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Blackstone and the Scourge of Europe
They made an incongruous couple. The huge Negro, his bate torso sheathed with a slave's muscles; the Chinaman half his size, his pigeon frame clothed in cotton. When a cloud covered the moon the Negro's body merged with the night and it seemed as if the Chinaman were casting a giant shadow.
They headed north from the Briars, skirting Alarm House and its warning cannon, avoiding the Seine Valley and the Devil's Punch Bowl where stunted trees and black rocks made it a haunted place after nightfall. The air smelled of eucalyptus and geraniums and the sea.
Now they could hear the waves whispering on the shores of the island fortress where every man, woman and child was a prisoner of a kind. At 3 a.m., having successfully dodged the guards and sentries scattered over the plains and precipitous cliffs, the couple arrived at Sandy Bay.
The Negro pointed out to sea where two British meno'-war lay at anchor and said: "They should be here at any moment." The Negro's name was Hannibal and, twenty years ago, he had been bought for £5 on the West African coast 1,140 miles away.
The Chinaman, named Wong Fu – but known as Number Thirteen in a community where Chinese servants merited numbers and Negroes bizarre names such as Caesar or Fortescue – shook his head. "Not for another five minutes." His voice was tinsel compared with the Negro's deep tones; but it was he who wielded the authority. "Is the chest safe?" he asked.
Hannibal moved a rock as though it were a pebble. "Yes, it's here." He opened the lid and the moonlight glinted on a battery of bottles.
"It's good wine," Number Thirteen remarked. "Too good for the English. Odd, isn't it, that we should be smuggling wine from the vanquished to the victors."
Sometimes Hannibal had difficulty in understanding the little yellow man who worked in the French library and he didn't reply. In any case he preferred raw cane spirit to wine.
Wine stolen from the cellars of the "Frogs" was common currency on an island where supplies of liquor to drink with salt beef or atrophied chicken frequently ran low. And the ability of the French to maintain a good cellar infuriated the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe. "Typical," he asserted, adding good housekeeping to the various manifestations of Gallic decadence.
"I hope nothing can go wrong," Hannibal remarked after five minutes had passed.
"What can go wrong?" Number Thirteen asked. "The look-outs have been bribed. The admiral wants his wine and the British Navy will see that he gets it. After all, they rule the waves, don't they?"
"I suppose so."
"All we've got to do is wait for the cutter, hand over the wine, collect our money and go home."
"I suppose so." Hannibal, arms folded across his chest, stared across the quicksilver sea in what he thought might be the direction of England; once a slave set foot on English soil he was free and every piastre Hannibal earned from petty crime was saved for his passage to freedom; certain reforms regarding slaves were supposed to have taken place on the island, but Hannibal had noticed little change – he still lived in a cell with a stone for a pillow, he had been flogged for stealing three sweet potatoes and his brother had recently been sold for £50.
Hannibal said: "They're late."
"A few minutes doesn't matter," Number Thirteen said.
"We should have seen them by now."
"Not necessarily. They're coming along the shore. They've been on patrol." Number Thirteen gestured to his right towards Potato Bay and Lot's Wife's Beach. "Perhaps there's been an incident. Another scare."
"Or perhaps. ..." The Negro began to shiver.
"Nothing." Hannibal hugged his chest, trying to control the trembling. He noticed a movement on the sea between the shore and the two British ships and a violent spasm of shivering shook his frame. He pointed without speaking.
The Chinaman shaded his eyes although it was night. "What? I can't see anything."
"There." Hannibal moaned. The sweaty night air froze on his body.
Number Thirteen laughed; a worried laugh. "A shark fin," he told Hannibal. "They've been dumping rotten meat off the ships." But he knew the British Navy devoured its rotten meat down to the last maggot.
Hannibal said: "I'm going."
"Don't be a fool. It's taken a month to get this wine."
A cloud slid across the moon, the darkness erasing the movement on the sea. They listened to the waves, to the chirp of crickets, the breeze in the thickets; only the stars were silent.
"You see," Number Thirteen said, trying to swallow the quaver in his voice. "It was the light on the waves. An optical illusion," he assured himself.
"Holy Mother of God," said Hannibal, sinking to his knees and pointing at the stars. Number Thirteen looked up in time to see a shooting star fade in the sky. It wasn't a night for superstitious slaves. "Sweet Jesus," said Hannibal, "forgive me. ..." He looked up at the Chinaman. "It means a death."
The clouds slipped past the moon and the ocean was silvered once more, the two brigantines with their oil lamps and candle-lanterns looking like glowworms.
Hannibal was paralysed on his knees and the little Chinaman had discovered that erudition wasn't helping him with the phenomena of this October night in 1820. The Negro babbled to God and to the Chinaman at his side – until he realised that Number Thirteen was no longer there. He jumped to his feet; fifty yards behind him he made out the figure of the imperturbable, enigmatic Chinaman running like hell.
Hannibal took to his heels in pursuit, catching up with Number Thirteen somewhere on the farmland owned by Sir William Doveton. They didn't speak: there was nothing to say.
Soon afterwards Hannibal struck left towards Plantation House, the home of the Governor of St Helena. The Chinaman struck right on his longer journey towards Longwood House, the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte, for whom he worked.CHAPTER 2
The King is dead! Long live the King!
A mad monarch had died and a buffoon had taken his place. And Edmund Blackstone, Bow Street Runner, was, to his chagrin, guarding George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and now, at the age of fifty-nine, George IV – although, as yet, uncrowned.
Prinny, as the people still called him, was giving a banquet at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, his Xanadu. Half an hour before the guests were due, Blackstone prowled the extravagant chambers looking for any threat of danger to the King. That part of him trained to maintain law and order approved his vigilance; that part which never forgot his childhood in a stinking London rookery applauded the intentions of anyone to assassinate the plump sybarite on the throne of England.
Blackstone walked from the Octagon Hall, through the vestibule to the corridor where George's dream of the orient enfolded him: model junks, waterlily chandelier hung from a dragon, simulated bamboo made from cast-iron, Chinese banners, Chinese lanterns, Chinese figures lurking in the recesses in the pink walls leafed with sky-blue foliage. It was summer and the heat from the patent stoves and the new gas lighting made the atmosphere stifling.
From the corridor Blackstone made his way to the banqueting room to which John Nash had just put the finishing touches. From the domed ceiling a silver dragon held a thirty-foot-long gasolier, weighing a ton, made from pearls and rubies. It had cost £5,613 19s. Enough to rebuild the Holborn Rookery? One faulty fitting and it could crush the pear-shaped monarch.
Blackstone inspected more Chinese splendours: dragons writhing everywhere, lacquer doors, crimson draperies and golden murals of Cathay, one showing a lady said to be a likeness of Lady Conyngham, one of George's mistresses.
He ran his hand over a tall lamp made from blue Spode porcelain, wood and ormolu, by Robert Jones. Again the division of feeling. Blackstone, student of objets d'art with an embryonic collection in his rooms in Paddington Village, admired the King's taste which had given England so much beauty, so many fine buildings, but rejected the lack of feeling which bankrupted honest men to give substance to his aesthetic dreams.
Blackstone shook his head, checked the Manton pocket pistol in the trouser pocket of his evening clothes and headed for regions where he was more at home. The kitchens.
But they were like no kitchens he had ever seen before. No crusty frying pans with sausages becalmed in black fat, no smuts suspended in the air, no babies starving on the floor while their mothers supped sixpenny-worth of gin. This kitchen was supported by cast-iron pillars surmounted by copper palm fronds, the walls were lined with 550 gleaming copper pots and pans; the fireplace was hooded with a bronze canopy; the tables were hidden with a gluttony of food.
Some forty cooks laboured under the directions of the French chef, successor to Carème, the inventor of caramel. It was reputed that the new chef could only produce his finest work after he had fondled the breasts of a couple of kitchen maids. Today's menu consisted of ninety-four dishes and, when Blackstone arrived, the chef was feeling the breasts of a plump pantry maid.
He took a ladle and sampled some soup. But, with ninety-four dishes, a poisoner would have to have intimate knowledge of the Royal palate, otherwise he would become a mass murderer.
The flushed pantry maid, buttoning up her white blouse after the attentions of the chef, said: "To your liking, sir?"
Blackstone appraised the vanishing bosom. "Delicious," he said.
"I meant the soup."
"That's good, too."
"And who may you be, sir?" No servility there; she recognises her own kind, Blackstone thought.
"My name's Blackstone."
"The Bow Street Runner?"
Blackstone admitted it.
"I once went to Bow Street. The master I was working for accused me of filching a silver salt-cellar. But I threatened to tell her ladyship about his visits to my room and he dropped the charge."
"Could you prove it?" asked Blackstone.
"He had a birthmark," the girl said.
"Ah," Blackstone murmured. "And did you filch the salt cellar?"
"None of your business, you being a thief-taker."
Blackstone grinned. "You're the sort of thief one enjoys taking."
"None of your cheek," she said in a pleased voice, adding: "You could be a thief yourself. You don't look as if you're on the side of the law. But," she said wisely, "I suppose that's all to the good in your job."
Blackstone shrugged; she was right, his appearance was his strength and he wasn't proud of it. Luck and a benefactor had lifted him from the underworld of London's stews and deposited him on the right side of the law. With his gilt-crowned baton he now protected the rules he had once joyously broken; but he preserved his own interpretation of evil. He never noticed a bare-footed urchin with a sharp, starved face smatter-hauling a gentleman's silk handkerchief: he never failed to notice – and arrest – a sweep stuffing an urchin with bleeding elbows and knees up a chimney.
"Don't look so solemn," the girl said. "I didn't mean it about you being a thief. Honest."
"Well you were right," Blackstone told her. "I was a thief."
"Strike me blind," exclaimed the girl. "And a prizefighter by the looks of you."
"I've done a bit of milling," Blackstone admitted. He pointed at the steaming tureens which the chefs de cuisine were taking to the Decker's Room for collection by scarlet-liveried footmen. "Do you know if there's any particular dish for Prinny?"
"Don't ask me, ask the Frog," nodding at the French chef. "But I bet that's his favourite soup."
Blackstone followed her gaze to a silver bowl of bubbling liquid into which a male cook was spitting.
"Here," exclaimed the girl, "I'd best be getting on or the Frog will throw me out. Sort of tit-for-tat," she grinned. Her expression was momentarily wistful. "I suppose you'll be off after the guests have finished stuffing themselves?"
Blackstone thought about it. When George, the First Gentleman of Europe, departed for Windsor, he would have to go with him. But the First Gentleman would probably be so drunk that he would sleep the night in Brighton. No, he told the girl, he wasn't in a hurry to be off.
"You'll be staying here, I suppose?"
"Do you know of a better place?"
"Then I'll buy you a tankard of ale when our work is finished."
She winked and scuttered away as the French chef approached, hands fondling invisible bosoms. Blackstone left as well: the chef only spoke French and Blackstone only spoke English.
The vast dining table beneath the gasolier was a battlefield. Soups, sucking pigs, larks, pates, fish and fowl, water ices, fruit and cheese had been assaulted, mauled and dumped. Spilled wine was the blood among the carnage.
George, flanked by Lady Conyngham and a French envoy from Paris, presided, sweat trickling down his powdered cheeks. To the envoy he spoke fluent French, to Lady Conyngham he spoke amorously; every now and again he belched.
Watching from the wings, Blackstone hoped the King would drink enough to dispatch him into stupefied sleep for the night.
The French envoy was talking about Napoleon. "They say," he complained, "that he is being treated shamefully by your representative on St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe. They say that this man Lowe is hated and that the Emperor is venerated. They say that in truth it is really the Emperor who rules the little rock as if it were his empire."
The King drank some wine. "Emperor?" he asked. "Did I hear you say Emperor?" He held his glass tightly in his dimpled fist.
The envoy, a sleek nobleman with black curls combed forward, said: "To the French, Napoleon Bonaparte is still Emperor." The wine was making his tongue brave.
"Ah, to the French. I sometimes wonder," the King said to those around him, "who won the war. To the French, indeed! The Gallic memory is short. Have you forgotten Wellington? Have you forgotten Waterloo? General Bonaparte, my friend, is a prisoner-of-war, nothing more. The Scourge of Europe is a tame, captive animal." He laughed and those around him laughed.
The Frenchman said: "Or a sleeping lion, perhaps."
"Or a toothless tiger," the King said.
"Cutting his second set of teeth," the Frenchman said.
"'Pon my soul," remarked the King, "you have the devil's own cheek."
"With respect, sire, the war has been over for more than five years. There is little point in prolonging enmity. I am merely repeating the gossip related by 'ships' captains and unofficial couriers who have visited St Helena. They say that Sir Hudson Lowe, a miserable fellow by all accounts, is jealous of his prisoner and is trying to break his spirit."
"And how should we treat the Corsican? Give him a throne? A grace-and-favour house in St James's? A duchy, perhaps?"
Lady Conyngham patted the King's hand which was resting on her thigh. "They do say there is a lot of support for Bonaparte in England, my love. Lord Holland and the Liberals, even Byron. ... They all say that Bonaparte should be allowed to retain at least his dignity."
The King withdrew his hand. "Perhaps," he said, "they should reserve their noble sentiments for the preservation of the dignity of their own monarchy."
The Frenchman smiled. The smile seemed to imply: That is up to you, Your Majesty.
After the port and brandy the guests adjourned to the music room with its dome-and-tent ceiling, two pagodas, bamboo canopy above the organ and Chinese chandeliers. A forty-strong orchestra played light music and the King, his voice slightly slurred, sang "Lord Mornington's Waterfall" and "Life's a Bumper".
Blackstone sat beside a captain in the 45th Foot, Grenadier Company, and his wife. The wife was a vivacious girl with a mass of black ringlets, the slightest of casts in her eyes, and a mole in the crevice of her bosom. He yawned.
The captain's wife tapped him with her fan and whispered: "You're not a musical man, Mr Blackstone?"
"I prefer music-houses," Blackstone said.
"Ah, the music-houses." Her voice was wistful. "We don't frequent such places, more's the pity." She paused. "They say the King sings by ear."
"I don't doubt it," Blackstone said. "It's the sort of noise I should imagine an ear would make."
"You are very disrespectful, Mr Blackstone."
Blackstone regarded the rise and fall of the mole above her low-cut gown. "How do you know my name?"
"Weren't you the Bow Street Runner who distinguished himself at that dreadful Cato Street affair?"
"No," Blackstone told her. "That was Ruthven. I was the one who let one of the conspirators get away. A man called Challoner."
"I heard you were very brave." Blackstone wasn't sure whether there was admiration or mockery in her voice. "And you have distinguished yourself since."