By the Way
by Nereus

A cold rain sleeted downwards, striking through garments and causing
men to mutter curses and attempt to keep moving, slapping arms
against their sides and stamping feet in order to hold on to a
little heat. The troops encamped around Toulon were all settled
into the siege by now and there was no excitement or anticipation in
their ranks, just grim performance of tasks for those that had them
and dreary idleness for those who had not. The ground had been
hopelessly churned by men and horses, guns and heavy wagons; trees
and bushes had been hacked for firewood; neither the men nor the
variety of makeshift shelters they lived in were anywhere near clean.

An officer on horseback picked his way carefully across the muddy
ground. His uniform was shabby, although the insignia of a
brigadier of artillery could still be made out, and he sat his horse
with no particular grace. He received only a scattering of
lacklustre acknowledgements from the troops, the French Republican
Army was not prone to pay any great respect to rank.

Nearing his own billet a group of gunners called out, demanding a
senior officer's attention. The brigadier dismounted, showing
neither reluctance nor eagerness as he made his way over and
demanded to know what the issue was.

"Prisoner, sir," a sergeant reported. "Caught him trying to slip
through the lines." He jerked a thumb, and the brigadier looked
over at the figure squatting on the ground under the hostile eyes of
his captors. A very young man, thin and pinched looking. His hands
had been tied behind his back and the rain had soaked through his
threadbare blue jacket, leaving him shivering. The brigadier eyed
him without feeling.

"Well? Send him to join the others."

"Could be a spy, sir," the sergeant suggested. "He was trying to
get into the port, not out of it. And those aren't army clothes
he's wearing."

"It is a uniform," the brigadier said. "And he looks young for a
spy."

"You never can tell with the roastbeefs, sir."

"True." The brigadier looked back at the prisoner, where he
crouched with his eyes on the ground. "Do you speak French?" he
asked with careful slowness.

"A little," the prisoner looked up, sullenly.

"My men think you are a spy. What have you to say to that?"

"It is not true," said the prisoner dully. "I am of the Navy. I
escaped from the prison where I was. I hoped to reach the British
in Toulon."

"He would say that," the sergeant interjected. The brigadier
ignored him.

"Can you prove what you say?"

"No. How can I?"

"I do not think I believe you." The brigadier drew a pistol from his
belt and cocked it. "We have a short way with spies here. If you
do not give me some good information, and quickly, then I will kill
you." He placed the muzzle of the gun against the prisoner's
forehead.

The young man swallowed, and closed his eyes, mouth set in a
desperate line. His whole body was rigid with tension as he
crouched, waiting. After a number of seconds the brigadier withdrew
his gun.

"Send him to join the other prisoners," he told the sergeant. Then,
in explanation, "A spy would have tried to invent some tale. He is
what he says he is."

He started to turn away then had a second thought. The brigadier
was not a soft-hearted man, but like most soldiers he respected
courage. He drew a battered flask from his pocket, uncorked it, and
held it to the prisoner's lips. The young man drank and choked a
little, but some colour came back into his face.

"Thank you, Monsieur," for the first time he looked at the French
officer as if really taking notice of his face. The brigadier was
decidedly young for his rank, only a few years older than the young
sailor, but there was already a marked frown line between his
brows. His long dark hair hung loose and unkempt, his face,
although naturally round, nonetheless had something of the hawk
about it. "May I ask your name?"

"Why should you?" the brigadier asked coldly. "If you think that
using my name will be any help in the prison to which you are going
then you are entirely wrong."

The prisoner frowned, puzzling out the words, then when he
understood them his chin went up proudly. "That was not my reason."

The brigadier looked down on him and shrugged, uncomprehending.
Already in the act of turning once again back to his horse he gave
the reply offhandedly, over his shoulder.

"My name is Bonaparte."