His older brother grinned and raised his glass. ‘To the bitter end.’
‘The only end I recognise is everlasting glory.’
‘Everlasting?’ Letizia pursed her lips and darted a glance at Josephine. ‘That will only happen if you produce a successor.Without an heir the whole thing falls apart.’
‘There will be an heir,’ Napoleon said firmly. ‘It’s just a matter of time.’
‘Time is very much the issue,’ his mother said. ‘You have been married for over ten years now. Josephine, remind me. How old are you?’
The Empress winced but did not reply as Letizia leaned towards her and tapped her finger on the table. ‘Forty-two, I seem to recall. Am I right?’
‘Well, forgive me, my dear, but isn’t that a little late for child-bearing? ’
Napoleon rushed to his wife’s defence. ‘Older women have given birth to healthy children, Mother. There’s still time.’
Josephine stared at him across the table and said flatly,‘Older women? Thank you.’
‘You must have an heir,’ Letizia insisted.
‘And I will. Josephine has borne two healthy children—’
‘That was a long time ago.’
‘And she will produce more.’
‘When?’ Letizia asked sharply.
‘When the time is right, Mother.’
‘And if she doesn’t?’
‘She will,’ Napoleon countered fiercely, although he knew in his heart that there was little chance of it.
‘She has to, if she is to justify being the wife of the Emperor of France.’
‘That is enough!’ Josephine banged her hand down on the table, startling the others into silence. ‘I will not be spoken of in this manner. Do you understand? I will not. Tell her, Napoleon.’
Napoleon stared back at her, then glanced towards his mother.
Josephine’s lips quivered. ‘I will not take this! What right does she have to speak to me in this manner?’
‘What right?’ Letizia drew her thin frame up in her chair. ‘The right conferred on me by bringing thirteen children into this world, eight of whom have survived. Not just two.’
Josephine glared at her bitterly, then stood up abruptly. ‘Damn you! Damn all you Corsicans!’
She turned and strode towards the door as tears choked her chest. She flung the door open and slammed it behind her. There was a shocked silence, broken by the sound of her footsteps retreating up the corridor.
Caroline glanced round the table and muttered, ‘I always said she wasn’t good enough for Napoleon.’
‘Silence!’ Napoleon snapped at her. ‘You don’t know what you are talking about, you little fool. Is your memory so short? When we arrived in France we were fugitives with no home, no money, no influence. Josephine was the wife of a count, the confidante of the most powerful politicians in the capital, and men lost their hearts to her.Yet she chose
for her husband.When I could barely afford the uniform on my back and I was living in a run-down slum. Do you have any idea what that means to me? I adored her. I still do,’ he added quickly. ‘With Josephine I can be myself. When I am surrounded by lesser men and lickspittles, only Josephine offers me honesty and understanding. I owe her my loyalty. And my love. So don’t you dare try to come between us.’
Caroline shrugged. ‘That’s all very well, but in return she owes you an heir, Napoleon. Where is your child?’
Napoleon’s expression darkened, but before he could respond his mother cut in.
‘Does it matter? That woman is clearly too old for child-bearing. There is only one solution to the problem and the sooner you face up to that the better, my son.’
Napoleon shook his head. ‘I will not do it. I will not.’
‘Not now, perhaps. But regardless of your feelings for her, you have an obligation to your people. There must be an imperial successor.’ Letizia wagged a finger at him. ‘Sooner or later, you must provide France with an heir to the throne. Especially if you go off to war again and place yourself in danger.’
‘Danger?’ Napoleon laughed. ‘Mother, have you not heard? I lead a charmed life.’
‘Your luck will not last for ever.’
Letizia shrugged.‘No man’s luck ever does. I’ve lived long enough to know that. And so you must have an heir.’
‘There will be time enough for that.’ Napoleon emptied his glass and pushed his chair away from the table, signifying that the meal was at an end.‘But first there is the small matter of crushing Britain, once and for all.’
London, September 1805
For Sir Arthur Wellesley the sight of London was welcome and familiar after six months at sea on the voyage from India. It had been almost nine years since he had last set foot in the capital and he could not help rising from his seat and leaning out of the window as the coach clattered to the top of a gentle hill from where there was a fine view of London’s sprawling houses, and glimpses of the gleaming Thames and a forest of masts from the shipping that brought raw materials and luxuries to Britain and carried her manufactured goods across the world.
Now, thanks to his efforts and those of his brother Richard, Britain’s wealth and power was enhanced by the vast swathe of Indian territories they had won. While Richard had served as Governor General, Arthur had won his spurs in the army, rising from the rank of colonel to that of major-general at the head of an army that had won a string of great victories. Finally, his achievements had been rewarded with a knighthood and he returned to Britain a man of experience, wealth and influence.
At thirty-six, he felt that he was at the height of his powers, and could serve his country well in its titanic struggle with France.When he had left Britain the enemy had been a revolutionary republic. Now France was an empire, ruled by the tyrant Bonaparte. With much time on his hands over the last six months, Arthur had read every newspaper that the ship had picked up in ports along the way and had followed the progress of Bonaparte from strength to strength. It was a staggering tale of success, Arthur admitted grudgingly. The man was clearly a phenomenal force of nature to have achieved so much so swiftly. It was a pity that Bonaparte’s qualities as general and statesman were not moderated by any desire for peace with his neighbouring kingdoms. At the end of the present war, Bonaparte would be master of the world, or France would be humbled. It was Britain’s duty, as Arthur saw it, to bring about that defeat, however long it took, however many millions of pounds it cost, and however many lives it claimed.
The first chills of autumn were some weeks off yet and so the sky above the city was only covered with a faint haze of sickly yellow smoke. Once winter set in, Arthur recalled, there would be a perpetual smear across the sky on still days as the smoke from tens of thousands of fires wrapped itself over London. For a moment he fondly recalled the fresh breezes that had accompanied his recent sea journey.The ship had docked in Portsmouth only two days earlier and he had not yet lost his sea legs. Each time he stepped down from the coach the ground felt strangely unsteady beneath his feet, as if he still stood on a wooden deck that rose and fell with monotonous regularity for days on end. There had been a few weeks of wild weather as the Indiaman had fought its way round the Southern Cape in rough seas, but for most of the voyage he had been able to rest and recover from the strains of several years of hard soldiering in India.
The sight of the city lightened his sober mood, and he smiled at the prospect of being reunited with his family and looking up scores of former friends. More important still, Arthur was keen to discover how things stood between him and Kitty, the young love he had left behind in Ireland.The infrequent communications between them over the last ten years were a poor basis from which to judge the true nature of her feelings towards him. And what would he make of her? Ten years might well have wrought a significant change in Kitty’s character, not to mention her looks. But it was not her looks that had first won his heart, Arthur reminded himself. It was that quirky vivaciousness of hers that set her apart from all the wide-eyed, demure and ultimately dull debutantes who decorated the social circle of Dublin Castle. If it remained undimmed, her personality would suit him admirably.The question was, how should Arthur proceed in the matter of winning her hand?
He had tried once before, some months prior to leaving for India, when he had asked her older brother, Tom, for permission to marry her. As a mere major, with little prospect of winning a fortune, and every prospect of a premature death, Arthur had had little to offer but love.To a practical man like Tom such an emotion was neither attractive nor desirable. And so he had refused Arthur’s request, despite the fact that Kitty had already given her heart to the young officer. In a last attempt to hold her affections Arthur had written a letter stating that his feelings for her would not change, and if he returned with rank and riches and she was still unwed, his offer of marriage would stand.
The coach began to follow the road down a gentle slope and the view of London was lost behind a line of trees, so Arthur eased himself back on to his seat opposite the considerable bulk of the other passenger travelling to London.The man was wearing a dark coat with a white lace stock woven with an intricate design.They had exchanged a bare formal greeting at the start of the journey and few words since. Mr Thomas Jardine had announced that he was a banker and had clearly never heard of the young major-general when Arthur had offered his name in return. Mr Jardine had bought a newspaper at the last stop. Now he folded it up and set it down on the leather seat beside him.
Arthur gestured towards the newspaper. ‘May I?’
‘Of course, sir. Be my guest.’
Arthur picked up the newspaper and opened it out on his lap. One of the most prominent articles dealt with the preparations for battle by Britain’s naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson. Arthur was already familiar with the most notable of the man’s exploits, namely his crushing victory over the French at Aboukir Bay, on the coast of Egypt. But Nelson was promising to eclipse even that with one of the largest fleets that the Royal Navy had ever amassed. Even now the warships were gathering at Portsmouth, loading shot, powder and supplies for a great test of arms against the combined navies of France and Spain.
Mr Jardine stirred. ‘Quite the man, eh?’
Arthur looked up, lowering the newspaper on to his lap. ‘Sir?’
‘Nelson. Britain’s best chance of humbling the frogs. Once he’s given them a sound thrashing, that’ll be the end of any talk of an invasion.’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘Damned lucky thing we have the Royal Navy standing between us and Monsieur Bonaparte. If not for it, we’d all be forced to parler frog and eat the damned things before the year was out.’
‘Yes, we are indeed fortunate to have Nelson and the Navy.’ Arthur smiled. ‘But one should not forget the part played by the army in defending Britain.’
‘Of course.’ Jardine nodded, his cheeks wobbling.‘Though I dare say that even you would admit that our, er, valiant redcoats have had little chance to distinguish themselves in this war.’
Arthur’s smile faded. ‘I can assure you, sir, that the army has played its part as much as the Navy.’
‘Oh, come now, I meant no offence. I merely desired to point out that the burden of the war has largely fallen on the shoulders of our jack tars.You cannot deny it, sir.’
‘Can’t I?’ Arthur thought back to his first campaign in the lowlands. Half of his men had died from want of food and the bitter cold of a terrible winter. Then there had been India, and the long marches through searing heat before taking on armies vastly superior in size and beating them. He fixed his eyes on the other man and cleared his throat. ‘I am sure that if you were in full possession of the facts, you would not judge the contribution of the army so harshly.’
Jardine shook his head briefly. ‘I am not being harsh. Forgive me if I appear to be. I merely point to the record of both services. On the seas our sailors have completely mastered the enemy, whereas our soldiers are no match for the French and have failed to secure the least foothold on the continent. Instead of taking the fight directly to the enemy they are merely nibbling away at his colonies, far from the heart of the struggle.’