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(In keeping with the old Donegal Vindicator's Christmas number tradition, the new Canadian Vindicator offers the following short story in its December 2002 issue. The story carries with it best wishes for a holy and joyous Christmas from all associated with

"I had no good reason to like the French, or the English for that matter."

Those words caught my attention. The paper they were written on was thick, not like the paper we write letters on today. It had been folded in four, from corner to corner, and sealed in the middle. Red wax still clung to one part. Over the years some had broken off, and when I unfolded the paper the remaining bits fell on the floor where they raised little puffs in the ages old dust.

The attic where I stood was oppressively hot. Hot and dry. There was only one skylight, and it hadn't been opened for years.

Even the spiders had given it up. No insects lived there. The cobwebs they left behind were grimy.

If the sloping ceiling had ever borne plaster, it too was gone, mixed in with the thick dust that covered floor. The heavy slates that formed the roof rested on bone-dry rafters and slats. One expected the whole lot to come crashing down at any minute, but the slates and the rafters had remained stubbornly in place for nigh on two hundred years.

The attic was rarely visited. Once a year I had the task of climbing the stairs that led to it, a task I dreaded.

There were two rooms in the attic. In one lay an unholy jumble of items that had been discarded decades and decades ago. Bits of furniture, old lamps, oddly shaped bottles. Beneath them lay other junk, even earlier junk. Those who placed it there were long gone. The whole lot was carpeted in dust. Move or touch one piece and a cloud of dust rose up.

Every year I made a mental note to clear the attic some day. But some day never came, and once in a while I added a piece to the accumulated collection, a piece that soon gathered its own dust over the silent passage of the years.

The second room retained some semblance of usage. It was a storage room for the newspaper files.

Once a year I braved the dust, the cobwebs, the darkness, and made my way into that second room which alone was lit by the skylight. In serried ranks the files for each year lay on sliding shelves that once had carried trays of type, type no longer used in the weekly production of the newspaper.

There I would replace a fifty-year old file in the place from which I had removed it the previous year, and extract its successor which I carried, as quickly as I could, back through the dust, the heat, and the grimy cobwebs, to the head of the stairs and safely down to the ground floor office.

There, as the year rolled by, it yielded precious copy for a weekly column titled "Fifty Years Ago", that appealed to a generation of readers twice removed from my own young years.

It was on one of those annual treks to the attic that I stumbled, lost my footing, and in the gloomy darkness fell. Immediately I was enveloped in a cloud of dust, and as I pushed on what may have been an old carpet in an attempt to regain my feet, it slithered and my hand felt a peculiar square of paper. Not realizing what I was doing, choking and half blinded, I got to my feet, and in the filing room with a gigantic effort raised the skylight, letting in some fresh air.

All I wanted was fresh air to clear my lungs. As I sputtered and pluchered, I realized I still had the folded paper in my hand. The outside carried some writing, indecipherable under the grime of time, probably an address, because when the paper was unfolded it became quickly evident that it was a letter, a missive, addressed in an old fashioned hand to "My dear Uncle".

Just above the centre, the phrase "I had no good reason to like the French, or the English for that matter" caught my eye, and then at the bottom the date, "written at Brussels, June 22, 1815."

What had I found?

After descending the staircase, washing my face and hands, brushing my jacket and pants, rubbing a wet cloth over my shoes, and washing my hands once more, I smoothed out that heavy papered letter, and prepared to read it fully. It wasn't quite the easy job I had expected, what with a blurred portion where at one time moisture had made the ink run.

But what was legible told an amazing story, and cast light on what may well have been a fatal blunder made by the great Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, a blunder well documented in the official accounts of that great encounter, which led to his final banishment to the island of St. Helena where, it is alleged, he died from arsenic poisoning.

The letter writer told the story as casually as if he was recounting an everyday occurrence. In truth it might well have been so, at a time when the vagaries of weather were unpredictable, and forecasts of changes unreliable and unscientific.

If anyone had good cause to be concerned about weather forecasts it was Napoleon himself who lost an entire army, not to opposing forces but to the severity of a Russian winter.

Some of the wording in that letter, from nephew to uncle, are fresh in memory:

I had sold my horses and was making my way to the frontier. Since I did not want to attract attention-I was carrying their price in gold-I rode an old cob, not worth the stealing, and a ragged cloak. Suddenly I was surrounded by solders, magnificently mounted soldiers, and was being questioned by their leader, to whom I told my well rehearsed tale. I was one of the Romany tribe, with nothing of worth. All I had was a gift.

"What gift is that?"

"To read the clouds and tell the coming weather."

He laughed. He did not believe my story.

Just as he was leaning over to search my saddle bags, a coach drew up.

Uncle, you never saw, you could not imagine such a coach! Heavy, built from solid wood, heavy wood, with big wheels, larger than any coach you have ever seen.

"What's going on? Why the delay? Who is this?"

It was the Grand Emperor himself leaning out a side window. I nearly ….. myself!

"Only a Romany, sire. Claims to read the clouds, tell the weather."

"Bring him here!"

Uncle, I was frightened out of my skin.

The nephew went on to recount the incident in detail, how he lowered his eyes, bent his head, and managed with great effort to keep his voice steady.

Resolutely he maintained his story. He could tell the weather a full two days in advance. Even his own people acknowledged his skill.

"What will the weather be like two days from now? Look me in the face and tell me!"

The letter gave the nephew's answer. There would be rain.

"Give him a coin and let him go," ordered the Emperor.

I may not have quoted the letter exactly. At my age memory sometimes plays tricks. But my rendition is as faithful as I can make it. The dust, the grime, the cobwebs-I will never forget them.

An account of the Battle of Waterloo as given by another Ballyshannon man who was there appears in another section of this web site Allingham.

"But what was the weather forecast? How accurate was it? What effect did it have on Napoleon?"

I am afraid you will have to read the history books to find out. Of one thing we can be certain is that Napoleon acted on a wrong forecast, and lost the battle.

"The letter-what became of the letter?"

I've told the tale as best I can. That should be enough for any skeptic!

As Napoleon himself said, "If you wish to be success in the world," (maybe he was talking about story tellers) "promise everything, deliver nothing."

For the true history buff, suffice it to recall that there were three armies involved in what became known as the Battle of Waterloo, the French with 120,000 men, the Anglo-Dutch-German Army of 90,000 men commanded by the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian Army, also of 120,000, men under the command of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher.

Napoleon's main chance of victory lay in winning against either opposing army before they were able to unite, and in fact muddy roads held up the German army for a time but he was unable to deliver a decisive blow.

The World Wide Web has a multitude of sites dealing with aspects of the Battle of Waterloo which annually attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Readers of this web page will be interested to note that Wellington's army was made up of Germans who formed the largest contingent; solders from the Netherlands, and the third group were British army troops, many of them recruits from Ireland.

It is estimated that some 191,300 men actually took part in what became a three-day battle, June 16, 17 and 18, 1815, and 48,500 were casualties.

Also, since this is a web site linking Canada and Ireland it is worth recalling that one of Wellington's staff was the Fourth Duke of Richmond, after whom the town of Richmond, Ontario, is named. The Duke had presided as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1807 until 1813, and while there formed a close association with Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.

It was the Duke of Richmond's wife who hosted the famous ball in Brussels on June 15, the eve of the battle, celebrated by Byron in the following lines once obligatory learning for all good British schoolchildren:

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gather'd then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Did ye not hear it?--No, 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.


Arm! Arm! It is-it is the cannon's opening roar!


Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty's circle proudly gay,
The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms, - the day
Battle's magnificently stern array!
The thunder-clouds close o'er it, which when rent
The earth is cover'd thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heap'd and pent,
Rider and horse, - friend, foe, - in one red burial blent!

Almost two hundred years later bones of the fallen, their epaulettes, uniform buttons, rusty sword hilts, and pitted cannon balls, the missiles of mass destruction of their times, are still being unearthed at Waterloo.

Christmas 2002.


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