On a fine May morning last year (1861) a wayfarer, the person who is telling this story, was coming from Nivelles, and was proceeding toward La Hulpe. He was on foot and following, between two rows of trees, a wide paved road which undulates over a constant succession of hills, that raise the road and let it fall again, and form, as it were, enormous waves. He had passed Lillois and Bois-Seigneur Isaac, and noticed in the west the slate-covered steeple of Braine l'Alleud, which looks like an overturned vase. He had just left behind him a wood upon a hill, and at the angle of a cross-road, by the side of a sort of worm-eaten gallows which bore the inscription, "Old barrier, No. 4," a wine-shop, having on its front the following notice: "The Four Winds, Échabeau, private coffee-house."
About half a mile beyond this pot-house, he reached a small valley, in which there is a stream that runs through an arch formed in the causeway. The clump of trees, wide-spread but very green, which fills the valley on one side of the road, is scattered on the other over the fields, and runs gracefully and capriciously toward Braine l'Alleud. On the right, and skirting the road, were an inn, a four-wheeled cart in front of the door, a large bundle of hop-poles, a plough, a pile of dry shrubs near a quick-set hedge, lime smoking in a square hole, and a ladder lying along an old shed with straw partitions. A girl was hoeing in a field, where a large yellow bill – probably of a show at some Kermesse – was flying in the wind. At the corner of the inn, a badly-paved path ran into the bushes by the side of a pond, on which a flotilla of ducks was navigating. The wayfarer turned into this path.
After proceeding about one hundred yards, along a wall of the 15th century, surmounted by a coping of crossed bricks, he found himself in front of a large arched stone gate, with a rectangular moulding, in the stern style of Louis XIV., supported by two flat medallions. A severe façade was over this gate; a wall perpendicular to the façade almost joined the gate and flanked it at a right angle. On the grass-plat in front of the gate lay three harrows, through which the May flowers were growing pell-mell. The gate was closed by means of two decrepit folding-doors, ornamented by an old rusty hammer.
The sun was delightful, and the branches made that gentle May rustling, which seems to come from nests even more than from the wind. A little bird, probably in love, was singing with all its might. The wayfarer stooped and looked at a rather large circular excavation in the stone to the right of the gate, which resembled a sphere. At this moment the gates opened and a peasant woman came out. She saw the wayfarer and noticed what he was looking at.
"It was a French cannon-ball that made it," she said, and then added: "What you see higher up there, on the gate near a nail, is the hole of a heavy shell, which did not penetrate the wood."
"What is the name of this place?" the wayfarer asked.
"Hougomont," said the woman.
The wayfarer drew himself up, he walked a few steps, and then looked over the hedge. He could see on the horizon through the trees a species of mound, and on this mound something which, at a distance, resembled a lion. He was on the battlefield of Waterloo.
Hougomont was a mournful spot, the beginning of the obstacle, the first resistance which that great woodman of Europe, called Napoleon, encountered at Waterloo; the first knot under the axe-blade. It was a château, and is now but a farm. For the antiquarian Hougomont is Hugo-mons: it was built by Hugo, Sire de Sommeril, the same who endowed the sixth chapelry of the Abbey of Villers. The wayfarer pushed open the door, elbowed an old carriage under a porch, and entered the yard. The first thing that struck him in this enclosure was a gate of the 16th century, which now resembles an arcade, as all has fallen around it. A monumental aspect frequently springs up from ruins. Near the arcade there is another gateway in the wall, with key-stones in the style of Henri IV., through which can be seen the trees of an orchard. By the side of this gateway a dung-hill, mattocks, and shovels, a few carts, an old well with its stone slab and iron windlass, a frisking colt, a turkey displaying its tail, a chapel surmounted by a little belfry, and a blossoming pear-tree growing in espalier along the chapel wall, – such is this yard, the conquest of which was a dream of Napoleon's. This nook of earth, had he been able to take it, would probably have given him the world. Chickens are scattering the dust there with their beaks, and you hear a growl, – it is a large dog, which shows its teeth and fills the place of the English. The English did wonders here; Cooke's four companies of Guards resisted at this spot for seven hours the obstinate attack of an army.
Hougomont, seen on a map, buildings and enclosures included, presents an irregular quadrangle, of which one angle has been broken off. In this angle is the southern gate within point-blank range of this wall. Hougomont has two gates, – the southern one which belongs to the château, and the northern which belongs to the farm. Napoleon sent against Hougomont his brother Jérôme; Guilleminot's, Foy's, and Bachelie's divisions were hurled at it; nearly the whole of Reille's corps was employed there and failed; and Kellermann's cannon-balls rebounded from this heroic wall. Bauduin's brigade was not strong enough to force Hougomont on the north, and Soye's brigade could only attack it on the south without carrying it.
The farm-buildings border the court-yard on the south, and a piece of the northern gate, broken by the French, hangs from the wall. It consists of four planks nailed on two cross-beams, and the scars of the attack may still be distinguished upon it. The northern gate, which was broken down by the French, and in which a piece has been let in to replace the panel hanging to the wall, stands, half open, at the extremity of the yard; it is cut square in a wall which is stone at the bottom, brick at the top, and which closes the yard on the north side. It is a simple gate, such as may be seen in all farm-yards, with two large folding-doors made of rustic planks; beyond it are fields. The dispute for this entrance was furious; for a long time all sorts of marks of bloody hands could be seen on the side-post of the gate, and it was here that Bauduin fell. The storm of the fight still lurks in the court-yard: horror is visible there; the incidents of the fearful struggle are petrified in it; people are living and dying in it, – it was only yesterday. The walls are in the pangs of death, the stones fall, the breaches cry out, the holes are wounds, the bent and quivering trees seem making an effort to fly.
This yard was more built upon in 1815 than it is now; buildings which have since been removed, formed in it redans and angles. The English barricaded themselves in it; the French penetrated, but could not hold their ground there. By the side of the chapel stands a wing of the château, the sole relic left of the Manor of Hougomont, in ruins; we might almost say gutted. The château was employed as a keep, the chapel served as a block-house. Men exterminated each other there. The French, fired upon from all sides, from behind walls, from granaries, from cellars, from every window, from every air-hole, from every crack in the stone, brought up fascines, and set fire to the walls and men; the musketry fire was replied to by arson.
In the ruined wing you can look through windows defended by iron bars, into the dismantled rooms of a brick building; the English Guards were ambuscaded in these rooms, and the spiral staircase, hollowed out from ground-floor to roof, appears like the interior of a broken shell. The staircase has two landings; the English, besieged on this landing and massed on the upper stairs, broke away the lowest. They are large slabs of blue stone which form a pile among the nettles. A dozen steps still hold to the wall; on the first the image of a trident is carved, and these inaccessible steps are solidly set in their bed. All the rest resemble a toothless jaw. There are two trees here, one of them dead, and the other, which was wounded at the root, grows green again in April. Since 1815 it has taken to growing through the staircase.
Men massacred each other in the chapel, and the interior, which is grown quiet again, is strange. Mass has not been said in it since the carnage, but the altar has been left, – an altar of coarse wood supported by a foundation of rough stone. Four whitewashed walls, a door opposite the altar, two small arched windows, a large wooden crucifix over the door, above the crucifix a square air-hole stopped up with hay; in a corner, on the ground, an old window sash, with the panes all broken, – such is the chapel. Near the altar is a wooden statue of St. Anne, belonging to the 15th century; the head of the infant Saviour has been carried away by a shot. The French, masters for a moment of the chapel and then dislodged, set fire to it. The flames filled the building, and it became a furnace; the door burned, the flooring burned, but the wooden Christ was not burned; the fire nibbled away the feet, of which only the blackened stumps can now be seen, and then stopped. It was a miracle, say the country people. The walls are covered with inscriptions. Near the feet of Christ you read the name Henquinez; then these others, Conde de Rio Maïor, Marquis y Marquisa de Almagro (Habana). There are French names with marks of admiration, signs of anger. The wall was whitewashed again in 1849, for the nations insulted each other upon it. It was at the door of this chapel that a body was picked up, holding an axe in its hand; it was the body of Sub-lieutenant Legros.
On leaving the chapel you see a well on your left hand. As there are two wells in this yard, you ask yourself why this one has no bucket and windlass? Because water is no longer drawn from it. Why is it not drawn? Because it is full of skeletons. The last man who drew water from this well was a man called William van Kylsom: he was a peasant who lived at Hougomont, and was gardener there. On June 18, 1815, his family took to flight and concealed themselves in the woods. The forest round the Abbey of Villers sheltered for several days and nights the dispersed luckless country people. Even at the present day certain vestiges, such as old burnt trunks of trees, mark the spot of these poor encampments among the thickets. Van Kylsom remained at Hougomont to "take care of the château," and concealed himself in a cellar. The English discovered him there; he was dragged from his lurking-place, and the frightened man was forced by blows with the flat of a sabre to wait on the combatants. They were thirsty, and he brought them drink, and it was from this well he drew the water. Many drank there for the last time, and this well, from which so many dead men drank, was destined to die too. After the action, the corpses were hastily interred; death has a way of its own of harassing victory, and it causes pestilence to follow glory. Typhus is an annex of triumph. This well was deep and was converted into a tomb. Three hundred dead were thrown into it, perhaps with too much haste. Were they all dead? The legend says no. And it seems that, on the night following the burial, weak voices were heard calling from the well.
This well is isolated in the centre of the yard; three walls, half of brick, half of stone, folded like the leaves of a screen, and forming a square tower, surround it on three sides, while the fourth is open. The back wall has a sort of shapeless peep-hole, probably made by a shell. This tower once had a roof of which only the beams remain, and the iron braces of the right-hand wall form a cross. You bend over and look down into a deep brick cylinder full of gloom. All round the well the lower part of the wall is hidden by nettles. This well has not in front of it the large blue slab usually seen at all Belgian wells. Instead of it, there is a frame-work, supporting five or six shapeless logs of knotted wood which resemble large bones. There is no bucket, chain, or windlass remaining: but there is still the stone trough, which served to carry off the water. The rain-water collects in it, and from time to time a bird comes from the neighboring forest to drink from it and then fly away.
One house in this ruin, the farm-house, is still inhabited, and the door of this house opens on the yard. By the side of a pretty Gothic lock on this gate there is an iron handle. At the moment when the Hanoverian lieutenant Wilda seized this handle in order to take shelter in the farm, a French sapper cut off his hand with a blow of his axe. The old gardener Van Kylsom, who has long been dead, was grandfather of the family which now occupies the house. A gray-headed woman said to me: "I was here, I was three years old, and my sister, who was older, felt frightened and cried. I was carried away to the woods in my mother's arms, and people put their ears to the ground to listen. I imitated the cannon and said, 'Boom, boom.'" A door on the left hand of the yard, as we said, leads into the orchard, which is terrible. It is in three parts, we might almost say, in three acts. The first part is a garden, the second the orchard, the third a wood. These three parts have one common enceinte; near the entrance, the buildings of the château and the farm, on the left a hedge, on the right a wall, and at the end a wall. The right-hand wall is of brick, the bottom one of stone. You enter the garden first; it slopes, is planted with gooseberry-bushes, is covered with wild vegetation, and is closed by a monumental terrace of cut stones with balustrades. It was a Seigneurial garden in the French style, that preceded Le Notre: now it is ruins and briers. The pilasters are surmounted by globes that resemble stone cannon-balls. Forty-three balustrades are still erect; the others are lying in the grass, and nearly all have marks of musket-balls. One fractured balustrade is laid upon the stem like a broken leg.
It was in this garden, which is lower than the orchard, that six voltigeurs of the 1st light regiment, having got in and unable to get out, and caught like bears in a trap, accepted combat with two Hanoverian companies, one of which was armed with rifles. The Hanoverians lined the balustrade and fired down: the voltigeurs, firing up, six intrepid men against two hundred, and having no shelter but the gooseberry-bushes, took a quarter of an hour in dying. You climb up a few steps and reach the orchard, properly so called. Here, on these few square yards, fifteen hundred men fell in less than an hour. The wall seems ready to recommence the fight, for the thirty-eight loop-holes pierced by the English at irregular heights may still be seen. In front of the wall are two English tombs made of granite. There are only loop-holes in the south wall, for the principal attack was on that side. This wall is concealed on the outside by a quickset hedge. The French came up under the impression that they had only to carry this hedge, and found the wall an obstacle and an ambuscade; the English Guards, behind the thirty-eight loop-holes, firing at once a storm of canister and bullets; and Soye's brigade was dashed to pieces against it. Waterloo began thus.
The orchard, however, was taken; as the French had no ladders, they climbed up with their nails. A hand-to-hand fight took place under the trees, and all the grass was soaked with blood, and a battalion of Nassau, 700 strong, was cut to pieces here. On the outside the wall, against which Kellermann's two batteries were pointed, is pock-marked with cannon-balls. This orchard is sensitive, like any other, to the month of May; it has its buttercups and its daisies, the grass is tall in it, the plough-horses browse in it, hair ropes on which linen is hung to dry occupy the space between the trees, and make the visitor bow his head, and as you walk along your foot sinks in mole-holes. In the middle of the grass you notice an uprooted, outstretched, but still flourishing tree. Major Blackman leaned against it to die. Under another large tree close by fell the German General Duplat, a French refugee belonging to a family that fled upon the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Close at hand an old sickly apple-tree, poulticed with a bandage of straw and clay, hangs its head. Nearly all the apple-trees are dying of old age, and there is not one without its cannon-ball or bullet. Skeletons of dead trees abound in this orchard, ravens fly about in the branches, and at the end is a wood full of violets.
Bauduin killed; Foy wounded; arson, massacre, carnage, a stream composed of English, French, and German blood furiously mingled; a well filled with corpses; the Nassau regiment and the Brunswick regiment destroyed; Duplat killed; Blackman killed; the English Guards mutilated; twenty French battalions of the forty composing Reille's corps decimated; three thousand men in this château of Hougomont alone, sabred, gashed, butchered, shot, and burnt, – all this that a peasant may say to a traveller at the present day, "If you like to give me three francs, sir, I will tell you all about the battle of Waterloo."
Let us go back, for that is one of the privileges of the narrator, and place ourselves once again in the year 1815, a little prior to the period when the matters related in the first part of this book begin. If it had not rained on the night between the 17th and 18th June, 1815, the future of Europe would have been changed; a few drops of rain more or less made Napoleon oscillate. In order to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz, Providence only required a little rain, and a cloud crossing the sky at a season when rain was not expected was sufficient to overthrow an empire. The battle of Waterloo could not begin till half-past eleven, and that gave Blücher time to come up. Why? Because the ground was moist and it was necessary for it to become firmer, that the artillery might manœuvre. Napoleon was an artillery officer, and always showed himself one; all his battle plans are made for projectiles. Making artillery converge on a given point was his key to victory. He treated the strategy of the opposing general as a citadel, and breached it; he crushed the weak point under grape-shot, and he began and ended his battles with artillery. Driving in squares, pulverizing regiments, breaking lines, destroying and dispersing masses, – all this must be done by striking, striking, striking incessantly, and he confided the task to artillery. It was a formidable method, and, allied to genius, rendered this gloomy pugilist of war invincible for fifteen years.
On June 18, 1815, he counted the more on his artillery, because he held the numerical superiority. Wellington had only one hundred and fifty-nine guns, while Napoleon had two hundred and forty. Had the earth been dry and the artillery able to move, the action would have begun at six A.M. It would have been won and over by two P.M., three hours before the Prussians changed the fortune of the day. How much blame was there on Napoleon's side for the loss of this battle? Is the shipwreck imputable to the pilot? Was the evident physical decline of Napoleon at that period complicated by a certain internal diminution? Had twenty years of war worn out the blade as well as the scabbard, the soul as well as the body? Was the veteran being awkwardly displayed in the captain? In a word, was the genius, as many historians of reputation have believed, eclipsed? Was he becoming frenzied, in order to conceal his own weakening from himself? Was he beginning to oscillate and veer with the wind? Was he becoming unconscious of danger, which is a serious thing in a general? In that class of great material men who may be called the giants of action, is there an age when genius becomes short-sighted? Old age has no power over ideal genius; with the Dantes and the Michael Angelos old age is growth, but is it declension for the Hannibals and the Buonapartes? Had Napoleon lost the direct sense of victory? Had he reached a point where he no longer saw the reef, guessed the snare, and could not discern the crumbling edge of the abyss? Could he not scent catastrophes? Had the man who formerly knew all the roads to victory, and pointed to them with a sovereign finger, from his flashing car, now a mania for leading his tumultuous team of legions to the precipices? Was he attacked at the age of forty-six by a supreme madness? Was the Titanic charioteer of destiny now only a Phaëton?
We do not believe it.
His plan of action, it is allowed by all, was a masterpiece. Go straight at the centre of the allied line, make a hole through the enemy, cut him in two, drive the British half over Halle, and the Prussians over Tingres, carry Mont St. Jean, seize Brussels, drive the German into the Rhine and the Englishman into the sea. All this was contained for Napoleon in this battle; afterwards he would see.
We need hardly say that we do not pretend to tell the story of Waterloo here; one of the generating scenes of the drama we are recounting is connected with this battle; but the story of Waterloo has been already told, and magisterially discussed, from one point of view by Napoleon, from another by a galaxy of historians. For our part, we leave the historians to contend; we are only a distant witness, a passer-by along the plain, a seeker bending over the earth made of human flesh, and perhaps taking appearances for realities; we possess neither the military practice nor the strategic competency that authorizes a system; in our opinion, a chain of accidents governed both captains at Waterloo; and when destiny, that mysterious accused, enters on the scene, we judge like the people, that artless judge.