occasion of her first meeting
with the Emperor Napoleon,
Marie Walewska saw him as a soldier. The meeting took place on the snowbound
road by Bronie, in Eastern Poland, in the year 1807.
Marie waited in the shadows for the Emperor's coach to stop and change horses. No smile was yet possible to her, who had seen the Cossack Cavalry urging their horses over the polished floors and among the Empire tables of the Walewska estate; she who had seen blood oozing from her white-haired husband's cheek, under the cut of a Cossack whip.
In silence she waited while, with jingling spurs, the Emperor's mounted escort galloped past and his coach drew up by the roadside. The coach door was opened by an officer.
Marie watched the man in whom Poland saw the hope of the world, and possibly its own salvation, step out. Up and down the road, hands behind his back, he paced, followed by his aides carrying torches. She realised that she had been seen, of facing the barrel of an officer's loaded gun, of being ordered to come forward.
Next, she was looking into the penetrating eyes of the unmistakeable little man in the greatcoat and cocked hat with its tricolor rosette.
"Who are you?" he rapped out. The voice was, as she expected, forceful, abrupt, slightly harsh.
"Marie Walewska, Your Majesty."
"You know me? What are you doing here, Marie Walewska?"
"I had to come, Sire. You were in Poland; in my country at last. The hour I've dreamt of since I was a---"
"Oh, a patriot! I must get to know the Poles better. Are you real, or born of a snowdrift?"
"Whichever Your Majesty wishes." To her astonishment, his lips touched her hand. She thought him sincere as he said, "Snow vanishes, I prefer you real," before he was borne off by one of his aides.
Hope flamed in Marie's heart, mantling her delicate skin with roses, as the ornate coach disappeared round the snowy bend.
Be the Emperor only temporarily attracted by her -- and what sensible woman could hope for more? -- what might Marie Walewska not accomplish for her oppressed country? continue