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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.
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.