It is 1789. Roger Brook is to be found riding his horse through the countryside near Fontainebleau.
He has been sent there by the Prime Minister - William Pitt who wishes to "assess the probable outcome of the political ferment which was now agitating the whole French nation".
Having spent four previous years in France he was well acquainted with the various living standards to be found In France. During this time RB had spent time in the household of a great nobleman in Paris; he had lived with a middle class family in a provincial city as well as enjoying the comfort of a luxurious Chateau buried in the heart of the country; he had also spent many weeks tramping through the villages working as an assistant to a poor quack doctor and so was aware how the various levels were managing or not-managing to survive.
As he rode on he was thinking of the best way that he could gain access to the Royal Palace nearby when another rider rode past him in the opposite direction. He couldn't quite place him at first but it eventually comes to him; it was Etienne de Roubec - the man who robbed him of a lot of gold trinkets when he first arrived in France. RB chases after him.
This course of action proves to be very fortuitous as he finds de Roubec threatening two ladies in an enclosed carriage and taking a package from them at sword point. RB retrieves the package and chases him off and. The two ladies turn out to be Queen Marie Antoinette and her lady in waiting, Senorita Isabella d'Araranda.
In order to thank Roger the Queen asks him if she can return his favour.
His wish to gain access to the Palace is readily granted.
Once back at the Palace the Queen investigates RB's background as she needs an unknown 'Chevalier' to take a letter in secret to her younger brother in Florence.
RB is only too pleased to assist and sets off immediately on his long trip.
After travelling for several days he stops to observe another coach that is being held up by four masked assailants. He, once again manages to prevent the men from achieving their aim but RB is severely injured and his horse killed.
RB is urgent need of medical attention.
The occupants of the coach turn out to be Isabella d'Araranda and her entourage. They take him to the Hotel Nevers in the next town (Nevers) and get a Doctor and Chirugeon (from Old French Cirurgeon an archaic word for a Surgeon) for Roger.
Isabella helps to nurse him back to health (in many ways!!) over the next few weeks and they become inseparable. Once he is fit enough to travel they continue their journey via Marseilles, then by boat to Leghorn & then via Pisa to Florence.
Prior to his arrival he had been informed that some of the upper classes in Italy were linked to the Freemasons who have links with the Illuminati who were subsequently linked with the Rosicrucian's who do more than dabble with mystical matters. In fact, they are more involved with Political activities.
This turned out to be quite correct as RB finds himself ambushed & deposited in a long cellar lit only at one end by two, three branched candlesticks at either end of a long table.
The corners of the room were full of shadows and there were a group of men with black hoods with only slits to see through. The members of the 'Grand Orient' sat there unmoving with their black gloves folded in front of them. They asked him where the letter was that had been given to him by Marie Antoinette. Roger denies this. De Roubec then appears in the cellar to talk with the hooded men. He knows that RB has the letter and so the inquisitors arrange for him to be taken to the hotel to hand over the letter, which he does.
Unbeknown to them RB had copied the already ciphered letter to which he had also added some of his own coding so they was little chance of the contents being translated for a very long time.
RB manages to get the original copy of Marie Antoinette's letter to the Grand Duke Peter Leopold and his lover the beautiful Donna Livia who RB takes great delight in (literally).
He tries to return to Isabella but finds that she has been taken to Naples by her high profile Frescobaldi family having discovered that she wants to marry RB. Roger returns to Paris to pass on the news to the queen and to get over any thoughts of a relationship with Isabella.
Paris is in even more turmoil and RB witnesses the storming of the Bastille http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storming_of_the_Bastille
The King surrendered three days later.
Roger returns to England to report to the Prime Minister as well as get over the abduction of Isabella by becoming more acquainted with Amanda Godfrey who he has always been fond of.
He soon goes back to France and Marie Antoinette asks him to visit Naples to ask her sister Queen Caroline and her husband King Ferdinand if they would shelter her son the Dauphin as she is afraid for his life.
RB arrives in Naples and is given an assurance from the King & Queen that they would be happy to grant the Dauphins' asylum.
Shortly after RB is very soon in the arms of Isabella again who is now married to Don Diego. She tells Roger that her recent marriage is not going well and that Don Diego .is often out with other women and she believes that he intends to poison her so that he can be free again. Roger tries hard to get her away from her husband and very nearly succeeds but as soon as he discovers that she is pregnant with Don Diego's child he gives up the chase for her.
The Prime Minister then asks RB to go to Madrid as the Spanish are making claims on a large piece of Canadian territory that has already been claimed by England.
Pitt is prepared to go to War over this if they persist in pursuing this action but he also wants RB to find out if they intend to invoke the 'Family Compact' by dragging France into fighting to aid Spain.
The Spanish PM, Count Florinda Blanca tells RB that Spain is prepared to forego the Canadian provinces in exchange for Gibraltar. This is rejected by RB.
A deadline is given to the PM, which is not met.
RB meets up with King Carlos and Queen Maria Louisa of Spain. Also present at the reception are Colonel Thursby and Georgina Thursby who have moved up the social ladder.
It turns out that Don Diego and Georgina Thursby are very fond of each whilst RB still has feelings for Isabella.
This tangled web is sorted out in a very unexpected manner which I will leave for future readers to enjoy.
I thought this was a very enjoyable introduction to the French revolution, of which I had little knowledge. However, I thought it was let down by an inordinate amount of historic detail. (Yes, much more than usual).
DW can certainly set scenes. He can evoke situations that stick in the memory.
In this book the inquisition by the Grand Orient I found exceptionally good although relatively brief.
The storming of the Bastille was also, surprisingly, covered very quickly which is quite a shame as it was one of the major events in European history.
Having said this I look forward to seeing how the storyline proceeds in 'The man who killed the King'
(Page references are from the Arrow paperback)
Page 10 - Fontainebleau Palace - Why is it not spelt Fontainebleu?? (Blue Fountain???).
Page 70 - Surely it was to "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel"
Which, apparently means, 'to fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters'.
Page 147 - DW makes reference to the 'Sans-Culottes' who were rebelling against the aristocracy.
Page 228 - King Louis XVI has mild grey eyes.
Page 243 - Soon after the storming of the Bastille, RB is looking through the Palace railings.
DW writes, 'Beyond the railings the square was now brightly lit by the bonfires. Like the nightmare figures at a Witches' Sabbat men and women with linked arms were wildly dancing round them. Their drunken shouts made hideous the summer night'
Page 246 - There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time of the storming; one of them was a Major White who had been there for thirty years and when released had a beard a yard long.
Page 252 - RB takes a sedan chair along to the Kings wine-makers, Messrs. Justerini and Johnson, at No. 2, Pall Mall.
Page 312 - Chapter 18 is called 'Desperate Measures'. In 1974 this becomes the title of the 12th (and final) Roger Brook story.
Page 445 - Chapter 25 is named, a la Lanterne. - La Lanterne was a stout lamp post at the corner of a street in Paris used by mobs during the French Revolution for extemporised lynching's and referred to in such emblematic songs as Ah! Áa ira.