Readers Read

Readers Read


Books Section

Reading Sections

Book Publishing News
Children's Books
General Fiction

The Dakota Cipher
by William Dietrich
HarperCollins, 2009

Chapter One

Click here
for ordering information.

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 toward 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 château 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 a 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 Vendémiaire in the Year IX. Napoleon had declared the revolution over, himself as its culmination, and we all hoped he'd soon throw out the annoying ten-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 Mortefontaine for this celebration. No warrior was better at publicizing his peacemaking than Bonaparte.

Mortefontaine is a lovely château 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 La 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 Comédie Française to play a ribald sketch on transatlantic relations, and prepared the fireworks display with which I was about to become all too familiar.

Three great tables were set out in the Orangerie, 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 tricolor 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

The foregoing is excerpted from The Dakota Cipher by William Dietrich. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Copyright © 1997-2015 by Writers Write, Inc. All Rights Reserved.