Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
They spent the following day getting to know the city, mostly on foot, although the concierge at the hotel suggested they should be wary of walking in some places, especially to and from the Waterfront at night. They delighted in Capetown, in the Company Gardens, in the superb Parliament building, and in the Castle with its history signified by the various flags flying in the breeze at the main gate, the Dutch, British, Union and South African colours. Most of all they enjoyed the Waterfront with its hotels and shops, museums and exhibitions and its restaurants. Primarily they delighted in how many rands they could get for their pounds, and how cheap were food and, in particular, wine.
Steven was not sleeping well. His body seemed to be afraid to go to sleep as if fearing the return of his dream, a dream which appeared to be going in a particular direction and one he didn’t welcome. He said nothing to Caterine and she asked no questions.
On their third morning, they drove the winding road to the bottom of Table Mountain and parked at its foot. They walked up past an array of small African stalls, the owners of which all seemed to be selling crafts of some kind on another. Caterine stopped to examine some carved animals, and was much taken with a beautifully carved springbok, which she called a ‘biche’.
“How much” she enquired.
A very fat, very jolly, black lady was in charge. “Three hundred rands, missus.”
“How much is that, Steven?”
He did a quick piece of mental arithmetic and whispered his sterling approximation to her, adding a hissed “don’t forget to haggle.”
Caterine haggled but only half-heartedly, and was pleased with a discount of twenty rands. Steven determined that any haggling done in the future would be done by him.
“You folks goin’ up de mountain?” The woman smiled as she wrapped the carving in a piece of newspaper.
“Yes, we were thinking about walking.” Steven was not sure they really were thinking that way.
Caterine turned to him quickly. “You can walk, I’m not.”
The black woman laughed, a brown rolling sound which started deep in her chest. “Your missus is right, mister, it’s a long way.”
“How long?” Steven felt he should walk, to follow in John’s footsteps, but was willing to be dissuaded.
“Four hours, mebbee five.”
“Ah, I think we will take the cable car, then.”
“Good decision, Sherlock, “ muttered Caterine as they walked on, with her ‘biche’ clutched to her side.
As they waited for the cable car to return to the ground he remarked, “That’s an antelope you know, not a deer.”
“Is there a difference, darling?”
“Yes, it” but she stopped him at once.
“Steven, I don’t care, it is a biche as far as I am concerned. Antelope or deer, I don’t care.”
“You’re the boss,” he told her, as the car started its slow passage up the side of the mountain.
The view from the top was truly stunning, with the city laid out at their feet. The waves crashed white and tiny against the beaches, and out in the Bay they saw Robben Island shimmering a little in the sun sparkling on the sea. Capetown itself seemed primarily to be built in while and it too glistened in the winter sunshine.
He pointed to the island. “Nelson Mandela spent a lot of years on that island, a bit like Napoleon on St Helena.”
“But Mandela was released in the end.”
He nodded. “And became President. Boney did it the other way around.”
They spent two hours on top, walking all over, pleasurably surprised by all they saw. The wind was almost gale force, but it was, at least, warmer than the previous two days. Steven was struck, not for the first time in these past months, that he was again walking in John’s footsteps, almost literally.
They bought tea and sandwiches in the little café and some postcards before sitting on a wall overlooking the City and the Bay. Caterine broke little pieces off her bread to throw to a couple of dassis’s, large rabbit like creatures, waiting a few feet away for just such an opportunity. They were clearly well accustomed to tourists.
He looked at her, her face turned in profile to him, the sun glinting off her hair, watching with a smile the antics of the little creatures scrambling for pieces of bread.
“I love you, petite sorciere.” She turned towards him. “Will you marry me, Caterine?”
The smile was frozen on her face, her mouth half opened in surprise. “Marry you?”
“Yes, will you marry me? I love you, and I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“Is this carpe diem, Steven?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
She was silent.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“I have never been more sure of anything in my life.”
She was again silent for nearly half a minute and he feared she was going to refuse.
“Yes, Steven, I would be honoured to be your wife.”
It seemed to Steven to have been a strangely stilted and old-fashioned proposal, and acceptance, but it was an acceptance. Three thousand feet above Capetown they kissed and held each other, while the dassis’s watched and squealed for more bread.
“What made you ask?” She was sitting with her back to him, resting against his body, his arms encircling her.
“It was the lady down there, the one who sold you the biche. She called you ‘my missus’, and I just knew I wanted it to be true. I read somewhere that love is too precious, and life is too long without it.”
“You are my romantic Englishman.”
“The only one.”
He kissed the back of her head. “When?”
She turned to him. “When what?”
“When will we get married?”
She shook her head. “I’ve no idea. When we get home? Did you have a date in mind?”
“As soon as possible. Let’s try for it here, in Capetown.”
“Steven, you’re crazy. That isn’t possible.”
But it was, and they set the date for the following Monday, with a Government Registrar of Marriages. Steven was delighted, Caterine astonished.
They spent the weekend in the Winelands area, staying on a farm in a cottage built in 1704. The area entranced them, especially the University town of Stellenbosch, with its 19th Century buildings and beautiful preserved little shops. He insisted on driving to Wellington, which proved to be a disappointing town, with it seemed hundreds of black people hanging around everywhere, all apparently unemployed. Franschhoek was more to Caterine’s liking with its redolence of France, and the huge Memorial to the Huguenots. She traced her finger along the names of the original settlers driven out from France by religious bigotry, all Protestant like herself. Here a Françoise, there a Caterine.
They got back to Capetown on the Sunday evening, suddenly frightened that they were to be married on the following day.
“You are certain about this, Steven”
He hugged her. “Absolutely, darling.”
And they were married at eleven the following morning by a smiling black lady, with two equally black and equally smiling witnesses, who were paid 200 rands each for their trouble. She ‘shushed’ him when he whispered to her that he was going to haggle over the price. Outside the small brown office they stood blinking in the Cape sun
“Do you think it is valid, Steven, legal in England?”
“Well, she said it was, and if it isn’t, we will do it again in England.”
She linked her arm in his. “Well, my darling, you have changed the pattern. John didn’t marry a second time until he got back to England. Are you happy?”
“I have never been happier in my life.”
“And Maria, what would she have thought?”
“She would be happy for me. She loved me and I loved her, but this is different. Are you happy?”
“Must there be a but?”
“No, but there is one, I can see it in your eyes.”
“There is still something ahead of us Steven. That is why I said yes. If it is really bad one or other of us may not be here. For that reason, I want to be your wife, even if only for a few months or weeks, or even days. We agreed, carpe diem.”
“Come on, stop it. We have a boat to catch tomorrow morning. Let’s go out to Robben Island. Do you want to be called Mrs McCann?”
She shrugged. “I don’t mind really. Perhaps Bertrand-McCann. That’s fashionable, isn’t it?”
“Whatever, little biche.”
That evening, their last in Capetown, they went once again to the Waterfront for dinner, in a taxi, so they could enjoy a drink. Steven had booked a table for 9.00PM in the Green Dolphin, a rather up market restaurant which featured little jazz combos. The food was excellent, the wines very fine and the music totally enjoyable, without being intrusive. They were very much in love.
The following morning was cold with low grey clouds banked up against and hiding Table Mountain. It was spitting with rain when they boarded their ship and they were buffeted by a sharp wind which whipped off the sea and chilled them even through their thick jackets. They stood on the deck and watched the city move further and further away from them as the ship, slowly at first, cleared the port. Both were glad when Capetown disappeared into the blanket of mist so they could scuttle inside to their cabin. The voyage took five days, rolling on a sullen sea, with nothing to see apart from more sea.
There was little for Caterine and Steven to do on board, except eat and sleep, read and chat to the few fellow passengers. Some were returning to St Helena and only a very few were history tourists like themselves. Steven, and then Caterine in turn, read through both parts of Dr John’s journals, and both ended up puzzled by the last cryptic comment about the visit to Paris.
On the fifth afternoon, one of the other passengers told them that land was in sight and they hurried on deck to watch the desolate island come into view. It was a bleak sight, its sheer basalt cliffs rising steeply out of the sea and presenting no discernible way to land. They could see no way it would be possible to land.
John had experienced a strange presence beside him as they had left Capetown to travel to St Helena, and he felt it again as he and Caterine leaned on the ship’s railings watching in fascination as the great volcanic structure came into view. It must have much as Doctor John had done in 1819, with Emily, John and Arthur beside him. Again he had the feeling of walking in his ancestor’s footsteps.
St Helena was an anticlimax. They had three days to spend before taking ship again, this time to Ascension Island. In truth, three days was more than they needed, and if the island had not been Napoleon’s prison, there would be no reason for anyone to visit the place. Its raison d’etre in the 18th and 19th centuries was clear, as a provisioning stop between India and England. That purpose was now long in St Helena’s past, and still it staggered on, a tiny pebble remaining from the once great edifice of the British Empire.
There were few visitors, due of course, to the remoteness of this speck in the Atlantic Ocean, and due too to the time involved and the cost of travelling there. Very occasionally small guided parties, normally Napoleonic buffs, came to see where their hero had spent the last years of his life. Smaller numbers of, generally British, sceptics came too, but they were less persuaded as to the Emperor’s greatness. The island lacked beaches, casinos, tourist facilities or even large towns. It lacked just about everything except its history as the place where Napoleon had lived for nearly six years and where he had died.
They visited Longwood House, a piece of France in the ocean, granted as sovereign territory by Queen Victoria. The tricolour flew bravely from the grounds of what was now a museum. The Curator, and French Consul was a young Frenchman with excellent English, Jean-Pierre Pinaud. He was clearly very taken with Caterine and spoke to them for over an hour. Steven produced the letter allegedly sent by Bertrand and explained that the paper and ink had been authenticated as being from the right period.
Jean-Pierre was thoughtful. “We have a wealth of material here from the time of the Emperor’s imprisonment. Would you like to see some to compare the writing.”
“You have papers by Bertrand?” Caterine spoke excitedly.
“Yes, not everything was sent to Paris.” He produced a variety of material, all carefully enclosed in plastic folders.
It did not take long. The handwriting on Steven’s letter was almost certainly that of General Bertrand. They left Longwood in a fever of excitement, but a little chastened by the Consul’s parting words. “You should speak to Jacques Hulin at the Institut Napoleon in Paris. He is the real expert in this area.”
Hulin was calling them again.
They visited Plantation House, and Napoleon’s first grave before the body was returned to France and the other places of which Steven had read so avidly in these last few months, where they still existed.
And then it was over and they were in their hotel in Jamestown having dinner on their last evening. The second part of John’s journal lay open on the table in front of him.
“Alors, m’sieur le detective, have you enjoyed our little visit to the ends of the earth?”
He grinned, “Yes, I think so. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I am not sure if I have found it.”
“And have you now got John and the Emperor out of your system?”
“Maybe, but I am grateful to them both. They brought you to me.”
Caterine smiled, and reached across the dining table to touch his hand, knocking over a glass and spilling water over the open journal. Steven grabbed a napkin and began soaking up the water from the pages, but even as he did so, he saw that writing was beginning to appear on one of the blank pages. Steven slowly stopped his dabbing and gazed in amazement.
“My God, Caterine, just look at this.”
She joined him on his side of the table and watched as John’s handwriting appeared on the previously blank page.
“This is astonishing! It is just what we used to call ‘invisible ink’ when we were kids. You write on paper with this special ink and when it dries, the writing disappears. To get it back, you wet the page. Why didn’t I think of that before?”
“What does it say?”
“As far as I can tell, it’s all about de Montholon.” He poured some mineral water into a glass and, wetting the cloth napkin, carefully moistened the blank pages.
“Steven, let’s finish our dinner and play this game in our bedroom. Everyone is looking at you as if you’re crazy.”
And that is just what they did. In their room, he went back to the first blank page, just after John had written on his meeting with Dr O’Meara.
In the opinion of Dr O’Meara there is much advantage in raising with the Count de Montholon the question of Napoleon’s life and of his enemies. In O’Meara’s opinion, the Count was the most important person in the Napoleonic court, and very close to many aspects of the Emperor’s views. By the time O’Meara had left the island, de Montholon had supplanted everyone, including Bertrand in Napoleon’s affection and trust.
Carefully, Steven and Caterine separated and moistened the blank pages, reading eagerly the long hidden words which had been compelled to reappear. It was all about de Montholon, but none of it accusatory. It simply said that the Count had, increasingly over the years of captivity, wormed his way into Napoleon’s inner circle to the exclusion of all others. Bertrand had been bitter about this, and Fanny Bertrand cyclically amused. Both were convinced that his motives were to obtain the lion’s share of Napoleon’s will. They read with a mixture of horror and excitement the exact words of Bertrand’s letter which appeared in the blank page following John’s meeting with him and Madame Bertrand.
He looked at her. “That clinches it. The letter is at least genuine even if it gives no proof of anything.”
Caterine nodded. “You must remember that Bertrand hated de Montholon for taking the number one position with Napoleon.”
Sir Hudson Lowe had admired the duplicity of the Count and Antommarchi had despised him. John had annotated his meeting with the Marquis de Montchenu with the comment; ‘This matter cannot be concluded in a satisfactory manner without meeting with the Count de Montholon’.
Dr Arnott, who had been doctor to the de Montholons had expressed the view that the Count had indeed been a secret Royalist, and cited by way of evidence, his close friendship with de Montchenu, the Royalist Commissioner. Many people mentioned almost as a matter of established fact, the rumour that Albine de Montholon had been mistress to Napoleon, who was believed to have fathered at least one of her children born on the island. And then, shatteringly, just after John’s account of his meeting with Dr Walter Henry was the note:
Our Ambassador in Paris informed me by letter today that should I care to visit Paris, the Count de Montholon would be pleased to meet with me. It is essential to the completion of my duty to His Grace the Duke that I undertake this journey, although it is with a heavy heart and not a little foreboding.
And then came the final entry in John’s journal, the chilling little message that had intrigued Steven for so long:
And so, tomorrow my enquiries will take me to Paris; the Lord only knows what I may find there, even after this time.
That night, their final night on St Helena, Steven’s dream came roaring back, all the more frightening because he now understood it so much better. Again it was the Rue de Rivoli, with the men and women walking and talking, the skirts swirling, the parasols fluttering. There were the two well dressed men arguing, and the two smaller poorly dressed men following the stoutish man as he crossed the street. The shots rang out and the figure lay still on the pavement, face down, blood staining the ground. And there was Dr John, looking at the body, then turning to Steven, his hand outstretched, his face smiling. Next to him stood Steven’s father, his brother Arthur and his mother, all smiling, all with their hands outstretched in greeting. “Welcome, Steven.” John put his hand on Steven’s shoulder.
He awoke screaming, his eyes blank, his mind in a disordered turmoil. Caterine was shaking him, her hands on his shoulders.
“Steven, Steven, wake up, wake up! Where are you?”
He surfaced at last from his nameless sea, slowing coming back to St Helena in 2002, and saw the wide eyes and pale face of his wife. He held her and sobbed until he could cry no more. He then retold her of the dream, starting in the Rue de Rivoli on their holiday and increasing in detail and intensity ever since.
“What is it, Caterine? Do you understand what is happening?”
She didn’t, and he didn’t and they held each other until morning.
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