CHAPTER THREE

The chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet was, at age forty-nine, the most famous student of the guillotined Lavoisier. Unlike his master, he’d ingratiated himself to the Revolution by finding a nitrate soil substitute for saltpeter, so necessary to gunpowder. Rising to leadership of the new National Institute that had succeeded the Royal Academy, he’d shared with his mathematician friend Gaspard Monge the task of helping loot Italy. It was scholars who advised Bonaparte on which masterpieces were most worthy of being carted back to France. This had helped make both scientists the confidants of the general and privy to strategic secrets. Their political expediency reminded me of an astronomer who, when making surveys for the new metric system, had been forced to replace his white survey flags, seen as a symbol of King Louis, with the tricolour. No profession escapes the Revolution.

‘So you’re not a murderer, Monsieur Gage?’ the chemist asked with the barest hint of a smile. With a high forehead, prominent nose, stern mouth and chin, and sad, lidded eyes, he looked like the weary lord of a rural manor, regarding science’s growing alliance with governments the same dubious way that a father contemplates the suitor of his daughter.

‘I swear by God, by the Great Architect of the Masons, or by the laws of chemistry.’

His eyebrows barely elevated. ‘Whichever I happen to worship, I presume?’

‘I’m only trying to convey my sincerity, Doctor Berthollet. I suspect the killer was an army captain or Count Silano, who had an interest in a medallion I’d just won.’

‘A fatal interest.’

‘It seems strange, I know.’

‘And the girl wrote the initial of your name, not theirs.’

‘If she wrote it.’

‘The police claim the width of her final calligraphy matched her fingertip.’

‘I’d just slept with her and paid. I had no motive for killing her, or she of accusing me. I knew where the medallion was.’

‘Hmm, yes.’ He took out a pair of spectacles. ‘Let me see it.’

We examined it while Talma watched us, clutching a handkerchief in case he could find some reason to sneeze. Berthollet turned it as Silano and Talma had done and finally leant back. ‘Aside from the modicum of gold, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.’

‘Nor do I.’

‘Not a key, not a map, not a symbol of a god, and not particularly attractive. I find it hard to believe that Cleopatra wore this.’

‘The captain said it simply belonged to her. As queen…’

‘She’d have as many objects attributed to her as chips of wood and vials of blood are attributed to Jesus.’ The scientist shook his head. ‘What easier claim to make to inflate the price of clumsy jewellery?’

We were sitting in the basement of the Hotel Le Cocq, used by a branch of the Oriental Lodge of Freemasonry because of the cellar’s east-west orientation. A table with a cloth and closed book rested between two pillars. Benches were lost in the gloom under the arches of the vault. The only illumination was candlelight, flickering on Egyptian hieroglyphics that no one knew how to read and Biblical scenes of the raising of Solomon’s temple. A skull rested on one shelf, reminding us of mortality but contributing nothing to our discussion. ‘And you vouch for his innocence?’ the chemist asked my Masonic friend.

‘The American is a man of science like you, Doctor,’ Talma said. ‘He was apprenticed to the great Franklin and is an electrician himself.’

‘Yes, electricity. Lightning bolts and flying kites and sparks in a salon. Tell me, Gage, what is electricity?’

‘Well.’ I did not want to exaggerate my knowledge to a renowned scientist. ‘Doctor Franklin thought it a manifestation of the basic power that animates the universe. But the truth is, no one knows. We can generate it by turning a crank and store it in a jar, so we know it is. But who knows why? ’

‘Precisely.’ The chemist considered, turning my medallion over in his hand. ‘And yet what if people did know, in the distant past? What if they controlled powers unattainable in our own time?’

‘They knew electricity?’

‘They knew how to erect extraordinary monuments, did they not?’

‘It is interesting that Ethan finds this medallion and comes to us at this particular point of time,’ Talma added.

‘And yet science does not believe in coincidences,’ Berthollet replied.

‘Point of time?’ I asked.

‘However, one must recognise opportunity,’ the chemist allowed.

‘What opportunity is that?’ I was beginning to hope.

‘To escape the guillotine by joining the army,’ Berthollet said.

‘What!’

‘At the same time, you can be an ally of science.’

‘And Freemasonry,’ Talma added.

‘Are you mad? Which army?’

‘The French army,’ the chemist said. ‘See here, Gage, as a Mason and man of science, can you swear to keep a secret?’

‘I don’t want to be a soldier!’

‘No one is asking you to. Can you swear?’

Talma was looking at me expectantly, his handkerchief to his lips. I swallowed and nodded. ‘Of course.’

‘Bonaparte has left the channel and is preparing a new expedition. Even his own officers don’t know the destination, but some scientists do. For the first time since Alexander the Great, a conqueror is inviting savants to accompany his troops to research and record what we see. This is an adventure to rival those of Cook and Bougainville. Talma has suggested that you and he accompany the expedition, he as journalist and you as an expert on electricity, ancient mysteries, and this medallion. What if it is a valuable clue? You go, contribute to our speculations, and by the time you return everyone will have forgotten the unfortunate death of a whore.’

‘An expedition where?’ I’ve always been sceptical of Alexander, who may have done a great deal in a short time but was dead one year younger than my own age, a fact which didn’t recommend his career in the slightest.

‘Where do you think?’ Berthollet said impatiently. ‘Egypt! We go not just to seize a key trade route and open the door to our allies fighting the British in India. We go to explore the dawn of history. There might be useful secrets there. Better we men of science have the clues than the heretical Egyptian Rite, no?’

‘Egypt?’ By Franklin’s ghost, what possible interest did I have there? Few Europeans had ever seen the place, shrouded as it was in Arab mystery. I had a vague impression of sand, the pyramids, and heathen fanaticism.

‘Not that you’re much of a scientist or a Freemason,’ Berthollet amended. ‘But as an American and frontiersman, you might offer an interesting perspective. Your medallion may also be a stroke of luck. If Silano wants it, it could have significance.’

I hadn’t heard much past the first sentence. ‘Why aren’t I much of a scientist or Mason?’ I was defensive because I secretly agreed.

‘Come, Ethan,’ Talma said. ‘Berthollet means you’ve yet to make your mark.’

‘I am saying, Monsieur Gage, that at the age of thirty-three, your achievement is well short of your ability, and your ambition is shy of diligence. You’ve not contributed reports to the academies, advanced in Masonic degree, accumulated a fortune, started a family, owned a home, or produced writing of distinction. Frankly, I was sceptical when Antoine first suggested you. But he thinks you have potential, and we rationalists are enemies of the mystic followers of Cagliostro. I don’t want the medallion slipping from your guillotined neck. I greatly respect Franklin, and hope you might someday copy him. So, you can seek to prove your innocence in the revolutionary courts. Or you can come with us.’

Talma grasped my arm. ‘Egypt, Ethan! Think of it!’

This would completely overturn my life, but then how much life did I have to overturn? Berthollet had made an annoyingly accurate assessment of my character, though I was rather proud of my travels. Few men had seen as much of North America as I had – or, admittedly, done as little with it.

‘Doesn’t somebody already own Egypt?’

Berthollet waved his hand. ‘It is nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but is really under the control of a renegade caste of slave warriors called the Mamelukes. They ignore Constantinople more than they pay tribute to it, and they oppress the ordinary Egyptians. They are not even of the same race! Ours is a mission of liberation, not conquest, Monsieur Gage.’

‘We won’t have to do the fighting?’

‘Bonaparte assures us we’ll take Egypt with a cannon shot or two.’

Well, that was optimistic. Napoleon sounded like a general who was either a shrewd opportunist or blind as a stone. ‘This Bonaparte, what do you think of him?’ We’d all heard his praise after his early victories, but he’d spent little time in Paris and was largely unknown. Word was that he was something of an upstart.

‘He’s the most energetic man I’ve ever met, and will either succeed spectacularly or fail spectacularly,’ Talma said.

‘Or, as is the case with many ambitious men, do both,’ Berthollet amended. ‘There’s no denying his brilliance, but it is judgement that makes greatness.’

‘I will be abandoning all my trade and diplomatic contacts,’ I said. ‘And run as if I’m guilty of murder. Can’t the police find Count Silano and the captain who lost the card game? Put us all in a room and let the truth come out?’

Berthollet looked away. Talma sighed.

‘Silano has disappeared. There’s word that the Foreign Ministry has ordered his protection,’ my friend said. ‘As for your captain, he was fished from the Seine one night ago, tortured and strangled. Naturally, given your acquaintance and the fact that you have disappeared, you are a prime suspect.’

I swallowed.

‘The safest place for you now, Monsieur Gage, is in the middle of an army.’

***

It seemed prudent that if I was going to join an invasion, it would be wise to go with a weapon. My costly longrifle, dating from my sojourn in the fur business, was still cached in the wall of my apartment. Made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, its maple stock nicked and stained from hard use, the firearm remained remarkably accurate, as I’d demonstrated occasionally on the Champ de Mars. Equally important, the curve of its stock was as graceful as the limbs of a woman, and the filigree on its metalwork as comforting as a purse of coin. It was not just a tool but a steady companion, uncomplaining, smooth, the iron blue-hued, its scent a perfume of powder grains, linseed, and gun oil. Its high velocity gave its small calibre better killing power at greater range than a big-bore musket. The criticism, as always, was the awkwardness of a firearm that came up to my chin. Reloading took too long for the quick, mass volleys of European combat, and it wouldn’t fit a bayonet. But then the whole idea of standing in a line, waiting to be shot, was foreign to us Americans. The great disadvantage of any gun was the need to reload after one shot, and the great advantage of an accurate rifle was that you might actually hit something with that first shot. The first order of business, I thought, was to fetch my firearm.

‘Your apartment is exactly where the police will look for you!’ Talma objected.

‘It’s been more than two days. These are men paid less than a potter and corrupt as a judge. I think it unlikely they’re still waiting. We’ll go tonight, bribe a neighbour, and pry at the wall from his side.’

‘But I’ve got tickets for the midnight stage to Toulon!’

‘Plenty of time, if you help.’

I deemed it cautious to enter the building as I’d left Minette’s, by a back courtyard window. Even if the police were gone, Madame Durrell would still be lurking, and I was no closer to paying repairs and rent. That evening, Talma reluctantly boosted me up a downspout so I could peek into my own apartment. It was unchanged, the mattress still torn, feathers spotting my abode like flakes of snow. The latch was shiny, however, meaning the lock had been changed. My landlady was trying to make sure I’d settle my debt before getting my things. Given that my floor was her ceiling, I’d decided an oblique attack would be best.

‘Keep a lookout,’ I whispered to my companion.

‘Hurry! I saw a gendarme down the alley!’

‘I’ll be in and out without a peep of noise.’

I sidled on the sill to my neighbour Chabon, a librarian who each evening tutored the children of the newly striving. As I’d hoped, he was gone. The truth was that I had no hope of bribing a man of his rigid and rather dull rectitude, and was counting on his absence. I broke a pane and opened his window. He’d be disturbed to find a hole in his wall but I was, after all, on a mission for France.

His room smelt of books and pipe smoke. I dragged a heavy chest away from the wall opposite my own place and used my tomahawk to pry at the wainscoting. Did I mention the hatchet could work as wedge and lever, too? I’m afraid I splintered a few boards, but I’m no carpenter, either. I was making more sound than I’d promised, but if I was quick it wouldn’t matter. I saw my powder horn and the butt of my gun.

Then I heard the click of the lock on my own door, and footsteps in my apartment. Someone had heard the noise! Hastily, I shouldered the horn, grabbed the rifle, and started to slowly draw it out the wall, fighting the awkward angle.

I just about had it free when someone grabbed the barrel from the other side.

I peered through the hole. Facing me was the visage of Madame Durrell, her red hair seemingly electrified, her hideously rouged mouth pursed in triumph. ‘You think I don’t know your tricks? You owe me two hundred francs!’

‘Which I’m travelling to earn,’ I whispered hoarsely. ‘Please let go my gun, Madame, so I can satisfy my debts.’

‘How, by murdering another? Pay, or I shout for the police!’

‘I haven’t murdered anyone, but I still need time to put things to right.’

‘Starting with your rent!’

‘Be careful, I don’t want to hurt you. The rifle is loaded.’ It was a frontier habit acquired from the voyageurs.

‘Do you think I’m afraid of the likes of you? This gun is collateral!’

I pulled, but she tugged back ferociously. ‘He’s here, come to steal his things!’ she shouted. She had a grip like the jaws of a terrier.

So in desperation I abruptly reversed movement and bulled forward through the hole I’d made in the wall, bursting more boards as I drove through to my own apartment. I landed atop my landlady along with gun, splinters, and wall dust. ‘Sorry. I wanted to do this quietly.’

‘Help! Rape!’

I staggered to the window, dragging her as she clung to one leg.

‘It will be the guillotine for you!’

I looked outside. Talma had disappeared from the muddy yard. A gendarme stood in his place, staring up at me in surprise. Damnation! The police had not been half so efficient when I had once complained to them about a pickpocket.

So I lurched the other way, Madame Durrell’s attempt to gnaw on my ankle somewhat foiled by her lack of more than a few teeth. The door was locked, its key no doubt in my landlady’s pocket, and I had no time for niceties. I uncapped my horn, primed my pan, pointed, and fired.

The report was a roar in the room, but at least my landlady let go my leg as the lock shattered. I kicked the door open and plunged into the hallway. A hooded figure on the stairs blocked my way, armed with a snake-headed staff, his eyes startled from the gunshot. The lantern bearer! Smoke hung in the landing’s air.

There was a click, and a fine sword point emerged from the snake’s head. ‘Give it up and I let you go,’ he whispered.

I hesitated, my gun empty. My opponent had the skilled stance of a pikeman.

Then something flew out of the darkness below and banged off the lantern bearer’s head, staggering him. I charged, using the barrel of my rifle like a bayonet to thrust against his sternum, knocking his wind out. He lurched and tumbled down the stairs. I clattered after, vaulted his sprawled body, and stumbled outside, colliding with Talma.

‘Are you mad?’ my friend asked. ‘Police are coming from every direction!’

‘But I got it,’ I said with a grin. ‘What the devil did you hit him with?’

‘A potato.’

‘So they’re good for something after all.’

‘Stop them!’ Madame Durrell was shouting from a streetside window. ‘He tried to have his way with me!’

Talma looked up. ‘I hope your gun was worth that.’

Then we were flying down the street. Another gendarme appeared at the end of the lane, so Talma jerked me into the doorway of an inn. ‘Another lodge,’ he whispered. ‘I sensed we might need this.’ We burst inside and quickly pulled the proprietor into the shadows. A quick Masonic handshake and Talma pointed to a door leading to the cellar. ‘The order’s urgent business, friend.’

‘Is he a Freemason too?’ The innkeeper pointed at me.

‘He tries.’

The innkeeper followed us down, locking the door behind us. Then we stood under stone arches, catching our breath.

‘Is there a way out?’ Talma asked.

‘Past the wine barrels is a grate. The drain is big enough to slip through and leads to the sewers. Some Masons escaped that way in the Terror.’

My friend grimaced, but did not quail. ‘Which way to the leather market?’

‘Right, I think.’ He stopped us with his hand. ‘Wait, you’ll need this.’ He lit a lantern.

‘Thanks, friend.’ We scampered past his barrels, pried off the grate, and skidded thirty feet down a tunnel of slime until we popped out into the main sewer. Its high stone vault disappeared into darkness in both directions, our dim light illuminating the scurrying of rats. The water was cold and stinking. The grate clanged above as our saviour locked it back into place.

I examined my smeared green coat, the only nice one I had. ‘I admire your fortitude in coming down here, Talma.’

‘Better this and Egypt than a Parisian jail. You know, Ethan, every time I’m with you, something happens.’

‘It’s interesting, don’t you think?’

‘If I die of consumption, my last memories will be of your shouting landlady.’

‘So let’s not die.’ I looked right. ‘Why did you ask about the leather market? I thought the stage left near the Luxembourg Palace?’

‘Exactly. If the police find our benefactor, he’ll misdirect them.’ He pointed. ‘We go left.’

So we arrived: half wet, odoriferous, and me without baggage except for rifle and tomahawk. We washed as best we could at a fountain, my green travelling coat hopelessly stained. ‘The potholes are getting worse,’ Talma explained lamely to the postman. Our standing wasn’t helped by the fact that Talma had purchased the cheapest tickets, economising by perching us on the open rear bench behind the enclosed coach, exposed and dusty.

‘It keeps us from awkward questions,’ Talma reasoned. With my own money mostly stolen, I could hardly complain.

We could only hope the fast stage would get us well on the way to Toulon before the police got around to querying the stations, since our odd departure would likely be remembered. Once we reached Bonaparte’s invasion fleet we’d be safe: I carried a letter of introduction from Berthollet. I masked my identity with the name Gregoire and explained my accent by saying I was a native of French Canada.

Talma had his own valise delivered before accompanying my adventure, and I borrowed a change of shirt before it was hoisted to the coach roof. My gun had to go in the same place, with only the tomahawk keeping me from feeling defenceless.

‘Thanks for the extra clothing,’ I said.

‘I’ve far more than that,’ my companion boasted. ‘I’ve got special cotton for the desert heat, treatises on our destination, several leather-bound notebooks, and a cylinder of fresh quills. My medicines we will supplement with the mummies of Egypt.’

‘Surely you don’t subscribe to such quackery.’ The crumbled dust of the dead had become a popular remedy in Europe, but selling what looked like a vial of dirt encouraged all kinds of fraud.

‘The medicine’s very unreliability in France is the reason I want a mummy of my own. After recovering our health we can sell the remainder.’

‘A glass of wine does more good with less trouble.’

‘On the contrary, alcohol can lead to ruin, my friend.’ His aversion to wine was as odd for a Frenchman as his fondness for potatoes.

‘So you’d rather eat the dead?’

‘Dead who were prepared for everlasting life. The elixirs of the ancients are in their remains!’

‘Then why are they dead?’

‘Are they? Or did they achieve some kind of immortality?’

And with that illogic we were off. Our companions in the coach proper were a hatter, a vintner, a Toulon cordage maker, and a customs officer who seemed determined to sleep the length of France. I’d hoped for the companionship of a lady or two, but none boarded. Our passage was swift on the paved French highways, but tedious, like all travel. We slept much of the rest of the night, and the day was a numbing routine of brief stops to change horses, buy mediocre fare, and use the rural privies. I kept looking behind but saw no pursuit. When I dozed I had dreams of Madame Durrell demanding rent.

Soon enough we grew bored, and Talma began to pass the time with his tireless theories of conspiracies and mysticism. ‘You and I could be on a mission of historic importance, Ethan,’ he told me as our coach clattered down the valley of the Rhone.

‘I thought we were merely running from my troubles.’

‘On the contrary, we have something vital to contribute to this expedition. We understand the limits of science. Berthollet is a man of reason, of cold chemical fact. But we Freemasons both respect science yet know the deepest answers to the greatest mysteries are in the temples of the East. As an artist, I sense my destiny is to find what science is blind to.’

I looked at him sceptically, given that he had already swallowed three nostrums against the filth of the sewers, complained of stomach cramps, and thought the fact that his leg had gone asleep signalled final paralysis. His travelling coat was purple, as military as a slipper. This man was journeying to a Muslim stronghold? ‘Antoine, there are diseases in the East we don’t even have names for. I’m astounded you’re going at all.’

‘Our destination has gardens and palaces and minarets and harems. It is paradise on Earth, my friend, a repository of the wisdom of the pharaohs.’

‘Mummy powder.’

‘Don’t scoff. I’ve heard of miracle cures.’

‘Frankly, all this Masonic talk of Eastern mysteries hasn’t really made sense to me,’ I said, twisting to stretch my legs. ‘What’s to be learnt from a heap of ruins?’

‘That’s because you never really listen at our meetings,’ Talma lectured. ‘The Freemasons were the original men of learning, the master builders who constructed the pyramids and great cathedrals. What unites us is our reverence for knowledge, and what distinguishes us is our willingness to rediscover truths from the distant past. Ancient magicians knew powers we cannot dream of. Hiram Abiff, the great craftsman who built Solomon’s temple, was murdered by his jealous rivals and raised from the dead by the Master Mason himself.’

Masons were required to play out some of this fantastic story upon initiation, a ritual that had left me feeling foolish. One version of the story suggested resurrection, while another mere recovery of the body from a dastardly murder, but neither tale had any point to it that I could see. ‘Talma, you can’t really believe that.’

‘You’re just an initiate. As we climb the ranks, we will learn extraordinary things. A thousand secrets are buried in old monuments, and the few with the courage to uncover them have become mankind’s greatest teachers. Jesus. Muhammad. Buddha. Plato. Pythagoras. All learnt secret Egyptian knowledge from a great age long lost, from civilisations that raised works we no longer know how to build. Select groups of men – we Freemasons, the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the followers of the Rosy Cross, Luciferians – all have sought to rediscover this knowledge.’

‘True, but these secret societies are often at odds with each other, as mainstream Freemasonry is with the Egyptian Rite. The Luciferians, if I understand it, give Satan a status equal to God.’

‘Not Satan, Lucifer. They simply believe in the duality of good and evil, and that gods exhibit a dual nature. In any event, I’m not equating these groups. I’m simply saying they recognise that the lost knowledge of the past is as important as scientific discovery in the future. Pythagoras himself spent eighteen years studying with the priests of Memphis. And where was Jesus for a similar time during his life, on which the gospels are silent? Some contend he studied in Egypt as well. Somewhere there is the power to remake the world, to restore harmony and recapture a golden age, which is why our slogan is ‘Order out of Chaos’. Men like Berthollet go to examine rocks and rivers. They are hypnotised by the natural world. But you and I, Gage, we sense the supernatural one that underlies it. Electricity, for example! We do not see it, and yet it is there! We know that the world of our senses is but a veil. The Egyptians knew, too. If we could read their hieroglyphics, we would become masters!’

Like all writers, my friend had a fervent imagination and not a lick of sense. ‘Electricity is a natural phenomena, Antoine. It is lightning in the sky and a shock at a parlour party. You sound like that charlatan Cagliostro.’

‘He was a dangerous man who wanted to use Egyptian rites for dark purposes, but no charlatan.’

‘When he practiced alchemy in Poland they caught him cheating.’

‘He was framed by the jealous! Witnesses say he healed sick people that ordinary doctors despaired of. He consorted with royalty. He may have been centuries old, like Saint Germain, who was actually Prince Ragoczy of Transylvania and who personally knew Cleopatra and Jesus. Cagliostro was a student of this prince. He…’

‘Was mocked and hounded and died in prison after being betrayed by his own wife, who had the reputation of being the greatest whore in Europe. You said yourself his Egyptian Rite is occult nonsense. What proof is there that any of these self-proclaimed sorcerers are centuries old? Listen, I don’t doubt there are interesting things to learn in Muslim lands, but I was recruited as a scientist, not a priest. Your own revolution has scorned religion and mysticism.’

‘Which is why there’s so much interest in the mystical today! Reason is creating a vacuum of wonder. Religious persecution has created a thirst for spirituality.’

‘Surely you don’t think Bonaparte’s motive is…’

‘Hush!’ Talma nodded toward the coach wall. ‘Remember your oath.’

Ah, yes. Our expedition leader and ultimate destination was supposed to be secret, as if any fool couldn’t guess it from our conversation. I dutifully nodded, knowing that given the wheel rumble and our position to the rear, they could hear little anyway. ‘Are you saying these mysteries are our true purpose?’ I said more quietly.

‘I’m saying our expedition has multiple purposes.’

I sat back, staring moodily at the grim hills of stumps created by the insatiable hunger the new factories had for wood. It seemed like the forests themselves were being recruited for the wars and trade spawned by revolution. While industrialists grew rich, the countryside grew bare and cities became shrouded in stinking fogs. If the ancients could do things by clean magic, more power to them.

‘Besides, the knowledge to be sought is science,’ Talma went on. ‘Plato brought it to philosophy. Pythagoras brought it to geometry. Moses and Solon brought it to law. All are different aspects of Truth. Some say it was the last great native pharaoh, the magician Nectanebo, who lay with Olympias and fathered Alexander the Great.’

‘I’ve told you I don’t want to emulate a man who died at thirty-two.’

‘In Toulon you will meet the new Alexander, perhaps.’

Or perhaps Bonaparte was simply the latest momentary hero, one defeat away from obscurity. In the meantime, I’d milk him for a pardon for a crime I hadn’t committed by being as ingratiating as I could tolerate.

We left the devastation, the highway entering what once was aristocratic parkland. It had been confiscated by the Directory from whichever noble or church official had owned it. Now it was open to peasants, poachers, and squatters, and I could glimpse crude camps of the poor set amid the trees, wisps of smoke drifting from their fires. It was getting near evening, and I hoped we’d reach an inn soon. My bottom ached from the pounding.

Suddenly there was a shout from the coachman, and something crashed ahead. We reined to a halt. A tree had fallen and the horses had bunched, neighing in confusion. The tree’s butt looked chopped through. Dark figures were emerging from the wood, their arms pointing at the coachman and footman above.

‘Robbers!’ I shouted, feeling for the tomahawk I still wore under my coat. While my skill had rusted, I felt I could still hit a target from thirty feet. ‘Quick, to arms! Maybe we can fight them off!’

But as I bounded off the coach I was met by the napping customs officer, who had suddenly come wide awake, jumped nimbly off, and met me by aiming an enormous pistol at my chest. The mouth of its barrel seemed as wide as a scream.

‘ Bonjour, Monsieur Gage,’ he addressed me. ‘Throw your savage little hatchet on the ground, if you please. I am to take either you or your bauble back to Paris.’

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