Our Balcombe family
I had just met my husband-to-be when we had word from the Exmouth newspapers and from the harsh cries of coachmen that Our Great Friend had died on the island. This was of course impossible to believe, but we believed in it sufficiently to wail communally and privately. We saw all too sharply in our minds the rooms of Longwood, and that squat, exiled figure peering out of his windows towards the Barn, or Deadwood, or Diana’s Peak, in a manner that foretold a bewildered death. Old family wounds gaped anew, and ghosts of varying colorations were released.
Eventually, something like the true circumstances of that death came to us from the mouth of an old friend, the Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara. Even though the great loss had occurred, it was temporarily an invigorating thing for our Balcombe family to see O’Meara, up from London, flaws and all, and to look to him to interpret the event and help us drink the chalice of bereavement. When we sat by a fire on a rainy day in June at the Swan’s Nest, my father and the Irishman smoking pipes, and a bowl of punch before them, a couple of cups of which my mother was persuaded to take, we glowed with a familial anticipation that despite the circumstances felt like glee. To us, O’Meara had always been a sprite, so we felt strangely eased by the truth that he shared our onus of mourning.
He had arrived in our town the day before and sent us a note inviting us to the Swan’s Nest. When my father received it, he went sallow with rage. On the island he used to get rubicund with irritation, but in England he turned less healthy colors. In the letter O’Meara raised the question of his naval agent, Mr. William Holmes, a man my father suspected of dishonor. Given the risks my father had taken in order secretly to ship off money drafts drawn by Our Great Friend, the idea that some had stuck to Holmes’s hands on the way to Laffitte’s bank in Paris was something odious. None, however, seemed to have stuck to O’Meara’s, and O’Meara defended his friend in any case, saying that Holmes was about to go to Paris to introduce himself to Laffitte and allay suspicions the bank harbored about the origin of the money bills. My father was not utterly convinced, yet in the flatness and desolation of our lives, we were still pleased to see the face of a fellow conspirator from the island, a face rendered grayer, and his gray suit, familiar from the island, older.
By then it was three weeks since the news of OGF’s death had come to us by way of the papers, and we were hungry for salient detail, to serve as palpable shelves on which we would stack our grief. Like soldiers of the Grande Armée, who had reportedly, on hearing the news, limped forth into town squares in France, looking about in shock, unable to accommodate themselves to the obliteration from the earth of that Force, we too were shocked. The newspaper accounts, even the well-meaning, progressive scribes, did not always avoid false premises concerning the Emperor and his exile, and were unable to recount credibly what had happened at Longwood House weeks before, since none of them had ever seen the island. We were consoled by the honest accounts of the Morning Chronicle when it arrived in Exminster from London. The Chronicle had the advantage of sources amongst those not rancorous to the Emperor, his admirers and in some cases old friends. But we were appalled by other at best grudging reports, such as that in The Times, which purported to recount the death of a man we could not recognize from the text. All this had deepened our familial depression, of course. We had been suffering for allegiances and services of various kinds to the living Emperor, and now he was gone, our suffering lacked meaning. Most of the time we crept about each other, being terribly kind, even me, the sort of kindness that confessed vacancy at our hearts, and a sense of the meaninglessness before us.
And then there came the letter from O’Meara promising to settle with my father the question of Holmes—and that he could give us the truth of OGF’s expiring. With these offers O’Meara raised hope that he might return to us our meaning. He told us he had heard from surgeons still on the island the circumstances of the Emperor’s death.
O’Meara drank up his cup of punch with relish, and that oval, beaming face with the curly black hair now touched with gray seemed to revive before us, and thus a little of the island and the times of promise were restored. There was no layer of despair over his features. He was writing a book, and he believed that would redeem him. My father served him a second cup with a ladle, and he raised it and said solemnly, “I propose a health to the memory of Our Great Friend, whose constitution was destroyed by the Fiend, Sir Hudson Lowe!”
Jane, my sister, and I were restricted to tea, and my brothers to cherry sodas. I suspected all at once, unlike our parents, who had been cosseted by the punch, that O’Meara might alter things for us; that the Fiend and the island might now become the one dream, and that all the questions arising from that time might be swallowed in the ocean of OGF’s demise. But it could not happen until the matter and process of death was detailed for us.
“I once took out a septic tooth from the Great Ogre,” declared O’Meara. “A canine tooth. And now I scrape a crust of bread, and let me tell you it is a thin enough crust, out of the septic teeth of Edgware Road—an Indian, Jewish, and Arabian clientele by and large. I am limited to places beyond the eye of the College of Surgeons, and must proceed carefully and modestly if I am ever to be reinstated. And that is the work of Lowe by Name and Nature.”
“Ah,” my father said, warmed by the punch and by an animosity not native to him. “I know, though, that you write pieces in the Chronicle and The Times, Barry, still hammering that man, and justly so. And declaring other things as well.”
“The men who read that don’t know I am a dental surgeon. The people from whom I draw teeth and the men who publish and read don’t know each other. It is incumbent upon me . . .”
Here the Irish surgeon realized he was speaking rather loudly, and dropped his voice, but there was still color in his face, as if he were being criticized. “It is incumbent upon me to strike that fiend, Sir Hudson, who has violated all human expectation. None of it makes me a rich fellow, but it sustains me as a poor one.”
My father raised his hand appeasingly, palm out. “You realize that for my part I am with you in the proposition that there does not exist sufficient ink in this world to supply an appropriate condemnation of Lowe by Name and Nature.”
“The Fiend and Our Great Friend,” murmured O’Meara, making the implicit contrast between the small, mean man with all his petty civil and military titles and the small, spacious man with all his flaws. “Do you know that when I left the island they gave him a Corsican horse doctor? You heard that?”
“I had not in any detail,” my father admitted. “We are far from reliable intelligence in this little town. I have had a few letters from islanders, some intercepted by the powers of the earth along the way, and some smuggled out without interference by store ship captains of my old acquaintance. But even now these missives are a peril to them. Even here, I believe I am subject to a degree of scrutiny.”
Barry O’Meara nodded ponderously and, with a vividness typical of him, said, “I understand well the methods of those who clipped our wings but yet still want to be fully acquainted with what we do in the chicken yard!”
“You mentioned the Corsican doctor,” my mother reminded him.
“I did. Now that Corsican, the supposed doctor Antommarchi, is a prosector, a cutter of corpses! Our friend Fanny Bertrand told me that he laughs wildly when the idea of death is mentioned because he has private theories about what death is and he won’t share them with others. Likewise pain. They are both some sort of human delusion, it seems. If the man would share the secret, it would bring a large saving in opiates.”
Both men chuckled acridly while my mother frowned and let a shiver move through her.
“In any case, this Corsican administered a blistering to Our Great Friend without first shaving the flesh. And to both arms simultaneously! When the man was limp with disease! That barbarous torture brought on a burning rash and OGF cried, ‘Am I not yet free of assassins?’ But our Corsican quack—what does he do but get the giggles and call in Surgeon Arnott, of the infantry, a fellow I happen to know. Now Arnott was in Spain with the 53rd Regiment when they were more than decimated by OGF’s Polish cavalry, with only some fifty-two men left standing at the end. And thus, you see, that is his measure of an emergency, and though an amiable fellow, he is so sanguine a man that he is likely to stand right at the lip of a soldier’s grave and declare the poor fellow’s condition temporary. And so it was Arnott who was brought to see OGF and afterwards reported to Governor Lowe at Plantation House that the Emperor was surprisingly well, given all rumors to the contrary. He said that OGF was suffering from hypochondria. He assured Name and Nature that if a seventy-four-gun warship were to arrive from England suddenly to take the Emperor away from the island, it would instantly put him on his legs again.”
My mother made a sound of incredulity and O’Meara went on.
“In fact, even had such a mercy been considered by the grand Tories of the Cabinet, he would have died at sea before he reached this shore. Our friends at Longwood had long since written to the Cabinet via the Fiend to ask that the Emperor should be removed to another climate, and be permitted to take the waters at some health spa. But Sir Name and Nature refused to allow the letter to be transmitted, all under the old pretext that the suite had used the term ‘Emperor’ in their appeal.”
I remembered that the Dr. Arnott O’Meara spoke of had once paid a visit to Longwood while my father was there, and OGF had greeted him with a jocose question: “How many patients have you killed so far, Mr. Arnott?” The surgeon replied, “Most of my patients happen to have been killed by you, General.”
Already now I saw my sister beside me beginning to tremble. Her father’s daughter, she was overborne by the idea of the ruthless pain to whose ambush humanity was subject, and the onset of her own congestive ailments, signs of which had become visible in the past year, sharpened that. She was more at ease with death than she could ever manage to be with pain. She had become more given to tears, though she had never considered them an enemy or a self-betrayal, even in the years we were on the island. I heard the pace of her wheeze increase now, and I saw her habitual pressing of a handkerchief to her lips. I put my arm around her and enclosed her shoulders. They were almost as thin as they had been six years earlier, when OGF first descended on our garden on the island. Her undeserved affliction was settling in, and the Fiend and great men in England were guilty in part for that too, through the imperfectly sealed cottage we occupied by their implied desire.
“And so,” Barry O’Meara proceeded, “those great minds, Antommarchi the Corsican goat-doser, and Arnott the smiling fool, decided between them that Our Great Friend should be given a lavement. But OGF had never in sickness or health admired the suggestion that he be turned onto his stomach, which was so tender now, and be interfered with at all by surgeons with such indignity, even by those he tolerated, those he did not consider utter charlatans.”
“Like you,” said my father. “He trusted you.”
“A lavement?” asked my mother softly. It seemed a kindly word.
“An enema,” Barry rushed to say. “Certainly, something needed to be done. OGF had been sweating appallingly, and all his mattresses were drenched. My genial informants, Fanny and her husband Henri, also tell me that in the last months the Emperor was like a woman with child, and that everything he ate he vomited. So a lavement was chosen. It would never have been had I been there. It is like trying to erase a bruise from a fist by inflicting one with a mallet! It did nothing to ease his tender stomach. And having failed with one crass remedy, they proceeded to give him castor oil to temper stomach pain, as if he were a child who had eaten too much fruit. The treatment, of course, caused OGF to contort himself into a ball at the base of the bed. The pity of it, Balcombe! The pity! Knotted up like a child, at the base of his bed.”
Jane let her most honest tears loose then—not that she had any other kind.
“Do you want some more tea?” I asked her, but she shook her head and was mute. I dared not look at her for fear now that she would start me on the same course as her, yet I did not want to give Surgeon O’Meara a cause to suspend his report for sensibility’s sake. Indeed, he asked my mother now, in a way that made me remember that he knew much about her from the island,
“Should I perhaps pursue a different subject, Jane?”
“No,” said my mother (another Jane) in a breaking voice. “We seek to know all, Barry. We must go through our obsequies too. If there are moans here, it is no different from what we would have uttered had we been there to witness it all. We would like to have that death defined, for otherwise our imaginations are tempted to think of infinite pain.”
“But I fear it becomes more distressing yet,” O’Meara warned my mother.
“Even so . . . ,” said Jane, my sister.
“Yes,” my mother agreed, “even so.”
O’Meara drained his punch and my father poured him another ladleful to fortify him against our distress. Then he recommenced.
“So the Corsican quack, who at least knew that things were more serious than Arnott did, sent a message to Name and Nature at Plantation House asking Short—the island’s civil doctor you’d remember—and a naval surgeon from the Vigo, Mitchell, to be called in. But sometimes, as I know so well, a congeries of surgeons may simply confirm the party in their worst and least advised opinions. And in any case, battalions of surgeons could not argue with a system so depleted by aggravation and hepatitis as OGF’s.”
The committee of doctors, so O’Meara told us, reached a consensus that the Emperor should rise and be shaved. He told them he was too weak and that he preferred to shave himself but lacked the strength. When Antommarchi and Arnott prodded his liver, the Emperor screamed—it was like a stab from a bayonet—and began to vomit. “What did they all do? Why, nobody worried—they thought it a good sign. And when OGF told them, ‘The devil has eaten my legs,’ they thought it was poetry, not an omen. Arnott reached the dazzling conclusion that the disease lay entirely in the Emperor’s mind. And when Arnott saw Henri Bertrand and the valet Marchand helping OGF walk round the room, he told the others he thought the patient was improving. Arnott did not understand that it was raw courage itself that caused his patient to walk, that he was taking his last steps up Golgotha. So, the surgeons told Sir Hudson Fiend that his prisoner’s pallor and decline were deceits of a disaffected mind. Whereas OGF well knew what was wrong with him. For here, my dear Balcombes, was a great mind, vaster in gifts and power of imagination than the squalid little shambles of their intellects. Not one of them ever asked what the patient thought! For twenty days he told them that it was fegato, his liver. But what would he know?”
“And was it the liver?” asked my father, deeply invested in O’Meara’s narration and enduring it under his conflicting identities as a man befriended, a friend betrayed, a devotee—nonetheless—to the end. My mother was for now silenced by a similar order of grief and confusion. “I mean, entirely the liver?”
“Oh, no, it was sadly the stomach too.” O’Meara grew thoughtful. “Oh, how lucky we were to ride forth with him in those earlier days! I remember watching you two young women accompanying him one day over the edge of the ravine and into that abomination of boulders known as the Devil’s Glen. It was a sight—the three of you, the balance of all he knew and, well, your unworldliness then, in that arena of chaos—that affects me now. As you see, I am close to tears. And to think that OGF reached a stage where he could scarcely bear the fatigue of a ride in the carriage for half an hour, with the horses at a walk, and then could not walk from the carriage into his house without support. Remember his confiseur Pierron, who made those fantastical delicacies for him? Towards the end all that was nothing to OGF—he could digest only soups and jellies, served in those Sèvres bowls on which were painted records of his glories. Both the contents of the bowl and the ornamentation inadequate, alas, to nourish him any further! Our Great Friend choked and gagged and starved for lack of a capacity to swallow, and like many desperate patients he said unkind things. And when he vomited it was black matter, alike to coffee grounds.”
“How could that not have alerted Dr. Arnott and the Corsican?” my mother protested.
“They were associated in denial,” O’Meara explained. “You must understand that each time they saw Name and Nature, he ranted with all the energy he possessed that the illness was a trick to garner the world’s concern. A pretense. That has an influence on men’s thoughts, on the thought of surgeons of limited skill. Sir Hudson Fiend wondered about moving him into that newly built house near Longwood, but the Emperor’s suite knew his condition was terminal, and so did—in their own way—far better surgeons than the claque of asses assigned to the poor fellow. And so did Sir Hudson Fiend, because though he could not stop pretending that the Emperor was a malingerer, he knew in his waters that some fatal stage had been entered on. So he moved himself and his odious chief of police, Sir Thomas Reade, into the new house and waited there. His systems of persecution were close to bringing him a complete result.”
Jane still nursed her tears. We were all pale. Even my little brothers listened soundlessly to O’Meara, to whom they had never in all our time knowing him extended that compliment before.
“De Montholon told me in a letter—I give away no secret; it has been written in the French papers that at four o’clock on one of those last mornings the Emperor called him and related with astonishing and desperate grief that he’d just seen his Josephine and that she would not embrace him. She had disappeared when he reached for her, he said, but not before telling him that they would see each other again, de nouveau. De Montholon reminded him that de nouveau did not mean bientôt. Then he and others set to change the Emperor’s soaked bedclothes and replace the sweat-drenched mattress. This is what it had come to. Better, wrote dear Bertrand to me, that he had been killed by a cannonball, obliterated at dusk on the day of that final battle six years past than die hunched in the bottom half of his bed.”
We could see that O’Meara was nearing an end to his narration. Jane’s unpretentious and authoritative tears increased. My mother’s face held a blue pallor, and my father glowed with a revived unhealthy ruddiness made up of bewildered and conflicting thought and brandy.
“So, OGF was persuaded to move to a new bed in the drawing room since that was more airy. He would let only de Montholon and Marchand the valet help him—a good man altogether, that Marchand. He permitted them to swathe his legs with hot towels.
“Our dear friends had had an altar set up in the next apartment,” O’Meara said. “An Italian priest had landed on the island after we went. Apparently he is a clodhopper, yet the Emperor liked him. If he were not irrational in his friendships, OGF, some of us would not be his friends, would we? And the priest was ordered to say Mass every day. Well, the Emperor had never renounced the Church of Rome, even if he had imprisoned the Pope himself.”
“Mercy, Barry,” my mother pleaded. “You must take us now to the point.”
Yet O’Meara, with a sure instinct, was out to make us share in every detail, as relayed by friends on the island and by the French suite. So we heard how the surgeons decided next to give OGF calomel, mercury chloride, in a desire to make the poor man vomit more black grounds, as if these too were part of a mental attitude that must be corrected. But they had overdosed him with ten grains of the stuff, which he could barely swallow and which, when he did, caused him to vomit up both the black matter and blood. After that, he refused to see the corps of attendant doctors. He began to think O’Meara was still on the island, and kept calling for him.
“He began thinking you Balcombes were still on the island too. ‘And Guglielmo Balcombe, where is he?’ he asked. Honestly, he had such affection for you, William, and hoped he had never wronged you. ‘Has he really left? When did it happen? And Madame Balcombe too? How very strange. She really has gone.’ ”
My parents lowered their eyes. They did not take equal joy in the Emperor’s confused remembrance. O’Meara recognized it—he had said something that meant more to the Balcombe parents, and indeed their children, than he could tell.
“They moved him to the drawing room because there was less damp. On the day before his death, he had sunk into a coma and the shutters were opened to let the light and the island’s air in, which could not harm him now, it having done its damage. And off beyond the railings stood the new version of Longwood House, where the Fiend camped, biting his nails. He was so restless for it to happen that he rode across to the real Longwood and stood at the door listening for the advance of death inside, yet knowing he would not be admitted. He would ride off again, but be back within an hour or so. Meanwhile, my dear friends, OGF was on his camp bed, which sat so low to the ground, but which bore four mattresses to elevate him.”
The green silk curtains, which we remembered from his time in the Pavilion, were now drawn. A few seconds before the time of the evening gun from Ladder Hill, said O’Meara, OGF expired. Fanny Bertrand was in the room, half-Irish, half-imperial Fanny, a woman fit for ceremoniousness, and she remembered, as he breathed out and the breath was not succeeded, to stop the clock in his room, the one he’d always shown off to us, the alarm clock. It read eleven minutes before six.
By the time O’Meara reached this stage, we women were choking and my father’s head was still down, and the boys, William, Tom, Alex, were pale, old enough now to be awed out of boyishness. I thought how noble a man my father, Billy Balcombe—Cinq Bouteilles, as OGF called him—was. He blamed the Emperor for nothing, for no portion of the blight on our own lives.
The tale was briskly finished. O’Meara seemed to know he must get to an end if he did not wish to provoke some unpredictable contrary feeling amidst my parents—for all he knew, a frantic quarrel was possible. Marchand and the other valets had carried the body from the death bed to a new camp bed. The priest laid a crucifix on the breast of the corpse and left the room. Outside he recited the rosary. Name and Nature turned up at the door of Longwood but was denied entry by Bertrand, who told him the autopsy must proceed. This dissection took place in a room we acutely remembered—where the billiard table had once been, and the maps on which I’d stuck pins to represent the movement of hordes of men around the countryside near Jena and Auerstädt.
Afterwards, Surgeon Short, one of the group, writing that the Emperor’s liver was grossly swollen, came under great pressure from Sir Hudson, Name and Nature, to alter his report. The Fiend thought he might somehow be blamed for that distended organ. Short refused and left the report in Sir Hudson’s hands, and according to Short, Name and Nature himself changed the words, crossing out Short’s verdict. Fortunately, Short had the final chance to write on the document that the words obliterated had been suppressed by the Fiend’s orders.
Meanwhile, the autopsy over, the dead man was moved back to his bedroom, which had been set out in the manner of a mortuary chapel and draped in black. The next morning Name and Nature came in with a posse of fifteen officials, including Sir Tom Reade, and declared the corpse was “the General,” as he still called him even in death, and asked both his party individually and General Bertrand to confirm it. Reade was not fully happy, for there was no achievable happiness in such a man. He appeared in part to believe that his enemy, OGF, had taken the game to the extreme now. In a bid for world sympathy, he had died. The soldiers, the sailors, and the farmers, the Letts, the Robinsons, old Polly Mason, the Reverend Mr. Jones, keeper of the sheep and goats, the Porteouses, the Solomons, the Ibbetsons, the Knipes, the Dovetons, and all the rest were let in to see the chin-strapped corpse dressed in military style, lying on the old blue cloak from the great victory of his youth, Marengo, and dressed by Marchand and the others in the green coat of a colonel of the chasseurs of the Imperial Guard, with white facings, the sash, the Légion d’honneur, the cavalry boots, and with the bicorn hat across his lower stomach. General Bertrand and Count de Montholon stood by him, in their uniforms, and in a gown of mourning, inimitable Fanny, the best-dressed woman even in bereavement that the island had ever seen, and the most faithful.
I imagined the yamstocks—the island-born—processing through those rooms that were known to us, gawping at the maps on the wall, the books, the peepholes in the shutters he used for watching the garrison and to see me win the ladies’ race at Deadwood from which all the glory had long since been sucked. They must have known, those islanders, that their world was about to shrink. The garrison would go, the squadron would sail away, and all items would plummet in cost.
A death mask had had to be made, and quickly. The first was not successful, so Novarrez, doorkeeper of Longwood, shaved him for a second mask undertaken with pulverized gypsum. But the processes of death were under way, and by that afternoon the body had to be placed promptly in a coffin.
Hearing this, we groaned and cast our eyes about. This was more of mortality than we could bear.
“Enough, enough,” said O’Meara, as if to himself.
“You have made us,” said my mother, “devour the entire bitter loaf.”
“As we must,” growled my father.
One quick, abominable detail: they had removed the heart to send to his wife and now placed it in the room near the corpse, with a cloth over it. During the night, a rat emerged in the room and grabbed the heart half off its silver dish. “That rat, the very image of the Fiend, then went on to devour half the dead man’s ear. . . . You see? You see?”
And we did see. That representative of darkness, in eating heart and ear, passion and the senses, provided gruesome echoes of the cramping of ambitions of self-redemption on the Emperor’s part by a paltry and choleric Englishman.
Finally it was easier to listen. So we heard that the soldiers of two regiments had carried him on their shoulders to the hearse, which had made its way into Geranium Valley, ever after to be called the Valley of the Tomb, with friends and servants weeping behind it. Name and Nature rampaged through Longwood, being free to do so at last, and looked at all that the Emperor had set aside before he died, including a gold snuffbox for his London friend Lady Holland. Then he rifled through papers to see if he could discover plans of escape, which could be used to justify the strangulation process he had put in place. “And the fact that he could find nothing suggestive of it goes to explain the attacks which now appear upon him, Name and Nature, in all honest newspapers.”
O’Meara spoke as if he were not himself one of the chief attackers.
“Consummatum est,” he sang conclusively. “It is consummated.”
He helped himself to more punch.
Napoleon's Last Island
In October 1815, after losing the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was banished to the island of Saint Helena. There, in one of the most remote places on earth, he lived out the final six years of his life. On this lonely island with no chance of escape, he found an unexpected ally: a spirited British girl named Betsy Balcombe who lived on the island with her family. While Napoleon waited for his own accommodations to be built, the Balcombe family played host to the infamous exile, a decision that would have devastating consequences for them all.
In Napoleon’s Last Island, “master of character development and period detail” (Kirkus Reviews) Thomas Keneally recreates Betsy’s powerful and complex friendship with the man dubbed The Great Ogre, her enmities and alliances with his remaining courtiers, and her dramatic coming-of-age. Bringing a shadowy period of history to life with a brilliant attention to detail, Keneally tells the untold story of one of Europe’s most enigmatic, charismatic, and important figures, and the ordinary British family who dared to forge a connection with him.