Dewey Lambdin

A Jester’s Fortune

(Lewrie – 08)

Heu, quibus ingreditor fatis!

Qui gentibus horror pergit!

Alas, to what destinies doth he move forward!

His coming is the terror of nations!

Argonautica, Book I, 744-745

Gaius Valerius Flaccus


It was a chilly, blustery March morning, only just a little warmer than the winter days that had preceded it. Here, even near the ocean at Nice, springtime was only beginning to make its mark, and that-like the temperatures-was only a matter of degree. Icy mountain streams that the coaches had crossed on their madcap dash from Paris, roaring down the steep slopes of Provence days before, had begun to swell and churn with meltwater from the towering crags of the forbidding Maritime Alps.

Yet, it was a clear, cerulean blue morning, and the winds off the Mediterranean were now and then stronger than those that slumped off the snow-covered slopes far inland. Each sea-gust was as tantalisingly warm as the easy, unguarded waft of a sleeping lovers breath. By the end of the month-no later than the middle of the next, certainly-the rugged mountain roads, now nigh-impassable, would melt clear, then begin to dry. The passes that led east and south would be usable. And, God willing, the young general in the lead coach thought, there would be good campaign weather.

His army could finally begin to march.

He almost scoffed at the condition of his army! He'd seen them, here around Nice in their winter quarters, in conquered, compromised, and complaisant Savoy; ragged, hungry troops with the pinched faces of starving foxes. Some in blue tunics and Republican trousers, as required in Regulations; some still in Bourbon white of pre-Revolutionary Royalist regiments. Patched and raveled, all of them, by now, their shoes and boots worn out, wearing wooden sabot clogs, feet wrapped in tattered remnants of blankets or Italian peasant straw sandals. Hats as varied as civilian or military fashions, they wore whatever they could trade for, mend or steal. Wool peasants' berets, long-tasseled Jacobin caps- even their sleeping caps.

He had 36,570 infantry, the young, newly promoted general pondered-for he was a man in love with numbers- 3,300 cavalry, 1,700 artillerists, engineers and field police, stablemen, farriers, armourers, aides or commissionaires-41,570 officers and men, all told.

He frowned. An uninspiring infantry, though, a cavalry arm on the worst collection of spavined nags he'd ever beheld. Too few guns to suit him, since he'd come up from the Artillery. But these men had secured Marseilles in '93, had besieged, then retaken Toulon in the same year, skirmished and fought little wastrel battles in those hills against the Piedmontese and Austrians, even routed their General de Vins and secured the Riviera from Savona to Voltri the previous autumn. They'd spent a winter's penury, grumbling and pinch-gutted, their pay so far in arrears, their precious news from home so long delayed, it would be a miracle if he could wield them in battle more than once without breaking possibly the only real army of any sort he'd get.

The young general leaned out of the coach windows to study those men who lined the approaches to the parade ground, as the staff carriages rattled into camp.

Pinched they might be, surly and starving, feeling abandoned by their own country, and their leaders, the Directory of Five, in distant Paris. But they were for the most part rugged men, an army made of men of the South; Provencals, Gascons, mountaineers from Dauphin and Savoy. And some of his Corsicans, of course.

He'd come south as quick as lightning, eager for the challenge no matter how daunting, fired by the charge in his orders from Barras and the rest of the Directory, from the Army:

Take this raggedy-arsed army into Piedmont and conquer all of the rich upper Po Valley; defeat the Piedmontese, then the Austrians. Conquer the Austrian duchy of Milan; cow the rest of Italy; secure a quiet border so troops could be turned against the last rebellious holdouts inside France; by his actions, divert the Austrians from an invasion across the Rhine. And loot. For God's sake, loot to fill the empty coffers before the great ideal of their Cause went down to abject defeat and the sneers of the world for a lack of money. Before it became an historical footnote for the want of a few sous! It was his plan, to the tee-accepted, at last.

'A reminder, Junot,' he said to the harried aide-de-camp at his side, 'M'sieur Saliceti is to go to those whimpering hounds at Genoa. Now we hold the whip-hand over them, hein? He is to arrange a loan on their treasury, at the most favourable terms he may obtain for France. We let them pay, or be conquered, as well. And Saliceti is to demand free passage for our troops through Genoese territory. Or else.'

'Demand, sir?' Junot murmured in puzzlement, scribbling on a pad with a pencil-a French invention, the lead pencil. 'But I thought-'

'Out, demand.' The general snickered. 'For a reason, Junot. If nothing else, he must get grain for both men and horses. And boots. I insist on boots. With bread and boots, I can manage.'

There was the staff to welcome his coach; the young cavalryman, Murat-the fearless. Mad as a hatter, as the English might say, like all cavalrymen. Like his senior, the mad Irish general Kilmaine, at his side. At the head of the pack stood General Louis Alexandre Berthier, the oldest at forty-three, and a former Royalist officer who'd fought with distinction in the American Revolution; Berthier, with a mind as quick as a musket s fire-lock, as calm and steely as the jaws of a bear-trap-his chief of staff, who forgot nothing.

Massena behind him, whip-thin and wiry, cursed with a nose like a down-turned sabre, and darting, shifty eyes. He was a former man of the ranks who'd spent fourteen years as a sergeant-major, since common men could not rise higher in the old Royal Army. A clever smuggler, it was said. Yet Massena was also known as a man whose shifty eyes were able to divine the least advantage of terrain, and that large nose of his could smell a way to do a foe a mortal hurt.

Massena he'd have to watch, though; it was well known he wished command of this army for himself. How best to use those eyes and nose to his advantage, yet keep Massena subservient, might prove to be a problem-as if the young general didn't have problems enough for three already. He would require Massena s loyalty to implement his complete plans for this army.

Even more of a puzzle was his last general of division, Charles Augereau. Incredibly loud, foulmouthed and uncouth, with the quick, scathing and glib patois of the Paris gutters; a slangy ex- sergeant himself, now risen to glory-and still as unbelievably lewd as any drillmaster, as chattery as a-pirate's parrot. A fighter, though.

With these I'm to conquer Italy, the young general thought in chagrin, ready to shiver in despair. A gust of mountain wind made him almost do so, but he conquered the impulse by dint of will; he'd show no sign of timidity, dread or doubt before these ambitious officers-not even the slightest pinch of second thoughts could he afford to

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