Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
And the late spring turned into a watery summer, and the academic year ended. Caterine and Steven had now finished working on his father’s effects, and there were many books which both had decided were not needed. These stood, rather forlornly, packed in cardboard boxes awaiting inspection by a prospective buyer. In truth, however, Steven did not quite know what he was going to do with all of the others, several thousand of them, which had been declared as ‘required.’ The declaration had been made by Caterine, who assured him that she was, yes, ‘quite certain’.
The house, which had once been only that, ‘the house’, was now truly a home, home to both of them, three, if Tigger was included. If the cat had been consulted, he would probably have agreed, if the two humans were included. Steven did not understand his continuing and growing interest in the period to which his father had devoted so much of his life. He didn’t understand it, but it absorbed him. Perhaps it was simply a device to keep at arm’s length the real world, the world of Maria’s death and crack dealers and the Police Complaints Authority, not to mention his now almost forgotten suicide attempt. In the same way, the little daydream in the Rue de Rivoli had been pushed to the back of his mind also. If it was that, a self-delusion, it was working. How long it would continue to work when the real world turned serious, he did not know.
The house itself had been transformed from the tidy, if rather shabby, miniature library which he had seen so soon after his father’s death. They had continued to have a gardener attend to the outside on a weekly basis, and Mr Williams, Tigger’s friend’s husband, had put his decorating skills to good use in their various absences.
Caterine had accepted her new appointment with the University for the following September, and both she and Steven seemed content in each other’s company. He didn’t know if Caterine ever thought of her previous life, or of her former husband. What was his name? Philippe, was that it? The matter was never discussed, any more than he was inclined to talk about Maria. Caterine had told Steven that she loved him, and he believed her, mostly he thought, because he so badly wanted to believe her. Life began here, and that was all he needed to know. It was enough. She had not mentioned again her fears for the future and that worry, too, slid into the background for Steven.
For his part, his own previous life was fast becoming but a dim and fading memory. Nothing seemed to be happening in regard to his suspension, but his pay was credited every month to his account, and the trial of Mr Winston Churchill Eustace for murder seemed as far away as the 2012 Olympic Games. The dreams of Maria’s death had not recurred for ages, and his guilt over her death, while lingering, had also begun to fade into a kind of folk memory, where all that had gone before Caterine seemed unreal, and became more so daily. It was, he thought, all BC, before Caterine. He now realised, with a new stab of guilt, that he had not ever really loved Maria. It had been difficult for him to admit that to himself, but, for the first time, with Caterine, he was truly, completely in love. He knew that one day, someday, the old world would come crashing in on to the new one. He hoped the defences he and Caterine were building would be strong enough to resist the tide that would certainly one day threaten to overwhelm them.
Caterine had spent a lot of time studying, classifying and filing his father’s papers, which were in no kind of order at all. One day, about two weeks after they returned from Paris she said suddenly, “Steven, look at this.”
“What is it?”
“It seems to be a letter, in French, and as far as I can make out it is from Bertrand to Dr John.”
He examined the fading, stiff paper and the equally fading black writing. “I can’t read it.”
“No,” she said, “It is difficult for me as well, but it seems to be saying that John should look very closely at the Count de Montholon. There is a line here. I think it says,’ the Count worked for several masters, the least of whom was the Emperor’”
“What does it mean?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you think it’s genuine?”
She shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Perhaps Jacques could check it for me.”
“Be careful with that one, Steven. These historians are stealing other people’s work all the time. Jacques is French, after all, and his agenda may be different to yours.”
“You’re French, no?”
“I think I am a bit of a Franglaise these days, because of you.”
He put his arms around her. “Is that bad?”
She kissed him. “No, not always.”
He started reading Dr John’s journal again, with renewed interest.
Our lives were full, Emily occupied with the boys, who were fast growing into fine lads, while my work at St Thomas’s provided me with the stimulus which general practice in Guildford had not. I had grown close to Emily, not with the passion that Maria and I had shared in Spain and Portugal, but with increasing tenderness. She was indeed a fine woman and her care for my two sons could not have been better had they been her own. For some time I had considered that I should marry again, not to replace my love, Maria, which I knew to be impossible, but to ensure that the devotion that Emily gave to the boys would not be taken away.
I think that she understood that my heart would forever be in the soil of India, but, despite that knowledge, she agreed to be my wife. We were married in June 1821 at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster. In celebration of our wedding, we spent three days at Broadstairs in Kent. I returned to my work as a surgeon with a contented mind.
In July, my friend, Michael, approached me just after a lecture.
“Have you heard, John? The talk in the town is that Napoleon has died.”
“Michael, I am a loss to know whether to rejoice or grieve at the news. His shadow has lain over Europe for too many years. I am not overly surprised at such an event. He appeared to be approaching it when we met in 1819.”
The news was confirmed in the Times a day or two later, and I must confess to a pang of regret over the passing of one who could have contributed so much to the world, but had in fact, wreaked so much unhappiness on her.
It was perhaps a month later when I received a letter, addressed to me at St Thomas’s. The wax seal was indeed familiar. The Duke of Wellington had again written to me. I trembled once again as I knifed open the letter and broke the seal. The wording was less formal than on the earlier occasion, but just as commanding.
“My dear Dr McCann,
I would be exceeding grateful if you could give me
some of your time at your earliest convenience.
What could this mean? It was the second occasion on which I had been invited, nay summoned, to meet with the greatest man of the century. Naturally, I made the earliest haste to arrange to comply with the Duke’s request.
“Caterine, John’s off to see the Duke again.”
“What does he want this time?”
“No idea, I’ll tell you when I’ve read it. Oh, and Napoleon’s dead.”
“I know that, darling, and he has been for nearly two hundred years.”
“I must go out for an hour. Is there anything you want?”
“No, just for you to come back again.”
She laughed. “D’accord. Look after Tigger.”
Steven stared at the recumbent form of the cat, stretched out on the armchair. “He really looks as if he needs looking after.”
She came over and kissed him. “Well, let him take care of you then. You are both my favourite males.”
The day was sunny and warm, tempting Steven to open a bottle of Tiger beer and go into the garden with Dr John’s journal in his other hand.
I walked from the hospital, across the busy and crowded streets of London until I arrived at St James’ Park, more out of breath than I should have been. On arrival at Apsley House I chided myself. ‘My God, John, you lead much too contented a life. You are only forty-one, and here you are, gasping like a salmon, after such a short walk on a fine summer day.’
Steven once again felt that little frisson of fear. John was forty-one and he, Steven was forty-two. He shook his head and read on.
I was shown intro the Duke’s presence, and, as before, he took my hand and shook it warmly. The handshake was firm. He turned to give some instructions to his manservant and I was able to examine this man for whom I held the greatest respect. He was much as I recalled from our previous meeting of nearly two years since, except somewhat greyer, and perhaps a little stooped. He turned back to me and I saw that his eyes appeared tired, and possessed of some trouble.
“Thank you, Dr McCann, for sparing me your time. I understand that congratulations are in order on two fronts?”
“Congratulations, your Grace? I’m afraid that I understand you not.”
“Well, sir, firstly on your fine appointment at St Thomas’s, and secondly on your marriage, although I know not the lady in question.”
I was pleased that such a great man should be so well informed about the activities of such as myself. “My Lord, I am, as ever, obliged for your good wishes. How may I be of service to you?”
The Duke put his hand on my shoulder and guided me to the small room where we had met in 1819. “Doctor, it is to your King and country that you may be of service, but first, let us enjoy a glass of claret. This one is from the Bordeaux region, where you may recall we served together in 1814.”
We sat down and Wellington himself poured our drinks. I noticed that, as at our first meeting, he drank but little himself.
“Aye, I do so recall, my Lord, and that a number of such bottles were liberated by your Army. I suspect that I have gained a little weight since those days of glorious memory.”
The Duke smiled. “Indeed so. I believe I would have a similar difficulty myself were it not for horse riding. I recommend it”.
“I fear no horse would accept me willingly, my Lord.”
We sat with our claret and the Duke proposed a toast to all our former comrades. I drank with some feeling and not a little foreboding. “And the service I may perform, your Grace?”
Wellington looked at me for some seconds before he replied. “You have heard of the death of General Buonaparte?”
“Indeed so, sir, all of London has spoken of little else this past month.”
“And the cause of his death, doctor, what does London say on the matter?”
“I am not sure what you mean, your Grace. They know what they read in the Times, which reported death from cancer. I understand that Napoleon’s father died from the same cause.”
“Yes, I read that myself. And you accept this cause, doctor?”
“I am no position to accept or refute it. As I understand the affair, following the examination of the body after death, his doctors were firm on the matter. Again I believe that several of those present were English.”
“There is already talk in Europe that death was from other than natural causes.”
“I am at a loss to reply, although I do recall our conversation of two years ago, and that the same suggestion was raised at that time. I met the man only once in 1819, and did not examine him. I could not speculate as to his cause of death. Is there a particular service you would ask me to perform in this matter, my Lord?”
“If you will agree, doctor, I would desire you to undertake certain enquiries into Napoleon’s death. Your reputation as both surgeon and physician is unrivalled in England.”
“My Lord, I am always at the service of my King and country, and ever ready to serve you, but I do have a situation at the Hospital which is of great importance.”
“Doctor McCann, were you to accept this commission you may be assured that the agreement of the Commissioners at St Thomas’s would be sought, and I believe, obtained at the highest level.”
“You would speak for me?”
Wellington shook his head, and smiled, a little wearily I observed. “No, sir, not I. I am but a simple soldier. I speak of Lord Liverpool.”
“The Prime Minister?”
“I believe he holds that appointment.”
“My Lord, I accept. I can not but do otherwise.”
The Duke extended his hand. “I am delighted, Dr McCann. I told Lord Liverpool I had chosen the best man for the job. You will be given a Commission under my signature, instructing all members of the Army and Navy, of whatever rank, to provide you will all assistance as you act in my name. The Prime Minister will sign a warrant to a similar effect in respect of citizens holding their allegiance to Great Britain. You will be promoted to Colonel for the period of your enquiries, and paid accordingly. Subsequently your present half pay status will be that of colonel and not, as at present, major. Your expenses will be met by His Majesty’s Government, and on completion of your assignment, you will be paid a bounty of one thousand guineas. Is this acceptable to you?”
“They are generous terms indeed, but I am unsure of my ability to perform the service you require of me.”
“I have no such uncertainty, my dear McCann, none whatsoever. There is one further matter of which I should appraise you.”
“Buonaparte left a will. In this will he bequeathed certain sums of money to relatives, former comrades, his staff and servants. The size of some of these legacies to certain persons made me raise my eyebrows, but no matter. He also left some 10,000 francs to the benefit of the rascal Cantillon who attempted to shoot me in Paris some three years ago. Of most importance in your present assignment is that in the will he has accused Sir Hudson Lowe of murdering him.”
“Surely a nonsense, your Grace, a mischief?”
“That may well be, it may well be. Sir Hudson may be many things, but I would not include murderer amongst them. However, doctor, please have the matter uppermost in your thoughts as you go about your assignment. The world can be a dangerous place and England still has many enemies in France.”
“I will, my Lord, I will.”
The Duke and I then spent an hour discussing the details of my assignment, and I arranged with him to meet with certain persons in Whitehall to collect my travel and identification documents, and my necessary funds. It came almost as a surprise to me to discover that outside Apsley House that life in London was proceeding without alarm.
Steven finished his second beer and sat back thoughtfully in his chair. At the other end of the garden, Tigger, his body rigid and with one front paw raised, stalked some unseen creature in the bushes. The sun beat down on both cat and man, but the cat had not been drinking beer, and the journal slipped from Steven’s fingers and lay face down on the grass. The noise made Tigger look round in irritation and then dash into the bushes from where he emerged seconds later, tail swishing angrily, but without his intended prey. Steven slumbered on.
The sun was high in the blue sky, and the air warm without being oppressive. The street was busy with the bustle of carriages on the Rue de Rivoli, and the pavements thronged with pedestrians. Again Steven knew that he was dreaming, but there seemed to be two Stevens, one watching from on high, the second walking in the street with these French people. There was a low buzz of conversation and now and then the deep chuckle from a man and the higher notes of a woman’s laugh. It was a colourful scene reflecting a gracious age which the watching Steven barely recognised. The other part of Steven, the man on the ground, felt he knew it well. The men were dressed in long knee length coats, almost all, apart from the very young, wearing hats. The women were elegant with full skirts, swirling as they walked, tight bodices and again almost all with a variety of decorative hats. Many of the ladies carried parasols.
A man was standing at the side of the street, under the shadow of the Gothic might of the Hotel de Ville. He looked to his left and right, searching for a break in the traffic. The man was of average height, and thickening around the waist. He wore cream trousers and a dark green jacket. He was hatless. The watching Steven was becoming increasingly agitated. The man crossed the street, dodging between the slow moving carriages and horsemen. Two other men, dressed poorly, in contrast to the other travellers on the Rue de Rivoli, emerged from the shadow of the Hotel de Ville and also crossed the street. Both wore dark clothing and one had spectacles on his thin face. They appeared to be intent on watching the well-dressed man crossing ahead of them. Steven groaned, low and in a helpless way.
The well-dressed man turned left and walked towards the Louvre. The other two men followed at a distance of about fifty yards. Steven was moaning now, knowing what was to follow. The two shots rang out. He awoke with a start, the cry burbling on his lips. He stared around at the familiar garden, and the cat lying in the sun about five feet away from him. In front was the small table with two empty bottles of Tiger beer, and at his feet the copy of Dr John’s journal.
He feared that he knew who the man in his dream had been; it was Dr John McCann. Hastily he snatched up the book and flicked to the end of the written pages.
And so, tomorrow my enquiries will take me to Paris; the Lord only knows what I may find there, even after this time.
There was nothing else. Desperately he turned the pages, checking each one through to the end of the journal. Nothing! Those were John’s last words, perhaps literally his last words. Steven shivered. He was frightened. As a police officer he had been considered fearless, even foolhardy, in carrying out his duties. Stupid, some may have called it, but he had faced danger head on. This was different. There was a danger here, an unidentified, unidentifiable danger. He wasn’t able to face this full on because he didn’t know what it looked like.
He went slowly into the house and poured himself a Scotch, taking it back into the garden. He sat down again, and studied the slumbering form of Tigger. The cat was snoring lightly, like a faraway aircraft on a summer day. “You’re a lucky little bugger, you know.” But the cat ignored him and dreamed on. Tigger had few expectations, and simple needs. He ate when he was hungry, and most other times as well. He drank when thirsty and slept when tired, and on many other occasions as well. He was cared for by two human beings, and turned his paw to a little light hunting when the mood took him. He didn’t fall in love, he didn’t cry, and he certainly never worried about going mad.
This was now the thought uppermost in Steven’s head, and not for the first time in these last few weeks. “I am going mad.” “I AM GOING MAD.” He said it out loud, so loudly that Tigger jerked his head around in alarm.
“Sorry, Tigs, go back to sleep.” Perhaps he really was going mad and he wondered, again not for the first time, if those who were slipping into that particular darkness actually realised it.
He had always prided himself on his logic and his ability to critically analyse any situation. There appeared to be no reason, no logical reason, why he should have had this dream a second time. Nothing he had read had ever suggested such a scene, which could have lingered in his sub conscious, to resurface at a later time. If he was not mad, and as yet, he had not been able to convince himself in either direction on that matter, and if it was not some previously digested piece of knowledge being regurgitated, there needed to be another reason.
“Brilliant, Detective Chief Inspector, bloody brilliant.”
If there was an other reason, did it have to be logical and understandable? Was falling in love logical or reasonable? Must everything in the world be explainable? It all had been before, before Maria’s death, before his suspension, before Caterine, and before he had felt himself sucked into the past in the way that he had these last weeks.
He opened the journal again and read it through to the end, taking in John’s enquiries with many in the medical profession in England, France and Italy. He ended up again with the statement on the eve of John’s visit to Paris.
And so, tomorrow my enquiries will take me to Paris; the Lord only knows what I may find there, even after this time.
There were no more entries in the journal, and with about twenty blank pages remaining, no obvious indications that a third journal was in existence somewhere. The story ended here. Did Dr John actually go to Paris? If not, why not? Why no further entries? If he did go, did his journey end in the French capital? Was it John sprawled on the pavement of the Rue de Rivoli?
“Is this what the dream is telling me? And if it is, what does it mean?” Steven spoke aloud, and then to himself, “And what do I do?”
He could move away from Wales, but that would mean leaving Caterine, and what kind of life would he move back to in London? The same sterile existence he had endured for the last two years. Steven had made up his mind. He didn’t know where he was heading, but he would make the journey. Better that than returning to what had gone before. In any event, he knew he could not leave Caterine. They may not make it as a couple, but he would travel that particular road as far as it took him.
He was calm now and was still sitting in the garden stroking the cat’s ears when Caterine returned.
“Well, good afternoon, mes amis, ça va bien ici?”
“And good afternoon to you, too. We are just doing a little male bonding here.”
Caterine pointed to the discarded Tiger beer bottles. “And who had been drinking the beer?” She picked up the now empty tumbler and sniffed it. “And whiskey, if I’m not mistaken?”
He pointed at Tigger. “Him. Can I get you something?”
“A glass of wine?”
Thy sat together in the sunshine sipping white wine.
“I’ve finished the Journal.”
“Nothing really; I think you should read it.”
“All right, I will.”
“Caterine, do you know when John died? Or where, or how for that matter?”
She shook her head. “No, no idea. Why?”
“Just curious, that’s all.”
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