Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The Airbus blasted off from runway two at Heathrow, and turned west towards the Severn. They sat as close together as they could, and as they were travelling in Economy Class, that was not all that difficult. Somewhere over Wiltshire, the aircraft turned south and headed towards the English Channel and France, to beat a long path down across Algeria, the Equator and into Southern Africa. Neither Steven nor Caterine was looking forward to the tiresome night flight to Capetown, and he would have preferred to have booked in Business Class, but Caterine ruled very firmly that it was time to practise economies, and the additional cost was simply not worthwhile. Steven reflected that she was behaving more and more like a wife than as a girlfriend. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that he liked it.
“You OK?” he enquired gently.
“I’m fine.” She wriggled closer.
“Not just with the flight, I meant.”
“I know what you meant, darling.”
“And it’s still OK?”
“Nothing has gone away, Steven, it’s still there in the background. Something is going to happen to us, somewhere, sometime, but not just now.”
Steven had known for some time now, that Caterine had remained disturbed, by a half obscured vision lurking in the future. If she knew what it was, she wasn’t saying. This disturbed and irritated him, but he realised that this was an unreasonable attitude, as he was not always very good himself at levelling with her about his own dreams. These had not recurred for some time, and in his upbeat frame of mind, he had convinced himself that they had gone away for good.
They had dinner and some drinks. Caterine kissed him and settled down under her blanket.
“I’m going to sleep. See you in Capetown.”
Steven smiled and kissed the top of her head. “I love you, Caterine Bertrand.”
She half smiled and lowered her seat as far as it would go. “Hmmm, that’s nice. I love you, Chief Inspector.”
He looked at her sleeping form, and thought how much life had changed, had improved since he had met this little person. “I love you,” he said to himself. Were they never to wake up, he wanted those words to be the last she would hear from him.
Steven couldn’t sleep, so he took out John’s second journal to read through to the end. Gradually, the clink of glasses, the lingering smell of dinner and the murmur of conversations which surrounded him in the aircraft’s cabin faded away and he was once again back in the familiar territory of the early 19th century.
On John’s return from Parma, he had travelled through Paris and had met up with the Marquis de Montchenu, who had been French Commissioner at St Helena, and had acted also for Austria from 1818. John found him to be a fat, pompous and slightly ridiculous man in his mid sixties, wearing his hair long and powdered as in pre Revolution times. He had little to pass on except tittle tat, and there was a lot of that. Montchenu had only seen the Emperor in close up at the time of his death, and seemed anxious to tell John only what he thought John wanted to hear.
Disappointed, John arrived back at Calais, and then Dover, after an absence of some weeks, knowing that he had learned little that had not been known to him before. Again there was the by now familiar and expected blank page after his comments on the Marquis.
Emily was delighted to see her husband again and John and Arthur were overjoyed to have their father home, and clambered all over him.
Emily helped me with my coat, hat and boots, and I must confess I was wondrous glad to be in my own house again, and later in my own bed. I could not comprehend that my mission for the Duke was bearing any fruit, and I was becoming reconciled to the notion that there was nothing untoward to be discovered. There was a note, however, from Sir Hudson Lowe asking that I call on him on my return from Europe. This suited me very well. My journey to Italy and France had convinced me that the dashing young doctor who had gone merrily off in 1809 to fight for King and Country was no more, and his replacement, this stout English gentleman was no longer fitted to the travels he had presently undertaken. I said a private prayer to God to thank Him for Sir Hudson’s decision to stay in London.
In due course, I called upon Sir Hudson at his home in Chelsea, and he received me most cordially. I presumed that he remembered the occasion of our last meeting, but, if he did, he made no initial reference to it.
“Dr McCann, I understand you are presently engaged upon a duty for the Duke of Wellington?”
“That is true, sir, as I believe I indicated to you in my note.”
“Doctor, you will understand that any matter touching the death, or captivity, of General Buonaparte is of considerable interest to me?”
“Yes, of course. My enquiries concern rumours coming out of Europe that Napoleon was murdered.”
“Such rumours are nonsense” Lowe declared indignantly.
“Sir, I have no reason as yet to hold a contrary view. However, having received this Commission from his Grace it is my intention to fulfil it to the utmost of my ability.”
I regretted to note that, even after an absence of over two years, Sir Hudson and I were unable to entirely forget our previous acrimonious meeting.
“I understand you have been to see O’Meara in this regard?”
“Indeed, Dr O’Meara was most valuable in advice on Napoleon and his health up to 1818.”
Sir Hudson snorted. “That man is a rogue. He was dismissed from His Majesty’s service for insubordination. And now I am told he is slandering me all over London.”
I was silent. There was no point in denial, as O’Meara’s activities were well known in London, and many would have mentioned them to Sir Hudson, some out of mischief and some out of concern. The man continued.
“I have given five years of my life, and my health to guarding Bonaparte on that accursed rock. I return to England to what? To slander on all sides and no support from the Government. Since my return I have had one meeting with Bathurst, and Prinny has shaken my hand. And that, sir, is all.”
I allowed Sir Hudson to express his feelings for as long as he choose. It was, I believed, the least courtesy I could accord the man who had faithfully, if not very intelligently, carried out an exceedingly unpleasant, almost impossible task.
“Doctor McCann, you may not know, but for the entire period I was in St Helena, the French as a body did their utmost to be obstructive, as obstructive as possible. It is my view, their primary objective was to demonstrate that Napoleon’s health was being damaged by the island’s climate. If they could have satisfied me, or the Government, as to that point, they believed that the General would be moved back to Europe, to England or possibly Malta. In those circumstances, it takes little imagination to appreciate the opportunities presented to the Bonapartists to disturb Europe once again. He was surrounded by French, or Corsicans, and his doctor was Italian. It was impossible for the English to see him, let alone meet with him.”
“He saw me.”
Sir Hudson’s tone was bitter. “He saw you because you had been at Waterloo, and because you were not part of my staff. It was a deliberate affront to me. I saw the man several times in the early days, but not from 1816 to the end. I could not have murdered the dammed man, I couldn’t get near him. In any event my duty was to keep him alive. If England had wanted Bonaparte dead, she would have handed him over in 1815 to King Louis or Blucher. Either would have disposed of him in short order, and at a fraction of the cost we have incurred to keep him alive.”
Despite my earlier antipathy to the man, his present complaints bore the ring of truth. He had done his duty to the best of his ability, and was to receive no reward for doing so. Lowe was, after all, a soldier, and despite Wellington’s lack of trust, he had been a brave if unimaginative soldier. He deserved better than he had been given. I tried to steer our discussions into safer waters.
“Sir Hudson, perhaps, sir, you could enlighten me on the others on the island who were close to Bonaparte, either British or French.”
It was apparent that I had struck a rich vein, because he was most eager to oblige me in the matter. We talked for several hours, and it was near dark before I left. I hailed a carriage and rode home to Lambeth lost in deep thought. What had I found out in these weeks of questioning others? In all honesty, almost nothing. Napoleon had died from stomach cancer, probably worsened by some inappropriate medical treatment.
The last entry in the journal described a meeting in London with Dr Walter Henry, who had been present at the post mortem on the Emperor’s body. This, at least, had given John some pleasure, as Henry had also been present at the battle of Vittoria in 1813. Steven read again the chilling little final paragraph:
And so, tomorrow my enquiries will take me to Paris; the Lord only knows what I may find there, even after this time.
Steven put his boarding pass inside the book as a page marker and sipped his whiskey thoughtfully, the liquid stinging his tongue and throat. The cabin had settled down with the main lights dimmed and only the occasional reading light gleaming here and there. He closed his eyes.
The familiar scene in the Rue de Rivoli once more presented itself. The same women smiled and their skirts swirled. The parasols shaded the sun and the men laughed heartily on occasion. He moaned slightly, knowing what was coming, knowing he was dreaming. He tried to drag himself awake, but the power of the dream was stronger. The same players played out the same actions, leading to the familiar sight of the man face down in the street. But this time John McCann was standing beside the prone body from which the blood seeped away. He extended a hand in welcome.
“Steven, we have waited a long time for you. Welcome.”
Steven woke in fright, in the now darkened cabin, not knowing where he was or even who he was. His hands shook, his throat was dry and sweat flushed his face. Beside him Caterine stirred.
“You all right, darling?” She spoke without opening her eyes.
His voice was unrecognisable. “I’m fine, biche, go back to sleep. I’m going to the toilet, that’s all. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
She muttered something in French that he couldn’t understand and went back to sleep. Steven stumbled to the lavatory, and was sick.
They had no problems in clearing Capetown airport, both with their rectangular green South African visas nestling in their passports, and walked out into a bright, sunny, but very cold day. Caterine shivered, blinked in the sunlight and searched for her sunglasses.
“It is midwinter down here,” Steven explained, rather unnecessarily, taking his glasses from his shirt pocket.
She made a strange little face at him. “Ah, the great detective speaks.”
He shrugged, and thought that he was acquiring the habit from her. They picked up their hire car after a walk of three or four hundred yards to the office, listened carefully to the instantly forgotten instructions, and took off for the City, Caterine with the map on her knees. It was not necessary, as Capetown was well signposted and easy to find. They passed the untidy sprawl of Langa on their right in silence and then the grim squalor of the shantytown on their left. All kinds of material had gone into the construction of these dwellings, if construction was a word that could ever be applied. Some had cement blocks, but most were of packing case wood, corrugated tin, and plastic sheeting. Caterine whispered ‘Mon Dieu’ under her breath. Steven said nothing. Smoke drifted in blue spirals from perhaps a hundred fires.
And then, breathtakingly, Capetown came into sight ahead of them, a sparkle of white buildings, with the sea brilliantly blue to the right and the bulk of the mountain on the left.
“It doesn’t look like a table,” she said, craning her neck to peer out of the left hand window.
“No, you’re right. We must be seeing it from the wrong angle.”
In the town, they quickly found their hotel, the Capetonian, just on the edge of the business district. Again, this was chosen on the basis of cost, as opposed to the better located and more glamorous establishments on the Waterfront. It was comfortable enough, and they quickly unpacked and drove to the Waterfront, a restored 19th Century docks area. They sat outside a Portuguese restaurant overlooking the Harbour, to have lunch, to the dismay of the waiter who was cold and thought them mad. He told them so.
“This is quite warm where I come from” Steven replied firmly if untruthfully, the sun pleasant on his face.
The young man, in his shirtsleeves was unconvinced. “Ah, but you’re both English. That’s why you’re mad.”
Caterine was highly indignant. “I am French, that’s why I am mad.”
Over their meal, Steven turned to her and said, “Look over your shoulder. Now it looks like a table.” And there it was, dark and brooding, staring down at them, Table Mountain.
“It is magnificent”, she breathed, her eyes shining. I suppose you want to climb it?”
“Oui, bien sŭr.”
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