Napoleonder by Honoré de Balzac

Story type: Literature


[Footnote 1: The Russian peasant’s name for Napoleon Bonaparte. The final syllable “der” has perhaps been added because to the ear of the peasant “Napoleon” sounds clipped and incomplete, as “Alexan” would sound to us without the “der.”]

Long ago–but not so very long ago; our grandfathers remember it–the Lord God wanted to punish the people of the world for their wickedness. So he began to think how and by what means he could punish them, and he called a council of his angels and archangels to talk about it. Says the archangel Michael to the Lord God: “Shake them up, the recreants, with an earthquake.”

“We’ve tried that,” says the Lord God. “Once upon a time we jolted to pieces Sodom and Gomorrah, but it didn’t teach them anything. Since then pretty much all the towns have become Sodoms and Gomorrahs.”

“How about famine?” says the archangel Gabriel.

“It would be too bad for the babies,” replies the Lord God. “Famine would kill the babies. And, besides that, the cattle must have food–they’re not to blame.”

“Drown them with a flood,” suggests Raphael.

“Clean impossible!” says the Lord God. “Because, in the first place, I took an oath once that there should be no more floods, and I set the rainbow in the sky for an assurance. In the second place, the rascally sinners have become cunning; they’ll get on steamboats and sail all over the flood.”

Then all the archangels were perplexed, and began to screw about in their seats, trying to invent or think of some calamity that would bring the wicked human race to its senses and stir up its conscience. But they had been accustomed, time out of mind, to do good rather than evil; they had forgotten all about the wickedness of the world; and they couldn’t think of a single thing that would be of any use.

Then suddenly up comes Ivan-angel, a simple-minded soul whom the Lord God had appointed to look after the Russian muzhiks. He comes up and reports: “Lord, Satan is outside there, asking for you. He doesn’t dare to come in, because he smells bad [Footnote 2: That is, he brings with him the sulphurous odor of hell.]; so he’s waiting in the entry.”

Then the Lord God was rejoiced. “Call Satan in!” he ordered. “I know that rogue perfectly well, and he has come in the very nick of time. A scamp like that will be sure to think of something.”

Satan came in. His face was as black as tanned calfskin, his voice was hoarse, and a long tail hung down from under his overcoat.

“If you so order,” he says, “I’ll distribute your calamities for you with my own hands.”

“Go ahead with your distribution,” says the Lord God; “nobody shall hinder you.”

“Will you permit me,” Satan says, “to bring about an invasion of foreigners?”

The Lord God shook his finger at Satan and cried: “Is that all you can think of? And you so wise!”

“Excuse me,” Satan says. “Why doesn’t my plan show wisdom?”

“Because,” replies the Lord God, “you propose to afflict the people with war, and war is just what they want. They’re all the time fighting among themselves, one people with another, and that’s the very thing I want to punish them for.”

“Yes,” says Satan, “they re greedy for war, but that’s only because they have never yet seen a real warrior. Send them a regular conqueror, and they’ll soon drop their tails between their legs and cry, ‘Have mercy, Lord! Save us from the man of blood!’”

The Lord God was surprised. “Why do you say, my little brother, that the people have never seen a real warrior? The Tsar Herod was a conqueror; the Tsar Alexander subdued a wonderful lot of people; Ivan-Tsar destroyed Kazan; Mamai-Tsar the furious came with all his hordes; and the Tsar Peter, and the great fighter Anika–how many more conquerors do you want?”

“I want Napoleonder,” says Satan.

“Napoleonder!” cries the Lord God. “Who’s he? Where did he come from?”

“He’s a certain little man,” Satan says, “who may not be wise enough to hurt, but he’s terribly fierce in his habits.”

The Lord God says to the archangel Gabriel: “Look in the Book of Life, Gabriel, and see if we’ve got Napoleonder written down.”

The archangel looked and looked, but he couldn’t look up any such person.

“There isn’t any kind of Napoleonder in the Book,” he says. “Satan is a liar. We haven’t got Napoleonder written down anywhere.”

Then Satan replies: “It isn’t strange that you can’t find Napoleonder in the Book of Life, because you write in that Book only the names of those who were born of human fathers and mothers, and who have navels. Napoleonder never had a father or a mother, and, moreover, he hasn’t any navel–and that’s so surprising that you might exhibit him for money.”

The Lord God was greatly astonished. “How did your Napoleonder ever get into the world?” he says.

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“In this way,” Satan replies. “I made him, as a doll, just for amusement, out of sand. At that very time, you, Lord, happened to be washing your holy face; and, not being careful, you let a few drops of the water of life splash over. They fell from heaven right exactly on Napoleonder’s head, and he immediately took breath and became a man. He is living now, not very near nor very far away, on the island of Buan, in the middle of the ocean-sea. There is a little less than a verst of land in the island, and Napoleonder lives there and watches geese. Night and day he looks after the geese, without eating, or drinking, or sleeping, or smoking; and his only thought is–how to conquer the whole world.”

The Lord God thought and thought, and then he ordered: “Bring him to me.”

Satan at once brought Napoleonder into the bright heaven. The Lord God looked at him, and saw that he was a military man with shining buttons.

“I have heard, Napoleonder,” says the Lord God, “that you want to conquer the whole world.”

“Exactly so,” replies Napoleonder; “that’s what I want very much to do.”

“And have you thought,” says the Lord God, “that when you go forth to conquer you will crush many peoples and shed rivers of blood?”

“That’s all the same to me,” says Napoleonder; “the important thing for me is–how can I subdue the whole world.”

“And will you not feel pity for the killed, the wounded, the burned, the ruined, and the dead?”

“Not in the least,” says Napoleonder. “Why should I feel pity? I don’t like pity. So far as I can remember, I was never sorry for anybody or anything in my life, and I never shall be.”

Then the Lord God turns to the angels and says: “Messrs. Angels, this seems to be the very fellow for our business.” Then to Napoleonder he says: “Satan was perfectly right. You are worthy to be the instrument of my wrath, because a pitiless conqueror is worse than earthquake, famine, or deluge. Go back to the earth, Napoleonder; I turn over to you the whole world, and through you the whole world shall be punished.”

Napoleonder says: “Give me armies and luck, and I’ll do my best.”

Then the Lord God says: “Armies you shall have, and luck you shall have; and so long as you are merciless you shall never be defeated in battle; but remember that the moment you begin to feel sorry for the shedding of blood–of your own people or of others–that moment your power will end. From that moment your enemies will defeat you, and you shall finally be made a prisoner, be put into chains, and be sent back to Buan Island to watch geese. Do you understand?”

“Exactly so,” says Napoleonder. “I understand, and I will obey. I shall never feel pity.”

Then the angels and the archangels began to say to God: “Lord, why have you laid upon him such a frightful command? If he goes forth so, without mercy, he will kill every living soul on earth–he will leave none for seed!”

“Be silent!” replied the Lord God. “He will not conquer long. He is altogether too brave; because he fears neither others nor himself. He thinks he will keep from pity, and does not know that pity, in the human heart, is stronger than all else, and that not a man living is wholly without it.”

“But,” the archangels say, “he is not a man; he is made of sand.”

The Lord God replies: “Then you think he didn’t receive a soul when my water of life fell on his head?”

Napoleonder at once gathered together a great army speaking twelve languages, and went forth to war. He conquered the Germans, he conquered the Turks, he subdued the Swedes and the Poles. He reaped as he marched, and left bare the country through which he passed. And all the time he remembers the condition of success–pity for none. He cuts off heads, burns villages, outrages women, and tramples children under his horses’ hoofs. He desolates the whole Mohammedan kingdom–and still he is not sated. Finally he marches on a Christian country–on Holy Russia.

In Russia then the Tsar was Alexander the Blessed–the same Tsar who stands now on the top of the column in Petersburg-town and blesses the people with a cross, and that’s why he is called “the Blessed.”

When he saw Napoleonder marching against him with twelve languages, Alexander the Blessed felt that the end of Russia was near. He called together his generals and field-marshals, and said to them: “Messrs. Generals and Field-marshals, how can I check this Napoleonder? He is pressing us terribly hard.”

The generals and field-marshals reply: “We can’t do anything, your Majesty, to stop Napoleonder, because God has given him a word.”

“What kind of a word?”

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“This kind: ‘Bonaparty.’”

“But what does ‘Bonaparty’ mean, and why is a single word so terrible?”

“It means, your Majesty, six hundred and sixty-six–the number of the Beast [Footnote 3: A reference to the Beast of the Apocalypse. “The number of the beast is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred threescore and six” (Rev. xiii. 18).]; and it is terrible because when Napoleonder sees, in a battle, that the enemy is very brave, that his own strength is not enough, and that his own men are falling fast [Footnote 4: Literally, “lying down with their bones.”], he immediately conjures with this same word, ‘Bonaparty,’ and at that instant–as soon as the word is pronounced–all the soldiers that have ever served under him and have died for him on the field of battle come back from beyond the grave. He leads them afresh against the enemy, as if they were alive, and nothing can stand against them, because they are a ghostly force, not an army of this world.”

Alexander the Blessed grew sad; but, after thinking a moment, he said: “Messrs. Generals and Field-marshals, we Russians are a people of more than ordinary courage. We have fought with all nations, and never yet before any of them have we laid our faces in the dust. If God has brought us, at last, to fight with corpses–his holy will be done! We will go against the dead!”

So he led his army to the field of Kulikova, and there waited for the miscreant Napoleonder. And soon afterward, Napoleonder, the evil one, sends him an envoy with a paper saying, “Submit, Alexander Blagoslovenni, and I will show you favor above all others.”

But Alexander the Blessed was a proud man, who held fast his self-respect. He would not speak to the envoy, but he took the paper that the envoy had brought, and drew on it an insulting picture, with the words, “Is this what you want?” and sent it back to Napoleonder.

Then they fought and slashed one another on the field of Kulikova, and in a short time or a long time our men began to overcome the forces of the enemy. One by one they shot or cut down all of Napoleonder’s field-marshals, and finally drew near to Napoleonder himself.

“Your time has come!” they cry to him. “Surrender!”

But the villain sits there on his horse, rolling his goggle-eyes like an owl, and grinning.

“Wait a minute,” he says coolly. “Don’t be in too big a hurry. A tale is short in telling, but the deed is long a-doing.”

Then he pronounces his conjuring-word, “Bonaparty”–six hundred and sixty-six, the number of the Beast.

Instantly there is a great rushing sound, and the earth is shaken as if by an earthquake. Our soldiers look–and drop their hands. In all parts of the field appear threatening battalions, with bayonets shining in the sun, torn flags waving over terrible hats of fur, and tramp! tramp! tramp! on come the thousands of phantom men, with faces yellow as camomile, and empty holes under their bushy eyebrows.

Alexander, the Blessed Tsar, was stricken with terror. Terror-stricken were all his generals and field-marshals. Terror-stricken also was the whole Russian army. Shaking with fear, they wavered at the advance of the dead, gave way suddenly in a panic, and finally fled in whatever direction their eyes happened to look.

The brigand Napoleonder sat on his horse, holding his sides with laughter, and shouted: “Aha! My old men are not to your taste! I thought so! This isn’t like playing knuckle-bones with children and old women! Well, then, my honorable Messrs. Dead Men, I have never yet felt pity for any one, and you needn’t show mercy to my enemies. Deal with them after your own fashion.”

“As long as it is so,” replied the corpse-soldiers, “we are your faithful servants always.”

Our men fled from Kulikova-field to Pultava-field; from Pultava-field to the famous still-water Don; and from the peaceful Don to the field of Borodino, under the very walls of Mother Moscow. And as our men came to these fields, one after another, they turned their faces again and again toward Napoleonder, and fought him with such fierceness that the brigand himself was delighted with them “God save us!” he exclaimed, “what soldiers these Russians are! I have not seen such men in any other country.”

But, in spite of the bravery of our troops, we were unable to stop Napoleonder’s march; because we had no word with which to meet his word. In every battle we pound him, and drive him back, and get him in a slip-noose; but just as we are going to draw it tight and catch him, the filthy, idolatrous thief bethinks himself and shouts “Bonaparty!” Then the dead men crawl out of their graves in full uniform, set their teeth, fix their eyes upon their officers, and charge! And where they pass the grass withers and the stones crack. And our men are so terrified by these unclean bodies that they can’t fight against them at all. As soon as they hear that accursed word “Bonaparty,” and see the big fur hats and the yellow faces of the dead men, they throw down their guns and rush into the woods to hide.

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“Say what you will, Alexander Blagoslovenni,” they cry, “for corpses we are not prepared.”

Alexander the Blessed reproached his men, and said: “Wait a little, brothers, before you run away. Let’s exert ourselves a little more. Dog that he is, he can’t beat us always. God has set a limit for him somewhere. To-day is his, to-morrow may be his, but after a while the luck perhaps will turn.”

Then he went to the old hermit-monks in the caves of Kiev and on the island of Valaam, and bowed himself at the feet of all the archimandrites and metropolitans, saying: “Pray for us, holy fathers, and beseech the Lord God to turn away his wrath; because we haven’t strength enough to defend you from this Napoleonder.”

Then the old hermit-monks and the archimandrites and the metropolitans all prayed, with tears in their eyes, to the Lord God, and prostrated themselves until their knees were all black and blue and there were big bumps on their foreheads. With tearful eyes, the whole Russian people, too, from the Tsar to the last beggar, prayed God for mercy and help. And they took the sacred ikon of the Holy Mother of God of Smolensk, the pleader for the grief-stricken, and carried it to the famous field of Borodino, and, bowing down before it, with tearful eyes, they cried: “O Most Holy Mother of God, thou art our life and our hope! Have mercy on us, and intercede for us soon.”

And down the dark face of the ikon, from under the setting of pearls in the silver frame, trickled big tears. And all the army and all God’s people saw the sacred ikon crying. It was a terrible thing to see, but it was comforting.

Then the Lord God heard the wail of the Russian people and the prayers of the Holy Virgin the Mother of God of Smolensk, and he cried out to the angels and the archangels: “The hour of my wrath has passed. The people have suffered enough for their sins and have repented of their wickedness. Napoleonder has destroyed nations enough. It’s time for him to learn mercy. Who of you, my servants, will go down to the earth–who will undertake the great work of softening the conqueror’s heart?”

The older angels and the archangels didn’t want to go. “Soften his heart!” they cried. “He is made of sand–he hasn’t any navel–he is pitiless–we’re afraid of him!”

Then Ivan-angel stepped forward and said: “I’ll go.”

At that very time Napoleonder had just gained a great victory and was riding over the field of battle on a greyhound of a horse. He trampled with his horse’s hoofs on the bodies of the dead, without pity or regret, and the only thought in his mind was, “As soon as I have done with Russia, I’ll march against the Chinese and the white Arabs; and then I shall have conquered exactly the whole world.”

But just at that moment he heard some one calling, “Napoleonder! O Napoleonder!” He looked around, and not far away, under a bush on a little mound, he saw a wounded Russian soldier, who was beckoning to him with his hand. Napoleonder was surprised. What could a wounded Russian soldier want of him? He turned his horse and rode to the spot. “What do you want?” he asked the soldier.

“I don’t want anything of you,” the wounded soldier replied, “except an answer to one question. Tell me, please, what have you killed me for?”

Napoleonder was still more surprised. In the many years of his conquering he had wounded and killed a multitude of men; but he had never been asked that question before. And yet this Russian soldier didn’t look as if he had anything more than ordinary intelligence. He was just a young, boyish fellow, with light flaxen hair and blue eyes–evidently a new recruit from some country village.

“What do you mean–‘killed you for’?” said Napoleonder. “I had to kill you. When you went into the army, didn’t you take an oath that you would die?”

“I know what oath I took, Napoleonder, and I’m not making a fuss about dying. But you–why did you kill me?”

“Why shouldn’t I kill you,” said Napoleonder, “when you were the enemy,–that is, my foe,–come out to fight me on the field of Borodino?”

“Cross yourself, Napoleonder!” said the young soldier. “How could I be your foe, when there has never been any sort of quarrel between us? Until you came into our country, and I was drafted into the army, I had never even heard of you. And here you have killed me–and how many more like me!”

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“I killed,” said Napoleonder, “because it was necessary for me to conquer the world.”

“But what have I got to do with your conquering the world?” replied the soldier. “Conquer it, if you want to–I don’t hinder. But why did you kill me? Has killing me given you the world? The world doesn’t belong to me. You’re not reasonable, brother Napoleonder. And is it possible that you really think you can conquer the whole world?”

“I’m very much of that opinion,” replied Napoleonder.

The little soldier smiled. “You’re really stupid, Napoleonder,” he said. “I’m sorry for you. As if it were possible to conquer the whole world!”

“I’ll subdue all the kingdoms,” replied Napoleonder, “and put all peoples in chains, and then I’ll reign as Tsar of all the earth.”

The soldier shook his head. “And God?” he inquired. “Will you conquer him?”

Napoleonder was confused. “No,” he finally said. “God’s will is over us all; and in the hollow of his hand we live.”

“Then what’s the use of your conquering the world?” said the soldier. “God is all; therefore the world won’t belong to you, but to him. And you’ll live just so long as he has patience with you, and no longer.”

“I know that as well as you do,” said Napoleonder.

“Well, then,” replied the soldier, “if you know it, why don’t you reckon with God?”

Napoleonder scowled. “Don’t say such things to me!” he cried. “I’ve heard that sanctimonious stuff before. It’s of no use. You can’t fool me! I don’t know any such thing as pity.”

“Indeed,” said the soldier, “is it so? Have a care, Napoleonder! You are swaggering too much. You lie when you say a man can live without pity. To have a soul, and to feel compassion, are one and the same thing. You have a soul, haven’t you?”

“Of course I have,” replied Napoleonder; “a man can’t live without a soul.”

“There! you see!” said the soldier. “You have a soul, and you believe in God. How, then, can you say you don’t know any such thing as pity? You do know! And I believe that at this very moment, deep down in your heart, you are mortally sorry for me; only you don’t want to show it. Why, then, did you kill me?”

Napoleonder suddenly became furious. “May the pip seize your tongue, you miscreant! I’ll show you how much pity I have for you!” And, drawing a pistol, Napoleonder shot the wounded soldier through the head. Then, turning to his dead men, he said: “Did you see that?”

“We saw it,” they replied; “and as long as it is so, we are your faithful servants always.”

Napoleonder rode on.

At last night comes; and Napoleonder is sitting alone in his golden tent. His mind is troubled, and he can’t understand what it is that seems to be gnawing at his heart. For years he has been at war, and this is the first time such a thing has happened. Never before has his soul been so filled with unrest. And to-morrow morning he must begin another battle–the last terrible fight with the Tsar Alexander the Blessed, on the field of Borodino.

“Akh!” he thinks, “I’ll show them to-morrow what a leader I am! I’ll lift the soldiers of the Tsar into the air on my lances and trample their bodies under the feet of my horses. I’ll make the Tsar himself a prisoner, and I’ll kill or scatter the whole Russian people.”

But a voice seemed to whisper in his ear: “And why? Why?”

“I know that trick,” he thought. “It’s that same wounded soldier again. All right. I won’t give in to him. ‘Why? Why?’ As if I knew why! Perhaps if I knew why I shouldn’t make war.”

He lay down on his bed; but hardly had he closed his eyes when he saw by his bedside the wounded soldier–young, fair-faced, blond-haired, with just the first faint shadow of a mustache. His forehead was pale, his lips were livid, his blue eyes were dim, and in his left temple there was a round black hole made by the bullet from his–Napoleonder’s–pistol. And the ghastly figure seemed to ask again, “Why did you kill me?”

Napoleonder turns over and over, from side to side, in his bed. He sees that it’s a bad business. He can’t get rid of that soldier. And, more than all, he wonders at himself. “What an extraordinary occurrence!” he thinks. “I’ve killed millions of people, of all countries and nations, without the least misgiving; and now, suddenly, one miserable soldier comes and throws all my ideas into a tangle!”

Finally Napoleonder got up; but the confinement of his golden tent seemed oppressive. He went out into the open air, mounted his horse, and rode away to the place where he had shot to death the vexatious soldier.

“I’ve heard,” he said to himself, “that when a dead man appears in a vision, it is necessary to sprinkle earth on the eyes of the corpse; then he’ll lie quiet.”

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Napoleonder rides on. The moon is shining brightly, and the bodies of the dead are lying on the battle-field in heaps. Everywhere he sees corruption and smells corruption.

“And all these,” he thought, “I have killed.”

And, wonderful to say, it seems to him as if all the dead men have the same face,–a young face with blue eyes, and blond hair, and the faint shadow of a mustache,–and they all seem to be looking at him with kindly, pitying eyes, and their bloodless lips move just a little as they ask, without anger or reproach, “Why? Why?”

Napoleonder felt a dull, heavy pressure at his heart. He had not spirit enough left to go to the little mound where the body of the dead soldier lay, so he turned his horse and rode back to his tent; and every corpse that he passed seemed to say, “Why? Why?”

He no longer felt the desire to ride at a gallop over the dead bodies of the Russian soldiers. On the contrary, he picked his way among them carefully, riding respectfully around the remains of every man who had died with honor on that field of blood; and now and then he even crossed himself and said: “Akh, that one ought to have lived! What a fine fellow that one was! He must have fought with splendid courage. And I killed him–why?”

The great conqueror never noticed that his heart was growing softer and warmer, but so it was. He pitied his dead enemies at last, and then the evil spirit went away from him, and left him in all respects like other people.

The next day came the battle. Napoleonder led his forces, cloud upon cloud, to the field of Borodino; but he was shaking as if in a chill. His generals and field-marshals looked at him and were filled with dismay.

“You ought to take a drink of vodka, Napoleonder,” they say; “you don’t look like yourself.”

When the Russian troops attacked the hordes of Napoleonder, on the field of Borodino, the soldiers of the great conqueror at once gave way.

“It’s a bad business, Napoleonder,” the generals and field-marshals say. “For some reason the Russians are fighting harder to-day than ever. You’d better call out your dead men.”

Napoleonder shouted at the top of his voice, “Bonaparty!”–six hundred and sixty-six,–the number of the Beast. But, cry as he would, he only frightened the jackdaws. The dead men didn’t come out of their graves, nor answer his call. And Napoleonder was left on the field of Borodino alone. All his generals and field-marshals had fled, and he sat there alone on his horse, shouting, “Bonaparty! Bonaparty!”

Then suddenly there appeared beside him the smooth-faced, blue-eyed, fair-haired Russian recruit whom he had killed the day before. And the young soldier said: “It’s useless to shout, Napoleonder. Nobody will come. Yesterday you felt sorry for me and for my dead brothers, and because of your pity your corpse-soldiers no longer come at your call. Your power over them is gone.”

Then Napoleonder began to weep and sob, and cried out, “You have ruined me, you wretched, miserable soldier!”

But the soldier (who was Ivan-angel, and not a soldier at all) replied: “I have not ruined you, Napoleonder; I have saved you. If you had gone on in your merciless, pitiless course, there would have been no forgiveness for you, either in this life or in the life to come. Now God has given you time for repentance. In this world you shall be punished; but there, beyond, if you repent of your sins, you shall be forgiven.”

And the angel vanished.

Then our Don Cossacks fell on Napoleonder, dragged him from his horse, and took him to Alexander the Blessed. Some said, “Napoleonder ought to be shot!” Others cried, “Send him to Siberia to!” But the Lord God softened the heart of Alexander the Blessed, and the merciful Tsar would not allow Napoleonder to be shot or sent to Siberia. He ordered that the great conqueror be put into an iron cage, and be carried around and exhibited to the people at country fairs. So Napoleonder was carried from one fair to another for a period of thirty summers and three years–until he had grown quite old. Then, when he was an old man, they sent him to the island of Buan to watch geese.

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