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Of Honest Fame
Gambler, gaoler, soldier, sailor, smuggler, spyman, traitor, thief -
A battle of wits against the brutal forces of Napoleon’s tyranny over Europe
On a summer night in 1812, a boy sets fire to a house in Paris before escaping over the rooftops. Carrying vital intelligence about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, he heads for England. But landing in Kent, he is beaten almost to death.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, is desperate for the boy’s information. He is even more desperate, however, to track down the boy’s assailant – a sadistic French agent who knows far too much about Castlereagh’s intelligence network.
Captain George Shuster is a veteran of the Peninsula, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, now recalled from the continent and struggling to adjust to civilian life. Thomas Jesuadon is a dissolute, living on the fringes of society, but with an unrivalled knowledge of the seamy underside of the capital. Setting out to trace the boy’s attacker, they journey from the slums of London to the Scottish coast, following a trail of havoc, betrayal, official incompetence and murder. It takes an unlikely encounter with a frightened young woman to give them the breakthrough that will turn the hunter into the hunted.
Meanwhile, the boy travels the breadth of Europe in the wake of the Grande Armée, witnessing at first hand the ruination they leave behind and the awful price of Napoleon’s ambition.
This companion to M.M. Bennetts’s brilliant debut, May 1812, is a gripping account of deception, daring and determination, of intelligence and guile pitted against brutality. Bennetts brings to vivid life the harrowing devastation wrought on the civilian populations of Europe by Napoleon’s men, and the grit, courage and tenacity of those who stood against them.
The decaying walls of the garret room were blotched and mottled—green, brown, ochre and grey—with the damp and grease, soil and soot of half a century. But the boy lying on the bare straw mattress did not notice. Nor would he have cared if he had. Sprawled upon the worm-riddled bed like some jug-bitten spider, he gazed idly up at a crack in the dingy plaster. Like a river and its tributaries, it ran, raw and gaping, up one wall before breaking into smaller cracks which rent the ceiling plaster to reveal, here and there, the rotting roof struts above.
Another crack spanned the breadth of the low ceiling and it was this that the boy regarded with some degree of interest: the jagged path it carved through the ceiling, the blistering edges of damp plaster that would drift or fall to the floor in powdery clots when next it rained—perhaps to scatter with it the bodies of long dead insects or spiders or mice.
Early summer in Paris: the air hung hot, still and rank over a city of beggars, women, children, old men and cripples.
Just weeks ago—and for many months—it had been a city of bustle and prowess and pomp, a city of military spectacle, as regiments from all over the Empire assembled in their bright glory. The Illyrian infantry regiments, the Chevau-Légers, and the multitudes of cavalry—the cuirasseurs with their helmets and breastplates gleaming in the weak sunlight, lancers in crimson and blue, hussars in braid and bearskin, the dragoons in helmets and uniforms of every colour—hundreds upon hundreds of men—tall, moustachioed and grand, warriors and heroes to a man, they, and their sleek matched horses, drawn from every corner of the continent, all parading in their splendid coveted honour.
Daily, every street and alleyway had been clogged with the drays and wagons of the commissariats, jammed with baggage wagons and cannon and strings of snorting horses and camp followers; while the city’s notaries, oblivious to the cheering crowds, the choruses of ‘Vive l’Empereur’, worked frantically and without ceasing, writing and copying the wills of so many thousands. And among that constant throng he had passed—unnoticed and unseen—just another young male in a city of men. And he had come and gone freely, an unknown, unobserved, no one among the press.
But now it was quiet. The soldiers were gone. The tents and horses and mules and grooms, the kitchen, cellar and forges were gone too, all following their beloved Emperor to the East. To Berlin and beyond. Pour l’Empire. Pour la gloire. Into the deathtrap that lay beyond Prussia.
Frowning suddenly, the boy rolled off the bed. And standing, stretching, calculating, he stared at the body on the straw mattress opposite. The boy, Brioche he’d been called, had been dead since morning. Kicked and beaten and dead. His thin ribs crushed by a guardsman’s boot. Dead because of his resemblance to another plain-faced boy.
“Poxy cullion,” the boy murmured, though not in anger.
He’d spent his anger years earlier, when the brutality of heroes and guardsmen was new to him. Now…well, now, it was all detail work. Then, he would have sought personal vengeance on the great bastard who’d done this. Now he just made them look like fools. Fools, every one.
He went to the window to peer through one grimy pane. The watcher was still below, his dust-coloured clothes blending with the limestone and shadows of the house opposite, rendering him almost invisible. But not invisible enough.
“Cock…” the boy muttered.
Then, his lips pressed tight into an uncompromising line, he returned to his bedside and drew a rapier-pointed knife from out the back of his stained breeches. Gripping the mattress at one end, he slit it open; the blade sliced easily through the rotting fabric and straw.
He replaced the knife in his waistband and reached into the mattress to remove handfuls of the matted straw, arranging them in neat clumps atop the mattress until they appeared almost as a series of interconnected ant-heaps.
He crossed to the body. And squatting beside it, smoothed the dead boy’s lank hair from off his forehead and sketched the sign of the cross in the air over him. Brioche, the baker’s son, left to starve in the streets of Paris after the army had taken his father to bake bread for Napoleon’s generals. Poor bruised Brioche.
He took hold of the mattress to drag it and the battered child upon it to his own gutted bed. And grunted with exertion. Brioche, dead, weighed more than ever he had in life.
Silently, he hauled the unstiffening body onto the bed, onto the spread straw, then slit apart the second mattress to strew its contents over the body. Then, gathering up a handful of tallow candle stubs he’d collected, he placed them, one by one, nestling them amongst the straw.
His task finished, he crossed to the opposite side of the room and crouched down against one wall to wait. To doze and patiently to wait. To wait until midnight, when the sky was blackest and all that was left of Paris was asleep. Or better still, drunk.
He closed his eyes, resting his head against the wall with its coating of mould and grime. Just a few hours to wait until he lit the funeral pyre. Then, once the flames took hold of the tallow and lamp oil and straw, an escape through the blackened skylight above the landing and out over the rooftops, out to the Porte St. Denis.
It would take them days to discover that the charred remains were not his, if ever they did discover it. And by then, it would be too late. By morning he would be out of the city; in three days he would be beyond their grasp.
He rose and went to the window to watch as their sentry gulped down the contents of a bottle. The boy checked the battered watch in his pocket. Nearly seven. Five more hours then. The sentry belched and ogled a young woman—a prostitute in a stained gown and tatty bonnet—as she strolled past him.