William Dietrich Home


The Dakota Cipher Excerpt

by admin on March 3, 2011

Chapter One

I suppose it’s not precisely true that it was solely I who consolidated Napoleon’s power and changed the course of world history. I did contribute to his idea of crossing the Alps and outflanking the Austrians, and then had to help save the day at the Battle of Marengo – but frankly, my role was somewhat accidental. Yet what of that? Enlarging one’s part does make a good tale for the ladies and while I, Ethan Gage, am a paragon of candor when it suits my purposes, I do have a tendency towards exaggeration when it comes to matters of the bed.

It is true that my timely service in northern Italy got me back in Bonaparte’s good graces, that my affable charm made me instrumental in forging the Treaty of Mortefontaine with American diplomats, and that my raffish reputation won me a place at the glittery chateau gathering to celebrate that Convention. There I managed to get embroiled in the new diversion of roulette, was sidetracked into a tumultuous tryst with Napoleon’s married sister, and still squeezed in enough time to almost be killed by fireworks. I may inflate my history to women, but no man can fault me for not keeping busy.

Unfortunately, my incautious boasting also persuaded a half-mad Norwegian to enlist me in dubious and mystical quest a continent away from comfort – proof again that vanity is peril, and modesty the wiser course. Better to keep one’s mouth shut and be suspected of being a fool, than open and confirm it.

Ah, but the breasts of Pauline Bonaparte were lifted like white pillows by her bewitching gown, her brother’s wine cellar had my head swimming, and when powerful men are urging you to share your exploits, it’s difficult not to admit you’ve had a role directing history. Especially when you’ve taken your audience for a hundred francs at the gaming table! Pretending to be important or clever makes one’s victim feel better about losing. So on I prattled, the eavesdropping Norseman with a beard the color of flame eyeing me with ever-greater interest, and my own eye on flirtatious Pauline, knowing she was about as faithful to husband General Charles Leclerc as an alley cat during a full moon. The minx had the beauty of Venus and the discrimination of a sailor in a grog shop. No wonder she winked at me.

The date was September 30, 1800 – or, by the French Revolutionary calendar, the eighth day of Vendemiaire in the Year Nine. Napoleon had declared the Revolution over, himself as its culmination, and we all hoped he’d soon throw out the annoying 10-day-a-week calendar, since rumor had it that he was attempting to cut a deal with the Pope to bring back Catholic priests. No one missed Sabbath services, but we all were nostalgic for lazy Sundays. Bonaparte was still feeling his way, however. He’d only seized power some ten months before (thanks in part to the mystical Book of Thoth I’d found in a lost city), and barely won Marengo by a whisker. Settling France’s hash with America – my nation had won some impressive duels with French warships and played havoc with French shipping – was another step toward consolidating rule. Our feuding countries were, after all, the world’s only two republics, though Napoleon’s autocratic style was straining that definition in France. And a treaty! It was no accident that the French elite had been turned out at the Chateau of Mortefontaine for this celebration. No warrior was better at publicizing his peacemaking than Bonaparte.

Mortefontaine is a lovely chateau some thirty-five kilometers north of Paris. Far enough, in other words, for France’s new leaders to party in style well out of sight of the mob that had put them there. The mansion had been purchased by Bonaparte’s brother Joseph, and none of those assembled dared suggest it was a tad ostentatious for the inheritors of the Revolution. Napoleon, just thirty-one, was the most astute observer of human nature I ever met, and he’d wasted little time giving France back some of the royalist trappings it had missed since chopping off the head of King Louis and guillotining the nation’s lace makers. It was permissible to be rich again! Ambitious! Elegant! Velvet, which had been forbidden during the Terror, was not just permitted but in style. Wigs might be a relic of the last century, but gold military braid was de rigueur in this one. The lovely grounds were swarming with newly-powerful men, newly-seductive women, and enough silk and brocade to get the haberdasheries of Paris humming, albeit on more classical, Republican lines. Lafayette and Rochefoucauld had invited every prominent American in Paris, even me. Our total assembly numbered two hundred, all of us heady with American triumph and French wine.

Bonaparte had insisted that his festival organizer, Jean-Etienne Despeaux, achieve perfection in record time. Accordingly, that famed marshal of merriment hired the architect Cellerier to revamp the theater, recruited a troupe from the Comedie Francaise to play a ribald sketch on trans-Atlantic relations, and prepared the fireworks display to which I was about to become all-too familiar.

Three great tables were set out in the Orangery, in three adjoining rooms. The first was the “Room of the Union,” the head wall hung with a scroll of the Atlantic with Philadelphia on one side and Le Havre on the other, the intervening sea topped by an airborne half-naked woman who represented peace by holding an olive branch in her fingers. Why the doxies in these European paintings always have their clothes slipping off I don’t know, but I must say it’s a custom my own more staid America could emulate. Next to the mural were enough foliage, flowers and folderol to start a forest fire.

The next two rooms had busts of my late mentor Benjamin Franklin and the recently deceased George Washington, respectively. Outside in the park was an obelisk with allegorical figures representing France and America, and the whole affair was frocked with tri-color bunting. Rose petals floated in pools and fountains, rented peacocks strutted on lawns, and artillery banged salutes. It seemed to me that Despeaux had earned his money, and that I, finally, was among friends.

At Joseph Bonaparte’s request, I’d brought along the longrifle I’d helped forge in Jerusalem. A nasty thief named Najac had knocked the piece about, but I’d disposed of him by pushing a ramrod through his heart and later paid twenty francs to restore the stock’s finish. Now I gave a demonstration of the gun’s accuracy. I broke a teacup at one hundred paces and struck a cavalry breastplate five times running at twice that distance, a perforation that impressed officers resigned to the stray aim of muskets. While more than one soldier remarked on the tedious time the rifle took to load, they also said it explained the feared accuracy of our frontiersmen in the North American wars. “A hunting piece,” one colonel judged, not inaccurately. “Light to carry, wickedly accurate. But look at the narrow neck! A conscript would break this beauty like a piece of china.”

“Or learn to take care of it.” Yet I knew he was right, this was not practical for massed armies. Rifles clog with powder residue after half a dozen shots, while cruder muskets can be banged away by idiots – and are. A longrifle is a sniper’s gun. So I fired again, this time drilling a gold Louis at fifty paces. Pretty ladies applauded and fanned themselves, uniformed men sighted down the barrel, and hunting dogs yelped and ran in furious circles.

Napoleon arrived in the September glow of late afternoon, his open carriage drawn by six white horses, gold-helmeted cavalry clopping in escort, and cannon thumping in salute. A hundred paces back, his wife followed in an ivory-colored coach that gleamed like a pearl. They pulled up with a flourish, steeds snorting and pissing on pea gravel as liveried footmen swung doors open and grenadiers snapped to attention. Bonaparte stepped out in the uniform of his personal guard, a blue tunic with red and white collar, and wore a sword and scabbard with filigree of wrestling warriors and reclining goddesses. Far from haughty, he was gracious: the fame of the victor at the Pyramids and Marengo spoke for itself! You don’t rise to First Consul without some measure of charm, and Napoleon could seduce grizzled sergeants, ladies of the salon, conniving politicians, and men of science in turn – or, if need be, all at once. His calculated sociability was on display this evening. He deferred to Lafayette who’d helped my own country win independence, and toured the American peace commissioners through the gardens like a country squire. Finally, when the clocks chimed six, Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, called us to hear the text of the treaty read.

Josephine had popped out of her coach too, and it was all I could do not to scowl. Power became her, I must admit: Though never quite beautiful (her nose a little too sharp, her teeth a little too discolored) she was more charismatic than ever. She sported a string of pearls that had reportedly cost a quarter-million francs, coaxing state finance ministers to cook the books so the strand would escape Bonaparte’s scrutiny. Yet no one else begrudged her the jewels. While her husband’s moods could be mercurial, she was consistently well-mannered in gatherings like this, her smile earnest as if the well-being of every guest was her personal concern. Thanks to my help, she’d staved off divorce after cheating on Napoleon and in a few years would find herself empress. But the ungrateful wench had betrayed me and my Egyptian love Astiza into Temple Prison as payment, and it was because I hadn’t forgiven her that the risk of rutting with Bonaparte’s sister Pauline was somehow more tempting. I wanted to tup a Bonaparte as I’d been tupped. I’d been made a fool of (not the first time) and Josephine’s inevitable presence as first lady, beaming as if she’d won the Revolution’s lottery, was to me a small cloud on an otherwise brilliant day. Widowed by the Terror, she’d bet on the young Corsican and improbably found herself in the Tuileries Palace.

If Josephine brought back pained memories of Astiza’s parting, I was flattered that the American commissioners who’d sought my counsel were generous enough to offer public thanks. Oliver Ellsworth had worked on my nation’s Constitution and served as chief justice of the Supreme Court before taking on this diplomatic task. The two Bills were almost equally renowned: William Richardson Davie a Revolutionary War hero and William Vans Murray a Maryland congressman who was now ambassador to the Netherlands. All three had risked the diplomatic snubbing earlier envoys had received in hopes of salvaging John Adams’ sagging Presidency. I, their adviser, was younger, rawer, and a frustrated treasure hunter, gambler, sharpshooter, and adventurer who had somehow wound up on both the French and British sides in the recent fighting in Egypt and the Holy Land. But I’d also served briefly as an assistant to the late, great Franklin, had a growing reputation as an “electrician” myself, and – most importantly – had Bonaparte’s ear when he was inclined to listen. We were both rogues (Napoleon was simply better at it than me) and he trusted me as a fellow opportunist. Honorable men are hard to control, but those of us with self-interested common sense are more predictable. So after Marengo I was enlisted as go-between, shuttling from Talleyrand to the impatient Americans, and here we were, making peace.

“What I like about you, Gage, is that you focus on what is practical, not what is consistent,” Bonaparte whispered at one point.

“And what I like about you, First Consul, is that you’re as happy to use an enemy as to destroy him,” I cheerfully replied. “You tried to have me executed, what, three or four times? And here we are, partners in peace.” It’s splendid how things work out, the English captain Sir Sidney Smith had told me.

“Not partners. I am the sculptor, you are the tool. But I care about my tools.”

This was hardly flattering, but part of the man’s charm was his blunt, sometimes clumsy honesty. He’d tell women their dresses were too bright, or their waists too thick, because he liked his females slim, demure, and dressed in white, apparently as part of some virginal fantasy. He got away with it because his power was an aphrodisiac. I, meanwhile, was learning to be a diplomat. “And I appreciate your toolbox, Paris.”

I can be obsequious when I’m in the mood, and Napoleon’s chambers at the Tuileries were littered with grand plans to make his city the most beautiful in the world. The theater was flourishing from new government subsidies, the tax and civil codes were being overhauled, the economy was recovering, and the Austrians were beaten. Even the whores dressed better! The man was a brilliant rascal, and gambling salons were so crowded with newcomers that I’d been able to supplement my modest salary with winnings from drunks and fools. Things were going so well that I should have crawled into a hole and braced for the worst, but optimism is like wine. It makes us take chances.

So here I was at the French chateau of the first consul’s brother, semi-respectable to my American brethren, and with a certain cachet as a savant who had charged a chain to electrocute attaching soldiers at 1799’s siege of Acre in the Holy Land. The fact that I’d done this for the British side, not the French, seemed to bother no one, since I was presumed to have no real loyalties or convictions in the first place. Rumors that I had slain a prostitute (absolutely untrue) and burned a sorcerer (accurate, but he had it coming) simply added to my allure. Between that, my longrifle and my tomahawk, I was accorded the distinction of being a potentially dangerous man, and there is nothing more likely to raise a flush on the neck of a lady.

I sat smugly through the interminable speeches (my name actually mentioned, twice), and ate energetically at the state dinner since the food was better than what I could normally afford. I pretended to modesty as I shared adventures that left me with a reputation as somewhat diabolical, or at least oddly durable. Many leading Americans were Freemasons, and theories of Knights Templar and ancient mysteries intrigued them.

“There may be more to those old gods and ancient ways than we modern men of science have allowed,” I said grandly as if I knew what I was talking about. “There are still secrets worth recovering, gentlemen. Mysteries yet veiled.” Then we joined in toasts to martyrs for liberty and finally stood from the ceremony. My vanity satisfied, I looked forward to a night of gaming, dancing, and sexual conquest.

The music began and I wandered, gaping like the American I was at the splendor of French architecture. Mortefontaine made the fancy houses I’d seen in my homeland seem like tool sheds, and Joseph was sparing no expense – now that his brood had access to the French treasury – at making it even better.

“Grand, but not entirely different from our new home for our president,” a voice murmured at my side.

I turned. It was Davie, amiable after those champagne toasts. He was handsome, with thick hair, long muttonchops, and a strong, cleft chin. Being in his mid-40s, he was a good ten years older than me.

“Really? If they produce this in that swamp between Virginia and Maryland, my nation has come a long way indeed.”

“The President’s House is actually based on a government building in Ireland – used to be a Masonic temple, I understand – and yes, quite grand for a new nation.”

“They use a Masonic lodge for the president? And what an extraordinary idea, building a new capital in the middle of nowhere!”

“It was the fact that it was nowhere – and near Washington’s home – that made political agreement possible. The government is moving into a place that has more stumps than statues, but our capital of Washington, or Columbia, is expected to grow into itself. Our nation has doubled in population since Lexington and Concord, and victory against the Indians has opened the Ohio country.”

“The French say that while they rut like rabbits, we Americans breed like them.”

“You are a confirmed expatriate, Mr. Gage?”

“More a confirmed admirer of the civilization which produced this chateau, Mr. Davie. I do not always like the French – I even found myself fighting them, at Acre – but I like their capital, their food, their wines, their women, and, at this scale, their houses.” I picked up a new novelty from one of the tables, chocolate that had been cleverly hardened into little squares instead of taken as liquid in a cup. Some ingenious Italian had solidified the delicacy and the French made it fashionable. Knowing how quickly fortunes can turn, I pocketed a fistful of them.

Good thing, for they were about to save my life.

Copyright © 2009 William Dietrich

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: