The Monsters of St. Helenaby Brooks Hansen
In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte is exiled to the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic, "the place on earth farthest from any other place." The island is populated by English expatriates, the descendants of Portuguese settlers, and their slaves. Bonaparte's arrival--with a retinue of fifteen hundred people--throws the island population into turmoil and particularly alarms the slaves, who believe the emperor to be a demon. After settling in a teahouse in a patch of briars and fruit trees, Napoleon is befriended by a teenage girl, Betsy Balcombe--the only person who is able to penetrate the imperial facade and understand the proud, wounded man within.
Hansen begins with two terse prologues disclosing the volcanic origin of the island of St. Helena (in the South Atlantic, off the western coast of Africa), and the history of its forlorn earliest inhabitant Fernao Lopez, a Portuguese soldier who had betrayed his superiors during a 16th-century campaign in search of the eastern kingdom of the legendary Prester John. The figure of "the monster" Lopez (so called because he was brutally mutilated as well as banished) blends, three centuries later, in the islanders' minds with that of the exile Bonaparte, surrounded by his British captors and French coterie, housed with a wealthy merchant family, the Balcombes. The slender plot centers on accommodations made for and by the visiting Emperor, and especially in his unconventional friendship with 14-year-old Betsy Balcombe, a spirited, willful girl who clearly perceives the fallen leader's intelligence and kindness as well as his weaknesses. We're taken, to varying degrees, into the thoughts of such other characters as Bonaparte's docile "amanuensis" Las Cases and dour tutor Virgil Huffington (who experiences a vision that motivates his abortive plan to help Napoleon escape). But most of the supporting players are shadowy, with the glorious exceptions of the Balcombes' slave gardener Toby, deeply attuned to the island's natural rhythms and folk culture; and the shadow of Fernao Lopez, glimpsed in dreams and as a passing ghostly presence, finally elegized-long after the Emperor, his retinue andhosts, and the mixed races of servants who attend them have passed on-as "the only one [the island] keeps with her."
Gloriously imagined-though with a rather low narrative temperature-with its spooky, dramatic detail giving it a feverish intensity.
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Excerpt from The Monsters of St. Helena by Brooks Hansen. Copyright © 2003 by Brooks Hansen. To be published in January, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
October 12-An alarm gun fires on Ladder Hill, and though it is a mile away, Betsy jolts.
"Hold still," says Sarah, lips gripping the pins in her mouth. "You're gonna get stuck."
"I don't see why they have to do that. I'm sure it woke up Father."
Sarah doubts that but doesn't say.
They are out on the veranda of the bungalow, and Betsy is wearing a ball gown intended for her sister, Jane, who is sixteen, two years older. There is no upcoming occasion, but the fabric came in a few days ago, and Sarah, who serves as nanny to both Jane and Betsy, needed someone to stand inside; Jane is off somewhere, reading to their brothers.
"But this isn't how I'd have mine," says Betsy. She is looking down at the collar and the brown silk. "Mine would be blue, in the first place"-a good choice, as blue will show better against her hair, which is a tangle of blond curls. "Royal blue, like Miss Wilkes's. And I want it not like this, so high, but down from the shoulder, and with white flowers."
Sarah shakes her head.
"Flowers wilt, get dirty."
"No, but listen-made of paper. I saw in Solomon's shop. You can make them out of paper. And mine would be white flowers, like the Briars."
Sarah sucks her teeth in objection, but Betsy does not notice, or care enough to stop.
"And I bet when there is a ball, she won't even dance-Jane. She doesn't like it. I'd dance. You know who they say is the finest dancer?"
Sarahdoes not answer. They say Mrs. Wilkes, the Governor's second wife, is the finest dancer on the island, but Betsy does not answer herself either, for just now she notices there are two men descending the lane that leads down from the inland path. It's hard to see them in the speckled light beneath the banyans, but they are officers, in red, no doubt come to see her father.
Sarah removes the needles from her mouth and stands as they come upon the lawn.
Betsy says nothing.
"Mr. Balcombe in?"
"He is," says Sarah.
"He's resting," says Betsy.
The Captain looks at her impersonally. "We have intelligence of some importance to communicate."
"I'll see if he's up, Officer." Sarah offers a slight bow as she leaves.
The men stare straight out while they wait, almost as though Betsy weren't there, but they can't help glancing around at the property. All visitors do. The house itself is not so much, an Indian bungalow with a small upper story. It is the setting which is so exceptional. To the east is a nameless but no-less-proud precipice; to the south looms Peak Hill; westward the land falls off just as dramatically, making way for the stream and cataract. Coddled there, safe and cool, their home sits in a lush green pocket of trees and flowers-pomegranate, myrtle, shaddock, fruit trees of every imaginable kind, and a gated garden with more flowers than Betsy could possibly name.
She observes the officers intently, squinting with one eye, waiting to see if they will look at her.
The lead officer tilts his head to the west. "Is that a waterfall?"
"Keeps it nice and cool, eh?"
She nods, and just then Toby comes around the side of the house. Toby is the gardener, older than her father, and a Malay. He sees the officers but doesn't stop until he comes to one of the briar bushes, the one beside the front steps. He touches the petals of a flower and murmurs something to himself. He throws a handful of dirt in his basket and continues on to the gated garden.
"Primrose?" asks the second officer, nodding at the flower.
Betsy shakes her head with unveiled disdain. "Briar rose," she says. "That's our name, briars. The Briars."
The officer nods, and now Betsy's father comes out. He is in his coat, not disheveled, but awakened, plump and sleepy, with matted hair.
The first officer steps up. "We have intelligence of some importance to communicate."
Her father has gathered as much. He asks Sarah to bring some tea, then escorts the officers out to the pavilion, across the lawn and up the narrow path. He is still limping.
The pavilion itself is almost all windows, but perched too high on the knoll for Betsy to see. Even on her toes all she can make out are the tops of the men's heads.
"Whom is Father talking to?" Jane has come around from the side of the house, with book in hand, and Alexander and Nicholas on either side.
"Officers," says Betsy. "There must be someone coming. I hope it isn't Colonel Burton again."
Jane turns, and only now does she notice that Betsy is wearing her new dress and that the hem is dragging on the floor. She frowns, which is as much as Jane is ever liable to do, but just then the door barks open up at the pavilion again. The men are coming back. As they emerge from the narrow path, Betsy can see the officers look no different, but her father is blushing.
"Father, what is it?"
"Where is your mother?" He nods the boys to go find her, and the men ascend the veranda. Sarah comes out with the tea and pours them all cups while they wait, but Betsy still can't tell: Are they worried or thrilled?
"Who is it, Father?"
"Betsy." He notices her dress too now, loose and pinned. "Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable if you changed."
Betsy shakes her head, and now her brothers are back with her mother. The officers introduce themselves. Her mother is polite, but wary. She can feel it too: The men are keeping something very large. They all turn to Betsy's father, who clears his throat by habit.
"It seems the island is expecting a visitor," he says, with his usual flat smile. He clears his throat again. "Yes, it seems that Napoleon Bonaparte has been captured-"
Her mother lifts her hand to her mouth as if he had spoken the devil's name. Betsy herself can hardly follow what he says next, except that Napoleon Bonaparte, the cause of all war and strife, has been captured and is coming to St. Helena. They are bringing him here, to keep.
"But I thought he already was captured," she says. "I thought they had him in the Mediterranean."
"Yes." Her father refers the question to the officers. "Captain Dunbar may be able to explain better than I."
They offer the Captain a chair. All sit, except for the second officer, and Alexander, who takes Jane's lap. Then Captain Dunbar proceeds to tell them what he knows. It was true, Bonaparte had been imprisoned on a small island in the Mediterranean, called Elba. He stayed there for three months but then escaped with a small battalion of men. He landed on the southern coast of France and started marching up to Paris, but Betsy doesn't really understand this part so well. Captain Dunbar seems to say that on the way he'd recollected his army, or they'd been waiting for him, and by the time they got to Paris there were so many of them the Bourbons simply gave up.
"But who is this man?" says her mother. "What does he want?"
"Margaret." Her father shakes his head imperceptibly, then turns back to Captain Dunbar, who continues.
Bonaparte then took his army into Belgium, he says, but this is all more than they can fathom at once. Mrs. Balcombe and Jane have gone white. Even Captain Dunbar seems fazed by what he's saying. It was General Wellington who finally stopped them-General Wellington, who stayed here once, in the pavilion. He surrounded the French at a place called Waterloo and defeated them. Captain Dunbar said that Bonaparte was subsequently taken into British custody, and he would be arriving in Jamestown in a matter of days.
"But how could he do all that?" Betsy blurts. "How was he able to escape? And why weren't there people to stop him?"
Jane seconds the question, and once again Captain Dunbar is made to explain what he knows, from the beginning. He does his best not to excite their fears, but the harder he tries not to say it, the clearer it becomes: Napoleon Bonaparte is obviously a demon of some kind, or a sorcerer. How else could a man march all the way to Paris and there not be one person to stop him?
Betsy has imagined him since she was a little girl: a gangly giant in a black cocked hat, long arms and legs, and a little body like a spider. He had a great long nose and one eye in the middle of his forehead, shooting flame. She knows this isn't how he really looks, but as the Captain goes back over the story, she cannot help thinking of it, this monstrous spiderlike creature who'd cast a spell on all the French, and they had simply followed him, like the rats of Hamelin. Thank heavens for General Wellington. Thank heavens for England.
fs20"But why here?" she asks.
The Captain looks at her. "It was decreed," he says.
He does not know.
Her mother asks where they plan to keep him, but Captain Dunbar does not know this either, only that the boat is on its way, with two men-of-war attending and a third coming from somewhere else. Fifteen hundred men, he says. In a matter of days.
"But don't they have to ask?" says Betsy. "It doesn't seem fair."
No one answers this. Her mother's hand is to her breast, and all the blood has gone from her face. Betsy has never seen her so pale. It would frighten her, but her father is lit pink.
He stands. "I should go tell Mr. Fowler," his business partner in Jamestown. Betsy can tell, her mother doesn't want him to go, but he isn't paying attention. He asks the officers to wait for him, then goes in to fetch his coat, not limping in the least.
October 13-Teatime. The island landscape is such that outside of Jamestown, the houses tend to be fairly widespread and hidden from one another. It requires more than a casual interest to go calling, but today there is much more than a casual interest, and as tends to be the case when the news is of such moment, the islanders seek out the members of their own particular station.
The higher-ups, who sit on the councils and run the militia, have gravitated to the Governor's mansion, Plantation House. These include the Governor himself, of course, Mr. Wilkes; the Lieutenant Governor, Skelton; the former island pastor, the Reverend James Eakins; the Hodgsons; the Sealeys; the Pritchards; and Willie Doveton. With the exception of the Reverend, all are senior Company men, the island being in effect the private property of the East India Company since 1673, when the British government first issued its lease.
The junior Company men, including Mr. Balcombe and his partner, Mr. Fowler, meet down at Mr. Pourteous's Inn with some of the town merchants and shipping agents-Mr. Solomon, the Wrights, Mr. McRitchie. The only one who is not a businessman is old Mr. Huffington, who is Mr. Fowler's uncle and not coincidentally serves as tutor to the two Balcombe boys. He sits a safe, and somewhat disgusted, distance from the conversation.
The rest of the Balcombes go see the Leggs, where the Alexanders and Miss Mason are calling as well. Over at Coffee Grove in Powell Valley, the wives of farmers Lambe, Hayward, and Bagley convene at Mr. Barker's, while the island doctors-Mellis, Shortt, and Baxter-congregate at Knoll House, with wives. The Reverend Richard Boys and wife are also present.
As disparate and stratified as the parties may be, all discussion revolves around the same obvious subject: the "beast" as Mrs. Shortt puts it, as does Mrs. Sealey, miles away. "Tyrant," "traitor," "plebeian," "Jacobin," "Muslim," "criminal," "devil," "monster." Their imminent guest is called many things across the twilit island, none kind, but why should they be? Napoleon Bonaparte may be as pure an embodiment of evil as nature has yet spewed into being. Had he not single-handedly induced the entire European continent to war, time and again, as well as England and ample tracts of the East? Had he not tried to rule the Christian world-and beyond? The Sealeys know this first hand. They lost a cousin in the Mediterranean. Mrs. Breame lost an uncle. Two, if you count Archie Dykes, her mother's half brother. They all know someone who has died, and all place the blame squarely on this man's vain, maniacal shoulders (all but Mr. Huffington, whose nephew died at Leipzig, fighting for la Grande Armée). "More blood on his hands than any man in history," Dr. Shortt opines, and no one disagrees.
But he is worse than that even. Over at Plantation House, Mr. Doveton-who is a man of no ill will, but who should know as he still returns to London once a year-has it on good authority that Napoleon Bonaparte deliberately poisoned an entire battalion of his own men while in Egypt, killed them off rather than bother bringing them with him in his shameful flight from the Turks. Mr. Pritchard confirms the story and is quick to add the scandalous beheading of the Duke d'Enghien, or, as he was called over at Coffee Grove, "Dungeon." Poor man, executed without a trial. Similar tales are told over at Knoll House: Here the prisoners are killed in Africa, and there is a connection implied between this and the fact that the culprit is supposedly now a Muslim, having converted while in Egypt, which comes as no surprise to the Reverend Mr. Boys.
At the Leggs', where the Balcombe women all sip their tea, they are more interested in "the escape." Miss Mason, who rides an ox, smokes a pipe, and lives alone, is telling them her version of the march to Paris. Apparently the Bourbons sent their armies down to meet him, but Bonaparte stood up in front of them and challenged them to kill him, anyone who dared. None did. The soldiers turned right around and joined him, in fact, and by the time he reached Paris the entire country was behind him again.
Tea is sipped. Heads shake in cozy disappointment with the French, and the Continent at large.
"But did he escape from Corsica or Elba?" asks Mrs. Alexander.
ar"Elba," says Miss Mason, relighting her pipe. "Corsica was his birthplace. Elba was where they'd sent him after the Russian debacle."
"And what was that?" whispers Mrs. Robinson to her husband.
"The winter," Miss Mason reminds.
"Oh, yes. The winter."
Down at Mr. Pourteous's Inn, the concerns are decidedly more immediate and practical. How many people was he bringing with him? How many soldiers? How long is the port to be closed? They need to know, because they'll need to be prepared, take stock, set prices, but much the same as at the Leggs', or Coffee Grove, or Plantation House, there are no good answers.
Meet the Author
Brooks Hansen is the author of The Chess Garden and Perlman's Ordeal, and of Caeser's Antler's, a novel for young readers. He lives in New York City.
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