A Savage Exile: Vampires with Napoleon on St. Helena
Isabelle, a young French maid, follows her notorious mistress to the island of St. Helena after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. She discovers quickly that a “beast” roams this remote island, and people are vanishing or found drained of blood. She falls in love with Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s valet, but this enigmatic young man hides a deadly secret. Hudson Lowe, the island’s governor—a vampire himself—plans to destroy the French. Isabelle rushes with her lover to stop the vicious outcome, and save her own life.
After a sailor shouted, sighting land, Isabelle rushed to the ship’s rail. The island of St. Helena slid into view—a black volcanic lump spewed from the ocean. Her heart clenched.
They navigated closer. Splintered cliffs rose up like sabers from the South Atlantic they’d sailed through for an interminable two and a half months. A cloud of dark mist hovered like gray moss on the peaks.
“Parbleu,” she hissed under her breath as she steadied herself at the slick rail, her knuckles white. More grumbling people gathered near her. A myriad of sails slapped above, fighting against the yardarms. The breeze rustled the skirt of her muslin, lavender gown. “What a craggy, severe-looking place. I should have begged to stay in Paris.” She spoke to no one in particular, and widened her stance to balance with the ship’s rocking.
Saint-Denis, one of Emperor Napoleon’s valets, squeezed through the gawking people and up beside her, as others in the French contingent moaned and whimpered.
“Behold our new home,” the young man said as he stiffened his lanky frame against the rail. At twenty-four, he was two years her senior, though the melancholy she’d sometimes noticed in his gaze made him look older. “These English fiends have made certain His Majesty will never escape again.” He glared over at the British soldiers who appeared to fill every corner of HMS Northumberland like splashes of blood in their crimson coats.
Isabelle looked up into his sooty eyes. “Well, let’s pray it’s prettier farther inside. I hope we won’t have to stay here long. This must be a mistake.” She twisted a loose strand of hair around her finger, the light-blonde color dull—her hair stiff with salt. She feared it was no mistake, they were to be banished forever. Her pulse skittered. “My mistress was too anxious to follow the emperor. I believe she has less than decent designs on him. She might be an embarrassment.”
“I have no doubts. The Countess de Montholon is a woman of. . .dare I say, frivolous morals.” The valet smirked and tugged his hat lower over his slick black hair. “And her husband never seems to mind. He was one of her affairs.”
Isabelle had worked as personal maid for Madame de Montholon for two years, after her previous mistress—a sweet elderly woman—had died. She had a difficult time respecting her new employer, but the countess paid well.
The loamy scent of land wafted over them, replacing the stink of bilge water and fish.
The volcanic island’s cliff’s appeared to separate as the ship rocked closer, sails billowing. A few red roofed buildings and palm trees peeked out from the harbor.
“The port of Jamestown doesn’t look too decrepit,” she said, desperate to bolster her spirits. Her saltwater-washed gown chafed under her armpit, but she refrained from scratching.
“At least we found land. I feared we’d drop off the edge of the sea before we reached this wart.” Saint-Denis shifted his long legs incased in white stockings. He cut a fine form in his frock coat and breeches of green livery with gold-embroidered collars and cuffs. He leaned down from his impressive height. “I imagine we’ll find time to know one another better while we’re here.”
Isabelle laughed, to hide the ripple that traveled along her spine. She knew she filled out her classical-style, high-waisted dress well—she’d had plenty of compliments—and she did find the valet handsome; but, unlike her mistress, she was not one for casual affairs. “I think you overstep yourself. I do have my standards, monsieur.”
At that moment, the emperor strode out on deck. The French swept off their hats and bowed. The British hats remained in place. Napoleon’s face, rounded and plump as he neared fifty, was pale under his cocked hat. His belly pushed out the front of his green jacket with red collar and cuffs. Raising his field glasses, he scrutinized the island. He grunted in disapproval, spoke with his officers then turned and went back below decks.
“His Majesty has the same reservations that I do.” Isabelle tightened her shawl about her shoulders, her white cap fluttering in the wind. Their emperor looked pasty and overwhelmed. Since his defeat at Waterloo, four months ago in June, an event that had sent them from Europe to this island, she saw him fading from his once glorious career.
She shivered, her future caught up with Napoleon’s since her mistress’s husband decided to leave Europe with the exiled ex-ruler. It was rumored that the Count de Montholon was evading money problems back in France.
“Eh bien, I only hope there are fresh pickings beyond those cliffs.” Saint-Denis seemed to say this to himself as he scrutinized the island’s strange, crumpled landscape.
“What do you mean?” Isabelle had often wondered at the young man’s enigmatic behavior. She’d discovered him wandering the ship at night, his expression overly brooding. His dark hair and thick-lashed eyes gave him an exotic look—someone hiding secrets filled with mischief, and something else she couldn’t define.
“It’s not important. I should go below and attend His Majesty.” Saint-Denis forced a cocky smile. “I’m not certain the countess requires your services as yet.” He winked, stroked her shoulder, and walked off down the deck.
Isabelle quivered. Why had his touch felt cold and enticing at the same time?
To the left, the Countess de Montholon could be seen flirting with a handsome British officer as the alien Union Jack flapped above their heads. The countess flashed her cobalt blue eyes at the officer as she flicked white fingers through her brassy hair.
Isabelle stifled a sigh of dismay. Trapped into service at the age of eleven, after her parents’ death from a fever—her heart weighed heavily at the thought—she wished she had enough money to break free. She’d have enjoyed training as a milliner—she always had a flare for hats—a shop on a pretty Paris street, rather than having to rot here.
Dusk started to fall as the ship neared the port. The Southern Cross began to glimmer in the sky, the island far south of the equator. Sailors spread through the rigging like spiders to trim the sails on the seventy-four-gun man-of-war.
She studied the port while the ship’s planks heaved beneath her. Cannon, along with watchtowers and sentry boxes, dotted the two huge peaks that squeezed in on both sides of the town. A church steeple and a building that resembled a castle came into view.
“Napoleon’s self-aggrandizement has forced us out here. Ma foi!” Countess Bertrand, the wife of the emperor’s Grand Marshal, pushed to the rail. A tall woman with a strong nose that gave her an air of dignity, she looked about to throw herself overboard in despair. “This island looks like a pile of dung.”
Count Bertrand, a quiet, handsome man in blue uniform, put his arm around her. “As I’ve explained, it’s my proud duty to accompany my emperor wherever he must go.”
“That’s our entire problem, your loyalty to a madman.” His wife swept apart from him—her dignity forgotten—and shoved her way through the sailors, who snickered.
Both the countesses were going to be a problem, Isabelle surmised.
A shot fired, announcing the ship’s arrival, but people had already gathered on the wharf, no doubt curious about the infamous man on board.
Shadows lengthened over the land mass. Another man stood on the quay, separate from the islanders who crowded to stare. A line of soldiers marched over a drawbridge and ordered the gawkers back with rifles raised.
The lone man was thin, his long coat draping around him loosely, his shoulders bunched in what appeared to be intense anger.
Isabelle shuddered. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, a strange, reddish aura seemed to radiate off of him. She sensed a danger that made her want to plead for the ship to turn around.
* * *
Hudson Lowe entered Plantation House, his Georgian residence in a pretty hollow, up the cliffs from Jamestown, and removed his coat. A servant dashed forward to take it. Lowe entered his parlor and poured a glass of port, the sweet wine a poor substitute for what he really desired.
This new prisoner he was saddled with—a scoundrel his country had been at war with for twenty years—would only make things complicated. The world, as much as they could in this remote location, would now intrude on his privacy, his coveted getaway. Saint Helena was now under martial law. Lowe gritted his teeth.
“I suppose you saw him?” His wife entered, wearing one of her preferred low-cut gowns. A little too “flaunting” for his tastes, but she carried herself well.
Lowe smiled, smoothing over his frustration at these startling events. With the slowness of news here, they’d only had a few weeks to prepare. “No, I arrived too late on the wharf. He was below, I was informed.”
“He’s a hideous man, I’m certain.” Susan smiled in return. A tall, attractive woman, and previously widowed, he’d married her the year before being assigned as colonial governor of St. Helena. “I’ve heard he has horns and a tail.”
“We’ll soon see. I’ll visit when Bonaparte is given his permanent dwelling.” Lowe poured her a glass of wine. He admired, as always, her thick, brown hair, bright eyes and very pretty neck.
“I suppose you must be polite to the rogue.” She took the glass and sipped, her pinky raised. He’d heard the servants whisper she was a prima-donna who, at age thirty-five, wore too much rouge.
“I must play the diplomat, of course.” Lowe caressed her shoulder, watching a vein throb in her throat. His innards clenched, but he breathed deeply. “They wanted to give him Plantation House, but I objected. The air is perfect here, and I look out for your health.”
“Put him somewhere dismal.” She waved a hand in the air as if she conducted a choir, leaving a scent of Jasmine. “On the other side of the island if possible.”
Lowe glanced around the well-appointed room with its richly paneled mahogany walls and green velvet drapery. The furniture was shipped from England, and expensive. “As far from us as I can manage, my dear.”
“Excellent. You must always put me and my daughters first.” Susan finished her drink, kissed him on the cheek, and left.
Lowe appreciated his wife’s daughters from her previous marriage. They kept Susan occupied and not so nosey in his affairs. His wife was a self-involved woman, which also helped. He swallowed down more of the sweet beverage, his taste buds unsatisfied.
He fisted the delicate glass. Back to his current conundrum. Why did his government have to ship the scourge of Europe to his island? A firing squad for the Corsican ogre would have been better.
Lowe’s career had led him to many islands, including Elba and Corsica, as if he’d followed in the footsteps of General Bonaparte. Now Bonaparte followed him here. Outrageous! He’d managed his business on the other isles, but St. Helena was perfect for his needs. So remote, a thousand miles from the nearest land, and the abundance of slaves here never counted in any ledger.
Lowe licked his thin lips. He returned his glass to the sideboard, avoiding the cheval mirror that hung over the mantel. He knew his visage wasn’t handsome, not that he’d be able to view himself clearly. His hair was rusty colored with streaks of gray, his face long and bony. But he’d wooed Susan, hadn’t he? Even if she’d been penniless, she did have fashionable connections.
However, more important matters churned in his mind. He must curtail these French invaders before anyone discovered his secrets.
* * *
“Our emperor thought he’d be received as an honored guest.” The Countess de Montholon huffed as she sat before her rickety vanity table at their new residence, Longwood House. “But aren’t we surprised in our delusions. Look where we’ve ended up, in a farmhouse not much better than a barn. C’est la vie.”
Isabelle rearranged her mistress’s hair, twisting it up in the back the way she preferred. The confining room closed in on her, stale and damp. “This is not an acceptable house, I agree, Madame. But the carpenters from the ship are enlarging it.”
“What materials will they find in this isolated outpost?” Albine de Montholon pouted childishly into the looking-glass. “Oh, how I will miss my modiste and the perfumers. I now wish I hadn’t come, but my husband was adamant. We must go for our emperor’s solace, he said.”
“You are attending the governor’s ball tonight; that may cheer you up.” Isabelle had seen Plantation House where the governor resided in passing, before the narrow, twisting road that led here, and longed to glance inside the place, the finest, she assumed, on the island. Her petulant mistress would do well to enjoy what little they were offered.
“My dresses are mildewed, and we’ve only been here barely two weeks. The Count’s shoes and mine are blue with mold.” The woman spoke as if she were the one cleaning off the mold. The countess checked the rouge on her cheeks, her pretty blue eyes—her best feature—shining. “How will I impress His Majesty if I look like a wilted flower?”
“I’m certain he will be impressed.” Isabelle had seen the two flirting, as she’d suspected, but Napoleon had sunk into a bleak despair days after taking up residence in the larger part of the house. “Will the emperor attend the ball?”
Albine laughed bitterly. “No, he’s refused. The governor wanted him to come with an armed British escort, an insult to His Majesty.” She powdered her nose, though the powder clumped together like cotton tufts on her face. She wiped them away. “I see I will have to charm this governor, so he may treat us kinder.”
The woman, at nearly forty, was past her prime as a coquette. But no one had bothered to tell her so.
“I have faith in you, Madame.” Isabelle turned and hid a smile. She picked up a frothy shawl and draped it over the countess’s plump shoulders.
“The British won’t even address him as emperor. He’s relegated to General Bonaparte. Hélas! More insults. I believe they fear him. He brought them to their knees in battle, now they have their revenge.” Albine rearranged the shawl and fluttered her eyelashes. “I’ll make certain this government sycophant treats me with respect. I will uncover his soft side.”
“I have little doubt of your success.” Isabelle bit down on her lip as her mouth twitched. She wished the countess would stay focused on her husband, as a wife should. Her parents had shared a loving marriage. She fought a sigh. Such intrigues would only cause problems. Isabelle then spoke of the topic that was closest to her heart. “Is there a possibility of the allies realizing their error, and for us to return to Europe. . .soon?”
“Mais oui. That is what we hope for. But I detest to ponder these political ministrations.” Albine stood, her high-wasted pink gown snug around her full figure. Her breasts spilled out like two cow udders at the low neckline. She tugged at a sleeve. “This house’s humid air will be the death of me.” She glanced at Isabelle and touched her hair. “You have such beautiful blonde locks. Soft with youthfulness.”
“Merci, Madame.” Isabelle was surprised by this genuine-sounding compliment from such an egotistical woman.
“Ah, well, youth is fleeting.” The countess nodded and walked toward the bedroom door. “Where is my husband?”
“With His Majesty, I would guess. Trying to amuse him, as is his special talent.” Isabelle stifled a laugh as she pictured the count genuflecting before their emperor.
Her mistress sauntered through the tiny parlor then out the door to the outside. Isabelle cleaned up the mess on the vanity top, flicked away ants, and hung the countess’s dressing gown in the wardrobe. The dreary room was crowded with scratched, green-painted furniture. A closet of a room adjacent was where she slept—quite the come-down from the elegant chateaux in France. She battled her own sinking into despair.
Stepping out for a breath of fresh air, Isabelle stared around the desolate area where their house stood. The wind buffeted against her off the Deadwood Plain. Longwood House, a yellow wood and stucco dwelling with a gray slate roof, was once used by the Lieutenant Governor as a summer residence. Now it was late spring in November in this southern hemisphere, but the air blew frigid and moist.
A watchtower loomed up in front of her. Several soldiers marched around the property’s perimeter wall, their boots crunching over the clay and stone earth, all guarding the notorious captive.
Count de Montholon exited from the emperor’s section of the house, sleek in his high-collared blue tunic with gold braid, his simpering wife on his arm. The count stood slender as a reed, his small mouth in a greedy smile. He caressed his wife’s shoulder.
Isabelle walked to the low stone wall as the Imperial retinue, minus their leader, climbed into carts to ride over the treacherous road to Plantation House.
Propping her elbows on the rough wall, Isabelle longed to be included. She recalled from the journey to this plain, the zigzagged path carved into the cliffs above Jamestown. How they’d feared tumbling to their deaths. The road then snaked around the island’s ridges, a sharp backbone of jagged basalt hills and knolls.
The carts now started off, their wheels stirring the gray volcanic powder as they passed scattered gum trees whose whorled trunks bent over, their sparse foliage blown inside out in the wind.
She turned when someone came up beside her.
A young slave girl who worked in the kitchen stood there, her large doe eyes watching. Her skin was as dark as a coffee bean. “I fear for them, Missy.”
“Why do you say that?” Isabelle scrutinized the girl. “Will the British mistreat them at a party?”
The slave shifted from foot to foot, shaking her head swathed in a red bandana; a few fuzzy dark curls peeked out. “This be a bad place. A bad place after dark. Many get lost out there. They never come home.”
Isabelle wanted to scoff at the girl’s superstition, yet something prevented her. Her mother had been a superstitious woman, believing in fairies, angels, and much scarier creatures that lurked in the night.
Despite her best effort, a chill rippled up her spine. “What is your name?” Isabelle’s English wasn’t the best, but passable. They’d had an English neighbor in Paris, and she’d grown up playing with their daughter.
“Amanda, Missy. Don’t tell no one I said any of this to you.” The girl ducked her head and scurried off.
“Mon Dieu. What more will we be plagued with?” Isabelle shivered as the sun disappeared into the endless mist of clouds. She must find a way to achieve her ambitions and get off this forgotten island.