The Conscript

by Grace Greenwood

In the wars of the great Napoleon, thousands of French soldiers were raised by conscription,—that is, taken by lot from the working classes.

These conscripts, though they generally made good soldiers, often went with great unwillingness and even sorrow from their humble homes and their loved ones, to endure the hardships of weary campaigns, to risk life and limb in desperate battles, for they scarcely knew what, with people against whom they had no ill-will.

On a cloudy morning in early May, a company of conscripts were marched away from a pleasant little hamlet in the South of France. For some distance on their way they were followed by loving friends, some weeping and some bravely striving to cheer them up.

At last these fell off, and the conscripts pursued their march in melancholy silence. On the brow of a hill, their road passed the gates of an old chateau, the seat of the ancient lords of the manor, the Counts De Lorme. The present Count, an old man, had lately been permitted to return from exile in England, to his half-ruined estate; but, in acknowledgment for this act of clemency, he had felt obliged to offer to the service of the Emperor his only son, who was now a captain in the grand army.

Just outside the gates, on this morning, stood Count De Lorme, evidently awaiting the conscripts. He addressed a few words to the sergeant, who brought his men to a halt, and called forward one Jean Moreau, a tall, sturdy young man, with a frank, honest face, now sadly overcast.

"Well, Jean," said the old nobleman, kindly shaking the conscript's hand, "you must go, it seems, this time. I am sorry we could not buy you off again; but you are built of too tempting soldier-stuff to remain a peaceful village blacksmith."

"Yes, Monsieur le Comte," said the sergeant, "it is n't often we find such stalwart fellows nowadays. The villagers all speak well of him, and seem to begrudge him even to the Emperor."

"Yes," replied the Count; "Jean is a good boy. I know him well; he was the foster-brother of my son. Here, Jean, is a letter to the Captain. You may meet him somewhere. You may possibly serve in the same regiment. If so, I commend him to you. He is not so strong as you are, and he is brave to rashness. Watch over him, I pray you."

"Ah, Monsieur le Comte, believe me, I would gladly give my life for dear Captain Henri."

"I do believe you, Jean. Adieu!"

"Adieu!"

Jean Moreau, the handsome young blacksmith, left in his native hamlet a widowed mother, a good, sensible woman, formerly nurse at the chateau, but who, since the Revolution, had adopted the calling of a blanchisseuse, or laundress. "Mother Moreau," as everybody called her, had another son than Jean, fortunately too young to be drafted as a conscript. Years before, this good woman had taken home a poor little orphan girl, who had grown up to be as a daughter to her, and more than a sister to Jean. Marie Lenoir, the pretty young blanchisseuse, was in truth his betrothed wife. The little bouquet of May rosebuds and forget-me-nots in his button-hole was her parting gift. As on the hill by the chateau he turned for his last look at the dear little hamlet, nestled in the pleasant valley, he was not ashamed to press those flowers to his lips,—not ashamed of the tears that fell on them. He was too manly to fear being thought unmanly.

Months went by,—months of sad anxiety to Mother Moreau and Marie Lenoir, for they heard very unfrequently from Jean, and knew that he was always in danger. He did not take kindly to a soldier's life, but he tried faithfully to do his duty, so could not be altogether unhappy. After he had once seen the great Emperor, he felt the enthusiasm which that wonderful man always inspired, and longed to do something grand to merit his praise. Then, by a strange and happy chance, he found himself in the same regiment with his beloved foster-brother, Captain De Lorme.

At length there rang over France the news of the great battle of Austerlitz, where the Emperor commanded in person, and defeated his foes with fearful slaughter. After a time of painful suspense, the Count De Lorme had word that his son had been badly wounded, and set out at once for the hospital in which the young officer had been left. But many weeks went by, and no tidings, good or evil, came to the friends of the conscript. Mother Moreau, who was a brave woman, inured to trouble, kept up a hopeful heart; but Marie Lenoir rapidly lost the roses from her cheeks and the spring from her step, while the laughing light of her soft brown eyes gave place to a look of sadness and fear.

But where was Jean? Not dead, as his friends feared. Not buried forever out of their loving sight, in the soldier's crowded and bloody grave. He was lying at the same hospital which had received his foster-brother, very ill from several severe wounds; and when at last he rose from his bed, and staggered out into the court, one sleeve of his military coat hung limp and empty at his side. If Jean Moreau had not given his life for Captain Henri, he had laid down in his service what was almost as dear,—his good right arm. This was the story of it. In a part of the field where the battle raged most fiercely, Captain De Lorme's company, in which Jean was then enrolled, was engaged. At one time they were right under the eye of the Emperor, and fought with renewed ardor and courage.

The enemy was in great force here, and desperate charges were made on both sides. Seeing the standard-bearer of his regiment fall, and the banner in the hands of the enemy, Captain De Lorme dashed forward to recover it. This he did, and was gallantly fighting his way back to the French ranks, when he fell, pierced in the breast by a ball, and bleeding from more than one bayonet-thrust. In an instant there stood over him the tall, powerful form of the young blacksmith. Flinging down his musket, and seizing the sword which the wounded officer had dropped, he kept off all assailants, or cut them down with terrible strokes of that keen and bloody weapon, flashing about him, here, there, on every side, like red lightning. Lifting the fainting young noble, together with the standard, and bearing them on his left arm, Jean actually fought his way out of the enemy's ranks, step by step, defending both his precious charges. He received several wounds, but none that disabled him, till a musket-ball went crashing through the bones of his right arm, and it dropped helpless at his side. When at last he fell, and closed his brave eyes in a long, deep swoon, which he believed the sleep of death, he was at the foot of a little eminence on which Napoleon sat on his war-horse, surveying the terrible scene of carnage,—the surging sea of battle that raged around him. Jean wondered if the smoke of the cannon veiled from his calm eyes the agony of dying men, and if their groans came to his ears between the volleys of musketry, in the pauses of stormy battle music.

As soon as Jean was able to leave his ward, he was permitted to visit his captain, who, however, was still very low from a fever induced by his wounds. For the most time he was unconscious or delirious, and recognized no one. The old Count was with him, but evidently knew not who had saved the life that flickered faintly in the breast of his son, and Jean was not the man to inform him.

About a fortnight later, near the close of a weary day, two discharged and maimed soldiers approached the secluded hamlet of De Lorme. The elder was crippled by a shot in the knee, the younger had lost an arm,—his right arm. He was pale and thin from illness, and on one cheek was a bright red seam, from a deep sabre-cut. So Jean, the handsome young conscript, came home.

He had borne his misfortune very cheerfully at first, but now at every step he grew gloomy and lost courage. To his comrade, Jaques Paval, he frankly confided his trouble.

It was a fear that, maimed and disfigured as he was, his Marie would no longer be willing to accept him for her husband. This fear grew so strong on him, that, when they came in sight of the dear old cottage, he paused in an olive-grove, and sent his friend forward to prepare his betrothed and his mother for the sad change they must see in him.

He paused in an olive-grove.

He paused in an olive-grove.

Jaques found Marie leaning over the gate, looking down the street. She was always looking out for returned soldiers now. She seemed disappointed that Jaques was not Jean, but greeted him kindly, and soon drew from him all he had to tell of her doubting lover. Calling Mother Moreau, and Jean's young brother, she ran before them down the street, and soon cheered the sinking heart under the olive-trees with a glad embrace and a welcome home. Then came the young brother, laughing loud to keep from crying, and affecting not to see that dangling coat-sleeve, or to miss the grasp of the lost right hand. Then the mother, thanking God, as she fell on the breast of her son, putting the hair from his scarred forehead and blessing him. Pretty Marie had shrunk a little from that ugly red mark on his cheek, but the mother kissed that very spot most tenderly, with murmurs of pitying love.

The next day, Jean generously offered to free Marie from her engagement; but she would not be freed, reproaching him with tears for thinking so poorly of her as to suppose she would forsake him when he needed her most.

"But, Marie," he said, "we shall be so poor. My pension will be small, and I can do little with only a left arm."

"But, Jean, I am young and strong, and—"

"God and the saints will help us," interposed Mother Moreau.

Jean and Marie responded by silently crossing themselves; and the marriage was fixed for the first Sunday of the next month.

On the evening before the wedding the Count De Lorme, who had lately returned to the chateau, sent word to Mother Moreau, that, with the permission of the wedding-party, he would be present at the church, to give away the bride.

With that perfect punctuality which is a part of true politeness, he came at the exact time appointed; and, leaning on his arm, there came a slight, pale young officer, Captain Henri, now Colonel De Lorme. With respectful eagerness Jean stepped forward to greet him, and, in his joy and faithful devotion, would have kissed the hand held forth, but that De Lorme, with a sudden impulse of affection, extended his arms, and the brothers in heart embraced. This is a custom in France with men, but only when they are equal in rank. At this moment the young noble caught sight of that mournful empty sleeve. A look of pain crossed his face; he gently lifted the sleeve and pressed it to his lips.

"Jean," he said at last, in a soft, unsteady voice, "I bring you good news! The Emperor himself witnessed your gallant conduct in rescuing me and our colors, and if you had not been disabled, you would have been promoted. As it is, you will receive the pension of a lieutenant. And, Jean, I give you joy, mon frère (my brother), he sends you this, the highest reward of a brave soldier of France, the best wedding present for a hero."

With these words the young Colonel placed on the breast of the poor conscript a shining ornament,—the grand cross of the Legion of Honor!

So the wedding of Jean and Marie was a merry one after all. The good old Count not only gave away the bride, but gave with her a nice little dot, or portion. All the villagers who were rich enough gave them presents, and the poor gave blessings, which doubtless turned into good things in time.

Marie Moreau proved such an energetic, devoted wife, that Jean felt that he had more than got his right arm back again; yet he was no idler, for he found that with practice he could do many things with his left arm, and at length adopted the business of a vine-grower.

As he grew older, his beard grew heavier, so that in a few years little Henri, his son, had to part, with his chubby fingers, the thick, crisp hair, to get at that sabre-scar, when he wanted to hear the story of the hard fight for the young captain and the banner, and of the great Emperor on the hill overlooking everything with his keen, gray, unflinching eyes.