He was looking for a tree in the middle of an island, in the middle of an ocean. He climbed upwards, faltering as the earth lurched. He cursed himself for losing his balance. He’d need to find his land legs after so long on the waves. He’d need to find his land sight, because everything seemed strange now that he was accustomed to the ship and the swaying seas.
He stopped for a moment and observed the steep cliffs, as sharp as a saw. How this landscape must have cut the soul of the Emperor Napoleon, exiled by the cruel victors after Waterloo, imprisoned here on St. Helena: the remotest island on earth.
It was September, 1837. The lone walker was in his late twenties, of average height, well-built and strong, with heavy eyelids and thin dark hair. François Lelièvre – dressed as a crewman – was a blacksmith from Normandy, hired to serve on board the French whaler, the Nil.
It was his ship of exile. He was destined to roam, he believed, since the failed Bonapartist uprising of the year before. France had rejected him, and so he would be a homeless wanderer, with only the hope of visiting this one place in all the world where he could find a brief moment of rest.
He had to go on. The first mate would start wondering where he was.
François Lelièvre planted each foot firmly on the ground and quickened his pace. At the top of the next hill he picked seeds of aloes and wild geraniums and stuffed them in his pocket. After rounding a bend, he walked past a residence bleakly named ‘The Briars’. A Union Jack was flapping at the top of a high pole.
He strode even faster, until at last he paused again and turned to look down at the ships anchored at harbour, and the bleached houses of Jamestown. The settlement seemed now to be just a cluster of paper cuttings stashed in a huge grey fold of rock far below. How could people live here?
Panting, François now shook off his sailor’s jacket and tied it around his waist. He pulled his black cap down tightly on his head so that the blustering air wouldn’t whip it away.
It was quiet; no birds were singing. The wind pulled at his shirt and tugged at his trousers, like the fingers of a port whore. He drank from a water bottle.
He looked ahead again to a tribe of goats on the green grass and beyond to the mountain top, where clouds lay like a pile of carded wool. He gazed down at a dazzling view of the southern coast laced with thin white waves. There was nothing to this island.
Going on, he took a path away from the main track and scampered along a meandering route down into a small, woody valley. He was following directions given to him at the alehouse, and everything was as expected.
A paradise. He entered another world. There was birdsong and the sense of a tiny forest.
As he descended he looked at a stream formed by a natural spring, an area of grass and wild flowers, and several weeping willows, framed by a fence. As if to welcome him, the sun came out and shone down, like a man with a gaslight showing him a sacred grotto, and he paused, a little shy. Delicately, he opened the gate, and paced forwards.
The grave of Emperor Napoleon lay not far from the stream, behind a plain iron railing, with his name on a concrete slab: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’.
François felt a rising tightness, and dropped to his knees. How could they do this? How could they not return his body to the French people, to lie in French earth?
He could not help himself and began to cry. But as he wept he found his anger turning to awe. To think that Napoleon himself lay beneath! Here he was, kneeling next to the emperor.
Over the grave hung the largest of the weeping willows, brushing its branches on the iron railings. He knew what had been said, that it was under this very tree that the emperor used to sit in his terrible solitude – writing, remembering. A rustling breeze blew the leaves of this and other willows edging the stream, making their boughs sway like skirts, and the water pattered like dancing feet on an earth floor. Such natural motion surrounded a point of utter immovability: that concrete slab, a coffin. Here they’d buried him, in this place where Napoleon had spent his lonely days.
And then the stab of a voice.
“Oy, Frenchie. Come ‘ere alone, did ya?”