by Diane Scott Lewis
eBook ISBN: 9781615723713
Print ISBN: 9781615723720
In 1815, Napoleon is exiled to remote Helena. Chef’s daughter, Amélie, is determined to rise in importance and entice her emperor with her singing voice. Amélie suspects someone in their entourage is poisoning him. She must earn his love, uncover the culprit and join in Napoleon’s last great battle, a dangerous escape.
From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step—Napoleon Bonaparte
At the news she’d waited ten weeks to hear, Amélie Perrault pushed through the red-coated soldiers and squeezed past sailors to reach the rail. The wood slimy in her grip, she chewed on the tip of her thumbnail and stared at a sea so long empty. A dark mass shrouded in mist hovered on the horizon.
HMS Northumberland scudded closer under billowing sails. The mist faded, lifted like a veil by the ship’s prow. More of the French crowded around, jabbing her with elbows as pointed as their words. Whimpers, cries and stale perfume filled the air.
St. Helena’s perimeters were forbidding, a citadel cloaked in splintered cliffs.
“She’s a volcanic fist, spewed up from the sea.” Amélie rubbed a hand below her bodice to smooth down the churning knot in her stomach. A defiant place to cling to this last drop of ocean, the island was no paradise.
She bit down on her lip. Had she insisted on accompanying her father only to suffer a fate worse than being trapped under her brother’s thumb in France?
, we sailed a thousand leagues for that black wart?” Clarice elbowed a path to the rail. The chambermaid’s daughter swayed her hips with the motion of the ship. “The English are fiends to have forced us to come.”
The smug faces of the nearby English officers proved they were relieved to banish the deposed emperor of the French and his followers to this desolate spot in the South Atlantic.
“That’s only the outer shell. St. Helena has to be lush farther in, or how could anyone survive here?” Amélie leaned forward and studied the terrain—soaring basalt peaks that stabbed into a whirl of clouds. She suppressed a shiver.
“We’ll die here,” Clarice snapped. “That’s what our captors want.”
“At least it is land. Fresh fruits and vegetables.” Amélie’s stomach rumbled at the hard biscuits she’d eaten earlier. Bug-riddled tack was all they had left after a storm chased the flotilla away from the African coast. A gust of wind slapped at her salt-crusted hair. She pressed the teak rail and couldn’t allow her resolve to whip away. She’d sought a grand adventure, the chance to be of use to her emperor. “The island is an important port for the East India Company.”
“Did you study this wart in one of your precious books?” Clarice puckered her upper lip between plump cheeks. “You try to act smart, but you look like a little girl. It’s absurd for the head chef’s daughter to be so skinny.”
“You take too much pleasure in being rude. There’s nothing wrong with me or reading.” Amélie touched her bony hip and glared sidelong at Clarice, someone she’d tried to befriend but failed. Two weeks into the voyage, she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. “How tragic some women don’t bother to learn anything.”
“My mother says reading is wasted on women.” Clarice put one hand on her hip and tossed back her head, her favorite pose. Her white cap fluttered in the breeze. She brushed her fingers over her cleavage. “Unless I rot here, or the men are blind, I’ll make my way.”
“You would throw yourself at strange men?” Amélie gripped the rail again as the ship rolled. Water sloshed over her feet and she curled her toes in sodden shoes.
“One man is the same as another.”
“They all seem different to me.” Unattainable, never attracted to her, but at the ripe old age of nineteen—the same age as Clarice—Amélie hadn’t cared, and nurtured her brain. Like her desires for the island, she’d rely on her interior.
The wind swirled around her and she stuffed unruly tresses her mother once called honey-gold under her straw hat. Her throat tightened at that memory, her mother lost to her too soon, too quickly.
The ship’s officers on deck shouted orders. Sailors scrambled up the rigging of the seventy-four-gun man-of-war and began to trim the sails. The Union Jack snapped above their heads. Amélie closed her eyes for a moment and imagined the tricolor of imperial France. But the enemy flag remained.
“St. Helena looks like the Devil’s last shit before he dropped into Hell.” Saint-Denis, one of the emperor’s valets, pushed up in the crowd behind the two girls. “Oh, sorry if I’ve offended your delicate ears.” His sooty eyes flashed above his usual smirk.
Amélie smiled at his frank humor. “We’re at the end of the world, with spring now in October. Everything is flipped upside down.” But nothing as it should be might work in her favor. An unusual place for an ill-fitting young woman.
She remembered when the Southern Cross replaced the familiar North Star in the night sky as they sailed south of the equator. That change both intrigued and troubled her, emphasizing the vast distance of their exile.
Saint-Denis swept back his dark hair as he towered over them. “A dismal plop of lava, but let’s hope we make these English scoundrels regret their error.”
“Where is His Majesty? Isn’t he coming up to see the island?” Amélie scanned the sad faces around her, her breath sharp in anticipation.
“The emperor will never escape from here as he did Elba.” Clarice turned to Saint-Denis, her eyes half closed. “I’ve wanted to ask you—does His Majesty mind if his valets marry?” She nestled into his side.
Saint-Denis chuckled, but raised his shoulder as if to fence her out. “Our emperor will handle the situation, mes jeune filles. Excuse me, I must go below and attend him.” The valet tipped his hat to the girls before he stepped back and strutted off, his legs like rapiers in white silk stockings. Amélie hid a grin when Clarice bristled cat-like at his indifference to her charms.
“Maybe we won’t have to stay long. France and England might allow us to return to Europe if political situations change.” Amélie sighed, unsure if she wanted that either. She’d be one of too many in the bustle of civilization, back to the ordinary, again shuffled aside. In a quick sniff, she inhaled the scent of earth that drifted over the saline sea. “My emperor has faced adversity many times before.” She’d grasp that tenacity for herself.
“Your emperor, is it?” Clarice puckered her lip again, her hazel eyes assessing. “We should worry about our own future. You need to stop drooling over something you’ll never have. Try enticing one of his valets.”
“I’m not—” Amélie’s cheeks burned. She swallowed her anger. She’d devise a way to be important to her sovereign, though not in the manner Clarice insinuated. “A clever woman can have influence that has nothing to do with scandal. Have you no pride?”
“Pride will get you little on the Devil’s last shit.” Clarice wriggled out from the gaping group of people and sauntered down the deck. Several sailors leered at her buttocks through the clinging sheath of her dress.
Near the main mast Amélie’s father motioned for her to join him. She waved, but ignored the summons. He mustn’t treat her as a child. She left the rail, and walked in the opposite direction. The planks heaved like a living thing beneath her and she adjusted her gait.
The ship drew nearer, the sea splattering against her hull. A cleft in the rock revealed the port of Jamestown—whitewashed houses with red roofs, a church steeple, and a large building with bastions resembling a castle. To her relief, a few palm trees peeked out near the wharf.
Two towering cliffs topped with cannons crowded in a V formation on both sides of the town, as if the island cracked open like a crusty walnut. Watchtowers, sentry boxes, and fluttering Union Jacks bordered the skyline, all symbolizing a fortress on the underbelly of the world.
A loud boom of cannons resounded from one of the peaks, announcing the ship’s arrival.
Bumped by a sailor who ran by, Amélie stumbled over a coil of rope and squeezed against the rail. A French officer pulled off his hat and bowed. She whirled about.
The emperor stepped out onto the deck. A few people scattered to give him an unobstructed view. More of the French swept off hats and all chatter ceased. Amélie dropped into a curtsy as her emperor raised his field glasses and stared in silence.
Northumberland’s officers kept their hats in place. “Take notice, men. Let’s see how General Buonaparte fares in this, his last campaign,” one lieutenant said in overloud French.
Amélie cringed. Nothing in her sovereign’s expression revealed what he might have felt in his heart. His face, rounded in middle age, shone pale as ivory. His jaw was still determined as in the paintings she’d seen of him in the midst of battle. Flanked by his generals in their high-collared blue tunics with gold braid, his attire remained simple. The emperor wore a long gray coat over a plain uniform, yet his signature cocked hat distinguished him anywhere.
Napoleon lowered the glasses and scanned with his piercing gaze over the ship’s company. Then, with his officers, he turned and went below.
Amélie rubbed goose bumps from her arms. With no experience, and being a woman, she wondered—would Napoleon appreciate her acumen now that they shared such close quarters or would he scorn her efforts? She must prove herself in some capacity as an integral part of her emperor’s staff, and breathed her sigh into the wind.
* * * *
Napoleon entered his cabin below the quarterdeck, passing the cots in the after-cabin where his officers slept crowded together amongst the smell of dirty feet. The two generals who accompanied him bowed and he dismissed them. He dropped his field glasses on top of his trunk. “The island is not a pretty place. I would have done better to stay in Egypt.”
“I agree with you, Sire.” Saint-Denis, who followed behind, took Napoleon’s coat and hung it on a peg. The valet picked up the field glasses and polished the lenses with a cloth. “You taught me well about your glory days in Egypt.”
“Yes, yes, and I nicknamed you ‘Ali’, to replace that Mameluke.” These memories from sixteen years before gave Napoleon a moment of pleasure. In Egypt he’d thrived as the assured young general, intent on broadening French influence in the Orient, though he’d failed in that enterprise. “But my glory came later.” Warmth trickled through him when he pictured his return to Paris and the coup that thrust him in control of France. Such ascendancy from nowhere had threatened the established monarchs. He stared around the bleak little cabin and grumbled, “Ah, my boy, I brought them to their knees in battle. Now they triumph in their revenge.”
Napoleon had tensed on deck when that English officer tried to insult him by lowering his status to a mere army officer, along with the Corsican pronunciation of his name.
He massaged his pinched neck and sighed. The weight that tormented him bore down harder. He’d hoped to be received as an honored guest by the British, but instead they humiliated him into the position of captive and forced him out here. He fought to remain in good humor—yet seeing the object of exile before him, could he rally enough inner strength?
The incessant bilge pumps slogged below, rattling the deck beneath his feet. The brackish stink thickened the air and he wrinkled his sensitive nose. Napoleon pressed on his stomach, thinking of all the seasickness he’d suffered. “I’ll be relieved to leave this ship at any rate. Hand me the St. Helena map.”
Saint-Denis retrieved it from atop several papers shoved in a valise. He set out the bonbonniére containing licorice, Napoleon’s remedy for indigestion. “I thought you might need this as well, Sire.”
“No, not yet, you rascal. It’s folly to despair…this soon.” Napoleon appreciated his second-valet’s droll humor. It often soothed his melancholy.
In the light from his cabin’s one porthole, he ran his fingers over the sketch, the rough edges of an island that looked like a forgotten blot of ink floating in water.
Napoleon eased into his armchair with a grunt. He brushed his fingers over the Legion of Honor on his breast, the medal he’d created to encourage excellence among his men. Such baubles did him little good now. Would his wife and child care if they ever saw him again? Josephine might have. He sighed at his grief over that good woman’s passing—the intense love of his youth.
With the map crumpled in his fingers, Napoleon resisted the urge to rip it in half. He looked up at the gangly young man who attended him. “Well, Ali, you see where miscalculation has landed us? Write this down for posterity: ‘We’ve arrived, October 14, 1815.’ Let’s hope this isn’t my last campaign. I must bestir myself to fresh ideas.”
* * * *
The skin on the back of Amélie’s neck prickled with the rattle and squeak of the chains as the Northumberland dropped anchor. From their wood-framed, canvas cabin, below the ship’s gun decks, she heard the final splash into the sea.
“Admiral Cockburn will take over St. Helena’s administration now that we’re here,” François Perrault said. “The island’s governor is being brought on board to confer with him.”
“The admiral is too arrogant. The English are cruel to refuse His Majesty’s title.” She snatched the covers across her bed and folded clothes stiff with salt. The denial of her emperor added to the slipping of her importance in these events.
“There’s a lot of bitterness toward a man who fought their country all these years.” Perrault wrapped up his cookware and placed it in his trunk. Her father glanced over at her and combed a hand through his thatch of gray hair. “Are you sorry you wanted to come with me? You might have been happier staying in Lyon.”
“Mais non, Papa. I’m pleased to accompany you. I’ll manage fine.” Amélie kept her voice light, uncomfortable explaining her desires to her father. Selfish enough to use their relationship as an excuse to be here, she didn’t think he’d understand her wish to move beyond the dreary life under the Bourbon restoration.
Her father bustled about the tiny space, meticulous in his arranging, and it saddened her that he looked frail, so much older. He might need her after their two years apart. She’d joined the entourage at the last minute at Malmaison, before the chaotic trek to the sea eleven days after the battle of Waterloo.
Their door flap pushed open. “They’re saying we can’t leave the ship yet. Je m’inquiéte.” Philippe Gascon mopped his brow and flabby cheeks with a handkerchief. The pastry chef gave one of his dismal moans. “I barely survived the crossing, and now my poor head is splitting.”
“Then we’ll just have to wait, my friend.” Perrault nodded, sat on his trunk and retrieved his book by Condorcet as if to discourage Chef Gascon from lingering. Amélie had been reading The Odyssey, which seemed painfully relevant. She coughed and waved away smoke from the sputtering lantern. The light stretched their shadows along the canvas walls.
Amélie slipped from the flimsy chamber as the two men continued to talk. She climbed the ladder to topside and breathed in the fresh air that washed away the stink of perspiration and tar below decks. Soldiers tramped by her to load into skiffs as the Northumberland grunted at her moorings. Nearly a thousand men, spread over several ships, had been deployed to guard the infamous captive. Next, the tall, haughty admiral—England’s officer in charge of Napoleon—boated ashore with a man she assumed was the governor.
“The admiral leaves to scout for a suitable residence for us.” A voice from behind made Amélie look over her shoulder. Louis Marchand, Napoleon’s chief valet, walked up to the rail beside her. His soft-featured face and serious brown eyes wore a gentle expression. “Here’s our new home. Sorry it’s no enchanted land. You’ll have ample time to read.”
She wanted more than reading. Like the men, she’d enjoy discussing literature, exploits on battlefields and exotic places with their emperor. “His Majesty should never have trusted that English captain who insisted he’d be received with kindness if he surrendered to the British.”
“You’re right, we were fooled by the enemy. But His Majesty didn’t want to risk running the blockade.” Marchand spoke with a quiet grace.
“He used to take risks. We might be in America by now.” Amélie danced her fingers along the dipping and rising rail, then turned her back on the people craning their necks on shore. Numerous inhabitants had swarmed like locusts to the wharf the minute their vessel entered the roadstead. “Does His Majesty anticipate he’ll be released from here, or taken someplace…more accessible?”
“I believe he does. The emperor wrote in protest to England’s prince, but received no reply. Time will tell what we must do next.”
The rigging and ship’s fabric creaked around them. Amélie shifted with the slight roll of the deck and appreciated the concern on the valet’s face for his master’s plight. She coveted his closeness with their emperor.
“This is a terrible fall. Our emperor will have to rely on people he never did before.” She ran her ragged thumbnail along her tongue and compared their sovereign, this voyage, to the trials of Odysseus. Was she a rope-thin Calypso? Amélie faced the island with a frown. They’d come to the end of the wine-dark sea. Did opportunities or demons await?
* * * *
At sunset, three days later, Amélie noticed the onshore crowd remained undaunted, holding up lanterns winking in the twilight. The French grumbled and sighed as they crawled down into the skiffs. Oars dipped into water and soldiers rowed the boats ashore. Amélie rocked in her little boat beside her father, fishy-smelling broth sloshing around them, and tried not to stare at the islanders’ eager faces.
During their anchorage in Plymouth Sound, hundreds of people in boats had paddled toward their ship to surround it, calling out Bonaparte. England’s Parliament, however, decided Napoleon’s presence weakened Louis XVIII’s monarchy and the Prince Regent denied their request for asylum. Now the emperor didn’t wish to be gawked at, and they skulked in shadows onto an island that stank as mildewed as the warship they left.
At the slime-covered landing stairs, Amélie grabbed the hand rope to steady herself and a soldier hauled her up. She tottered beside her father along the tiny quay, thankful to be on a surface that didn’t jounce. A short street paralleled the wharf, separated from it by a rampart and moat spanned by a drawbridge. Her heartbeat trebling, she entered a fortress to be swallowed up.
A line of armed soldiers held the crowd of onlookers at bay. The Imperial Court passed through first, their progress noted by gasps and whispered comments. Amélie’s head reeled as she stared at the soldier’s rigid backs, their rifles with bayonets thrust high in the air.
By the flickering light of torches, the colonial town looked shabby, huddled on its main street. Amélie forced her head erect and matched her father’s pace, squishing along in shoes that never dried since the voyage began. She clenched her hands on her elbows and mused that freedom might be more important than grand adventures.
Soldiers ushered their solemn group past a church and into a large white building at the beginning of the street. A British officer scrutinized them with a sneer once they assembled inside. “Unpack, make yourselves, harrumph, at home. You may be in this boarding house for a few months. The permanent quarters, chosen by the honorable Admiral Cockburn, need extensive renovations. We’ve only a few people to spare with those skills.”
The soldiers started to shuffle baggage and people into various rooms.
“A few months? It’s as I feared, nothing will go well for us here.” Gascon shook his lumpy head, his cheeks and jowls quivering like an undercooked soufflé.
“It could be worse. They almost made us stay aboard the ship.” Perrault clasped his shoulder.
“Only dead at the bottom of the ocean is worse than this.” Madame Cloubert, Clarice’s mother, rushed past them in a flurry of arms like twigs on a spindly tree. “Where is that loafing husband of mine?”
Amélie and Perrault were shown to one chamber with two narrow beds. She glanced around the dingy room. Far too old to continue sharing with her father, she moved around trying not to fall over him. Her roiling innards might settle in a room that no longer swayed, though her legs wobbled as if she still maneuvered the ship. “Perhaps we can ask for a screen to put between the beds. I hope they’ve found us something decent for our regular household.”
“Let’s be confident they did, ma petite.” Perrault smiled in his fleeting way. His bold features and bronze complexion made him look like he’d weathered years behind a plow instead of a stove. He hefted his trunk into a corner.
Her father’s smile used to reassure her, but sadness lingered beneath it. Always sparing with his emotions, he acted more taciturn since her mother’s death. Sent from Paris to Lyon after that, Amélie hadn’t seen that much of him. Her two older brothers had their own lives and families in France. Here she was all he had left, but he needed to treat her as a woman, not his little girl. Restless inside, she burst out at the seams like a changing creature—a caterpillar rustling in its cocoon.
Amélie opened her small trunk and checked her books for damage, the scent of the leather and paper soothing. She unwrapped and took out the miniature she always carried of her mother: a lovely and sweet presence flattened in paint. Sometimes Amélie wanted to ask her father if Maman had always been beautiful, never an awkward moment, but to her regret, neither of them spoke of her anymore.
She ran a finger over her mother’s face and tucked the painting back. “What purpose does the East India Company use this island for, besides supplying ships, so far away from anything?”
“Ships traveling to and from the Orient stop here to replenish, yes. They drop off their ill, business like that.” Perrault opened his portmanteau near the sagging bed closest to the wall. He pulled out a shirt and smoothed down the wrinkles. At forty-eight her father looked like he’d shrunk below his average height, or had she grown that much taller?
Amélie removed a few items from her trunk. Her bodice chafed under her arms and she turned away to scratch. “It will be a relief to wash our clothes in fresh water and rinse away the itchy salt.” Braced against the mattress edge, she slipped off a shoe and rubbed her foot through her damp stocking. “I suppose we have to look for anything to be thankful for.”
He stared up, his gray eyes intent. “I didn’t expect the island to be like this…for your sake.”
“I’m prepared for any hardship.” She tried a comforting smile to mask her qualms. Her fears that she’d sink under the privation and fall mired into the background, but if she never tried, how else could she test her strength?
A child screamed in the hallway. Amélie stepped out to see a frantic mother chase after, scolding him. From behind closed doors flowed strident and arguing voices. A woman wept.
Bumping noises on the outside wall drew her to a window. Heads bobbed behind the panes, people shoving one another from the yard to peek in. All the windows had cheeks and noses, mists of hot breath, pressed against the glass.
“Ecoutez, we won’t stand for it. These fools must be cleared away from the building immediately.” The Count de Montholon, one of Napoleon’s courtiers, clipped down the hall in his shiny boots. The medium-sized man cut a sleek figure in his tailored blue coat with diagonal bars and gold sash piped in blue. Amélie pictured him as something slippery, gliding off a rock into the sea. “What kind of lawless establishment are they running here?”
Clarice strutted over and waved toward the windows. “Such idiots, gawping out there, spying on us.”
“They think we’re animals in a zoo,” Amélie said. In a crack of wood, someone pried open a nearby window sash. She rushed forward and slammed it back down, then met her reflection. Her large brown eyes stared back, wary and distorted in the uneven pane.
“These excitement-starved natives want a view of His Majesty,” Saint-Denis said in amused exasperation when he strolled up pulling one of the imperial trunks. “We’ve hung cloaks over the curtains to shield the emperor’s chamber. Marchand and I will sleep outside his door, to be on guard through the night.”
“You’re very brave.” Clarice flashed him a smile, which he appeared to ignore.
“Too bad the islanders knew we were coming,” Amélie said. One of the admiral’s flotilla had arrived five days before the Northumberland.
“As forever as it takes for news to reach them out here,” Saint-Denis snorted, “I’m sure they were quite shocked to learn of His Majesty’s leaving Elba, Waterloo, and now…”
The boarding house owner hurried past them with the count talking in his ear and Madame Cloubert fast on their heels. The head chambermaid halted in front of the two girls and valet, her angular face scrunched up like a peach pit. “That island innkeeper insists his place is clean. Check your beds with care tonight. Bugs crawled all over mine. Must we settle for any scrap from the British? Clarice, help me find your father.”
“Oh, Maman, Papa probably doesn’t want to be found,” Clarice said in a sullen voice as she traipsed after her mother.
“Madame Cloubert and Clarice always insist on sharing their opinions.” Amélie swallowed a laugh. “But neither dares grumble loud enough for the emperor to hear. Oh—”
Napoleon strode down the passage with his grand marshal, Count Bertrand.
Saint-Denis set down the trunk and gestured for Amélie to move back to the wall. He slipped beside her, bowed, and lowered his eyes. She still managed a peek, one of many.
Her emperor’s reddish-brown hair looked silky above his short neck and broad shoulders. He wore his green jacket with scarlet collar and cuffs of a colonel of the Chasseurs of the Guard, his medals glinting in candlelight from the wall sconces. His belly protruding over his breeches altered him from the gaunt young officer who wrested France from the Directors. Napoleon’s portrait as First Consul, hanging in their Paris cottage, had shown a hawk-like visage with penetrating eyes.
Amélie glanced down at her shapeless body in the high-waisted Greek style chemise, popularized by former Empress Josephine. People seldom controlled the packages they came wrapped in.
Her desire to rise in importance possessed her. She stepped forward, intending to catch the emperor’s eye. Saint-Denis grabbed her arm and jerked her back. Count Bertrand flicked them a surprised glance as he and Napoleon continued past. The two men disappeared around the corner.
“You can’t approach His Majesty like that. You know it’s forbidden,” the valet whispered with a wry smile. “I told you that on the ship. Now try to behave yourself.”
Amélie wriggled from Saint-Denis’ grasp. She poked her sharp shoulder blades into the wall behind her and ran her hands along her arms. If she resembled a moth more than a butterfly, a moth could thrust out its wings and soar just as high.
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