Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
“Steven.” She was shaking his shoulder. “Coffee?”
“What? Sorry, I was miles away.”
“Yes, and about 200 years as well, I think. Would you like a coffee?”
“So, where were you, and when?”
“It was 1819 and in St Helena.”
“Oh,” she almost squealed in excitement. “I didn’t know that John went there. Did he meet the Emperor?”
“I’m not sure. He may have, but I didn’t get that far.”
She handed over the mug of coffee.
“Did you put sweeteners in it?”
“Bien sûr. I have been quite well trained.”
He put down the coffee and grabbed her hand, pulling her towards him. She did not resist, and they kissed passionately. “Hmmm, I think you have been quite well trained.”
Caterine pulled herself away and playfully punched his arm. “Cochon!”
“I suspect that isn’t a compliment”
“It is not a compliment, nor was it meant to be. You should check your dictionary.”
They drank their coffees and finally Caterine stretched and stood up. “Well, I’m going to bed. Do you want to return to 1819 with John, or stay in 2002 and come to bed with me?”
He pretended to ponder this question, but not for long. “John will still be in 1819 tomorrow.”
Caterine woke early the following morning and showered and dressed quickly. She kissed Steven, still dozing in bed.
“What’s the time?”
“Quarter past seven.”
“That’s the middle of the night! Where are you going?”
“The University. I have some work to finish.”
“Watch out for the Welsh dragon.”
“Come with me if you are worried.”
“Allez, allez, madame.”
He got out of bed about eight thirty, feeling good about the world, and went into town to buy a newspaper. He had a leisurely breakfast and read the Daily Telegraph. There was a report on the refusal of the French Government to allow the body of Napoleon to be subject to exhumation for DNA testing. Some Frenchman was claiming that it wasn’t Bonaparte’s remains at Les Invalides, but those of Cipriani. There was no way the French Government could permit such a thing, thought Steven. Suppose it wasn’t old Boney down there. God, the whole Napoleonic legend might go down the drain. Unthinkable! He turned the page.
He washed up and cleaned up the house before settling once more with John’s journal
Plantation House was not a mansion by the standards of the mother country but was splendid enough for these parts. There was a Reception line up and I was introduced to Sir Hudson, and Lady Lowe. I will confess here that neither person endeared themselves to me.
“Kind of you to give our little family the pleasure of your company, doctor.”
“No, sir, the pleasure is mine. Lady Lowe.” I bowed.
Sir Hudson smiled, a tight little smile, and tapped my medal. “I see you were at Waterloo, doctor, with our great commander.”
“Indeed, sir, a singular honour.”
“Unfortunately, I was in Belgium at the early part of the campaign, but back in England at the time of the battle.”
I could have reminded the gentleman that he had been sent away in favour of the brave American, Sir William de Lancey, but determined that such reminiscences might not have been welcomed. “My condolences, Sir Hudson. It was a place and a time that no on who was there will ever forget.”
He nodded several times. “Indeed, indeed. After coffee, my dear sir, I would be obliged if you could grant me a little of your time. There is something I want to ask of you.”
“At your service, Sir Hudson.” I bowed again and went into the dining room.
It was a pleasant enough meal, with, I was surprised to note, much wine. The company was, perhaps naturally, in view of the location, a little provincial, but welcome for all that. The officers of the 66th, who had missed Waterloo, were much interested in anyone who had been at the battle and especially one who had the reputation of having the ear of Wellington, as, to my astonishment, I was supposed to have. Why, I asked myself, and my dinner companions, would a person in that exalted position lock himself up in India for several years. None was in a position to enlighten me on the question.
Finally, Nicholls asked me to follow him and we went into a small room off the dining room. Presently we were joined by Sir Hudson, and two other gentlemen whom I did not know. They were introduced as Doctors Arnott and Verling. We shook hands gravely and sat down. The presence of my two fellow doctors intrigued me.
Sir Hudson spoke first. “Dr McCann, you will be wondering why I have asked you to this small gathering. The plain fact of the matter is that we need your help. For some time now I have been concerned about the health of General Buonaparte, and his doctors here,” he nodded at Arnott and Verling, “have been unable to gain access to the General.”
The two nodded their agreement.
“What would you like me to do? If he will not see my colleagues, he will surely not see me.”
“No, indeed, sir, at least not in your capacity as a doctor. However, I have it on the most excellent authority from the Count de Montholon, Chief of Staff to the General, that he would probably be prepared to meet you as a former combatant at Waterloo. In the past he has been usually eager to meet with former enemies who were at Waterloo. If that is still so, and you see him, you may be able to gain an impression as to his general state of health. Your reputation as a man of medicine is high, even on our small island.”
“Let me understand what you ask of me, Sir Hudson. You want me to spy on Napoleon.”
The Governor rose angrily. “Not at all, Mr McCann. I want you to carry out a small service on behalf of your country. I might also remind you, sir, that as an officer on half pay, you can still be subject to the directions of His Majesty’s officers.”
I too rose to my feet. “I am fully aware of my duties to His Majesty, and to my country, sir, and have never in the past failed either. I do not take kindly to the style in which my responsibilities have been indicated to me.”
Arnott entered the conversation for the first time and used his good offices to calm down our discussions. I regret to say that, with my recent bereavement still weighing heavily on me, I was much too easily angered by Sir Hudson’s brusque manner. Finally, I agreed, if they could obtain an audience with him, I would visit Napoleon.
Sir Hudson then left, with these parting words. “Remember that the person at Longwood House is a general officer and is due the respect that his rank deserves, and nothing else.”
On the Governor’s departure, Arnott leaned across to me. “McCann, if you do get to meet him, and I harbour the gravest doubts in the matter, you will need to recall that the man believes himself to be the Emperor of the French. Calling him ‘general’ would afford you a very short time in his presence.”
The two doctors and Captain Nicholls then briefed me fully on what I needed to know about the prisoner, for such he was. In particular, the doctors explained their difficulties in determining the state of Napoleon’s health, due mainly to their inability to visit the man. They disclosed a less than healthy regard for the Italian, Antommarchi, recently arrived as Napoleon’s doctor. This gentleman had a fine reputation in Europe as a surgeon and anatomist and was reputed to have had some experience as a physician. Despite this, both Arnott and Verling lacked trust in him. I did wonder if this was merely the prejudice of most Englishmen for those unfortunate to have been born elsewhere.
Steven smiled to himself. “You wouldn’t get very far in the Metropolitan Police, doctor.”
I was in a thoughtful mood as I returned to Jamestown in the carriage. No one held out any hope of my meeting with Napoleon, who had not seen any English visitors for some six months. I slept uneasily; my mind still clouded by thoughts of Maria.
“God,” Steven said to himself, “You too.”
On the following morning I took the boys and Mrs Griffin to walk around in the town, though truth to tell, there was nothing to buy and little enough to interest them or myself. While we waited at the dockside for our transport back to the ship, I spied Nicholls riding hard towards the ship. He pulled up, handing his horse to a black slave on the dockside.
“Good morning, doctor.” He tipped his hat to Emily. “Ma’am.”
“Good morning, captain. What news?”
“The Emperor, I’m sorry, General Buonaparte, will see you at two in the afternoon. A carriage will take you to Longwood.” Nicholls ruffled the boys’ hair.
So, it had been done. The Count de Montholon had arranged for this doctor’s son from Northampton to meet with the man who until four or five years ago made Europe tremble whenever he spoke. I was nervous and remained so until I was well on my way in the carriage. There was little time to spare and little to see in the bleak landscape as we rattled uphill from the town.
Longwood was much smaller than I had expected, more the home of a modest English country gentleman than that of the last Emperor of the French. One of the first things to attract my attention was that the windows were all curtained and closed, even though we still in the middle of the day. There were a number of persons in attendance, but only one introduced himself. This was Count de Montholon, who spoke only French and had a most haughty air. He questioned me most thoroughly on a number of matters, and indicated that while the Emperor spoke no English, he, Montholon could speak a little, if necessary.
Eventually, apparently satisfied, de Montholon showed me into the salon where Napoleon sat, slumped would be a better description, in a chair. He did not rise, but with a small movement of his hand, bade me sit, which I did, after a short bow towards the seated man. I was struck at once by the physical appearance of the man, short, balding, pallid white skin, yellow eyes, and his stoutness was exacerbated by his small stature. His breathing was somewhat laboured, and he bore little resemblance to the fine figure I had so often seen depicted on paintings. He looked ill, and without the benefit of an examination, I would have suggested some disorder of the liver as a possible reason. A servant poured each of us a glass of red wine, and withdrew, backwards.
The conversation we had was conducted entirely in French, assisted when required by the Count de Montholon. Napoleon’s French was very bad, with a harshness about it I did not expect from someone apparently so loved by the French people.
“So, you are a friend of Wellington?”
“No, sire, not at all. I do know our great duke, have spoken with him on many occasions, and dined in his company less often, but no, we are not friends.”
Napoleon raised his glass with a little bow and sipped the wine. I did likewise. It was a claret but smelt and tasted musty. “I am told you were at the battle of Mont Saint Jean?”
“I was indeed at Waterloo, your majesty.”
“Were you behind the lines, doctor, or did you see any of the action?”
“I was in the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte until it was taken by your forces late in the afternoon.”
He leaned forward with interest. “Tell me about it.”
As best I could, with my imperfect French, I gave him an account of the fighting, and he listened, his eyes gleaming.
“Brave fellows those Germans.”
“And the French?” Perhaps he was testing me.
“Also, brave men, as were all the other men who fought and died on that field. In particular, I would like to meet the Frenchman who wounded me, to congratulate him on his poor marksmanship.”
Napoleon smiled, giving me a glimpse of the charm for which he was noted. His mood changed suddenly. He spoke rapidly. “I could have won. Grouchy and Ney failed me. They failed France. I should have died on that field at the head of my Guard.”
I said nothing. I could have reminded the Emperor that he had failed France, more than Marshals Grouchy or Ney, that he had deserted his Army after Egypt, after Moscow and after Waterloo. It seemed appropriate that I should do nothing of the sort, and he carried on with his tirade. This continued for around fifteen minutes, and I quite quickly understood that my function was simply to listen, and not to interject. This I willingly did, because it is not often that one such as I can listen to one such as Napoleon. Finally, he got on to Wellington, and described him as a bad commander, and one who had made many mistakes. At this point I could take no more.
“Perhaps what you say is true, sire, but you must accept that no one on the French side was able to profit from these mistakes and, in the end, Wellington was left in command of the field.”
“Huh! He won because of the Prussians arriving in time, and because Grouchy and his 30,000 were at Wavre.”
“Where you sent them, your majesty.”
“Grouchy should have followed the sound of the guns. Grouchy lost France, he lost France and he lost me my crown.”
I was silent. There seemed to be nothing I could say, and it was fascinating to hear this great man, for such I believed him to be, allocating blame to everyone but himself. He carried on with more of the same. Eventually he said. “Wellington chose a very bad position. He was lucky that old Blucher arrived when he did.”
“No, sire. The Duke had told Prince Blucher he would stand where he did, if the Prussians would come to his aid. Blucher had promised he would come. There was no more to be said. Each had given his hand. They each knew the other would keep his promise.”
Napoleon glared at me from his puffy face. “You sound like Soult and Foy. They were full of praise for Wellington. You seem to share their sentiments, my dear doctor.”
“Indeed so, sire. I have named my sons John Wellington and Arthur Wellesley in honour of the greatest man my country has produced.” I nearly said, ‘the world has produced’, but I feared such sentiments would cause him to terminate our meeting.
He smiled again, an action that transformed his face. “Very well, doctor. Let us discuss medical matters. Have you ever met Larrey?”
“Indeed, I have, a fine surgeon and a brave man. I met him in Brussels after he had been wounded and captured by the Prussians. I was recuperating in the city myself at the time. I understood that but for the intervention of Prince Blucher, the Prussians would have put him in front of a firing squad. I last heard of him in Paris, where he was in difficult circumstances, I understand.”
“Those dammed Bourbons; they forget nothing, they forgive nothing.”
We talked for a few more minutes, but it was obvious that he was tiring. Napoleon raised his hand, and I noticed the short podgy fingers. “Enough, doctor. I must rest.”
I rose, while he remained seated.
“You have two sons you say?”
I nodded. “Indeed so, sire.”
“Come here, doctor.” He took up his purse and fumbled inside, drawing out two gold coins. “Here, these are gold Napoleons. Give one to each of your boys in memory of Napoleon. I have a son too, you know. I think he is a little older than your boys.” He indicated with his hand that I should leave. I bowed and did so.
Captain Nicholls walked with me to my carriage and I thanked him. “Mr Nicholls, I have just spoken to a God. An evil and perverted God, perhaps, but a God nonetheless.”
I made my report to Hudson Lowe and my colleagues. My view was simple, if unproven by medical diagnoses. Napoleon was dying, through gross inactivity of the body, and especially the mind.
We sailed on the morning tide, and I anticipated arrival in England most eagerly.
Steven was preparing a coffee when Caterine returned. “You may wish to read the few pages where the book is opened. She did so and he made her a coffee.
“He did meet the Emperor, then?”
“Yes, lucky man!”
She read on and returned the book. “I have something to show you.” She went to a side drawer in what had been his father’s desk and took out a small pouch of soft leather. “Open it.”
He did so, and tumbled out a coin, a gold Napoleon.
“Your father always told me that it had come from Napoleon.”
Steven turned the coin over in his hand. It glinted as if it had been minted that morning. It was eerie holding the coin, a piece that had been handled both by Napoleon and by Dr John. “The past speaks to me again.”
She closed her hand over his. “So, cherie, you have the past, and the future in your own hands. And this is the present speaking to you. Let’s think about dinner.”
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and privately self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019