Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
Two days after his return from London the post delivered the confirmation of their trip to Saint Helena, and it was just over three weeks off.
Steven was delighted. “Good!”
Caterine was less enthusiastic, her foreboding still hanging over her. “I will have to clear things with Mrs Williams again. We are asking a lot of her. Perhaps we should think about a,” she hesitated, “a kennels?” The last was put as a question.
Steven was doubtful. He sensed that concern over the cat was not uppermost in her mind. “Don’t tell Tigger you are thinking about a kennels. They’re for dogs. It’s a cattery. I’m not sure about that. He wouldn’t like it. I’ll have a word with David and see what he thinks.”
In the event, there wasn’t a problem. Tigger’s charm had completely won over both members of the Williams family, who were childless and seemed to regard the cat as a substitute child.
Steven once again took up Dr John’s journal, which he hadn’t read since some time before their trip to France. He reflected that they, no, more Steven himself, had been living life as if there was no tomorrow. They had been to Belgium, France twice, and now they faced the biggest of the lot, to South Africa and St Helena. But now there did seem to be a tomorrow, and it was looking bright. He was on a personal high and was determined to face his disciplinary hearing as soon as he was directed to do so. For God’s sake, he had done nothing wrong and was not inclined to play for time. Mr Eustace could live or die as far as Steven was concerned. He was completely convinced that he would be acquitted, and he had made up his mind to leave the police, hopefully with a medical pension, but if need be, without. He had no idea what would follow after that. He didn’t care, just as long as it was with Caterine. The money he had been left in his father’s will, and what he still had from the sale of his house in London would keep both of them alive until his mind was made up. The future looked new and beckoning, and he felt strong enough to face whatever it held. As Steven’s confidence waxed, Caterine’s waned, the darkness of her moods frightening him more than once.
He picked up John’s journal and thumbed through the pages until he found where his ancestor had had his meeting with Wellington.
I must confess that I somewhat regretted my instinctive agreement to the Duke’s wishes. In truth I doubted my ability to perform the service he required of me. Where would I start? After a day or so thinking in this negative manner, I was called before the Medical Director at St Thomas’s.
“Dr McCann, I understand that the Duke of Wellington has requested you to carry out an assignment which is stated to be vital to the interests of our nation. I have also been approached by sources at the highest level of His Majesty’s Government to endorse the Duke’s request and to ask for your release for an unstipulated period. We do, of course, agree to this request, and we offer you our total support. Your position at this hospital will be kept open until you return from Government service.”
I was uncertain as to whether I should rejoice in or regret this news. “Thank you, sir,” I replied, hoping my doubts were not expressed in my words or on my face.
He stood up. “Dr McCann, John, my sincerest congratulations. May I also say how proud we are that one of our own at Tommy’s has been chosen for such an important task, albeit one the details of which I am ignorant.”
“I regret, Sir Andrew, that I am unable to assist you with any of the details of my assignment.”
“I understand. Good luck.”
We shook hands.
I had crossed the Rubicon and there was no going back now. I explained to Emily and my two boys, as far as they could understand, that their husband and father would be spending some time away from home. My dear Emily was distressed at this prospect, and I must confess that I would indeed miss her also. In the few short years since our return from India, this dear lady had become my firm friend and companion. We both knew that Maria’s place in my heart could never be supplanted, but we had achieved a contentment that, in the dark days in India, I thought would never again be mine.
“Well, let that be a lesson to you, my old son, never volunteer.” Steven put down the journal and hunted through his father’s collection of books, selecting two; ‘St Helena’, the 1930’s work by Octave Aubry, and the 1995 ‘Murder at St Helena revisited.’ It would be useful to have these to hand as he went through John’s account, for checking purposes.
It was to be several days before I believed that I would be required to do any travelling and I busied myself with listing all those people I thought might be of assistance in my enquiries. I started with the various doctors who had attended to Napoleon at any time during his confinement. The majority were still on St Helena, or on the ships of the Royal Navy somewhere around the globe. It seemed unlikely that I could see any of these gentlemen in short order.
Dr O’Meara, who had ministered to Napoleon’s needs from October 1815 until the summer of 1818, was in London. I did know that. I also knew that he was Irish and an acquaintance of my old comrade, Michael Fitzpatrick. Perhaps Michael could effect an introduction. In truth I did not know quite what O’Meara could tell me, having departed the island some three years before Napoleon’s death, but it seemed an appropriate place to start.
Michael foresaw no problem in arranging an introduction, and several days afterwards, I was shown into a house in Eaton Square.
“Doctor O’Meara. How do you do, sir? I am Dr John McCann.”
We shook hands. His grasp was limp, his skin cold. He was a short man, with reddish hair, and a face to match his hair. I estimated that he was somewhere in his forties. The most outstanding feature of the man was his eyes, which were of an extraordinary blue.
“I have heard of you, Dr McCann. You have an outstanding reputation in medical circles. What is it you desire of me?” His accent was distinctly Irish, and his voice soft and not unpleasant.
“Doctor, I am on a mission from the Duke of Wellington to enquire into the death of General Bonaparte. I understand you were his doctor for nearly three years?”
“Doctor McCann, please seat yourself. I am astonished that you should see it as appropriate to visit me on such a matter.”
“I understand you not, sir.”
“You have, I believe, met the Governor of St Helena?”
“Sir Hudson Lowe? Indeed so, on my return from India when the Swan called there to reprovision.”
“Surely then, sir, you must be aware that the same gentleman was responsible for my banishment from the island and for my subsequent dismissal from the Royal Navy on court martial?”
“Dr O’Meara, I am indeed aware that you are no longer in the Navy, and that you were unfortunately subject to a court martial. However, my enquiries are unconnected with those matters. I am directed by the Duke, and the Government to look into the circumstances of Napoleon’s death.”
“And why, sir, should I assist either the Duke or the Government? What has either of them ever done on my behalf?”
I confess that I had little answer to make which might have satisfied him. Nevertheless, I perservered. “Doctor, we are both men of medicine and we have both been soldiers. In my view, sir, the politics of the affair are not matters with which you and I should be concerned. I am asking you, as one physician to another, to grant me the benefit off your experience with the Emperor.”
Perhaps it was my use of the word ‘Emperor’, but O’Meara seemed to come to a decision.
“Very well. May I offer you a glass of claret?”
“That would be splendid. Thank you.”
We talked for perhaps two hours, though, in all truth, it was O’Meara who did most of the talking. I found him a personable man, and even recognised that he could be viewed as charming by many people. He was also a man of the most violently held opinions, as my experience had taught me was the case with many who hailed from Ireland. I recalled, even at this distance, that my own dear father was just such a man. O’Meara did, I must confess, have much to talk about.
Within the twenty or so years of my adult life, I had fought a long and successful war in the Peninsula and had partaken in the Battle of Waterloo, surely the most important that our world had experienced to date. I had been wounded in the service of my King and country. In addition, I had met with the Emperor Napoleon, surely one of the greatest men of this or any age, and I was now trusted by a man even greater than Bonaparte, the Duke of Wellington. I had become a not unsuccessful doctor, had met, wed and lost the love of my life, and was the father of two fine sons. Talking to O’Meara brought these musings presently to my mind, though they had long lingered in my breast.
“What did you conclude about Napoleon’s health, doctor, in your three years as his doctor?”
“It was good, initially, but deteriorated from 1816 onwards, mainly, due in my opinion, to his idleness. Around July 1816 he suffered increasingly from afflictions of the liver.”
O’Meara looked up, as if daring me to challenge his diagnosis. “You met with him, doctor. What was your own view?”
After his earlier abrasiveness, Doctor O’Meara had spoken to me in a most reasonable fashion, and I was anxious not to alter his mood by disagreeing unnecessarily with his views. In any event, this was simple to achieve, as they seemed to be identical to my own.
“I did, as you observe, meet with the Emperor, about fifteen months after your departure, not you understand, in the situation of a medical man, but rather as a former combatant. However, I have eyes in my head, and even without an examination, I came to much the same conclusions as yourself.”
O’Meara nodded, seemingly satisfied. “One needed to become acclimatised in that accursed place.” He thought for perhaps half a minute. “I have no reason to doubt what our colleagues concluded at the post mortem, but I do believe that the climate caused and aggravated his hepatitis. Just examine the mortality rates in the two battalions of the 66th for proof.”
I knew that he was speaking in reference to the two units having arrived some five or six years apart, with the newer arrivals suffering several times the deaths from dysentery.
“And Napoleon’s death, Doctor O’Meara, any thoughts in that direction?”
His hand went to his face and he stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well, Dr McCann, like your good self, sir, I was not present at the post mortem examination, but, as I said, our colleagues appear to have been in no doubt as to the cause of death. God knows there were enough of them present.”
“Cancer of the stomach?”
“Is such a diagnosis appropriate, do you think?”
“I could not say. Except,” he hesitated, “except the Emperor sometimes discussed such a possibility with me. He told me that his father had succumbed to the same thing.”
“And our colleagues, do you know them well?”
“I knew a number of them, Warden, Verling and Stokoe better than the others. They came out on the Northumberland with the Emperor’s party.”
“And could you attest to their various competencies?”
He smiled, a twisted little smile. “Mr McCann. Doctors are but men, not Gods. We do the best we can, but we are not infallible. With the exception of Antommarchi, who is unknown to me, the others are all honest and sincere men, to the best of my belief, but they are Army or Navy men. They are accustomed to treating those matters they, or you or I, might encounter on the battlefield or at Trafalgar. The diagnosis or recognition of cancer may well lay outside their experiences.” He thought for a moment or two and then added, “I believe in two hundred years time they will look back on us as butchers, ignorant butchers. And two hundred years after that, the doctors of the twenty-second century will so regard those of the twentieth century.”
I was impressed, despite myself. Knowing something of O’Meara’s history, I had been more than halfway prepared to be prejudiced against him. “Doctor, there is much wisdom in what you observe. Tell me, in Napoleon’s will, did you know that he accused Sir Hudson of murdering him.”
O’Meara became most animated, getting to his feet. “Yes, I read that. And so he did, so Lowe did. He killed him.”
“In what way?”
“By his incessant restrictions and regulations, by his mean spiritedness, and his determination to control everything on that cursed island. He killed him all right.”
I was relieved. “But not physically?”
“No, no. Napoleon did not mean that. Hudson Lowe murdered his spirit.”
“Which is not, as I am aware, a capital offence.”
“No, indeed not, or many of us would have swung, or be treading the shores of Australia by now.”
“So, the rumours we sometimes hear or read, that Napoleon was murdered?”
O’Meara dismissed such thoughts with a wave of his hand. “Nonsense! He himself and Lowe conspired together to bring about his death, one by his arrogance, the other by a series of ill-considered pinpricks.” He resumed his seat.
“Are you aware of some talk from the Continent of the use of poison?”
“Poison? Poison, for the rats do you mean?”
“No, perhaps in connection with the Emperor’s death.”
O’Meara shook his head slowly. “I have never heard such a thing. Who would want to poison him? The man was killing himself without such aid. Perhaps you should talk to de Montholon, he ran the household, and Napoleon was anxious to share some of the Count’s duties.”
“I do not understand.”
“I refer to Albine, the Countess de Montholon. Napoleon always had an eye for a pretty face, and there was little competition in that department on the island. It was even rumoured that Napoleon fathered at least one of her children who were born on the island.”
He then proceeded to repeat his complaints about Sir Hudson, and to outline the book he was even then in the process of writing, for publication in 1822.
I left Dr Barry Edward O’Meara in a very thoughtful mood, impressed most of all by his over riding hatred of Sir Hudson. It would seem with the Governor due to arrive back soon in England, 1822 would be a most interesting year. O’Meara’s vitriol against Lowe was well known. Certainly the man had wasted no opportunity in the salons of London to do damage to the Governor’s reputation these past several years.
There followed a full page of the journal which was blank. Steven sat back thoughtfully. His 19th Century ancestor had done, in his investigation, much as Steven himself might have done, by becoming familiar with the background and the characters that made up the story.
I was unsure what to make of Dr O’Meara. He was known to have spied on those at Longwood on behalf of the Governor, and on the English on behalf of the French. On balance, it would appear that he had been the better recompensed by the Emperor’s gold, than by Lowe’s, and accordingly his loyalties were more directed to their side of the Channel than to ours.
I visited the Horseguards to enquire the disposition of the various military and naval doctors who had attended Napoleon and was pleased to learn that Dr Archibald Arnott was even now on the high seas en route to spending his leave in England. I was delighted and said so to my liaison officer, a Major Andrew Colley.
“Indeed, colonel. Then you may also wish to know, sir, that Sir Hudson is due to arrive back in a week or so?”
“Thank you, major, I must endeavour to meet with the gentleman.”
“You are aware, are you not, sir, that several of our French exiles are here in London, awaiting the pleasure of King Louis’ pardon for their return to their own country?”
“I am, in respect of Bertrand and de Montholon. I will be seeing General Bertrand tomorrow.”
Bertrand had agreed to see me, but received me most stiffly. I recalled seeing him briefly just prior to my meeting with Napoleon, but we had exchanged not a word. In God’s truth, it was only a little different on this occasion. He was accompanied by his wife and they invited me into their rooms in Leicester Square. He was about fifty years of age, quite tall, thin in the extreme and bald. He had all the appearance of a senior bank clerk rather than a General Officer. Madame Bertrand was somewhere in her middle thirties, not beautiful, but with a lively intelligent face and enquiring eyes.
The general did not appear to speak English, or deigned not to do so, although my earlier enquiries indicated that he had a perfectly good command of our language. Our conversation was conducted half in French, and half in English, due to Madame Bertrand’s excellent grasp of our tongue. I later discovered that she was half English, or at least, of Irish descent and I warmed towards her.
We spoke together for a very long time, and, as we did so, some of Bertrand’s coldness dissipated. From our conversation it was clear that those who accompanied Bonaparte into exile did so for a variety of reasons, sometimes more than one. Bertrand did so, in my opinion, because he was devoted to the man, and Madame Bertrand because she was devoted to her husband, despite her Royalist leanings and her loathing for Napoleon. She indicated, without saying so directly, that the presence of a woman’s husband was not a barrier to Bonaparte’s trying to seduce her. She had also detested her time on the island, and I sympathised with her, based on my short experience.
Naturally, in such a confined environment, there had been intrigues and jealousies, small scandals and minor joys.
When it came to Napoleon’s death, both appeared satisfied that he had died, as the doctors had stated, from cancer of the stomach. It was a disease of which he had often spoken, and the Bertrands had no reason to doubt the veracity of the doctors, including the Italian, Antommarchi. If cancer was the actual cause of death, Bertrand was vehement that Lowe’s small minded interpretation of the British Government’s instructions had contributed to the death of his Emperor. On the subject of poison, he looked at me in wonderment. “What do you mean?” he asked me, in English. Clearly the matter meant absolutely nothing to him.
I mentioned that I was grateful for their assistance and that I would see to it that the Duke of Wellington was made aware of it, especially in the light of the General’s plea to the French King for a pardon.
“Dr McCann, the Duke of Wellington is a fine man and an excellent soldier. I regret that I do not have the same confidence in your Government.”
I received my hat and cane. “As you will, sir. May I then bid you farewell, and you, Madame Bertrand.”
Once again there was a blank page following this entry. Steven wondered if John had subsequently intended to add some further comments at a later date. He went to his boards and studied what he had done. He made a couple of written notes and went back to the journal.
I had hoped to meet also with the Montholons, but that gentleman refused to see me. Remembering our short meeting on St Helena in 1819, I cannot say that I experienced much personal displeasure at this omission. However, I knew that one day I would need to talk to the Count.
I was aware that Dr Antommarchi had returned to Italy and I had previously requested of our Ambassador in that country to try and arrange a meeting. Antommarchi had agreed and I had some four days before I was to start my journey. In the meantime, Dr Arnott had just arrived back in London and I was determined to speak with him before travelling to Parma. I had, at least, the advantage of having known the good doctor before, and we met at my home in Lambeth. Emily, after introduction to Arnott, produced some coffee, and took her leave, claiming the needs of the children.
“We meet again in somewhat different circumstances, Dr Arnott, from our previous occasion in St Helena.”
“Indeed, it is true. I wish to God I had never seen the dammed island.”
“Dr Arnott, I believe that you served in Spain, but, I think, at the end, you were the Principal Medical Officer on St Helena?”
“Yes, I was in the Peninsula. Like yourself, Dr McCann, I have an Army background, but was acting as PMO at St Helena.”
“And for some of your time there you were Napoleon’s doctor?”
“No.” He corrected me. “No, I was asked to assist Dr Antommarchi, who was his doctor. But that was very late on, at the start of April 1821. When you and I met, in 1819, the Governor had offered my services, but they had been declined. I attended to Napoleon for about five weeks until his death. Prior to that I had seen the Emperor only fleetingly at the de Montholon’s quarters.”
“And what conclusions did you reach in those weeks?”
“In all honesty, Dr McCann, for the first weeks, I believed that the man was shamming. That was also the Governor’s view. Towards the end, it became quite obvious that this was not the case, as we all now know.”
Arnott then went on to explain some of the difficulties he had experienced in trying to fulfil his duties in regard to Napoleon, watched and criticised continually by those in Plantation House. The squabbling among the French, and between those at Longwood, and the Governor’s staff had been wearing. We then discussed Napoleon’s health, which had deteriorated from my having seen him in 1819 until the time of his death.
“And the cause of his death?”
“Cancer of the stomach, no doubt about it. The stomach was ulcerated, and cancerous.” He then described in detail the post mortem examination and the findings once the corpse had been opened. I found nothing to disagree with in his summing up.
“And hepatitis, doctor?”
“Yes, probably, as many people had on the island. The liver was somewhat enlarged, but Sir Hudson would not hear of it. He came close to dismissing Dr Shortt for even suggesting it. Made him alter his report. It mattered little. It was cancer that killed him. Even Antommarchi agreed to that.”
“I am interested to hear that you proscribed ten grains of calomel. A most excessive amount surely? It is normally considered that one, or even half a grain suffices.”
Arnott looked sharply at me. “With respect, Dr McCann, I was there and you were not. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. You may not be aware that I consulted with Doctors Shortt and Mitchell on the treatment.”
In all truth, he was right on both counts. I had not been there, and if I had been, I would have taken grave exception to another doctor questioning my treatment, even if he had the ear of the Duke.
“There have been rumours on the Continent that Bonaparte was murdered.”
“Nonsense. He died from cancer, and it would have killed him at Versailles just as on St Helena.”
“Are you familiar with the symptoms of poisoning, Dr Arnott?”
He moved uncomfortably in his chair and put down his coffee cup. “What kind of poisoning?”
“I have no idea, it is simply another rumour from France.”
“Dr McCann, I do not think I have ever in my life met with a poisoning case. Although I have read the textbooks, I probably would not recognise the symptoms. Would you?”
“No, sir, I have not met with a poisoning, nor would I recognise the symptoms in all probability. There were no poisoning cases at Waterloo or in the Peninsula.”
Archibald Arnott was, in my opinion, an honest man. I saw much of myself in him. I too knew that there was much in medicine that I did not understand. Perhaps sometime in the future doctors will continue to specialise, even as I, myself, was now doing in the field of pathology.
After Arnott had gone, I sat an hour and thought about what I had achieved. The answer was simple. I had achieved very little. Perhaps the Italian could help me, but as he had performed the dissection, it could well be that he would be disinclined to find a different conclusion from his colleagues. To this point, there was no evidence that anyone but God had anything to do with Napoleon’s death.
Steven went back again to the Aubry and Weider books and read voraciously. In the main, he was trying to tally John’s account with those of the other actors in the drama. He continued reading the journal by following John’s account of his travels to Parma and his non-productive meeting with Antommarchi. The Italian was primarily engaged in trying to obtain some advantage from the dead Emperor’s relatives by telling the story of his death. Marie-Louise would not see him and Madame Mere and Pauline Bonaparte showed no interest.
Antommarchi believed that Napoleon died from a cancerous stomach, but had also been suffering from hepatitis. The Italian also told him that he had refused to sign the post mortem report on Bertrand’s orders as it referred to Napoleon Bonaparte, and not the Emperor Napoleon. John learned much about the rivalries in Napoleon’s little court, which at times led to the principal players not being on speaking terms. Again there was a blank page following the account of the meeting with Antommacchi.
Steven, instructed by Caterine, used the Internet extensively to research Napoleon and his death, finding 104,000 sites referring to the Emperor. He made contact with a variety of people and organisations both in Britain and overseas with a shared interest. He was busily engaged on the computer when Caterine entered silently and kissed the back of his head.
“Bonjour, m’sieur, do you remember me?”
He got up and kissed her. “I could never forget you, love of my life. You are my reason for living.”
“Ah, my romantic Englishman. You have been neglecting me recently. I think you are having an affair with another French person, m’sieur Napoleon.”
Steven shook his head. “Naw, you are much prettier than him. But you’re right, I have neglected you and I will make it up to you in Capetown and on the island.”
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