On the afternoon of 20 April 1810, an English frigate, coming from Cadiz, drops anchor in the Port of London. A giant of two metres, with azure eyes and Cyclopean shoulders, debarks. His thick brown hair cascades in the wind and his long moustache, in the Hussard style, proudly turns up at the ends.
And what a costume! The English, who are notoriously flegmatic, stand gaping. Under the wolf-skin dolman, attached on his chest with a silver skull and crossbones, there blazes an Hungarian jacket with frogging. Red thigh boots, tight white riding pants, and wide-cuffed gloves complete this outfit.
His hat is a great astrakan colback with a bouquet of heron feathers in panache… His belt holds no fewer than sixty cartridges and six small pistols. A dagger and a club hang at his side and an enormous scimitar bangs against his left calf, as well as a sabretache embroidered with skulls and crossbones…
This character, who calls himself the Baron de Geramb, an Hungarian officer, installs himself on the edge of Hyde Park in a superb house which he furnishes very expensively and supplies with an extravagant number of domestics. His horses prance underneath his porch and all this show, plus the stories of those who meet him, easily open credit for him with suppliers. How can you not have confidence in this character who speaks all the languages of Europe, swallows two chickens and a ham for breakfast and kills three horses under him in one day? It is even said that his laugh makes crystal decanters explode…
At this epoch, Europe is leagued against Napoleon, and England is the meeting place for all those who dream of getting rid of the Emperor.
But who is this Baron de Geramb? Nothing less than Napoleon’s personal enemy. His implacable rival, who promises to put his bravery and the strength of his genius at the service of Civilization. He gives himself no more than five months to succeed…
He has a plan all ready, and he explains this plan to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Wellesley, in person, who is a regular visitor.
To begin with, he is going to get all the Dutch, the Illyrians, the Saxons, the Badois, the Spanish and the Piemontais, who have been forcibly enrolled into Napoleon’s armies, to desert. The multitude of refractory conscripts and proscripted people of all sorts will come to join this troop. It will be a formidable army which will receive the decisive support of “his” 24,000 Croats. Freshly equipped, they are impatiently waiting back there in Hungary to lead the Armada which is going to roll over the Normandy coast. One small detail: he will cede his Croats to England at cost price, plus travelling expenses, that goes without saying.
Wellesley, who has trouble recovering from his amazement, finds all this admirable. But, like the good Englishman that he is, he has enquiries made, which give astonishing results.
The English police is already a model of efficiency at this epoch. However, in spite of all the noise that the extravagant Geramb has made in several European countries, its emissaries are never able to find out his country of birth. Is he French, Austrian, Jewish, Hungarian? Is Geramb his real name? Some think that they recognize in him Prince Murat in person.
However, they recall that a certain Geramb who resembles him like a brother was talked about in Rome where he climbed the bronze ball which dominates Saint Peter’s cupola, at the risk of breaking his neck twenty times over. Just to engrave his name on it… In Naples, one day when Vesuvius was in effervescence, he fought a duel on the edge of the crater.
In Vienna, he eclipsed Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous gesture by ripping off his jacket to cover a little stream of water, under the foot of the Empress who was passing by.
There, he is immediately promoted to Chamberlain, raises a corps of volunteers, flanked by his brightly-coloured aides-de-camp, and cedes his Lieutenant’s commission for a good price. But when Napoleon approaches Vienna, he disappears.
He rises to the surface again in Palermo where Queen Caroline, who is very sensitive to well-built men, swoons at the sight of him.
Then he is even more decorated and beplumed than ever. Without worrying about gossip, he attends revues on Caroline’s arm. And then, as the rumours swell, he leaves, pretexting that the Cortes of Spain want to see him.
Then here he is in Cadiz where he gets General’s epaulettes, and then to London where, as we have seen, he attempts to get money for his 24,000 Croats.
Upon reading this information, Wellesley says that he is definitively edified. Geramb receives a sack of one hundred guineas as the only payment for his extravagances, and is told to leave English soil within three weeks.
In the peaceful home at Hyde Park, there is immediately a terrifying upheaval. The General lets out such cries that all his personnel flees in terror. He demands to be instantly reimbursed for all his expenses, barricades himself, and threatens to blow up the neighbourhood. The police attack, and to their surprise, he surrenders quietly.
That same evening, he is embarked, and a few days later, he, his dolman, his boots, his white riding pants and all his armury are thrown onto a Danish beach.
The London gazettes of course talk about the event and of his hate for Napoleon: a hanging offence when everyone knows that the King of Denmark is the Emperor’s most faithful ally.
All this noise appears very suspicious to the French police. In the Ministries, it is thought to be some sort of English trick to infilter a spy.
In his prison, Geramb writes to the King of Denmark to assure him that, on the whole Earth, there is no greater enemy of England than himself. He even solicits permission to raise, at his own expense, a monument to the crimes of perfidious Albion.
To be continued.