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As the first cannon shot thundered out from the guns drawn up before the Invalides on the morning of 20 March 1811, an extraordinary silence fell over Paris. Wagons and carriages came to a standstill, pedestrians halted, people appeared at their windows, schoolboys looked up from their books. Everyone began to count as the discharges succeeded each other at a measured pace. In the stables of the Ecole Militaire, the cavalry of the Guard were grooming their horses. "Suddenly, the sound of a gun from the Invalides stopped every arm, suspended every movement; brushes and curry-combs hung in the air," according to one young Chasseur. "In the midst of this multitude of men and horses, you could have heard a mouse stir."
As news had spread on the previous evening that the Empress had gone into labour, many patrons had given their workmen the next day off, and these swarmed expectantly in the streets around the Tuileries palace. The Paris Bourse had ceased dealing that morning, and the only financial transactions taking place were bets on the sex of the child. But the excitement was just as great among those who had nothing riding on it.
"It would be difficult to imagine with what anxiety the first cannon shots were counted," recalled one witness: everyone knew that twentyone would announce the birth of a girl, and one hundred that of a boy. "A profound silence reigned until the twenty-first, but when the twenty-second roared forth, there was an explosion of congratulation and cheering which rang out simultaneously in every part of Paris." People went wild, embracing total strangers and shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" Others danced in the streets as the remaining seventyeight shots thundered out in a rolling barrage.
"Paris had never, even on the greatest holidays, offered a picture of more general joyfulness," noted another witness; "there was celebration everywhere."' A balloon went up, bearing into the sky the celebrated aeronaut Madame Blanchard with thousands of printed notices of the happy tidings, which she scattered across the countryside. Messengers galloped off in all directions with the news. That evening there were fireworks and the capital was illuminated, with candles in the windows of even humble mansard rooms. Theatres staged special performances, printmakers began churning out soppy images of the imperial infant borne on celestial clouds with crowns and laurels hovering over him, and poets set to work on commemorative odes. "But what one will never be able to convey adequately," wrote the young Comte de Ségur, "is the wild intoxication of that surge of public rejoicing as the twenty-second cannon shot announced to France that there had been born a direct heir to Napoleon and to the Empire! "
The twenty-year-old Empress Marie-Louise had felt the first pains at around seven o'clock on the previous evening. Dr Antoine Dubois, Premier Accoucheur of the Empire, was on hand. He was soon joined by Dr Corvisart, the First Physician, Dr Bourdier, the Physicianin-Ordinary to the Empress, and Napoleon's surgeon Dr Yvan. The Emperor, his mother and sisters, and the various ladies of the Empress's household brought to twenty-two the number of those attending her, either in her bedroom or in the next chamber.
Beyond that, the salons of the Tuileries were filled with some two hundred officials and dignitaries, who had been summoned at the first signs of the Empress going into labour and stood about awkwardly in full court dress. Every now and then, one of the ladies-in-waiting on duty would come out and give them a progress report. As the evening wore on, small tables were brought in and they were served a light supper of chicken with rice washed down with Chambertin. But the banter was subdued: things were clearly not proceeding smoothly in the Empress's bedroom. At about five in the morning the Grand Marshal of the Empire came out and informed them that the pains had ceased and the Empress had fallen asleep. He told them they could go home, but must remain on call. Some went, but many of the exhausted courtiers stretched out on benches or rolled up carpets into makeshift mattresses and lay down on them in all their finery to snatch some sleep.
Napoleon had been with Marie-Louise throughout, talking to her and comforting her with all the solicitude of a nervous father-to-be. When she fell asleep Dubois told him he could go and take some rest. Napoleon could do without sleep. His preferred means of relaxation was to lie in a very hot bath, which he believed in as a cure for most of his ailments, be it a cold or constipation, from which he suffered regularly. And that is what he did now.
He had not been luxuriating in the hot water for long when Dubois came running up the concealed stairs that led from his apartment to the Empress's bedroom. The labour pains had started again, and the doctor was anxious, as the baby was presenting itself awkwardly. Napoleon asked him if there was any danger. Dubois nodded, expressing dismay that such a complication had occurred with the Empress. "Forget that she is Empress, and treat her as you would the wife of any shopkeeper in the rue Saint Denis," Napoleon interrupted him, adding: "And whatever happens, save the mother!" He got out of his bath, dressed hastily and went down to join the doctors at his wife's bedside.
The Empress screamed when she saw Dubois take out his forceps, but Napoleon calmed her, holding her hand and stroking her while the Comtesse de Montesquiou and Dr Corvisart held her still. The baby emerged feet first, and Dubois had a job getting the head clear. After much pulling and easing, at around six in the morning he delivered it ...Moscow 1812
Excerpted from Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March by Adam Zamoyski
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