The following excerpt is from the novel Napoleon's Gold by Thomas Pullyblank, forthcoming in spring or summer of 2011.
(Tom Flanagan, whose parents and brother died in a boating accident on the river five years before, has returned to his family cottage in Thousand Island Park to reconnect with his past. Tom's previous adventure with the Radisson family can be found in Cornflower's Ghost, which also contains several scenes that take place in the Thousand Islands. Cornflower’s Ghost is available at Corbin’s Book Store in Clayton or through the link on TI Life’s Publications Page.)
My past. I knew I’d find something of it when I arrived at the Thousand Islands--the sufferings and triumphs hinted at by Jens, clues to my family’s connection with Albert Hartman/Ben Fries, perhaps even some degree of healing--but I never expected to begin finding anything so quickly. Even less did I expect my personal quest for answers to be immediately and inextricably linked to one of the river’s most famous legends.
I’d heard the tale of Napoleon’s gold, of course, as we all had while aboard the tour boats out of Alexandria Bay or Clayton or one of the Canadian river towns. And I suppose that as my favorite tour boat tale the story was already part of my past. But that was a frivolous preoccupation of my childhood, or so it seemed. The story as I knew it was usually told in the following way.
When Napoleon lost his final battle at Waterloo in June 1815 and abdicated the French throne, a group of family and friends hatched a plan to escort him out of Europe, preferably to the United States. Napoleon consented to the plan, but the water off France’s Atlantic coast was controlled by the British navy, and the former Emperor was unable to flee. In July he was taken captive by the British, and by October he was a prisoner on the isolated South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
But his brother Joseph and several friends of the family did succeed in getting away. Joseph and a few of the family friends purchased several properties in America, including houses in Cape Vincent, New York, at the foot of the Thousand Islands, where the waters of Lake Ontario become the Saint Lawrence River. It was here that they hoped Napoleon would settle once past the British blockade or, after Napoleon was finally exiled on Saint Helena, once escaping from the remote island prison.
But Napoleon never made it across the ocean. He died on Saint Helena in 1821, still a prisoner of the British. And although Joseph Bonaparte did make it to the United States, he eventually settled near Philadelphia, and only set foot in northern New York on a few occasions. Nevertheless, Cape Vincent still celebrates its bit of notoriety with an annual French Festival, which climaxes in the wish-fulfillment of French émigré hopes: the entry into town of the "Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte" saddled on a white horse, at the head of one of the best small town parades you'll ever see.
The festival has more meaning than this fiction, however, as many families from Cape Vincent to Clayton, my mother’s maternal family included, boast French or anglicized surnames, and can trace their lineage back to the post-Waterloo expatriation and, in many cases, beyond.
The core of the Napoleon's gold legend is this: in July 1815 a lone French vessel slipped by the British blockade, bound for Cape Vincent. It crossed the Atlantic. It got past the British defenses at Louisburg and onto the Saint Lawrence. It got through several of the rapids upriver from Montreal. The ship almost made it, but as often happened in those days before the dredging of canals and the eventual opening of the Seaway, it hit a shoal or capsized in a rapids and sunk somewhere upriver from Prescott, most likely in one of the treacherous channels that made the Thousand Islands region so dangerous and, to a lesser degree, still make it so today. Neither the ship nor a ship’s manifest was ever found, nor was anyone quite sure of the vessel’s name. The tour guides insist, though, and many local historians concur, that on board the ship was a large supply of gold, meant to maintain Napoleon’s high standard of living in the relative wilderness of the New World hinterlands.
So much for what I knew--or, more accurately, half-remembered--of the story when I drove the long journey north from Brooklyn in late September 2001. Within an hour of my re-arrival, I discovered that there was much more to know, and that the knowledge, or at least the search for it, was very close to home indeed.
* * *
I was in the lounge of Il Castello Ristorante in Alexandria Bay, needing dinner after the long drive. I was sipping a beer, and had just ordered the surf and turf when a series of pictures behind the bar caught my eye. When the bartender saw me looking closely at one of them he asked if I was a hockey fan. I should have guessed that something was up because he’d been treating me with an air of friendly familiarity from the moment I walked in the door.
"My father was a huge hockey fan," I said, "which is why, I suppose, he and my uncle Jack are up there arm in arm with the Esposito brothers."
The bartender was a tall man with thick, black rimmed glasses and two tufts of charcoal grey hair on either side of his otherwise bald head. He smiled and offered me his hand. "I’m Martin Comstock, Tom, and I’ve been wondering when you’d come back."
I shook his hand, then paused for a moment to see if I remembered him from my time in the Islands, from the funeral, from anywhere. Nothing. So to avoid the obvious question I asked instead, "When I’d come back? Not if?"
"No, not if, although after five years of waiting some of the others have put their big money on if. I, however, always knew that when would be the winning bet."
"More of your father’s friends. I’m sure you’ll meet them sooner or later. As a matter of fact, they’ll be at Jimmy’s Tavern tomorrow evening if you’re not too busy. There's always a place for you at Jimmy's."
I nodded. "So you’ve been expecting me."
"Well, you haven’t put the cottage up for sale. Your cousin Andrew’s been mowing the lawn for you. We knew you’d come back someday, at least to check it out."
I slid my empty glass his way. "I drove up from Brooklyn today and, frankly, could use another one of these."
"Mi cervesa es su cervesa," he said, laughing quietly.
"Gracias," I replied.
Comstock got me a fresh glass from the cooler. "But you missed the season," he said. "The river’s practically empty by now. People are fools to leave this early, you know. The beauty’s just begun. And we need it more than ever this year. Well, after what happened."
"I didn’t come as a tourist, Martin. I'm not here only for a weekend."
He stopped the tap, my glass half full of Genny, then resumed the pour. "You’re moving in? Now?"
"Right after I finish dinner." I gestured out towards the parking lot as he placed the beer on the coaster. "Everything I own is in the rental car outside. Everything I own except for what’s been sitting in the cottage, that is."
"Well, I’m sorry," he said, with a wave of his hand. "It’s just that most people are doing the opposite, putting up their shutters and driving away this time of year."
I tipped my glass and drank a long swig. "Not me. I just drove six hours here, and tomorrow morning I’ll be taking the shutters down. I expect there's a hammer and screwdriver around the cottage somewhere."
Martin Comstock smiled and poured himself a half glass of Sprite. "You’re a historian?"
"Sort of. I did research work in Brooklyn. I haven’t taught in years."
"But you know your history, don’t you? You know how to sort through stuff and figure out what happened and what didn’t?"
"If only it were that easy," I said.
"You did it with the Radissons, right?"
"I had lots of help. But yes, in the end I did."
"Well, without being presumptuous, I’d like to say that once you get settled in and get to know your father's friends, you’re in for quite a treat. Historically speaking, that is."
"I look forward to it," I said, although I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about.
"Your father's work is waiting for you. Your cousin Andrew says he didn't touch it, left it exactly like it was on the day...well, like it was five years ago."
"The day my family died," I said. "Don’t worry. I can handle it." But I took a swig of beer and tried to change the subject anyway. "Were you really betting on if and when I’d come back?"
He smiled and waved his hand. "Well, not betting so much as considering the odds. We were trying to figure out whether you’d continue your father’s work. We read about what happened in Clinton Falls, with Congressman Radisson, and thought it might be right after that."
"I went to Brooklyn instead to do that research work."
"And the years went by," he said, and then sighed. "And the world has changed. Well, have you visited their graves yet?"
"First thing when I got here," I said. "Lucky I had a good flashlight. The plots need some sprucing up. I'll head over there tomorrow with some chrysanthemums."
"Good man." He nodded. "You won't have to do anything back home. As I was saying, Andrew has been diligent with the upkeep, and left things exactly as they were." I assumed he meant the cottage. But then he said, "Your father’s work was important to Andrew, too, you know. As important to him as it was to the rest of us."
My father’s work. Martin Comstock had referred to it three times already. What did he mean? Not the newspaper, I knew, which my father had lost about a decade before he died. Not Preserve the Islands, either, the international environmental group that Ben Fries had started and my mother had supported most among my family; that had been in the hands of committed, capable professionals and volunteers for years.
So I asked him directly, "What work?"
"Again, I don’t want to be presumptuous." He looked at me curiously as he wiped and hung wine glasses. "You didn’t know what your father was doing when you were growing up? Besides the newspaper?"
"All I cared about when we were up here was swimming and fishing. When I was in my teens I didn’t know much at all about what he did. I remember him spending hours in his study and then going out on the river for half a day. Sometimes I’d join him and he’d pull me on the water skis. Sometimes we'd dive together and look at the easier shipwrecks. I never joined him on anything other than the easy dives, though. Overall, I didn’t ask questions, and he kept his study locked."
"And Andrew hasn’t told you anything?"
"We’ve spoken maybe twice in five years," I said, "when he needed some money for roof repairs and again for plumbing fixtures. Andrew and I haven't been close since we were little kids, Martin. And he’s like my uncle Jack. They both like to conserve their words. "Maybe he was just being discrete," Comstock said after a pause while the waitress brought my dinner. "Or maybe he was waiting for you to bring it up. We never did come to any consensus on how to involve you in it."
"Bring what up?" I asked as I buttoned my bib. "Involve me in what?"
Martin Comstock wiped down the bar to my left and my right, then fidgeted with the salt and pepper shakers that the waitress had placed on the other side of my dinner plate. I half expected him to ignore my questions and go fill them up. But then he said, "Well, what Andrew was keeping to himself...what we know for sure is that right before your father died he thought he was once again close, I mean really, really close, to finding Napoleon’s gold."
The punctuated crack of the lobster shell as I squeezed it between the pliers was as good of a reply as any I could have spoken.
By Thomas Pullyblank
Thomas Pullyblank was born and raised in rural upstate New York. Having earned degrees in history at the University at Albany and a Master of Divinity degree from the Boston University School of Theology, Pullyblank now teaches history at the SUNY College at Oneonta and serves as a United Methodist pastor near Cooperstown, New York. He lives on a small working farm with his wife and son. His first novel, Cornflower’s Ghost was published in 2009 and he is currently working on a second upstate New York historical mystery featuring Tom Flanagan which is Napoleon’s Gold. TI life will keep our readers posted as to when this new novel will be published. Until then, we recommend Cornflower’s Ghost which has been reviewed in several North Country publications and is available at Corbin's River Heritage in Clayton and from Square Circle Press.