The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a prolific writer but his Sherlock Holmes' character has almost totally eclipsed everything else he wrote which included: historical novels, science fiction stories, plays, poetry, and non-fiction. The protagonists of his historical novels are so much more endearing than Sherlock Holmes; that cold, unemotional, and cocaine addicted detective.
Most of Doyle's main characters have their eccentric ways, moments of weakness and bravado, but only Sherlock Holmes seems to lack real humanity.
Etienne Gerard, the dashing Colonel of the Hussars of Conflans, is all that Sherlock isn't. Although vain and full of his own importance, he has some very endearing qualities, not least of which is his bravery, sense of duty and absolute loyalty.
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been anything but a fine one.
According to Napoleon, Gerard wasn't particularly intelligent, but he also acknowledged that,
'...if he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.’
Napoleon wanted a man for a secret mission; someone ready for action but, ‘...who would not penetrate too deeply into his plans.'
Gerard's commanding officer said, "I have one who is all spurs and moustaches, with never a thought beyond women and horses.”
‘“That is the man I want,” said Napoleon. “Bring him to my private cabinet at four o’clock.”
And so Brigadier Gerard is sent throughout the countryside on various missions for his Emperor.
You may think, then, how I carried myself in my five-and-twentieth year — I, Etienne Gerard, the picked horseman and surest blade in the ten regiments of hussars. Blue was our colour in the Tenth — a sky-blue dolman and pelisse with a scarlet front — and it was said of us in the army that we could set a whole population running, the women towards us, and the men away.
One of my favourite parts of the book is Gerard's meeting with an English soldier and gentleman ('the Bart') who saved him from execution at the hands of brigands.
It is one advantage of a wandering life like mine, that you learn to pick up those bits of knowledge which distinguish the man of the world. I have, for example, hardly ever met a Frenchman who could repeat an English title correctly. If I had not travelled I should not be able to say with confidence that this young man’s real name was Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart., this last being an honourable distinction, so that it was as the Bart that I usually addressed him, just as in Spanish one might say ‘the Don.’
(Bart. or Bt = Baronet)
When it dawns on Gerard that this intervention now made him a prisoner of war, he asks the Englishman to allow him to go free, but when that idea is rejected, rather than fight with a man he has no wish to harm, Gerard suggests a game of cards, having learnt that 'the Bart,' being a gambling man, could not refuse. And so they play, but neither of them were prepared for what followed.
Alas for my poor Bart! I had met him but twice, and yet he was a man very much after my heart. I have always had a regard for the English for the sake of that one friend. A braver man and a worse swordsman I have never met.
Gerard compares his own superior physique with that of Napoleon's...
I have seen Napoleon ten times on horseback to once on foot, and I think that he does wisely to show himself to the troops in this fashion, for he cuts a very good figure in the saddle. As we saw him now he was the shortest man out of six by a good hand’s breadth, and yet I am no very big man myself, though I ride quite heavy enough for a hussar. It is evident, too, that his body is too long for his legs. With his big, round head, his curved shoulders, and his clean-shaven face, he is more like a Professor at the Sorbonne than the first soldier in France. Every man to his taste, but it seems to me that, if I could clap a pair of fine light cavalry whiskers, like my own, on to him, it would do him no harm. He has a firm mouth, however, and his eyes are remarkable. I have seen them once turned on me in anger, and I had rather ride at a square on a spent horse than face them again. I am not a man who is easily daunted, either.
‘You have not yet received the cross of honour, Brigadier Gerard?’ he (Napoleon) asked.
I replied that I had not, and was about to add that it was not for want of having deserved it, when he cut me short in his decided fashion.
Gerard is captured by the enemy after Napoleon had sent him on what he afterwards found to be a false mission. It looked like the end of the road for our hero:
There would be an end to a dashing soldier, and of the mission and of the medal. I thought of my mother and I thought of the Emperor. It made me weep to think that the one would lose so excellent a son and the other the best light cavalry officer he ever had since Lasalle’s time. But presently I dashed the tears from my eyes. ‘Courage!’ I cried, striking myself upon the chest. ‘Courage, my brave boy. Is it possible that one who has come safely from Moscow without so much as a frost-bite will die in a French wine-cellar?’
He returned safely to a surprised and angry Emperor:
As to you,’ cried the Emperor, taking a step forward as if he would have struck me, ‘you brain of a hare, what do you think that you were sent upon this mission for? Do you conceive that I would send a really important message by such a hand as yours, and through every village which the enemy holds?
Can you not see, coglione, that this message contained false news, and that it was intended to deceive the enemy whilst I put a very different scheme into execution?’
Poor Gerard. He may be conceited and full of his own importance, but he is honourable and would give up his life for his Emperor and country if it were necessary:
When I heard those cruel words and saw the angry, white face which glared at me, I had to hold the back of a chair, for my mind was failing me and my knees would hardly bear me up. But then I took courage as I reflected that I was an honourable gentleman, and that my whole life had been spent in toiling for this man and for my beloved country.
The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) is a humorous adventure that gives some insights into the times of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon himself from the vantage point of a French soldier. It's more lighthearted and less brutal than some of his other stories. Hussars didn't have the greatest morals or reputations but the author doesn't mention that side of things, although Gerard frequently expresses how attractive he is to women in general. He treats the women he meets in a very dashing and gentlemanly manner and once when he was about to shoot at his enemy's heart, he lowered his gun so as not to kill him because he thought of the man's mother. Awww...
One lesson which I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it. Is not every hour a fresh point of view?
The book would appeal to anyone from around age 12 years, especially boys, but it's also a fun read for adults. A free kindle version is here and there is a good audio version here which has a sample to listen to.