The great enemy of all the exiles was time, and, next, its child, ennui. These men, who had been addicts of action and familiars of death, were limited now to caring for the body and ego of a world figure fallen from imperial state and robes to imprisoned helplessness, with all his ailments festering and human frailties revealed. “My situation is frightful,” he said; “I am like a dead man, yet full of life”24 or desire thereof. The hero who formerly had longed for more time to meet his chosen tasks, or carry out his plans, now felt the hours heavy on his hands, and welcomed night as an anodyne of time. Then, for lack of labor done, he found it hard to sleep, and moved from bed to cot or chair and back again in search of unconsciousness.
Almost daily he played chess; but since no opponent dared defeat him, he was bored by victory. In his first year of exile he had ridden his horse several miles daily, but he soon abandoned this exercise when he noted that some British officer always kept sight of him. He read several hours a day.
He had always loved books, had done some reading even on busy days, had taken hundreds of volumes on his campaigns—eight hundred to Waterloo (seventy of them by Voltaire).25 He had brought four hundred books from France; on a stop of theNorthumberland at Madeira he had sent the British government a request for a number of learned works, which reached him in June, 1816; another package came a year later; and Sir Hudson Lowe sent him some from his own library.26 He became an expert on the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. He read and reread the dramas of Corneille and Racine, sometimes aloud with his companions, distributing the parts. He liked English literature, and had Las Cases teach him enough English to read it, even to speak it; “His Majesty,” reported Gourgaud, “is always talking English to me.”27
He had one advantage over other prisoners: he could drown the present in the past by recounting the history of his country, and half of Europe, from 1796 to 1815, almost entirely from memory, and from the vantage of a principal participant. He was too impatient to write, but he could talk. It was apparently Las Cases who suggested that by dictating his memoirs to one or another of his entourage he could give interest and value to every day. Now he might find only imperfect truth in Dante’s lines “No greater pain than to recall, in misery, a time of happiness”; a memory of pleasant days might soften, even while deepening, present grief. “It was a beautiful empire!” he exclaimed; “I had eighty-three million human beings under my government—half the population of Europe.”28
So he inaugurated a new dictatorship on the Northumberland, and continued it, on and off, for four years at St. Helena. He began by recounting to Las Cases the story of those Italian campaigns of 1796 whose swift decisiveness had astonished Europe and made him indispensable to France. When Las Cases fled before Lowe’s wrath, the Emperor dictated to Gourgaud, later to Montholon, less to Bertrand, sometimes to two of them in one day. Now these warriors changed their swords for pens, and sallied forth in reams to shed their ink to save their Emperor’s record and good name in re-Bourbonized France and in the court of history. They were sooner exhausted than he, who felt that this was his last chance to defend himself against the orators, journalists, and cartoonists who had enabled his enemies to picture him as an inhuman, bloodthirsty ogre. Knowing that his recorders could not have so personal an urge to their labor, he gave to each of them full title to his manuscript and its proceeds; and actually each manuscript, when published, brought wealth to the scribe or his heirs.29
Naturally the author put the best face upon this apologia; but, all in all, it has been found as fair as could be expected from a man defending his life. Napoleon had by this time learned to admit that he had made serious mistakes in policy and generalship. “I was wrong in quarreling with Talleyrand. He possessed everything which I lacked. If I had frankly allowed him to share my greatness he would have served me well, and I would have died on the throne.”30 He confessed that he profoundly underestimated the difficulties of conquering Spain or subduing Russia. “I started too soon from Elba. I should have waited till the Congress had broken up, and the princes had returned home.”31 “I don’t yet understand the loss of the battle of Waterloo.”32 “I should have died at Waterloo.”33
His amanuenses, almost exhausted by his memories, yet found energy left to record his conversation. It was of course interesting, for who in his time had rivaled his range and excitement of adventures on three continents? He was an excellent raconteur, with a lively anecdote for any theme. He was, in his blunt way, a philosopher, and could speak forgivably on any subject from agriculture to Zeus. He had read history so widely that he predicted the future with some unreliable success. “The colonial system… is finished for everybody—for England, which owns all the colonies, as for the other powers, who have none left.”34 The yoke of the Bourbons would soon be thrown off by the French people.35 Germany would soon resume the unification which he had begun.36The nineteenth would be a century of revolutions; the principles of the French Revolution, barring some excesses, would triumph in America, France, and England; and “from this tripod the light will burst upon the world.”37 “The old system is ended, and the new one is not consolidated, and will not be until after long and furious convulsions.”38 “Russia is the power that rushes most surely, and with the greatest strides, toward universal dominion.”39 One of his bad guesses: “The royal authority in England, daily augmented,… is now marching unimpeded on the high road to arbitrary and absolute power.”40
Finally he reviewed his political career, and summed it up most favorably:
I closed the gulf of anarchy and cleared the chaos. I purified the Revolution, dignified nations, and established kings. I excited every kind of emulation, rewarded every kind of merit, and extended the limits of glory…. The dictatorship was absolutely necessary. Will it be said that I restrained liberty? It can be proved that licentiousness, anarchy, and the greatest irregularities still haunted the threshold of freedom. Shall I be accused of having been too fond of war? It can be shown that I always received the first attack. Will it be said that I aimed at universal monarchy?… Our enemies themselves led me step by step to this determination. Lastly, shall I be blamed for my ambition? This passion I must doubtless be allowed to have possessed, and that in no small degree; but, at the same time, my ambition was of the highest and noblest kind that ever perhaps existed—that of establishing and consecrating the empire of reason, and the full exercise and complete enjoyment of all the human faculties. As here the historian will probably feel compelled to regret that such ambition should not have been fulfilled and gratified…. This is my whole history in a few words.41
On March 9, 1821, he warmed his failing heart with a proud vision of his postmortem fame: “In five hundred years’ time French imaginations will be full of me. They will talk only of the glory of our brilliant campaigns. Heaven help anyone who dares speak ill of me!”42 It was as good as any way of facing death.