Y HELICOPTER crossed a ridge in the Swiss Alps, dropped through the mist, paused on the snow-covered courtyard of the 900-year-old hospice of the Great St. Ber¬nard Pass. A monastery door popped open, a monk stepped out, his cassock fluttering in the wind. “Welcome,” said Abbot Jean-Michel Girard, and led me inside. The rapid crossing of this pass in May 1800, when there was still snow, was among Na¬poleon’s most dramatic exploits.
He had been back in Paris only seven months when a new Austrian threat sent him marching again toward Italy. He had used the time well: He had joined in a coup d’etat that overthrew the old republican government; had emerged as one of three consuls governing France, then became First Consul. The general who arrived here was also his country’s political leader.
“He crossed in one day,” the abbot said. “He stopped here to rest, to eat, to drink. We have only a few souvenirs: the room where, tradition says, he rested; a tomb he ordered built for one of his generals.”
Life has changed at the hospice since Na¬poleon’s day. A tunnel was built under the pass in the 1960s; the monks no longer have travelers to rescue. Now they hold retreats for local young people, who come on skis. And the dogs—no longer needed, except for the tourist season. They stay in the valley in winter. But some things endure. The con¬gregation had cooperated with Napoleon: “We still have farms given us by Napoleon, lands to support us, in Italy.”
In the valley below the hospice I found another souvenir of Napoleon: an unpaid bill. The village of Bourg St. Pierre was pressing for payment. The village lawyer ex¬plained. “He needed mule drivers, men to help with the artillery. He agreed to pay. Here is his letter: ‘I will reimburse you for everything. . . . This is only just.’
“But he became occupied; only part was paid. The interest on the unpaid part is sub¬stantial. I wrote the President of France, and the French consul in Geneva has made inquiries.” The lawyer smiled: “It is not a question of money, but of closing an issue.” I wished him well, then followed Napoleon France’s most coveted order, the Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon de-spite criticism that it was antagonistic to the revolution’s ideal of equality. “It is with baubles that men are led,” he said, handing out to soldiers and civilians thou¬sands of the valued medals (above). For daughters of the recipients, he opened three boarding schools. At Saint-Denis (left) students dine beneath an 1808 por¬trait of their benefactor, who insisted girls concentrate on household skills to make them “useful women.”