Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
Steven put down the book, and looked over to Caterine frowning at the computer screen. “Don’t scowl,” he admonished her. “If the wind changes, your face will stay like that.”
She stared at him, the frown still there. “What?”
He raised both hands. “Forget it, it’s just an old saying. You may wish to read this, sooner rather than later. Wellington was talking about the possibility of someone murdering Napoleon as early as 1819.”
“The Royalists in France.”
“Not the English?”
“The Duke didn’t suggest that.” He gave her the journal. “You spoke about going to Paris. Would you still like to go?”
“Why, why Paris?” She seemed alarmed.
“You wanted to get closer to the Emperor, get a feel for him. That sort of thing. Also I thought I might try to meet this chap Hulin, whose name I found in Dad’s papers.”
“No, I don’t want to go.”
“But you did a couple of weeks ago”
“That was then, this is now. I don’t want to go.”
“OK, I suppose I can go on my own.”
“No!” She stood up, her eyes blazing. “You don’t listen to me, do you? I told you on the beach about seeing the darkness ahead, with the sun hidden. I also see Paris. It is something bad. I will not go and you mustn’t either. I don’t want you to go.”
Steven was wide -eyed. He had never seen this before, and it scared him. He went to her and held her. “All right, all right, whatever you say. No Paris, but you know we cannot go through our lives running away from what scares us. Sometimes we must stand up to it. We must face it.”
She was crying now, her thin body shaking as he tried to give comfort. She stopped at last and dried her eyes. “I’m going for a walk.”
“You want me to come?”
“No, I want to be on my own. Stay and talk to Tigger.”
She washed her face, found some sunglasses and went out.
Outside the house he noticed Tigger scuttle away in the direction of Mrs Williams’ house, and he followed quietly. As he had suspected, Mrs Williams had put a dish outside her front door, and had obviously been feeding the animal. Steven shook his head at the cat. “You’re going to get very fat, and have a heart attack, my boy.” Tigger ignored him.
Steven walked down to the river and sat on a bench and watched the water. It seemed that every time he had his relationship with Caterine sorted out in his mind, some event occurred and the picture dissolved before his eyes like the dropping of a stone in a still pool. At least this time he hadn’t said or done anything which could have caused such an effect. At least he didn’t think so.
When Catherine returned home, after about two hours, the matter was not mentioned by either of them and they slipped back into a routine, albeit one where the sharp edge of tension was always just below the surface.
Steven settled down again into his other world, the world of 1819. He was vaguely uneasy that he was becoming so familiar with this other world, even to the extent of welcoming his return to that world. He was also concerned at what he would do when the book was finished. He had now so identified with his ancestor that, in his sleep, his dreams confused the two men and Steven found himself dreaming John’s dreams, clouded on occasion by dark thoughts of Paris.
Dr John had settled once more into the life of a country doctor, and at first, found the life satisfactory. Emily and the boys also seemed to be happy, even though John found his younger son crying on occasion for his mother. Emily tried very hard, and gradually won not only the boys’ trust, but also their love. It was not long before Dr John found that his relaxed lifestyle was less idyllic than he had hoped, and he remembered his reasons for going to India in the first place. He was bored. A chance meeting brought him an opportunity for change.
In early March of 1820 I was in London on business when, quite by chance, I almost collided with a distinguished looking gentleman whose appearance seemed somehow known to me
“My apologies, sir.”
He approached me and raised two fingers to the brim of his hat.
“Good afternoon, sir. I feel that we are acquainted. You are Dr John McCann, are you not?”
I returned his salute by raising my own fingers to my hat. “I am indeed he, sir, and I must apologise, but you have the advantage of me. Your features are familiar, but, I confess that I cannot recall your name.”
“Then I will assist you, sir. We were colleagues in the Peninsula before you left to join the KGL.”
I grasped his hand. “Michael, Michael Fitzpatrick. My dear fellow, please forgive me, I am either grown too old, or have a need of spectacles, or both. How very good to see you after all these years.” I was ashamed not to have recognised my former comrade from the 48th Regiment whom I had last heard of as a victim of a piece of French steel at Albuera.
“And you also, John, a great and unexpected pleasure.”
We quickly found a cafe in the Strand and sat talking for an hour, exchanging news of our activities since the fondly remembered days in Spain and Portugal. Fortunately Michael knew of my sad loss, thus precluding my having to retrace those painful steps once again.
“And how are you employed, Michael?”
“I am a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital. Do you know it?”
“Oh yes, indeed so. It was there that I learned medicine, a fine hospital.”
“And you, John, are you still in the Army?”
“No, I was last a soldier at Waterloo. I am in practice in Guildford, comfortable, but not a great challenge.”
“Quite so. Are you aware of a vacant position at St Thomas’s, that of Assistant Staff Surgeon?”
I had not been so, and subsequently was persuaded by Michael to apply for it. I would like to believe that I was granted the position on my own merits, but would have to admit that Michael’s influence was important in my securing the appointment. It was clear that working in London and living in Guildford had very little to commend it, and after a few weeks attempting to reconcile the two, I decided to purchase a house in Lambeth.
You wouldn’t want to be there now, mate, Steven said to himself. It was the home of one Winston Churchill Eustace.
We moved at the beginning of May, and in no time at all, my little family, and I now included Emily in that family, were settled and content. The boys shared a room, although there was sufficient space in the premises for them to have separate rooms when the time came. Emily too had her own room, and very much the run of the house. It had always seemed to me that she had not missed her unfortunate husband greatly. I had never commented overmuch on the matter, considering it not to be my business so to do, but this very fact made her come to terms more easily than I with the new situation. In truth, she had accepted her loss with more forbearance than I had been able to manage.
Emily was a woman of about thirty, and from Norfolk. She told me that her parents were dead, and that she had no other family. Not having children of her own was, I assumed, the reason she took so readily to my two little ones. She was, in addition, a handsome woman, and increasingly good company for me as well as the boys.
And so I started in my new position which I found very agreeable. Although I had long considered myself a simple doctor, I quickly discovered that my experience in the War and latterly in India had given me some skills that many of my colleagues, lacking the same experiences, did not possess. I enjoyed lecturing and managing my department, and began increasingly to study Pathology. We were a happy little family who moved into 1821. In the June of that year I would celebrate my forty first birthday, and noted with a degree of alarm that my girth was increasing in line with my age. I had heard no more from the Duke, nor would I expect to have reason to so do, nor in fact any more news about Napoleon, imprisoned on his windswept rock.
Steven sat back. The words about Napoleon had stirred his conscience, and he decided to go back to his reading on the man’s life.
“Have you finished the journal?” Caterine asked from the other side of the room.
“No, but I think I will brush up on Boney before I finish it.”
“Can I have the journal, then?”
He took it over to her. “Are you getting hooked as well?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I want to identify myself in it somewhere, like you identify with John.”
“Do I?” he asked in genuine surprise. “What makes you say that?”
She answered with a straight face. “I think it is the stethoscope you wear round your neck.”
“Oh, tres, tres drole, madame.”
He was pleased, if cautious, that she had almost recovered from the problems the trip to Paris had posed.
And so he plunged into four days of reading up on the Emperor, from the wealth of material his father had gathered. There was a plethora of books from which to choose, some by French authors and others by British ones. He started with ‘Napoleon’ by a Vincent Cronin from 1971. A fairly conventional biography, and followed that with ‘St Helena’ by someone called Octave Aubry, whom he thought must have been French. The copy he had was published in 1937. Both books were written by men whom Steven assumed to be supporters of Napoleon. They had a lot to say in favour of the man and little against him.
He also read Alistair Horne’s ‘How far from Austerlitz’, which dealt mainly with Napoleon’s military career, and seemed to propose the theory that Napoleon reached his peak with his great victory over the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, and went gradually downhill from there to his final defeat at Waterloo, with odd interludes of brilliance. ‘Napoleon and Wellington’, by Andrew Roberts was a 2002 work and sought to review the traditionally held views of how each man regarded the other. He also devoured Frank Giles’ “England’s Prisoner’, which dealt with Napoleon’s time in St Helena. In none of these publications did any of the authors suggest seriously that the Emperor had been murdered, although the more recent writers made some mention of such allegation circulating in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
He came across two books, one interesting and the other extraordinary. The first was titled ‘Napoleon, the final verdict’, and was published as a series of articles in 1996. Steven read with particular interest a piece by Tim Hicks which covered Napoleon’s final years on the island, and in particular, his death. The second was ‘Assassination at St Helena revisited’, by Ben Weider and Sten Forshufvud and was a 1995 revised edition of the original 1978 book. This book was not an investigation, but a prosecution that came down firmly on the side of poisoning as a contributory and major cause of Napoleon’s death. The authors had no hesitation in nominating Count de Montholon as the culprit, and as someone in the pay of the Bourbons. The book contained over 500 pages, and was too long to finish at one go, so he leafed through it and read the conclusions. De Montholon was, of course, dead, and not in any position to defend himself.
His father’s piece of paper had mentioned de Montholon and used the word ‘suspect.’
“How are you getting on?” asked Caterine.
“Firstly, whether old Boney was a god or a devil, a genius or a scoundrel.”
Caterine was certain. “He might have been all of those things. I know that he did a lot of good for France.”
Steven was equally certain. “He also did France and the rest of Europe a great deal of harm. Did you know that nearly two and a half million Frenchmen died in the Army in his time as the boss?”
“And the population was only twenty seven million at the time. So, that would have been about twenty per cent of the male population who died. And that isn’t counting the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Austrians, Russians, Prussians and all the others who died.”
“Well, Europe is coming round to his ideas now.”
“Or to Hitler’s ideas. They were much the same. Do it my way, and using the sword as a medium of education.”
“OK, Mr Detective, what did he die from?”
“Well, the favourites are cancer, a perforated ulcer or poisoning, or perhaps a combination of all three.”
She looked at him. “Do you believe the poisoning theory?”
“No, I’m not convinced. If it had happened in Brixton I would need to be certain about the identity of the deceased, then the cause of death, and want to know who had the motive and opportunity. None of these things can be established with Napoleon. We don’t truly know who is lying there in Paris. I think on the evidence presented so far, I would much prefer to be defending and not prosecuting”
“Are you still thinking of going to Paris?”
“No. I’d like to go sometime. But I’d like to go with so. As you don’t want to go, well, I’ll leave it.”
“I’ve changed my mind, Steven. You are right. We must confront our demons, and I must face up to mine.”
He went to her and put his arms around her. “You don’t need to do this, you know. Not fore me.”
She held him tightly. “It isn’t for you. It’s for me and for us.”
Paris was magic! There was no other way to describe it. If Steven had not already been in love with Caterine, he would have fallen in love with her during the five days they were there. The weather was perfect, warm without being humid, and with a light breeze to fan their faces. It was still early enough in the year for the Parisians not to have become overly annoyed by the presence of so many tourists. Many even pretended to understand his French, although the fact that a genuine Française was standing beside him may have helped.
At first Caterine was tense, the strain she was under showing in her face and especially in her eyes. Her whole body was rigid and when he held her hand, as he did all the time, hoping to give reassurance, it was like holding a broom handle. But in time she relaxed, a little more each day, and stopped looking over her shoulder when in the street, as if expecting her unknown monster to appear behind her.
They walked as often as they could, and used the Metro for the places a little further afield. They were tourists, albeit tourists with a specific interest. They visited Les Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb. Despite his antipathy to the man, Steven was impressed and walked around in silence. He looked at the large marble edifice, and the names of Napoleon’s victories on the base. “I can’t see any mention of Waterloo there,” he whispered to Caterine.
“Shut up,” she told him quietly.
Later, sitting outside drinking Diet Coke on the low wall surrounding the church, he said, “Do you think it really is Napoleon down there?”
“What do you mean?” She was genuinely puzzled.
“Well, there was a report a few weeks ago that some Frenchman wanted the old boy exhumed, as he believed it was Cipriani down there, and not Boney.”
“Rubbish!” she retorted.
“Yes, probably, but it would be easy to do some DNA testing to see if it was Napoleon. I believe there are some of his descendants still living. And while they were at it, they could try and establish cause of death, particularly in regard to poisoning.”
“Rubbish!” She was adamant. “Let’s go to the Museum.”
The Musée de l’Armée was probably the best military museum he had ever visited and as Catherine was holding his hand, he decided not to observe that Waterloo was not mentioned there either. They walked through the Tuileries Gardens and along the Champs Ellysees to the Arc de Triomphe, where the names of the battles and of the Generals were straight out of the history books.
They went to Versailles, and marvelled at its perfection and beauty. He was surprised that Caterine had never been there before.
“It is a long way from the west of France for a poor paysanne,” she told him, wiping away an imaginary tear.
He kissed her face. “Ma pauve petite sorciere.” He decided that this would not be the ideal moment to tell her he had been here with Maria the year before she died.
Maria, how strange, he thought guiltily. She had not been in his head for days, possibly weeks.
Steven and Caterine visited Fontainebleau, and then to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and walked among the tombs of the generals and Marshals of the First Empire.
“Here we go again,” he said quietly. “Walking with ghosts.”
She nodded. “I know.”
She fixed up an appointment with M. Jacques Hulin at the Institut Napoleon, and they went together. Hulin was perhaps in his early sixties, a heavily built man with glasses and grey hair. He was very charming and did his best with English, Caterine translating whenever Hulin or Steven got into difficulties.
“I hope to finish my father’s book.” Steven was not sure that he did hope that, but felt an expression of disinterest would get him nowhere.
“I understand your father may have some new evidence.”
“He may have had,” Steven replied cagily. “However, I have not yet been able to go through all his papers.”
“He wanted me to authenticate some documents for him.”
“Did he say which ones?” Caterine asked.
“No, but I think from the time of the Emperor. I am happy to do that for you, Steven.”
Steven nodded. “Do you think Napoleon was murdered, Jacques?”
Hulin looked at him over his spectacles. “Maybe, it is a common view in France.”
“By whom, do you think.”
Hulin turned to Caterine, eyebrows raised and she translated quickly.
The Frenchman smiled at Steven. “By the English, of course.”
“Why would they have wanted to kill him? He was dying anyway.”
“Because they hated and feared him.”
“But England had defeated Bonaparte twice. Were there no Frenchmen who might have wanted him dead? King Louis, Artois, de Montholon, perhaps?”
“Oh, you have been reading that stupid Canadian’s book? No Frenchman would have murdered the Emperor.”
“The matter could be settled simply you know, by exhuming the body and doing some DNA tests.”
Jacques was deeply offended.
“Who is your greatest hero? Wellington?”
“And would Mr Blair agree to dig up his body to prove it was him in the grave?”
It was, Steven told himself, a good point, but he had an answer. “Well, no one has ever said it wasn’t him down there, and no one has ever claimed he had been murdered.”
As they walked back to the Metro, Steven was in a thoughtful mood. “He has a closed mind that one.”
She shrugged her little Gallic shrug. “Most French do when it comes to Napoleon. Is there any new evidence?
“God knows. I was going to ask you that one. You’ve seen the pile of stuff we still have to o through.”
“Your father was not very organised.”
They dined at a different restaurant every evening and on their last full afternoon went shopping in the Rue de Rivoli.
“Tell me, darling, last week at home were you able to look into the future and see that you would be shopping in the Rue de Rivoli?”
She shrugged. “Oui, bien sûr.” They both laughed.
After an hour of shopping Steven had had enough. He asked to be excused, they arranged a time and place to meet and he went and bought a Daily Telegraph and sat in the warm sunshine reading the cricket scores. Before long he was nodding gently.
The street had changed. It was still the Rivoli, but the vehicular traffic had gone, replaced by horses and carriages, and the dress of the passers by was also different. He was aware that he was dreaming, in a detached way, looking down on the scene. A well-dressed man was walking in the street. Two other men approached him, shabbily dressed. Two shots rang out. He woke up, startled. On the road in front of him was a dustcart, with the name Ville de Paris on the side. It back fired twice more and moved off. He looked down at his hands. They were trembling. What was this? He was so shaken that he decided to say nothing to Caterine.
“Are you feeling well, darling? You look a bit pale.”
“No,” he lied, brightly, “I’m fine.”
She looked at him again, but said nothing, but he noticed that her face had tightened again.
The following day was their last, their flight home being in the evening. They visited Malmaison, where Napoleon and Josephine had lived. It was smaller than the various palaces, and more intimate and atmospheric for that.
“I like it here,” said Catherine. “It was obviously someone’s home at one time. I think she loved him, you know.”
“I think he loved her too, especially at the start. It didn’t stop him ditching her when she couldn’t have any more kids.”
Caterine was inclined to a rather more romantic view of the whole business. “That’s true, but I don’t think he ever forgot her. I think his last words were ‘France, Josephine, the Army’.”
“I wonder if he ever did say ‘not tonight, Josephine’.”
She scowled at him. “Is that all men ever think of?”
He agreed with her. “So it is said, my lady.”
On the plane going back to England she cuddled up close to him. “Do you think you know Napoleon any better now, after our visit?”
He kissed her head. “Yes, I think I know the old boy a lot better, and I still believe he was a rogue.”
“Oh well, you are English, there is no hope for you, I’m afraid.”
“There is something else I do know, however.”
She looked in his eyes in her direct way. “And that is?”
“I know you much better.”
“Do you still like me?”
“More than ever.”
Caterine smiled and leaned over and kissed him. “That’s good, M’sieur.”
“And nothing happened”
She looked directly into his eyes in that way she had of examining the soul. “Are you sure? Perhaps not this time.”
Tigger was delighted to see them, and Mrs Williams also seemed pleased, as she was with two fine French cheeses Caterine had bought at Roissy. “Of course we eat cheese,” she gushed in reply to Steven’s question.
“Pity you and hubby don’t drink, Mrs W. French cheese goes very well with a little drop of red wine.”
“Does it?” Her tone was doubtful. “Perhaps the next time.”
He had heard that before. Did Caterine know, could she have guessed? Was he too wound up? What did it mean, the little daydream in the Rue de Rivoli.
And the old familiar world closed in around them, enfolding them in its comfortable blanket. Caterine had only a few weeks left with the university and had almost completed the work she had been assigned.
“They have offered me a position for next year with another lecturer.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Steven was deeply disturbed at her words. They had been living in a false world, a world of the past where the necessity of making a living had not really occurred to him. He was still being paid by the Police and would be until the allegations against him were resolved. He also had enough money left by his father to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. She had not.
“You can always live here, with me, and him.” He pointed to the cat.
“I know that, darling, but I can’t live off you. I must make my own way in the world.”
“I had hoped we could make our way in the world together.”
She did not answer for long seconds, but then got up from her computer screen. “I hope so, too, Steven, but not with me as a passenger.”
He looked away, and she put her hand on his cheek and gently turned his head around to face her.
“I said I would tell you when I knew. I do love you.”
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