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The Sage of Waterloo

A Tale

by Leona Francombe

Hardcover, 224 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $22.95 |


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The Sage of Waterloo
A Tale
Leona Francombe

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NPR Summary

A playful reimagining of the Battle of Waterloo is told from the viewpoint of William, a white rabbit living at Hougoumont, the historic farm on the battle site.

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Excerpt: 'The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale'


Visitors occasionally poked around the farm in those days looking for evidence of the famous battle. They would leave flowers against the chapel wall, and run their hands wonderingly over the pockmarks in the doors. Their pilgrimage invariably led them on a path from the courtyard to the meadow, passing by the dovecote along the way. Generally, we were overlooked, which was understandable. The atmosphere grows heavy in that part of the farm; history quickens. No one expects to see rabbits.

I don't remember when, exactly, I first set eyes on the two ladies. They'd been coming for years, according to Grandmother. One had snowy hair, the other silver, and from a distance they looked like winter by moonlight. They had a singular aura about them, as if they'd been charmed, and drifted so softly about the place that it seemed the air itself was dictating their movements. They wore rubber boots, even in summer, and I don't think there was a bullet hole or boggy corner they didn't know by heart.

Armed with maps and guides, the ladies would wander around the farm for hours at a time, pausing frequently to consult their material and read each other passages aloud. Their preferred author was Charlotte Eaton, the Englishwoman who had found herself in Brussels on June 15, 1815—the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras—and stayed abroad long enough to visit Hougoumont and other key sites a month later.

Most striking of all was that our lady visitors seemed to have found that restless Hougoumont harmonic, and instinctively followed it to the lodes of greatest passion: the loopholes; the North Gate; the vanished well; the chestnuts. It was remarkable, really. We'd always been taught that our senses were far more finely tuned to the pulse of Hougoumont than those of people, but here they were, two human females who actually seemed to read the air. They would wander off, one without the other, and stand very still under some tree or other, simply looking up at the sky.

"Thank heavens for the Eaton ladies!" Old Lavender said, and the moniker stuck. "War desperately needs a female perspective. Why is the scourge of the entire human race always recounted by only half of it—and the guilty half, at that?"

The ladies sometimes lingered at the dovecote, where they could lean comfortably against the rail fence and peruse their guides. The sight of Old Lavender arrested them every time.

"What a huge rabbit!" one would exclaim, as if Grandmother had grown since their last visit.

"She looks like one of those rabbits in Oriental paintings," the other offered. "You know: the matriarch brooding off in one corner."

I've never been to a museum myself, so I can't say for sure if this description was accurate. But the idea haunted me. Doubtless an enigma cloaked Old Lavender, made weightier by certain events in her past that she kept to herself.

Another thing Grandmother kept to herself was the business of my own bloodline. She implied vaguely that it had taken a more circuitous route than her own, but again, failed to elaborate. I was the only white rabbit in the enclosure . . . that much anyone could grasp. It was also clear that somehow, through some obscure event, I was connected to Hougoumont's history in a way that others in the colony were not. I'd felt this distinction—or perhaps stigma is more accurate—for as long as I could remember.

Every two or three generations, a white rabbit was born in the colony. Sometimes this creature was pure white; sometimes it had various splashes of black on its coat, like me. Mystery dogged the carriers of this gene. Some believed it could be traced back two hundred years, to the chevalier's rabbits in the great barn. If this were true, one would naturally assume that there would have been at least one white rabbit that had survived the bombardment, though few small creatures could have made it through such a cataclysm. You would then have to take the scenario even further, and assume that at least one male and one female rabbit had been left in the Napoleonic hutch. And then the final supposition: that they had not been too traumatized to procreate.

It is indeed a strange sort of upheaval, not knowing one's origins, as if you've been cut loose from the natural order of things and left to float out of reach, and even simple givens, like day following night, cannot be relied upon.

There must have been something worthwhile about my uniqueness, for I was the only one Old Lavender let sit beside her.

Her favorite spot was a dusty hollow at the northeast corner of the pen. Her routine never varied: She would first groom herself (the places she could still reach, that is). Then she would settle into the hollow gradually, methodically, shifting her rump back and forth, lower and lower, until she found the heart of the spot. Finally, she would lay one ear flat against her neck, cock the other one straight up and narrow her eyes.

Only then was I permitted to slink in.

Mutely, I would press myself against the warm cave between her thighbone and belly, listening to the tuneful plumbing of her digestion and staring out through the chicken wire in the general direction she was staring.

"You're like a bowl of water with a calm surface, William," Grandmother liked to say. "You can't see to the bottom of it. But you know it's deep."

Her description would sometimes come to mind as I sat beside her, pretending to feel watery and deep and naïvely trying to follow her thoughts. But as I looked out at the provocative, breezy wildness of the meadow, my bowl would invariably be far from calm, and a familiar restlessness would plague me that set up all sorts of ripples on the surface. Maybe Grandmother had noticed those ripples all along, and had named me William after Wellington's inexperienced ally, the Prince of Orange, who was generally well liked, but whose heroics at the Battle of Quatre Bras were still open to interpretation. His bowl had definitely had a few ripples . . . if not some large waves.

Sometimes Old Lavender would run her nose through my fur in the wrong direction, a gesture that usually infuriates a rabbit. But not me. I can still feel it to this day—the exciting novelty of it; the bracing discomfort. It took me ages to connect a curious lift in my thinking with this annoyance and grasp the underlying message: that too much comfort dampens the brain.

Every once in a while, Grandmother would open her eyes fully and say: "Try to imagine the unimaginable, William."

You could interpret that many ways, I suppose. But back then, I knew of only one way, and would dutifully try to imagine that bucolic farm and all the fragrant fields around it, running with blood. And not just human blood, either, but the blood of every sort of wild creature who, until that terrible day two hundred years ago, had never questioned their rightful place in the universe.

I've reflected all my life on that rightful place, and on how precarious it really is; how, for instance, my hero, the Duke of Wellington, managed to make it through the entire three days of the Battle of Waterloo without so much as a bullet grazing him. "The finger of Providence was upon me," he was quoted as saying. That he could remain unscathed when practically all his personal staff were killed, wounded or had their horses shot from under them is one of history's great sleights of hand.

The question is: Whose hand?

No one, to my knowledge, has had the indelicacy to dispute Wellington's explanation of his good fortune. There he was, telescope in hand, riding back and forth for hours in the very thick of battle, encouraging, directing and animating, death ever at his elbow. His esteemed quartermaster-general, Sir William De Lancey, was blown from his horse by the wind of a cannonball en ricochet at the very moment when he was speaking to the Duke, suffering terrible injuries from which he would die a week later; the Earl of Uxbridge was shot in the leg in almost identical circumstances; Sir Alexander Gordon, a friend and aide-de-camp to the Duke, had a leg amputated and died in Wellington's own camp bed. Even nonbelievers might make an exception and take Wellington at his word.

After a period of reflection—several days or so—Old Lavender would lecture to the enclosure at large. The place was crowded: we were unable to eat, groom, fornicate or daydream more than about a foot away from someone else, so she had a decent captive audience. Not that we objected. She mined her Waterloo passion for treasures that were exclusively ours for the taking.

It was a subject none of us could avoid, of course, living as we did against the very earth that had shook with the conflict, and breathing air still dense with souls. Like the rest of us, Old Lavender couldn't escape her destiny as a small creature, so her brand of history had mainly to do with small things.

"Our point of view is a gift," she said. "We understand essential minutiae, in our species and in humans: unease in a voice or gesture; electricity sparked by panic or excitement; signals betraying doubt, joy, grief. And don't forget the rich realm of smell. What an encyclopedia that is! Any one of you could have picked up Napoleon's stress on the eve of battle." Grandmother went on to say that Napoleon's very pores had exuded the sort of anxiety that even the dullest animal wit can pick up. His human entourage, however, could only go by less subtle pointers: loud, agitated talking, and orders issued with great vehemence; constant snuff-taking, and the supreme confidence that he would be sleeping at the royal palace in Brussels after his victory.

History is in the details . . . How many times we were reminded of that! Pick the details that move you, we were instructed—the ones that speak to you, and arrest you. Then build your idea of history around them, for only then will it come alive.

My first lessons taught me the smallest pearls . . . so small that any serious pearl fisherman would have tossed them away. But through Old Lavender's eyes, these tiny treasures were like pebbles viewed through a drop of rain: color, size and clarity were all enhanced, transforming an insignificant scrap of stone into a jewel.

Observe closely, Grandmother said, adding: but with passion. And what a passionate stage she set! She was living proof that emotion can reside in the surliest, smelliest of vessels.

Clouds, mists, driving rain . . . annoying details, perhaps, but on the eve of Waterloo, our countryside had become the twilight of some despairing god. Higher forces were clearly circling . . . circling . . .

"It was peculiarly awful, that storm," Old Lavender said. "An omen, surely. Soldiers fell up to their necks in mud. It was only logical that Napoleon had to wait for things to dry a bit before he could move his artillery.

Cannonballs need to deflect, after all, and not get bogged down. It was a fateful waste of time, though. Napoleon was four hours late to his own battle."

Don't wait for the mud to dry before you go ahead and do things was, therefore, one of Grandmother's classic aphorisms, along with: You can always jump higher than you think you can, referring to our ancestors in the chateau hutches, who may or may not have escaped the Hougoumont siege. Like most historical details, it depends on whom you ask.

It's a curious fact that no one knows at what time, exactly, the Battle of Waterloo began. Most historians think it was around eleven-thirty in the morning; Old Lavender thought it started at eleven. Her conviction was such that she could have told us it started at midnight and we would have believed her.

She would have been a natural film director, our grandmother, so sweeping was her vision. The panorama she created spread to the farthest reaches of our fancy, and even with our eyes closed, we couldn't fathom its limits. Her images were only words, of course. But how they hummed through our waking hours and commandeered our dreams! She cast such a spell that we weren't sure what was real, and what imagined. We were kept awake by the smell of the wet, trampled barley the soldiers slept on the night before the battle. We felt the floor of the hutch shudder at Napoleon's magnificent cuirassiers, advancing at full gallop. We heard every strike of the village clock on that June morning—even counted them aloud until eleven, when we imagined the French guns thundering to life.

Now and then, Grandmother indulged Caillou with his favorite bedtime story. It's an elusive tale, and one with few hard facts: a French drummer boy survived the bloody siege of Hougoumont's North Gate. That's about it. Hardly enough, you would say, to fashion a decent bedtime story. But it was the kind of deceptive triviality that Grandmother so loved, because historians generally tossed it away like those careless pearl fishermen—even misrepresented it—not realizing what bounty they had missed. Old Lavender thus felt free to appropriate the treasure and do with it as she liked.

The drummer boy himself was never identified. He'd been led into the Hougoumont barn at the height of the battle by Private Matthew Clay, a British soldier who was hardly more than a boy himself at the time, and whose eyewitness account was widely quoted by the Eaton ladies. According to Clay, the drummer boy survived a skirmish at the South Gate, not the North. (Grandmother never understood how historians could be so remiss with their reading.)

No one knows what happened to the French boy after that. Was he an orphan? An impoverished urchin seeking adventure? Other youngsters had run off to war under such circumstances, after all. Did he ever make his way back to France, or even grow to manhood?

In the manner of the greatest teachers, Old Lavender placed the pearls before us but made us string and polish them ourselves. She was not without her opinions, though.

"He may have become a teacher, or a leader . . . even a philosopher," she offered. "He'd seen the slaughter at Hougoumont with an innocent's gaze, don't forget. Like your own." The comment made us look around the hutch at each other in a new, dawning way. "He could have helped chart another course for humanity, away from its morbid obsession with war."

Then her tone cooled, and her eyes revealed deeper significance: "Or he may have perished finding his way off the battlefield. Died of fever . . ." Her pause was exquisitely timed. "And become something else."

Our nerves sparked to life. Consider it: from such uncertainty does history take its oxygen. When the what, where, who, how and why of a historical event are known, then all the details are neatly recorded, entombed between the covers of a weighty book and stowed away on a shelf, only to be taken down some twenty years later when someone needs a doorstop. (A reasonable description of Spode, come to think of it.)

Whatever the details surrounding the mysterious drummer boy, we all sensed that there was something odd about him, as if he'd not quite signed off on his own drama . . . even centuries later. For my part, I secretly believed that providence had brushed against this incident (when not otherwise engaged with the Duke of Wellington, that is), making from it the sort of tantalizing, under-water gleam one can never bring to the surface.

Old Lavender embellished the story for Caillou, of course. She even became quite poetic, describing the boy's slight build, his tousled hair, and the large brown eyes that had missed nothing on that humid summer afternoon. The runt invariably dozed off before she'd finished. But the rest of us just weren't able to sleep, somehow. We would tune our ears warily to the wind outside the hutch, listening for the tap of stick against drum. There were all sorts of stray sounds in the Hougoumont night one couldn't always explain. Rhythmic tapping was just one of them.

Mornings were reserved for pop quizzes:

"What did Wellington have for breakfast?" (Hot, sweet tea and toast. Napoleon, by the way, took his breakfast on silver plate.) "Why was Napoleon such a poor rider?" (He slid around on the saddle too much, wearing holes in his breeches.) "How long was Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher pinned under his dead horse?" (Even longer than it takes to pronounce his name properly.) "What did they use to revive him? (Blücher, not the horse: gin and garlic.)

I had no difficulty building history around these nuggets. In fact, I often escaped into my creations completely, which was probably not what Grandmother had in mind, crusty realist that she was.

You see, all of her details moved me, arrested me, spoke to me . . . to the very depths of my soul. I hardly knew which one to choose from. For guaranteed escape, Wellington was always a good bet, so I would track him eagerly as he rode about all day in his plain blue frock coat and bicorne hat, amazed at how such a mythmaker could subsist on just hot tea and toast. Then I would leave the Duke to his reconnoitering for a while and practice pronouncing Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. I never really mastered it, despite all the hours spent trying, thereby gaining a much greater appreciation of the old Prussian general's predicament. (He was seventy-three at the time.) When those activities paled, I imagined myself boldly escaping from the Hougoumont barn during the fiercest of the fighting, leaping across the chateau garden through a blizzard of bullets, the finger of providence firmly upon me.

Sometimes, in the sanctum of the hollow, I stole a glance at the long-eared sphinx that was my grandmother and wondered how she could possibly know as much as she did. Anyone can stare for hours through a wire fence, after all, thinking about nothing much. But she had elevated patient observation to the highest art form; she listened, and deliberated, and had detected the unrest in that walled meadow long before any of us were born. It was obvious from her vast knowledge that she enjoyed privileged communion with something or other: Moon, perhaps. But he's a casual god as these things go, and I'm not sure he was all that keen on historical detail, to be honest, having been so spectacularly absent from one of history's most famous battles.

My theory is that Old Lavender used her cunning, and her extreme sensitivity, to glean and intuit. She could read shifts in the air; tremors underfoot; the gestures and regard of passing wildlife. This she did serenely, through countless hours of reflection. I imagine the process was rather like harvesting an orchard by hand, one fruit at a time. Though the orchard at the far end of the Hougoumont meadow has long since disappeared and I cannot prove this hypothesis.

Any details she couldn't glean or intuit she learned outright from visitors—the Eaton ladies, chiefly, who made a habit of lingering near the dovecote and sharing their reading. I must admit that I quaked a bit before those singular women, as I often did before Old Lavender herself, even if she happened to be my grandmother. Maybe it was their silver hair and unlined faces, a combination that is rare, I understand, and worthy of attention.

"Nature never truly recovers from human cataclysms," Grandmother said one day, to me alone. "Never." She was using that tone: two parts old sage, one part female warrior, scant affection and no salt. I suspected that she'd picked up some pointers listening to the Eaton ladies.

"Every creature who was anywhere near Waterloo sensed what was going to happen," she explained. "If they could, they got out. Those who stayed and survived passed the experience on through collective memory, right down through the generations until the present day. Collective memory . . . and resonance."

"Resonance?" I tried to give the word the same weight she had.

"Of course! Landscapes where great passion has been spilled resonate. Not loudly. But loud enough for most wild creatures to detect. Once set in motion, the vibrations continue forever."

Her look was grave. "Yes, William. Forever." With a pinch of affection she added: "I'm telling you this because I believe you have my gift. We can all pick up vibrations. But you have the ability to interpret them, and pass them on. You should be aware of this now, even though you won't master your gift for many years. It's a responsibility, you know. Take great care with it."

From The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe. Copyright 2015 Leona Francombe. Excerpted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company.