On 29 February 1879, Louis, son of Napoleon III, sails from Southampton, aboard a big paddle-boat, the Danube. His mother, Empress Eugenie, a widow for six years, waves him a tearful goodbye. Since the fall of the Second Empire in France, mother and son have been exiled in England.
The Imperial Prince Louis had obtained from the British Government, then at war with the Zulu Nation, the authorisation to join the Royal Horse Artillery. It is therefore wearing a British uniform that this elegant, blue-eyed, delicate-featured Bonaparte, great-nephew of Napoleon I, is leaving England to fight in South Africa.
On 26 March, after a crossing of twenty-seven days, he is at the Cape of Good Hope. On 3 April, he debarks at Durban. On 19, he arrives at Pietermaritzburg. On 29, he settles at Dundee. Finally, on 1 June, he leaves on a mission in the bush with a dozen men.
Around two o’clock, the little group stops for lunch. The place is calm and they delay leaving. After coffee, the Prince even makes a few sketches in his notebook.
Suddenly, a hord of Zulus, armed with assegais, surge from the high grasses, screaming as they attack the little camp. Panicked, the British jump on their horses and flee, without firing a shot. Prince Louis remains alone against the assaillants. Armed with his revolver, he desperately stands against them for a few minutes. But a javelin pierces his lower abdomen, another his right eye. He falls. The Zulus continue stabbing the dying man. His body will be found with seventeen assegai wounds.
The next day, a British column goes to look for the body of the Imperial Prince and brings it back to Durban where it is placed on a boat leaving for England.
On learning of her son’s death, witnesses tell us that Empress Eugenie “let out a horrible cry, then collapsed, as if she was dazed”. For weeks, then months, her despair is frightening.
Then, in April 1880, she decides to go to South Africa to spend the day of the anniversary of Louis’ death at the same spot where the Zulus killed him.
She arrives at Pietermaritzburg in the middle of the month of May. Immediately, she takes off into the bush, accompanied by the Marquis de Bassano, a few British officers, two ladies-in-waiting, an escort of twenty cavaliers and a Zulu guide. She is certain that the place will be easy to find because a pyramid of stones had been raised there.
After days of walking, the little expedition arrives in the region where the young prince had been massacred. Unfortunately, in one year, the devouring vegetation of the tropical forest had developed so much that they have to open a path through it with an axe. For several days, they stumble around in this frightening entanglement of giant grasses, vines and hostile plants.
One evening, when everyone is tired and discouraged, one of the Englishmen, Sir Evelyn Wood, tells the Empress that he thinks that they should stop their search. Eugenie lowers her head. She, too, is beginning to think that the search is useless, that the forest has effaced the place where her son had been killed, that her attempt is crazy, and that she has come twelve thousand kilometres for nothing.
She retires to her tent and spends the night crying.
Very early next morning, the group sadly starts preparing to leave. The officers and ladies-in-waiting are busy. A few more bags to fasten, and the little expedition will turn back to Dundee.
This is when something extraordinary happens. Empress Eugenie, who is prostrated at the foot of a tree, leaps to her feet as if she has been touched by a sudden inspiration. The others look at her. She seems very emotional. “It’s this way!” she cries. And, grabbing a little axe, she takes off into the forest, followed by her stunned companions.
Walking straight in front of her, cutting vines, tripping over rotten roots and fallen trees, scratching herself on thorns, using her bloody hands to push away grasses higher than herself, she goes unhesitatingly towards a mysterious point. For hours, not stopping even for a second, as if driven forward by a supernatural force, this fifty-four-year-old woman, who was totally unused to physical activity, keeps on walking like this without any sign of fatigue.
Suddenly, her companions hear her call out, triumphantly: “It’s here!” Incredulously, they approach and see that Eugenie has indeed found, half-hidden in the bushes, the pile of stones in the form of a pyramid.
The Empress falls to her knees and bursts into tears.
When she rises, Sir Evelyn Wood askes her how she had guessed that the stones were there. Eugenie explains that, at the moment when, desperate, she was about to follow her companions and return to Dundee, she suddenly smelled an extraordinary violet perfume.
“This perfume surrounded me, attacked me even, with such violence that I thought I would faint. You all know that my son had a real passion for this perfume. He used a lot of it for his toiletry needs. So, I thought that it must be a sign. And I blindly followed this odour without doubting for one instant that it would lead me to the place where Louis fell. And you see, I was right. It really was a sign.”
The British look at her in amazement. Eugenie asks them to leave her alone. Sir Evelyn Wood and his companions retire a hundred metres away and set up camp. The Empress remains all night alone, on her knees, and in tears, near the pyramid of stones where she had lit candles.
Early the next morning, something strange happened. Although there was not the slightest suspicion of a breeze, the Empress suddenly saw the flames of the candles lie down, as if someone was trying to blow them out. Very emotional, she asked:
“Are you there?… Do you want me to go away?…”
Then, the flames suddenly went out. And Eugenie, trembling, went to join her companions.