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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Napoleon at St. Helena
By George Cupples (1822–1891)
 
From ‘The Green Hand’

I HAD to get fairly off the saddle,—rather sore, I must say, with riding up St. Helena roads after so many weeks at sea,—and flung myself down on the grass, with little enough fear of the hungry little beast getting far adrift. This said crag, by the way, drew my eye to it by the queer colors it showed—white, blue, gray, and bright red—in the hot sunlight; and being too far off to make out clearly, I slung off the ship’s glass I had across my back, just to overhaul it better. The hue of it was to be seen running all down the deep rift between, that seemingly wound away into some glen toward the coast; while the lot of plants and trailers half covering the steep front of it would no doubt, I thought, have delighted my old friend the Yankee, if he was the botanizing gentleman in question. By this time it was a lovely afternoon far and wide to Diana’s Peak, the sky glowing clearer deep blue at that height than you’d have thought sky could do, even in the tropics—the very peaks of bare red rock being softened into a purple tint, far off around you. One saw into the rough bottom of the huge Devil’s Punch Bowl, and far through without a shadow down the green patches in the little valleys, and over Deadwood Camp,—there was nothing, as it were, between the grass, the ground, the stones, and leaves, and the empty hollow of the air; while the sea spread far round underneath, of a softer blue than the sky over you. You’d have thought all the world was shrunk into St. Helena, with the Atlantic lying three-quarters round it in one’s sight, like the horns of the bright new moon round the dim old one; which St. Helena pretty much resembled, if what the star-gazers say of its surface be true, all peaks and dry hollows—if indeed you weren’t lifting up out of the world, so to speak, when one looked through his fingers right into the keen blue overhead!  1
  If I lived a thousand years I couldn’t tell half what I felt lying there; but as you may imagine, it had somewhat in it of the late European war by land and sea. Not that I could have said so at the time, but rather a sort of half-doze, such as I’ve known one have when a schoolboy, lying on the green grass the same way, with one’s face turned up into the hot summer heavens; half of it flying glimpses, as it were, of the French Revolution, the battles we used to hear of when we were children—then the fears about the invasion, with the channel full of British fleets, and Dover Cliffs—Trafalgar and Nelson’s death, and the battle of Waterloo, just after we heard he had got out of Elba. In the terrible flash of the thing all together, one almost fancied them all gone like smoke; and for a moment I thought I was falling away off, down into the wide sky, so up I started to sit. From that, suddenly I took to guessing and puzzling closely again how I should go to work myself, if I were the strange Frenchman I saw in the brig at sea, and wanted to manage Napoleon’s escape out of St. Helena. And first, there was how to get into the island and put him up to the scheme—why, sure enough, I couldn’t have laid it down better than they seemed to have done all along: what could one do but just dodge about that latitude under all sorts of false rig, then catch hold of somebody fit to cover one’s landing. No Englishman would do it, and no foreigner but would set Sir Hudson Lowe on his guard in a moment. Next we should have to get put on the island—and really a neat enough plan it was, to dog one of the very cruisers themselves, knock up a mess of planks and spars in the night-time, set them all ablaze with tar, and pretend we were fresh from a craft on fire; when even Captain Wallis of the Podargus, as it happened, was too much of a British seaman not to carry us straight to St. Helena! Again, I must say it was a touch beyond me—but to hit the governor’s notions of a hobby, and go picking up plants around Longwood, was a likely enough way to get speech of the prisoner, or at least let him see one was there!  2
  How should I set about carrying him off to the coast, though? That was the prime matter. Seeing that even if the schooner—which was no doubt hovering out of sight—were to make a bold dash for the land with the trade-wind, in a night eleven hours long,—there were sentries close round Longwood from sunset, the starlight shining mostly always in the want of a moon; and at any rate there was rock and gully enough betwixt here and the coast to try the surest foot aboard the Hebe, let alone an emperor. With plenty of woods for a cover, one might steal up close to Longwood, but the bare rocks showed you off to be made a mark of. Whew! but why were those same blacks on the island, I thought: just strip them stark naked, and let them lie in the Devil’s Punch Bowl, or somewhere beyond military hours, when I warrant me they might slip up, gully by gully, to the very sentries’ backs! Their color wouldn’t show them, and savages as they seemed, couldn’t they settle as many sentries as they needed, creep into the very bedchamber where Bonaparte slept, and manhandle him bodily away down through some of the nearest hollows, before any one was the wiser? The point that still bothered me was, why the fourth of the blacks was wanting at present, unless he had his part to play elsewhere. If it was chance, then the whole might be a notion of mine, which I knew I was apt to have sometimes. If I could only make out the fourth black, so as to tally with the scheme, on the other hand, then I thought it was all sure; but of course this quite pauled me, and I gave it up, to work out my fancy case by providing signals betwixt us plotters inside and the schooner, out of sight from the telegraphs. There was no use for her to run in and take the risk, without good luck having turned up on the island; yet any sign she could profit by must be both sufficient to reach sixty miles or so, and hidden enough not to alarm the telegraphs or the cruisers. Here was a worse puzzle than all, and I only guessed at it for my own satisfaction—as a fellow can’t help doing when he hears a question he can’t answer—till my eye lighted on Diana’s Peak, near three thousand feet above the sea. There it was, by Jove! ’Twas quite clear at the time; but by nightfall there was always more or less cloud near the top, and if you set a fire on the very peak ’twould only be seen leagues off: a notion that brought to mind a similar thing which I told you saved the Indiaman from a lee-shore one night on the African coast—and again, by George! I saw that must have been meant at first by the negroes as a smoke to help the French brig easier in! Putting that and that together, why it struck me at once what the fourth black’s errand might be—namely, to watch for the schooner, and kindle his signal as soon as he couldn’t see the island for mist. I was sure of it; and as for a dark night coming on at sea, the freshening of the breeze there promised nothing more likely; a bright white haze was softening out the horizon already, and here and there the egg of a cloud could be seen to break off the sky to windward, all of which would be better known afloat than here.  3
  The truth was, I was on the point of tripping my anchor to hurry down and get aboard again; but on standing up, the head of a peak fell below the sail I had noticed in the distance, and seeing she loomed large on the stretch of water, I pretty soon found she must be a ship of the line. The telegraph over the Alarm House was hard at work again, so I e’en took down my glass and cleaned it to have a better sight, during which I caught sight, for a minute, of some soldier officer or other on horseback, with a mounted redcoat behind him, riding hastily up the gully a good bit from my back, till they were round the red piece of crag, turning at times as if to watch the vessel. Though I couldn’t have a better spy at him for want of my glass, I had no doubt he was the governor himself, for the sentries in the distance took no note of him. There was nobody else visible at the time, and the said cliff stood fair up like a look-out place, so as to shut them out as they went higher. Once or twice after, I fancied I made out a man’s head or two lower down the gully than the cliff was; which, it occurred to me, might possibly be the botanists, as they called themselves, busy finding out how long St. Helena had been an island; however, I soon turned the glass before me upon the ship, by this time right opposite the ragged opening of Prosperous Bay, and heading well up about fourteen miles or so off the coast, as I reckoned to make James Town harbor. The moment I had the sight of the glass right for her,—though you’d have thought she stood still on the smooth soft blue water,—I could see her whole beam rise off the swells before me, from the dark side and white band, checkered with a double row of ports, to the hamper of her lofty spars, and the sails braced slant to the breeze; the foam gleaming under her high bows, and her wake running aft in the heave of the sea. She was evidently a seventy-four; I fancied I could make out her men’s faces peering over the yards toward the island, as they thought of “Boneypart”; a white rear-admiral’s flag was at the mizenroyal masthead, leaving no doubt she was the Conqueror at last, with Admiral Plampin, and in a day or two at farthest the Hebe would be bound for India.  4
  I had just looked over my shoulder toward Longwood, letting the Conqueror sink back again into a thing no bigger than a model on a mantelpiece, when all at once I saw some one standing near the brow of the cliff I mentioned, apparently watching the vessel, with a long glass at his eye like myself. ’Twas farther than I could see to make out anything, save so much; and ere I had screwed the glass for such a near sight, there were seven or eight figures more appearing half over the slope behind; while my hand shook so much with holding the glass so long, that at first I brought it to bear full on the cracks and blocks in the front of the crag, with the large green leaves and trailers on it flickering idly with the sunlight against my eyes, till I could have seen the spiders inside, I daresay. Next I held it too high, where the admiral and Lord Frederick were standing by their horses, a good way back; the governor, as I supposed, sitting on his, and two or three others along the rise. At length, what with kneeling down to rest it on one knee, I had the glass steadily fixed on the brow of the rocks, where I plainly saw a tall dark-whiskered man in a rich French uniform, gazing to seaward. I knew him I sought too well by pictures, however, not to be sadly galled. Suddenly a figure came slowly down from before the rest, with his hands behind his back, and his head a little drooped. The officer at once lowered the telescope and held it to him, stepping upward as if to leave him alone—what dress he had on I scarce noticed; but there he was standing, single in the round bright field of the glass I had hold of like a vise—his head raised, his hands hiding his face, as I kept the telescope fixed fair in front of me—only I saw the smooth broad round of his chin. I knew, as if I’d seen him in the Tuileries at Paris, or known him by sight since I was a boy,—I knew it was Napoleon.  5
  During that minute the rest of them were out of sight, so far as the glass went—you’d have supposed there was no one there but himself, as still as a figure in iron; watching the same thing, no doubt, as I’d done myself five minutes before, where the noble seventy-four was beating slowly to windward. When I did glance to the knot of officers twenty yards back, ’twas as if one saw a ring of his generals waiting respectfully while he eyed some field of battle or other, with his army at the back of the hill; but next moment the telescope fell in his hands, and his face, as pale as death, with his lip firm under it, seemed near enough for me to touch it—his eyes shot stern into me from below his wide white forehead, and I started, dropping my glass in turn. That instant the whole wild lump of St. Helena, with its ragged brim, the clear blue sky and the sea, swung round about the dwindled figures above the crag, till they were nothing but so many people together against the slope beyond.  6
  ’Twas a strange scene to witness, let me tell you; never can I forget the sightless, thinking sort of gaze from that head of his, after the telescope sank from his eye, when the Conqueror must have shot back with all her stately hamper into the floor of the Atlantic again! Once more I brought my spy-glass to bear on the place where he had been, and was almost on the point of calling out to warn him off the edge of the cliff, forgetting the distance I was away. Napoleon had stepped, with one foot before him, on the very brink, his two hands hanging loose by his side with the glass in one of them, till the shadow of his small black cocked hat covered the hollows of his eyes, and he stood as it were looking down past the face of the precipice. What he thought of, no mortal tongue can say: whether he was master at the time over a wilder battle than any he’d ever fought; but just then, what was the surprise it gave me to see the head of a man, with a red tasseled cap on it, raised through among the ivy from below, while he seemed to have his feet on the cracks and juts of the rock, hoisting himself by one hand round the tangled roots till no doubt he must have looked right aloft into the French Emperor’s face; and perhaps he whispered something—though for my part it was all dumb show to me, where I knelt peering into the glass. I saw even him start at the suddenness of the thing—he raised his head upright, still glancing down over the front of the crag, with the spread hand lifted, and the side of his face half turned toward the party within earshot behind, where the governor and the rest apparently kept together out of respect, no doubt watching both Napoleon’s back and the ship of war far beyond. The keen sunlight on the spot brought out every motion of the two in front—the one so full in my view, that I could mark his look settle again on the other below, his firm lips parting and his hand out before him like a man seeing a spirit he knew; while a bunch of leaves on the end of a wand came stealing up from the stranger’s post to Napoleon’s very fingers. The head of the man on the cliff turned round seaward for one moment, ticklish as his footing must have been; then he looked back, pointing with his loose hand to the horizon,—there was one minute between them without a motion, seemingly—the captive Emperor’s chin was sunk on his breast, though you’d have said his eyes glanced up out of the shadow on his forehead; and the stranger’s red cap hung like a bit of the bright colored cliff, under his two hands holding among the leaves. Then I saw Napoleon lift his hand calmly, he gave a sign with it—it might have been refusing, it might have been agreeing, or it might be farewell, I never expect to know; but he folded his arms across his breast, with the bunch of leaves in his fingers, and stepped slowly back from the brink toward the officers. I was watching the stranger below it, as he swung there for a second or two, in a way like to let him go dash to the bottom; his face sluing wildly seaward again. Short though the glance I had of him was,—his features set hard in some bitter feeling or other, his dress different too, besides the mustache being off, and his complexion no doubt purposely darkened,—it served to prove what I’d suspected: he was no other than the Frenchman I had seen in the brig; and mad or sensible, the very look I caught was more like that he faced the thunder-squall with, than aught beside. Directly after, he was letting himself carefully down with his back to my glass; the party above were moving off over the brow of the crags, and the governor riding round, apparently to come once more down the hollow between us. In fact, the seventy-four had stood by this time so far in that the peaks in the distance shut her out; but I ran the glass carefully along the whole horizon in my view, for signs of the schooner. The haze was too bright, however, to make sure either way; though, dead to windward, there were some streaks of cloud risen with the breeze, where I once or twice fancied I could catch the gleam of a speck in it. The Podargus was to be seen through a notch in the rocks, too, beating out in a different direction, as if the telegraph had signaled her elsewhere; after which you heard the dull rumble of the forts saluting the Conqueror down at James Town as she came in: and being late in the afternoon, it was high time for me to crowd sail downward, to fall in with my shipmates.  7
 
 
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