A Winter in Cadiz

https://www.carmenthyssenmalaga.org/en/obra/vista-de-cadiz

A Winter in Cadiz is my Valentine’s Day short story for 2021. It takes place during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz and Lisbon during winter quarters 1812-13 which is mentioned during An Unmerciful Incursion. As always, the story is free so please share it as much as you like. 

 

The glorious painting above was borrowed from here.

I had intended to do something with more of a Spanish theme for this story, but Captain Graham has been in my head for a while, prodding me from time to time and reminding me that I introduced him at the beginning of An Uncommon Campaign and have barely given him a job to do since, let along a chance of romance.  I hope he’ll be happy now.

Thanks so much to all my fabulous readers for continuing to read the books, love the characters and constantly nag me to write more. I’m on the job, I promise you.

A Winter in Cadiz

“I have been three days longer on my journey than I intended, owing to the the fall of rain, which has swelled all the torrents, and I am now detained here by the swelling of the Gevora. I hope, however, to get to Badajoz this evening.” (Wellington to Beresford, 18 Dec 1812)

“The weather is foul and the roads are impassable, we are held up every day by floods and even Lord Fitzroy Somerset is low in spirits. His Lordship’s temper is so bad that the men of our escort invent excuses to scout the area to avoid him and Lord Fitzroy and I are counting the days until we reach Cadiz so that he will at least have somebody else to shout at. I wish he had chosen someone other for the honour of accompanying him so that I could have joined you for Christmas. (Captain Richard Graham to Major-General Paul van Daan, 18 Dec 1812)

Cadiz, Spain, 1812

Captain Richard Graham had almost forgotten about Christmas. During his army career he had spent the season in a variety of places, some of them extremely uncomfortable. During their long, wet, miserable journey from Freineda to Cadiz he had fully expected to spend the day huddled in a draughty farmhouse listening to Lord Wellington complaining. They arrived in Cadiz at midday on the 24th and Richard was swept from drenched, muddy misery into surprising luxury in a matter of minutes. Lord Wellington and his two aides were conducted to an elegant house in a side-street just off the Plaza San Antonio and Richard found himself in a comfortable bedchamber with a maid bringing hot water and wine and the information that a light meal would be served before his Lordship joined the parade through the city.

Wellington was in the salon and Richard drank wine and listened to his commander being charming to his host and hostess as though the irritability of the past weeks had not existed. Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s young military secretary, appeared at Richard’s side eating a chicken leg.

“Grab some food, Captain, while you can. We’ll be off shortly and I’ve attended these things before, it could be hours before we see food again.”

Richard headed for the silver platters laid out on a sideboard. Filling a plate, he said:
“Should I take some to his Lordship?”

“I just tried,” Fitzroy said. “He looked at me as though I’d offered him a dead rat then waved me away like the under-kitchen maid. Feel free to see if you do any better.”

“Does he even need food?” Richard said, spearing a slice of cheese.

“Yes. He just doesn’t remember that he does. I’m not too worried, there’ll be some kind of ball or banquet this evening, he’ll be hungry enough to eat by then.”

“Well if he’s not, I definitely will be,” Richard said philosophically and Fitzroy laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“I’m very glad he chose you for this journey, Captain, you are so blissfully even-tempered. Most of the others would have been worn down on the way but it doesn’t matter what he says, you don’t flinch.”

Richard felt absurdly flattered. “I’ve no idea why he chose me, sir. I’m by no means his favourite ADC.”

Fitzroy gave a little smile. “You’re mine,” he said. “The others are all very good fellows, but when I need something done without a discussion about whose job it is, you are my absolute favourite, Captain Graham. And although he hasn’t the least notion how to express his appreciation, I suspect he feels the same way.”

The thought cheered Richard. He had arrived in Portugal eighteen months earlier with a position on Lord Wellington’s staff after a miserable few years in the Indies. His appointment had been the result of a good deal of hard work by a cousin at Horse Guards and Richard had arrived with the strong sense that he was here on sufferance. His discomfort had initially increased when he realised that Lord Wellington’s staff consisted  almost entirely of young sprigs of the English aristocracy plus the twenty-one year old Dutch Prince of Orange. Richard’s fellow ADCs had been polite but puzzled and Wellington had been coolly civil. Richard, who was not particularly sensitive and knew how fortunate he was in this appointment, gritted his teeth and smiled a good deal.

His breakthrough into acceptance had not come from within the commander-in-chief’s household, but from an early meeting with a young colonel, recently promoted to command a brigade of the light division. Richard had instinctively liked Paul van Daan, who came from a very wealthy Anglo-Dutch trade family. Paul was not of the aristocratic background of Wellington’s inner circle although his mother had been a viscount’s daughter, but he seemed to have the ability to effortlessly bridge the gap. Wellington was rigidly wedded to the existing social order and enjoyed the company of his young ADCs, but he was at his most relaxed and informal in the company of Colonel van Daan and his attractive, intelligent wife.

Richard quickly became friends with Paul van Daan. Such friendships happened in the erratic shifts of army life. Sometimes they proved as fleeting as a short posting and at other times they stood the test of sudden parting and long absences. Richard suspected that Paul’s early friendship with Wellington had been the subject of some jealousy and backbiting at headquarters although by now he was recognised as a valuable asset in managing the commander-in-chief. Certainly he appeared to understand why Richard felt like an outsider, and he invited him frequently to dine and to socialise with the officers of the 110th. Richard was grateful initially for the company, then unexpectedly for the opportunity it gave him to see his difficult, irritable commander in a completely different light. All of his first real conversations with Lord Wellington had occurred at Anne van Daan’s table and it had enabled Richard to see past Wellington’s defensive and often sarcastic manner to a man whom he actually quite liked.

Richard was not sure that Wellington reciprocated the feeling and he was genuinely surprised when he was informed that as the rest of the army settled into winter quarters to recover from the appalling hardships of the retreat from Burgos and Madrid, Wellington required his company on a visit to Cadiz and Lisbon to meet with the Spanish and Portuguese governments. He suspected his surprise had shown on his face because Wellington looked amused.

“I will not be taking my household staff, Captain Graham, just one or two servants, a cavalry escort and Lord Fitzroy Somerset. We will be riding as fast as possible as this cannot be a long trip. I have observed that you are an excellent horseman, you do not complain about difficult conditions and your Spanish and Portuguese are both very good. Please be ready to leave in two days.”

The citizens of Cadiz greeted Wellington with joyous enthusiasm, which may have been an expression of gratitude for all that he had done so far in helping to drive the French out of Spain, but might also have been a useful excuse for parades and parties. The streets were illuminated at night in a way that reminded Richard of their arrival in Madrid earlier in the year. Wellington’s every public appearance was greeted with cannon salutes, cheering crowds and women throwing flowers from balconies or running to lay their shawls and scarves before his horse’s hooves. Wellington accepted the adulation with dignified restraint. He had chosen to wear a Spanish uniform in his capacity as Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, probably to reinforce his new position as commander-in-chief of the Spanish army.

One of the reasons Wellington was here was to address the Cortes and to negotiate the terms of his new command with the Spanish government. It was also a family reunion as his younger brother, Sir Henry Wellesley, had served as ambassador to Spain for several years, negotiating the stormy waters of Spanish politics through the years of the French siege and beyond. Richard had never met Sir Henry who had followed a diplomatic career alongside Wellington’s military success. He decided, on introduction, that there was a strong family resemblance but that Sir Henry seemed easier in his manners. There was obvious rapport between the two brothers and Richard wondered if it was a relief to his generally reticent commander to have a trusted member of his family beside him. 

It relieved Richard of many of his duties. Lord Fitzroy Somerset was called upon to take notes at a number of meetings, and there was the usual enormous amount of correspondence to manage, but most of Richard’s time seemed taken up with dinners and receptions and balls as the Spanish government and their ladies vied with each other to provide the most lavish entertainment. There was a formal dinner on the day of their arrival followed by an evening reception in one of the gleaming white mansions which overlooked the bay. The English community in Cadiz consisted of the officers commanding those troops remaining in the city, diplomats and a few hardy merchants who had not fled during the long siege. Richard made small talk with a collection of Spanish politicians, paid compliments to their wives and daughters and smiled until his cheeks ached. Across the room he could see Somerset performing the same duty. There were several pretty girls clustered around him and Richard grinned. There was to be a full ball the following evening and he suspected that his fellow ADC was being importuned for dances. Somerset’s excellent manners and sunny disposition made him popular with the ladies.

“Captain Graham.”

Richard turned quickly, saluting. Wellington was accompanied by a young woman dressed exquisitely in a dull yellow gown with gold embroidery which looked as though it must have cost a fortune. She was small and delicately made with mid-brown hair curling around an appealing heart-shaped face. Richard was not at all surprised to find a girl this pretty on Wellington’s arm. He also recognised with some puzzlement that Wellington was desperate to get rid of her.

“Captain, allow me to present Miss Honoria Grainger. Miss Grainger was here with her Mama who has most unfortunately been taken ill and had to leave. I promised her we would take care of her daughter and see her safely home when she is ready to depart. I need to have a word with Sir Henry and one or two gentlemen before our meeting tomorrow, may I ask if you would be my deputy?”

“Of course, my Lord.”

Wellington bowed and departed at speed and Richard dug into his memory for a time when conversing with young ladies at elegant receptions had been part of his normal life. It must have been ten years ago and since then he had married and been widowed and killed men on a battlefield, but he thought he could still remember how it was done.

“It is very good to meet you, Miss Grainger. What brings you to Cadiz, is your father an officer or a diplomat?”

Miss Grainger turned a pair of frosty blue eyes onto him. “What makes you think that I am here with my father at all, Captain Graham? Do you suppose that a young female is incapable of travelling of her own accord and must remain entirely at the beck and call of her father or husband?”

Richard stared at her in astonishment. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said stiffly. “I made an assumption based on Lord Wellington’s introduction and also, I confess, on my own experience so far. I would be delighted if you would tell me how you do come to be in Cadiz since it is probably a far more interesting story.”

The girl looked at him for a long moment. “I believe I was just very rude,” she announced finally. “I apologise, Captain. I am not quite myself this evening.”

“Has that to do with your Mama’s sudden illness or is that another assumption?” Richard asked.

To his surprise she bestowed an approving look on him. “How very astute you are, Captain Graham. My Mama is not at all unwell, she was simply unbearably embarrassed by her daughter and fled the field in confusion. If she had been ill, I would have gone with her.”

Richard stared at her. He was completely bewildered. “Miss Grainger, it is a very long time since I regularly attended occasions such as this, but I am sure that this is not the conversation that normally follows an introduction. Perhaps the rules have changed.”

Honoria Grainger regarded him thoughtfully and then suddenly gave a broad smile. It lit up her face and gave a sparkle to her eyes. It also displayed a wide gap between her front teeth. Richard was utterly charmed. “The rules are exactly the same and I am breaking all of them,” she said. “My mother is appalled and my father would give me a stern look if he was here. The trouble is that he is not here. And he is supposed to be.”

Richard had begun to wonder if Miss Grainger was a little mad but her last statement caught his interest. “Are you saying your father is missing?”

“Yes, I think he is. I have been trying to have this conversation with Lord Wellington but he was either disinterested or unwilling to share information with me. It is very frustrating.”

“Given that this is Lord Wellington, it could be either or both. But to do him justice, he has a great deal to do here in a very limited time. Is there not somebody else who could assist? There are a number of diplomats present, Miss Grainger…” Richard broke off at the expression on her face. “And I am treating you like an idiot, which you are very clearly not, I’m sorry. You’ve already spoken to them, haven’t you?”

Miss Grainger let out a long breath. “Many, many times,” she said. “We have been in Cadiz for four weeks, Captain. We received a letter from my father from Toulouse, suggesting that we meet him here…”

“Toulouse?” Richard said, bewildered. “What in God’s name was he doing in France?”

“He was on a diplomatic mission,” Miss Grainger said in exasperated tones. “Did I not tell you that he is a diplomat?”

“No.”

“Oh. I thought I had.” The girl was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I am being very ill-mannered. None of this has anything to do with you, and you are probably wishing me to the devil. And I am sorry for my language as well. I think I should probably go home, my mother was right, there is no purpose to this.”

Her tone was flat and Richard saw suddenly that she was close to tears and trying very hard not to shed them. He had no idea at all what was going on but he felt a sudden need to comfort this odd, likeable girl which overrode his strong sense that he should take her home and forget about this.

“Miss Grainger, I have no idea at all what is happening here, but I can see that you are genuinely upset and more than a little angry. I can probably do nothing to help you, since I am with Lord Wellington and we shall very likely not be here much above a week. But if you wish to tell me the whole story, I’m very willing to listen and to give any advice that I can. A room full of people isn’t the best place for this. May I have permission to call on you tomorrow morning and you may tell me whatever you wish?”

Miss Grainger lifted grateful eyes to his face. “Truly? Captain Graham, thank you, that is so kind of you. I cannot remember the last time anybody actually listened to me, it is driving me mad.”

“If it helps, you’ll have my undivided attention,” Richard promised gravely. “Let’s get you home. Have you a carriage or a maid…?”

“My maid escorted my mother home, but she will have returned by now. And I am afraid we walked here, we are staying with Sir John Marlow and his wife and their house is only a few doors away. I refuse the ridiculous notion of calling for a carriage to drive a few feet.”

“Then I shall walk you home. Let me send one of the servants to find your maid.”

***

Richard presented himself promptly at Sir John’s house the following morning. He had wondered if he might be expected to run a gauntlet of concerned chaperones, but the girl was alone in the small salon when the servant announced him. Richard bowed and she came forward to shake his hand.

“I’m very grateful you came, Captain. You must have thought me a madwoman last night, I made no sense at all. I think, very foolishly, I had convinced myself that if I could just speak to Lord Wellington he would take my concerns seriously and I was very disappointed. Please, sit down.”

Richard sat opposite her on a brocade sofa. “Tell me about your father, Miss Grainger.”

“My father is Sir Horace Grainger. He is a diplomat and has served the foreign office in various capacities all his life. Often, my mother and I travelled with him. I have lived all over the world.”
Richard thought that probably explained her surprisingly self-assured manner for such a young woman. “Why did he go to France?”
“He was to visit several towns and cities where English prisoners of war are being held, particularly those civilian prisoners who were caught in France when the war resumed in 1803. He went as far as Verdun and held discussions about possible prisoner exchanges in the cases of several high-profile prisoners. He told us that the French were being asked to send a similar mission later this year.”

Richard frowned. “That surprises me. I know that the French are seldom willing to exchange prisoners and there have been repeated attempts to get the civilians released, always unsuccessful.”

“Yes,” Honoria said neutrally. “Anyway, my father travelled as usual with his valet and his groom, both of whom have been with him for years, plus a French escort. He visited the prisoners and attended a number of meetings, it was a lot of travelling. During that time, he sent regular letters home, both to the Foreign Office and to us. He told us a great deal about the countryside and the food and very little about his work but that was not unusual. His last letter was from Toulouse. He told us that his mission was over and that he would be travelling into Spain to board a Royal Navy ship from Bilbao which would take him to Cadiz. He was expecting to be detained here for some time on business so suggested we sail to meet him here.”

“And he did not come? Have you had word?”

“Nothing. It is very unlike him, Captain, he is a very affectionate husband and father. He and I are especially close. He always writes. But what is even more worrying is that the foreign office have heard nothing either. He did not board the ship as expected.”

Richard did not speak for a moment. He realised that he had been hoping he could allay her concerns, but instead he shared them. The situation on the northern coast of Spain had been volatile for months and in many places the partisans had seized control of entire areas of the countryside from the French. Richard had seen letters describing guerrilla raids and skirmishes and he could offer this girl no real reassurance. He wondered if he should lie, but discarded the idea immediately. She was far too intelligent to believe him.

“Do you think he might have been detained in France?”

“I don’t know. I have spoken to Sir Henry and he assures me that the foreign office are making enquiries, but he will not tell me any more. Letters can take many weeks and are frequently lost, especially given that it is the stated aim of the Spanish forces to disrupt French lines of communication.”

“What does he suggest that you do?”

“He suggests we go home and wait.” Honoria’s voice was bitter. “After all, that is what women are supposed to do, is it not?”

“I suppose so. It isn’t easy though.”

She studied him for a moment. “Is that what you expect your wife to do, Captain?”

Richard hoped that he had not flinched. “My wife died, Miss Grainger, along with our child. Six years ago now. I wasn’t there, I often wonder if I had been…but I’ll never know.”

Honoria Grainger went very still and Richard was horrified to see her eyes fill with sudden tears. He was annoyed at himself for blurting out so much information to a virtual stranger and one with troubles of her own. After six years it hurt less but he still hated having to explain about Sally and he felt that he had done it clumsily.

“Oh, I’m sorry. That is so very dreadful, and I’ve made you think about it. I am the worst person, I always ask the wrong questions and I never know when to stop. I’m so wrapped up with my own worries, I didn’t think.”

Richard got up and moved to sit beside her on the other sofa, reaching for her hand. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “This is not your fault, and I’m perfectly fine. I will miss her until the day I die, but I can talk of it now. In fact, I’m glad that you know, because when people don’t, there is always that uncertainty…is he married, is he a bachelor, should I ask about his family? I’m glad that you know. And probably because of Sally, I understand a little of what you feel. She hated waiting at home.”

“Sally? What a pretty name. What was she like..no, I’m sorry.”

“She was lovely,” Richard said, to his considerable surprise. “She was witty and kind and gentle and very loving. She wanted a home and children and all the things I wanted too. I felt very cheated.”

The girl’s hand squeezed his. It startled him because he had forgotten he was holding her hand. “I’m very envious, Captain. Firstly because I could never be all of those things and secondly because I suspect I want all of those things too. I’m sorry you lost her, but you must be so happy to have had her.”

Richard could feel himself smiling. “Miss Grainger, do you always say everything that comes into your head?”

“Far more often than I want to,” Honoria said fervently. “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all. Talking to you is a genuine pleasure, I don’t feel as though I need to be on my guard at all. Look, I don’t honestly know if there is any way that I can help you, but I would like to try. May I share your story with Lord Fitzroy Somerset?”

“That charming young man who asked me to reserve a dance this evening? I suppose so, but why?”

Richard was surprised to realise that he was thinking uncharitable thoughts about Somerset. “He is a senior officer, and very close to Lord Wellington. He may have an idea of how best to approach him.”

“He is your senior officer?”

“He is a lieutenant-colonel and his Lordship’s military secretary, ma’am.”

“I expect that is because he is a lord,” Honoria said sagely. “My father has often commented on some of the odd choices for promotion within the army.”

Richard laughed. “Your father is right, but not in this case. Lord Fitzroy is both an excellent officer and an excellent fellow. Also, he is my friend and will take the matter seriously. Between us, we cannot solve your problem, but we may be able to ensure you are given full information.”

“That is all I can ask, Captain.”

“Do you think you will go home?”

“I barely know my home,” Honoria said sounding suddenly lost. “We have a house in London but I have never lived there for more than a year at a time. My mother is talking of returning there while we wait for news, but I don’t want to leave without knowing.”

Richard felt an irrational lift of his heart. “We are probably going to return via Lisbon but we are here for at least another week. I am really hoping you hear good news soon, Miss Grainger. It may be nothing more than an illness on the road.”

Steady blue eyes regarded him. “I hope so too. But it may be very much worse.”

***

Honoria was not sure why her conversation with Captain Graham made her feel so much better, since he had promised nothing and she knew that realistically he might not be able to help at all. At the age of twenty-one, she had moved in diplomatic and military circles all her life and understood very well that Captain Graham’s position was relatively lowly. What he did have, however, was the advantage of access to Lord Wellington, and temporarily to his brother, the Ambassador. Honoria was not naïve enough to assume that either of the Wellesleys would be able to produce her missing father out of thin air, but she did think that between them they possessed enough influence to push the foreign office into pursuing more rigorous enquiries.

Lady Grainger shook her head when Honoria told her of her conversations with Captain Graham. “It was not well done of you, Honoria. Captain Graham is not in a position to make demands of Lord Wellington and should not be pressured into doing so out of kindness.”

“Captain Graham is not obliged to do anything at all, Mama. But somebody should be doing something. Father has given his entire life to the service of his country, they cannot just shrug their shoulders and pretend he did not exist.”

“I am sure they are not doing so, my child. It is just they have not yet informed us…”

“It is just that we are two silly females who cannot be trusted not to swoon at the implication that something may have happened to him,” Honoria said furiously. “I wish I had been a man, they would not have fobbed me off like this then.”

“Of course, if you had married Mr Derbyshire last year, he would have had the right to enquire on our behalf,” her mother said archly. Honoria set down her tea cup with an unnecessary clink.

“If I had married Mr Derbyshire last year, Mama, I would have died of boredom by now, so it would be of no concern to me.”

Lady Grainger laughed. “He was not that bad, Honoria. I thought him very charming, and he has a very promising Parliamentary career ahead of him. I think you would do very well as a politician’s wife.”

“I think I would do very well as a politician, but we know that is not possible.” Honoria sighed. “I am not set against marriage as you seem to think, Mama. I would like all the things that go with it – a home of my own, children, a position in the world. But I cannot marry I man I neither like or respect. Marriage lasts too long.”

“I know. And neither your father or I would try to force you. It is just that you have led such an unusual life for a young girl, following your father around the world. And he has always shared so much with you, as if you were the son we did not have. I wonder sometimes if that makes it harder for you to find a man you like.”

“If I did meet a man I liked, the chances are we would have moved on before I could form an attachment,” Honoria said. She was surprised to realise that she was thinking about Richard Graham. Whatever help he might be able to give her in her search for her father, he would be gone before she really got to know him, and Honoria was faintly depressed at the thought.

“Honoria, will you at least attend the ball this evening? There is nothing more you can do now, and while we are here, I would like to see you enjoy yourself a little.”

“I must attend, since I have promised several gentlemen that I will dance with them. Mama, how long must we stay in Cadiz?”

“I was hoping to remain until your father arrived, but I wonder now if we should return to London,” Lady Grainger said. Her voice shook a little on the words and Honoria took her hand. She knew that her mother was trying to maintain a hopeful manner for her sake, but Honoria was not deceived. Her mother was as worried as she was.

“I think we should remain here a little longer. Why don’t you write to the housekeeper giving her a date for our arrival, she’ll need time to prepare. We can always change our plans if Father suddenly turns up with the news that we are all off to Cape Town.”

“I rather liked Cape Town,” her mother said wistfully. The memory made Honoria laugh.

“Apart from Sir Home Popham.”

“Oh that terrible man. He talked to me – no at me – about some kind of nautical chart for an hour or more without taking a breath. I was never more relieved than when he sailed off to South America and got himself court-martialled.”

“Father said it was the closest he’d ever seen you to failing as a diplomat’s wife.”

“Your father was no help at all, he just laughed.” Suddenly there were tears in Lady Grainger’s eyes. “Oh Honoria, where is he? What if he doesn’t come back at all?”

Honoria put her arms about her mother and held her close, trying hard not to cry with her. “We’ll be all right, Mama. I just hope he will too.”

The ball was hosted at the embassy and the rooms were crowded with both British and Spanish dignitaries. It was very warm, despite the season, and there was a smell of cigar smoke which made Honoria wrinkle her nose. Both Lord Wellington and Sir Henry greeted her pleasantly in the receiving line with no indication that they had held any conversation about her that day, but Honoria supposed that Captain Graham had not had time to speak of the matter.

A British regimental band played and Honoria danced with several gentlemen she already knew, including a dark eyed young Portuguese officer who had been assiduously pursuing her since the day she arrived. Honoria quite liked Lieutenant Souza but had no interest in any form of dalliance and she was relieved when Lord Fitzroy appeared to claim the promised waltz.

“You are a capital dancer, Miss Grainger, I am very happy you decided to attend. I was a little concerned after Captain Graham spoke to me of your father.”

“He spoke to you?” Honoria said quickly. “Oh. I had not thought…that was very quick.”

Somerset grinned. It was different to the social smile she had seen so far and it made her like him suddenly. “One of the reasons I begged Lord Wellington to bring Captain Graham on this visit, ma’am, is that he is a man who gets things done. Generally, I am very over-worked, but when I need help, he is the man I call on. Have you met him before?”

“No,” Honoria said, surprised. “Lord Wellington introduced us yesterday. I do not…I have no idea why I told him about my father. He is very easy to talk to.”

“He is a thoroughly good fellow. I asked because he approached Lord Wellington and Sir Henry this afternoon about the matter and I was a little concerned. He was very plain spoken, which Lord Wellington does not always appreciate.”

Honoria was appalled. “Oh my goodness, no. I had no intention of him doing any such thing. I hope he has not got himself into trouble.”

“I think it will be fine. Lord Wellington was very irritated and I tried to intervene, but as it happened, Sir Henry was there before me. It seems he has been very concerned about the fact that nobody is talking to you about your father. But I do not intend to say more, I will let Captain Graham tell you himself.”

Honoria danced with her mind on anything other than her partners. Her dance with Captain Graham was a country dance with frequent changes of partner and no possibility of rational conversation. She enjoyed the dance, and the few words she exchanged with him, and tried not to make it obvious that she was desperate to question him. She was not sure she was successful, because as the dance ended he bowed over her hand and said quietly:

“Thank you, Miss Grainger, that was a very enjoyable dance. May I hope for another? A waltz, if you have one free?”

“I should be delighted, Captain.”

“May I also ask if we might speak alone for a moment. Or with your Mama present, if you prefer. We could step out onto the terrace if it is not too cold for you?”

“I am not engaged for this next dance, Captain.”

Graham placed her hand on his arm, leading her through the long doors at the end of the room. The terrace was well lit and not entirely deserted, with several couples admiring the view over the lights of the lower town and out towards the lighthouse. A man stood alone at the stone balustrade. He turned as they approached and Honoria was surprised, and a little alarmed, to realise that it was Lord Wellington. Captain Graham saluted and Wellington returned it, then bowed to Honoria.

“Miss Grainger. I hope it is not too cold for you out here?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Excellent. We should keep this brief, however. Miss Grainger, I took part in a very acrimonious meeting earlier with Captain Graham, Lord Fitzroy Somerset and the Ambassador. I have to tell you that during the course of that meeting, I dismissed the captain from his post as my ADC.”

Honoria was appalled. She shot a look at Graham, who appeared completely unmoved by this statement.

“Twice, I believe, my Lord.”

“It would have been three times if I had not been outrageously bullied by my brother and my military secretary,” Wellington said crisply. “I have, however, been brought to believe that the captain may have a point. Despite the urgent requests by the foreign office in London for complete secrecy about your father’s disappearance, it is not acceptable to keep his family so much in the dark. Your distress and that of your poor mother is understandable and your determination to discover what has happened is both commendable and extremely irritating.”

“I had no wish to annoy your Lordship. I was just frantic to know, even if the news is bad. My father has never before failed to write to us for so long. I know something is wrong.”

“Very well,” Wellington said. Honoria had the impression that he wished nothing more than to get this interview over with. “You are correct in your assumption, Miss Grainger. Your father has gone missing and we have no idea where he is. I will tell you as much as I know. Like you, Sir Horace’s employers at the foreign office have not heard from him for more than a month. There has been an exchange of letters between diplomats in Paris and London. The French authorities are being extremely cooperative and appear to be as keen to discover the truth as we are. On his arrival in France, Sir Horace was met by a small escort of French cavalry. Over a period of two months, he travelled widely, visiting various prison facilities. His reports arrived frequently and were factual and very much as expected. I presume during that time he was also writing to you?”

“Very regularly, my Lord.”

“Sir Horace concluded his visit in Toulouse and his last report was written from there. He set off for the Spanish border, where a Royal Navy frigate under a flag of truce was waiting off Bilbao, to take him home. Nobody has heard from him since. Naturally, when Sir Horace failed to appear at the ship, enquiries were made, in case he had met with some accident that had delayed him. What is worrying, is that according to our French sources, his entire escort has also disappeared along with his servants and his Spanish guide.”

Honoria felt a hollow sickness settle into her stomach. She could not speak for a moment. Somebody took her hand and held it and she realised it must be Captain Graham.

“I’m very sorry, Miss Grainger. I realise this is not good news.”

“At least it is news,” Honoria said. “Is anything being done to search for him, my Lord, or is that not possible? I know that the northern provinces are in open revolt.”

“They are, and it is essential to my campaign that they continue to be so. Given the circumstances, we cannot send a battalion of troops into the region and I am not sure what good they would do anyway. I am going to write to the various Spanish leaders in the area to ask if they have any information about your father. I am also authorised by the foreign office, to send somebody else.”

Honoria studied him and realised that Wellington was uncomfortable sharing this piece of information. She watched him struggle for a moment, then said:

“My Lord, I understand that there are aspects of this matter that you cannot discuss with a civilian and that you are probably unwilling to discuss with a female. I just need to know that something is being done.”

For the first time, Wellington’s face softened into an expression that was not quite a smile. “It is not because you are a female, Miss Grainger, I have an enormous respect for intelligent women. Indeed, on occasion I regret that I cannot employ them, I am sure they would outstrip some of the men. Why do I suddenly begin to wonder if your father shared more of his work with you than he should have done?”

“He did not,” Honoria said quickly. “That is exactly why I know there is more. My father and I were very close. He never had a son and in some ways, he treated me as if I had been a boy. We talked of everything and my mother and I travelled the world with him for many years, but there were always moments when he would say nothing at all and I learned not to ask. I don’t know what my father was really doing in France, but I know it may have been far more dangerous than inspecting prison camps, which is why I am so worried.”

Graham squeezed her fingers sympathetically and Honoria returned the pressure gratefully. After a pause, Wellington said:

“Very well. I am instructed to send two of my intelligence officers along with a guide into northern Spain to try to find information about your father. I have written the letter, it will go off in the morning. Nobody here knows anything of this, other than my immediate party and Sir Henry. I am trusting you not to discuss it with anybody other than your mother.”

“I shall not, my Lord, I give you my word. Mother is not a gossip, she has been a diplomat’s wife for too many years and she will not ask any questions if I just tell her that a search is being made. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for telling me all this. I’m very well aware that there may be no good news, or even that we may never find out at all. But just knowing that an attempt is being made is very helpful.”

Wellington bowed. “You may thank Captain Graham, ma’am. My instinct was to share no information at all, but he argued your cause with great passion and won over Sir Henry who in turn convinced me. You may be pleased to know that Lord Fitzroy has also persuaded me not to dismiss him. You should go inside now, you are becoming cold. It may be weeks, possibly months before we have news. I do not know what your mother’s plans are, but if you will allow me to give you some advice, I believe you should return home to England where you will have the support of your many friends.”

Honoria dropped a small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord, I imagine that is what we will do. Will you…that is to say, how will we be notified if there is news?”

“The reports will come directly to me, ma’am, and I will keep you informed with any progress.” Wellington shot a slightly malicious glance at Graham. “I believe I will make Captain Graham my deputy in this matter, since he has interested himself to such purpose. Will you excuse me, ma’am, I must return to my social duties. Captain.”

When he had gone, Graham touched her arm. “He’s right, you’re shivering. Come inside and I’ll find you a glass of wine.”

Honoria allowed him to lead her back into the house and through the hallway into a dim room which seemed to be a library. He seated her on a leather sofa and went to summon a servant, requesting a fire, candles and wine in fluent Spanish. Honoria felt numb with misery but it occurred to her that there was something very pleasant about Richard Graham’s enormous competence. She could not imagine him paying a girl flowery compliments or promising to worship at her feet, but within five minutes she was seated before a small fire with a glass of wine on the table beside her, studying her companion in the light of several oil lamps.

“You are very free with embassy hospitality, Captain.”

“Sir Henry will not mind, ma’am, he is very concerned about you. Without his help and that of Lord Fitzroy, I am not sure that I would have been able to persuade Lord Wellington.”

“I’m very grateful to all of you, Captain, but I know I owe the greatest debt to you. Nobody was listening to me. I cannot believe you have managed this so quickly.”

“I wish it had been better news.”

“It is the news I expected,” Honoria said honestly. “Since we are quite alone, and very unsuitably so, by the way, I need to tell you that I have known for a number of years that my father’s diplomatic career is often a cover for something less respectable. He is a spy, and probably a very useful one.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“No, but I’m not stupid, Captain. Sometimes one can learn a lot by a man’s silence.”

“This must be incredibly hard for you, Miss Grainger. I wondered about the wisdom of doing this in the middle of a ball, but I knew how desperate you were for news. Would you like me to find your mother to be with you?”

“In a moment. I’ll need to tell her and I imagine she will wish to go home immediately. I do myself. But if you do not mind very much, I would just like a few minutes to recover myself, before I have to…” Honoria broke off. She was horrified to realise suddenly that she was about to cry. She put down the wine glass hastily, fumbling in her reticule for a handkerchief. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Graham took the bag from her hands, retrieved the handkerchief and gave it to her. He sat beside her on the sofa, and Honoria gave up and began to cry in earnest. After a moment she felt his arm go about her shoulders and she forgot about propriety and leaned into him, sobbing. Graham held her, stroking her back soothingly, murmuring comforting nonsense as if she was a small child.

Eventually Honoria’s sobs died away. She knew that she should move, but she remained still in his arms. She needed to dry her tears and tidy her hair and be ready to face her mother’s grief when she told her the news but she was unexpectedly enjoying the sense of being taken care of, even if it was by a man she had known little more than a day. That thought made her blush and she shifted reluctantly away from him. He did not move away, but studied her with concerned dark eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Honoria said again.

“I’m not sorry at all, I’m very glad that I’m here. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. Give yourself a moment while I find your Mama. I’ll leave you alone with her and make sure you’re not disturbed and I’ll call for your carriage.”

“We don’t keep our own carriage here, Captain, we came with Sir John and Lady Marlow. I don’t wish to disturb them…”

“Don’t give it another thought, I’ll arrange something. I’ll wait in the hallway for you and I’ll escort you both home. Call me when you’re ready.”

***

Richard slept badly and rose early, taking himself down to the shore to watch the dawn spreading its rose gold light over the choppy waters of the Atlantic. He could not stop thinking about Honoria Grainger. Her dignified reception of Lord Wellington’s news had touched his heart, but the sobbing misery which followed had broken it. Richard could remember how much he had cried in the months following the loss of his wife and child and he would have done anything to ease Honoria’s suffering, but he knew that there was nothing that he could do. He wandered aimlessly as the streets of Cadiz stirred into morning life around him and returned to the house on the Calle Veedor to find Somerset eating breakfast. Richard joined him at the table and Somerset regarded him thoughtfully.

“You look terrible, didn’t you sleep?”

“Not much.” Richard accepted coffee with a murmur of thanks to the maid and reached for the bread. “I’m sorry, sir, I went for an early stroll and went further than I intended. I hope I wasn’t needed?”

“No, he doesn’t need us this morning apart from to sort through his correspondence, the packet came in. But I can do that. Are you going to call on Miss Grainger?”

“I’d like to,” Richard admitted. “I don’t want to shirk my duty, sir, but they were both in a terrible state when I took them home. Do you think he’ll mind?”

“He’s left specific instructions that you’re to make yourself available to them and help them in any way possible, Captain. I think he’s feeling guilty. We have this gala dinner with members of the Cortes this evening. You should be there for that, but why don’t you finish your breakfast and go and see if they need anything?” Somerset studied him with sympathetic eyes. “Those poor women. I’m guessing they’re not holding out much hope?”

“No, and they shouldn’t. I’m not sure how much Lady Grainger knows, but Miss Grainger is very well aware that her father is a government agent and she knows that if he isn’t dead, he may have been imprisoned by the French. They shoot spies, sir.”

“He could have been taken ill somewhere.”

“Along with his servants, his guide and his entire French escort?” Richard shook his head. “If there was a simple explanation we’d have heard it. Do you know who has drawn the short straw for this very unpleasant assignment, sir?”

“Giles Fenwick. I think his Lordship has asked Colonel Scovell to find another man to go with him in case one of them is killed but I don’t know who that will be.”

“They really want to find him, don’t they? I wonder what he was carrying?”

“I don’t think even Lord Wellington knows that at present. Give the ladies my compliments when you see them, Captain, and if there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”

Richard sent in his card and was surprised when the servant returned immediately to escort him to the same small salon where he found Honoria Grainger alone. She looked calm although rather heavy-eyed and she shook his hand and asked him to sit down.

“I’m so glad you called, Captain. I wanted the opportunity to thank you for your kindness last night. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You’re very welcome, Miss Grainger. How is your Mama this morning?”

“She has remained in bed. I don’t think either of us slept very much.”

“I hope you did not come down just to see me.”

“No, I promise you. Although I would have done. I am far better to be up and around. Mama will be the same in a few days. I think it is more of a shock to her, since she had been convincing herself that it was all a mishap and that he was going to turn up as though nothing had happened. But she is a sensible woman and she just needs time to come to terms with this.”

“What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. Eventually we will go back to England, but at present Mama is very reluctant to leave, since it is obvious that news will reach here first. I will talk to her when she is a little calmer and we will decide. It may be that we look for a small house to rent in Cadiz or even Lisbon for a month or two, if that will make her happier.”

“Have you no male relative who might be able to support you through this?”

“Do you think the presence of a man would make this any easier, Captain?” Honoria said frostily.

“No, not at all. But forgive me, your Mama is obviously very distressed and in matters of business and finance, your father must have had someone in mind who could assist her should anything ever happen to him. It is usual.”

Unexpectedly there was a gleam of amusement in the girl’s eyes. “Oh yes, he did,” she said smoothly. “He was very farsighted about such matters since he always knew, I suppose, that he could die suddenly and a long way from home. He was very frank about it, we talked everything through.”

“Is it somebody you could write to? Perhaps we could arrange…”

“It is me, Captain Graham. I am of full age and my father taught me to understand business some years ago. He always knew that my Mama is not of a practical bent, so he arranged that she should be paid a very generous jointure and the expenses of her household are to come out of the estate, but everything else is in my charge.”

Richard stared at her and she looked back defiantly. “Have I shocked you, Captain?”

“You have certainly surprised me,” Richard said. “Your father clearly had immense faith in you, Miss Grainger, and since he knew you far better than I do, I am sure he was right. But I think this is a lot for any one person to manage alone, especially when you are still reeling with the shock of this news.”

Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears again. “It is,” she said. “I have no wish to shirk my duty, Captain. Until we know for sure that he is dead, I will continue to manage things as I always have in his absence. But it feels very difficult today.”

“May I help?”

Honoria eyed him uncertainly. “I do not see…”

“Not to do it for you, ma’am. But just to think through what might need to be done, who needs to be notified, how to manage finances if you intend to remain in Spain for a while. I have worked for Lord Wellington for more than a year, if there is one thing I am very good at, it is managing lists and correspondence and administration. Just while I am here, of course.”

“Of course. Captain – could you?”

“Yes,” Richard promised rashly. “Give me time to speak to his Lordship, and I’ll join you. He will not object, I know, since he is keen to be of service to you and your mother, but I should ask as a matter of courtesy. After that, you shall make a list and we shall decide what needs to be done immediately and what can safely be left until later.”

It was the beginning of a very strange and curiously satisfying week. Relieved of all duties by a rather amused Lord Wellington, Richard presented himself at the house each morning where he found Honoria Grainger ready with her note tablets, paper and pens. They made a list of what needed to be done immediately and another, rather more painfully, of what would need to be done if news came of Sir Horace Grainger’s death. Honoria wrote letters to Grainger’s lawyer and man of business, his banker, the land agent who managed his estate in Hertfordshire and the housekeeper of his London home. She also penned more personal and more difficult notes to several relatives.

“You had better read these, Captain, to ensure that I have not said anything indiscreet. I cannot hide the fact that he is missing, since people will soon be asking questions, but I have simply said that we fear some mishap and that enquiries are being made. Will that do?”

“It will indeed, ma’am. Very well-worded and very discreet. You are your father’s daughter.”

Honoria smiled as though he had paid her a compliment. “Thank you. I’m proud to be so.”

After lengthy discussions with Mrs Grainger, and some hasty research on Richard’s part among the English community in Cadiz, Honoria inspected a small house on the edge of the old town, which had previously been occupied by a Scottish major and his wife. It was conveniently situated although in need of a good clean. Richard asked the embassy housekeeper to help him find servants and watched admiringly as Honoria ruthlessly supervised operations. He thought it was rather a shame that she had not been a boy, since she set about every task with a military precision that Lord Wellington would have loved.

Neither Honoria nor her mother felt able to attend the many parties and dinners being held in honour of Lord Wellington, but Richard insisted that she leave the house each day to take the air. He asked her to show him the town and after a little hesitation, she did so willingly. They were fortunate with the weather, which was unusually dry for early January, with several warm afternoons. Followed at a considerable distance by a bored Spanish maid, they walked through the narrow streets and explored the castle, various churches and the old lighthouse which was situated on the long, dangerous reef known as Porpoise Rocks.

The town overlooked a bay which was around twelve miles long. They walked up to Fort Catalina, its cannon pointing solid defiance at the French or anybody else who might try to take this Spanish island city. There were spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, dotted with villages and criss-crossed with vineyards, orange groves and grazing cattle. Honoria pointed out the distant spires of the town of Medina Sidonia.

“You are a very knowledgeable guide, Miss Grainger,” Richard said, leaning on the stone parapet. “How do you know so much about this place, when you only arrived a few weeks before I did?”

“Lieutenant Sousa,” Honoria said, pulling a face. “He was here during the siege and is now stationed here. He is a most estimable and very romantic young man, who believes it is important to learn as much as possible about every place he visits.”

Richard gave a choke of laughter. “Which he then conveys to you?”

“With inexhaustible detail. I have heard things about the stonework of the cathedral they are building that I hope never to hear again. Have you seen enough, Captain? The wind is growing cold up here.”

“Of course. It’s beautiful though. Would you like to go home?”

“Not yet. I thought we could walk down the Alameda.”

She took his arm as they turned onto the broad avenue, lined with ornamental trees and plants and blessed with wide views of the open sea. The Alameda was the main promenade of the city and the wealthier citizens of Cadiz could be found strolling there on any dry afternoon. Honoria asked him questions about his home and his family and Richard told her about Sally and his hopes for their future which had been cruelly snatched away. He wondered if it was wrong of him to speak so freely of loss to a girl who was experiencing it herself, but Honoria seemed genuinely interested. In his turn, he asked her about her father, and she made him laugh with stories of Sir Horace’s illicit passion for Spanish cigars.

“My mother loathed the custom and would never allow him to smoke them, so he used to sneak out to the garden in all weathers and with the most flimsy excuses. I used to cover for him from a very young age.”

“It sounds as though you were very good friends.”

“We were. Are. I don’t know, of course. I think he is probably dead, but there is a part of me that dreams of him arriving unexpectedly with some horrendous tale of danger and narrow escapes. He is a very good storyteller.”

“I think you’ve inherited that from him. I’m afraid we must go back. We are to attend a concert after dinner and I should not take too much advantage of his Lordship’s goodwill.”

“Does he enjoy music?”

“Very much, as it happens. I believe he used to play the violin in his youth, although I find it hard to imagine.”

“Do you like him?”

Richard thought about it. “He is a difficult man to like,” he said after a moment. “He’s a very private person. He can be irritable and sharp-tongued and when something has displeased him, he is appallingly sarcastic. I’ve seen him reduce an officer to tears. He’s hard to know. But…”

“Go on.”

“But he can be very kind and thoughtful at unexpected moments. He has very few close friends and I don’t count myself among them, but when I see him with those people, he is like a different man. And he’s funny. Even on his worst days, there are times when he makes me laugh aloud.”

Honoria was studying him with a little smile. “I think you do like him, Captain Graham. What is more, I think he likes you too.”

Richard grinned. “Honestly? I have no idea, ma’am.”

“We were supposed to be attending the concert,” Honoria said, and Richard caught the wistfulness in her voice.

“Are you musical, ma’am?”

“Very much so, it is my greatest love.”

“Then come. It is not the same as a ball or a reception, you will not be obliged to speak to many people, and it will do you good.”

“My Mama is not well enough.”

“Come anyway. Join our party, I’ll speak to his Lordship, I know he’ll agree.”

“I feel guilty for wanting to go out when my father is…when I do not know if he is alive or dead.”

“What would your father say?” Richard asked impulsively.

She looked up at him and he could see that he had said the right thing. “He would tell me that it was stuff and nonsense and that I should do as I liked.”

“Your father is a very wise man. I will call for you at seven o’clock.”

***

Two weeks was not enough.

Lord Wellington’s departure for Lisbon was delayed once again by appalling weather and reports of a flooded road, and Honoria and her mother were unexpectedly invited to dine at the embassy. Lady Grainger had barely left the house during the previous week but she studied the invitation then looked up at her daughter.

“Would you like to attend, Honoria?”

“Yes,” Honoria said honestly. She was trying not to think about Richard Graham’s departure. He had spent the previous day with her, going through the rooms of their new temporary home and confirming when the carters would arrive to convey their belongings to the house. He had been kind and funny and helpful and the thought of the next weeks, miserable about her father and trying to comfort her mother, without his steady presence at her side, was unbearable.

“I think we should. Lord Wellington has been so kind in our trouble, I would not wish…”

“Lord Wellington?” Honoria exploded. “Allow me to tell you, Mama, that if we had left the matter to Lord Wellington we would know nothing about what happened to my father. Lord Wellington was perfectly happy to treat us like two empty-headed females who cannot be trusted…it was Captain Graham who intervened on our behalf and it is to him that we owe all the help and comfort we have received this past fortnight. I must say…”

“No, dearest, do not say it again, I think I have understood,” Lady Grainger said. She sounded amused. “I presume if we are to dine with Sir Henry and Lord Wellington that Captain Graham will also be present. It will give me an opportunity to thank him again and to say goodbye.”

The meal went very well. Lord Wellington was unexpectedly entertaining and put himself out to be kind to Lady Grainger. As the group finally broke up, a servant went to call for the carriage and the ladies’ cloaks and Sir Henry drew Lady Grainger to one side with a question about her new residence. Honoria found herself face to face with Richard Graham.

“Will you be all right?”

Honoria nodded. “Sir Henry has been very kind and has said we may call on him for any assistance.”

“How long do you think you will remain here?”

“I am not sure, Captain. I think perhaps until we have news. Or until we are told that there is no news. You promised that you would write to me…”

“Everything that I know, you will know, I give you my word. Should I address my letters to your Mama or to you?”

“To me,” Honoria said. “If there is distressing news, it’s better that she hears it from me.”

“I understand. You are, after all, the head of the household.”

“You are teasing me, Captain Graham.”

“No, I’m not. You’re the most extraordinary young woman…may I write to you about other matters?”

“Other matters. What kind of other matters?”

“I don’t know. Anything. What the weather is doing and where we are marching and what kind of mood Lord Wellington is in that day. And you shall tell me if your new harp has been delivered and if the stove in the kitchen is working properly and whether you think of me at all as you are shopping in the Calle Ancha with your maid.”

“I will think of you and your kindness in every street in Cadiz, and I would very much like to write to you, Captain, if you will promise to reply.”

He smiled, reached for her hand, and raised it to his lips. “You’ll get sick of reading them,” he said.

***

Freneida, May 1813

With the preparations to march complete, Richard rode out through the dusty little village which had housed Lord Wellington’s headquarters for two winters and wondered if they would come back. Wellington seemed convinced that they would not. He had spoken to his staff on the previous day, giving orders and explaining his plans in more detail than Richard was used to. There was an energy about the commander-in-chief which made Richard believe that this time, Wellington did not expect to have to retreat again.

There was little to see in Freineda, so Richard rode further afield, through small villages and stone walled towns where people had begun to return after long months of exile. Farmers were planting again and houses battered by shot and shell were being gradually rebuilt. Richard absorbed the sense of hope and renewal and prayed that it would last and that the war had finally moved beyond these people so that they could resume their lives.

Much of the army had already moved out, and Lord Wellington’s staff were packed and ready to go the following morning. Riding back into the village, Richard dismounted, handing his horse to a groom, and went into the long low house which Wellington had occupied through winter quarters. His chief was in his combined sitting room and study with Somerset, Colonel Murray, his quartermaster-general and the tall fair figure of Major-General Paul van Daan of the light division. Wellington turned as Richard entered.

“There you are,” he said irritably, as if he had sent a summons which Richard had failed to answer. “I have been waiting to question you about that blasted female.”

Richard was completely at sea. “Blasted female, sir?”

“Yes. She has just arrived, completely unannounced, apparently on her way back to Lisbon to join her unfortunate mother. What can have possessed her to make such a journey without any warning, I cannot imagine, but I did not know what to do with her, since I cannot delay my departure for her.”

“Who, sir?”

“Miss Honoria Grainger, Captain,” Somerset said. He was grinning broadly. “It appears that she journeyed by ship to Oporto to visit her father’s grave.”

“Oh my God,” Richard said appalled. “Is her mother with her? What on earth is she doing here?”

“That is a question to which we would all like an answer,” Wellington snapped. “I presume you wrote to her telling her how he died?”

“You know I did, sir, I told you. She replied, thanking me. I’ve not heard a word since, I thought they’d be on their way back to London.”

“Which is what any normal female would have done.”

“Where is she?” Richard said. His voice sounded very strange in his own ears and he wondered if the others could tell. “I mean, where is she going to stay? There’s nowhere here…”

“Evidently not,” Wellington said. He sounded slightly calmer. “I see that you are as surprised as I am, Captain, which is most reassuring. Fortunately, I have found a solution. Or rather, General van Daan has. Mrs van Daan and her household have not yet left the Quinta de Santo Antonio as there was some delay in transporting the final patients from the hospital. They will follow the army in a day or two, with an escort of the King’s German Legion under Captain Kuhn. Miss Grainger has gone to join her, she can rest her horses for a few days before resuming her journey to Lisbon and then on to London.”

“Why is she here, my Lord?” Richard said.

“I think it’s something of a pilgrimage, Richard,” Paul van Daan said quietly. “She went to Oporto to see where Sir Horace was buried and then she travelled here overland, because she wanted to speak to Captain Fenwick and Captain O’Reilly about her father’s last days. She’d hoped to be here days ago but she was delayed on the road, a broken carriage wheel, I believe. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve told her that I’ll ask them both to write to her.”

“Did she receive his effects?” Richard asked. There was a hollow pain in his stomach. He knew that on the night before the march he could not possibly ask for leave to visit her. He had no formal relationship with Honoria Grainger, and a dozen or more letters, stored carefully in his baggage, would not be considered reason enough. Richard had thought himself resigned to not seeing her again and found himself praying that she would remember him and that he had not imagined the connection between them. It might be several years before he could return to England and during that time she would emerge from her mourning and into the world and there would be many men, younger and more handsome and wealthier than he, who would find Sir Horace Grainger’s outspoken daughter to their liking. His chances were very slim but he allowed himself his dreams anyway.

“Yes,” Paul said. He was regarding Richard sympathetically. Richard wondered if he was that obvious. “She was very surprised to discover that he’d written two letters during his last days, one to her and one to his wife. It seems he was too weak to write properly but he dictated them to Brat, Michael O’Reilly’s servant. He managed to sign them himself. I’ve no idea what they said, but it seemed to affect her very strongly. I only met her briefly, but she’s a fine young woman, her father would be very proud.”

“Yes,” Richard said numbly.

“Very well,” Wellington said. “General van Daan, my compliments to your wife, please thank her for her assistance. We will be ready to move out at dawn towards Ciudad Rodrigo, you will join us then, and you may ride on to your brigade from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Richard turned miserable eyes to the general. “Please give my respects to Miss Grainger, General, and tell her how sorry I am to have missed her.”

“I will, Captain. Goodnight.”

It was barely light when the headquarters party, including Major-General van Daan, assembled in the square outside the church. Richard checked the baggage wagons and spoke to the muleteers and grooms while Wellington and Murray gave a pile of letters and some instructions to a courier. It was already warm, with the promise of a hot day. Richard looked around with an odd feeling of finality, then went to his horse and swung himself into the saddle. Vaguely, he was aware of the sound of horses’ hooves and he turned to look. Two riders were approaching at a canter. All the men in Wellington’s party turned to watch and the swirl of dust resolved itself into a woman mounted on a pretty black mare, dressed in a striking wine coloured riding dress and followed by a dark haired groom. The woman slowed her horse and trotted into the square. Nobody spoke for a moment, then Major-General van Daan said pleasantly:

“It is very good to see you, bonny lass, but I thought we’d said our farewells for the time being.”

The woman flashed him a dazzling smile. “We had. You are safe, General, I am not here for you. Lord Wellington, good morning. I’m so sorry to interrupt your departure, it will take just a moment. I need a word with Captain Graham.”

Richard jumped at the sound of his name. He stared at Anne van Daan in some surprise. “Ma’am?”

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, Captain. Did I, or did I not tell you that I wanted to see you in the clinic before you rode out?”

Richard searched his memory and drew a blank. “Erm…I do not perfectly recall…”

“Ha!” Anne said triumphantly. “I knew you would say that. Men! You are all the same. You will not admit to the least discomfort, but if you attempt to ride out without treatment, you are going to be completely incapable of continuing beyond Ciudad Rodrigo. It is utterly ridiculous that you refuse to submit to a small operation that will make you much more comfortable. And I can see by his Lordship’s face that you have not even told him.”

Wellington stared at her then turned an arctic glare onto Richard. “What has he not told me, ma’am?”

“Boils, sir,” Anne said, triumphantly. “Given the size and position of them, I am surprised he can sit that horse at all. Let me tell you that of all the boils I have treated these are…”

“No, indeed, ma’am, do not tell me anything about them at all,” Wellington said, sounding revolted. “General van Daan, are you aware that your wife has been treating this gentleman for…oh dear God, could anything be more unsuitable?”

“Probably, sir,” Paul said. Richard thought that his voice sounded rather muffled as though he might be trying hard not to laugh. “My dear, do you need to see Captain Graham before he leaves?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but if he tries to ride like that, he’s at risk of serious infection. He’s just trying to hide it because he doesn’t wish to miss the start of the campaign.”

“Utterly ridiculous,” Wellington snapped. “Captain Graham, not another word. Go with Mrs van Daan and get this problem dealt with. Preferably by a male doctor, if one is available. Join me as soon as you are able, I need you.”

Richard met Anne van Daan’s lovely dark eyes gratefully. “A day or two, no more, sir. I’m sorry, it was stupid. I didn’t want to let you down.”

“You never let me down, Captain. I value you, your health is important to me. I will see you as soon as you are fit.”

Anne van Daan said nothing until they were out of earshot of the departing headquarters party then she shot Richard a sidelong look. “I’m sorry it had to be boils, Captain, it is just that I needed something that Lord Wellington would not wish to discuss in detail. I was right too, did you see the look on his face?”

The study at the Quinta de Santo Antonio looked oddly bare without the litter of ledgers and correspondence of brigade headquarters. Honoria Grainger was seated in a wooden armchair reading a book. She looked up as Richard entered, then rose, setting the book down. The mourning black made her look older and rather more lovely than Richard had remembered.

“I cannot believe you are here. I thought I’d missed you.”

“I thought I’d missed you too,” Richard said.

“How did…”

“Why did…”

They both stopped, smiling. Then Richard said:

“Miss Grainger, I’m so sorry you had a wasted journey, but I promise you I’ll speak to Captain Fenwick and…”

“I didn’t have a wasted journey. I didn’t travel all this way to speak to Captain Fenwick. I wanted to see you before I returned to London. If that seems too forward or too…”

“No, it doesn’t. Oh God, it doesn’t. Honoria, please tell me I’ve not got this wrong?”

Honoria smiled and Richard felt his heart turn over. It was ridiculous. “No,” she said. “Although I’ve been terrified all this way in case I had. I just needed to see you. To say…to ask…”

Richard stepped forward and took her into his arms. He kissed her for a long time, and she clung to him, convincing him beyond all doubt that he had not made a mistake. When he finally raised his head there were tears in her eyes.

“I went to his grave,” she said. “I sat there for a while, talking to him in my head.”

Richard’s heart melted. “Oh, love, I’m so sorry. It’s so awful for you and I can’t even be here to take you home and look after you. And we’ve so little time.”

“Mrs van Daan said she thinks we can have two days.”

“Two days?” Richard thought about such bounty and found himself smiling again. “I thought I’d have to wait two years. I’ve a lot to say to you in two days, Honoria. Will you marry me?”

She was laughing and crying at the same time. “Yes. Yes, of course I will.”

“Thank God. I’ve read every one of your letters a hundred times, trying to decide if I was being a fool or if you might feel the same way. I even thought of trying to say it in a letter, but I couldn’t find the words. Besides, it didn’t seem fair when I’ve no idea when I’ll get back to England. And even now…it’s so long to wait, love.”

Her smile was luminous. “Richard, do try not to be an ass, it is very unlike you. Do you seriously think I would have made this mad journey in the worst conditions if I was not very sure?”

Richard kissed her again, deciding that she was right. For a time, it was enough just to hold her, revelling in the sense of her in his arms, but Honoria had an inquisitive nature and he was not surprised when she finally stepped back and asked the question.

“Richard, how did you manage this? I asked to see you but Lord Wellington said it was impossible, that you were about to march out and that you would not have time. I truly thought I had missed my opportunity.”

“What did you say to Mrs van Daan?” Richard enquired.

“I couldn’t say much at all. I was so disappointed, I’m afraid I cried a lot, and then I told her the truth. Did she do this? But how?”

“Boils,” Richard said. “Let us sit down. It is rather a painful story.”

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

When I began these posts I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue them all the way through lockdown. I didn’t really have a plan when I started, I was just trying to cheer myself – and any readers – up a bit. It did work to begin with, but after a few days I experienced a bit of a lockdown slump, and that is definitely not something I wanted to share with my poor readers.

I wanted to come back to this though, now that it’s over. We’re back to where we were before as from today, with life returning to normal in our lovely little bubble, apart from closed borders and even more stringent quarantine restrictions for anybody who leaves and wants to return. And the vaccine of course, which is being rolled out gradually, and which we hope one day will allow us to make choices about our own lives again.

At least daily walks with Oscar should get easier. After a few days of experimenting with the best way of walking Oscar in lockdown, I decided that driving to somewhere a bit less busy is a good idea. Usually in the week I just walk him from our front door, but the streets have been much more crowded through lockdown with people getting their daily exercise. Some of the pavements and footpaths are very narrow, and some people are more nervous than others. Add dogs into that mix and it’s just good to find some space. Accordingly my daughter and I have been taking him to the beach or down to St Michael’s Isle where it’s relatively empty and he can run around, swim and jump in puddles without upsetting anybody.

It’s been a joy to have my daughter on our daily walks and I’m going to miss her dreadfully when she goes back to University, which she’s decided to do this weekend. There will be on online teaching of course, and the library is still closed, but now that she can travel, she wants to be back in her student house with her friends, even if they can’t see anybody else. She’s already left home in her head and these weeks of uncertainty and not knowing when she can go back have been miserable. I’ll miss her, but I understand.

Covid rules do odd things to people. I heard a story from somebody I know  about being yelled at for not wearing a mask in the street. From the other side of the road. Needless to say there were no rules about wearing masks out on a walk, and there is no way to know if somebody has a good reason for not doing so anyway. It’s extraordinary how this crisis brings out the best in so many people and the worst in others.

I’ve set myself some difficult writing goals for this year, but since I’m unlikely to be interrupted very much by inconvenient holidays or family visits, I’ve decided to go for it. I’m currently four chapters in to book three of the Manxman series, which is called This Bloody Shore and it’s going very well. I struggled this time to decide which book to write next. Technically, it should be the Manxman, as I tend to alternate the two series, but when I finished An Unmerciful Incursion I was so immersed in the world of the 110th that I began book seven straight away.  For a few weeks I worked on both, then Hugh and Durrell began to demand my attention and point out that it was their turn.

For the first time in a few years, I’m aiming to get two books out this year. Both of these are already well planned out, and as the subject of book seven is relatively easy to research (although the plotline is difficult) I think I might well manage it. Certainly it will keep me very busy and that’s a good thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I love so much that I can completely immerse myself in it. I am not convinced that life in 1811 would have been much fun, but writing about it is a wonderful way of removing myself from the current situation.

It’s good to know that we have a measure of freedom again, although I think I’m very aware of how fragile that can be. I really hope that my friends elsewhere in the world can achieve the same thing soon. I miss you all very much.

I miss travel and libraries and seeing my sister. I miss planning research trips and going to conferences. I miss big things like my holidays and I miss silly things like watching football on the TV and seeing real fans at Old Trafford. I miss my daughter being able to come and go from Uni freely, without worrying. I miss new films at the cinema, and shows coming over from the UK at the theatre and being able to look ahead and plan. I think we all miss different things, and I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. Whatever the awfulness in the world, it’s natural and normal to miss things that have been taken away from us. The key is to try to find other things to make us happy.

In the meantime, some lessons from Lockdown with Oscar: the End.

  1. I really hate lockdown
  2. Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
  3. Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
  4. So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
  5. Talking to people about history is great
  6. Also dogs
  7. I’m not good at rules
  8. Or being locked up
  9. Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
  10. Dogs don’t understand social distancing
  11. Sensible creatures
  12. I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
  13. I’m incredibly lucky
  14. The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
  15. Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
  16. I’m sort of proud of us
  17. Did I mention I hate lockdown?
  18. The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
  19. I’m pretty odd though
  20. My family are great and I adore them
  21. My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
  22. So I need them all to stay safe. 
  23. Can’t believe I just said that.
  24. I want this to be over for everybody.

“Mum. Mum. What are you going on about, you said this would be a short post and then we’d go out.”

“Just coming, Oscar.”

“Is it true I can play with all my friends again?”

“Yep.”

“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”

“That’s right, Oscar.”

“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”

“Come on then, I’ll get your lead.”

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

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After a very successful walk yesterday, it’s both raining and blowing a gale outside. Oscar has made a few forays into the garden to do the needful, and a quick trip up the road, but apart from that, he has decided against the outside world today.

When he doesn’t want to go for a walk, Oscar actually drags his paws. You wouldn’t think a Labrador could do that, but in fact this is the second one I’ve had. Joey, our old yella fella, would stride out in any weather regardless but Toby, our first black Labrador would get to the end of the driveway and freeze in position if he didn’t like the look of the weather. Nothing shifted him. I tried bribery, training, yelling and tugging on the lead. Toby would do his business against the gate post then turn back towards the house in a purposeful manner.

I don’t bother to argue with Oscar. He’s so active that the odd day without a long walk doesn’t hurt him. I’m not so keen myself today either. I had a poor night last night and after a reasonably productive day work wise I hit a serious afternoon slump at about ten to four. I’ve officially given up now and I’ve lit the fire and am dozing on the sofa with Oscar as I’m not cooking tonight.

One of the good points of my son working from home and being unable to go out with his friends is that he’s almost always willing to cook. He’s an excellent cook who can produce restaurant quality food and it’s quite a nice break for me. Steak is happening in the kitchen and it smells good.

I’ve almost finished chapter two today. I don’t yet have a sense of how long this book is likely to be. My last couple were fairly long, but the Tarragona campaign itself was very short. Still, there are several plotlines running through it. More to the point, I will actually get to spend a bit more time at sea during this book. Both my previous naval books have been joint campaigns featuring both the army and the navy, but this one is purely from the naval point of view, so I’m doing a lot of background reading. Oscar is doing less background reading and more snoring, but he seems happy.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d move that laptop, Mum. That clicking is disturbing me.”

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

“I do apologise, your Lordship. I was trying to do some work.”

Lockdown is odd, because my own routine doesn’t really change that much, but because my family is all at home all the time, my schedule is very disrupted. I quite like them all being around though, it’s very social. Oscar adores it and spends the day going from one workplace to another so that none of us feels left out.

The Man I Married is a bit obsessed with the news at the moment. Mostly, I try to avoid it, but when we meet up for lunch, I get my daily rundown of the latest from the USA. It’s like watching a really weird version of the West Wing but without a lot of the witty remarks. Still, it does take your mind off the UK.

My daughter has finished her essay. The pain is over. The trauma is gone.

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Not permanently, love. Just until you’ve got something else to do…”

In the middle of all this, I find myself thinking about people with kids who are both working and trying to home school during this chaos. I remember how I was when the kids were young, and I was utterly devoted to them both and couldn’t wait to get them out the door to school or nursery. They needed the stimulation of mixing with other kids and adults and I needed some time away from them. It’s much the same now.

“Mum. I’m so ready to go back to York.”

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

Evenings are nice, though. Generally, we have a tendency to drift off to do our own thing, but without the social aspect of work or seeing friends, our youngsters are more inclined to hang around the kitchen or living room watching TV, playing games or just listening to music. I’ve heard a few parents with teenage or adult kids saying the same. Ours are quite lovely generally, but very busy, so this is a bit of an oasis.

I’m also very happy that my son’s girlfriend has chosen to isolate with us again, and grateful that her poor mother doesn’t mind. She’s a joy to have and I don’t know how either of them would have coped apart. It does make me think about all the couples who weren’t at the point of living together who must have struggled with very tough choices through this.

We’re lucky. We’re lucky to be able to be together, even though we can’t all be where we really want to be. We’re lucky that so far we’ve had no job losses or financial disasters because of this mess. I’m so conscious of those who have, that I almost feel guilty. It’s a fragile security, but sometimes that has to be enough.

Lockdown minus point 6: When it’s raining there’s nowhere indoors to go.

Lockdown plus point 6: Apart from home, which is a pretty nice place to be.

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

It’s Sunday, and after a wild night of compulsory Beer Pong with some of the younger members of the household, neither Oscar and I are up for an early start.

The Essay from Hell is almost done. We’re at that stage where Girl Child is studying it, and saying in dispassionate tones:

“This is actually not bad.”

Given that at various stages, this was the worst essay ever written and she was going to fail her entire degree because of it, that probably means she’ll get a first. All I have to do now is proofread, admire and leave her to it. Phew.

It’s quite a nice afternoon, so Oscar and I take the car and head up to Groudle Glen. I was hoping it would be quiet, but it turns out that on a dry afternoon in lockdown, the glen is the place to be. Some of the paths are very narrow, so there’s a lot of stopping and stepping to one side to let people pass. It’s all very amiable though. We meet a few dogs including an alarmingly cute pair of dachshunds.

“Mum, this is fun. Why are some people wearing their muzzles?”

“People are worried about catching Covid, Oscar.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

“You don’t have to, out here, only in shops or indoor places. We’re not getting close to people, I’m not worried about catching it here.”

“Why is that dog wearing a muzzle?”

“That’s got nothing to do with Covid, Oscar. Probably she bites.”

“Ugh. Can I paddle in the river?”

“A bit further down. Once we get past the water wheel.”

It’s the first time I’ve been down the glen since the old Victorian water wheel was back in place. It was removed for restoration, and it’s lovely to see it back, looking splendid. Oscar was very interested, but the water is very fast here, with a series of rapids, so we moved on to shallower parts before I let him off the lead to play in the water. He loves it, and will just run up and down in the river for the sheer joy of it.

“Mum, can we go to the beach?”

“If it’s not too busy, Oscar. There are a lot of children about today.”

“I won’t chase the children, I promise. I just want to SWIM!!!

The beach was fairly deserted apart from one family group and a woman with a teenaged daughter and their dog.

“Mum! A DOOOOOG! Can I go and play?”

“I think so, Oscar. Off you go.”

Meet Moz. I didn’t get too many details about him, as we had to socially distance, but he was lovely. His owners and I took turns to throw sticks in the water and Oscar and Moz chased them. It was a lot of fun. At one point they were actually swimming while holding the stick between them, which reminded me of Toby and Joey. I wish I’d got better photos, but they didn’t keep still for long enough.

“Mum, that was GREAT! Where shall we go tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, Oscar, let’s see what the weather is doing then decide.”

“Can I run and play over there?”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because that area is pure bog, and if you run into it, you might get stuck. When Toby was young, before we even had Joey, he took a flying leap into there thinking it was solid ground, and couldn’t get out.”

“Ugh. What did you do?”

“I waded in to rescue him. Above my knees in black, smelly mud. It wasn’t good.”

“I’m glad you told me. I’ll give that a miss.”

Back at home, the essay is over and Girl Child is finishing the referencing. I head out to start cooking dinner and there’s no sign of Oscar. After a while, I go to check.

“Are you tired, Oscar?”

“Very tired, Mum. Is it dinner time yet?”

“Almost, baby boy.”

“Think I’ll stay here with Anya until it’s ready. She says I’m a big help…”

“It looks as though you are, Oscar. Sweet dreams.”

Lockdown minus point number 5: Playing hide and seek on narrow paths through the glen.

Lockdown plus point number 5: We have the glens

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Today was the day. The big day. The day I’ve been putting off.

Today was Shopping Day.

For those of you who feel that my reaction to shopping in lockdown is somewhat over-dramatic, it’s clear there are some things you don’t know about me. One of them, is that this response is only slightly more dramatic than my usual reaction to a weekly food shop. I loathe supermarket shopping with a passion that’s hard to describe. Spending more than five minutes in a supermarket hurts my soul.

To avoid this traumatic event, I tend to be a daily shopper. Working from home, and living only ten minutes from Shoprite, it’s relatively easy to nip out to buy a few things for today’s dinner, and as long as I have a Plan, I can be in and out of the place in about fifteen minutes. Or I’ll be in town to use the library or go to the bookshop and I can nip into Marks and Spencer’s food hall. It’s like pretending that food shopping isn’t really happening.

Of course that means I never buy items like baked beans, tomato ketchup and toilet roll. Those go on the Big Shopping List. Eventually the day comes when I can’t put it off any longer. We’re down to our last tin of tomato soup and there are no bin bags and Big Shopping has to happen. Members of my family always know when that day comes. The fuss I make about it, half the island probably knows when that day comes, and plans to be somewhere else. And this is in normal life.

Now we have lockdown, ffs. Not only do I have to do The Big Shop, but I have to do it sensibly. With social distancing, Knobs Panic Buying and the strong chance that Mother Nature, who has a funny sense of humour, will throw in a gale so the boat can’t go, I can’t rely on daily Pretend Shopping. Also there’s Brexit. I still can’t really take that seriously, but ever since I read that Northern Ireland might be deprived of Percy Pigs if Boris, Merkel and Macron can’t get their act together, maybe I should at least wave to it.

I could barely speak this morning as I gathered my shopping bags, packed my hand sanitiser, wipes and muzzle, and prepared to leave. The family hung around looking awkward, and telling me occasionally how much they loved me. I can’t decide if this was in the nature of a last farewell in case I didn’t come back, a burst of gratitude for my self-sacrifice or an act of self-preservation in case I lost the plot and lobbed a half bottle of Carex anti-bacterial wash at their heads. I wasn’t happy but I was slightly mollified. It’s always good to be a hero.

Arriving at Shoprite was a bit of an anti-climax. Earlier in the year, the social distancing queue often ran round the back of the shop. Today there was nothing apart from a masked security guard, looking a bit like the Lone Ranger, checking that we were all muzzled-up before entering the shop. I grabbed my trolley and advanced, keeping an eye out for enemy skirmishers.

As it turned out, the enemy had retreated. In fact, the whole thing was very simple. Shelves were mostly full, people were generally socially distancing, and the whole thing wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the muzzle.

It’s not my first experience of having to wear a mask in shops. I did it earlier in the year when I was in the UK with my daughter. I was very responsible about it, didn’t make a fuss and just got on with it. That’s the grown-up thing to do.

Who am I kidding? It is absolutely f**king foul and I loathe every minute of it. I don’t moan, but that’s only because there’s nobody to moan to who can do a darned thing about it. But inside my head, there is a constant toddler whine going on. “I hate this. It’s so hot. It’s so nasty. I can’t see so I have to take my glasses off. Now I can’t see, because I don’t have my glasses on. I can’t breathe. My nose is running. I’m sweating. I’m feeling very weird…

Actually, I am feeling weird. Realising it stops me in my tracks, and I’m outside, abandoning my trolley for a few minutes, gulping in fresh air. Claustrophobia is the most illogical thing in the world, but no amount of talking sense to myself makes it any better, so I give it another minute then get myself back in there before somebody removes my trolley and I have to do the whole thing over again.

I emerge at the end victorious but with one or two things still to do. I need to go to Boots, so park in M & S carpark which is virtually empty. Once I’ve been to the chemist, I decide I might feel brave enough to see if I can get the final few items on my list. Donning my muzzle, to prevent me biting anybody who gets between me and the last cauliflower, I enter the fray.

The first thing I see at the entrance to the food hall is the florist section, and right at the front, a bucket of green stemmed, tightly closed up flowers. I stop and stare, my heart doing a funny little jump.

Daffodils.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this. Generally speaking, after the fun of Christmas is over, the first daffodils arrive in the shops and my spirits are automatically lifted. Daffodils are a family talisman. My mother adored them, my sister and I feel the same and they are, unsurprisingly, my daughter’s favourite flowers. I’ve planted a ton in my new garden, and they’re already starting to come up although they won’t flower for a while.  Daffodils in vases around the house, along with a pot of hyacinths in the living room and kitchen, are a symbol of hope, of the ending of the long winter months, a promise of spring and a brighter future. If ever I needed daffodils it is now, and here they are.

As if it was a good omen, I find my cauliflower and the few other items I needed. I load up the small trolley and head to the checkout. The lad studies my shopping on the conveyer. I can’t tell if he’s smiling, as they’ve had to muzzle the staff as well in the post-Christmas rage, but I try desperately to convey an air of good cheer through the thick black gag over my face and hope he gets the point. The shopping goes through. It mostly consists of daffodils.

“You like flowers, then?”

I see. A sense of humour. I try to look deadpan, then remember he can’t see my face properly anyway. 

“Panic buying daffodils. Thank God you’ve not rationed them yet.”

He makes a funny noise. It might be laughter at my wit or possibly the muzzle is choking him. I choose to believe the former.

Outside, it’s sunny, and I can take the damned muzzle off. I drive home in a much better mood and start unloading the endless shopping. My daughter wanders in, mired in the final stages of her essay. She sees what’s on the worktop.

“Daffodils. Oh my God, I forgot they’d be out!”

The sheer joy in her voice makes me happy. We put away the shopping, playing with Oscar as we do it, then take him outside into the garden to play and inspect our own early stage daffodils.

“Mum. Didn’t Joey and I have daffodils that went on our collars once?”

“You did, Oscar.”

“Do we still have them?”

“I bet we do. I’ll go through your box and find them tomorrow.”

“I’d like that. Reminds me of the old Yella Fella. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?”

“Definitely, Oscar. In the meantime, shall we go and feed the ducks?”

“Good idea, Mum. As long as Angry White Duck isn’t there. He doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t like anybody, Oscar.”

On the way back, it’s growing dark and getting very cold.

 

 

 

“Isn’t the sky pretty, Mum?”

“Beautiful, Oscar. Are you hungry?”

“Starving. Did you buy my favourite food?”

“I did.”

“Did you wear your muzzle?”

“All the way round. I didn’t bite anybody at all.”

“What a good girl.”

“Cheeky beggar. Come on, let’s get you fed.”

Lockdown minus point 4: Muzzles

Lockdown plus point 4: Daffodils

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Today was meant to be a Shopping and Errand Day. With this in mind, I set up shop in the kitchen, so that I could use the table to sort out my overflowing admin file and work out what needed to be done. This is always a job I have to do early in January. I have the sort of brain that has to make admin a project. I’ve been trying for my entire adult life to deal with paperwork as it comes in and not let it pile up, but I now understand that I am never going to be that person. Over any busy period, such as Christmas, I am never going to deal with admin on a daily basis, so I’ve trained myself to keep a proper file so that when I do get around to doing it, I’ve got everything in one place and I don’t have to search for vital pieces of paper stashed in odd drawers and on shelves.

I didn’t do badly with the admin and as a reward, I allowed myself to sit and write for a bit. Three hours later, I am willing to acknowledge that Shopping and Errand Day might not happen today. We’ve got enough to manage…

Essay writing is going well, I think, but as it’s happening in a different room today, I’m not quite so involved. Occasionally the laptop is thrust under my nose and I get to learn new and interesting facts about seventeenth century government finance, but mostly life is peaceful. Even my afternoon walk with Oscar didn’t happen today, as he was stolen by my son’s girlfriend, who is on a fitness kick. Oscar bounded out the door with huge excitement, and returned an hour later full of beans.

“OMG, Mum, I went on a walk with Rachael!”

“I know you did, Oscar. Did you enjoy it?”

“It was brilliant. We’re going to do it again! We saw loads of people again. Some of them were wearing muzzles again!”

“Masks, Oscar.”

“Whatever. It stops them from biting each other, which is good. Anyway, I’m just off to tell Rachael how much I love her again.”

I leave Oscar to it, listening to the shrieks from Rachael as Oscar leaps onto her as she’s sitting on the sofa and tries to climb onto her head. I’m sure she’ll be fine…

Eventually, worn out with so much love, Oscar comes back to the kitchen. We’ve moved his favourite bed next to my chair so he can be nice and close, and it’s clear the walk has worn him out.

“Mum. Is it dinner time?”

“No, you’ve got a couple of hours yet, Oscar. Have a snooze.”

Ten minutes pass.

“Mum. As we didn’t get a walk today, do you think we could go down the glen this evening, to see the lights?”

“If it’s not raining, Oscar.”

“It’s not going to rain. I can feel it in my tail. What’s for dinner?”

“Dog food, Oscar.”

“What else?”

“We’re having take away, it’s Friday.”

“Mmm. That sounds interesting. I might go and see Jon, he’s talking to the computer again.”

“Oh no you don’t. He’s on a zoom call with work.”

“Oh. Don’t you think they’d like to meet me?”

“Maybe later. Settle down, baby boy.”

Another ten minutes.

“Mum. I like lockdown.”

“Why’s that, Oscar?”

“You’re all here.”

“That’s a fair point, Oscar. Want to come into the garden and play?”

“Yes, please! Now, who shall I bring? Red snake hasn’t been out for a while.”

Sometimes, I think Oscar is a very wise dog. Maybe there are some good points to lockdown after all.

Lockdown plus point 3: We’re all together.

Lockdown minus point 3: I will need to wear my muzzle in the supermarket and the post office when I go tomorrow. Still, at least it will stop me biting anybody…

 

 

 

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

It’s the first proper day of lockdown on the Isle of Man.

It’s raining.

I awoke with great intentions of getting up early and taking Oscar for a walk, but grey skies and a steady drizzle put paid to this. Oscar got as far as the front gate, sneered a bit, did a wee over the footballing garden gnome as he usually does, then went back inside for breakfast. After that he headed for the sofa with the air of a dog who has seen what the outside world involves and has no further interest in it. We’ll try again later.

We’re working in the living room today, since my son is now working at home for three weeks so I’ve heroically given up my desk to him, as multiple zoom meetings are difficult to manage in the middle of family life. I don’t mind working in the living room, but today it includes my daughter writing an essay discussing whether or not the seventeenth century could be called a century of revolution. My girl is a very vocal worker and likes to share the experience of essay writing with anybody who is willing to listen. Or anybody who would rather not listen. It goes rather like this.

“Mum, listen to my opening paragraph.”

“Have you changed it since last night?”

“No, but I’m about to.”

“Why don’t you rewrite it and then read it to me.”

“Because you’ve probably already forgotten it from yesterday, and I want you to tell me if you think the new one is better or worse.”

“What makes you think I won’t have forgotten it by the time you’ve rewritten it.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re not that demented yet.”

That’s possibly true, but I’m going in the right direction.

One of the things I enjoy about lockdown is how quiet it it. We live fairly close to a main road, and though the traffic here is nothing like the traffic in the UK, we can hear a steady stream of cars when we’re outside in the garden during rush hour. This morning there was nothing, just the pitter patter of raindrops and the sound of a seriously aggravated bird in the Rowan tree. I’ve no idea what upset him this morning, maybe a seagull got to his breakfast first, but it was the most aggressive tweeting I’ve ever heard. Must put bird food out shortly to shut him up.

Going into the kitchen was the first irritation of the day. As my son and his girlfriend cooked last night (delicious stir fry with crispy chicken) I cleared up. It’s good for my mood to come down to a clear kitchen so I religiously loaded the dishwasher and washed all pots and pans. Coming down this morning, I realised that the Phantom Night Chef had been at work. My son has the ability to eat at all hours, and it doesn’t occur to him to make do with a packet of crisps if he wants a snack at midnight. God knows what he cooked, but the smell of garlic is going to keep us safe from vampires for months. Ignored pots and pans and sat down to work.

“Mum. Listen to this and tell me if you think I’ve got two separate arguments in this paragraph.”

Twenty minutes goes by.

“Mum. You need to see this.”

“You want me to read another paragraph?”

“No, I want you to look at this video of polar bears playing in the snow.”

“Maybe it’s lunch time.”

Oscar jumps off the sofa. He understands the word lunch.

I managed to get a good couple of hours in this afternoon and I was pleased with what I’d done. The rain finally stopped so I called Oscar for his walk before it started again. Oscar looked at me. I think he’d decided we weren’t going to do that today. Eventually, grumbling a bit, he heaved himself off the sofa. There was a bit of a discussion in the kitchen about whether we could take Stripy Bunny with us. Getting bored with the tug of war, I gave in. Three minutes up the road, I stooped to pick up Stripy Bunny and put him in my bag. We’ve done this before.

There are some things about the previous lockdown that I rather liked. One of them is the variety of artwork that sprang up on fences and walls around the island. I’m not sure if they were done by bored children or if some of the adults decided to break out a bit during their time off, but they do brighten the place up on a grey afternoon. This one is in the next road to us and I’m very fond of it.

In the same road, I could hear loud music. As I reached the house, the garage door was open and a young couple were on the driveway washing their cars with a hose. It was freezing out, but they were wrapped up in hats and scarves and dancing around to the music as they worked. Spotting us, she grinned and waved, while he looked a bit embarrassed but then waved as well. Oscar was dying to go and say hello but we’re socially distancing so we didn’t.

After half an hour, I remembered the things I love and the things I don’t about lockdown. The lack of traffic is a joy. We have at least one quite awkward road to cross on this route, and it’s bliss just to stroll across. On the other hand, the island is now full of people with bored kids and it’s finally stopped raining. The world, his wife, their entire families including their dogs were out and about, with bikes and scooters. Oscar’s tail was wagging frantically at the sight of ALL THE NEW FRIENDS!!!!! Mine was not.

“Oscar, sit. Stay. Let them go past.”

“But she’s smiling at me, Mum, she wants to play.”

“I know, Oscar, but you can’t. It’s lockdown.”

“Boo. Don’t like…OMG look!!!! It’s a dog!!! He wants to be friends!!!!”

“Oscar, come back. Sit. Stay. We can’t, not today.”

On the footbridge we met a small boy wheeling his bike, probably about eight, whose face lit up.

“Can I stroke your dog?”

“No…”

Too late. Clearly this kid comes from a dog loving family and his arms were around Oscar before I could say any more. Oscar enthusiastically returned the love. I waited a moment, at the length of the lead, then gave a gentle reminder to wait for permission next time,  because of social distancing and because the dog might not be friendly. I got a big gappy grin in return.

“Oh, it’s all right. I could see he was friendly. And you as well.”

Sussed out by an eight year old, we carried on.

Further down the narrow path we met a selection of people with dogs, kids, bikes and scooters. It was a challenge, but we all managed to keep the distance until we came across an older couple with a small dog which was off the lead. I pulled Oscar over to the side yet again, but their dog waddled up to say hello. 

“It’s all right, dear,” the old lady said. I gritted my teeth a bit. It was all right, but she didn’t actually know it was going to be, not knowing my dog, and if they’d got into a spat, we’d have had to get very close to separate them. Dogs are supposed to be on a lead down this path, but usually I wouldn’t care. This week I’m trying to do the right thing.

Almost home, and we met a genuine challenge, The dog was huge, a big black bear of a hound, being walked along the narrowest bit of pavement by a woman. She saw us and paused, looking around. There was nowhere to pull over and it was clear that both dogs wanted nothing more than a play session right here and now. Which would be great on the beach but this was not the time or place. I called Oscar to heel and crossed the road for a minute, out of the way. She passed with a big grateful smile and a wave. Her dog glared at me for spoiling his fun.

“He looked like fun, Mum, why couldn’t we play?”

“Not by a road, Oscar. Cheer up, it was a nice walk and if it’s better weather tomorrow, we’ll take the car and go somewhere I can let you off for a run.”

“Great idea. It’s getting dark now anyway.”

“Here we are. Let’s get your lead off and have a drink.”

“And dinner. Is it dinner time, Mum?”

“Another hour, Oscar.”

“Boring. Might have a nap then. I’ll just settle here by your feet with Owl and Floppy Bunny and Hilda the Sheep.”

“Enjoy your sleep, baby boy. Now where was I? Ah yes, a beach in Norfolk, 1810…”

Lockdown plus number 2: People are so friendly out and about. Although I loathe the phrase with a passion, I have to admit there is a genuine sense that we’re all in this together. Except when I remember the Panic Buyers Without a Brain Cell but as I avoided shops today, I could forget about them.

Lockdown minus number 2: I miss working at my own desk in my own study. I know it makes more sense for my son, but I still miss it.

 

Lockdown with Oscar Day -1

Lockdown with Oscar Day -1 has come about following an announcement from the Chief Minister of our lovely little island, to say that Covid has reared its ugly head in the Manx community again and we’ve all got to stay at home for three weeks. It’s the national equivalent of being sent to the naughty step to think about what you’ve done.

Those of you who have been following the adventures of Writing with Labradors through this tumultuous year will be aware that on the Isle of Man, we’ve had a lot more normal life than many people. We were in lockdown during March as cases spread, and there were some hospitalisations and sadly some deaths.

At the end of it, our government set out a series of stages towards complete normality. They also closed our borders to pretty much everybody, including, for a time, residents who were unlucky enough to get stuck overseas. The Isle of Man was having nothing to do with Covid, and with a small island, it proved relatively easy to contain the spread of the virus. One minute we were socially distancing and the next minute the pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres were open and as long as nobody wanted to travel off-island, life was pretty good.

The island’s Covid-free life attracted a fair bit of attention from the media, particularly in relation to some of the methods used to ensure compliance. The two-week quarantine for anybody returning from the UK or abroad was strictly enforced, and several people were gaoled for breaking the rules. It’s reasonable to ask questions about such draconian measures, but it’s also hard to be mad when you live here and they proved so effective for such a long time.

The Manx government said all along that at some point Covid would return, and it appears that after a number of very well contained cases among people self-isolating on return, something went wrong with the system. On a small island, rumours fly around very quickly, and there have been rumblings of community cases all week. At some point during yesterday, the Council of Ministers apparently decided that there were enough to make another outbreak very likely, and decided to lock down. There were no hints or warnings, no Tier system and no gradual progression. We’re going from parties to full lockdown in just over twenty-four hours.

The lockdown has been announced for an initial period of three weeks, presumably to give them the chance to work out just how much this has spread into the community. In three weeks time it should be possible to know in such a small place. It was formally announced at 6pm yesterday and begins at midnight tonight, to give businesses a chance to get things in place. Of course given that this is the Isle of Man, most people knew by midday. I didn’t, being wholly engrossed with finishing chapter one, which is why when I popped to the supermarket at 4.30pm for chicken, potatoes, coriander and bread, I was astonished to see the car park jammed as if it was Christmas and the shelves looking as though a Plague of Locusts had been on speed.

It’s well-known that during the last Manx lockdown, we were starving over here. Boats didn’t travel, supermarkets never stocked their shelves and those who didn’t panic buy eighty-six packets of toilet paper and a jumbo bag of tagliatelli almost didn’t live to tell the tale. Funnily enough, though, nobody knows anybody personally who starved during those weeks, and personally I didn’t see much evidence. Certainly there were queues due to social distancing, the weekly family outing to the supermarket was severely curtailed by restricting shopping to one household member at a time, and the whole thing took a lot longer and was more tedious than ever. Still, we all survived.

The danger must have been real, though, because even before the announcement was made yesterday, they were out in their droves on a frantic quest to ensure that half the island’s population can build a castle from bog roll and bags of flour while the other half can’t buy basic foodstuffs for one meal. I managed all right, by driving between four shops to pick up five items. There was no describing my mood when I finally got home. Dry January will have to wait.

Today being Lockdown Eve, I ventured out again for my last shop without a face mask. There’s still no fresh chicken on the island, but I managed to get enough frozen for two meals along with a few other essentials. At home I got out the shopping list and menu planning notebook we used in the summer and prepared for a major planning session. With five adults, one of whom is veggie, one fussy, one wanting to lose weight and being convinced that too much beef over Christmas gave him gout, the next three weeks should be a joy.

So why this diary? Well, I’m going to be honest with you and say that I’m not that good at lockdown. It’s peculiar, because a lot of the things people miss, I don’t really do that often anyway. I work from home, as does my husband, and we don’t eat out that often apart from special occasions and don’t go to many parties. I don’t even do that much recreational shopping apart from bookshops. You would think that apart from the Plague of Panic Buyers, lockdown wouldn’t really affect me that much. Nevertheless, both during the previous lockdown and my own two week enforced quarantine when I visited the UK to see my sister, my mental health was very poor. I was snappy and irritable with my family, furious with every public figure who pontificated on how we should all Stay Home to Save the Lives of All Lerts and I had to put on headphones during the evening clapping for the NHS in case I disgraced myself by sticking my head out of the window and saying things that shouldn’t be said. While my adorable family quickly came to terms with the new circumstances yesterday evening while they were cooking the chicken I’d taken two hours to buy, I had to shut myself in my room to avoid their relentless positivity and good cheer.

I’ve spent some time analysing why being confined to quarters affects me so badly, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because I’ve never been very good at following orders. I mean, I can do it.  A lot of the rules of civilised living make a lot of sense to me, and when the law tells me to put on a seatbelt or not to bean the annoying woman who is queue-jumping with the bottle of ketchup I’m trying to purchase, I can accept it with good grace. I understand those rules and they make perfect sense to me, so I can override my instinct to kick off and be a grown-up about it. 

The post-Covid world is another matter. Whatever side of the debate you happen to fall on, the message is clear that there is no debate. It’s been decided for us, and our every movement is now subject to control, sometimes at a moment’s notice. The great and the good, along with the experts on social media tell us how we must think and feel as well as what we must do, and that does something to me. If I’m given the information needed, I will almost certainly decide not to set foot outside my front gate while there is even the remotest chance I’ve got asymptomatic Covid, but being ordered to stay there by somebody else, hurts my soul. Not being allowed to express how miserable it makes me because we all have to be saintly in both word and deed, adds to the pain.

Before this, the closest I’ve come to these feelings is when I’m travelling through airport security post 9/11. While officious airport employees scream instructions over the bellow of trapped and miserable humanity being treated like sheep, I stand in line juggling laptops, phones, toiletries and the half-bottle of water I’d forgotten was in my bag, composing a Paul van Daan-style rant in my head. My family, who know me, huddle close around me, saying soothing things and trying to protect those around me from an impending explosion. I have never travelled with Ryanair.  My family don’t trust me to do so.

I know myself. I don’t want a platform to rail against the inevitable, I just want to stop feeling so bad while its going on. My daily walks with Oscar soothe my soul, and it was a very bad moment yesterday when conflicting information seemed to suggest that we were going to be expected to wear a face mask in order to go for a walk. Fortunately, that has now been cleared up, so Oscar and I will be out and about as usual. If we manage to see half a dozen people from a distance on our usual walks, it’s surprising, so I think we’ll stay safe.

There is always a lighter side to any situation, and that’s probably what I need to find. Me being angry and miserable doesn’t help those who have been ill with Covid, or any other disease. It also doesn’t hurt them. It only hurts me. So welcome to Lockdown with Oscar here at Writing With Labradors, as we share our doings and the ups and downs of lockdown life.

Lockdown plus no 1: It’s not even officially started yet, but already my family are jumping in to offer to cook dinner. It’s important to show this kind of appreciation to a wife and mother who might turn Pterodactyl at any moment. I wonder if there’s a way I can translate this into normal life.

Lockdown minus number 1: My son and his girlfriend and my daughter are making rumbling noises about movie nights, quiz nights and other forms of forced family fun. I feel like a deer caught in the headlights.

Oscar’s Contribution. Oscar waited until I had gone to do my Lockdown Eve shopping before throwing up violently all over his bed and the kitchen doormat. Oscar is very seldom sick. I think he was making a point here. Now he is doing his meerkat impersonation in the hope of more food.

 

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

Castletown Fireworks from Energy FM site

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

I generally do a short post at the beginning of each year, but for some reason this year I feel moved to do it at the end. This is probably to do with the extraordinary nature of 2020, where the world turned upside down for so many people. The internet is full of memes and jokes about how happy we’ll all be to see the end of 2020, and it’s certainly a year that very few of us will forget in a hurry.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or read my blog posts, will know that with very few exceptions, I stay firmly out of contemporary politics. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of what is going on around me, it just means that I find the climate of political debate both toxic and pointless at times. There are people out there who can have a rational discussion on a public forum, but they’re few and far between. Overall, I prefer to keep conversations about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, Lockdown and the teaching of Black History in schools to my close family and friends.

This year it’s been harder than ever to do that, watching the flood of information and misinformation rushing through both traditional and social media. It has felt at times as though the whole world has gone mad, and the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that I was raised with have got lost in the compulsive collective need to prove a point, put down other people and above all, to be right. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

What 2020 has confirmed for me is that there are people out there whom I’ve met both online and in person, who are simply great. They come together both online and in person, drawn by a love of reading, writing, history and good fun. They’re excited by new books, new ideas and photographs of cuddly Labradors. They speak to each other with respect and affection and acknowledge their differences with humour and tolerance. They are not all the same. Some are highly educated and well-respected in their field. Others are self-educated and come to the discussion full of questions, often bringing new ideas. The thing that they all have in common is an enthusiasm for learning about people both fictional and in real life. They are entertaining, they are generous with their time and knowledge and they are kind.

A lot of you will recognize yourselves in this, and you are all my people. While there are people like you in the world, the madness will never win. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done in 2020. Every review, every humorous comment, every mad exchange on Twitter and every time you’ve answered a call for information with more than I could ever have hoped for, you prove the pessimists and the doomsayers wrong. Let’s all keep doing it.

Groudle Beach

For me, 2020 has been a very mixed year. The pandemic has closed down the world and left me marooned on this little island in the middle of the Irish Sea, with none of the freedom to travel that I used to enjoy. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate where I live more than ever before. Watching how the people of the Isle of Man have dealt with this chaos makes me proud of my adopted homeland.

In family matters, it’s been a happy year. My son is very settled with his lovely girlfriend, who has become a member of our family. If all goes well, I doubt he’ll still be living here this time next year, a thought which makes me happy and a little sad. My daughter has embarked on her second year in York with great panache, coming out with firsts so far and treating quarantine and lockdowns as a minor inconvenience. The man I married has utterly failed to miss travelling to London for work and is becoming more Manx by the day.

“You’re going all the way to Peel for the evening? Are you staying over, then?”

It’s seven miles.

It took a long time to adjust to the loss of Joey, and it still catches me every now and again. Oscar has proved a worthy successor to my two old fellas, and when we can find a suitable puppy, we’ll be bringing in reinforcements for him on the staff of Writing with Labradors. I can’t wait.

Professionally, it’s been my most successful year to date, although the stress of the first lockdown and the pandemic generally definitely slowed my writing down a lot. Sales have been good, and reviews have been excellent. For the second year in a row, I had a book shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize, this year with This Blighted Expedition. I was invited to take part in the amazing Waterloo Remembered online celebrations earlier this year, and I’ve been interviewed on various podcasts and blogs through the year.

 

 

I completed and published book six of the Peninsular War Saga, An Unmerciful Incursion. I’ve begun research and planning for two new books. I also found a new editor, who is oddly enough an old friend of mine, and who is working out brilliantly so far.

Things I didn’t manage to achieve. Well obviously, my annual research trip was cancelled this year, as were all the conferences and historical events I hoped to attend. I didn’t manage to finish getting the books out in paperback, for which I apologise. The work is still ongoing, and it will happen, I promise you.

I have big plans for 2021. Next year I aim to publish two books at least. One will be This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, and the other is An Indomitable Brigade, which is book seven of the Peninsular War Saga. I’m currently working on both and still haven’t completely decided which is going to come out first. I’ll let you know when I’m certain.

I also aim to get all the books edited and available in paperback, and I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, with a possible extra one in the summer. And if the current two books go well, I would love to get off book three of the Manxman as well, although that might be asking a bit too much. We’ll see.

When I’ve finished this, I am off to organise the house for the New Year’s Party we’re hosting this evening for our young people. I’m so conscious of how privileged I am to be doing this, at this moment in time, when other people are buckling down for another lockdown and more restrictions. Even tomorrow’s clear up won’t seem so bad this year, as I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.

Well, maybe not that lucky.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021. I hope you’ll all manage to celebrate in whatever way you can, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from you all in the coming year.

With love from the Isle of Man.

Lynn and Oscar

The Frost Fair

Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell (from Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the Frost Fair, my Christmas story for 2020. This year, it is published as part of the Historical Writers Forum Christmas Blog Hop. Our theme is the Jolabokaflod, the lovely Icelandic custom of giving books as gifts, to be read on Christmas Eve.

As always, the story is free, so please share as much as you like. In addition, I’m offering free copies of the following books on kindle for the whole of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. 

An Unconventional Officer: Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Unwilling Alliance: Book 1 of the Manxman Series

A Regrettable Reputation: Book 1 of the Regency Romances

I found researching Frost Fairs absolutely fascinating. I have a childhood memory of doing a jigsaw puzzle of one of the Frost Fairs with my Mum. As a child who knew the River Thames very well, I was enchanted by the idea of a fair on ice, overlooked by the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral and wished they happened in modern times.

The earliest Frost Fairs were probably in the late 7th Century and the last one was in 1814. They were most common between the early 17th and early 19th centuries during the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over most frequently. During that time the British winter was more severe than it is now, and the river was wider and slower, further impeded by the 19 piers of the medieval Old London Bridge. Even then, Frost Fairs were rare, though they were recorded in 1608, 1683-4, 1716, 1739–40, 1789, and 1814.

The reality of the Little Ice Age was brutal. Prolonged cold, dry periods brought about poor crop growth, poor livestock survival, disease and unemployment. Reading about the conditions which made the London Frost Fairs possible, it makes sense to me that a city savaged by cold would seize any opportunity for an impromptu celebration, even one as potentially dangerous as holding a fair on a frozen river where the ice might crack at any moment.

There was no Frost Fair in 1813, but I have invented one for the sake of my story. Most of the events, including the walking of an elephant across the ice, are taken from descriptions of the 1814 Frost Fair. I wanted to follow up Captain James Harker after the traumatic events depicted in the Quartermaster, and his transfer into the 110th alongside his obstreperous Scottish sidekick happens just in time for them to join the regiment on the march to Vitoria in Book 7.

2020 has been utterly appalling for so many people around the world. Covid is not about to vanish overnight, but there’s some hope now, for an eventual return to normality. We’ve been so lucky on the Isle of Man, with one lockdown, and then pretty much normal life, apart from the borders being closed, but that becomes hard when friends and loved ones are in the UK and can’t visit, or perhaps need help.

My readers have helped me stay sane. You are all absolutely amazing people. You message me and chat to me and talk about my characters as though they are your friends. I love that, because they are my friends too. I write because I love it, and I can’t stop, but these days, I write every book for all of you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. You are the reason I do this, each and every one of you.

***

The Frost Fair: a story of Christmas 1812

By the time the mail coach rattled over the cobblestones into the coaching inn in Southwark, Captain James Harker was so cold that he could not feel his feet. The first part of the journey from Portsmouth had been miserably damp, but long before the coach reached the outskirts of London, rain had turned to snow. It was not yet settling on the wet roads, but James thought that a dry night and a good frost might make further travel impossible and he was grateful that his journey ended here.

It was late and already full dark when James climbed stiffly from the coach and watched as the boy unloaded his small trunk and battered kit bag, with a swift glance at James’s plain dark cloak. James could see that he was being weighed up for a tip, and he smiled inwardly, thinking that the boy could hardly have chosen a worse target for fleecing. Years of living on an officer’s pay had given James the ability to spot a sharper within three minutes. He supervised the carrying of his bags into the inn, handed the boy a coin, amused at his chagrin, then sent him about his business when the youth began a heart-rending story about his widowed mother.

A London coaching inn was not the best place for a restful night’s sleep, but James was accustomed to far worse conditions. At this season there were few travellers which gave him the luxury of a room to himself, and he slept well. He awoke early to find, as he had suspected, that the world was white. A heavy frost and a light swirling fall of snow covered London’s grime for a short time with a magical sparkle.

James went to breakfast in the coffee room, and ate ham and eggs while listening to the voices around him, enjoying the cockney accents of the waiters and porters and the more refined accents of lawyers and businessmen. He had served in Portugal and Spain for more than four years, and even before that his visits to his home city were sporadic between the wanderings of army life. After the upheavals of the past year, it felt good to be back in London.

His breakfast done, James paid his shot, made enquiries and was introduced to a porter, a sturdy fellow with shaggy hair in need of a good wash. There was no need for protracted haggling here. The man accepted James’s offer with such alacrity that James wondered for a moment if he was indeed being set up for a robbery, but he studied Smith’s lined face and decided that the man was simply in need of the money. He was strong enough to make light of James’s trunk, hoisting it easily onto his shoulder. He would have taken the pack as well, but James shook his head and slung it over his own shoulder.

It was no more than a fifteen minute walk across London Bridge to Eastcheap. James walked at a leisurely pace, to allow Smith to keep up, and enjoyed the bustling city streets. Men walked quickly, heads down against the snow, scarves pulled up over their faces for warmth. Women clutched cloaks and shawls close around them and scuttled towards home and fires. Others, less prosperous, shivered in threadbare garments and James flinched at the sight of barefooted children trying to creep closer to the warmth of a chestnut seller’s brazier. He had seen poverty in the towns and villages of Portugal and Spain these past years but the icy cobbles seemed to add an extra dimension to the misery of the poor. He stopped on impulse and bought a bag of chestnuts, then handed them to the three children and watched them burning their fingers to eat them quickly.

An icy wind lifted the edge of James’s cloak as he crossed the bridge. He paused for a moment to look down towards the imposing bulk of the Tower of London, and felt once again the sense of coming home. As a boy he had run from his home above his father’s small legal practice to join his friends mud-larking along the banks of the Thames. Later, his pockets full of small treasures, he would return to his mother’s home-baked bread and crumbling meat pies. Now that he was so close, James felt an odd knot of nerves in his stomach. Four years was a long time to be away, and so much had happened during that time, that he felt like a different man. James wondered how he would seem to his father.

The house was exactly as he remembered it, tall and stately, built from dark red bricks with mullioned windows and a creaking sign stating the nature of the business within. James pushed open the green painted door and was immediately assailed by a faint but familiar smell of paper and ink and dusty books. The room was lined with shelves and two desks were occupied by clerks, one a middle-aged man with a scholarly stoop, the other a young man whom James had never seen before. Both looked up as James motioned to Smith to set down the trunk and lowered his pack on top of it. He reached for his purse and paid, tipping generously. As the door closed, he turned to find the older man coming towards him.

“Captain Harker. Welcome home, sir. It’s very good to see you.”

“You too, Ellis. You’re looking very well. Is my father in?”

“Yes, sir. He’ll be surprised to see you this early.”

“The coach got in late and the weather was foul, so I stayed at the George.”

“Go on up, Captain, I’ll ring for the boy to take up your luggage.”

James found his father in his first floor sitting room which doubled as his study. Frederick Harker was a slight, spare man, wrapped in a quilted dressing gown against the cold, with a velvet cap tucked neatly over his bald head. James thought, as they shook hands, that his father looked more frail than he had five years ago when James had come home on leave to attend his mother’s funeral.

“Well, well, how are you, my boy? Still limping, I see.”

“It’s improved a lot,” James said, taking the proffered seat at the small table and accepting coffee from a middle aged maid with a smile of thanks.

“Will it go?”

“I don’t know, sir. I thought not, for a while, but it becomes easier all the time, so I hope that one day I’ll walk normally again.”

“I don’t suppose it matters as much in the work you do now,” Harker said mildly.

James was never sure whether his father’s barbed remarks were intentional or not. Harker’s complete absorption in his work had left little time for his wife or son, and James had been raised by his affectionate, practical mother. He was not close to his father, who had not approved of his choice of the army over a legal career. Harker had reluctantly financed his first commissions, but once James had obtained his captaincy, he had made it clear that there was no money for any further promotions.

The bedroom on the third floor was as dark and chilly as James remembered it. He unpacked, stowing his possessions with a soldier’s habitual neatness. In Ciudad Rodrigo, he employed a skinny Portuguese boy to act as groom, valet and general servant, but he had not considered bringing Tomas to England.

With his possessions arranged, James left the house and set out on foot towards the river. His father, having made all the correct enquiries about his son’s health and the abysmal state of his career, had gone to dress for an appointment in court. James knew his father would be wholly occupied until dinner and was glad of it. He had an errand which he had no wish to discuss with his austere, distant parent.

James found a hackney cab two streets away. He could have sent a servant to summon one, but knowing how his father’s servants were inclined to gossip, he preferred not to make them a present of his destination. He was dreading this meeting, but was determined to see it through. Before leaving Spain, he had confided his intention to his junior officer and had received a vulgar hoot of derision from the newly promoted Lieutenant Andrew Dodd.

“You’d think after everything that’s happened this past year, sir, you’d give yourself a day off. Is there a reason you’re putting yourself through this, or is it just that life is too peaceful?”

“Life is going to get a lot more peaceful once you’re off on campaign, you disrespectful Scottish bastard,” James said. “It’s none of your damned business.”

“I know it’s not. But sir…what are you wanting to say to the girl? And what makes you think she’ll even see you?”

“She probably won’t. And I’ve no idea. Sandy, I know it sounds mad to you. But after what happened recently…” James broke off, searching for a way to explain. “I feel different,” he said finally. “About everything. After Barbara left me, I was lost for a long time. Nothing made sense to me – killing Cunningham in that duel, almost getting myself killed at Ciudad Rodrigo, and those endless months working as a bloody storekeeper…”

“And meeting me, of course, sir.”

James grinned unwillingly. “You’re one of the few things that does make some sense, Mr Dodd, which is more worrying than anything else. I know you think I’m mad. But I’ve come out of this with the sense that the worst is over. I’ve felt guilty for long enough, and I’ve done my penance. When I get back, I’ll train up whichever God-awful junior they send me when you’ve gone, and then I’ll start applying for transfers and see if I can get back into combat. With my reputation it might take awhile, but…”

“I’ll ask around, sir.”

James thought about Dodd as the cab rattled through the streets. Two years ago he would have been insulted by the idea that his former ensign and junior quartermaster, a sharp-tongued borderer raised from the ranks, might be in a position to put in a good word for him. Dodd’s status had changed since his very recent marriage to a young Spanish widow from Ciudad Rodrigo. James, who had acted as groomsman before boarding the transport to England, knew that Sofia’s wealth had nothing to do with Dodd’s decision to marry her. Nevertheless, it placed Dodd in a position to purchase promotion into a light infantry regiment, while James remained tied to the district stores in Ciudad Rodrigo after the scandal of his fatal duel with a cavalry major. Socially, their positions were neatly reversed, and James knew that it was an indication of how much he had come to value Dodd’s friendship that he did not mind nearly as much as he ought to.

The house was newly built, a neat terrace in a recently developed West London district, with a long narrow front garden. James hesitated for a long time outside the door, then took hold of his courage with both hands and rang the bell. It was answered by a maidservant who bobbed a curtsey, gave James’ uniform a long sweeping look, and agreed to take up his card. James waited for ten minutes, unsure of what answer he hoped for. The maid returned with the information that Miss Harrington would see him in her dressing room and James took a deep breath and trod up the stairs.

Barbara’s dressing room was an elegant apartment, decorated with pale blue stripes and tastefully furnished. It was also one of the untidiest rooms James had ever been in. Every available surface was littered with perfume bottles, cosmetics,  brushes, combs and hairpins. A stand bore a stylish powdered wig, combing jackets, scarves and shawls cluttered every chair. The remains of the lady’s breakfast rested on a small table before a roaring fire. In one corner of the room was a painted dressing screen, and a door on the far side was ajar, giving a glimpse of Barbara’s bedroom.

“Captain Harker, what a very great surprise.”

James took her outstretched hand and bowed over it, observing her polished nails and the presence of an impressive sapphire which he did not think was a wedding ring. Barbara was wearing a loose morning robe in pale blue silk which set off her fair hair and blue eyes, and matched the wallpaper so exactly that James refused to believe it was a coincidence.

“Miss Harrington, thank you for seeing me.”

“Well, I would not have seen anybody else at this hour, I am barely out of my bed. I was playing faro until the early hours and before that, I was at the theatre with…well anyway, you are very welcome, I’m sure. Pray, sit down, sir, and have some wine.”

James did so, studying her. Barbara was as pretty as he remembered, but she looked very different from the girl he had fallen in love with two years ago in Lisbon. He could see her studying him and wondered if she was thinking the same about him.

“What brings you to London, Captain Harker?”

“Furlough. I’ve not taken leave for years, and with the army in winter quarters, it seemed the right time to visit my father.”

“Nothing to do in the stores?”

James had wondered if she had known of his spectacular fall from grace after her departure, but her manner suggested she knew a great deal.

“I’ve good deputies,” he said neutrally. “How are you, Miss Harrington?”

“As you see.” Barbara spread her hands, indicating the cluttered luxury around her. “We have become very formal, James. There was a time that you called me Barbara.”

James gave a little smile. “Barbara. I’m glad to find you in such comfortable circumstances.”

“Were you perhaps expecting to find me in rags in a garret room?”

There was bitterness in her tone. James shook his head. “Not once I managed to obtain your address, I know the area.”

Barbara smiled. “Very perceptive of you, James. I am astonished to see you here. Why did you come?”

“You sound very worried. Please don’t be, Barbara, I haven’t come to renew my offer of marriage. Which is just as well, because I couldn’t possibly afford all this.”

The girl gave a peal of delighted laughter and clapped her hands together. “Oh, I had forgotten how much you make me laugh. I’m glad to hear it, I was dreading your disappointment.”

“Why did you agree to see me then?”

“I am not sure. At least…I think I wanted to apologise to you. I behaved very badly, and it seemed, from the gossip I heard, that it has had very grave consequences for your career. I am truly sorry, James.”

James was unexpectedly touched. “Don’t be,” he said. “You were under no obligation to fall in love with me, Barbara, and for the rest of it, you were not there and it was my own doing.”

“Will you tell me what happened to you?”

James sipped the wine. It was rather too sweet for his taste, but he needed the courage. “I made a damned fool of myself,” he said bluntly. “I heard you’d been sent home, and why. I found myself in company with Major Cunningham at a reception, and we had words. I challenged him, and I killed him.”

“Dear God,” Barbara breathed softly. “James, why, for God’s sake? I’d rejected your suit, after weeks of leading you on. You owed me nothing.”

“I was jealous,” James said. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’ve had a lot of time to think recently. I loathed him, but mostly it was sheer jealous rage.”

“And did they not bring you to trial?”

“They intended to do so, but there was no time, we were marching on Ciudad Rodrigo. My commanding officer offered me the opportunity to lead one of the Forlorn Hopes over the breach. I survived.”

“You were badly wounded and you almost died.”

Despite himself, James felt a lift of happiness. “You asked about me?”

“I heard the news of the duel. I move in very high military circles. Since I felt responsible, I made it my business to find out. I was very relieved that you lived, even though it meant that you were sent into exile in the quartermaster’s department. I am sorry, James.”

“Don’t be.”

“Please, let me say it.” Barbara got up and walked to the long window which overlooked the leafy avenue. “I was unkind to you. I liked you so much, James, and there was a time when I genuinely thought that I might be happy married to you. But I deceived myself as well as you. I was never going to be happy in genteel poverty.”

“It’s not as bad as that, Barbara.”

She laughed. “No. But when Jack Cunningham began to show an interest, I knew how wealthy he was. It seemed like a way out.”

“He was a bastard.”

“Yes, he was. But let us be very clear, James – I allowed him to seduce me. Naively, I thought it might make him declare himself.” Barbara studied him. “Have I shocked you?”

James thought about it, then shook his head. “I’ve had a long time to work it out. I have a question, but I’m not sure…”

“The child died. A little girl, she lived only a few weeks.”

“I’m sorry, Barbara.”

“I don’t really remember much about it, I was very ill, they thought I would die too. Afterwards, there I was. Marooned in the wilds of Norfolk, with an elderly companion and a ruined reputation. I wished for a time that I’d died with the baby. Then I met Algy.”

“Algy?”

“The Honourable Algernon Fothergill, eldest son of a minor but exceedingly wealthy coal baron. He was visiting friends in the area, and through a great deal of gossiping with the maids, I managed to run into him on a sunny afternoon in a woodland glade.”

James sought for disapproval and found himself smiling. “And did he pay for this house?”

“No, he rented a charming little apartment for me. Lord Corday gave me the lease on this house as a farewell gift. Sir Anthony Ludlow paid a good deal to furnish it and gave me my sapphires.”

“Are you happy, Barbara?”

Barbara smiled broadly. “Yes,” she said. “Very happy. I have accepted my nature, you see. I am very frivolous and very greedy and I want beautiful things and luxurious surroundings and all the admiration I can take. I am a star in the demi-monde and one day I will be the mistress of a prince.”

“He’ll be lucky to have you.” James stood up and Barbara came forward, stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I would like to ask you to stay, James, but I know that you will not. I’m so grateful you came, though, thank you. I had two painful sources of guilt. Now I have only one.”

James made a guess. “Your parents?”

“Yes. They will not receive me, of course, and they are quite right. I have an older sister and I have probably ruined her chances of a good marriage. I’m sorry that I hurt them so badly. I was sorry about you too, but I see now that I have no further need. You are over me, and you will do very much better with your next choice. I only wish I had the choosing of her, I want to see you with somebody perfectly lovely.”

James put his arms about her and held her for a long, affectionate moment. “I will write to tell you if that ever comes to pass,” he said, lightly. “Goodbye, my dear. I think you will do very well, but if there is ever anything I can do for you, please send word.”

“I promise.” Barbara stepped back and glanced at the window. “You should go. Look, it’s snowing again, and very heavily. I’ll send my boy to find a cab for you.”

***

James moved through the long dull days in his father’s home with a lightness of heart that he had not felt in a long time. He had little to do with his parent, seeing him only at dinner. Mr Harker was as obsessed with his work as ever, often returning to his study during the evening to pore over legal documents and law books. He made several attempts to persuade James to sell his commission in the army and join the firm. He had been making the suggestion regularly in letters ever since his son’s career had gone so dramatically wrong. James allowed him to talk, then refused pleasantly each time. There was no point in trying to explain to his father that despite his blighted prospects, he preferred even his dull work in the district stores to a legal career.

James had few friends in town, but he was a member of the Shorncliffe, a gentleman’s club just off St James’ which was heavily patronised by the military. There was generally an acquaintance or two to be found in the lounge or the dining room, and James took to walking over to the club most evenings after dinner to play cards and share a bottle of wine. He was pleased to find that he was missing army life, despite the dire state of his career. One of the purposes of this trip home had been to decide whether he was ready to give up on the army or if he wanted to stay and push for a new posting. James was beginning to think he had made up his mind.

After an enjoyable evening playing whist for low stakes with several light infantry officers on furlough, James made the unwelcome discovery that the temperature had dropped suddenly, and the light covering of snow on the ground had turned to treacherous ice. He made his way cautiously through the freezing streets, swearing every time his boots slipped on the cobbles, and made it to his bed in a pleasant haze of good brandy, deciding that he would remain at home on the following day and catch up on some letter writing.

James was halfway through a letter to Dodd the next morning when a flurry of activity below caused him to abandon his task. He found what appeared to be the entire staff, including the two clerks, gathered in the hallway around a pink cheeked kitchen maid who had braved the freezing conditions to go to market.

“It’s true,” she was insisting. “I heard it in the market and walked down myself to have a look. The river’s frozen solid. You can skate on it and walk on it and everything. They’re saying it’s going to be a Frost Fair.”

There was a murmur of excitement. The last time the Thames had frozen thoroughly enough for a full Frost Fair had been more than twenty years ago, when James was a boy, and he could still remember the excitement.

“It don’t surprise me,” Mrs Edwards, the cook announced. “I been saying for days, I don’t remember a winter this cold since I was a girl.”

“That’s not so very long ago, ma’am.”

James blinked in astonishment and turned to stare at his father’s senior clerk and then back at the cook who was blushing like the girl she very definitely was not. Before anybody could speak, there was a dry cough from above.

“May I request that you attend to your duties, since I am currently paying for your time.”

The staff melted away and James mounted the stairs and joined his father in his study. “If she’s right, sir, you should give them some time off to go.”

Harker sat down at his desk. “Stuff and nonsense. I remember being dragged along by your mother last time. The ice was full of the worst elements in London, and I almost froze to death.”

Something about his tone made James smile, and he felt an uncharacteristic rush of affection. He reached out, took the black velvet cap from his father’s head, and dropped a kiss on his bald pate.

“Mother would have let them go.”

Harker snatched the cap back and jammed it on back to front. “You are as big a fool as she was.”

“Very likely, sir.”

There was a silence. Harker sniffed noisily.

“If – and I say if – there is indeed to be a Frost Fair, they may attend providing I am still provided with meals, and providing my business is not affected. Speak to Ellis and arrange things. I do not wish to be troubled by it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Can you still skate?”

James stared at him in astonishment. “I suppose so,” he said. “I’ve not done so for years, but with some practice I should think…oh, you mean my leg? I can’t see why not, if I can walk and run.”

“You should go yourself, perhaps meet some of your army friends. I am no company for a young man.”

James felt warmth around his heart. “You’re the person I came home to see, sir, and I don’t have a single regret.”

Harker looked up with a glimmer of a smile. “Well, well. Get yourself out of here, boy, I’ve work to do.”

James walked down to the river and found a bustle of activity. He stood watching for a long time as the Thames watermen made their cautious way around the ice, testing its thickness. Around them, the river was eerily still and silent, ground to a frozen halt. Walking up to London Bridge, James realised that huge chunks of ice had become stuck between the piers, damming the river and helping it to freeze. With the waterway solidly blocked, there was no work for either the watermen, who ferried people along the river, or the lightermen who transported goods. It was clear that the men had found an alternative source of income, and by the end of the day, they had set up tables and were charging traders to access the ice and were erecting rough signs showing where it was safe to walk.

One of the first tradesmen to set up shop was a portly gentleman selling ice skates. James had no idea what had happened to his boyhood skates, and he sat on a rough bench trying on several pairs before he found some that worked. They were better than the wooden ones he remembered, which had to be tied to the shoe and were always coming undone. These had metal screws to attach them to the heel and strong leather straps. James tried a few turns and found that his old skill came back quickly. He whizzed across the ice between booths and tents being set up by local tradesmen and remembered with a slight pang that he had talked of skating with Barbara during the first heady days of their love affair and discovered that she too loved to skate.

By the following day, the Frost Fair was fully set up. James went down early with Captain Royston and Lieutenant Shipley to find that the Thames, between London Bridge and Blackfriars, had turned into a frozen pleasure gardens and that thousands of Londoners were making their way onto the ice to join in the fun. Traders and pedlars had set up roughly  constructed shops, public houses, skating rinks and food stalls.

James was both astonished and impressed at what the hucksters of London had managed in such a short space of time and wondered if they had worked all through the night. The most substantial structures had been formed into a main street and some wit had made a sign declaring it to be City Road. It was lined with hawkers selling trinkets and souvenirs and there were even several printing presses inside makeshift tents, with typographers working to print commemorative poems and pamphlets about the Frost Fair.

The revellers came from all walks of life. Ladies and gentlemen in silks and satins brushed sleeves with the ragged poor. There was a bull-baiting and cock fighting matches as well as nine-pin bowling and three skating rinks. In one area, children’s swings had been erected and in another, rough planks were laid to form a dance floor. Mummers and puppet plays held small groups of children spellbound. Food and drink sellers were everywhere. Oxen, pigs and sheep were roasted on spits, and booths sold mince pies and gingerbread blocks. Some stalls sold tea, coffee and hot chocolate, but the vast majority sold alcohol, and as the day went on, the numerous temporary bars and public houses were causing the inevitable drunkenness.

James went home in darkness, pleasantly stuffed with roast mutton and plum pudding. He was tired the following morning, and after a quiet breakfast, he returned to his letter to Dodd. He was just sealing it when the maid appeared, looking tired and heavy-eyed herself after the evening’s revelry. She presented James with a letter, sealed with a wafer. James studied it in some surprise. It looked like a feminine hand, and was certainly not from one of his military friends. He broke it open, read it, and then read it again, feeling bewildered.

“My dearest James. After your recent kind offer of assistance, I had not expected to need to call upon you, and certainly not so soon. I find myself with a small difficulty, and wonder if you would meet me at the Frost Fair at noon today. I shall await you by the skating rink at the Blackfriars end of the fair. Ever yours, Barbara Harrington”

It made no sense to James and he sat pondering it for a while. There was no sense of urgency in the tone of the note, it seemed almost playful. He found himself wondering if, after all, his former love had decided to attempt to set up a flirtation with him while he was in town. James firmly rejected the idea. He was happy with his new-found peace of mind and did not want it disturbed by a flighty young woman with a sordid reputation, however fondly he had once thought of her.

At the same time, James could not bring himself to ignore the note. He dressed warmly and set out for the river, promising himself that he would find out what Barbara wanted, but would pleasantly reject any advances, if that was what she had in mind. As he approached the river, there were crowds of people waiting to pay their admission toll to the watermen who lined the banks. James eyed the throng as he waited, wondering how many of them would be lighter of their purses by the end of the day. Such a mass of humanity, especially when they had been drinking, would be easy pickings for the army of pickpockets and cut-purses who roamed the London streets.

There was no sign of Barbara at the skating rink. James donned his skates and took to the ice. It had been smoothed out for the occasion and was good to skate on. He made a few turns and even a jump, which attracted admiring glances from some of the ladies on the ice. Eventually he returned to the booth, looking around for Barbara and wondering if she had changed her mind.

“Captain Harker.”

James turned, surprised. The older man wore a thick dark cloak and old-fashioned hat, and it took a moment before James recognised him. He came to attention quickly and saluted.

“Colonel Harrington.”

“I have been watching you skate, Captain,” Barbara’s father said. “Such a pleasure. And such a surprise to see you here. I had thought…”

“I’m on furlough, sir, visiting my father. Winter quarters.”

“Yes, yes of course. I am no longer on active service, myself. Circumstances, you know, and my health suffered. So I took half-pay and am happy enough with my family.”

James heard the lie behind the words and was suddenly furious with Barbara for the harm she had inflicted on this charming, unassuming man. He was also angry that she had tricked him into this meeting. He wondered how she had known that her father would be here, and what she hoped to gain. Did she think that her jilted lover could somehow speak to her father about a reconciliation, or was she just hoping that James would talk to him and bring her news of her estranged family? Clearly she would not be making an appearance herself.

“I should introduce you to my wife and daughter, Captain. My dear, this is Captain James Harker of the…of the…”

James took pity on him and shook hands with the middle-aged woman in a dark cloak. “I’m currently seconded to  the quartermasters department in Ciudad Rodrigo, ma’am, but I’m hoping to obtain a transfer back into combat.”

“I hope you do too, my boy. Lord Wellington needs men of courage and honour on the battlefield.”

There was an awkward pause, then Harrington seemed to recollect himself and turned to the other woman. “And this is my daughter. Rebecca, this is Captain Harker.”

There was a stumble over the words, and James realised that the colonel had almost introduced the young woman as his eldest daughter. James reached for her hand quickly to cover the awkward moment and found his hand taken in a firm grip and shaken, giving him no opportunity for gallantry. Surprised, he looked up into a pair of steady hazel eyes.

“Delighted to meet you, Miss Harrington.”

“Captain Harker. I understand you knew my father in Portugal. I’m very sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to know you there.”

Mrs Harrington gave a faint gasp and the colonel looked furious. For a moment, James wanted to turn and run. Unexpectedly, however, he found that his interest was caught by the woman’s angry defiance. He wondered why she had not been with her parents in Portugal that year. He was very sure that she knew who he was, and all about his connection to her younger sister.

“Do you skate, Miss Harrington?”

The question seemed to surprise her, but it cut through the moment of awkwardness. After a moment, she said:

“I do, but I do not have my skates with me in London. We were not expecting this.”

“Rebecca is an excellent skater,” Mrs Harrington said warmly.

“Would you care to take a turn about the ice with me? They are hiring skates at the booth. As my guest, if you please.”

The woman hesitated, and looked at the skaters whirling around on the ice. James could sense her longing to be among them. After a moment she nodded. James looked at the colonel for permission and saw a flash of gratitude in his senior’s eyes. He offered his arm and escorted Rebecca to the long bench to try on skates, while he paid.

Rebecca Harrington was so unlike her younger sister that James would never have imagined they were related. She was about the same height as Barbara, but her hair was brown and her skin was slightly olive. Her carriage was erect and dignified with no sense of her sister’s floating grace. Watching her as she strapped on her chosen skates, James thought that Rebecca must always have stood in her sister’s dazzling shadow, but seeing her like this, she was an attractive enough young woman with a good deal of character in her pointed features.

And she could skate. They hit the ice in perfect unison and circled together, holding hands. After a few minutes, James was conscious of a feeling of satisfaction. He loved to skate as he loved to dance, but he had never before skated alongside a partner as skilled as him. They moved about the ice, and James realised they were picking up unconscious time from the small group of musicians who were playing at the nearby dance floor.

On impulse he reached for her other hand and drew her lightly into a dance hold. She seemed surprised, but quickly adapted, and followed his movements across the ice with effortless grace. Around them, some of the other skaters had paused to watch. James ignored them, concentrating on the sheer pleasure of the music and the movement. As they reached the end of the rink and made the turn, he raised one hand and spun her accurately under his arm. She responded quickly and when they joined hands again she was laughing and breathless and suddenly looked younger and very happy.

“Oh that was wonderful. Where did you learn to do that?”

“I just made it up,” James said honestly. “Shall we try it again?”

As the music ended, he brought her to a stop at the far end of the rink. “Are your skates all right?”

“No, the straps are coming loose, I need to tighten them.”

James led her to a wooden bench and knelt to adjust the straps. “You’re an excellent skater, Miss Harrington.”

“So are you. Thank you, I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed anything this much. It’s as if we were dancing on the ice. You should give lessons.”

“If ever I am finally thrown out of the army I will consider it.”

She gave an acknowledging smile. “How did you know I skated?”

“I guessed. I could see the way you were watching them. And also, Barbara once told me that she loved to skate. She said you both used to visit your grandmother in Scotland and skate on the lake in her grounds.”

The young woman put both her gloved hands against her flushed cheeks. “I cannot remember the last time anybody said my sister’s name,” she said.

James regarded her sympathetically. “It must be hard for your father.”

“I understand that. I understand why he will not visit, or have her visit us. She has broken every social convention he ever held dear. But it is hard not to be allowed even to speak her name.”

“Do you ever hear from her?”

James saw the flicker in her eyes. “Occasionally, she manages to sneak a note to me. She says very little other than that she is well and happy. It makes me angry, since I cannot see how she can be, when we are so unhappy. But I am glad of it.”

“I saw her yesterday,” James said.

Rebecca looked astonished. “I cannot think you mean that. After what she did to you, and all the damage to your career and your reputation. Surely you are not still…”

“Not at all, any more than she would not have me. We are very different people, Miss Harrington, and she knew it before I did. I regret many things, but not visiting Barbara. We parted as friends this time, I think.”

“I had a note. She said she might try to be here today, so I nagged my parents to come, although I did not really expect it. But I am so glad I did…did she tell you to be here too?”

“Yes,” James said. “I’ve no idea why, but she clearly wanted us to meet. Are your skates properly fastened? Shall we skate one more dance and then return to your parents?”

They found Colonel and Mrs Harrington seated at a rickety wooden table with a flagon of spiced wine before them. James accepted their invitation to join them, and answered the colonel’s questions as far as he could about the current state of the war in Spain and the condition of Wellington’s army. It was growing dark and around them, booths and stalls were lit up by torches and flares and lanterns on hooks. It was  also growing colder.

“You’re shivering, my dear,” Harrington said. “We should be going, since I suspect that evening will bring out the worst elements.”

“I think they’re already here, sir,” James said. He had been conscious for a while of the rising noise around them as people became more and more drunk. “Did you come by carriage?”

“We took a cab,” Mrs Harrington said. “I wonder if there is somebody we might send to find one for us?”

She looked around rather hopefully and James met Rebecca’s eyes in a moment of shared amusement. “I’ll go,” James said. “Let’s find you somewhere convenient to wait.”

“That would be so kind of you, Captain. Would you…I mean, if you have no other engagement today, I wonder if you would consider dining with us?”

“Excellent idea, my dear,” the colonel said enthusiastically. “Now what do you say, Captain? Will you come?”

James hesitated. His first instinct was to decline, but then he thought about it and decided that he did not want to. “I should be delighted, sir, but I must let my father know, so that he does not wait dinner for me.”

“Come with us in the cab and we can send our boy with a message. It’s not far.”

***

Rebecca had little to say during dinner. Her father monopolised Captain Harker with military matters and although generally she would have been irritated at being excluded from the conversation, Rebecca was content for once to listen and observe. She was not sure how she felt about the unexpected encounter with her sister’s former suitor, but she was impressed by his manners and how well he handled her father’s over-eager questions about the war. Rebecca understood how hard it had been for Colonel Harrington to retire from active service, but she wished his desperate sadness was not so obvious.

Captain Harker was not what Rebecca had expected. Watching him through the candlelight of an early winter evening, she found it hard to imagine him paying court to Barbara and harder still to imagine him issuing a challenge and shooting a man dead because he had dishonoured her sister. Rebecca disapproved of duelling as a way of settling disagreements and she thought that Harker was lucky not to have been cashiered or even convicted of murder, but now that she had met him, it was clear that the duel was an aberration in Harker’s hitherto respectable life. Rebecca listened to him talking of his parents and his early years in the army and wondered why on earth this sensible man had ruined his career and his reputation for her flighty, mercurial sister.

When dinner was over, Colonel Harrington carried Captain Harker off to his study to drink brandy and talk military matters while Rebecca joined her mother in the drawing room. She felt restless, still affected by the exhilaration of the Frost Fair and the enjoyment of skating with James Harker. Rebecca had little social contact these days, beyond her immediate family and at twenty-six she was trying hard to resign herself to the probability of spinsterhood.

It was not her dowry that was the problem. Colonel Harrington was able to provide a respectable portion for his daughters, and with Barbara disinherited, his estate would go to his eldest daughter. Both Rebecca and Barbara had been presented at court and Rebecca had spent several Seasons in town, but she had not managed to find a husband. She acknowledged that it was her own fault. Several older gentlemen had shown a flattering interest in Colonel Harrington’s dignified older daughter, but she had refused them. Once Barbara was brought out, Rebecca was eclipsed. She had hoped that once Barbara made her choice, she might do better, but Barbara was ambitious and turned up her pretty nose at every proposal. Mrs Harrington, unable to afford another expensive Season, was beginning to despair.

When Colonel Harrington was posted to Portugal, his wife conceived the notion of accompanying him, along with her younger daughter. It would be cheaper than another Season in London, and there were plenty of wealthy officers and a dearth of pretty young debutantes in Lisbon. Rebecca was sent to stay with her elderly aunt in Bournemouth and Barbara had packed her trunk and set sail for Portugal with dreams of a brilliant future.

“I shall insist on a title,” she had told Rebecca. “A title and a house in London, so that I may introduce my very clever older sister to the Ton properly. Oh Becky, I wish you were coming with me. I’ve begged and begged, but Father won’t have it. Never mind, I shall make it up to you.”

Rebecca found, to her surprise, that there were tears in her eyes and she blinked them back. It had been one of the last conversations she had with her younger sister. There was no triumphant return and no betrothal. Instead, Barbara was whisked away to have her illegitimate child in the country while her mother returned home to Rebecca and hid from the world in shame. Colonel Harrington remained in Portugal for another year, enduring the sniggering of fellow officers about his daughter’s disgrace. He had used his failing health as the excuse to return to England on half-pay, but Rebecca knew that  it was because he could no longer bear the humiliation.

Rebecca remembered clearly the day her father received news of the death of his daughter’s seducer. He read the letter in silence several times.

“Is everything all right, dear?”

“Yes. No. It’s from Mainwaring. He writes to tell me that Cunningham is dead.”

Mrs Harrington gasped. “That terrible man? But how, was he killed in battle?”

“Not at all. He was shot dead in a duel.” Colonel Harrington seemed to suddenly recollect the presence of his unmarried daughter. “Forgive me, it was a shock, but we should not…”

“Since my sister’s disgrace has ruined me along with her, Father, do you not think I deserve to know?”

After a long silence, the colonel said:

“Very well. It was Captain Harker, the young man who wished to marry Barbara.”

“Oh how I wish he had,” breathed Mrs Harrington. “But tell me, did he fight because of her?”

“It appears so. Cunningham had something to say on the matter and Harker called him out. A pity that he’ll be court-martialled. It’s rare to find a man of honour in the army these days.”

“I think it was remarkably foolish of him,” Rebecca said, buttering her bread so hard she made holes in it. “Especially since I believe you did not encourage his suit at the time, sir.”

“Rebecca, are you quite well?”

Rebecca looked up from her abandoned embroidery, surprised. “Oh. Oh, yes, quite well. Why do you ask, Mama?”

“I have spoken to you three times, child. I am going to ring for the tea tray. Will you go to the study to see if the gentlemen wish to join us?”

Rebecca obeyed. She could hear her father’s voice as she approached the study door, shivering a little in the cold of the hallway, and she wondered if Captain Harker was regretting his decision to come to dinner, since Colonel Harrington had probably been boring him senseless about the numerous problems with the modern army. Her father’s voice always grew louder when he had been drinking, and Rebecca’s hand was on the door knob when she heard him say:

“Damned shame about Rebecca. I hoped that if her sister made a good match, it would open doors for her. She’s a good girl, but she doesn’t have her sister’s looks and she don’t make enough of an effort. A man wants a girl to look pretty and show an interest in him, not bore on about the latest book she’s read or talk nonsense about that dreadful Wollstonecraft female and the rights of women.”

Rebecca froze, feeling colour flood her face. She could not bring herself to open the door, but neither could she move away. She could not believe that her father was speaking this way to a relative stranger, although she supposed that the drink had loosened his tongue. He drank a good deal since the ruin of his younger daughter, and Rebecca hated it.

“It sounds as though your daughter is a very interesting young lady,” Harker said pleasantly. “She is also very attractive, and if her skating is anything to go by, I would like to see her dance. It will take a year or two for the scandal to be forgotten, sir, but I hope one day Miss Harrington finds a gentleman who appreciates an intelligent wife. I’m very sorry, but I must take my leave. I’ve only just realised the time. Will you excuse me, I need to pay my respects to your wife.”

“One more drink,” the colonel said, and Rebecca was horrified at how badly he was slurring his words. She took hold of her courage with both hands and opened the door. Harker stood up quickly.

“Miss Harrington, I was just taking my leave of your father, and would like to offer my thanks to Mrs Harrington.”

“I was just coming to see if you would drink tea with us, sir.”

Harker glanced at the colonel then to Rebecca’s surprise, shot her a conspiratorial grin. “Another time. Colonel, my thanks to you for a very enjoyable dinner. No need to see me out, I will ask your daughter to do so.”

Colonel Harrington subsided into his chair with a grunt. Harker saluted and stepped out into the hall and Rebecca closed the door. Her face was burning with embarrassment.

“Captain Harker. My mother is in the drawing room, if you wish to speak to her. Or I could convey your thanks…”

“Which would you prefer?”

Rebecca looked up quickly. “Oh. Thank you. Perhaps it would be best…Captain, I am so sorry. And so ashamed. He was not always like this.”

“Don’t worry about it, ma’am, it’s nothing I’ve not seen in the officers’ mess. He’s a very fine old gentleman, and he’s been the soul of courtesy. To me, at least. I’m sorry, I know you must have overheard what he said, you were right outside the door. But he didn’t mean it, he clearly loves you dearly. He’s a disappointed man, your sister hurt him very badly.”

“My sister hurt all of us very badly, Captain, including you. But I don’t see you finding refuge at the bottom of a bottle.”

“That’s because you weren’t there at the time,” Harker said calmly. “It’s exactly what I did. If I hadn’t, Major Cunningham would still be alive.”

“Oh. Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…”

To Rebecca’s surprise, the captain reached out, took her hand, and raised it to his lips. “I know you didn’t. I hope you’re not offended, Miss Harrington, it’s just that we’ve all suffered to some degree from your sister’s thoughtlessness, which makes it easy to speak plainly to you. I do have to go, but I was wondering…I doubt the Frost Fair will last more than another day or two. Certainly I think it will be gone by Christmas Eve. Do you think your parents would allow me to be your escort tomorrow for a day at the fair? You can bring your maid, of course. I thought we could skate again, and perhaps join the dancers. It will be a very raucous and vulgar day, but I promise I’ll take good care of you, and I think it might be enjoyable.”

Rebecca stared at him in complete astonishment. Her mouth was open to give a polite refusal, when she realised unexpectedly that she had never wanted anything so much in her life before.

“Yes,” she said. “Captain – yes. Thank you.”

Harker smiled, and Rebecca felt a sudden surge of anger at Barbara for failing to appreciate the value of this thoroughly nice man.

“Let’s go and ask your Mama, then, since I suspect your father may have gone to sleep in the armchair by now.”

***

It was well after dark when James finally arrived back at his father’s house the following evening, and the clerks had gone home for the day. James trod up the stairs and found Mr Harker in his study writing a letter. He looked up as James paused in the doorway.

“Ah, there you are. I am afraid you have missed dinner.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I lost track of time, but I’m not at all hungry. We dined very well on roast pork and spiced cider. I shall probably have a headache.”

“It will serve you right, then. Sit down and have some brandy, it can hardly make it any worse.”

James thought that it might, but he complied, pouring a glass for his father.

“You seem to be enjoying the Frost Fair. Were you with your army friends?”

James hesitated. “No,” he said finally. “I was escorting a young lady.”

Harker’s brows raised. “I was not aware that you were acquainted with any young ladies in London, my boy. Do I know her?”

“I shouldn’t think so, sir, you don’t know anybody.”

“True, very true. It is a source of great satisfaction to me. What is the name of this lady?”

“Miss Rebecca Harrington. She is the eldest daughter of a retired colonel of my acquaintance, we met at the fair yesterday.”

“And have you been with her all day?”

“Yes,” James said.

“Alone?”

“There was a maid, but she got lost very early on.”

“How very obliging of her. I do hope you have not compromised this lady, James.”

“I doubt it, sir. Nobody knows who either of us are, and in those crowds, it’s easy to be invisible.”

“I can see you have thought this through.”

“I didn’t think about it at all,” James said honestly. “I was enjoying myself too much, and I think she was as well.”

“Well, well, I’m glad to hear it. Are you intending to see more of this young lady?”

James did not answer, because he had been asking himself the question for the entire cab ride home. He had delivered Rebecca back to her parents and made his apologies both for the lateness of the hour and the absence of her maid. Harrington brushed both to one side with jovial good humour and invited James for a drink in a way that made it impossible to refuse.

James understood. When he had paid court to Barbara in Lisbon two years ago, Colonel Harrington had been polite but unenthusiastic, having greater ambitions for his lovely daughter. Things were different now, and Harrington was making no attempt to disguise his hopes regarding Rebecca.

James did not see himself as a suitor. He had invited Rebecca to the fair on impulse, because he was furious with her father for the drunken rudeness which she had clearly overheard. A few hours at the Frost Fair with a maid in tow could hardly be interpreted as a declaration of interest, and James did not think that he had raised expectations in the level-headed Miss Harrington.

The trouble was that a few hours had stretched into a long and very happy day. They skated and danced, played at nine-pin bowling and watched a puppet show. They ate pasties while watching a dreadful melodrama which made Rebecca dissolve into helpless giggles. They ate roast pork and wandered through the stalls and sideshows. Astonishingly, drinking spiced cider in a wobbly tent, they saw an elephant being led by its keeper across the ice.

“Wherever does it come from?”

“The Tower menagerie, I suppose,” James said, watching the animal make its careful way towards the bank, encouraged by the cheers and noisy encouragement of the inebriated crowds. “I do hope this ice holds out, it doesn’t feel as cold to me.”

“Or me,” Rebecca said. “I don’t think I’d like to come back tomorrow. How do they know when the ice is ready to melt?”

“They’ve got watermen stationed all around the perimeter looking for danger signs,” James said. “Which is fine if it melts gradually, but if it cracks suddenly there’s going to be a panic. Like you, I think I will avoid the risk. I’m glad we came today though, I’ve enjoyed it so much.”

Rebecca looked up at him, laughing. “So have I, Captain. And now I can proudly say that I have seen an elephant walking on water. Such a boast.”

Back in his father’s house, James was still struggling with his problem. He could very easily consider his duty done to Barbara’s family, and go back to the Shorncliffe Club for his social requirements, but he felt unexpectedly gloomy at the prospect of never seeing Colonel Harrington’s bright-eyed, intelligent daughter again. Rebecca shared the lively mind and sense of humour that James had found so attractive in Barbara, but she was better-informed and could carry on an easy conversation on a wide variety of topics.

“Are you in some difficulty, James?”

James started and realised that he had completely forgotten that his father was there. “Oh. Oh no, I’m very well, sir.”

“Good, because I am singularly ill-equipped to give advice on matters of the heart.”

James could not help laughing. “Don’t look so worried, sir, I’m not going to ask you. At thirty-six, I’m old enough to manage my own affairs.”

“Is this an affair that requires managing?”

“I don’t think so. At least…sir, how do you spend Christmas Day?”

“Christmas Day?” Harker sounded revolted. “Good God, I spend it the same way as every other day. Although I have noticed there is always more food. As I eat the same amount, I presume there is a festive meal in the kitchen.”

“Please don’t tell me you make your clerks work on Christmas Day, sir.”

“My clerks are entitled to take the day off. Ellis informs me he will be here, however.”

“Sir, that isn’t right.”

“You wrong me, James. Ellis will not be hunched over his desk on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, he will be seated in the servants hall, stuffed with roast partridge, drinking my best sherry and making eyes at my cook. I wish he would bring himself to propose to the woman, it is impossible to plan anything until they make a decision.”

James stared owlishly at his father. “Plan?”

“I thought I might suggest that they take several rooms on the third floor. It would be convenient to have him here, especially as I am growing older. I am thinking of taking on a junior, since it is clear to me that you are never going to come in to the business.”

“I think it is a very good idea, sir,” James said gravely. “I asked about Christmas, because I wondered if it would trouble you if I accepted an invitation to Christmas dinner with the Harringtons. They’ve invited me.”

“Have they, by God? Well you need not consider me, boy, but you should consider your own position. If you ask me, Harrington and his wife are doing their best to draw you in. I don’t blame them. With a sister who is the latest star courtesan of the demi-monde, he must be short of offers for that young woman.”

James reached for the bottle and refilled his glass. “I didn’t realise that you knew.”

“I always know more than you think,” his father said tranquilly. “Is she like her sister? I presume you must have cared a good deal about the girl, since you killed a man for her.”

“Killing a man becomes easier when you’re a soldier, sir. She doesn’t look like Barbara, but they have some things in common. I fell in love with Barbara after the first dance. I have discovered that is a very stupid thing to do.”

“And this girl?”

James swirled the brandy around the glass, watching the amber liquid make patterns with the candlelight on the table. Eventually he looked up.

“She is a very nice girl,” he said, a little awkwardly.

Mr Harker picked up his own glass and held it out. The two glasses clinked in a toast. Mr Harker was smiling. “As I said, I cannot advise you on matters of romance, my boy, but I can tell you from personal experience, that very nice girls tend to make excellent wives,” he said.

***

Rebecca spent Christmas Day in a confused muddle of joy and agonised embarrassment. She was genuinely shocked when Captain Harker accepted her father’s invitation, having decided that her one glorious day at the Frost Fair was enough happiness to sustain her for a long time. It appeared that Captain Harker had developed a penchant for her father’s society, however, because during the two weeks before Christmas, he called almost every day. He invited Colonel Harrington to dine with him at his club, and he reserved a box at the theatre where he entertained the Harrington family along with one of his army friends and his young wife. Rebecca sat beside Captain Harker, taking in very little of the play or the farce, conscious only of his presence.

Captain Harker arrived promptly on Christmas Day, sat beside her at dinner, and devoted himself to her entertainment. Rebecca would happily have remained at table forever, but inevitably the party broke up, and her father towed his guest away for a session with the port. Rebecca sat tense and miserable on the edge of the sofa until her mother, replete with sherry and plum pudding, fell asleep over her stitchery. Rebecca could bear it no longer and tiptoed out of the room, approaching the study with trepidation. She opened the door and stopped in surprise to find Captain Harker on his feet about to open it. Looking past him, she saw her father snoring in his winged armchair.

Captain Harker slipped into the hallway and closed the door silently, his finger to his lips. He listened for a moment.

“He is gone for a while, I think. Your mother?”

“She’s asleep as well.”

“What an excellent Christmas. I suspect my father is doing the same thing. Come along.”

He reached for her hand, and towed her to the front door, then stopped. “No, we can’t. You’ll freeze.”

“Wait.” Rebecca whirled and ran lightly up to her room, returning quickly wearing her dark cloak. Captain Harker gave her an approving smile, took her hand again, and led her out of the front door.

They walked through quiet winter streets towards the river. Rebecca spoke little, concentrating on the feeling of her arm through his, and enjoying how easily their steps matched. As they arrived at the river bank, there was nothing left of the bustle and activity of the Frost Fair. Huge chunks of ice still floated in the muddy waters of the Thames, but the booths, the ice rinks and the frantic gaiety were long gone.

“I think I like it better this way,” Captain Harker said.

“I think I do too. But I enjoyed it so much, Captain.”

“So did I. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a day as much. Miss Harrington…”

“Sir?”

“I have a confession to make. Yesterday, I paid a visit to your sister. I have a letter for you here, from her. I know you parents would disapprove, and I’m sorry to go behind their backs, but I think it nonsense that you are allowed no contact with her at all. Obviously, given her way of life, you cannot be seen publicly together, but I see no reason why you should not correspond, or even meet privately.”

Rebecca took the letter. Part of her was warmed by his sympathy and understanding. Another part, a wholly unworthy part, wanted to smack her sister’s pretty face for the hold she still clearly had over this man. It was stupid to think that he would look at her, when Barbara’s fair curls and sweet smile awaited him whenever he chose to visit her. Rebecca wondered if his kindness to her was motivated by his feelings for Barbara. She realised suddenly that her fingers were clenched inside her muff, and carefully uncurled them.

“You’re very kind, Captain. Thank you.”

“She told me that I should ask you to read it immediately. It’s up to you, but if you want privacy, I’ll wait over here.”

Rebecca watched him as he walked over to a wooden bench overlooking the river and seated himself. Turning away, she broke the wafer and unfolded the letter. Barbara was not a good correspondent, and her notes were always brief and to the point.

“My Dearest Sister. Whatever foolishness you are thinking, pray stop it immediately. He is not in the least interested in me, but for some odd reason, probably because he is the best man I have ever met, he thinks that he needs my permission. I have told him he does not. Be happy. Yours, always. Barbara.”

Rebecca looked up in complete astonishment and saw that James Harker was watching her, awaiting her reaction. She folded the letter and stuffed it into the wide pocket of her cloak. He smiled and walked towards her.

“I’ve not read it, but I have an idea,” he said. “Did she get it right?”

“Yes. She always knew how much I hated playing second fiddle to her all my life.”

“You’re not second fiddle to me. Rebecca, I know it’s much too soon to ask you to marry me, and I’m not prepared to marry any woman only to sail off and leave her. But I’ve another month, and I’d like to spend as much of it as I can with you. And at the end of it, if you could possibly feel the same way…if you’d be prepared to wait for me…”

Rebecca began to laugh. “James – did you just propose to me, after a few weeks acquaintance, and one minute after you told me you were not about to do so?”

“Yes.”

“I am glad I did not misunderstand.” Rebecca held out her hand, and he took it, and drew her close. The warmth of his body felt very good, and Rebecca looked up at him and decided that he was probably going to kiss her. The thought made her very happy.

“Do you think you might, love?”

“I am not prepared to give you my answer until we know each other a little better. But if it helps, I am feeling very hopeful,” Rebecca said.

***

After the frozen streets of London, Ciudad Rodrigo was warm and mellow, even in winter. James returned to his uncomfortable billet, seeing it through new eyes. He inspected the stores, went through a mountain of orders and correspondence, and dined with Dodd and his new bride. Although his own situation had not changed, and none of his transfer requests had so far brought a favourable response, James was not discouraged. Everything was different now, and he returned to his dreary, mundane administrative duties without resentment.

He was seated at his desk during the warmth of a spring afternoon when the door opened. James looked up, expecting one of his men, then got to his feet quickly, saluting as a tall, fair officer with the insignia of a major-general, ducked into the little office and stood looking around with interest.

“At ease, Captain Harker. We’ve met before, although I don’t know if you remember it.”

“Major-General van Daan. Yes, of course. Just before Ciudad Rodrigo.”

Intelligent blue eyes studied him for a moment. “I feel guilty,” Van Daan said abruptly. “I spoke to you, but you were about to go over with the Forlorn Hope, I don’t suppose your brain was working all that well at the time. I should have followed it up sooner. I did check to find out if you’d made it, but you were still in the hospital at the time. Afterwards, I forgot about it. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” James said in astonishment. “Why on earth would you be sorry, sir, you’d no debt to me?”

“I made you an offer. I should have found out if you were still interested.”

James was silent for a long moment. “I do remember, but I wasn’t sure if you were just being kind, because you thought I was about to die.”

“I’m never that kind, Captain. Are you still interested?”

“Sir?”

“Sit down, please. I feel as though I’m about to give you a dressing down, standing over you like this. And I’m not.” Van Daan gave a singularly charming smile. “Not yet, anyway.”

James sat, and the other man pulled up a wooden stool and sat opposite. “There’s been the usual shuffle around the ranks during winter quarters. Your former assistant has been looking all over the place for a lieutenant’s posting. He wasn’t having much luck. A lot of regimental commanders panic at the sight of a man who has come up from the ranks.”

“They’d be making a mistake, he’s an excellent officer and a very brave man.”

Van Daan smiled again. “I’m glad you said that, because I’ve taken him on. We lost a number of officers in the last campaign – dead, wounded or captured. And we’ve also had the usual round of promotions and transfers out. I’ve offered Dodd a lieutenant’s commission in my third company.”

“I’m glad.”

“The company has no captain.”

James felt his stomach lurch. He stared at the younger man, trying to decide if he had understood correctly. “Sir – are you suggesting…?”

“I’m asking if you’d be willing to take command of my third company, Captain Harker? Will you?”

James could not speak for a long moment. When he found his voice, he said:

“Did Dodd arrange this?”

“No. But he gave me your name as a reference, which reminded me. Are you interested?”

“Yes, sir. But I need to be sure that you understand my circumstances…”

“Oh don’t be an imbecile, Captain, do I look like an officer who wouldn’t check the background of a man he was about to take on?”

“No, sir.”

“I’m relieved to hear it. I’ll speak to Colonel Muir, but given that they’ve managed without you while you’ve been on furlough, they can hardly claim that you’re indispensable. How soon can you join us?”

“The moment I have permission, sir.”

Paul van Daan stood up. “Excellent, I’ll send a message. Is there anything else?”

“There’s one thing I should probably mention, sir. I wrote to Colonel Muir about a personal matter, but he’s not yet replied. When I was on furlough, I became engaged to be married. I cannot do so until I’m next in England, but I’d like to be able to tell my betrothed that I have permission.”

“Granted.”

James laughed aloud. “Is that it, sir?”

“Of course it is. What a ridiculous rule that is anyway. What man is going to wait around for his commanding officer to grant permission for him to marry. I’m sure I didn’t. Who is she?”

“Miss Rebecca Harrington, sir. Eldest daughter of Colonel Harrington.”

James said it deliberately, because he was wondering if Paul van Daan knew. It was obvious that he did. The blue eyes narrowed and then the general grinned.

“That’s an interesting choice, Captain.”

“It’s the right choice, sir. She is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“Good man,” Van Daan said, placidly. “I look forward to meeting her one day. Welcome to the 110th, Captain Harker. You’ll hear from me within a few days. Good afternoon.”

When he had gone, James sat quietly, watching the early spring sunlight make patterns on the baked earth floor of the office. He had an enormous sense of content, as though his life, which had temporarily spiralled out of control, had found its way back to its natural pathway, and was moving forward easily along the road he was meant to take.

After a while, James stirred, remembering that he was supposed to dine with Lieutenant Dodd and Sofia. He got up, looked around the office and left to get changed, closing the door gently behind him.

***

Thanks so much to all the fabulous authors from the Historical Writers Forum who have taken part in this year’s Christmas Blog Hop. In case you missed any of their posts, this is the full list, and I do recommend you go back and have a read when you have time, it’s a great way to discover new authors.

Dec 3rd   Sharon Bennett Connolly
Dec 4th   Alex Marchant  
Dec 5th   Cathie Dunn  
Dec 6th   Jennifer C Wilson  
Dec 8th   Danielle Apple  
Dec 9th   Angela Rigley  
Dec 12th Janet Wertman  
Dec 13th Vanessa Couchman 
Dec 14th Sue Barnard 
Dec 15th Wendy J Dunn 
Dec 16th Margaret Skea 
Dec 17th Nancy Jardine 
Dec 18th Tim Hodkinson 
Dec 19th Salina Baker 
Dec 20th Paula Lofting 
Dec 21st Nicky Moxey 
Dec 22nd Samantha Wilcoxson 
Dec 23rd Jen Black

And of course me at www.lynnbryant.co.uk. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.