Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
He spent the following two days searching the house and his father’s books and private papers to provide him with an answer, and he did not find one. He was disappointed but not surprised. That night after dinner they sat watching television in a semi interested fashion.
“Steven, we have the summer to spend, and I hope we can spend it together. It will be our first, but it could also be our last. Is there anything you want to do?”
Her words shocked and surprised him. “What do you mean? Have you seen something in the future that tells you we will only have one summer together?”
She shook her head slowly, and a little sadly. “No, nothing like that. When I look into the future, it is cloudy, and I can’t see anything there. In any case, I can never see my own future, which is a blessing. It would be terrible to know something bad was going to happen and then have to just sit and wait for it to happen.” She shuddered. “No, two or three years ago we did not even know each other. Your wife was alive, you were a policeman, and your father was still alive. As for me, I was married and living in France. Now, all of that has changed. In another two or three years it could all change again. It could even change tomorrow. All I’m saying is that we are together now, and we are happy and we have the summer. Let’s use it.”
Steven went to her and put his arms around her shoulders. She was shaking and she started to cry, softly. “Carpe diem, then.”
“Yes,” she whispered, “Carpe diem.”
“So, ma petite, what would you like to do?”
“I think I would like to go to the west of France for a few days, lie on a beach for a while, and eat and drink and make love and forget everything else. I can also introduce you to a friend of mine at Nantes University who might be able to authenticate Bertrand’s letter.”
He kissed her. “I think that can all be arranged. Mixing business with pleasure. And for what it is worth, at this moment, I love you, and as far as I can tell, I will always love you.”
She put her head against his chest, and held him. “You are a nice man.”
“That’s not what Mr Winston Churchill Eustace would say.”
Caterine shrugged. “Balls to him.”
He read the journal again and suddenly he knew what he must do. He went into the garden and ransacked the shed until he found some chipboard that would probably fulfil his purpose. He was engaged on lugging two sheets of the stuff into the house when Caterine stopped him.
“What are you doing, Steven?”
“I’m taking this board into the house, and I will come back for the other piece.”
“Is there any point in asking why?”
“Probably not. Give me a couple of hours and then I will show you. That’s easier than trying to explain.”
A little over two hours later Caterine came into what was now called ‘Steven’s office’, and gave him a cup of coffee. She was frankly curious, and was accompanied by the cat, which seemed to share her curiosity.
Be careful, Tigs, he thought to himself, as the animal sniffed around the boards. Remember what happens to puss cats who are over curious.
“So, m’sieur, I am here. Are you going to explain?”
“This is an incident room. It is what is set up in a major crime enquiry. It is the focal point of the investigation. All available information is fed into the Incident Room, and the most important elements are set out on the boards.” He pointed to a copy of a painting of Napoleon, torn from a magazine and pinned to the centre of the board. “This is the dead man, perhaps the victim. Here is a list of ways in which he might have died. On this side are those people who might have had something to do with his death.”
Pieces of string led from one or more of the names to others. “These show some kind of link.”
She stared at him. He continued. “There are things we must assume. One is that Napoleon is dead, and that he died on St Helena.”
“Well, Poirot, I suppose after nearly two hundred years that is a safe assumption to make.”
“Trust me on this, Caterine. In a homicide enquiry we would normally have a body, confirmed as dead. The body would have been identified, by whatever means, and the cause of death established. We would have all kinds of forensic tests, and DNA analysis. There are none of these things here. We don’t even know if old Boney is really the chap asleep at Les Invalides.”
“Of course it is!”
“Yes, probably, but in a real murder enquiry, everything has to be proved. We are not able to do that, so we assume things. OK?”
She shrugged. “OK.”
“Right then, please look here.” She followed his finger to the second board. There was a second, smaller, print of Napoleon. Underneath it was a sign ‘Cause of death’, and beneath that two more reading ‘Natural causes’ and ‘Murder’. A number of natural causes were listed, but only one possible means of murder, ‘Poisoning’.
“Now, if we accept the verdict of the post mortem, agreed by all of the doctors who were there, Napoleon died from cancer of the stomach. If we go for what some later historians would like us to believe, that was nonsense and he was poisoned. By who?”
“By whom,” she corrected dryly.
Steven smiled, “Right, by whom?”
“Go on,” she invited him, “I am all ears.” He had heard that expression somewhere before, he reminded himself. The lady was pulling his leg, very gently.
“OK, then. Over on this side we have the names of those people who went with him. There were about twenty-five or six. I have the major players here on the left; Bertrand and Madame Bertrand, Count and Countess de Montholon, Gourgaud and Las Cases. There were plenty of lesser lights.“
“But they didn’t all stay the full time, did they?”
“No, you’re right, Las Cases and his son left in 1816 and Gourgaud in 1818. Madame de Montholon left early as well. Both the ladies had a rough time on the island. Albine had two children, both girls, Napoleone and Josephine, and several miscarriages. The talk was that at least one of those was fathered by Bonaparte. Madame Bertrand had one child, a boy called Arthur and several miscarriages, but she stayed until the end.”
“So, are you going to explain it all to me, like Poirot does at the end of the television programme?”
She got up and went to him. He kissed her and she stood with her arms around him. “And, mon petit detective, have you decided who killed the Emperor?”
“I think so. Do you want me to do my Poirot thing?”
“D’accord, but let me get a bottle of wine, I want to enjoy this.”
“And two glasses?”
“OK, and I will feed Tigger to keep him quiet.”
“He can come and listen if he wants to.”
“Any cats in the story?”
“In that case he will eat and sleep. He’s just like a baby.”
Steven laughed. “Well, one baby in the family is enough.”
She stopped suddenly and turned to him. “What do you mean?”
“I meant me, one baby is enough.”
“Oh, OK.” She came back from the kitchen in two or three minutes, the glasses clinking invitingly together.
“Right, now, just stop me if there is anything you don’t understand. And ask questions at any time. OK?”
Caterine nodded. “Yes sir, OK.” She poured two glasses, the wine glugging from the bottle, and sat down, almost in schoolgirl fashion, prim and expectant.
“Well, what I wanted to do was to try to decide, on the evidence I have seen, how Napoleon died. Either he died from natural causes, as had been believed until about twenty odd years ago, or he was murdered, as our friend here declares.” He held up Weider’s book. “He alleges that Boney was fed poison over a period of years, both before and after St Helena, and that on St Helena, Montholon did the feeding.”
Steven sipped his wine. “Without offering any evidence, apart from a series of alleged arsenic poisoning symptoms, he says that Napoleon was being poisoned as far back as 1805. Also, and specifically, he states he was poisoned before Borodino, Dresden and Waterloo, all of which were battles the French lost. Who did this poisoning, and why? If someone could get that close to the Emperor to give him poison, why not kill him? The Empire was Napoleon, and without him, it would have collapsed like a pack of cards. We are expected to accept that someone, presumably whom he trusted, got close enough to poison him, just to make him sick. It seems odd to me that he did not have such symptoms before battles that he won. My conclusion? Simple, my dear Watson, apologists for Napoleon cannot accept that their hero lost those battles, fair and square, and there has to be another reason; he was being poisoned. I don’t buy that.”
“Brilliant, Sherlock.” She made a little pretence of applauding, and raised her glass in mock salute.
“Wait, there’s more.” He took another sip of wine. “Very good this, is it Australian?”
“It’s Bordeaux, and you may get a glass of it over your head.”
“In which case, I will continue. We are now asked to believe that de Montholon was a Royalist spy recruited by the Count d’Artois, and infiltrated into Napoleon’s entourage. After Waterloo, Napoleon fled back to Paris, hoping to raise another army, and perhaps turn the tables on the Allies, who were pretty exhausted by this stage. There was Grouchy, almost unscathed, and Suchet and others around the country. Napoleon might have scraped together a quarter of a million men. We now know that Fouché and Talleyrand weren’t having that, and Napoleon was forced to flee to the west, where eventually he gave himself up to the British. At the time, no one knew he would do that, would abdicate a second time. He might have been captured and turned over to the Royalists, and King Louis would have put him against a wall, like poor old Marshal Ney. Blücher would have had him hanged.”
“I’m with you so far.”
“When he arrives in England onboard the Bellerophon, the British Government do not allow him ashore, but keep him hanging around on the ship for three weeks while they decide what to do with him. They make up their minds to pack him off to St Helena, perhaps at Wellington’s suggestion. Now friend de Montholon is still with him. He had not seen much of Napoleon until the man arrived back in Paris during the hundred days, when he offers his services. Did Artois put him up to this? Maybe, but he had no idea that Waterloo would be lost, that the Emperor would put his papers in and would go and get on board a British ship. So he had no idea that the Brits would send Boney to the rock in the middle of the South Atlantic. Anyway, let’s assume that Artois was placing bets for a win and a place.”
“That he was considering all the possibilities.”
“It might be better if you spoke in English, Steven.”
He made a face at her. “On board that ship, with Napoleon, there were about sixteen or eighteen officers who wanted to go with him into exile. The British allowed him to select three, only three, and Napoleon choose the three. He choose them, not the King, not the Count d’Artois, and not the British, but Napoleon. Three out of eighteen! He picked Bertrand, Gourgaud and Montholon. How did Artois arrange that? How could he know that Napoleon would pick his spy?”
She held up her hands. “Don’t ask me, I do not know. You’re the great detective. More wine.”
“Thank you.” He held out his glass. “No, I don’t know either. On St Helena, de Montholon, according to Mr Weider, spends over five and a half years poisoning the Emperor. Why? To kill him? No, to make him ill and permit the incompetent treatment by the doctors to kill him. It beggars belief! At the same time it is documented that Boney was trying to persuade the British that the climate was killing him in order for Lowe to return him to Europe. That is the last thing the Royalists want, and yet we are asked to believe that their spy was trying to make him ill. In addition to doing that, at various times, the following were also, allegedly, suffering from arsenic poisoning; Cipriani, who dies, Marchand, Gourgaud, Noverraz, Madame Bertrand and of all people, his own wife, Madame de Montholon. In addition, it is hinted that a servant and child died at the same time as Cipriani. To cap it all, Napoleon’s son, in 1830, is said to have suffered from the same symptoms.”
“What about the hair containing traces of arsenic?”
“A very good point. In police work it is vital to preserve the evidence, to maintain its integrity and ensure it is not tampered with in any way. Perhaps the hair was Napoleon’s, and perhaps it did contain arsenic traces. That is not proof that Montholon, or anyone else, poisoned Napoleon. I would imagine that after the fall of communism there were enough pieces of the wall around to build half a dozen Berlin Walls. You remember I bought some musket balls at Waterloo?”
“Yes, and they are gathering dust on the mantelpiece.”
He ignored the remark. “How did I know they were from the battle? Because the lady in the shop said so. There might be a little Belgian guy out the back making them, for all I know.”
“What’s your point?”
“We don’t know it was his hair, we don’t know how it was stored over the years. I read somewhere that some of ‘Napoleon’s hair’ was offered to a Count Flahaut de la Billardie in 1862 and he refused saying he had been offered enough locks of the Emperor’s hair to carpet Versailles. There is also the possibility that the arsenic got into his hair through the wallpaper in the bathroom. Napoleon would spend two or three hours at a time in a boiling hot bath.”
She looked at him. “From the wallpaper you think?”
“Caterine, I just do not know. What I am saying is that I have seen no evidence to satisfy me. If someone got close enough to poison him in 1805, 1812, 1813 and before Waterloo, why bugger around, why not just kill him?”
“Alors, m’sieur, what did he die from?”
“The doctors said cancer. His father, two sisters and his illegitimate son all died from cancer of the stomach. I think it was either that or an untreated stomach ulcer, assisted by some pretty awful medical treatment. I have always preferred the cock up theory over the conspiracy one. My final point is this. In 1840 de Montholon was arrested for assisting Louis Napoleon to attempt a coup d’etat, which failed. He spent seven years in prison. If he had poisoned Napoleon on behalf of the Royalists, and he was a Royalist, why not raise a stink and get out of gaol. He didn’t say a word. If he was a Bonapartist why didn’t he tell the poisoning story to the man who became Napoleon III. It would have destroyed the monarchy. He didn’t, because he had nothing to say about the poisoning. If Charles Tristan de Montholon was alive today, he would have an excellent chance of suing for libel.”
“So, what do you think?”
“I don’t know. You make it sound so convincing. Now, I have an idea. Would you like to forget the dead Français, and come over here to this living Française?
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