Elba, 1815

Pauline Bonaparte’s party in honor of her brother Napoleon was, as she had hoped and her guests clearly expected, a brilliant success.

napoleon elba2

The Villa Mulini blazed with light and the excited din of laughter and music sprinkled out across the gardens and terraces high above the harbor of Portoferraio. Her guest of honor had finally made his excuses after an evening of warm, witty, utterly charming conversation and headed towards his waiting carriage in the courtyard. He paused by the entry foyer to exchange a few words with Lady Elizabeth Holland, an ardent supporter who ruled fiercely over the elite of London’s Whig society. She shared her intelligence without preamble:

“It is shamefully true, highness. Those scoundrels and fools, Castlereagh, Metternich and Talleyrand, are determined to remove you from Elba, to the Azores, perhaps, or some even more distant, godforsaken island.”

“Then the time to act is indeed, now. What news of Sir Neil Campbell?”

“Oh la!” she laughed. “It would seem that the jailor the Tory government set over you here has been, in turn, enthralled by his mistress, Countess Miniacci, in Florence. Can’t imagine how Sir Campbell serves her, but she serves you well. Nothing is to be expected of him in Elba for at least two weeks more.”

“And the British navy?”

She smiled at him archly, “They are following some intelligence, perhaps a merely a rumor, far to the south. The harbor is clear. Inconstant and her escorts wait for you just outside the Old Harbor.”

He took both her hands in his, and looked up at her. “You have been a loyal, treasured friend, madam. A guiding star that lights me on the way I must go.”

“No! No!” she cried, squeezing his hands with surprising strength and bending down to look passionately into his eyes. “You are the star the guides us. The only hope, true for Europe.” Then she whispered, “I curse the sex that prevents me from sailing with you. Oh that I were able to serve you with my body as well as my mind!.”

I wonder if the same idea hasn’t occurred to your husband, he thought. Then releasing his hands, he kissed her, and walked towards the carriage. As he left, a cluster of his guests and friends gathered in the portico to cheer as the carriage clattered across the cobblestones and out the gates of the villa.

Once they had turned the corner onto the Via Elbano Gaspari, under the dark-shrouded walls of the old Medici fort, the carriage momentarily paused, and accompanied by two aides, he leapt out and the carriage continued towards his villa five kilometers away. They made their way down the terraces to the deserted beach outside the old harbor.

Inconstant’s cutter was pulled up on the shingles, tossing gently in the light surf. They boarded, and he huddled in the stern, a small figure enveloped in his familiar grey greatcoat, as the cutter rowed in the stiffening breeze with muffled oars to the brig outside the harbor. As he ascended the man ropes to the deck of Inconstant, a small honor party of his Old Guard, tall grenadiers in their bearskin bonnets, grizzled veterans of a dozen victories, silently saluted him. Inconstant slipped her cable, and with the tide and a light wind, glided away from the harbor towards her escorts, past the sleeping British sentries in the harbor fort.


Painting by Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben

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