a year of birth, and Ellen had no memory of them. A third, her sister, had died of diphtheria only a year before her father. It was a loss that still caused her some sense of pain, but her mother had clearly never allowed herself to be broken by these tragedies, and Ellen was forever impressed by the positive attitude that she managed to exude towards life despite the arthritis that now afflicted her at the age of fifty five. This came she knew from a strong religious faith that she was unable to share.
After Michael had returned to Poland Ellen had finally admitted to her mother the love she felt for him even as a soldier and married man. To Anna it seemed a doomed relationship and she did not hesitate to make this clear to Ellen as they sat together one evening in the drawing room of their house.
“But I love him,” Ellen protested.
Anna looked pained. “Such a wretched emotion,” she snapped.
“But did you not love my father and do you not love me and Maurice?”
“Yes, too much I fear.”
With that they had hugged each other. Enough had been said for in truth, separated as they were by hundreds of miles from those they loved, Ellen appreciated full well that they both shared a constant dread that these loved ones could suffer the most appalling agonies and be dead for weeks or even months before they would hear the worst. She also constantly struggled within herself to come to the terms with the reality that all that they could do was to continue to live out their lives in a measured routine. She felt frustrated that it was forever the woman’s lot to be left behind to exist in fear and hope while the man she loved risked life and limb in some foreign land.
At least her mother could find consolation in her faith, but Ellen was aware that she herself had inherited her father’s scepticism of all things spiritual and she looked instead for companionship and an enjoyment of music to give her life meaning and sanity. Thanks to long hours of practice she took pride in having become a competent enough pianist and playing the piano had become one of her greatest pleasures in life.
Ellen’s oldest and dearest friend Camille Viet, who she had known since they were small children, was just a few months older than herself. She was not as beautiful as Ellen but still pretty enough, petite, with attractive brown hair, an open, honest manner, a warm smile, and a fierce loyalty to those she loved. She could play the piano with more virtuosity than Ellen and they would often perform duets together. Through Camille, Ellen had come to appreciate the benefits of marriage and children. It was now some three years since Camille had married Claude Viet with Ellen acting as one of her bridesmaids, and already she was the mother of two apparently healthy girls, Justine and Simone. Claude was a civil servant, some years older than her, with a fast receding hairline, a well rounded, still rather boyish face, whose poor eyesight had enabled him to avoid active service. He was a kindly, tolerant man, who Ellen got on well with, and she and Camille still spent a good deal of time at each other’s houses.
Claude indeed sometimes felt that Camille and Ellen spent too much time in each other’s company. But then as a workaholic who spent long hours in his office he realised that he wasn’t in the best of positions to object, and anyway he liked Ellen too much to ever really wish to do so. Her presence brightened his home, and he considered himself well blessed to be able to enjoy the companionship of not just one but two handsome women. He also knew that he was fortunate to be the father of two healthy daughters, and in a safe occupation that he enjoyed, when so many of his contemporaries were still risking life and limb fighting for the Emperor in Spain and now in Russia.
As Ellen and Camille resumed their stroll in the Luxembourg gardens, one of their favourite destinations, after Justine’s little mishap, she decided to confess to her that she had received a letter from Michael informing her that his wife had refused him a divorce. Ellen was godmother to both of Camille’s daughters, and when she was with them often felt a strong desire for a child of her own. It also made her determined to bear Michael a child even out of wedlock. Like the good friends that they were, she and Camille had few secrets from each other, and Camille was well aware of Ellen’s feelings for Michael.
“What will you do?” Camille asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Become his mistress?”
“It would be dangerous. What if you were to become pregnant?”
What indeed Ellen thought to herself, conscious that she had already risked that possibility although she was loath to admit this even to her best friend. “Life is full of danger,” she replied. “For all I know he will never return from this awful war!” They walked on for a little way in silence while Ellen reflected on her mixed feelings when she had not missed her period following her love making with Michael.
“You love him very much, don’t you?” Camille asked quietly.
Ellen did not immediately answer, preferring to dwell on the thought of his death. “Sometimes I think I love him too much,” she finally responded, remembering her mother’s words to her.
“Then if he lives I am sure you will become his mistress, and bear his children whatever the consequences.”
“I expect so Camille. You know me too well.”
At that they smiled at each other in a conspiratorial way and then exchanged a brief hug. It was source of great comfort to Ellen to know that she could rely on Camille’s support whatever the future might hold. She knew in her heart that she wanted to bear Michael’s children, and even if that meant her becoming a fallen woman, shunned by polite society, she believed that Camille would stand by her, as she was sure would her own mother so long as she lived.
George Dupont had been an admirer of Ellen for some time, if only at a distance. He had once been a soldier but three years before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia at the decisive battle of Wagram, which had been fought against the Austrians, now ironically allies of France, a cannon ball had taken away an arm and come very close to ending his life. The sheer hell of the experience, the unbelievable pain and trauma, still haunted him on a daily basis, and he feared would continue to haunt him for the remainder of his days. It had been his right arm too that he had lost, forcing him to do the best he could to adapt to using his left. Yet, he felt little sense of bitterness for his misfortune, preferring to thank god for his survival with two good legs and none of his faculties impaired when so many of his comrades had been killed or more brutally maimed. The loss of his arm was also a testament to his courage, and he counted himself fortunate to never have to fight again. Instead, he was able to concentrate on managing the tanning business that he had inherited from his late father, and was grateful for the degree of financial security that it gave him.
One thing above all else that he lacked and longed for was a wife. It was puzzling to those who knew him that he was still without one, for he was barely thirty, attractive in appearance, quite tall, naturally good natured, and it was not as if the loss of an arm was particularly disfiguring. Yet, he was also naturally reserved and shy, and the more set he became in his bachelor ways the less confidence he felt in making any advances towards women.
He lived quite near to Ellen in the St Germain quarter of Paris, and had a family connection with the Claude and Camille Viet, being a second cousin to Claude. This gained him access to social events that the Viets’ held and attended and inevitably brought him into contact with Ellen as well. He still remembered meeting her first as a teenager, and being instantly attracted to her. She had barely seemed aware of his existence, and he had felt that he was in the presence of some superior being, a goddess in fact, full of vitality and self-confidence, and only a catch for the sort of alpha male that he did not believe himself to be.
Since returning to civilian life he had continued to see her occasionally in the street or at social events to which they were both invited. Then, one night, he found himself sitting close to her at the theatre, and realised that he didn’t even know her name, or really anything about her, apart from having some vague recollection that she was a close friend of Camille’s.
“I’m sure I recognise that pretty girl in the yellow dress sitting in the row in front of us,” he remarked with feigned casualness to the friend he was with, who was mutually acquainted with Camille. “Do you know her?”
“Um … yes, that’s Ellen … Charpentier, Camille’s best friend. She’s still unmarried and from a good family. If you’d like to meet her, there’s a ball soon at Madame Lapeyre’s that she’s sure to be at. I expect I could get you an invitation… if you would like one?”
“Yes, I would.” For a few moments George allowed himself to day dream about sweeping her off her feet. He appreciated that he had never been much of a dancer, and the loss of an arm had made him feel self-consciously ungainly. He imagined that she on the other hand was probably an outstandingly good dancer, and he doubted that he would find the courage to even ask her to step on the dance floor with him. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, he supposed, and determined that if an invitation could be obtained he would have to try and seize his opportunity.
George knew that Madam Lapeyre’s ball would be a grand affair, for her husband was one of the wealthiest bankers in Paris, and owned one of the finest houses in the city. When his invitation arrived he therefore decided to buy himself a fashionable black waistcoat, black silk breaches and a cinnamon-bronze coat in order to look his best, and wondered if he should even take a few dancing lessons.
Although he had learnt the basic steps of most of the popular dances while he was growing up, it was not an activity that he had much enjoyed, and he struggled to remember the last time he had danced with anyone – was it five years before, or even six, he wasn’t sure. In the end he decided to just practice a few steps by himself, and to hope that he would get by. Nevertheless, by the evening of the ball he was feeling distinctly nervous, and beginning to regret his decision. He feared too that Ellen would see him as no more than a wretched cripple, worthy of little else than her pity, and find some polite excuse for refusing his invitation to dance. He also had no doubt that many eligible men would be attending the ball and that she would not lack for invitations to dance.
Following his arrival in the house’s impressive ball room, with its many mirrors and chandeliers, when he first caught sight of her amongst a throng of attractive females, he felt that she outshone them all, and was as beautiful as ever. Why indeed she was still a spinster was something of a mystery to him. Perhaps no man had ever been good enough for her, or perhaps, coming close to the truth of the matter, she had had a lover who had fallen on the battlefield, leaving her heart broken and determined never to marry. Yet, if that was the case, he wondered what hope he could have of persuading her to put the past behind her and think of her future happiness?
To take away his inhibitions George drank at least three glasses of wine in quick succession, and, as he normally drank very little alcohol, began to feel distinctly light headed. The dancing had already begun in earnest and he was conscious that time was against him so as soon as there was a lull plucked up the courage to cross the ball room to where Ellen was sitting. She seemed radiant and very much at her ease, and he almost lost his nerve completely, but somehow managed to haltingly ask her if she would do him the honour of dancing with him. Half expecting her to decline his request, he was delighted when instead she gave him a warm, natural smile, and told him that she was already taken for the next two dances but would be pleased to dance with him after that.
“It is nice to see you again,” she added. “You are Claude Viet’s cousin aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s right. George … George Dupont.”
She smiled at him once more and as they looked into each other’s eyes he suddenly felt confident of a mutual attraction. What struck him most was that her eyes seemed to have a sparkling glow together with a steadiness in their gaze that appeared to look deep into his soul and appreciate what it found there. Then, as the music struck up, she looked about her, and was immediately approached by a tall, well dressed man, who took her onto the dance floor.
“Has she accepted your invitation?” asked a voice from behind him. It was that of the friend who had got him invited to the ball.
“Yes, she has.”
“I’m delighted. Have another drink.”
“I’m not sure I ought to.”
“Come, come, the night is still young.”
“Oh, very well.”
As the next dance began George’s eyes were constantly drawn towards Ellen and the man dancing with her. He was quite good looking, he supposed, and had all the appearance of wealth about him. Both of them were dancing very well together, and sharing some joke that caused Ellen to laugh in a way that George found really attractive. Once again he felt his courage begin to desert him, and took another long sip of wine to help calm his nerves. He wondered if he was in danger of making a total fool of himself, tripping over, and falling flat on his back. If only he still had two arms!
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity his turn came to dance with Ellen. As the wine had flowed, the volume of conversation in the ball room had become louder and more animated. The music too seemed faster and noisier, making conversation difficult, and the dance, a minuet, that they were performing, turned out to be less simple that he had hoped. He began to feel flustered and flat footed.
“Forgive me Mademoiselle.
“Ellen, of course. I am not much of a dancer I am afraid.”
“Do not worry, George. You are doing very well.” She smiled at him with a warmth that made him feel more attracted to her than ever. Then, with the faintest turn of her eyes, she looked to where his arm had once been.
“I lost this at Wagram. It was blown away by a cannon ball. I nearly died.”
“I count myself fortunate. Many of my comrades were killed. It’s an experience that makes you value life despite its tribulations.”
He looked into Ellen’s eyes, and for a moment felt wonderfully relaxed in her presence. Then though came a manoeuvre that was too complicated for him, and he began to lose his way completely.
“I am sorry,” he said, feeling embarrassed.
“Please don’t be. You are doing very well.” He knew it was a lie of course, but liked her all the more for having the grace to be full of encouragement. The moment was then reached that he had looked forward to and also dreaded when all those performing the minuet were meant to kiss their partners. No more than a perfunctory peck on the cheek was required, and in his nervous state he could barely even manage that. However, Ellen put her lips gently to his cheek, and as he felt her do so, and smelt her perfume, his head began to swim slightly, and he experienced a momentary sense of intense pleasure, the memory of which would remain with him throughout his life. All too soon the dance came to an end, and he escorted Ellen back to her chair. Without any hesitation, and with a boldness that surprised him, he asked her if she would dance with him again.
“I am sorry George. I am already promised for the next dance, and then I shall be going home. I am feeling quite tired already.
It was a setback but having come this far he was determined not to give up. “May I see you again?” he heard himself blurt out.
Ellen looked at him with an expression of gentle regret on her face and then said quietly into his ear as if they had known each other intimately all their lives “I will not deceive you George, my heart is committed to someone else , but thank you for the dance, I enjoyed it.”
George felt his heart sink, and his cheeks colour slightly. His sense of disappointment was profound but he was grateful to Ellen for being so honest with him. He bowed to her and then walked away. Ellen followed him with her eyes and with a look of gentle regret. She could sense how much he must have suffered, and she warmed to him as a person. He had an open, honest face, and there was a quiet dignity in his manner, which she found attractive, but she was not about to betray her love for Michael.
In the ensuing weeks she waited for news from Russia, and from her brother Maurice in Spain, with a mixture of anticipation and dread. It seemed that the grand army was apparently still advancing unopposed, and this or that city was falling to the Emperor. However, the names meant nothing to her and she could only hope that both Michael and her brother were safe and well. She took comfort from the fact that if there had been some great battle in which thousands of men had died, news of it would surely have reached Paris, and she continued to do her best to be as light hearted as possible. It was a woman’s lot, she told herself yet again, to be forced to wait and pray and hope, and as July turned to August, she felt that she had done more than her fair share of all of these.
It was an uncomfortable truth that she was prepared to admit to herself and Camille alone, that she might never see Michael again. Sometimes she thought herself a fool to have given her heart to a man engaged in that most dangerous of professions in a time of war, but the bond between them was sealed, and she did not want to break it. She also drew consolation from the thought that Michael seemed to her to be a survivor, who had lived through the hazards of many battles and campaigns, and would surely see this one through as well. His very toughness and resilience were after all characteristics that had attracted her to him.
As the summer drew towards its close, whenever Ellen was in Claude’s company, he would repeat his hopes that a decisive victory over Russia would finally bring about a long term peace in Europe.
“It will leave England completely isolated and surely forced to sue for peace on the best terms that it can. Otherwise, the full might of our Empire will be turned on its army in Spain, and its defeat will become inevitable!”
Ellen saw no reason to disagree with Claude, but it was her worst nightmare that having survived the rigours of the campaign in Russia, Michael would die fighting in Spain in the very hour of the Empire’s greatest victory.
“Sometimes” she confessed to Camille when Claude wasn’t present, “I feel that I will go out of my mind with worry. How I hate war and all it stands for!”
“And yet you chose a soldier for a lover,” Camille thought but did not say. It was after all her place to be supportive. She was she knew the lucky one with a husband who would never have to fight, and that Ellen had fallen in love with Michael the man, not Michael the soldier, for all that he cut a fine figure in his uniform.
Conversation between them then moved on to lighter matters, and to gossip about this and that including who had been at Madam Lapeyre’s ball, which they had both attended.
“You danced with so many handsome men,” Camille said a little mischievously.
“I enjoy dancing, you know I do.”
“And did I see you dancing with George?”
“Yes.” Ellen had not even given him a thought since the ball, but now recalled his good looks, and the disappointment on his face when she told him that she had committed her heart to another man came back to her. She had sensed from his earnestness that he had serious intentions towards her, and had wanted to disabuse him of these as gently but as emphatically as she could.
“He wanted to see me again but I told him that wasn’t possible. He went away looking very downcast I’m afraid.”
“Poor George, he is a nice man, and how he must have suffered when he lost his arm.”
“Yes, I imagine so.” Ellen’s mind was suddenly filled with the sight of Michael in agony on some bloody field of death and she almost shuddered at the image. “Anyway, I am sure he will find himself a wife soon enough, if that’s what he’s seeking.”
“I do hope so.”
In truth George had been hit hard by his rejection and remained disconsolate for several days after the ball, only gradually managing to restore his usual sense of equanimity. Time, he supposed would heal his unhappiness soon enough, and, of course, there were always other beautiful women although surely none more alluring than Ellen
|Prologue|Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|