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concerning Le Capitaine Richard

     Le Capitaine Richard is a disjointed historical romance, set in the closing years of Napoleon's empire, which nonetheless contains some superb writing. The book combines some vivid historical descriptions (for example, of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow) with a perfunctory and implausible melodrama.
     The book opens in 1809 with Napoleon returning to Paris from Spain, hearing the reports of his various ministers, and departing for Germany to lead his armies against Austria, once again, in the campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Wagram. In Germany, we are introduced to two twin brothers, Louis and Paul Richard, both Lieutenants in the French Army, and a young German student, Frederick Stilts, and his fiancée, Margaret. Frederick is involved in anti-French conspiracy of German nationalist students, and attends a meeting in which the students decide to assassinate Napoleon. The meeting is infiltrated by Louis Richard, assisted by the spy Schlick, at which Louis, as a new initiate, is subjected to mock execution to test his courage and commitment. In a footnote, Dumas implies that this scene was borrowed from the play Léo Burckart which Dumas' friend Gerard de Nerval wrote with Dumas' assistance in 1839.
     Dumas then provides a sketch of the campaign of Wagram, which culminates when Napoleon occupies Vienna. Frederick attempts to assassinate Napoleon, fails, and is sentenced to death. Louis Richard supervises the execution, and Frederick exacts from Louis a promise that Louis will visit his fiancée and tell Margaret the circumstance of his death.
     We flash forward to 1812, and Napoleon occupies Moscow, only to have the Russians burn the city around him. Louis Richard (now a captain) rescues Napoleon from the burning Kremlin. Napoleon hesitates, and finally orders the disastrous retreat from Moscow. During the retreat, the Louis and Paul meet when Louis is wounded. Paul attempts to save Louis, and during a terrible night in a Russian hut, in which Paul fights off the wolves with a dagger, Louis tells Paul the story of the execution of Frederick Stilts, and adds that he, Louis, had raped Frederick's fiancée Margaret during the Wagram campaign, which rendered him unable to keep his promise. Louis asks Paul to visit Margaret and communicate, not only the original message from Frederick, but also Louis' remorse and to beg her forgiveness. Louis then conveniently kills himself, and Paul rejoins Napoleon's retreating army.
     We flash forward again to 1815, and we join Napoleon on a British frigate en route to St. Helena. Dumas describes a bit of shark fishing, and Napoleon's aversion to blood.
     We flash forward again to Germany, where we find that Margaret has retired to and convent and conveniently died, but that Margaret's younger sister, Lieschen and her father, the Pastor Waldeck are still around, along with the spy Schlick, now a gendarme. Paul Richard, as an aide to Marshal Ney, has been sentenced to death by the Bourbons for his participation in the Waterloo campaign, and is wandering through Germany as a fugitive, looking for Margaret.
     After a pretty little comedy of mutual misunderstanding, Paul receives the forgiveness of Margaret's family, Schlick accepts a generous bribe from Pastor Waldeck to look the other way, and Paul escapes to Amsterdam, where, presumably, he is free to marry Lieschen and live happily ever after.

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