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Jacob's ladder

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A historic novel about Napoleon? But then, what's the role of the man in black and the mysterious Nikomakos? Who are the observers commenting on what is happening? Did Napoleon win at Waterloo?

Scifi / Adventure
4.9 20 reviews
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First Part: Preparation. Chapter 1: A private conversation

The portico of the Main Square in Salamanca swarmed with a gossipy whispering crowd. Walking around and trying to appear unconcerned, Luis was actually listening to every word. A few minutes before, a friend had told him the news, but he still hoped that it would prove false: this could well be another of those unfounded rumors which spread like fire, soon to disappear. However, his innate tendency to expect the worst made him doubt that hope. He wondered what Charles would do when he knew. If the news was confirmed, he would hear it soon. Meanwhile, his full attention was on the comments of the crowd in the Plaza.

“He landed in Cannes yesterday...”

“He must be on his way to Paris...”

“What will Fernando do…?”

“What will happen to us…?”

This was precisely what Luis was wondering, the question he did not dare to answer. Leaving the Plaza, he followed the Main Street to the university without paying any attention to his surroundings: he knew the way so well that he could go blindly. His only thought was:

“How shall I tell Charles?”

He had found no answer when he went in the university and passed through the court of schools to the lower cloister. Just before the door to the chapel, a sudden impulse made him go in, to seek in prayer the spiritual help he needed.

The chapel was full of shadows, scarcely lighted by two candles on the altar. Another unexplained impulse made him go to the darkest place and lean on the wall beside one of the tombs. He dropped his head in his hands and tried to pray, but his mind was in a whirlwind and he could not focus his thoughts.

Suddenly the door opened, letting in some light, broken by the shadows of two men, which disappeared again when they closed the door and walked inside the chapel to a place near Luis, who remained silent and did not move, trying to escape the unwanted company of the newcomers.

“We can speak here.”

Luis startled as he recognized the voice, little louder than a whisper, although he could understand the words. He wondered whether he should declare his presence, but his brief delay gave the second man time to answer, and what he said interested him so deeply, that he forgot his first intention and kept listening, scarcely daring to breathe.

“Charles, have you still got the amulet?”

He also recognized the second voice, which belonged to Don José Gutiérrez, professor of modern history and good friend of Charles. He had won the deserved repute of being too friendly to Bonaparte and the ideas of the French revolutionaries.

“Of course! It is never out of my sight.”

“Can I see it?”

Charles took something from inside his clothes. Craning his neck, Luis saw two points of light reflected from the candles by a golden object of strange shape, slightly larger than a coin. He noticed that it let the light through, as though it were transparent or perforated. Gutiérrez reached his hand, but Charles hid it quickly, as if the contact would pollute it. The man kept his hand stretched for an instant and then asked:

“How do you explain that the emperor…?”

“Bonaparte” replied Charles dryly.

“Bonaparte, as you like it… Why has he moved, without having it in his possession?”

“Perhaps he hopes to get it soon.”

“That is exactly what I fear.”

After a brief silence, Charles asked:

“What do you suggest?”

“Get rid of it before it’s too late.”


“Give it to me. I’ll send it to him.”

“Thank you, it won’t be necessary. I can keep it safe.”

“I’m afraid for your safety…”

“I can also keep myself safe.”

“You are optimistic. Bonaparte has a long arm.”

“I escaped him once. This time, all of Europe will be united against him. He won’t find it so easy to capture me. José, I’m surprised by your insistence. Do you really want the amulet back in Bonaparte’s hands? What do you expect to gain?”

Gutiérrez’s voice had a tinge of sorrow.

“You offend me, Charles. I’m just worried by your danger. Bonaparte must have sent someone against you.”

“Obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t have left Elba.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Why don’t you quit? Why don’t you want the emperor… Bonaparte… get back to power? Do you dislike so much the new order in Europe? Absolutism is dead, Charles, it will never come back… You are endangering your life in vain.”

“According to you, Bonaparte represents the republican ideals? Don’t make me laugh!”

But Gutiérrez avoided being drawn into a political digression and went back to his main concern.

“This time you are not alone. What about Luis?”

“Shut up! Leave me alone!”

“Whatever you do, he’ll be involved. If you are hunted, he’ll be hunted. You may think that your secret is safe, but I wouldn’t be sure. I know at least a part. Others may find out. Remember, celui à qui vous dites votre secret devient maître de votre liberté (he whom you tell your secret becomes master of your freedom). ”

“Are you threatening me?”

“It’s just a quotation by La Rochefoucauld.”

“In that case, I’ll give you another quotation by Calderón: Los secretos, un muerto es quien los guarda mejor (A dead man keeps secrets best).”

“Now you are threatening me.”

“Take it as you like.”

“You won’t let me convince you?”

“Never, I won’t let the amulet fall again in Bonaparte’s hands. It would go against my principles.”

“Then we’d better leave this conversation.”

“I think so.”

“I’m sorry.”

The two men moved away. The door to the chapel opened and closed without noise. Luis was again alone with his thoughts, much more confused than before. He had been worrying how to tell Charles the news that Bonaparte had returned to France. Now he knew that Charles was aware of it, and that this return affected him, Luis, personally. He felt disappointed, because in their long mutual relation Charles had never mentioned the amulet, but he knew that he had been silent for his protection. He was most perturbed at discovering that Charles hid one secret which seemed to involve him. What could this secret be?

After what he had heard, he felt the need to breathe fresh air and think. Leaving the university, he walked nowhere in particular. He was afraid to return home, because he did not know what to say or what to ask Charles. Luis had lived with his tutor for two years, since the latter came back from his last journey abroad, when he took a home and a professorship in Salamanca. Luis had always felt deep love and respect for Charles, in spite of his difficult temper, some of which he had shown during this recent conversation with Professor Gutiérrez.

Lost in his thoughts, he had not noticed where he was going until the banks of the river stopped him, near the old roman bridge. At the opposite side, a rider was about to cross. The echo of the hoofs on the stones awoke Luis from his absorption. Leaning on the parapet, he looked at the rider, who wore an unfamiliar uniform. After crossing the bridge, he stopped near Luis and stared at him insolently from top to bottom, while absently fondling the butt of his rifle, which protruded from a scabbard fixed to the saddle. After a short hesitation, the soldier spoke in correct Spanish with a marked French accent.

“Are you a student in the university?” But, without waiting for an answer, he continued: “Of course not! You are too young. I suppose you don’t know where I can find Citizen Charles Houy, professor of French language?”

Luis was so astonished that he couldn’t speak. The rider, assuming that his answer would be negative, spurred his horse and cantered along the bank of the river, disappearing among the shadows. Suddenly recovering from his confusion, Luis ran to the house where he lived with Charles, in the square of San Bartolomé. The arrival of the mysterious rider had pushed all his previous worries to the background of his mind.

The way was short, but steep. Luis was breathless when he arrived home and sighed in relief to find Charles walking around the room, showing his impatience at the boy’s absence.

“Why are you so late?”

Luis did not answer the question. He couldn’t lose time explaining, he had to give warning of the imminent danger. As soon as he recovered his breath to speak, he said in a broken voice:

“A French soldier is asking questions about you.”

His tutor’s black eyes stared at him piercingly, his thick eyebrows moved up and his forehead wrinkled. After keeping silence for an instant, his face relaxed, he tried uselessly to smile, and said:

“What do you know?”

“Bonaparte has landed in France, and a French rider has just arrived in Salamanca to find you. I have met him by the roman bridge, and he has asked me your whereabouts.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing, I was so surprised I couldn’t answer. He thought that I did not know, and went on his way. I suppose he will try at the university.”

“Probably. In that case, he’ll be here in two minutes. He mustn’t see you. Get away and come back in two hours. Take this money and have dinner in some inn or public house. When you come back, I want to speak to you.”

“Why mustn’t he see me?”

“Not now. Get off!”

Luis went out, but did not intend to go far: he wanted to await the arrival of the Frenchman, hidden in a convenient place. It was a pity that he wouldn’t be able to listen to the conversation. He didn’t feel remorse for having eavesdropped his tutor’s previous talk, for it had been unpremeditated. In this case, the knowledge that Charles had a secret which concerned him deeply seemed to justify his curiosity: he thought that it was his right to try and find it out.

He found a place from where he could see without being seen, and had not long to wait: the Frenchman arrived in a couple of minutes, on foot, evidently from the university. He wondered where he had left his horse, and who had given him their address in such a precise way, for he scarcely hesitated as he went in the house.

For some time, he looked at the window, where a candle was twinkling, and tried in vain to imagine the meeting of the two men. It was obvious that the arrival of the Frenchman was connected with Napoleon’s move from Elba. He also knew that Charles had an amulet which had belonged to the emperor, who wanted to recover it. But what was the amulet? Why was its possession important? What would the Frenchman do when Charles refused to give it back? Would he try to get it by force? He could answer none of these questions and his frustration grew every minute.

After half an hour, the door opened and the Frenchman came out. He looked angry, but it was clear that there had been no fight. While the soldier retraced his steps, he decided to follow and find where he was lodged. It was not difficult; the darkness was deep, the lighting scarce and their goal near: the man went into an inn in Main Street, one of the best in Salamanca.

“He must be well provided with money,” he thought.

Free of the strain, he noticed that he was hungry. He remembered that he had promised Charles to dine out and come back in two hours, found a public house where they served meals, and ordered two fried eggs with ham and half a glass of wine. While he ate, he thought on all the happenings in that momentous day, which threatened to change his life. He wished that time could go back, that things could be as they had always been, that he could go on living his unworried life. But he knew very well that his wish was impossible: life carries on and we must accept it as it comes.

When two hours had elapsed, he went back home. Charles had said that they would speak. He was so eager to know, that his fast walking attracted the attention of the few people in the street. He jumped up the stairs, three steps at a time, and went in the room. Charles was sitting on the same place, as if he hadn’t moved in all that time, and raised his head when Luis came. He had never looked so old. Without looking at him, he said in an almost inaudible voice:

“Start getting ready. We are leaving Salamanca.”

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