The Jolbokaflod – an Icelandic Christmas Tradition

Andreas Tille, from Wikimedia

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

Free Books on Amazon Kindle on Christmas Eve

At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

They are also easier to give away, and this year I want to celebrate my own version of the Jolabokaflod with my readers, by giving away the e-book versions of all eight of my books on kindle for one day, on Christmas Eve.  It is a year since I first made the decision to independently publish my historical novels, and it has gone better than I ever expected.  This is my way of saying thank you to all my readers and hello to any new readers out there.

I now have eight books for sale on Amazon kindle.  Four of them are the first four books in a series which is intended to run for around ten books, following a fictional regiment through the bloody years of Wellington’s Peninsular War.  The Peninsular War Saga is proving very popular, with a combination of war, history and romance.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Unconventional Officer, Book 1, introduces the young Lieutenant Paul van Daan as he joins the 110th infantry which is about to sail to India and ends after the Battle of the Coa in Portugal, with Major Paul van Daan in command of a battalion and wed to the love of his life.

An Irregular Regiment, Book 2, begins with the Battle of Bussaco and then follows the newly married Paul and Anne van Daan through Massena’s retreat to the Battle of Sabugal.

An Uncommon Campaign finds Colonel Paul van Daan in command of a brigade at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro and Anne about to become a mother for the first time.

A Redoubtable Citadel begins with the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and ends with the taking of Badajoz; three months which turn Colonel van Daan’s well-ordered world on its head as his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a grudge.

An Untrustworthy Army, book 5 will be published in 2018.

A Regrettable Reputation (Book Two of the Light Division Romances)
A novel of Regency Yorkshire

As a spin off from this series, there are two books in the Light Division Romances, which follow the fortunes of some of the characters from the Peninsular War Saga into peacetime.  Both these books are available in paperback.  A Regrettable Reputation is a Regency romance set in Yorkshire in 1816.  Amidst the unrest of the Industrial Revolution, Mr Nicholas Witham, formerly of the 110th, has found work as estate manager to Lord Ashberry’s Yorkshire lands, a peaceful existence which is disrupted by the arrival of an heiress with a disreputable past.

The Reluctant Debutante is the story of Giles Fenwick, Earl of Rockcliffe, former captain in the 110th and one of Wellington’s exploring officers.  Struggling with wartime memories of the horror of Waterloo, Giles meets Cordelia Summers, daughter of a wealthy merchant, a girl of decided opinions and a lively sense of humour.

A Respectable Woman - the history
A novel of Victorian London: book 1 in the Alverstone Saga

In addition to these books, there are two other novels, both intended as the first in a series also available on kindle and in paperback.   A Respectable Woman tells the story of Philippa Maclay, raised on a mission station in Africa, who finds herself obliged to support herself in the harsh setting of an East London charity school.  Only a respectable woman can hope to hold such a post and her relationship with Major Kit Clevedon, son of an Earl and a man in search of a diversion, can only lead to ruin.

A Marcher Lord tells the story of Jane Marchant and Will Scott, two people on opposite sides of a savage war on the Anglo-Scottish borders in the sixteenth century.  In a land torn apart by war and treachery, the Scottish baron and the daughter of an English mercenary find a surprising peace.

All eight of these books are free on Amazon kindle for one day on Christmas Eve.  Please download and enjoy.  Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors…

Merry Christmas from Joey

 

 

Arriving in Salamanca – an Excerpt from An Untrustworthy Army: Book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga

Lord Wellington

I’m about half way through the first draft of An Untrustworthy Army which is book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga and thought I’d share this excerpt of the army arriving in Salamanca after the French abandoned the city in June 1812.  The battle is yet to come…Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

Around them the people of Salamanca thronged the ancient streets. The buildings were graceful, in a variety of ochre and pink stone, soaring arches and towers giving way sometimes to a crumbled heap of stone where Napoleon’s troops had destroyed some historic foundation to use as building stone for the makeshift fortresses which had held the town.

“It’s lovely. Such a shame about the destruction,” Anne said, fanning herself. Paul surveyed the fan with some amusement. His wife, who had little interest in fashion, regarded fans as purely functional objects and he was sure he had never seen the elaborately painted article before.

“It is. A lot of these buildings would have been part of the university, but it’s basically been closed down by the French. They’ve destroyed some of the buildings and used others as barracks which will mean they’re wrecked inside. The place we’re billeted in was one of the old colleges, I’ve got some of the lads clearing it out now. It’s big and very elegant but they’d left it like a pigsty.”

“Probably left in a hurry,” Anne said, looking around her. “I wonder what happened to the students?”

“Probably most of them ended up either in the French army or the guerrillas,” Paul said.

“Or dead,” his wife said quietly.

“Yes, poor bastards. It’s funny, this place reminds me of my student days in Oxford. Hard to imagine Magdalen and Balliol ripped apart by French infantrymen. Puts it in perspective somehow.”

Anne glanced at him. “Which college were you?”

“Balliol. Have you visited Oxford?”

“No, love, I’m a Yorkshire lass, never been anywhere until I married Robert, apart from York, Harrogate and a trip to London when I was fifteen.”

Paul laughed aloud and reached for her gloved hand, raising it to his lips with great formality. “And now you speak five languages, bully the local merchants in two countries and have an Earl languishing at your feet.”

“Lord Wellington does not languish, he is far too busy,” his wife said repressively. Their byplay had been noticed by a section of the crowd. The population were cheering wildly, some of the girls running to hand flowers and fruit to the officers and men. At the head of the parade Lord Wellington’s horse was already garlanded and its bridle and saddle decorated with offerings. As Paul and Anne rode past a woman detached herself from the crowd. She was holding the hand of a boy of about six, a beautiful child with large dark eyes, dressed in Sunday best for the parade. She pushed him forward, a posy of flowers in his hand, but as he ran, one of the horses started up and the child stumbled in fright and fell hard onto the cobbles.

Anne looked over at Jenson. “Hold her,” she said, and slid from Bella’s back, tossing him the reins. Paul reined in, waving to Major Swanson. “Carry on, Carl, we’ll catch up.”

The boy was on his knees, both of them grazed and bloodied, trying hard not to cry so publicly when Anne reached him. She knelt, apparently indifferent to her riding dress in the dust.

“Are you hurt?” she asked quickly in Spanish.

His mother had reached him at the same time. The boy looked up into Anne’s face and he looked startled as he took in her beauty. Anne lifted him gently to his feet, pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed blood from his knees.

“You have battle wounds of your own, Señor,” she said gravely, and he looked down at his legs and then up into her face and laughed. His mother put her hand on his shoulder.

“You speak Spanish, Señora?”

“I do, my friend is Spanish, she taught me. You have a very handsome son, Senora, what is his name?”

“Diego,” the woman said. “He is five.”

“He is tall for five. And very brave – hardly a tear. Were these for the soldiers?”

She picked up the posy of white flowers and gently blew the dust from them. The child studied her.

“They were for you, Señora. Because you are so beautiful.”

“Diego, thank you.” Anne raised the posy to her face to smell. “So lovely. But if we are friends there should be an exchange of gifts.”

She reached up and detached one of the silk flowers from her hat, twisting the securing wire into a buttonhole which she carefully placed in the child’s dark jacket. Diego looked down at it, astonished, and then up at Anne, his face transformed. Anne laughed and handed him the soiled handkerchief. “Keep this also for your war wounds. Thank you for these, they are beautiful.”

She turned to find that Jenson had dismounted and was waiting to lift her up. He was grinning. Behind her the woman said:

“Thank you, Señora. You have children?”

“Back in England. I miss them.”

“May you see them soon, Señora.” The dark eyes shifted to Paul. “Your husband is an officer?”

“A colonel. Who is going to be in trouble if we don’t catch up with the rest of his brigade before we reach the square,” Anne said, laughing. “Enjoy the day, Señora. Adios, Diego.”

She turned back to Paul and found him laughing, and heard for the first time an enormous swell of cheering around her as the crowd acknowledged the small drama. Slightly pink cheeked, she allowed Jenson to lift her into the saddle and looked at her husband.

“Better get a move on, Colonel, before he starts yelling.”

“He won’t mind today. You should have married royalty, Nan, you’re very good at this.”

“Any more remarks like that and I’ll slap you,” Anne said succinctly, kicking Bella into a trot to move back up the parade to the head of the 110th. “Although it was a good thing you made me wear this ghastly hat, turned out to have its uses.”

“I am so glad,” Paul said politely. “Jenson, that fan does not suit your particular style of beauty.”

“I thought it was my colour, sir. You dropped this, ma’am.”

Anne reached over and took the fan. “Thank you, Jenson. I will undoubtedly lose it before the end of today anyway, but it’s been surprisingly useful in this heat.”

“Where did you get it from?” Paul asked.

“It was a gift from Don Julian,” Anne said demurely, and her husband made a rude noise.

“And what in God’s name is Julian Sanchez doing sending my wife gifts?”

“I was seated next to him at dinner one evening, in Lord Wellington’s tent. I think I’ve received some form of gift every day since, it’s embarrassing. He said that he wishes to see me in a mantilla and will find me the best lace he can in Salamanca. Although he was struggling to decide if he thought black or white would suit me better.”

“If he has the audacity to send you a mantilla of any colour, girl of my heart, I am going to punch him!” Paul said forcefully. “Don’t you already have a rather attractive one that I bought you in Lisbon?”

“I do. It is black. I did tell Don Julian that. He was quite poetic about the contrast of black lace against…”

“In a minute I am going to throw you off that horse!” Paul said explosively. Around him his officers were laughing hard. The parade was clattering into the Plaza Mayor and Anne looked around her at the glorious array of Romanesque churches and associated buildings.

“This is so lovely,” she said. “Paul, it is barely noon and you have already threatened me with violence twice, is it necessary? As for poor Don Julian…”

He had dismounted and moved forward to lift her from her horse. Across the square the Earl of Wellington was standing on the Cathedral steps, surrounded by his staff and an adoring plethora of Spanish, including half a dozen women who seemed to be vying to be close to him. Don Julian Sanchez, the leader of the Spanish guerrillas, was with him, a dark man in his thirties in a fur trimmed pelisse which must have been sweltering in the heat. Paul saw Wellington look over and Don Julian follow his gaze. He grinned and lifted Anne from her horse. As her feet touched the ground he pulled her close against him and kissed her with considerable enjoyment in a manner totally unsuitable in such a public place and in full view of the commander-in-chief.

“Colonel van Daan.”

The precise German tones of the commander of the light division made him raise his head. Von Alten was standing before him, his eyebrows raised. Paul laughed and released Anne.

“Sorry, sir. Just making a point to Don Julian Sanchez about his exact position in relation to my wife. Shall we go in?”

“By all means,” Von Alten said, smiling at Anne and offering her his arm. “If I offer to escort her, are you likely to hit me?”

“No, sir, I trust you with her.”

“I am not at all sure if that is a compliment or not,” the Hanoverian said and Paul burst into laughter. They moved towards the steps of the Cathedral. Paul paused by his men who were lined up neatly outside.

“RSM Carter.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You can stand them down. After this we go back to our billet to change and then I have to endure around five hours of bad food, long speeches and Don Julian bloody Sanchez trying to put his hand on my wife’s leg under the table.”

“Make a change from Lord Wellington doing it, sir.”

“That is not helpful. Get them back to camp, fed and watered. Half of them get town leave tonight, the other half tomorrow. Make up your mind when you go, I don’t mind.”

“Not that bothered, sir. I’ll stay up tonight and keep an eye on things. Maybe you could spare me a few hours during the day tomorrow. I’ve promised to take Teresa shopping and she’s dying to show me around, we’re close to her childhood home here so she knew the city as a girl. Thought we could have dinner in one of the taverns, take some time…”

“Take the whole day. Enjoy yourself, Danny, you’ve both earned it.”

“Thank you, sir. Hammond is going into town tonight but he’ll be back up and sober tomorrow, he can stand in for me.”

“Good lad. Oh Jesus Christ, can I not trust Charles to do anything? He’s let Wellington get hold of my wife!”

Paul marched up the steps to where Lord Wellington was placing Anne’s hand onto his arm.  His expression made it difficult for Paul to keep a straight face.  “Did you enjoy the parade, sir?”

“No,” his commander-in-chief said briefly. “Any more than you did. And I am sorry, Colonel, but I am borrowing your wife for a while to protect me from these blasted women!”

Paul began to laugh. “There’s a fee. I want a couple of days off with her, need to take her shopping.” He glanced at Sanchez, whose dark eyes were fixed on Anne’s lovely face. “I thought I might buy her a mantilla in white, since she already has a black one. And perhaps a new fan.”

Snow in Yorkshire, January 1808 – Excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

Snow in Yorkshire
An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

As we’ve a rare snowy day on the Isle of Man, I thought I’d share a wintery excerpt from An Unconventional Officer although snow in Yorkshire is a bit more common…

Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry is in temporary charge of the 115th Yorkshire foot, a regiment in chaos. His attempts to impose some discipline haven’t been popular resulting in one of the men throwing a rock at his head and causing him to be thrown in a blizzard. In addition, he hasn’t had any breakfast…

He arrived in barracks over an hour later, having given Rufus an easy ride, careful of his legs in the snow. The horse was surprisingly well for his night’s ordeal, and acting on instinct Paul followed his hoof prints in the snow to find out where he had been. The results were interesting. He rode into the stable and dismounted, handing the reins to a groom with a pleasant nod. There was no sign of life out on the pure white snow of the parade ground. Paul walked over and tested the depth. It was a pleasing eight or nine inches with an underlying layer of ice.
He walked over to the stores, nodded to the elderly sergeant who acted as store master, and walked through to the back. He was aware of the old man’s puzzled regard as he lifted a rifle down from the rack, and checked it, then collected some ammunition. Standing in the doorway he loaded swiftly, observing the surprised expression on the store master’s face at the speed. Carter or any one of his rifles would have considered it slow, but for an officer who did not practice regularly it was impressive. Nodding again, he walked out of the store and across to the mess. It was warm inside. Paul leaned the rifle up against the inside of the door and surveyed his officers benignly.
There were seven of them. Lieutenant Carlyon was not present, presumably at home still suffering from the after effects of having a tooth drawn. Paul was glad, as it absolved him of any possible hint of favouritism. Captain Moore was lounging closest to the fire, with his boots on the fender. Beside him sat Lieutenants Bagnall, Walsh and Hendry. A pack of cards was strewn across the table before them. The three young ensigns were sitting further away from the fire. As Paul entered, all heads turned.
“Don’t get up,” he said gently, and every man scrambled reluctantly to his feet, Moore taking the longest. Paul waved them to their seats. Ensign Franklin’s eyes widened. “What happened to your head, sir?” he asked.
“An accident on my way here yesterday.”
“Were you caught in that storm?” Moore said casually.
“In a manner of speaking. Somebody threw a rock at my head on my way here and I ended up decorating the road with a twisted knee and no horse. I rather imagined that Rufus would have made his way back here, but I’m guessing not. Or you’d have sent somebody out to look for me.”
Walsh looked at the others. “No, sir. Was he…did you get him back?”
“Oh yes. He must have been running loose all night in that storm, and then made his way back to find me. Fortunately I found a shepherd’s hut to spend the night in, because I couldn’t have walked that far in that weather.”
“Thank God for that, sir,” Bagnall said heartily. Paul looked around at the seven men, noticing the obvious discomfort of the three ensigns.
“No drill this morning?” Paul asked, still pleasantly.
“No, sir. Parade ground snowed under.”
“Ah, yes. Never mind.” Paul allowed his eyes to wander from one face to another. Ensign Franklin, who seemed to be the most perceptive, was looking terrified. “I expect it won’t take too long to clear.”
They stared at him owlishly, and Paul smiled. He picked up the rifle.
“Anyone load one of these?” he enquired.
“I know how, sir,” Hendry said. “Not often had to do it.”
“I’ve found it useful to learn. Keeps the men on their toes. I’ve half a dozen riflemen in the light company, and they’d laugh themselves silly at how slow I am. Nevertheless, I think I can probably engage to reload fast enough to put a ball through every one of you fucking liars before any of you could get out of the room. Who wants to go first?”
He lifted the rifle and aimed it squarely at Walsh’s knee. Walsh gave a nervous laugh.
“Shouldn’t wave that thing around in here, sir. I mean I know it’s not loaded, but…”
Paul lowered the rifle slightly and fired. The shot hit the floor between Walsh’s feet and the man yelled and leaped backwards, almost stumbling into the fire in his haste. Paul reloaded. Nobody else moved.
“Rufus’ saddle and tack were bone dry this morning when he turned up looking for me,” he said quietly. “So I followed his tracks. Of course the ones he made yesterday would have been covered up. But this morning they led all the way from his stable. He turned up here yesterday, just as I thought, and you all decided to have a jolly good laugh about me getting thrown on the road, and stuck out in that storm. And if I’d frozen to death in a ditch, you’d have shaken your heads and silently thanked God that there was nobody here to kick your lazy, useless arses into action any further! And you know what? That is not what has pissed me off! What has really made me fucking angry is that this morning you saddled my horse and sent him off on his own to God knows where, in weather likely to cause him to break his legs just so that I wouldn’t be able to work out what you’d done! You are so bloody lucky that he’s got more brain than you have and managed to get to me in one piece, because if I’d had to shoot him with a broken leg, I’d have shot you as well! You take it out on me and I can hit back and we’re even! But when you turn on my animals, I am going to make your lives a bloody misery from now until they either post me somewhere else or you sell out!”
He turned, opened the door, and roared:
“Sergeant!”
There was a scramble in the nearest barracks and Sergeant Holland appeared, stuffing his feet into his boots and pulling up his trousers. “Sir?” he said, sounding incredulous.
“Battalion on the parade ground, Sergeant. Now!”
The sergeant stared out at the pure white expanse. “But sir…”
“Ten minutes, Sergeant! And you ought to be able to do it in five! You’re a bloody disgrace!”
Holland saluted. “Yes, sir.”
He jogged off. Paul turned to find a private standing before him, obviously dressed for sentry duty. He saluted and handed Paul a letter. “This just came for you, sir.”
“Thank you.” Paul gave a brief smile, and opened the letter. He scanned it and gave an appreciative grin. It was a very civil note from Lady Howard, thanking him for his assistance in getting her step-daughter to shelter during the storm and inviting him to dine before the ball on Thursday.
He looked up. “Will you wait a moment, Private? I’d like to reply immediately, and you can send one of the grooms with it.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul looked back at his officers. They were still frozen to the spot, staring at him. “I want that parade ground cleared,” he said. “From barracks wall to barracks wall. And when you get to the bottom of the snow, I want the ice chipped away as well. It will be fit for use by tomorrow, I imagine, and you’ll all be nice and warm by then.”
“Sir?” Bagnall stammered.
“Yes, Lieutenant. You. Each and every one of you. Set your men a good example for once in your lives, go and get a spade each and get digging alongside them. And if I see you stop for anything longer than a piss, I’m going to shoot you for mutiny. And before you open your mouth, Walsh, I know your father is high up at Horse Guards, and if he turns up here whining about it, I’ll shoot him as well! Don’t worry, I can make it look like a training accident. I’ve done it before!” He surveyed the seven men with merciless blue eyes. “The reason you’ve got four companies of lazy useless gobshites is because they’re led by lazy useless gobshites! I intend to amend that, starting from now. Get moving!”

(From an Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, 1809 – An Excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

Viseu
Viseu

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief.  While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera.  And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.

Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke.
“Move away from my wife, Major.”
Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy.
“You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.”
Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.”
Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!”
“How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!”
“It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!”
“Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet.
“Get away from my bloody wife, Major…”
“That will do!”
Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging.
“I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?”
Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town.
“Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.”
Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.”
“Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.”
Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked.
“Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.”
Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…”
“Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.”
“Sir…”
“I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.”
“I’m not his mistress, sir.”
“No. But he would very much like you to be.”
Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.”
“I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…”
“No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.”
Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?”
Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself.
He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint.
It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed.
Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly.
The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.”
“I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.”
“Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.”
Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.”
“Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.”
There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?”
“Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him.
“I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.”
“I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.”
Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing.
“Paul…”
“Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)

 

An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War was written last year for Halloween but I thought I’d publish it again for anybody who missed it.

Church in Freineda, Portugal (An Exploring Officer)It was late afternoon when the storm hit, sudden and violent with a warm wind whipping up dust and sand in choking swirls and the sky becoming leaden and menacing as Giles Fenwick rode south towards Salamanca. His horse, a big rawboned grey was accustomed to long rides in the worst weather conditions, but even he seemed uncomfortable and restive under Giles’ hands. Looking up at the rapidly blackening skies, Giles made the decision to seek shelter for the night.

Since he had transferred to the Corps of Guides from his regiment a year earlier, Giles had become accustomed to sleeping out in all kinds of weather and was surprisingly good at keeping himself warm and dry wrapped in his army greatcoat, but he was sensitive to Boney’s moods. Riding alone for weeks and sometimes months at a time, his horse was his transport, his companion and more than once his lifeline and he was not prepared to risk a night in the open with Boney nervous and ready to bolt at a sudden clap of thunder. Better to make his way to a village and wait the storm out in the relative security of a barn or farmhouse.

Giles did not know the area particularly well. He had been in Ciudad Rodrigo enjoying a rare and all too brief few days of rest when his orders had come. Major Scovell had sounded apologetic in his short note, aware of how exhausting the life of an exploring officer could be and how necessary an occasional spell of respite was, but Lord Wellington was ordering all leave cancelled and Giles had called the commander-in-chief a variety of rude names under his breath, collected supplies and his Spanish guide, Antonio, and had ridden north as ordered, spending weeks dodging the French in the area around Valladolid while Lord Wellington’s Allied army marched on Salamanca. Whatever the result of Wellington’s latest sortie into Spain he wanted intelligence about French troops and defences towards Madrid and beyond out towards Burgos. If he succeeded in driving the French out of Salamanca he wanted to know everything he could about their dispositions to help him decide on his next move.

With his information gathered, Giles had made two coded copies of his notes and sent one off with Antonio via a different route. The risk of either of them being captured was always great. Antonio, a Spanish guide would be shot on sight. Giles was still wearing at least a semblance of British uniform but he was under no illusions that the French would treat him as anything other than a spy. It was a risk he was used to and had accepted when he had taken on the job.

Reaching into his coat, Giles pulled out a sketch map and studied it. If he veered off to the south-west, heading back towards the main road, there was a village marked. It was unlikely that French patrols would be found in this area and he could find shelter for himself and his horse and hopefully some food. When the storm settled he could resume his journey either to the Allied lines outside Salamanca or into the city if Wellington’s attack had been successful. Giles tucked the map away and set off, thinking of Antonio and hoping that he was safe.

The rain started about a mile out of the village, huge raindrops which drove into his eyes with the wind and made it difficult to see anything beyond Boney’s twitching ears. There was a flash across the sky and then a crash of thunder so loud that it made Giles jump. It sounded alarmingly close and Boney reared up in fright. Giles pulled him back and reached out, running his hand over the smooth neck.

“Calm down, boy,” he said gently. “I’m not so keen on it either. Let’s get moving.”

He guided the horse on through the downpour, trying not to react to the thunder claps or the white flashes of lightening which tore into the darkened sky with savage frequency. He could feel Boney’s terror under his hands and he no longer tried to move cautiously. If there was a French sentry at the edge of the village it was too dark to see him until Boney fell over him, but in this weather the enemy could hardly use firepower and Giles had a good deal of faith in his own ability to win in a one to one fight. His care now was for his horse. He could see, finally, a huddle of buildings looming up through the torrential rain, and he quickened his mount slightly and then swore as Boney suddenly skidded and let out a squeal of pain.

Giles reined him in and swung down from the saddle keeping a firm hold on the reins. He could see immediately what had caused the problem, a large rock, smooth and wet and slippery had caused Boney to stumble. The horse, already terrified, was trying to pull away from him and Giles could see that he was lame. There was no point trying to examine the damage here. Giles turned, tugging on the reins to bring Boney in close to him, hoping that his body against the horse’s might soothe him a little. One hand on the reins, the other on the shivering animal’s neck, he led Boney firmly into the village.

It was a small place, a huddle of stone cottages around a crossroads with a church at the centre. As he drew closer, Giles could see that the church had no roof and was damaged, one end of the building sagging dangerously. He wondered initially if the village was deserted. But several of the houses were in reasonable condition, and even had small walled gardens growing vegetables or fruit trees. Somebody was tending those and he ploughed on doggedly towards the largest house, a solid looking farmhouse beyond the church with shuttered windows and a big oak door.

As Giles approached, the door opened. He was relieved although wary. If the French were, for some unlikely reason, in this village miles from where they should be, they were nowhere in sight. But he had learned to be cautious. Most of the villagers in Spain were willing to be friendly enough to a lone English officer, and Giles spoke Spanish fluently; it was one of his qualifications for the job. But he was also aware that there was a considerable proportion of Spaniards who had supported Bonaparte and he was not taking any chances.

“Good evening, Señor. I’m in search of shelter for myself and my horse. Have you a barn or a shelter we can use until this blows over? And some fodder for my lad here, he’s exhausted. I can pay.”

The man held the door wider and in the light of a lamp from the room within, Giles could make out a stocky Spaniard, probably in his forties. He was almost bald although his beard was thick and dark with grey streaks and his eyes were dark. He turned and lifted the lantern, stepping out onto the steps and closing the door.

“This way. Around the back.”

Giles followed him and felt a rush of relief at the sight of a solid looking wooden building at the back of the house. The man unbarred the door, struggling to hold it in the force of the wind and Giles led Boney inside. When the door was closed the man came forward, hanging the lantern up on a hook clearly designed for the purpose and Giles looped Boney’s reins around a wooden rail on the wall and looked around him.

He was surprised at the air of prosperity about the place and was very sure that the French had not been near this place for a long time. The harvest had been brought in and there was hay for the horse. At the far end of the barn, two uninterested mules fed idly from a trough. The farmer moved past him and brought a leather bucket of water for Boney. Giles watched his horse drink and the farmer, without being asked, pulled over a wooden manger and filled it for the horse to eat.

“Thank you,” Giles said. “I’m very grateful. I should introduce myself, Señor. I’m…”

“In the house,” the Spaniard said. “See to your horse and then join me for supper. I can give you a bed for the night.”

“You don’t need to do that, I’ll be all right out here. Although food would be welcome.”

“Join me. We will talk.” The Spaniard surveyed him. “English?”

“Yes.”

“You speak my language well. Join me soon.”

Left alone, Giles went to check Boney’s leg. There was a little swelling, but it was not bad and the horse did not seem particularly distressed now that he was warm and dry and out of the storm. As the wind howled and the rain lashed against the sturdy walls, Giles rubbed him down, fussed him and made sure he was securely tied, then left him to rest and ventured out again, running over to the house where he found his host waiting for him in a dark panelled dining room.

“This is very kind of you, Señor, and you don’t even know my name. Captain Giles Fenwick of the Corps of Guides. I’m travelling to Salamanca.”

The Spaniard bowed. “Matias Benitez, Captain, at your service. You are joining the army there?”

Giles nodded. “Either in or out of the city, I’ve no idea which yet.”

“Come closer to the fire, Captain, it will dry your clothes. If you will hand your coat to my servant he will see that his wife dries it and brushes it for you, and she will launder anything else you wish before you leave.”

Giles masked a grin. Given the condition of the few items of spare clothing he carried in his saddlebags he was not sure they would survive a thorough washing. “You’re very hospitable, Señor Benitez, I’m grateful. I hope to be able to move on tomorrow.”

“You should rest your horse for a day, Captain, he was limping. Stay two nights, you will be safe here and you will make it to Salamanca faster with a rested and fed mount.”

Giles knew he was right. He handed his coat to an elderly servant with a smile of thanks and sat down before the fire which was blazing in a stone fireplace set into the wall. The room looked old with little furniture, just a table and some chairs. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no cushions and no ornaments. Giles looked back at his host and realised that he had noticed him looking.

“The French,” Benitez said in matter of fact tones. “They came through on their way to Portugal two years ago. Many houses were destroyed, but they found mine a convenient place for the officers to stay so it survived. When they left they took everything of value with them. Much of the furniture went for firewood but they left some.”

“I’m sorry. You’ve rebuilt to some degree, though, it looked as though some houses are occupied. Did the villagers get away?”

“A few did. Most not. There are a dozen or so houses occupied now. We have managed to plant crops this past year so we no longer starve.”

Giles wanted to ask what had happened to the villagers who had not made it away from the French army but two years out here had taught him better. He accepted a pewter cup of sherry and sipped it appreciatively, feeling it warm his chilled body. He was finally beginning to relax.

“How long were they here?” he asked.

“A few months only. They have not returned, thank God. We are not on the main road so there is little cause for them to march this way unless they are searching for food. Or women, but there are none left apart from Maria, my servant and one elderly woman in the village. Nothing to bring them here.”

The door opened and the servant entered with a tray. Giles was glad as it saved him from responding. He wondered about Benitez’ own family. Travelling as he did, he had seen too many such tragedies in both Portugal and Spain through these years of war, and he was very aware that although the English were fighting and dying in the fight against Bonaparte, they were not fighting at home, watching their houses burn and their wives and daughters raped.

It had been weeks since he had sat down to a proper cooked meal and he tried hard to remember to eat like the gentleman he was supposed to be rather than like a starving beggar. He suspected that his host realised how hungry he was as he called several times for another dish. They talked through the meal of the war and Spanish politics and Giles responded civilly to questions about his aristocratic family. He seldom talked of them, but a man who had given so generously of his hospitality was entitled to have his curiosity satisfied.

When they had shared brandy after the meal, Giles rose. “Will you excuse me, Señor? I would like to see that my horse is secure before I retire.”

“Maria has prepared a guest room for you, Enzo can show you the way. No need to venture out in this weather tonight, the barn is very secure. It was rebuilt from scratch when we returned to the village. In the morning…”

Giles smiled and shook his head. “I won’t sleep unless I go,” he said. “It will only take me a few minutes.”

“You should not go out there, Captain. Not this late. It is dark…”

The Spaniard’s voice was emphatic and Giles was faintly puzzled. “I’ve very good night vision, sir, and I’ll take a lantern if I may. It sounds as though the rain has eased.”

“Still, it is not wise when it is dark.”

“I will be fine,” Giles said, firmly but pleasantly, and his host studied him and then sighed and got up.

“If you insist. Take the lantern from the hall, it is covered. But don’t linger out there, Captain. You’ll be chilled.”

Giles bowed and left, grinning once he was away from the older man. He wondered what Benitez thought he usually did when caught out in bad weather. He was a little touched by his host’s concern for him, however excessive it seemed, and he wondered again about the man’s family. Had they died when the French invaded their village? Had there been a son, cut down for defending his home or a daughter defiled and murdered?

Outside the wind was still strong but the thunder and lightening had passed over, just an occasional rumble in the distance to show the direction of the storm. The driving rain had slowed to a fine drizzle, and Giles pulled his greatcoat around him and made his way by the dim light of the lantern to the barn. Inside it was warm and dry and he could see at once that his concern for Boney was misplaced. The horse had eaten and drunk and appeared to be dozing but as Giles closed the door against the wind, Boney gave a soft whicker of greeting. Giles went to him, rubbing his nose and stroking his neck and the horse nuzzled him affectionately.

The leg did not seem too bad but Giles was aware that Benitez was probably right about resting it. Another day and night would ensure that the rest of their journey did not cause any further injury to Boney and Giles needed his horse to be fit and well. He had no money to buy a new mount, besides which he loved the horse and was not prepared to cripple him by pushing him beyond his limits. Boney was essential to his work and if the strain needed longer to heal, he would have to find a temporary mount for a while. It was not likely to be a problem. Unlike most of the other exploring officers, Giles had maintained close ties with his old regiment and there were several officers of the 110th more wealthy than he who would lend him a spare horse and take care of Boney while he mended, but for that to work he had to get him there. Wondering how lame he was, Giles unlooped the reins and began to walk Boney the length of the barn. He was pleased to see that the limp was already less obvious. Before they reached the end, Boney turned and walked back and Giles went with him, watching the movement of his leg. They reached the two curious mules, and Giles turned and led him back down the barn. Boney stopped at the same point he had turned last time and Giles urged him forwards, concentrating on the fetlock. Boney took four or five reluctant steps towards the end of the barn and without warning stopped dead. Giles looked at him, startled. The big grey uttered a loud squeal and moved back, pulling hard on the reins. His ears were flicking back and forth and his lip had curled back from his teeth, his tail down. He was exhibiting all the signs of being terrified but Giles could see nothing which might have alarmed him.

He led the frightened horse back down the barn and stood fussing him, feeling Boney gradually calm down. When he was settled, Giles left him and went back to the other end of the barn. Any object could have spooked the horse simply by being unexpected, but as far as Giles could see there was nothing there. He looked around curiously. The only difference in this part of the barn was that it was significantly colder presumably caused by a loose board or a badly sealed joint. Giles shrugged and lifted the lantern. The flame flickered suddenly and went out leaving him in complete darkness.

Cursing fluently, Giles stood very still until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was no point in trying to find his tinderbox to relight the lamp. It was not far to the house and once outside he should be able to see his way by the lights from the house. As his vision adjusted, he could see the solid bulk of Boney at the far end of the barn, and a gleam of eyes beyond him showed where the two mules stood. Cautiously, Giles moved forward to the wall of the barn and felt his way along. He had almost reached the door when something came towards him very fast and hit him so hard that he fell backwards, keeping his feet only because his hand was on the wall to steady himself. He stood motionless for a moment, his heart racing, and then a blast of cold air brought the explanation and Giles grinned as he realised that his attacker was the barn door which had swung open in the wind. How, he had no idea because he was sure he had closed it properly, but he was relieved and amused at how jumpy he was.

Outside he latched the door carefully and checked it to make sure it could not blow open again then turned to go back to the house. As he had hoped, there were several well lit windows to guide him and he was almost there when something caught his eye and he stopped and turned. It was coming from the ruined church; an orange flicker of fire. Giles stood staring for a moment and then a voice called and Señor Benitez was opening the door.

Giles hesitated and then went on to the house and his host closed the door firmly behind him. “Your lantern?”

“It blew out – I must have left the barn door open,” Giles said. “But Señor, is there somebody camping out in the old church? I’m pretty sure I just saw a fire there.”

The Spaniard’s eyes widened. “The church? No. No, there is nobody there.”

“I think there is, Señor. Let me get a light and I’ll go down and…”

“No!” Benitez said, and his response was so forceful that it startled Giles. Benitez seemed to realise it because he gave a somewhat forced smile. “I am sure you are wrong, but I will send Enzo to be sure.”

Giles regarded him thoughtfully. “I would if I were you, Señor. In this wind a spark could easily blow this far and the rain has almost stopped.”

He said nothing more. The servant showed him to a small room at the back of the house overlooking the barn and upon request, Giles handed over his shabby garments for laundering with an apologetic smile and went to bed. He was tired and a proper bed was a pleasure after weeks sleeping on the hard ground.

He awoke abruptly and sat up. It was still full dark and Giles had no idea what had awoken him but he was aware that his heart was pounding and all his senses, finely attuned from months of living on his wits behind enemy lines, screaming danger. It might just have been a dream, disturbed by an owl or some other night bird although it was unusual for him to dream. Giles sat still, listening. There was no sound from below, it must be the early hours of the morning and the household was asleep. But something had disturbed him.

He got up, dressed only in his underclothes and padded to the window, pushing open the shutter. It was too dark to make out more than vague shapes; he could see the dark bulk of the barn, and the outline of the little grove of orange trees which he had noticed earlier. The wind seemed to have died down finally and the trees were not moving. But something did, just at the corner of his vision and he turned his head sharply and saw a figure move at the far end of the barn. The surprise of it made him jump.

It was impossible to make out details in the darkness and Giles knew he would not even have seen the man if he had not moved. He peered through the inky night trying to see more. There was no reason why Señor Benitez should not walk in his own garden in the early hours, but Giles could also think of no reason why he would. He thought briefly about Boney, sleeping in the barn and then he turned and reached for his trousers, a pair of thick French overalls which he had stripped off a dead voltigeur months ago and which were far more sturdy than those issued by the British army. He was probably just being over suspicious, but there was a chronic shortage of good horses throughout Spain and he was not risking losing Boney to some passing opportunist.

Aware of how dark it was, he took time to find a lantern in the kitchen and check that it was topped up with oil. There was no sound anywhere in the house but Maria had left the fire banked for the night and his spare clothing was hanging before it to dry. Giles collected his coat and pulled it on, lit the lantern and made his way cautiously out of the back door, leaving it slightly open.

There was no sign of life as he made his way down towards the barn. The door was still barred as he had left it earlier and Giles opened it and went inside. He was immediately reassured. Boney had settled down for the night and barely stirred as he went to stroke him. One of the mules was snoring faintly, snuffling in it’s sleep. Everything was as it should be and Giles shook his head at his suspicious mind, barred the door behind him and turned to go back to the house.

He saw the man once again, just on the edge of his vision, and once again it made him jump. He was further over now, around the side of the house towards the ruined church. Giles stopped, his heart beating more quickly. The figure was not moving but stood outlined against a faint light, and once again Giles saw the flicker of fire from the church.

“Who goes there?” he called out in Spanish. “Come out, you’re safe, I’m not going to hurt you.”

There was no reply and the man did not move. Giles waited a moment and then set off towards the church. He was beginning to suspect that he was not the only traveller to have stopped to find shelter from yesterday’s storm in this isolated village. The war had left many people homeless and it was not unusual to find small groups of miserable refugees camped out in ruined buildings, surviving as best they could, wandering from place to place ahead of the marching armies. He had no quarrel with them sheltering in the old church; it was none of his business, but for his own peace of mind he needed to know.

Watching his footing in the darkness he took his eye off the figure, and when he looked again the man had gone, presumably back into the church. Giles approached the building, speeding up slightly. One end of the church was virtually intact, but the other was damaged, what was left of the tower broken and sagging dangerously. He was not sure that he would have chosen this particular building as a camp site but given the weather yesterday he could believe that a man might be desperate enough to take shelter here, risking the building coming down in the high wind. Cautiously he made his way along the stone wall, aware of the smell of the fire inside. It was very smoky and he coughed, wondering how the travellers were not choking in this. And then suddenly, as he reached the edge of the wall, the church exploded.

Giles was knocked off his feet, crashing to the damp earth, his ears ringing with the blast. He lay there for a moment, too shocked to move. The still of the night was torn apart by the crackle of flame and the crash of falling masonry and the screams of terror and agony and despair. He recognised the voices of women and the shrill high cry of a child and he could smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames on his skin.

A woman screamed again, a scream of sheer, bloodcurdling terror. It roused Giles to action and he opened his eyes, scrambled to his feet and swung round to the church, steeling himself to run into the choking smoke to see if he could get anybody out before the already damaged walls came down and buried them all alive. Already his brain, used to the noise and chaos of battle, was thinking ahead, wondering about the safest way in, wondering how many there were and how many he could reach….

There was nothing there.

Giles froze in complete bewilderment as he realised that all he could see was darkness and all he could smell was the fresh, cold night air. The ruined church loomed before him, dark and ominous as before, but with no fire, no screaming people. The smoke had gone, the sounds had vanished, cut off as if they had never been. He was standing alone, staring at the silent building and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. And then, once again, he caught that movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head slowly with a sense of pure dread, knowing what he would see. The solitary figure was standing closer than Giles had seen him so far. It was clearly a man, and although Giles could not make out his face, the uniform was that of a French officer.

It took a long moment before his shocked brain assimilated what had just happened and then came the fear he ought to have felt before. He was sweating and shivering at the same time, his skin crawling with a sense of repulsion which nothing logical could explain. He had dropped the lantern when he fell and it had gone out, he could smell the oil spilling onto the ground. His eyes fixed on the solitary figure he backed up cautiously until his eyes could stay open no longer and he blinked. The figure was gone. Giles no longer wondered where, or how it could have moved without him seeing it. He turned and ran for the house, slamming the door behind him, and went through into the warmth of the kitchen, needing light and a sense of normality. There were several candles on the wooden table and he lit two from the fire with shaking hands and then stoked the fire into life and sat huddled in a wooden chair before it, waiting for his pounding heart to slow and the sense of horror to settle.

“Captain Fenwick.”

The voice made him jump. He stood and turned. Benitez was standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of robe, a candle held high. Giles studied him without speaking. After a moment, the Spaniard came forward, put the candleholder on the table, and went to the big wooden dresser. He returned with a bottle and two cups and poured for both of them. Giles took the brandy without thanks, sat down and drank. After a moment, he felt something around his shoulders and realised that his host had draped a worn woollen blanket around him. Only then did he realise that he was shivering violently. He set the cup down and Benitez refilled it and then pulled a stool close to the fire.

“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.

Giles raised his eyes from his contemplation of the blaze. “No,” he said. “Of course I’m not bloody all right and you know why! What the hell was that?”

“I am sorry, Captain. I did not wish you to see…”

“Well I saw, so start talking.”

“It was not real,” Benitez said and his voice was curiously gentle. “None of it was real.”

“Well I didn’t dream it, Señor. I was out there. I heard the explosion and I smelled the smoke and I heard…what did I hear? The villagers?”

Benitez nodded. “I was not here. I fought with a partisan band – most of the men did. We had ambushed a French patrol in a valley five miles from here. They were all killed. What we did not know was that there was a second patrol in the area. They came across the bodies and gave chase. We were outnumbered so we went up into the hills. They know better than to follow us there.”

“And they came here instead,” Giles said and he could hear the tremor in his own voice. He picked up the cup again and took another sip of brandy. “Your family.”

“All of them. My wife and two daughters, my tenants…we think they locked them in the church and set fire to it. What they probably did not know was that we were using the church to hide supplies…and ammunition, gunpowder…”

“Did anybody survive?”

“No. When the church blew up a few were able to escape but the French bayoneted them as they ran. They raped the women before they killed them. We found the bodies when we returned.”

Giles did not speak for a while. The story was tragic, but it was not new. He had ridden through villages devastated by war on many occasions and he could remember the campaign of 1811, his first in Portugal with the 110th when the light division had been able to follow the direction of the fleeing French armies by following the plumes of smoke as they burned towns and villages on the way. He found himself wondering if such things always left this violent impression on the land long after the tragedy was over and the armies had marched on.

“When did this start happening? When did you first see it?”

“Not straight away. Most of the men left. There was nothing for them here. A few of us stayed, tried to rebuild.”

“But you don’t go out of the house after dark.”

“Would you?”

Giles drained the brandy glass. “Me? I’d do exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, Señor Benitez. I’d get the hell out of here.”

“Your horse…”

“I’ll take it slow, walk him part of the way if I need to. Our infantry don’t have the luxury of horseback, it won’t kill me. If necessary I’ll find somewhere else to rest him for a few nights. But not here. Thank you, you’ve been very hospitable. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know none of this was your fault. But I don’t know how you’ve lived with that out there every night since you came back. Knowing it’s there, I’m not staying another night.”

“I understand. Go back to bed, Captain. Nothing will disturb you in the house; it never does. Goodnight.”

Giles slept little, lying wakeful and tense until the first rosy light of dawn pushed it’s way between the wooden slats of the shutter. Enzo arrived soon after, bearing his clothing, dry and smelling slightly of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire. He said nothing to Giles of the night’s events although Giles was sure that he must know what had happened, he had made enough noise crashing back into the house to wake the dead. The analogy brought grim amusement as he dressed quickly in the early light and took his pack downstairs to find his host awaiting him.

“Maria has made breakfast, Captain. Eat something before you go.”

“Thank you,” Giles said. He joined Benitez at the dining table again and ate ham and bread warm from the oven and a spicy sausage and made no attempt at conversation since he could think of nothing to say. When the meal was over he got up.

“My thanks to you, Señor. You’ve been a generous host. I’m sorry that I need to leave like this.”

“I am sorry too, Captain.”

“You could have warned me.”

“Would you have believed me?” Benitez asked and Giles grinned in spite of himself, acknowledging the truth of it.

“No. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Ghosts are real, Captain. Like God, they do not require belief in them to exist.”

Giles did not reply. He did not want to think about what had happened until he was a long way from the village and the house, preferably in a smoky tavern with a bottle of good red on the table and a pretty barmaid on his lap. He tried to imagine telling any of his friends in the regiment this story and knew with complete certainty that he would not. They would laugh uproariously and accuse him of having been drunk.

Outside the air was chill although he suspected it would be hot by mid morning. Shrugging into his greatcoat he turned to Benitez who was standing on the steps. “Goodbye, Señor Benitez. Good luck. You’ve not asked for advice, but I’m giving it anyway. Leave. Move away. You shouldn’t be here with this. No house, no land is worth that.”

“You are a good man, Captain. Good luck.”

Giles shouldered his pack and picked up the saddlebags. He glanced briefly down at the ruined church, innocent in the early morning sunlight. “Was that the last time the French came here?” he asked curiously. “Did they ever come back?”

“No. I imagine they thought the village deserted. Only once. An officer, on his own. Like you, I suspect he was a courier or an intelligence officer.”

A slight chill touched Giles. He turned to look back at Benitez. “And did he ever see…what I saw?”

“I think not. It had not begun then. Only afterwards.”

Giles nodded and turned to walk over to the barn. He found Boney up and alert and he fed and watered him, leaving the barn door wide to let in light and air. As he saddled the horse, he talked quietly to him, then walked him a little and was delighted to see no sign of lameness. He would ride to start with, taking it slowly, and if Boney appeared to struggle he would dismount and walk him until he found shelter where he might stay a night or two to let the horse recover. Giles did not mind where it was as long as it was miles away from here.

He led Boney outside and looped the reins over a fence post, settled saddlebags and pack comfortably on the horse and checked the girth and saddle methodically. Benitez had gone back into the house. Giles turned back and went to close the big barn door. As he did so he heard a sound, and he stepped inside, wondering if one of the mules was loose. Both stood placidly eating hay; the sound, a creaking noise, was coming from the other end of the barn and Giles turned to look.

It was a rope, swinging lazily from a beam in the roof of the barn, creaking with the weight of the burden it carried. Giles stared in complete bewilderment for a moment and then understood what he was seeing.

The man hung upside down, tied by his feet. He was naked and his skin was striped with red. Blood dripped down both extended arms, pooling under him on the floor, and his body was writhing in agony, a weak sobbing noise accompanying what Giles knew in appalled comprehension must have been his death throes. God knew how long he had taken to die, swinging there from the beam, partially flayed and bleeding into the earth floor.

Giles backed out of the barn and slammed the door, barring it. Outside the sky was a clear blue with no sign of a cloud and Boney pushed his nose into Giles’ shoulder, comforting, seeming to sense his distress. Giles turned and hugged his neck hard, burying his face into the warm smooth coat, trying to shut out the horror, shaking with reaction.

“You bastard,” he whispered, into the horse’s neck. “You bloody bastard. It wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. He was your guest, just passing through. He was like me.”

After a long time, the shaking eased. He straightened, and wiped his face with both hands, surprised to find that he had been crying. He could not have said why he was so sure that the lone French officer who had died in the barn had not been a man who would have slaughtered a village and he did not try to examine his conviction, but he did not look back at the house to see if Benitez was watching him. He did not want to see the Spaniard again. Impossible to encompass the scale of the man’s loss. Giles wondered if the French officer who had been the object of his vengeance had also left family behind him to mourn.

Mounted and ready, he turned finally and looked back past house and barn to the church, knowing already what he would see. For the first time, the solitary figure in the blue coat did not cause him to jump. Nor did he feel any sense of fear. For the first time he saw the man’s face clearly, thin and dark, his stubbled jaw suggesting long days travelling without shaving. Giles ran his hand over his own jaw and it scraped his hand.

The figure stood motionless, the dark eyes appearing to look directly at him. Giles raised his hand and saluted. Then he turned and rode slowly out of the village, back towards the Salamanca road and Wellington’s army.

 

An Exploring Officer was written as a free gift for Halloween 2017.  Oddly enough as a child, I didn’t really associate ghost stories with Halloween, they were a Christmas treat, allowed to stay up late, huddled on the sofa with my Mum and my sister watching the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas.  As it’s that time of year I thought I’d share this one again in case anybody missed it.

A bit of trivia for regular readers, Captain Giles Fenwick features in the Peninsular War Saga having come through the 110th before joining Wellington’s Corps of Guides.  After the war, badly wounded at Waterloo, he returns to London when he unexpectedly inherits the title of Earl of Rockcliffe and features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation before getting a book of his own in The Reluctant Debutante.

Christmas in the East End – a festive excerpt from A Respectable Woman

St George in the East, Stepney
A Respectable Woman - the history
A novel of Victorian London: book 1 in the Alverstone Saga

This excerpt from A Respectable Woman describes Philippa Maclay’s first Christmas in the East End as a teacher at Wentworth’s School for Girls, a charitable foundation. Daughter of a missionary who was murdered by slavers, she is obliged to support herself but is finding her post more congenial than she expected.

Wentworth’s School is directly based on Raines Foundation School, now in Bethnal Green but previously in Arbour Square in Stepney which is the school I went to back in the 1970s.

The Christmas holidays arrived, and more than half of the Wentworth’s pupils went home to their families for the celebration. The others, orphans or those whose families were unable to house them, like Joan Carter, remained at the school.
There were some ten girls left, including Carter, who was still very weak, but just beginning to get out of bed for part of each day, and Phillips, Miss Chadwick’s prize pupil, whose aristocratic relatives clearly had no place for her in their festive celebrations.
Christmas at Kola had always been primarily a religious festival, and Philippa had no experience of the more secular joys of the season. Both Miss Grafton and Miss Bentley had family with whom they would spend the holiday, and without their disapproving presence, Wentworth’s seemed to relax. The Board of Trustees had approved extra provisions for the celebrations, and Miss Chadwick, who seemed to have the ability to stretch money beyond belief, was planning a gala dinner on Christmas Day.
Philippa was looking forward to the holiday. Without her more censorious staff, Amelia relaxed, and included her junior in the holiday plans as if by right. Philippa had dreaded spending the season alone, but found that there was no question of that. Amelia was determined to give her remaining charges a proper holiday, and Philippa found her services called upon to plan and organise the day.
The school seemed quiet with most of its pupils gone, and although the girls still had their domestic duties, and scripture lessons continued, there was a holiday air. Every morning the girls set off for a walk after breakfast. Domestic tasks occupied the rest of the morning, and after luncheon, they were busy with needlework, learning their catechism or practicing their skills as parlour maid. But they were allowed more levity and more recreation time, and occasional lapses of behaviour were treated with leniency.
On Christmas Eve, they received a visit from a number of the Board of Trustees with their wives and families. The Board consisted of around twenty-five local men, mostly businessmen, with a sprinkling of solicitors, doctors and clergymen. Standing slightly to one side of the group, Philippa noticed Mr Duncan, the local vicar, with his wife, and Dr Marshall.
Prayers were held in the hall, and then the girls were called up one at a time to receive a small book from Mr Wentworth, who was Chairman of the Board. Prayer books, Philippa guessed, or some other religious tract. The Chairman then made a lengthy speech about the history and traditions of the school, and how fortunate were the girls who received their education there. Although Philippa deplored his pompous, condescending style of oratory, she reflected, looking at the scrubbed shiny faces looking up at him, that he was probably right. For the girls who made it through their time at the school and who took advantage of the opportunities it gave them, this was indeed fortunate.
At the end of Mr Wentworth’s speech, there was another prayer, and then the girls were dismissed in the charge of Mary Phillips, to wash and prepare for evening service.
Most of the Board left, to go to their own Christmas Eve services, but Mr Wentworth, along with Mr Simmonds, his deputy, and his wife, accompanied Miss Chadwick to the mistresses’ parlour. Philippa, following a sign from Miss Chadwick, joined them, as did the Duncans and Dr Marshall.
Sherry and glasses had been set out on the table, and Miss Chadwick smilingly poured, while Philippa handed out the glasses. A toast was solemnly drunk. Wentworth’s eyes were moving around the room, assessing its contents.
“Miss Chadwick, surely that bookshelf is new! And those books! I have not seen them before!”
“They were provided by Miss Maclay, sir,” Amelia said composedly. “They belonged to her late father and she has kindly placed them at the disposal of our teachers.”
Wentworth stalked across the room, his eye running over the titles. “They seem educational enough,” he said grudgingly.
“The sherry is excellent,” Mr Simmonds said, as if not wishing to be outdone in suspicion. “Not purchased with school funds, I hope?”
“The sherry was a gift from Dr Marshall, sir,” Miss Chadwick said, still pleasantly. Philippa shot a covert glance at that gentleman, and saw from the gleam in his eye that he was enjoying the scene just as much as she was.
“I did not see Carter at prayers, Miss Chadwick,” Mrs Simmonds said.
“She was not well enough to come down,” Miss Chadwick said. “But I hope she will be able to attend service tomorrow.”
“I should hope so too!” Mr Simmonds said, sententiously. “Sickness should not be used as an excuse for idleness!”
“I shall see that it does not,” Miss Chadwick agreed demurely.
“I read your report on the accident,” Mr Wentworth said. “It seemed brief.”
“I gave you all the information I had,” Miss Chadwick said. “Carter remembers very little of the event, and nothing at all of arriving back at school.”
“How can you be sure that she is not deceiving you?” Mrs Simmonds said. Philippa looked at her assessingly. She did not like Mr or Mrs Simmonds. Wentworth was pompous, self important, but basically well meaning, she decided. He might quibble about money and expenses, but he trusted Miss Chadwick to take care of the girls, and to make the right decision. Mrs Simmonds on the other hand, she was sure, would make trouble if she could. She did not know that there was anything suspicious about Carter’s illness. She just assumed the worst.
Dr Marshall spoke quietly:
“Carter was not deceiving anybody about the extent of her injuries. I was not sure that I would be able to save her. The injuries were consistent with being struck by a carriage of some kind. To be honest, I assume that the driver recognised her dress as a Wentworth’s girl and brought her home. I don’t think she could have got here by herself.”
“Then why did he not give an account of himself?” Wentworth said, peevishly. Philippa suspected he was thinking longingly of his hearth, his dinner and his cigar.
“Because he was afraid of the consequences,” Dr Marshall said casually. “Especially if he had been drinking, it would have been hard to explain how he came to run down a schoolgirl on her way back from visiting her sick father.”
“But she is on the mend now?” Mr Duncan said.
“She is much better,” Dr Marshall said.
“We must thank God that it ended so well,” the clergyman said, and Miss Chadwick, with demurely lowered eyes, murmured a devout ‘amen’.
It was not long before the visitors took their leave. Only Dr Marshall remained. When Philippa returned from escorting them to the door, she found him sprawled in one of the chairs while Amelia poured more sherry for all of them.
“Where did this come from, Amelia?” Dr Marshall asked. “It really is very good!”
“You didn’t buy it?” Philippa said, startled.
“Good Lord, no. Never heard of it until this afternoon.”
“It was a gift from Jenson’s father,” Amelia said. “He’s a stevedore at the docks and he’s always sending us gifts. I suspect the origin of most of them, which is why I kept quiet. Philippa drink up!”
Philippa smiled. “I am not accustomed to wine,” she said. “Any more and I’ll be drunk.”
“I should like to see that,” Dr Marshall said, laughing.
“Dr Marshall – you aren’t going to.”
“Call me Tony. All my friends do.”
“Tony. And will you call me Philippa?”
“Certainly. Although only when we are not on duty.” He raised his glass with a lazy smile.
“Will you come to church with us, Tony?” Amelia asked, getting to her feet.
“Why not? You should have an escort, in this neighbourhood.”
Amelia glanced at her assistant and grinned. “Oh, I’d say Philippa is a match for most local drunks in a fight. Did I tell you how she dealt with Joan Carter?”
It was dark when they set out, a neat crocodile of trimly dressed creatures, their thick winter cloaks wrapped around them, their blue bonnets bobbing along beside the two mistresses and the doctor as they made their way along the dark streets. It was a bitterly cold, clear night and the stars were miniature beacons in the sky. Looking up at them, Philippa was reminded suddenly of the African night, crisp and cold and beautiful, like the night she had met Kit Clevedon. To her horror she felt tears start behind her eyes. She was homesick. Ridiculous to feel it now, in the grey filth of the East End streets, filled with the stink of poverty and wretchedness. There was nothing here to make her think of Kola. But hurrying past the seaman’s taverns, the public houses, the brothels and the overcrowded, teeming tenements and lodging houses, she could smell the fresh clear air, could hear the gentle lowing of the oxen and the occasional whinny of the horses.
She missed it. She missed her father, with a different ache of pain, but she was becoming accustomed to that loss. She had expected it, prepared for it, and was living with it. What she had not been ready for, was this overpowering longing to see wide, open spaces instead of dirty streets, to hear the musical tones of the Mashona instead of the harsh cockney of most of her pupils. She missed her friends, the black children with whom she had grown up. She missed the girls, who had taught her to weave and the boys who had taught her to fight, and to climb trees and to use a hunting knife without hesitation or mercy, a skill which had very certainly saved her life. In the midst of this busy city she was suddenly bitterly lonely.
“Are you all right?”
Through her tears, Philippa looked up into the kind grey eyes of Tony Marshall. He had moved to walk beside her and had unobtrusively taken her arm.
“Yes, I’m sorry.” She fumbled for her handkerchief and mopped her eyes. “Don’t ask my why, but I was suddenly homesick.”
Tony glanced around him. Opposite, two sailors staggered out of a brilliantly lit doorway, their arms around two woman, raddled creatures of indeterminate age, dressed in shabby satin, shivering in the cold. Further along the road, a drunk was vomiting into the gutter. None of the girls even looked up. They had all seen such sights before.
“It’s probably the contrast,” he said wryly, and Philippa laughed.
“Probably. Do you think any of those noble gentlemen know what these girls walk past every time they go to church?”
“Oh, some of them. Does it upset you, Philippa? The sights you see here?”
“It upsets me because it’s what man has done to his own,” Philippa said. “I’ve seen the Mashona people dying of hunger when their cattle were hit by plague or when their crops failed. But those are acts of nature. These people live this way because their fellow man allows it. Expects it. I think I am very naïve in many ways.”
“I think you have lived a very different life to any other English girl I have met,” Tony said. “It makes you unusual.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it.”
He laughed. “I don’t know what else to say. Philippa, you dress the same as every other woman of your station in life. But when you walk along a London street, people turn to stare at you, because you don’t walk the same. You walk as if your skirts are a hindrance and the buildings are crowding you. And your eyes look as if they are used to a wider horizon than this.”
Philippa was silent for a moment. “I see. I didn’t realise I was so obvious.”
“It isn’t something you do, it’s who you are. There are probably dozens of missionaries’ daughters who are nothing like you. But for all your appearance and your speech and your education, you aren’t really English. Not like me, or Amelia, or any of these girls. Africa was not just somewhere you lived, it was your home. Of course you miss it.”
Philippa gave his arm a little squeeze. “That makes me feel a little less like a freak. Thank you, Tony. No more tears.”
The church, bathed in flickering candlelight, was crowded that Christmas Eve. As the girls filed into their pews, Philippa looked around at the congregation. Most of the people looked reasonably prosperous. Some were very obviously middle class, the businessmen and professional men with their wives and families. Others were probably small tradesmen, butchers and bakers, managers of factories, and some of the skilled dockworkers, like stevedores, coopers and rope makers. The poor were absent. There were no ragged clothes or bare feet in the church that Christmas Eve, and none seemed surprised at their absence. Philippa supposed they would celebrate their Christmas in the public houses, and she was not sure that she blamed them. Would prayer and thanks to God keep out the cold, and the hunger and the worry about unpaid rent and unreliable work nearly as well as three penny worth of gin or port?
Back at the school there was supper, a merry affair with at least twice as much food as usual, and no rules about talking at table, no solemn scripture reading. When it was over and prayers were said, the children were packed off to bed, and Amelia turned to her cousin.
“Where did you put them?”
“In your study. I take it you’ll want my help?”
“If you expect me to climb a stepladder you must be all about in your head!” Amelia said bluntly. “Come along Philippa, there’s work to be done.”
Curious, Philippa followed them to Amelia’s study. To her astonishment she found it piled high with boxes of greenery. There was holly and ivy and mistletoe, great boughs of fir tree, still decked with pinecones.
“What on earth is all this?” she asked, bewildered.
“To decorate the refectory and the schoolroom, of course. For Christmas.” Amelia’s voice was muffled behind the box she had picked up. “Didn’t you do that in Africa?”
“The Mashona didn’t really know that much about English Christmas customs,” Philippa said sardonically.
“Neither do you, it appears,” Tony said, holding out a box. “Prepare to be educated, then.”
“I wanted a Christmas tree,” Amelia said, as they set down their burdens in the schoolroom. “But they were too expensive, and as Tony paid for this, I couldn’t insist.”
“A Christmas tree?” Philippa was baffled.
“It’s a new idea. The Prince brought it from Germany. They set up a fir tree in the house and decorate it with baubles and candles. I saw one last year when I visited the Wentworths on Boxing Day, but I don’t suppose any of the girls have ever heard of one.”
“Then they won’t miss it,” Tony said firmly. “Stop talking and start working, Amelia. I do not plan on being here until midnight.”
But it was not far off midnight when Philippa finally fell into bed, after an evening of hanging Christmas greenery, and laughter, and conversation and wine. She had never known an evening like that. Perhaps, after all, there was something to be said for having friends of her own race and her own culture. She had never felt the lack before, having been content with her father and her African friends. But she found that although she had not enjoyed the stilted, formal social manners of many of the English visitors to the mission, or of the people she had met on her one visit to England, she did enjoy the laughter and banter of Amelia and her cousin.
Kit Clevedon had been like that, she thought, as she turned over in bed. She had often wondered about the nature of her liking for Clevedon. Having reached the age of sixteen without much interest or awareness of any of the young men she had met, she had thought that perhaps she was a little infatuated with the handsome young officer. But it had not been his looks or his charm that she had valued, she realised now. It had been his quick wit and his ready laughter, the companionship of a like-minded person for which, without realising it, she had hungered.
Christmas day passed in a whirl of activity at the school. Breakfast over, the girls walked to morning service at St George in the East again, then hurried back through the frosty streets to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Amelia had worked magic with her limited resources, although Philippa suspected that there had been additions from her cousin to swell the feast. There was roast goose with all the trimmings followed by plum pudding and mince pies. Tony was spending Christmas day with friends, although Amelia was expecting him that evening.
After luncheon, Amelia brought out a large basket of brightly wrapped gifts, and handed one to each girl. There were no religious tracts or prayer books, and the children were visibly delighted with the bright ribbons and lace handkerchief, which their mistress had provided for them.
In the afternoon there were games of hunt the slipper and Blind Man’s Buff and Charades. By the time the children went to bed after evening prayers, both they and their mistresses were exhausted. Amelia and Philippa retired to Amelia’s parlour, where Philippa was surprised to find Tony awaiting them and a cold supper set out on the table.
“Who did this?” Philippa asked, sinking gratefully into a chair.
“My housekeeper and cook,” Tony said. “I think the cab driver thought I was going to entertain my mistress until we pulled up here. Now he just thinks I’m donating my leftover Christmas dinner to the deserving poor.”
“You are,” his cousin informed him, rapidly filling a plate. “I certainly can’t afford lobster patties. Is that burgundy you’ve brought? Will you open it, please?”
Philippa smilingly accepted a glass from Tony and allowed him to fill a plate with food. She was not in a talkative mood, and was happy to sit back and listen to the cousins as they squabbled over the food and talked about the day.
“How were the Paisleys?” Amelia asked.
“All well. They asked about you. Wanted to know if you were married yet.”
Amelia laughed. “They would. I think I enjoyed myself here just as much as I would have at some dull dinner party. Sadly, tomorrow won’t be as enjoyable.”
“Where are you going tomorrow?” Philippa asked.
“My traditional boxing day dinner with the Wentworths.” Amelia sighed. “Never mind, it is only once a year. That reminds me, Philippa. Miss Grafton and Miss Bentley will be back here by eleven tomorrow, and after that you are on holiday, if you please, until Monday when school commences again. Do not, while I am out, allow them to bully you into helping them.”
“I may as well. I don’t have any plans.”
“Well make some,” Amelia told her severely. “They take advantage whenever they can, and it isn’t good for them.”
Philippa did not argue, although she was at a loss to know what plans she might be expected to make. However, the matter was taken out of her hands the following morning, at eleven o’clock sharp, when she found Tony Marshall awaiting her in the hallway.
“So you are off duty now.”
Philippa laughed. “Did Amelia send you to check up on me?”
“No, I have taken that office upon myself. If you have no plans, I thought you might like to come and see how I spend the rest of my time.”
Philippa regarded him thoughtfully, her head on one side. “I would,” she said finally. “But on Boxing Day, Dr Marshall, don’t you have any other engagements?”
“If I choose to spend my time with you, Miss Maclay, that is an engagement,” he said gravely.
Philippa went to put on her outdoor shoes, bonnet and cloak, and joined him in the hallway. It felt strange to be leaving the building on an expedition of her own. In the four months she had been at Wentworths, she had left the school only in company with the pupils, always on school business. She had little money for cabs or omnibuses, and besides which it was hard for a female to go about unaccompanied. In the environs of the school the danger was real and tangible, and Philippa was not foolish enough to risk it. Even in Africa she had travelled with a gun or a knife, and since she could hardly do that here, she was restricted in her movements.
There was another consideration, too. In all her years at Kola she had never given a thought to impropriety or to her reputation. Her father was not a worldly man, and it had never occurred to him that in allowing his daughter all the freedom of a boy, he might be damaging her in the eyes of the world. But with his death, Philippa had been made aware of the fact that her independence and freedom of speech and movement were frowned upon by the narrow confines of the society in which she was now expected to move.
She knew she was different. It had not needed Tony Marshall to tell her that. She walked, in the heavy skirts and cloaks that propriety demanded, with difficulty, always longing for the light cotton skirts or breeches in which she strode about the mission. She did not always understand the rules by which she must now live, but knew that she was expected to be modest and demure, to walk in the street, if she walked at all, with lowered gaze and little speech. She was lucky to have found two friends, in Amelia and Tony, who could value her for herself, and who could allow her to be herself, but she did not deceive herself into thinking that they were average. She could not take herself off on expeditions of pleasure because she had no acquaintance and no chaperone, and to do it alone would be to expose her to criticism and censure, which she could ill afford.
So she enjoyed her walk, through the silence of Boxing Day, with Tony Marshall’s easy steps at her side. They turned right onto the Commercial Road, and walked past shops and lodging houses, past tall business premises and small, shady public houses, now silent after the night’s revelry. There was a faint scent of spices on the breeze from the warehouses, almost overlaid by the smell of human beings crowded together into too little space.
Presently Tony led her across the wide street and down Sutton Street towards the Ratcliffe Highway. Philippa, who was beginning to know a little about the area, glanced at him.
“Are you by any chance luring me into a den of vice?” she asked.
He grinned. “Something like that. Down here.”
They turned into a narrow lane, lined on either side with gloomy, decaying two storied houses. Away from the wider streets the smell was worse, a combination of human waste, cooking, cheap gin and sweat. Philippa wrinkled her nose slightly, and then smiled. Attending one of the tribal ceremonies of the Mashona ought to have deadened any sensibilities she might have had about bad odours. There was a rotting pile of refuse in the middle of the street and two mangy dogs were rummaging about in it.
Tony stopped before one of the larger houses about half way down the lane. He knocked, and presently a middle-aged woman, respectably dressed in grey, opened the door.
“Dr Marshall. What a pleasant surprise. Do come in.”
Philippa followed them through into the main kitchen, which was a big, square room, furnished with an old fashioned range, and several tables with wooden benches beside them. About ten women, ranging in age from about fifteen to about thirty were scattered about the room. One was stirring something on the range and one or two others were chopping vegetables at one of the tables. Some had sewing on their laps, and at least two were nursing small babies. The room was bare, but surprisingly clean and orderly.
Tony turned to Philippa. “Miss Maclay, may I present Miss Ellis, who runs the Lyons Refuge. Miss Ellis, this is Miss Philippa Maclay, who now assists my cousin at Wentworth’s. While I am here, I would like to see Carrie again. How has she been?”
Miss Ellis shook her head. “Very quiet, sir, not like herself at all. I don’t know what to think. The bruises are coming out nicely, and she bears the pain well, but she doesn’t say a word. I expect she’s ashamed of herself, and so she might be, with the trouble she’s caused us, but still, I don’t like the look of her.”
“I’ll go up to her now.” Tony smiled at Philippa. “Perhaps you could show Miss Maclay around.”
Miss Ellis smiled at his retreating back. “I’ll gladly do that, miss, but there’s not much to see. We do our best, but it’s not like the school. We’ve no money, you see, save what the mission can send us, and that’s little enough.”
“How many women do you have living here?” Philippa asked.
“Oh, anything between ten and thirty,” Miss Ellis said readily. “They don’t stay for more than a few nights, miss, not generally. They come from their husbands or their keepers, who beat them, or they’ve run away from the workhouse, or they’re sick and can’t work for a while. Most of them lead very irregular lives, Miss, if you take my meaning.”
“You mean they’re prostitutes?” Philippa asked. The older woman nodded.
“Yes, miss. We don’t ask and we don’t judge. We take them in, feed them and patch them up, and then one day they’re gone, and we don’t know where. Some come back, others we never see again. We never turn any away. Some bad winters, we have two to a bed and some sleeping on the floor, even here in the kitchen.”
“Do any of them find other work?” Philippa asked.
“Some. The younger ones, mostly, who were forced into this by hunger or need. Or the respectable ones, who were seduced by them who should know better, servants and the like. Kathleen over there is one of those. She’s been with us for a whole month, after her master took to her, as you might say, and then threw her out. It’s lucky that she fell in with us. We should be able to find work for her. But most of the others don’t want it. They’re not educated, Miss – only fit for a maid of all work, or for manual labour, and even this life is often better than that. Not like your girls at the school.”
Philippa was silent as they toured the overcrowded little house. Nearly all the rooms were converted into dormitories; with iron bedsteads so close together that she wondered where there was space for the women who sometimes slept on the floor. Compared to this, Wentworth’s was the height of luxury. No wonder Joan Carter had risked her life to remain there rather than sink to this.
“Who runs the place?” she asked Tony when they were outside once more.
“One of the missions rents the house and gives a little money for food. A local Jewish business organisation contributes, as does the Parish church occasionally. Miss Ellis and the other workers are all volunteers. The women do their own cooking, washing, cleaning etc, and they sometimes take in sewing for money, like the school. Naturally we don’t tell the good ladies who give us work that prostitutes hem their linen. They think that respectable old ladies at the mission do the work.”
“Is there something I can do?” Philippa asked.
He glanced down at her. “Are you addicted to good works, Philippa?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, no. Just to being busy – and useful. And it would give me something to do on my days off.”
“What do you do at present?” Tony asked curiously.
“Mostly, I stay home and read.”
“If you’re sure, I’ll speak to Miss Ellis. I should think she’d be delighted. Now, then – shall I shock you further with a tour of some of our local haunts? Would you like to see the docks?”
“Yes, I should,” Philippa said serenely. “This is very kind of you, Dr Marshall.”
“It is my pleasure, Miss Maclay,” he said seriously, and offered her his arm.

(From a Respectable Woman by Lynn Bryant)

 

A Border Christmas, 1547 – An Excerpt from A Marcher Lord

Smailholm Tower in winter
A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

This excerpt from A Marcher Lord is set at Christmas in 1547.  It is the time of the Border Reivers and the wars between England and Scotland, and the Scots are still recovering from the slaughter at Pinkie Cleugh a few months earlier.  William Scott, Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish baron loyal to the crown has returned to his border stronghold to hold for the Queen, and is acting as gaoler to a young Englishwoman he found riding over the border in suspicious circumstances, and who has refused to tell him her full name or where she came from…

Christmas came in a flurry of excitement and a steady fall of snow which began two days before the festivities began and by Christmas morning lay in a thick, heavy blanket of white across the hills and moors around Crawleigh, enchanting Jane with it’s sparkling beauty. The children were set to clear pathways and courtyard so that those neighbours brave enough to fight their way through the snow might at least find a clear path for their mount on Crawleigh ground.
They came, to Jane’s surprise, a succession of local lairds and landowners, from the surrounding country, to bring greetings to Crawleigh and to join in the feasting and merrymaking of the ‘daft days’ as her host scathingly called the twelve days of the Christmas season. None brought wives or daughters with them this year, although Kat informed Jane that in years gone by whole families would travel to visit their neighbours at this time. The weather and the war led men to leave their women safe in tower and keep. Jane was relieved at this. Women were curious, and she dreaded the wearisome task of fending off their questions.
The men did not question, although it became clear to Jane, long accustomed to read men’s faces, that all were speculating. She imagined that their conclusions would reflect poorly on her reputation. Her relationship with her captor was too easy and informal and she realised that they assumed that she was his mistress. Jane did not care. A lifetime in the army’s tail had prevented any possibility of her being easily offended. Her parents had never seen the need to formally wed, although she had never told her uncle that, and their relationship had always seemed good to her – better than many whose union was sanctioned by the church.
There was little religion at Crawleigh, as Jane had long discovered, but a priest had been invited and mass was said, although on the whole the people of Crawleigh seemed more enthused by their chosen ‘Abbot of Unreason” which was the local term for the Lord of Misrule. Adam Johnstone had been elected for this role, capering through the season like some manic demon conjuring up wilder and wilder dances and pranks for his delighted minions.
The full celebration of Christmas was new to Jane, who had, in her time, spent Christmases in many different places. Last Christmas had been her first at Etterdale, and she had still been deep in her grief for her father, still shocked by the violent temper of her uncle and the sad condition of her aunt and cousin. How would Christmas be this year, she wondered? Was Sir Thomas even home from the wars? And if he was, would he spend the twelve days, as he had last year, dangerously drunk so that his family and servants tiptoed around him.
At Crawleigh Castle, Christmas was a shared pleasure. Preparations had been going on for weeks, and on Christmas Eve every child in castle and village was set to cutting boughs and branches to decorate the hall. Jane enjoyed the greenery draped around the hall, the air of holiday, which even in the midst of wartime pervaded the castle. For the twelve days none was turned away from the gates, and there was a steady stream of desperate villagers from the surrounding countryside to whom food and drink were given, and when possible, shelter. Jane remained on hand with her supply of herbal preparations, ready to dose a cough or bind a wound. They asked no questions, these people. Shocked, often near starvation with frostbitten hands and wasted faces, they camped outside the gates, sheltered from the worst of the weather by the crag itself, and Crawleigh ordered firewood to be given to them so that they could be warm at night.
“What will happen to them?” Jane asked.
“Those who can will rebuild. I’ve given them leave to build huts around the castle when the weather breaks. All will dine with us on Christmas and Hogmanay. Some will move on to family when they can. Others will make their way to Hawick and Jedburgh to try to find work. And some will take to outlawry, perhaps join one of the reiver bands – and become part of the problem. I hate the English, Jenny – with one notable exception, of course!”
“I hate what they’ve done here,” Jane said soberly. “There are children out there, my lord.”
“I know. But they’ll be fed and kept warm for the season, and it’ll make them stronger to start again. When the snow starts to thaw, which won’t be long, they’ll start to move on. Some won’t make it – but many will. We’re a strong breed in these parts.”
“I hate this part of war,” Jane said.
“I know. But you’ve done your part, Jenny. There are people out there who’ll sleep easier because of your knowledge. Take heart from that. We do what we can.”
There was another side to the celebrations too. The guests who arrived would often spend time closeted with Scott of Crawleigh, who remained determinedly sober throughout the merrymaking, and managed to ensure that at least some of his retainers remained fit to ward off the English should they make surprise attack.
“They’ve been raiding Liddesdale,” Johnnie Croser informed Crawleigh during one such meeting in his chamber. “Probably to remind the Armstrongs and Elliotts whose money they’re taking just now. But on the whole I think they’ve stayed quiet over the season. God knows what will happen in the New Year. But I think we’ll celebrate Hogmanay in peace at least.”
“Not with Johnstone in charge,” Crawleigh said with a resigned grin. “No peace here. And while Liddesdale is under attack it’ll keep the occupants from attacking us. D’you think Somerset knows that when it suits them the Liddesdale men will switch sides again? Halfway through a battle if necessary.”
“If he doesn’t know it, Wharton does. Not much that old buzzard doesn’t know about these parts. Which may explain his timely reminders.”
“The more dead and burned out Armstrongs the better, whatever his motive. What news from Maxwell?”
“None yet.” Croser cocked a bloodshot eye at his neighbour. “Talking of news, what’s this I hear of a pretty hostage gracing your festive board this year?”
Crawleigh laughed. “News travels fast, Johnnie. Alan Robson, I imagine?”
“He could hardly keep a tale like that to himself, lad,” Croser said reasonably. “D’you know who she is?”
“No, other than she’s English and new to the borders. To tell you the truth, Johnnie, I was hoping that one of my guests might recognise her and put a name to her, but none have.”
“Is she from these parts?”
“God knows. I’m guessing she’s from the borders somewhere, but I’ve no way of knowing how far she’d travelled when I picked her up. If she’d been from just across, surely we’d have heard talk by now!”
“And you suspect her of being a spy? Have ye told the Queen Dowager?”
“Aye, I’ve written to her and to Arran. But to tell you the truth I doubt there’s any harm in Jenny. What I’d dearly like to know is whom she’s protecting with her silence.”
“A father? A brother? Or a lover?”
“There’s no father, that I know. A brother? Who knows? But what brother would let his kin take that kind of risk? A lover? Perhaps. But if it was, Johnnie, then he’s left her to take the consequences alone.”
Croser eyed his neighbour thoughtfully. “I’m finding a great desire to see the lassie myself, Will. Jenny, you say?”
“It was a childhood name, apparently and the only one she’ll give me. And while this war is on there’s no hope of sending word across the border to find her kin. So she’s here with me, at least until I get word from the Queen Dowager.”
“And an honoured guest so I’m told? No dungeon cell?”
Crawleigh got up. “Come and meet her, Johnnie and then tell me if you could find it in you to lock her in a dungeon cell.”
They made their way down to the hall which was packed with Crawleigh’s people. Those who were not needed to guard the stock and to keep a lookout were all within and the dinner hour was not far off. There was laughter coming from a group before the fire, and the sound of a woman singing. Crawleigh led Croser towards the group and paused at the sight of his prisoner, standing demurely before the group, singing.
He had not heard her sing before. There were musicians for the celebrations, and there had been dancing. Laughingly she had allowed them to teach her some of the old dances. She had joined in too, with the carols, although many of them were new to her.
She had a clear sweet voice, not powerful but true. The ballad she was singing was an old French one, a troubadour’s lament, and she sang it well. The noisy group fell silent. Most of them would not know the language, but the sadness in the song told its own tale. Crawleigh had heard it many times at court, sung by professional musicians, but it had never held such poignancy.
Spellbound they listened to the end, and paid her the compliment of a brief silence before breaking into spontaneous applause. Jane laughed, blushing and curtseying. Beside her, seated on a low stool, Crawleigh saw Bangtail Stewart, her inevitable shadow. Jane smiled down at him, and Stewart grinned back.
“Is this a celebration or a wake, lass?” he teased, and she laughed, and shot him a glance of pure mischief, before breaking into another song.
There was a howl of glee as her audience picked up the tune – a bawdy jig which was popular at soldiers’ campfires on both sides of the border. The girl could not have learned it in a respectable hall. The fiddlers lifted their instruments and took up the tune, and Jane’s audience clapped along, and joined in with the chorus enthusiastically. As she finished the last verse they erupted into cheers, but Jane had seen Crawleigh, and she laughed and warded off their pleas for more and went forward to meet him.
“I’m sorry, my lord – that was not a proper song for a respectable hearth!”
“I’ve seldom heard it sung so sweet, mistress!” Johnnie Croser said, taking Jane’s hand and lifting it to his lips. “John Croser of Martindale at your service.”
“Ah, you’ll be Jock’s cousin?” Jane said composedly. She caught his sharp look and laughed. “I’m learning more about my Scottish neighbours from Bangtail.”
“Stewart? Och, don’t believe half of what that sumph tells you. Mistress Jenny – whoever you may be – your voice is as lovely as your face.”
Jane curtseyed slightly. “Thank you, sir.” She glanced at Crawleigh, and amused, he said:
“Master Croser will be staying to dine, Jenny, and will spend the night.”
“I’ll speak to Janet.” Jane smiled at Croser. “They’ll be setting the boards for dinner shortly, sir. Will you have some mead?”
Crawleigh watched in amusement as she led his guest closer to the fire, finding him a stool and asking him about the journey from Martindale. Beside him, Bangtail Stewart said:
“Aye, it’s a rare entertainment to see her managing your household, master. Does it like she’s born to it. But have you thought about how this will be reported back to court?”
Crawleigh glanced sharply at him. “Should I care?” he asked, shortly.
Stewart sighed. “Nay, lad – not a whit. Only it’s making my life a lot harder with two of you to worry about, and neither of you with the least grain of sense in the world!”
Crawleigh grinned. “A little extra exercise for your wits, Bangtail. Get me a drink will you – and not the mead, for God’s sake! Tonight I’m in the mood for a decent French wine!”
Bangtail brought the goblet, and handed it to him. They were both watching Jane. Suddenly Crawleigh said:
“She sang that song remarkably well, Bangtail.”
“Which one.”
“The French one.”
His childhood friend grinned and lifted his tankard of mead in a silent toast. “You noticed, eh? And the second song is something you might hear in France too – around the campfire.”
“Harry of England was campaigning in France for years before he died and went to hell. But one of his officers would not have taken a daughter with him.”
“True. But she speaks French like a native. And there are mercenary bands all over France, not necessarily with the English.”
“All over Europe. A mercenary’s daughter. It makes some sense, although she’s well bred.”
“There’s more than one runaway gentleman sold his sword, my lord. Doesn’t mean he wouldn’t want his daughter well educated.”
There was silence between them. Then Crawleigh said: “None of this helps at all. Because she didn’t come from France with that letter. She came from England.”
“Aye. So what we need to know is where she went after her parents died.”
“And who she met there,” Crawleigh said. “Christ, Bangtail, if I could get my hands on the man who let her ride out alone that day…..”
“If we’re lucky,” Bangtail said cheerfully, “we’ll run into him one day.”
Crawleigh stood drinking the wine and watching and listening to Jane talking to Croser. Wherever she had come from, she had learned the rare gift of being able to talk to anybody. Croser was charmed, telling her stories, becoming expansive under the influence of the mead. For a while he had forgotten that his pretty hostess was a hostage, a prisoner suspected of spying for England.
At times Crawleigh knew that he forgot it too.

(Excerpt from A Marcher Lord by Lynn Bryant)