Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I stood on deck, the wind chilling my bones, until St Helena had dropped away behind us. I was deeply disturbed at the plight of Napoleon. I could only suppose that in some way, I had fallen under his spell, as millions had done before me, including many of my own countrymen. I had no love for the man. God knows I had spent six good years of my life tending to the results of his ambition and arrogance in the Peninsula and at Waterloo. The bones of many good men lay in the cold earth of a dozen nations of Europe because of this man’s avarice. My own brother would not have died with a French musket ball in his brain but for the man I had just left.
Napoleon deserved his fate.
And yet, I was dispirited at what Napoleon had become; fat, unhealthy, depressed and devoid of the magnificent spirit which must have once motivated him, for good and evil. He would continue to waste his mind and body away on that rock until he died. The turmoil in his mind would have driven me mad. He had been right; it would have been a kinder and nobler fate if he had perished at the head of his forces at Waterloo. But then, Napoleon had never demonstrated a desire to stay with his men until the end, not in Egypt, or in Russia, nor finally at Waterloo. He had always appeared to regard himself as much more important than his troops.
I wondered if Wellington would have died fighting at the head of the Army at Waterloo if we had lost. I liked to think that he would have done, using as my evidence his demeanour on that glorious day, always there where the need was greatest, the fighting most grievous. Even as the thought entered my mind, I found it difficult in the extreme to imagine Wellington losing a battle, even against the Emperor. He never had, against anyone.
But even as the island disappeared into the mists, so my thoughts left the fate of the Corsican, and turned to my own future, and to the futures of my two half English, half German sons. My duty had once been to my patients and the Army, then to my wife, and now, there was only myself and the boys. As I had discovered in India, death had a strange way of visiting those who were least deserving, and, deserving or not, I was almost forty years of age and needed to make arrangements for my sons, the perpetual reminders of my dear lost Maria.
The island had now disappeared into the mists, and the wind had sharpened, causing me to shiver, although perhaps that was not solely caused by the wind. The swell had also picked up, sending the ship into a fore and aft motion that did little for the stomach. The sea spray spumed off the ocean wetting my face and forcing me to grasp the cold wood railing for support. My lips were salty to my tongue, but my head was clear. Napoleon had caused his own misfortune; I had my own affairs to manage.
I went below where Mrs Griffin was attending to the little ones.
“They are indeed, doctor. Fine boys, you should be proud of them.”
I smiled. “I am proud, but sad for them also, never to know their mother’s love.” I hesitated. “Mrs Griffin, Emily, I do not know if you have plans on your return to England, but I have been minded to enquire if you would consider perhaps continuing to work for me on a permanent basis. The boys will need caring for until, and indeed after, they are of an age for schooling. I hope to go back to the practice of medicine in the area of Guildford, and although I am not rich, I can offer you fair wages and a comfortable home.”
Emily looked surprised. “Doctor, that is certainly a most generous offer, and, if you will permit me, I will give it all consideration, and let you have my answer before we reach Plymouth.”
The journey dragged on as we beat up the African coast, calling at Funchal in Madeira, a Portuguese island well known to the British since the time of Charles the Second. Charles had married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. As part of her dowry, the new Queen brought into the marriage certain trading rights in regard to the island’s wines, granted solely to the British. In the early part of the century, His Majesty’s Government had deemed it expedient to occupy Madeira, to prevent it falling into French hands. The island had been taken twice, from 1801 until 1802, and for a longer period from 1807 until 1814.The island had been returned to Portugal on the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy. The British influence was everywhere.
Funchal was a pleasant, bustling, but somewhat odorous town. Outside the town, even at this time of year, flowers and shrubs, unknown in England, grew in a colourful profusion. Emily, the boys and I took a carriage for an interesting and invigorating scenic tour of the nearer parts of Madeira. Emily noted that the driver of the carriage had little regard for speed and respecting the rights of others using the roads.
Steven grinned and chuckled to himself. He and Maria had once been to Portugal on holiday, and he reflected that some things never change.
I was pleased to see many British people seemingly living in harmony with our old friends and former allies, the Portuguese. It did, unfortunately, remind me afresh of my first meeting with Maria in Portugal and the contrast in my situation now from the hard but happy days of our campaigning.
This was our last stop before we would reach England and my depression was lifted a fraction by the prospect of standing on the dear soil of my native land. In truth, the weather was so stormy until we made the English Channel that it was well nigh impossible to venture on deck, for days on end, and I would have exchanged a full year of my life to set foot on any land, as long as it remained still. I fear my medical skills were totally defeated by the forces of the sea.
Steven grinned, put down the book and got up to make a coffee.
“Attention, M’sieur. It isn’t time to stop work.”
He kissed her. “Slave driver! Be quiet or I won’t bring you a cup.”
“How is it going?”
“They have almost reached England and John is sea sick.”
“I know how he feels; I get sea sick in the Channel Tunnel.”
He returned to 1819 with a 2002 cup of instant coffee in his hand.
It was November before we made Plymouth, passing the high masts of dozens of ship. There was great excitement as we moved into Plymouth Sound, and even in my delight at seeing England again, it entered my mind that this was the view of my country that Napoleon had endured for nearly two weeks in late July and early August 1815 before commencing the long journey to exile on St Helena.
We anchored under the shelter of Plymouth Hoe, where Drake was reputed to have decided to finish his game of bowls before attending to the Spanish Armada. Whether the story was true or not, we had all gathered on the deck to watch our homeland approach, on a clear but cold day. Emily was very excited, pointing out to the boys and I, various sights which excited her. In the last few days she had taken to calling me ‘Dr John’ which did not displease me. She had also accepted my offer of employment, a decision that greatly relieved my anxieties on the matter.
As soon as the ship docked I hurried ashore to arrange suitable lodgings for myself and Emily and the children and to enquire about travel arrangements to London. Fortunately, I had returned from India as a relatively rich man, a much different person from he who had travelled to London twenty years earlier to study medicine. Financial riches were not the true measure of my life, however, as I had lost that which was more precious than gold, my dear wife.
The journal then went on to describe the journey to London and then to Guildford where the little family found lodgings while John renewed his contacts with his former partners. About a week after their arrival in Surrey a letter was delivered.
I looked at the seal on the reverse of the letter and noted with quickening interest it was that of the Duke of Wellington. I must admit to a certain trembling in my fingers as I broke the seal and opened the letter.
“The Duke of Wellington requests the pleasure of the
company of Dr John McCann at the London home of
the Duke at noon on Tuesday next for luncheon.”
My surprise was total. What could the great man want of me? Whatever his reason, it was an opportunity I was determined not to miss. I wrote a reply, sealed it and dispatched my acceptance.
“Caterine, John is off to see the Duke.”
She came over to him and read over his shoulder. “Wonderful! The Emperor and the Duke on successive pages. A very popular man your Dr John. Was Wellington living at Apsley House at the time?”
“I think so, but I will know better in a few minutes.”
“Have you thought that when we were at Apsley House you must have been in the very room where Dr John would have been?”
“Walking in his footsteps. I have had that feeling for weeks.”
It was indeed Apsley House at which Dr John presented himself on the following Tuesday just before noon. Steven chuckled to himself.
“What are you laughing at, darling?”
“Yes, it was Apsley House but then I have just had a ridiculous thought.”
“That isn’t unusual for you. What is it this time?”
“I was just wondering if John brought the Duke a bottle of wine?”
Caterine laughed. “It would have been French wine if he had.”
On the appointed day, at a little before noon, I arrived at Apsley House. It was a splendid sight, seen for the first time, and I reflected that the nation had done the Duke proud in presenting such a fine house as a token of its gratitude. In my view, the nation could have done no less for such a man. I was shown in by a manservant who took my coat, hat and cane, and ushered me into a small reception room. The Duke of Wellington himself appeared a moment or two later. He was much as I remembered, tallish, with short brown hair although now a little greyer. The light brown eyes were still as expressive, and, on this occasion, smiling, something seen often in the Peninsula but not at Waterloo. His nose was still as long and angular as we had so often wished to see in the middle of the fighting. He wore a plain blue coat without ornament or decoration of any kind. He walked towards me in a very active style, looking in a superior physical condition than I, and the Duke was some eleven years my senior in age.
“My dear Doctor McCann, how very good to see you again.” He extended his hand, which I took with delight. The handshake was firm, and, I am pleased to believe, genuine.
“Your Grace, it is an honour.”
“Please come with me. Luncheon will be served at twelve thirty. So, when was the occasion of our last meeting? It was at Waterloo, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Indeed, my Lord, early on the morning of 17th June, on the Quatre Bras road.”
“Yes, a dammed hard business.”
He bade me sit down on a leather settee and we conducted an animated discussion on the battle. In truth, I had not seen Wellington since he bade me take the wounded back to Mont St Jean, and had seen little of the subsequent battle except for the courage and carnage which had occurred in La Haye Sainte. On leaving that place, I had assisted as best I was able at the General Hospital until I collapsed from the effects of my wound. My thoughts turned again to the bravery of the KGL and the savagery of the French who had bayoneted all the brave fellows I had been forced to leave behind.
“Doctor McCann, it was remiss of me not to offer my condolences on the tragic loss of your wife. Maria was a fine woman who lightened many a taxing day in the Peninsula.”
“Thank you, my Lord. She was truly a fine woman, a loving wife and a devoted mother. My life is diminished without her.”
“And your two sons, they are well?”
“As well as could be expected in their unfortunate circumstances. Are you aware, my Lord, that I named my boys after you? John Wellington is the elder, and his brother is Arthur Wellesley McCann.”
The great man looked surprised, and sat back in his chair, opening his hands and then bringing them together. “No, doctor, I did not know that. It is undeserved, but I am deeply honoured. I am obliged to you, sir.”
We talked until luncheon was served, the Duke relating many aspects of the great battle of which I had not been aware hitherto. He spoke with great animation and made much use of his hands, and the dining implements on the table to emphasise a point or demonstrate how a particular unit had been deployed. He spoke with much respect of our fallen comrades, Picton, Brunswick, de Lancey, Ponsonby and many others. He expressed his disappointment in Napoleon’s tactics, as he had expected something approaching greatness from the greatest captain of the age. I reflected on my wondrous luck in being able to discuss, within two short months, the greatest battle of the age with the opposing commanders. The discussion continued over our meal, after which we repaired to a small salon.
The duke studied me for several seconds, looking over his fingers placed in a triangle to his lips. I did not see it my function to inject anything to the discussion at this point.
“Doctor McCann, you may be wondering why I asked you to come and see me. Although I am always delighted to meet with any of my veterans from the Peninsula or Waterloo, I do have a particular reason. I will be blunt. I am greatly concerned by various reports I have received concerning the health of General Buonaparte. In particular, there have been rumours from France of late that attempts may have been made to murder him. It is the duty of His Majesty’s Government to preserve his life as long as is possible, and this is a duty taken very seriously. As I understand that you met with him, I would be grateful for your recollections of your meeting.”
I told Wellington all I could remember about my visit to St Helena, and especially of my meeting with Napoleon. In deference to the Duke’s views, I didn’t refer to Napoleon as the Emperor, although since my audience, I have so considered him. Wellington listened most carefully, nodding from time to time, or interjecting the occasional comment. When I mentioned Sir Hudson Lowe, he snorted.
Wellington shook his head in exasperated fashion. “The man always was a dammed fool.”
He let me finish and sat looking at me thoughtfully.
“And of his state of health, could you offer an opinion?”
“It is difficult, as I am certain you will appreciate, to form firm views on someone’s health simply by merely looking, but his general appearance would support the opinions of Dr Arnott that he has an advanced liver complaint. In addition, I believe his lack of exercise, mental and physical, is much responsible for his deterioration.”
“Did you find any reason to believe that someone would wish to murder Buonaparte?”
I was shocked. The thought had never occurred to me. “None, your Grace. He is almost totally attended to by French, or Corsican or Italian people. The English cannot get near to him, much to Sir Hudson’s chagrin.”
The Duke stopped me. “I did not suggest that the English were trying to kill him.”
“Do you mean the French?”
“Pray consider, my dear sir. Who do you think would benefit the greatest from Buonaparte’s demise?”
I could not answer, because I could only think that we, the British, would benefit most, and this was clearly not the response that the Duke expected.
“Think, doctor, about King Louis and his family. Boney or his comrades have thrown the Bourbons off the throne twice before.”
“I have never considered the matter, my Lord.”
“No evidence of it, my Lord, although it is very difficult to detect. It is a matter that doctors in this country rarely encounter.”
We concluded our discussions shortly after that, and I departed, having spent three hours alone in the company of the most powerful man in Europe. I will never forget the experience and the honour. I considered myself to be a most fortunate man, having met with Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington within the space of a few short months, and was merely a humble doctor. The thought also occurred to me that the two men had never met, except at Waterloo, and then only at a distance. The Duke’s words had puzzled me. During my time on the wretched island no one had mentioned, at least in my hearing, the possibility that the Emperor might be murdered. What would be the reason for such an act? He seemed to me to be a dying man anyway, why the need to hasten his end? In addition, as there were some thousand soldiers on St Helena to guard him, presumably his murder could only be carried out by someone who could get close to him.
Very soon such thoughts were, of necessity, put to the back of my mind, replaced by more urgent and personal ones.
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