Authors: Taboo (St. John-Duras)
“You must be restless, darling, to provoke such unpleasant memories,” he affably declared. “Do you miss your bold and courageous husband?”
She laughed lightly. “Really,
, how provocative of
. Andre and I both have very busy lives,” she blandly said, “as you well know. But he makes me very rich, for which I thank him. The bankers and army contractors court me assiduously.”
“Not only for your wifely access to the great man.”
“How flattering you are,” she softly said. “Fortunately,” she gently added with a nuance of dramatic modesty, “there are those on his staff who still
“Does the puppy Furet continue to write every day?”
“Of course, darling. He was quite dazzled by the holiday we spent together at Saint-Cloud.”
“You’re an unreserved vixen, my dear.”
“Which you like very much,” she merrily retorted.
“Very much, indeed,” the minister of external relations replied with an answering smile.
Duras’s cavalry troop met his army moving swiftly upstream toward Chur late that afternoon. Unsuccessful in overtaking Korsakov, Duras was in a black mood. They’d
ridden south to the very outskirts of Chur without seeing a sign of the Russians.
“He must be inside the city,” Duras said, frustrated by his reconnaissance, “or farther south on his way to the Tyrol. But the city stands well defended. Are the men ready?”
“They are, sir,” Bonnay replied. The swift victory at St. Luzisteig had spurred the army’s advance, the passage to Chur accomplished in record time. “They’re primed for glory and gold, sir. They haven’t been paid for two months.”
“Paris thinks we can live on glory alone,” Duras acerbically retorted, the pressure for funds from headquarters a constant source of friction. “Have you heard any more about the rations?” The men had marched with only five days’ supply of food.
Bonnay shook his head.
“Rapinat should be strung up.”
“And if he weren’t the brother of the minister of finance it might be possible,” Bonnay sardonically replied.
“Think how easy it would be, Henri, if we only had to fight the enemy and not the scum behind the lines as well.”
“We could retire to the south of France in much shorter order, sir.”
“A pleasant thought.” Duras smiled, his native Nice dear to his heart, his visits too infrequent. “Bring up the artillery to that line of hills and we’ll see if we can speed this war along.”
And with the same savage force that had taken St. Luzisteig, in two days of fighting Duras drove the Austrians out of Chur. The capital of the Grisons canton had been garrisoned by an Austrian brigade, but their retreat up the narrow Plessur Valley was cut off by Duras’s advance and they were forced to surrender on March 9. A total of 2,980 prisoners, three colors, and sixteen guns fell into the hands of the French. Duras next began his drive into the Tyrol and four days later the French captured Martinsbruck, the key to the province.
Owing to the corrupt commissariat arrangements, the French troops were now without rations or other supplies and an orgy of looting took place. Duras was so exasperated that he wrote a strongly worded protest to the Directory from the battlefield.
“Damned army contractors!” he swore, exasperated, pacing on the knoll overlooking the city of Martinsbruck and its burning buildings. “How the hell can I continue the invasion if my army doesn’t have rations?” he angrily challenged, the question rhetorical, his staff knowing better than to respond in his present mood. He’d worn a path across the grassy hillside the past hour. “Lecourbe tells me my right wing hasn’t had food for eight days. It’s impossible to live off a country devoid of resources. Dammit, the inhabitants expect us to feed them! The transport was supposed to have delivered the supplies two weeks ago! I
His staff was silent before his tirade, the impossibility of further advance apparent to all. The chance to follow up their victories, to overtake Korsakov’s regiment, was now out of the question.
“And I’m supposed to discipline my men for taking food they need to survive? I’m sure the Citizen Directors on their fat asses in Paris have some moral homilies to that effect. Damn their useless hides! Bonnay, what do we have left in the treasury at Sargans?”
“Five hundred and sixty thousand francs, sir.”
It wasn’t enough, of course—nowhere near enough. Abruptly stopping at the crest of the knoll, Duras surveyed the plundered city before him, his sense of frustration overwhelming. “Delegate squads to go in and drag out the looters,” he said with a sigh. “I don’t want anyone shot. See that the population has compensation in scrip for their losses. Tell them,” he slowly went on, his voice gruff with disgust, “that the scrip will be exchanged for coin next week. And now, gentlemen,” he softly said, “I’m on my way to Sargans
to squeeze the money out of Rapinat’s slimy carcass. Expect me back in three days.”
“I’ll have an escort readied, sir,” Bonnay quickly said as Duras strode toward his mount tied to a munitions wagon.
“You mother me too much, Henri,” Duras said, smiling. “I’ll forget how to take care of myself.”
“There may be Austrian troops in the vicinity, stragglers, deserters. Gontaut, bring up your troop,” he ordered, and a young captain jumped to follow his command.
But Duras was already a half mile ahead before the full troop was in the saddle and only Gontaut and his sergeant were able to keep pace with the general.
He rode at a steady pace, saving his charger’s strength, for the small villages between Martinsbruck and Sargans were without posting stations. His fury at Rapinat fueled his temper for the first few hours. Their clashes had been ongoing since he’d taken command of the army in January. None of the money assigned to Rapinat for the commissary and supplies was adequately documented, and the degree of corruption was so outrageous Duras’s entire army could have dined on truffles and pâté since Christmas. He had incessantly complained of Rapinat to the Military Board in Paris to no avail.
The need for money and supplies was a continuous battle separate from those he fought against the Austrians and as usual it was up to him personally to see that his army was fed and paid. He’d had to take out a personal loan last year to pay his troops arrears. Damn the bureaucracy.
But as Sargans drew near, more potent images of Teo insinuated themselves into his mind. And he felt a growing exhilaration, an irresistible longing, both sensations so pleasing he smiled into the gathering shadows of twilight.
They should reach Sargans by eight or nine and on that happy thought, Duras took pity on his troopers and turned into a tavern yard. His men and the horses needed food.
Scribbling a swift note while their supper was being
prepared, he sent it ahead with one of the tavern grooms with instructions to deliver it to the countess. And when the food came, he enjoyed a hot meal for the first time in days.
Three hours later Duras and his troop rode into Sargans, weary, filthy, cold. Snow was threatening again. “Come in with me,” he said to the young captain as they dismounted before the large residence Rapinat had taken over. “I need a witness. And dismiss the others; they could use some sleep.”
Striding to the front door, he turned briefly to thank his men and then, pushing the door open, he stepped bloodstained, muddied, and intent into Rapinat’s luxurious abode. Two servants came running at the sound of the door slamming shut, and at his curt inquiry, both pointed toward the candlelit dining room.
“Who dares disturb my meal!” Rapinat barked, the harsh repudiation carrying through the corridor into the foyer. “I gave distinct orders—”
“I’ll announce myself,” Duras said, ignoring the recriminations resonating down the hall, his icy tone arresting the two servants where they stood, his cold gaze more daunting than their employer’s threats. “Come, Gontaut,” Duras quietly said. “Let’s see if we can disturb him.”
The room was ablaze with lights, no expense spared on candles or the fire in the fireplace warming the room to summer temperatures. The only diner at the ladened table was the well-fed, heavyset man about to drink from his wineglass.
An expensive bordeaux slopped over the rim of the goblet as Rapinat hastily set his glass down, the widening stain crimson on the white linen. Duras in bloodied uniform and four days’ growth of beard loomed in the doorway, his dark brows drawn together in a murderous scowl, his mouth set in a grim line. A shudder ran through Rapinat; a wrathful specter from hell stood on his threshold. His mouth opened
and shut before he managed to find breath to speak. “General … what—a pleasure—”
Then he went white. Duras’s pistol—held with disturbing steadiness in a gloved hand stained dark with Austrian blood—was aimed at his head.
“My men don’t have food.”
No matter the softness of Duras’s voice, Rapinat shivered and his face blanched a shade paler. Duras’s reputation as the best shot in the army was legendary. “I’m sure … there’s some mistake. If you’ll consider—”
“Don’t bother,” Duras growled. “I’ve heard all your lies before and I don’t care to hear any more.” He was beyond concern over political repercussions or the influential power of Rapinat’s relatives; the sight of the army contractor stuffing his face while his men went without food overrode any feelings of expediency. “I’d like your head on a platter, you bastard, but I’ll settle for the numbers of all your bank accounts.” Only enormous self-control restrained his impulse to pull the trigger. “Every account,” he brusquely clarified. “Even those in your wife’s family’s name. I want those funds transferred by bank drafts to the Army of Switzerland, the necessary paperwork on my desk in ten minutes.” His finger shifted minutely on the trigger and Rapinat squeaked, the muffled sound of terror loud in the quiet of the room. “You’ll be under arrest until the money arrives,” Duras went on in a voice so cold Gontaut said afterward he thought Rapinat would expire of fear right before his eyes. “And if you ever do this to my men again, I’ll skin you alive before I kill you. Do you understand?”
The large man seemed to shrink before Duras’s gaze. Unable to speak, he mutely nodded his head.
“Bastard,” Duras muttered through clenched teeth and he squeezed the trigger.
Rapinat screamed. The pistol ball parted the army contractor’s shiny black hair precisely down the center of his head and he fainted away into his veal cutlet.
“Superb shooting, sir,” Gontaut said in admiration.
“A pity I couldn’t kill him but I need those bank drafts. And perhaps tomorrow,” Duras said with a small smile, “I may reconsider my reckless disregard for his brother’s position.”
“The Directory needs you, sir.” Every soldier knew only Duras could hold off the Coalition.
“Let’s hope the politicians remember that when Rapinat regains his nerve and starts screaming for my dismissal. Now see that the cur empties his accounts. Lauzun will help, he understands the status of every sou this side of the Channel. Then take a guard detachment to Zurich, cash the bank drafts, and bring the money back posthaste. Although you haven’t had much sleep the last few days. Should I find someone else?”
“No, sir, it would be an honor, sir,” Gontaut promptly replied, beaming.
“It’s time he stopped fucking with me,” Duras softly said, sliding his pistol into the holster at his hip. Helping himself to a veal cutlet from the platter on the table, he suggested Gontaut eat as well. “The servants can get his face out of his supper,” he said, taking a large bite of the tender meat. Selecting a second cutlet from the plate, he added with a smile, “I’ll send them in as I leave. Good night, Captain. I wish you a lucrative journey.”
He stopped next at headquarters, issued orders for Gontaut’s escort into Zurich and asked for the newest dispatches.
The stack of messages and mail was formidable considering everything of import had been relayed south to the army at Chur.
“The latest ones, sir,” the young aide, Cholet, offered, sorting through the pile. “This one just came in from Mainz.” And as Duras’s brows rose in surprise at the sight, Cholet handed him an official-looking document engraved with the
double eagle of the Russian army. Mainz was a very long way from the Tyrol, Duras mused.
The message was brief, written in diplomatic terms, referring to Teo obliquely as the general’s wife. Citing precedent and gentlemanly honor. Asking for her immediate return.
, Duras thought, as if he alone determined the response, as though precedent and conventions of war didn’t exist. Not yet, not now … perhaps never. Lifting his gaze to his aide, he said, “Send a tactful reply to this. Allude to the difficulties of an exchange at this time—in the midst of the campaign, etcetera. After being on Bernadotte’s staff, Cholet, you know how to extrapolate on nothingness.” He smiled. “Assure them of the countess’s good health. Sign my name. Send it to Vienna.”
“Not to Mainz, sir?”
“To Vienna,” Duras softly ordered.
And then for an hour more, he scrutinized the latest reports from Bernadotte’s and Jourdan’s armies. Archduke Charles was moving closer each day, with Jourdan likely to bear the brunt of the attack. The tone of Jourdan’s dispatches was remarkably optimistic, as if he didn’t realize the extent of his danger. General Jourdan’s Army of the Danube, 41,000 strong, had crossed the Rhine at Kehl on March 1 and was advancing eastward through the Black Forest, meeting no opposition.
Duras’s espionage system knew Prince Schwarzenberg’s corps, which formed the advance guard of the archduke’s army, was approaching Stockach, only miles from the Army of the Danube’s last bivouac. He dictated a hasty note to Jourdan apprising him of Schwarzenberg’s position although it was unthinkable he didn’t already know.
Duras issued orders for a commissary train to be victualed and sent south by morning. And then he called in his spies and questioned them on their most recent reports from the north. Two of his informants hadn’t appeared at their
prearranged rendezvous yesterday, a worrying circumstance although it wasn’t always possible to arrive at the meeting posts as scheduled. Still … a warning. He left orders to have any messages coming in before morning to be delivered to him at the burgomaster’s house.