Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
And so it was arranged. They flew to Bordeaux about three days later, leaving Tigger in Mrs Williams’ tender care, and Mr Williams in his overalls in the dining room. They collected a small Citroen from Avis and cleared the small airport in a very short time heading along the A10 AutoRoute towards Paris. It was about five in the evening and the sun glowed low in a mellow welcoming way, forcing Steven to put on his sunglasses.
“Very dashing,” she said mockingly.
“I think so, too,” he agreed with her.
They left the AutoRoute at Mirambeau and turned onto the D730 towards Royan. The fields were swollen with grapes ripening on the vine, moving gently in a small zephyr of a breeze and turning golden in the sun. They stopped at a lay by simply to look at the fields. She opened the window and sat without speaking for several minutes before turning to him at last. “It’s beautiful here. And just taste the scent.”
“It is,” he agreed “and so are you.” He reached out with his right hand and touched her face.
They turned off at St Fort sur Gironde and ran along the side of the river, past mussel and oyster beds and through a succession of tiny villages all seemingly called something or other ‘sur Gironde’. The river itself was a sluggish brown snake slithering its way to meet with the Atlantic, getting wider as it travelled. They passed Talmont, with its famous church, and Meschers with its caves, before sliding into the southern villages which made up Royan. The beaches stretched for miles, and even at this time of evening, were alive with people.
They drove through the town, a somewhat stark modern ville. “It was bombed during the War, flattened,” she explained. “The Germans didn’t surrender here until the 8th May.”
“Who did the bombing, then?”
“Les Anglais, or les Amercains, I’m not sure.”
She shrugged. “As we say in France, c’est la guerre. Anyway, you weren’t here.”
“Yes, a little after my time for death and mayhem,” Steven remarked darkly, a sudden vision of the Rue de Rivoli before him.
“You mean ‘before’ your time, surely?”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I meant before my time.”
They drove into Pontillac, about a mile out of Royan to the north, and checked into the Hotel Miramar, facing the small beach and Royan Casino. It was comfortable and warm, but had no restaurant, so they wandered out into the smooth evening to a Moroccan restaurant which served excellent cous-cous. They slowly returned to the hotel, taking in a stroll arm in arm on the wet beach on their way. The front door was of the hotel was locked and Steven searched his pockets before finding the number code to the digital lock. They both giggled in a child like way as he struggled to open the door. They giggled all the way up to the second floor, and into their room. As he turned to close the bedroom door, she suddenly reached out to him and held him.
“Steven, I love you very much.”
They made love and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The days which followed flew past in a blur of contentment and laughter. In their time together, Steven had never felt so relaxed or so much in love. He could not remember when he had been this happy before, and decided that he had never been this happy before. They went to Nantes, where the University had closed for the summer, but where Caterine’s friend, a man in his early forties called Yves Fourneaux was still working.
They greeted each other warmly and Yves examined the letter.
“It could be genuine,” he admitted. “The French is a little archaic, but that fits. I can date the ink and paper and let you know in a few days time”
Caterine explained when they would be departing, and Yves scratched his chin. “That may be tight, but I will do what I can.”
They spent some time on the beaches, tried a selection of restaurants, and played the tourist, visiting Talmont, and the caves on the Gironde and the unique little fishing village of La Tremblade.
They got up early one morning and drove at no great speed across the Marais, the marshlands lying between Royan, and the Charante River, wondering at the apparently unending oyster beds. There was six Euros to pay to cross the bridge over the Charante near Rochefort. Caterine explained that local people were not required to pay.
“How do they know who is local?” he demanded.
“C’est facile. The cars with seventeen on their number plates are locals.”
“Oh,” he muttered, “that’s very French.”
They went to La Rochelle, with its magnificent harbour and evocative old covered pavements and leaning buildings. He read of the siege where some 23,000 Protestants had been starved to death and they climbed the twin tours at the mouth of the inner harbour which had kept the English fleet from coming to the aid of their co-religionists. Caterine showed him where she had been born and the school she had attended.
“A nostalgic journey, my love?”
“Yes, I was happy in this town.”
“Are we going to see where you lived in Royan?”
“No!” She spoke decisively. “I was not too happy there.”
“Does your ex husband still live there?” He spoke hesitantly.
She shook her head and shrugged. “I do not know where he is, and I don’t want to know where he is. Come on, let me show you Rochefort.”
Rochefort was a small, totally delightful town, and they spent an hour walking around the small streets and Louis XV buildings. They visited the Corderie and the ship building project in the old Royal dry dock. Leaving the Hermione, they stopped outside an impressive gated building, which announced itself as a military establishment. More interesting from Steven’s viewpoint was a plaque giving details of Napoleon’s stays there in 1808, and more poignantly, from 3rd to the 8th July 1815, just two weeks after Waterloo, and just prior to his final flight to the Isle d’Aix.
He turned away from the marble sign. “Can we go to Isle d’Aix?”
She looked at her watch. “Bien sŭr, m’sieur, but not today, I am tired and hungry, and there isn’t time today, before the ferry stops running.”
Steven was disappointed. “Oh, tomorrow then?”
She kissed him, and laughed. “OK.”
The following morning they crossed the great toll bridge over the Charante again, and went to Fournas, a bleak, ugly, little ferry terminal to the west of Rochefort, and waited in a chill wind for the passenger ferry to Ile d’Aix. The little boat was not crowded because, as a crewman explained to Caterine, the previous ferry has sunk earlier in the year, and the tourists had not yet become accustomed to the arrival of the replacement. It was here, on this tiny rock at the side of the Atlantic, that Napoleon, on 15th July 1815, had started his journey into captivity which would eventually end with his lonely death on a bigger, but bleaker Atlantic rock some six years later.
They trooped ashore in the flower garlanded village, marvelling at the absence of vehicles in the narrow streets, and visited the two museums devoted to the Emperor. One was the proud possessor of a stuffed camel, said to have been Napoleon’s means of transport while in Egypt.
Caterine rolled her eyes at the camel. “I wouldn’t have ridden on that thing.”
“Which is why you will never be Empress of the French.”
The other, far more poignantly, was the house turned museum where he had spent his last night on French soil. It turned out, perhaps naturally, to be a shrine to the man, but some of the impact of the place was lost on Steven by the absence of any information in English. Perhaps the French wanted to keep it all secret. Caterine translated in a reverent whisper.
“We’re not in church,” he whispered back.
They walked around part of the island and stood on the sea wall in a stiff breeze looking out to sea, towards England, much as Napoleon must have done, as he contemplated the failure of his plans. Behind him was France, with a vengeful King Lois waiting to introduce the Corsican upstart to Madame Guillotine, and ahead of him was what? A future uncertain in almost all respects except that he had finally lost to the hated English, whose ships blockaded the harbour. Whatever his future might be it would be decided by the Prince Regent and the British Government and not the Emperor himself.
At this moment Steven knew that he must complete the same journey. Whatever was driving him on dictated that he go to St Helena, to see where Napoleon had ended his days. He put his arm around Caterine and they walked back to the little ferry, grateful for its shelter, and their car, as a cold rain was now falling.
Returning to Royan they stopped at Brouage, a splendidly walled village from the seventeenth century. A small street market was in progress, and they wandered around the stalls of bricabrac, and in some cases, rubbish. They bought bottles of water and two long baguettes filled with jambon et fromage and ate them sitting on the town walls overlooking the church and square.
“Well,” she demanded with her mouth full, “Do you like it?”
“It’s really beautiful. I can see why you love it so much.”
“Could you live here?”
“If you were with me, I could live on the moon.”
She hit him gently on the nose with her baguette. “Ah, my romantic Englishman.”
“I need to get my suspension out of the way and leave the Police. And I need to get Dr John and Napoleon finally dead and buried and out of my system.”
She looked at him, her eyes grave. “I know both of those things. After that?”
“Yes, I will become a Frenchman. One promise from you, my lady.”
“What is it?”
“You won’t make me wear a striped jersey, and a beret and sell onions on my bicycle?”
“Of course not. You can have a deux chevaux and sell your onions from that.”
“And you Caterine, what do you want from life?”
She was thoughtful, and delayed her answer for fully half a minute so that he thought she would not answer. “I want to be happy. I want to settle down and live in the same place for the rest of my life. And I would like a child, probably more than one.”
Steven had never heard her talk this way and was lost for a suitable response. “Does marriage come into those plans?”
She again gave the little shrug with which he was so familiar. “Maybe yes, maybe no. Ce n’est pas important.”
He held her. “We must see what we can do.”
That night, his dream returned, more vivid and frightening than before.
Two men emerged from the Paris Hotel de Ville, and stood talking for about ten minutes. Steven could not understand what was being said, but they were exchanging angry words. One man, shorter and stouter than the other, made an exasperated gesture with his hands, and turned away. He was dressed in cream trousers and a dark green jacket. He was hatless and his hair was brown but beginning to thin on top. He walked towards the Rue de Rivoli.
The second man was taller, wearing a long dark coat and grey trousers. He wore a top hat, and looked angry. He looked towards the side of the building where two shabbily dressed men stood in the shadow of the Hotel. The tall man made a signal with his hand in the direction of the man who had just walked away from him. The two men emerged from the shadows and moved quickly in the direction of the street.
The hatless 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 crossed the street, dodging between the slow moving carriages and horsemen. The two other men, their clothing and appearance in stark contrast to the other travellers on the Rue de Rivoli, also crossed the street. One had spectacles on his thin face, the second seemed to have some deformity of his right leg which dragged as he walked. They appeared to be intent on watching the well-dressed man crossing ahead of them.
Steven groaned, low and in a helpless way, and turned over in bed.
The well-dressed man turned left and walked towards the Louvre. The other two men followed at a distance of about fifty yards. They were walking faster and came level with the man in the green coat. They moved, one slightly in front and one behind. In his sleep Steven called out “No, no!” The two men drew pistols from the folds of their coats. Two shots rang out, and the green coated man sprawled on the pavement.
He awoke, shouting, sweat streaming down his face and sitting bolt upright in bed. Caterine, her eyes wide with fright was holding him and talking urgently. He could not hear what she was saying. It was several minutes before he regained control of himself.
“Sorry,” he muttered thickly. “I had a bad dream.”
“Was it Maria again?”
He knew it was time to be honest and related the whole Rue de Rivoli sequence.
She was not as shocked as he had thought. “I knew that something was different. I was right about Paris.”
He had difficulty getting back to sleep. Was he really going mad? The dream had visited itself on him three times now, more vivid and in more detail on each occasion. Where was it coming from, for God’s sake? It had started in the Rue de Rivoli, and it centred around that street. The man in the dream was Dr John, he was sure of that, and the journal had said that John was going to visit Paris, and had said nothing else. It was also like a boil swelling up, each time more swollen, more painful, getting ready to burst. What will happen when it does burst? He had no idea. Nor had he any idea how he could lance this particular boil and release the poison.
Steven slept at last, and woke late.
“I thought I would let you sleep, as you had such a bad night’s rest.” Caterine was standing by the window, looking out at the beach and the Casino. She was framed in the window, with the blue sky behind her. She looked achingly beautiful
“Have you had breakfast?” He looked at his watch. “Christ, it’s almost ten.”
“No, but it’s all right. I spoke to M. Grenier and he promised to leave something for us.”
They spent their last full day sun bathing on the beach intriguingly called La Grande Conche, and the sun improved both his mind and his body. On the following day they drove to Nantes and met Yves. He returned the letter.
“There was not enough time to be certain, but my preliminary tests suggest that this is between one hundred and fifty and two hundred years old. That puts it right in the period you are looking at. I have no idea whether the letter was from General Bertrand as I have no samples of his handwriting. For that, you may wish to see Jacques Hulin at the Institut Napoleon. I think he probably knew your father.”
“Would you like to go to South Africa?” he enquired, trying to sound casual.
“Why South Africa,” her astonishment was evident.
“It’s one way to get to St Helena, and although it isn’t summer down there, we could have some time in Capetown.”
“St Helena? Do you not think you are taking this thing too far, Steven?”
“No,” he shook his head sadly. “It’s something I have to do.”
Caterine was silent, as she stopped for a small flock of disorderly sheep on the road. She leaned out of the window of the car and exchanged a few good-natured words with the young shepherd.
“If it is something you feel you must do, all right. I will not stop you.”
“But will you come with me?”
“I will go anywhere with you, Steven, if you want me to. I told you that we must make the most of our time together, just in case we do not have very much of it.” A moment or two later, she added “What about my week on the beach? Are there beaches in Capetown?”
He grimaced. “Yes, but it will be winter. Let’s think of something.”
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