With Valentine’s Day coming up next week, I thought I’d post an extra freebie. An Impossible Attachment is a short story about a French prisoner-of-war in Portugal in 1812. It’s a story in its own right although those of you who have read the Peninsular War Saga and in particular A Redoubtable Citadel, will recognise at least one of the characters and some of the background. Please feel free to share it.
Happy Valentine’s Day Everybody…
British Prison Camp, Near Santarem, Portugal, 1812
He first became aware of the smell.
Second-Lieutenant Damien Cavel had served now for fourteen years since his conscription at eighteen and he was entirely accustomed to the filthy conditions of living in an army camp. Raised in a comfortable farmhouse close to Cambrai he had loathed the army at the start but had become accustomed and then attached and had finally embraced his profession with the enthusiasm of a boy who had never wanted the legal career set out for him by his parents. He had learned to adjust to his circumstances in whatever billet was available and living in close proximity with the men of his various companies he had ceased to notice the everyday smell of sweat and unwashed clothing. But the stench of the British army prison camp on the edge of the Tagus surpassed everything.
He had been taken, along with most of his company, on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca, a battle which had happened for many of the French so quickly that they were bewildered. A bitter disappointment to Damien Cavel, newly promoted after years as a sergeant. It was the second time in a year that he had been a prisoner of the British but the experience was very different. The first occasion had ended in him being sent back to his army with a letter of warm recommendation from the English colonel whose wife he had saved and another from Lord Wellington. It had led to his promotion and Damien was only just beginning to savour his new responsibilities in a company of the line before Salamanca left him wounded and then captured for a second time. This time there was no hope of repatriation and he was sent, thrown around in a wagon because of his injuries, to this holding camp north of Lisbon, waiting for transportation to England.
He remembered nothing of the ensuing weeks, tossing and turning with pain, burning with fever and lying in cramped, damp conditions in a disused grain store. Around him men died and were removed and replaced by others. Damien lived although he suspected, when he was finally conscious, that there had been moments when he wished he had not. Around him men groaned in pain or muttered with fever and there was an overpowering stench of excrement and stale urine and decaying flesh. It made him want to gag.
“This one’s awake over here, sir,” a voice said, a harsh English voice belonging to an orderly in shabby uniform with blood staining the front of his shirt. Footsteps sounded and then a man knelt beside Damien.
“Welcome back,” the man said. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Damien tried to speak and nothing came out. His mouth was dry and tasted foul. The doctor, a tired looking man with thinning hair and red-rimmed blue eyes reached out and felt his forehead.
“Fever’s gone,” he said. “Shelby, bring him some water.”
The orderly approached with a cup and the doctor held it while Damien drank, draining the cup. The blue eyes were studying him.
“Do you speak any English?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” Damien said. English had been compulsory at the good school his father had sent him to before the war, when his parents had hoped for a career in the law, possibly leading to government service. He had practised when he was able through the years of the war, speaking to English prisoners and occasionally to other soldiers during days of informal truce. He remembered such a moment at Talavera when he had talked across the stream to men filling their water bottles. But the biggest improvement had come when his company, escorting a supply column up towards Badajoz, had captured the young wife of an English colonel and he had walked beside her for more than two weeks. There were aspects of that time that Damien could not bear to remember, but the girl herself would never leave him. Her French needed no practice, she was fluent, but she had taken it upon herself to improve his English. It had been a distraction from the horror of her ordeal.
“Good,” the English doctor said. “My French is terrible. I’ll leave you here for now…is it Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant Cavel,” Damien said. “My coat?”
“If you had one, it’s gone,” the doctor said. “Let me have a look at that wound. It was infected but we used maggots and it seems to have done the job.”
Damien lay back and the doctor drew back the thin army blanket and carefully peeled the dressing from a long wound across his midriff. The doctor pressed gently and Damien winced and looked down. He was slightly shocked at the length of the gash, red raw and untidily stitched but there was no smell of decay although Damien wondered if he would have been able to smell it anyway in this foul atmosphere.
“My arm?” he asked, aware of the pain.
“Shoulder wound. Very deep, you’ll have a weakness there for a while. Perhaps always. You use your right or left hand?”
“You’re lucky then. Cavalry sabre, I’d guess, cut you down and then slashed you across the stomach. Ought to have killed you but he didn’t bend low enough. I think you’ll mend. I’ll get them to give you some food and plenty of water, you need rest.”
“Prison transport,” the doctor said in matter-of-fact tones. “Back to England and then if you’ll give your parole you’ll be treated as an officer and a gentleman. Better than most of these lads.”
“Thank you,” Damien said. “Do you know how long?”
“Couple of weeks, maybe. Once the transports have arrived they’ll probably take you by barge down river. You’ll be well enough by then. Eat and get some rest.”
“Thank you,” Damien said again. “May I know your name?”
“Dr Bishop. I’ll send someone up with some food.”
Two weeks was long in the prison hospital. More men died. Others were moved, once they were deemed well enough, to the two barns which housed the bulk of the prisoners. Damien had no idea how much time had passed while he had been ill and was astonished to find that two months had passed since he had fallen at Salamanca and autumn had arrived. Already the days were cooler and once he was well enough to step outside and take the air he could see that the land was turning greener after the heat of the summer months. Vineyards were ripe and heavy with the new harvest, the peasants were busy in the olive groves and the prisoners’ bland and boring diet was supplemented a little with local chestnuts, almonds and walnuts along with oranges and apples.
He was moved away from the fetid hospital into a small house, set aside for the officers, and given a new coat, presumably taken from a dead man and a shabby cloak against the colder evenings. His fellow officers, all bearing the same faint sense of depression, played cards and drank wine when it was available and speculated on their chance of exchange, on conditions in England and on when, if ever, they might see their wives and families again.
Transports arrived and the transport board sent an escort of Portuguese militia to take the prisoners by river on wide, flat bottomed barges to join the ships. Damien went to find Dr Bishop to thank him again and the Englishman saluted and then offered his hand.
“Good luck, Lieutenant Cavel, I hope it’s a smooth voyage and an easy imprisonment.”
“You have been very kind, Doctor. Thank you.” Damien looked out the door at the weather. “I do not think it will be a pleasant trip on the river.”
“No, I’m afraid not. Probably fast though with the rain we’ve had for the past few days, the river is very high.”
It took time to load the prisoners into the boats and standing shivering on the banks watching the laborious process, Damien wondered how many of them would be ill again before they reached the transports. He had no hat, it had been lost on the battlefield, probably looted with his coat and he pulled the thin cloak around him and waited his turn. There were five hundred officers and men, some from Salamanca and others brought in from smaller skirmishes or just picked up in small parties. The Portuguese militia watched them carefully. There was none of the laughter or banter or small kindnesses that the British medical staff had shown and Damien understood why. These men had lived under French occupation, had watched their homes burn, their food stolen and far too often their women raped. They had no sense of kinship with the French troops and he wondered if the small contingent of British infantrymen were there to guard the prisoners or to protect them.
Huddled finally in the barge, Damien looked back as the current swirled them out with the crew steering a course to follow those already gone. The rain was so heavy it was difficult to see the shore or indeed the other boats and he peered through the curtain of water.
“Bloody country,” Captain Bisset said beside him. “Either it rains or it’s baking, there’s no halfway. Perhaps England will be better.”
“Have you ever been?” Damien asked.
“I have,” an older man said. “Spent some time there as a boy. I liked it but the food was terrible.”
“It can’t be any worse than here,” Bisset said and there was laughter. A Portuguese oarsman turned to glare at them and then looked back quickly at a shout from the pilot. Damien understood no Portuguese and had never troubled to learn although he could make himself understood in Spanish.
They were moving quickly on the current, the shore no longer visible, and Damien hoped that there would be a chance to dry out before they were herded aboard the prison transports. Ahead of him he could hear Lieutenant Giroux coughing and he wondered if the man would make it to England alive.
The crash happened without any warning, the barge spinning in a sudden surge of water and hitting an object at great speed. Damien had no idea what it was but there was an ominous crack of splitting wood, and a yell and then water rushed up towards him. The barge had broken across the centre with both sides tilting crazily into the water and he could hear the cries of terror and pain of the men around him as they were pulled in to the grey torrent of the water.
Damien struggled out of the cloak, stood up on the edge of the wooden plank seat, peered through the water and then dived. Something struck his arm hard as he hit the cold water, sending a jolt of pain through the already injured limb but he made himself ignore it and struck out strongly. If he did not get away from the smashed wreckage of the barge quickly he was at risk of being pulled under either by the huge chunks of wood being tossed around in the water or by one of the men, struggling for their lives in the midst. He saw, as he struggled past, what looked like the shape of an enormous tree trunk in the centre of the chaos and he supposed it had come down in the storm and been carried along in the fast current.
They were screaming some of them, helpless in the maelstrom of swirling grey water, broken barge and thrashing arms and legs. Damien did not look back; he could do nothing to help them. Some of them might survive if they could swim or were lucky enough to be able to catch hold of a makeshift float. Already he could hear shouts from the barge behind following up, it’s crew trying desperately to avoid either striking the wreck and being wrecked themselves or hitting the men floundering in the water. Above them the rain continued to fall and Damien swam, following the current at an angle towards the shore.
He had learned to swim as a boy, through long summers with his grandparents on their farm. A river had wound its way across their land and every year one or two venturesome children were lost to drowning. His grandfather had been determined it should not happen to him and by the time he joined the army he was a powerful swimmer. It was not easy in this torrent, weighed down by his clothing, but if he stopped to try to remove his jacket or his boots he was afraid it would be too late. So he relied on the strength lent to him by sheer desperation to keep himself afloat and fought his way towards the shore.
He was thrown, finally, in a muddy swirl onto a stony bank. Steep sides rose above him and Damien, who could never remember feeling more exhausted in his life, dragged himself up and crawled on hands and knees up the bank. Finally, the rain seemed to be easing a little and was more of a fine mist although visibility was terrible. More than anything he wanted to lie down and give in but he knew that if the water rose again he was at risk of drowning while he was unconscious. He used bushes, trees and rocks to scramble up the bank, feeling his way, his hands cut and bleeding on sharp edges and thorns. And then he was there, muddy grass under him but solid ground, and he collapsed and lay still.
Damien awoke some time later. The rain had stopped but the land was covered by a thick fog. There was no sound now but the quiet rush of the river below. He was soaked and shivering so much he could hardly stand, and he pushed himself up, conscious of a terrifying weakness. Whatever had happened to the men in the water had long passed, the sky was darkening through the mist and it was evening. If he lay where he was he would probably be dead of cold by morning.
Stumbling like a drunken man he began to make his way inland. He had no idea where he was or how far from the British army camp but he was unlikely to be able to find his way back there in this weather. He needed shelter; warmth was unlikely in this appalling weather but even a dry barn would be better than this. Food would help but he could not go to some farmhouse and beg for help. The French were so hated here that he was more likely to get his throat cut than a place by the fire.
Damien thought that he must have been staggering for about twenty minutes although it was impossible to be sure, he had lost all sense of time, when he saw the light. It was dim, glowing yellow through the haze. He paused, trying to clear his head which was throbbing. Approaching the farm was a huge risk, but if he could remain undetected he might be able to steal some food and find shelter in an outbuilding. With rest he would be able to think more clearly and decide what to do next.
Close up, he could see a small house, whitewashed with a slate roof, crouching in the midst of a muddy farmyard. There were several buildings nearby, a barn and what looked like a henhouse. Damien moved forward very cautiously. No sensible householder would be out in this weather and night was falling rapidly, but he was suspicious of every sound.
He was almost at the door of the dark barn when disaster struck. Unsteady on his feet and in the darkness he had failed to see the long wooden shape of a broken hoe until he stepped on it. His feet shot from under him and he uttered a cry, quickly cut off but too loud in the darkness.
It could have been heard in the house and with a lamp lit there was clearly someone at home. Damien scrambled to his feet and made for the nearest building, a brick built structure which proved to be a tool shed. He ducked inside and stood very still, peering out through the broken door as the door to the house opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light.
“Cristiano, is that you?” a voice called and a shock ran through him as he realised that the voice was that of a woman and that bizarrely it was speaking English. “Cristiano? Maria?”
There was silence in the enveloping fog and Damien’s brain, numbed by cold and pain, sprang suddenly into life. The voice was tremulous and afraid and he knew suddenly, with complete certainty that this woman was alone here. He stood very still, listening. Nobody replied. She was calling for people she knew but they were not coming and the silence made her afraid.
It changed everything. Inside the cottage was light and probably warmth and food. It was still a risk. The unknown Cristiano and Maria might be close at hand, but once he was inside with this lone female it would be easier to deal with attack. Damien closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his shaking limbs and find some strength. Then he stepped out of the shed and ran to the door of the house.
She had seen his movement and she was very quick, closing the door with a faint sound of alarm. But desperation lent him strength and speed and he had his foot in the door before she managed it. She wrestled with it briefly and Damien shoved hard. The woman fell back with a cry of pain and he was inside, slamming the door behind him. There was a wooden bar which would not hold off an army but might well keep Cristiano and Maria out for a while and Damien pushed it into place and turned, leaning his back against the door to keep himself upright and surveyed the candlelit room and his prisoner who was scrambling to her feet, her eyes on his face.
It was a shock to find that she was younger than he had expected, probably in her twenties, dressed in black. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, long and straight and a bright red gold. Her eyes were cat green with flecks of gold in them, wide with terror, and her skin was pale with a dusting of freckles.
“Who are you?” she asked, but he could see her eyes on the soaked blue of his jacket and she knew the answer. “What are you doing here?”
“Seeking shelter,” Damien said. “Are you alone?”
She shook her head quickly. “No. No. My husband is upstairs asleep but he has a pistol. And my servants are close by…”
It was a brave try and he applauded her but the expression in her eyes showed it a lie and Damien pushed himself off the door.
“You lie to me and I will cut your throat,” he said quietly. “I am a French prisoner – escaped, I suppose – and I am in need of food and warmth. Do as you are told and I will not touch you. Try to get help and I will and you will not enjoy it. Which is it to be, Mademoiselle?”
She did not seem to be able to speak for a moment but she nodded. Damien gave a faint smile, trying to hide his relief. He was reasonably sure if he had tried to attack her she could have fought him off with ease and probably killed him.
“Are you alone?” he asked again.
“Yes.” She had found her voice.
“No husband or servants?”
She shook her head. “No. The farmer and his wife went to Lisbon, to market. They were going to stay with her sister. I thought when I heard you…”
“And the husband?”
“Is dead,” she said, and this time he knew she spoke the truth. The black velvet of her gown, trimmed at the hem and neckline with silver grey embroidery made it obvious. It might also explain the mystery of a young Englishwoman alone in Portugal.
“Anybody else?” he asked.
“No. Truthfully.” The girl’s eyes were studying him. Suddenly she said:
“You are ill.”
Damien nodded. “Yes. I have been wounded and then tonight in the river…”
He broke off and stood regarding her for a moment. Then she moved.
“Sit down, I will build up the fire.”
She moved to the fireplace, reaching for a stack of wood on the hearth and Damien moved to a wooden bench and sat down closing his eyes. He realised he was shaking violently with reaction; partly relief at being inside in the warmth and the dry and partly a sense of shame at having threatened a frightened woman. He knew that many of his countrymen would have seen it as a gift to find a young and attractive female alone in the cottage. Damien wished he could reassure her that she was safe.
The new heat from the fire reached him. He heard her move across the room and opened his eyes, turning. “Where are you going?”
She regarded him. “There is wine in the kitchen. And some food.”
“I will come with you.”
“You do not look as though you will make it that far…is it Captain?”
“Lieutenant Damien Cavel, Madame.”
She nodded then indicated the room with a sweep of her hand. “You were right, I’m alone,” she said. “In the dark and in this weather – where would I go? May I trust you?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “Madame, I am sorry. I am desperate…”
She nodded. “Wait there.”
He sat quietly, his eyes closed, savouring the warmth of the fire. She seemed to take a long time and he wondered if, after all, she had fled. He had no idea if there was a horse on the premises but suddenly he found it hard to care.
He opened his eyes, startled, and realised that he had fallen asleep. She stood before him, holding out not, as he had expected, a plate of food but instead a bundle of clothing.
“My husband’s. You will make yourself ill if you sit around in those clothes. I will be in the kitchen. It is warm there, there is food.”
“Madame…” Damien was appalled. “I cannot use these…”
“He has no use for them now.”
She left and Damien shook out the clothing. He stripped off his soaked clothes, dropping them in a heap on the floor and pulled on the shirt and trousers feeling almost childish pleasure in the sense of clean dry clothing. His boots were still soaked and after a moment’s consideration he set them before the fire and draped his wet clothing over the chair then ran his hands through his dark hair and padded through to the back of the house in bare feet.
It was a typical farm kitchen, wooden beams with bundles of herbs drying, a huge fireplace with spit and a brace holding an iron pot over the flames and a long wooden table with benches either side. Damien paused and the woman turned and indicated the table.
“Sit,” she said.
He obeyed and she spooned stew into a bowl and brought it to him. There was bread and a crock of butter and it smelled good; better than anything he had eaten since he had been captured at Salamanca. He tried not to snatch at the food but he was too hungry to be delicate. The woman watched him eat and then brought a bottle to the table and poured wine into a glass.
When the edge was taken off his hunger, Damien looked up. “Will you sit?” he asked. “I feel like a boor eating and drinking while you stand.”
She moved forward and collected a second glass, poured wine and sat. “I thought you were going to cut my throat,” she said, and Damien found a smile, to his surprise.
“I was not very convincing,” he said apologetically and was astonished when she laughed.
“You were. I was very frightened for a while. I may be wrong, Lieutenant, but you do not look like a man who is going to hurt me. But I do not understand how you are here.”
Damien studied the distinctive face. “I also, Madame,” he said. “Because you are English, are you not?”
The woman sipped the wine, watching him finish his meal. “I am. My name is Wentworth. Elizabeth Wentworth. I came out to see my husband. He was an officer, a Captain. Wounded at Badajoz. He died four weeks ago of his wounds. It took a long time.”
Damien was filled with immense sadness. “I am so sorry, Madame. To come so far. But forgive me, surely you did not travel alone?”
“I had nobody to come with me,” the girl said. “His commanding officer wrote to me. He was very ill, too badly hurt to be moved far. They do not usually keep officers in the hospital you know, alongside the men. He was billeted at this farm and Maria – the farmer’s wife – had been caring for him. I came to nurse him but it was only a few weeks…”
Damien set down his spoon and pushed the bowl away. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “That was so good.”
The green eyes studied him. “I have told you why I am here. You said you are an escaped prisoner?”
Damien smiled tiredly. “By accident,” he said. “It is not a very exciting story.”
“Tell me anyway,” Elizabeth Wentworth said.
Damien did so, beginning briefly with his wounding and capture at Salamanca. She listened quietly, the green-gold eyes on his face as he told it.
When it was done he sat silent and exhausted, sipping his wine. Eventually she said:
“What will you do now?”
“I do not know,” Damien admitted. “I could find my way back to the prison camp. Some of the men must have survived the river, they were probably taken there. Another wait for transports to England. Or I could try to make my way north to find the French army again. Hundreds of miles through country where my army is hated and the partisans wish to kill me – probably very slowly. And I have no news – I do not even know where we are. The British won at Arapiles – they may have taken Madrid by now.”
“A fool’s errand,” the woman said.
“The farmer and his wife…?”
“They will want you gone,” Mrs Wentworth said. “They hate the French. But they took their harvest to market. I am not expecting them back for a week at least.”
Damien was silent, studying her. “You should not be here alone, Madame,” he said finally, quietly. “It is too far from the town. While your husband lived, I understand. But now, you should find accommodation in Lisbon until you can…”
“I have no money for accommodation in Lisbon, Lieutenant,” the woman said, and suddenly she looked very young and very tired. “What I had, I spent on the journey and caring for Charles. The army will arrange my passage home when there are transports – they will send an escort, they have said. This is cheaper than a room in Lisbon.”
“And when you reach England?”
“I have an aunt I can stay with for a while. I have been living with her while Charles was out here. Eventually, I am told there will be a small pension. I thought I might seek a position as a governess or companion.”
“Your parents? Or his? Can they not…”
“My parents died some years ago. Charles married me against his parents’ wishes, they have never accepted me. It sounds far worse than it is, Lieutenant Cavel, I shall not starve. But when Maria said I might remain here until I have passage home it seemed to make sense.”
“Until this evening when you might have been raped and murdered by an escaped French prisoner!” Damien said. He felt angry that she should have been placed in that position. “One might think this commanding officer of whom you speak would have…”
“He knows nothing of it, sir. The regiment is in the field with Lord Wellington, I have not written of my small troubles and I shall not; I’m not a beggar. He has written to Horse Guards about my pension and has assured me he will see that it is paid. Beyond that, I am not his concern.” The surprising green eyes softened slightly. “But don’t think that I do not realise I have been lucky this evening. Are you all right, you are shivering again?”
He had been aware of it for a while, reached for the wine and drank more. “A fever. I was ill for some weeks, have been better, but I think the soaking….”
Cautiously he tried to move his left arm and realised that it was agony to do so. Elizabeth Wentworth got up.
“You are in pain,” she said. “Come, I’ll show you where you may sleep.”
“Madame, I can sleep here.”
She did not reply, merely picked up a candle and waited. Damien rose and followed her. The stairs of the small farmhouse were narrow and dark and he had to stoop his tall frame to avoid hitting his head. She did not have the same problem, she was small and slight and he thought suddenly of that other delicate-looking Englishwoman who had proved to have the strength of a lioness and found himself smiling.
There were two rooms above and she pushed open one of the doors. “This is where Maria and Cristiano sleep. They will know nothing about this. Go.”
It was a bedframe, roughly made from local oak, with straps supporting a straw filled mattress and blankets and pillows neatly folded so that the bed could air. Damien stared at it, trying to remember the last time he had slept in a bed. He turned to see her setting the candle on a wooden chest.
“I know the French are taught to live off the land and these people – and I – are your enemies,” she said. “Please don’t steal from them. There is enough food and when you are ready to go you may take what you like from my husband’s clothing, he has no need of it now and he was much of a height with you. Rest and if you need me I am sleeping in the next room.”
Damien was studying the pale face in the candlelight. “You are not my enemy and I do not know anything of these people. Thank you, Madame. I hope I will be better tomorrow. You have probably saved my life tonight.”
She gave a very slight smile. “You have definitely spared mine, sir.”
She turned to go and Damien moved to the bed. A blanket in his hand, he turned.
“Do you miss him very much?”
Elizabeth Wentworth stood framed in the crooked doorframe. “No,” she said, surprising him. “Although I could only admit that to a complete stranger such as yourself. How can I miss a man I barely knew? I was seventeen when we eloped and I had known him for two months then. He was handsome and dashing and I thought I loved him. He was also about to join his regiment to sail to Portugal with Sir John Moore. I was settled in lodgings and I waved him off proudly. That was four years ago. I have not seen him since. He wrote me a total of ten letters during that time. He sent me money occasionally but not enough, I have survived teaching music and drawing and running errands for wealthy widows. And on the occasional gift from my poor aunt who can ill afford it herself. His family do not receive me and would not even lend me money to travel here when I had word that he was so badly wounded. And when I arrived to nurse him, he was delirious and barely recognised me. He was also riddled with the pox, so I imagine that he had not missed me either.”
“Oh no,” Damien said softly, his own misery forgotten. “Oh cherie, I am so sorry. To come so far and for that. He did not deserve you.”
His compassion seemed to startle her. “You don’t know me, Lieutenant. How do you know what I deserve?”
“No woman deserves that, Madame Wentworth. Thank you. Goodnight.”
Farm of Cristiano and Maria Guedes, Portugal, 1812
The bedrooms were cold compared to the heat of the rooms below. Elizabeth went down to bank the kitchen fire and extinguish lamps and candles, taking one up to the tiny box room which she had occupied since coming to Santarem. She removed the black mourning gown and took off her stays then wrapped a thick robe around her and got into the narrow bed. Four weeks ago Charles had breathed his last in this bed and she had stripped and washed the linen herself, not wanting to make more work for Maria who had been kind enough already. She sensed that they wanted her gone once her husband had been buried but they were too good to say so. Their trip to Lisbon had been a regular necessity to sell the produce of the small farm but she suspected they would remain with their family for as long as they could. She had been told that a passage would be available for her within the month and the Lisbon quartermaster would send one of his men with a cart to escort her to the ship with her small trunk.
Elizabeth had not liked being left alone at the farm, but it had also been a relief. She had grown up in the country and had willingly agreed to feed the few animals and take care of the house. It was the least she could do to repay their kindness since their last farmhand had left to join the Portuguese army eight months ago and there was no other help locally. Feeding the goats and milk cow and chickens occupied little of her time. She wrote letters, one to her aunt accepting her generous offer of a bed in her own small house until she might make other arrangements and another to Charles Wentworth’s family, telling them of his death and his burial. They would probably not respond but Elizabeth would have known she had done the right thing.
There was a small sum of money, raised through auctioning Captain Wentworth’s personal possessions, and a one-armed Major of the cavalry had ridden out to give her the money. She had seen his eyes brighten at finding the widow young and personable and she suspected that if she had given him the slightest encouragement he would have ridden out again but she did not. Four years of marriage to a soldier had convinced Elizabeth that if she did ever marry again it would not be to a man in a red coat.
She wondered if the French officer was married. Once the initial terror had eased, she had found nothing threatening in the tall, slender dark haired man with steady grey eyes. Any fear of him harming her had vanished very quickly. Four years alone had accustomed Elizabeth to all manner of impertinences from men who very clearly believed that a woman whose husband had been away for so long must welcome their attentions and she had grown very good at sensing danger. She sensed no threat from the exhausted Frenchman with the surprisingly good grasp of English and in practical terms his presence here for a few days might keep her safe. It was improper for her to be staying in a deserted cottage unchaperoned with him sleeping in the next room but since nobody would ever know of it, it could hardly hurt her reputation.
She slept finally, waking as the dawn filtered through the badly fitting shutters at the small window and rose to dress. The black velvet gown was the only mourning she possessed, saved from the death of her mother several years earlier and she would not wear it about the farm. Instead she donned the practical green wool and the sturdy boots and bundled her hair up into a knot then went down to build up the fire in the kitchen before going outside into a fresh dry dawn with the promise of a sunny day to begin the chores of the farm.
When she came back inside later, hungry and ready for breakfast she was faintly surprised not to see the French officer already down. She had moved his jacket and boots into the kitchen to dry properly and bundled up the soaked, filthy linen to be laundered. Now she took off her cloak and went up to her room. There was a box under the bed which contained the remains of her husband’s clothing and she unpacked it, piling it up neatly folded. She had not given the clothing to be sold with the rest of Charles’ effects. It had little value and she had thought she might give it to Cristiano when she left as thanks for his hospitality. Now she carried the small pile, a couple of shirts, some underclothing, woollen stockings and a spare pair of serviceable grey trousers to the other door and knocked.
There was no reply. Elizabeth knocked again and then pushed the door open very cautiously.
“Lieutenant Cavel? Are you awake? I have brought…”
The sight of him on the bed froze the words. He had thrown off the blankets in the night and lay uncovered still dressed in the shirt and trousers she had given him. They were soaked with sweat and his face was flushed and burning. He did not appear conscious and Elizabeth dropped the clothing onto the chest and ran forward.
“Oh lord,” she said, feeling the burning damp of his forehead. “Lieutenant? Mr Cavel, can you hear me?”
The eyes opened, staring at her in confusion and he spoke in French. Elizabeth spoke enough of the language to be able to teach children the basics but his rapid words made no sense to her. It did not matter. He was ill and it was clear that after four weeks of exhausting nursing, she was going to have to go through the process again. She felt a stab of resentment at the thought and then she sighed and turned to find the discarded bedclothes. She could hardly leave him like this.
The routine was familiar by now and resigned, she fell quickly into the pattern of caring for a fever patient; washing him, changing the bed sheets, changing his clothing and patiently spooning water and other liquids between his dry cracked lips. The fever burned fiercely for three days and Elizabeth wondered if, like Charles, he had already been weakened too much by his wounds and his previous illness to survive. But unlike Charles he was clearly a fit and healthy man in all other ways and on the fourth day he slept more easily, his body no longer racked by violent shivering and his brow cool and dry.
Elizabeth sat beside the bed, watching him. Like this he appeared younger than she had first thought, probably no more than thirty or so although his contained manner had made him seem older. She was twenty-two herself and had been told often that she seemed older than her years, which was less flattering to a woman than a man. Once again she wondered if he had a wife waiting for him back in France. She suspected that the answer was yes, there had been a name he had mentioned more than once in his fevered ramblings and she hoped that Anne, whoever she was, appreciated this unassuming man.
He awoke properly late into the evening. Elizabeth had brought the lamp from the kitchen into his room and settled herself to mend one of the shirts she had washed. She was wrapped in her shawl; the heat from the kitchen barely filtered up to the bedrooms. Seeing him stir she looked up and into bewildered grey eyes.
“Madame Wentworth. What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Elizabeth smiled and got up, putting down her sewing. “You’re awake. That’s good. And you have also remembered your English which is even better because you have made me realise how rusty my French has become these past days. Wait there, I will bring you a warm drink now that you can taste it properly.”
She left him and when she returned he had managed to pull himself into a sitting position. Elizabeth handed him the cup of milk with honey and a little brandy and watched him sip it.
“This is very good, thank you. My throat is so dry. How long have I been ill?”
“This is the fourth day.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve been here four days? I need to leave tomorrow, the farmer and his wife are going to be back…”
“No, they are not,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I received a message from Maria yesterday to tell me they will be at least another week. Her sister has just given birth and they are staying to help and for the baptism. Senor Dias, who has a farm eight miles further up river stopped by on his way back from Lisbon to tell me.”
“Leaving you here alone?”
“I think they are making the most of a holiday. They farm this place alone, you know, they must seldom have the opportunity to leave it because of the animals. All their farmhands left to join the army or the militia. I suppose that with the harvest brought in and taken to market there is little to do here. And I am happy to help them, they were very good to me when Charles was dying. In a few weeks I shall be gone but I will always remember how kind to me the people of Portugal were. Do you feel able to eat some broth?”
“Thank you. I am not sure they would be so kind if they knew you were harbouring an escaped French prisoner.”
“They have no need to know. And you have no need to leave until you are a little stronger. I’ll bring the broth.”
She returned with it and found him holding the half mended shirt. “You are mending my clothes.”
“It was badly torn.”
“And you have also changed them. I was not wearing this nightshirt when I got into bed that night.”
Elizabeth flushed slightly and dropped her eyes. “I could not leave you as you were, you were shivering. I am sorry…”
“Do not apologise, Madame, you have probably saved my life. Again. I am sorry to have been such a charge on you. I will leave as soon as I am able.”
“You have been less trouble than my husband, sir. Are you…do you have a wife at home?”
He smiled. “No. I was young when I joined, have been in the army all my adult life. No time to marry.”
“I wondered. There was a name you mentioned when you were ill. Who is Anne?”
She saw his eyes flicker in surprise. “Anne? Oh. I must have been dreaming, I suppose.”
“An old love or a current sweetheart?” Elizabeth said lightly, teasing, but he did not smile, shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“Neither. A woman I liked very much.”
“I am sorry, I have no right to pry.”
“No, it is not that. I am ashamed to tell you the story; it reflects so badly on some of my countrymen. But then you must know, I am sure, if you have talked to your hosts, that the French are hated for a reason.”
Elizabeth nodded, studying him. She wondered if she wanted to know. After a moment he said:
“I was still a sergeant, posted to a troop escorting supplies. Dull and often dangerous but essential. We had a new commander – a colonel of cavalry, Colonel Dupres. It was odd for a man of his rank to be given such a lowly posting and we all assumed it was a punishment of some kind.”
“And was it?”
“Yes. He had behaved very rashly, more than once, putting his men at risk without need because he felt some sense of rivalry with an English colonel of light infantry. They had clashed several times on the field and Dupres had lost and men had died. During the months I served under him I came to loathe him. He was a thief, looting houses and churches. He was a brute to local people in Portugal and Spain. Not just taking food and supplies; we all do that. But he would kill for sport and torture for fun. And he was a rapist. Any local girl he came across.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth said softly.
“He was in command and many of the men followed him willingly. War makes beasts of so many, Madame. But there was a skirmish with a group of Spanish partisans and a small English escort, taking supplies up from Lisbon. We captured the English and killed many of the Spanish. The others fled. There was a woman with them – a young Englishwoman. She gave him her name, thinking she would be released as an officer’s wife. She was married to the colonel he hated.”
Elizabeth watched the shuttered expression on his face and wished she had not asked. “You don’t have to tell me any more.”
Damien gave a tight smile. “You will have guessed, I imagine. He slaughtered the remains of her escort in front of her and he took her with us on the march. For two weeks I watched him brutalise her. You do not want the details. Some of us tried to help her as much as we could and tried desperately to think of a way to get her free.”
“Did he kill her?” Elizabeth whispered. She was cold with horror, her own vulnerability out here suddenly real all over again. He shook his head.
“No, although eventually I think he would have. He was…he became obsessed with her. Would not release her. But the partisans had taken word back to the Allied lines and we were attacked one night by half a battalion of light infantry. They went through our men as if we were raw recruits. Dupres survived the battle but her husband challenged him when he realised what had been done to her and killed him.”
“Is that how you were taken prisoner?”
“No. She spoke for us, my captain and I, to Lord Wellington. The rest were sent to be transported but we were released to go back to the French lines with a letter of thanks and recommendation for what we had done for her. I was promoted and so was he. Then I fought at a battle just outside Salamanca and was wounded and taken again.”
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. Was she all right?”
He gave a little smile. “I think so. Hard for any woman to endure what she did, but she was unusual. And so was he. I have seen many men in love before but I do not think I have ever seen a man so enamoured as he. I hope they did well. I have seen death and horror. And rape, since many of our troops see nothing wrong with it. But that stayed with me. I got to know her and I don’t think I could ever close my eyes to it again after that.”
He had finished the broth almost without noticing it and she took the bowl from him gently. “I think you are a good man, Lieutenant. Try to sleep again now. No need to dream horrors about her, she sounds very well taken care of. But you have reminded me of how lucky I have been. Goodnight.”
Elizabeth was surprised at how quickly the Frenchman seemed to recover from his fever. He was up within two days, moving slowly around the house, washing himself and dressing and doing what he could to help her. After four days he was outside with her in the crisp autumn air, carrying the feed bucket and hunting for eggs. She found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed the company. He did not talk a great deal but his silences were restful and she felt comfortable with them.
During the evenings they would sit in the kitchen to save lighting two fires and she finished mending his clothing and watched, with some surprise, as he expertly patched the soles of his boots. She quickly realised that life on a farm was as familiar to him as it was to her, and he began, without asking, to effect small repairs about the place as if he, like her, felt a sense of obligation to the absent farmer and his wife whose hospitality was keeping him warm and fed.
He did not speak again of leaving and at the end of another week, Elizabeth felt the need to raise it. Autumn would soon move into winter and the farmer and his wife would return. She was daily expecting a message about her own passage home and was somewhat shocked to realise how little she wanted to go.
They had finished their evening meal and he got up to wash the pottery bowls and stack them to dry. Elizabeth was amused at the action. She suspected that Charles would never have thought to do it; he had remained a gentleman by instinct, waiting for a servant to clear up after him. His occasional letters had been full of grumbles about the lack of good orderlies and servants. Her own years of near poverty had taught her to manage most things alone, with a local woman coming in daily to do the heavy cleaning and she was an excellent cook.
“You cook very well, Madame, I am being ruined for army fare,” the Frenchman said, echoing her thoughts. Elizabeth smiled.
“I enjoy cooking. Lieutenant Cavel, have you decided yet what you are going to do? I do not mean to hurry you, but…”
Damien collected a bottle of wine and seated himself again. He poured for both of them. “I am telling myself that my work around the farm will make up for my free use of my unwilling host’s wine cellar,” he said. “It is very good; does he make it himself?”
“It is made in the village. They all contribute the grapes and share out the wine. Is this not what you call living off the land, Lieutenant?”
“It is too comfortable for that,” Damien said, laughing. “And in answer to your question, Madame, yes, I have decided. I am going to make my way back over the river and east towards Cadiz. I have no idea where I’ll find Marshal Soult’s army – or if I will – but I think it is the best choice.”
“Or you could surrender and go to England,” Elizabeth said suddenly. She had not meant to say it, but his words conjured up the reality; hundreds of miles of lonely marching without a weapon or an ally, through hostile countryside with no sure knowledge of where he might find his compatriots. “If the partisans catch you, they’ll kill you. And even the British might shoot you as a spy. It is a mad idea, Lieutenant, and I do not want you to do it!”
He smiled then, one of his rare broad smiles which made his face that of a boy again. “Madame, I am sorry. But I am a French soldier – I have been for fourteen years – and it is my duty to get myself back and fight for my emperor. As your husband would have done if he could. But thank you for your concern.”
Elizabeth got up. She was fighting back tears. “You will get yourself killed!” she said furiously, walking over to the fire. “And I do not want to know about it! Go if you must. I will remain here until Cristiano and Maria return and then…”
She heard him move and did not look around. Unexpectedly she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “I am not leaving until I am sure they are back. Or until a man in a red coat arrives to take you to the ship. I am not leaving you alone here.”
“It is not your problem, Lieutenant.”
“My name is Damien, cherie. We probably only have another few days here and nobody will hear you use it. Please.”
Elizabeth turned into his arms. “Did she teach you your English?” she asked, fighting the completely irrational sense of jealousy.
Damien laughed. “I already knew some, but she taught me a lot more. I think it helped to take the mind off the pain. Do not look so cross, Elizabeth Wentworth. She would be very happy to see me practising it on you. May I kiss you?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks were wet with tears. She reached up to cup his face with one hand and found that it too was damp. “I do wish you would,” she said.
They spoke little afterwards, having said all that they could. There was no way that she could persuade him and she understood it. If he were a man to take the safe and easy way, he would not be the man he was.
Damien had not meant it to end this way although he quickly realised, with rueful tenderness that on this occasion it was not going to be his decision alone. She moved around the room as she always did at the end of the evening, blowing out candles with housewifely care as he banked the fire and checked the door and shutters. It was a still, cold night and he followed her up the stairs and was startled as she turned not left into her own little room but right into the main bedroom where he had been sleeping. She set the candle down on the chest and turned to him, the green-gold of her eyes bright on his.
“We have so little time left,” she said. “And this may be all we ever have. I am not wasting it on propriety and morality.”
Damien looked at her for a long time. “And if you bear a child?” he asked.
“Then I will tell them it was my husband’s. A last and joyous gift. Nobody but I need know that he could not have done so.”
It quashed the last of his scruples although he was amused, as he moved to take her into his arms, to realise that she had thought of that well before this moment. He had been neatly ambushed by an English force and not for the first time. On this occasion there was no thought of fighting back and he let her draw him to the bed, into her arms and into joy without a moment of regret.
They lived the next three days in each other’s arms, leaving the bedroom only to eat and to perform the necessary chores of living. If this was to be all they had, he understood her need to savour it, simply to hold him. They talked, when they were not making love, telling details of their lives and families, of their history. He whispered endearments to her in French and taught her their meaning and she made him laugh when she used them back to him. They slept little, waking wrapped together in the big bed, not feeling the cold of approaching winter in each other’s arms. It was as though they had known each other for many years; as though these past weeks had been just the culmination of a growing attachment instead of the madness it really was. He had not wanted to fall in love with her and he had prayed that she would not fall in love with him; it could bring only pain to both of them, but it was far too late for such careful common sense.
Halfway through the third day he awoke to an unfamiliar sound and realised suddenly that it was the approach of a horse. He was abruptly alert again after days of simple happiness but she was quicker even than he, scrambling out of bed, wrapping a blanket about her and running to the window.
“Is it the farmer back?”
“No, it is Major Callen. I imagine with news of the transport. Stay here.”
She scrambled into her black dress, frantically combing out her hair and then went down to open the door with the red gold mass loose about her shoulders. Damien dressed quickly and quietly, hoping that the major was not a perceptive man. His love looked very different to the thin, sad widow he had encountered three weeks ago on a foggy evening.
When he was dressed he moved quietly to the door. Both voices were clearly audible in the tiny cottage.
“We’ll send a gig, ma’am, can borrow it from the commissariat, easier to bring your boxes that way.”
“I don’t have much, Major, but thank you, it is kind.”
“Won’t be until the day after tomorrow but it’ll give you plenty of time to make the transport. It’s a fast boat, sailing into Portsmouth, and there will be two other ladies on board, wives going home, so you’ll have female company. Once you’re there, I understand a carriage has been arranged to take you to your family.”
“My aunt lives in Winchester, sir, it’s not that far. Did you arrange this?”
“No, ma’am. Although I would have. I understand it was your husband’s brigade commander. He has also been on about your pension, hurrying them along.”
“In the middle of a campaign that is so good of him, Major.”
“He’ll have had some time, ma’am. Light division have been in Madrid for a couple of months, I understand. And he’s got a good reputation for taking care of his officers and men.”
“I am grateful. I’ll write to him when I am home to thank him. Major, thank you. I am a little worried about the farm – I’ve been taking care of the animals while the farmer is in Lisbon.”
“No need, ma’am. I’ll leave one of my lads here until they get back. Don’t worry, he’ll behave himself.”
“Thank you. I’ll make sure I’m ready.”
Damien was amused, through his sadness, at the major’s evident reluctance to leave. He did so finally and when the horse was out of sight, Damien put on his boots and went downstairs. She turned to look at him and he saw that she was crying.
“Oh ma mie. Come here.”
She flew into his arms and he held her close, murmuring endearments as she cried. There was little that either of them could say that had not already been said.
He moved through the next day like a ghost, helping her to pack and making sure the farm was secure and the animals in good condition. She had his clothing neatly washed and mended and had fashioned a bag out of old flour sacks for him to carry spares and food, slung across his back like a satchel. It was surprisingly effective and probably more comfortable than the worn out pack he had been used to.
They spent the night wakeful in each other’s arms and he thought, holding her close after making love, that if he never saw her again this moment would stay with him forever; the moment he knew without the slightest doubt that he loved her.
“Your aunt lives in Winchester, does she not?”
“Yes. I will probably look for lodgings nearby. She is the only family I have.”
“What is her direction?”
She twisted her head to look at him. “Her direction? She lives close to the Cathedral; my uncle was a cleric there. I can give you details…but why, Damien?”
Damien kissed her very gently. “I may not survive this war,” he said. “I may not even survive the next month. But if I do…one day I would like to come back to you, cherie. If you think…?”
Her mouth stopped his, the kiss leaving him breathless. “Yes,” she said. “I know it will probably never happen. But Damien – I won’t stop hoping. If I have a child…what were your parents’ names?”
“My father was Damien also. My mother was Colette.”
“Thank you. Both very good names.”
He wondered if this much heartache had ever killed a man and then laughed at his own melodrama. It was not like him and no man had ever died of a broken heart. But he had never realised before how much it hurt. “I love you,” he said, very softly.
“I love you too, Damien Cavel. Never forget it, will you?”
“Never. Take care of yourself, Elizabeth Wentworth. And our child, if there is one. If I live, I will see you again one day.”
He left early, not wanting to risk being caught by the arrival of her military escort. She remained upstairs, watching him from the bedroom window. At the edge of the big barn, on his way down towards the river and the ford, he turned and saw her standing there, already dressed in her mourning black. She looked beautiful in it, the warm colour of her hair framing her pale face. This far away he could not see her tears but he knew they were there, reached up to touch his own wet cheeks. Then he turned and walked on into the bright sunlit morning.
Freneida, Portugal, January 1813
Colonel Paul van Daan gave a theatrical groan as his orderly limped into the room and deposited a large pile of mail onto the table. “Take them away!” he ordered. “I spend half my bloody time either reading or replying to letters, none of which is helping us win this war. I need a secretary!”
His wife looked up from the small table on the far side of the room where she was running through a list of medical supplies and fixed him with an arctic glare. “I beg your pardon?”
Paul grinned. “Sorry, love, I know you’re better than any clerk. But honestly, look at this lot.”
Anne van Daan got up, stepped around the basket where her newest child dozed in a patch of winter sunlight like a well-fed cat, and went to sort through the pile. “Major Breakspear can deal with half of these,” she said. “This is from your father, hopefully giving us a date for his arrival. Those are for some of the other officers – Jenson, can you drop them over please. And this…I’ve no idea.”
Her blank tone made him look up again. “For me?”
“For me,” Anne said. He watched as she opened the somewhat grubby folded sheet. There was another letter enclosed, folded and sealed. Anne scanned the missive and the expression on her face made him smile.
“Well clearly that’s not just another delay in the uniform order,” he said. “What is it, love?”
Anne looked up. “It is from Damien Cavel,” she said blankly.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Cavel? Sergeant Cavel?”
“Captain Cavel apparently. Currently serving in Marshal Soult’s army although he doesn’t say where.”
“Well he wouldn’t, would he?” Paul said. “May I see? Is it personal?”
“Not to me,” Anne said. She handed him the letter, looking down at the other one in her hand. “He is asking me to convey this letter to an Englishwoman living in Winchester.”
Paul read the letter twice and then looked at Anne. “He says he wants her to know that he is safe. A love affair?”
“I’m guessing so although don’t ask me how! Paul, what in God’s name are we going to do?”
Paul met her eyes and shook his head regretfully. “We can’t, bonny lass, although I’d like to. You know how grateful I am for what he and his captain did for you last year. But we’ve no idea what this contains. I’m sorry, but it’s for the intelligence service.”
Anne studied him for a long time. “All right,” she said finally. “Give it to George Scovell. He can do what he likes with any information in it, but we can trust him to be discreet about it; we can’t have this poor woman’s name shared with half the army.”
“If Cavel has been as careful in her letter as he is in this one there won’t be anything useful anyway. But this could be some kind of cipher, George will have to see it.”
“Will you take it up to him or shall I?”
“I’ll do it; I need to ride over to see Lord Wellington later anyway. Where’s Manson?”
“Practicing dry firing with the light company I think.”
“He can come with me.”
Paul made to tuck the letter into his pocket and his wife said:
“Will you do something for me, Paul?”
Paul studied her with some misgiving. “What?”
“Leave that on the desk and go and find Leo yourself, will you?”
“Nan. You can’t…”
“I’m not going to copy it directly. I’m going to see what it says and write to her myself.”
“You think this is genuine?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “I know Damien Cavel, Paul. He’s not an intelligencer, he doesn’t have the temperament any more than you do. If he’s managed to get a letter to me about this girl it’s because it means everything to him. And I owe him my life.”
After a moment, Paul nodded. “You’ve got half an hour. Seal it again properly, will you?”
His wife smiled sweetly. “Do you think I would not?”
“No. You do have the temperament to be an intelligencer. Oh – what’s the girl’s name, it doesn’t say it here?”
“Wentworth. Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth, a Winchester address.”
Paul blinked in surprise. “Wentworth. I know who that is. She’s the widow of Captain Charles Wentworth – he used to be with the 43rd but transferred over to the 112th just before Fuentes d’Onoro. He was badly wounded at Badajoz, sent back to Lisbon but died of his wounds. I didn’t know him that well but I’d heard his widow came out to nurse him. I wrote a few letters, chased up her pension and helped with transport home.”
“Pretty?” Anne asked. Paul laughed.
“No idea, bonny lass, I’ve never set eyes on her. It rather sounds as though Cavel has, though. She’s a real person and she was definitely out here which makes this unlikely romance a bit more plausible. Get it done and I know nothing about it.”
He left the room and stood outside for a moment, then looked back in. She had unsealed the second letter and was reading it. He saw her lips curve in a smile and he found himself smiling as well. After a moment she sat down, reached for her pen and drew a sheet of paper towards her to send the good tidings to a woman she did not know.