The Recruit

The Three Bullet Gate at New Ross

Welcome to the Recruit, my St Patrick’s Day short story. As always, it’s free, so please share as much as you like. It’s the first time I’ve done a story for St Patrick’s Day, so I hope you enjoy it.

The Recruit is something of a departure from my usual haunts, on the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula or the decks of a man o’war. I first got the idea of writing about the 1798 rebellion in Ireland when I was asked for further information about one of my characters by someone who was writing an article about my books. He asked a lot of very interesting questions, which sent me back to my research, and I ended up with a very rough idea for a future book, set during the rebellion.

The Recruit makes no attempt to tell the full story of 1798, it’s just a snapshot of one part of the campaign, and the effect it had on one idealistic young Irishman. It can be enjoyed as a standalone story, but it also provides a brief glimpse of one or two characters from the Peninsular War Saga in their younger days. The recruiting poster I have used is very closely based on a real one from the period. 

The character of Ciaran Donnelly is fictional, but his companions in arms are not. Matthew Furlong, Bagenal Harvey and Thomas Cloney all existed, and their actions as described in this story are as real as I could make them. I’ve every intention of turning this short story into a full book. Now that I’ve done so much reading about it, the story is too good not to tell, and I predict a visit to Ireland in the very near future.

There are numerous books about the rebellion, but for this short story I have relied heavily on the entertaining The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. I also found an excellent website covering Ireland’s military history which gave a lot of detail about the battle itself. The website is called Never Felt Better and has a series of posts called Ireland’s Wars. I really recommend it. Last but by no means least, I was able to read the account of the uprising written by Thomas Cloney himself, which was completely fascinating. Cloney makes an excellent partner-in-crime for my fictional character and I’m looking forward to getting to know them both better when I write the book.

The Recruit

 

Ten Guineas Bounty

And a Crown to drink His Majesty’s Health

Wanted, to complete the Companies of His Majesty’s

One Hundred- and Tenth-Line Infantry

Commanded by Colonel Charles Dixon

A few high-spirited, handsome Young Men who wish to enter into high pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages to be found in serving His Majesty, should make themselves known to Lieutenant Longford or Lieutenant Wheeler at the Castle and Falcon on Watergate Row North, in Chester

Where they will meet with every attention and encouragement a soldier can require

N.B. The bringer of a good handsome recruit shall be liberally rewarded.

God Save the King

 

 

Ireland, June 1798

It was barely mid-morning, but the sun was already hot and a shimmering haze lay over the rebel camp at Carrigburn. The men took their ease, recovering from the fighting and marching of the past week. In many cases they were also nursing hangovers from wine, ale and cider either looted or freely given by enthusiastic supporters.

Ciaran Donnelly had not been drunk on the previous evening, although after a restless night under the stars he wished he had. He was finding sleep difficult, and not just because he was not accustomed to resting on the hard ground with nothing but his cloak to cover him. When it was dark and the camp settled to sleep around him, Ciaran found himself wakeful with the events of the day, and the week, and the month, running riot through his exhausted brain. During the day the need for action stilled his racing mind, but when he was quiet, the memories flooded back, robbing him of much needed rest. Around him, his fellow rebels slept peacefully. Ciaran envied them and wondered what was wrong with him.

He had no duties that morning. On the previous day, the new commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in Wexford had arrived in camp and was presumably taking time to get to know his officers and plan his next move. Ciaran did not know Bagenal Harvey personally, although he knew him by reputation. Harvey had been imprisoned in Wexford Gaol before the armed rebellion by the United Irishmen had even begun and had only been released when the rebels triumphantly took Wexford Town. Ciaran, listening to the men around him, heard that Harvey was a barrister, educated, like Ciaran, at Trinity College. He had a good reputation as an honest, compassionate man, but had no military experience. Ciaran wondered how far honesty and compassion could take a man in this bloody conflict.

“Donnelly, are you sleeping or dead over there?”

Ciaran sat up, looking around him, and located the speaker mounted on a bay mare. He was a stocky, square-featured man in his early twenties, his appearance unremarkable apart from his eyes which were long-lashed and luminous blue. He was grinning.

“Get your horse. There’s been an attack over at Old Ross, a troop of yeoman cavalry. One man dead, the other just rode into camp to bring the news. I’m away to speak to General Harvey about it. Come with me, you should meet him.”

Ciaran got up and made his way between the lounging men to where his horse was tied up along with several others. Denis was a black gelding, a gift from Ciaran’s parents when he had left home, eighteen months earlier, to study at Trinity in Dublin. Taking the horse with him had been a ridiculous thing to do, given the cost of stabling in the city and Ciaran often thought he had spent more on feeding the horse than on feeding himself, but he had never regretted it.

It had been the name of the horse which had brought him to the attention of Colonel Thomas Cloney. When Ciaran first joined the Wexford insurgents, Cloney had heard him speaking to his horse and hooted with laughter.

“Denis? Is that what you call him? Jesus, I was looking round for my old man there, it’s his name as well.” Cloney had come forward, running an experienced hand down the horse’s smooth coat. “Not that my father is as good-looking as this beauty. Is he yours? How old? Does he ride as well as he looks?”

Cloney’s shared passion for horses had proved a blessing for Ciaran, who knew nobody in camp. He had ridden from Dublin in the wake of a flurry of arrests, as the government at Dublin Castle decided it was time to deal with the rebellion in their midst. Informed of the names of the chief members of the United Irishmen in the capital, they had swept down in a series of raids, beginning with most of the leaders who were gathering for a meeting at the house of Oliver Bond. From there, they moved through the city, collecting lesser individuals who were significant enough to make it onto the lists compiled by government informers.

Ciaran knew he was going to be on one of those lists. Raised a good Catholic, the son of a respectable schoolmaster, he had set his faith to one side at the suggestion of his patron, a Protestant landowner who had offered him a scholarship to study at Trinity. Ciaran had been dazzled by the prospect and tried to ignore his parents’ sadness at his choice. He had reasoned that religion was something to be considered when he was older and that if he could obtain a degree and good connections in Dublin, he would be in a far better position to help his family and his people, than if he took some low-paid position in Sligo.

Ciaran had not realised how much the necessary compromise would rankle. It made him an ideal recruit for a political movement which sought to free Catholics from the necessity of leaving their religion behind in order to make their way in the world. It also sought to set aside the differences between the two religions, numbering both eminent Protestants and Catholics among its leaders. Ciaran was easily drawn in and quickly found himself much in demand as a courier to take messages beyond Dublin. He spent weekends in muddy fields outside the city, drilling and training with muskets and pikes under the tuition of disaffected militia officers, and found to his surprise that he was very good at it. Weapons were in short supply, and so were qualified officers. Ciaran was quickly promoted to lead a company of men and enjoyed both the responsibility and the distant dream of overthrowing the restrictions of English rule and living under an Irish republic, even if that must be achieved with the help of a French invasion.

The movement in Dublin came crashing down with the first arrests in March, and Ciaran knew his time was running out fast. Several of his fellow students, known for their sympathy with the movement, slipped away quietly and went back to their families, hoping they would be seen as too insignificant to pursue. Ciaran had no such hopes. There would be letters and documents with his name on and, at some point, the authorities would get round to him. He had no intention of waiting for the knock on the door and even less intention leading the authorities back to his family home in Sligo. His parents and his younger sister had no inkling of his involvement with the rebellion and Ciaran intended it to stay that way.

He left Dublin under cover of darkness, and rode through a land under martial law, where districts refusing to give up their arms were given over to the reprisals of the troops. Ciaran knew that the severity of these reprisals would depend very much on the temper of the officer in charge of the district. Men like Sir Charles Asgill in Queen’s County and Sir John Moore in the south, were able to restrain their troops from the worst excesses. Others would not try.

Ciaran found shelter with a rebel family in North Wexford and held his patience as best he could, hearing news of murder and torture and the burning of houses and farms on both sides. The arrests of Harvey and the other Wexford leaders and the massacre of captured rebels in the neighbouring county finally pushed the people of Wexford into open rebellion. Ciaran joined the swelling ranks of the rebel army as it swept through the north of the county, attacking military and loyalist targets to steal arms. They lost ground at Ballyminaun Hill but gained victories at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy, and finally Wexford Town. Ciaran was slightly shocked at their success, and he had the sense that he was not the only one.

Mounting up, Ciaran walked his horse over to join Cloney. “What happened with the yeomanry?” he asked, falling in beside the older man.

“Murdering bastards. I’m not sure if they were trying to reconnoitre our camp or if they’re just on a looting spree, but they came across two unarmed locals on the road. They killed the man with the slower horse, the other rode straight here to warn us. Here, it’s up this way.”

“I didn’t see you yesterday.”

“No, I was away to see my father and my sisters. It’s not far, and I thought I should see them, in case…”

Cloney broke off and Ciaran felt rush of guilt and misery at the thought of his own family. “I wish I could do the same.”

“I’m sorry, Donnelly. Have you heard at all?”

“No, and I don’t want to. As far as I know, it’s peaceful there. They’ve a good relationship with their landlord, he’ll take care of them if he can. As long as I’m a long way off, they should be safe.”

Cloney did not answer, and they rode in silence for a few minutes. A farmhouse came into view, with two men apparently doing sentry duty outside. Cloney dismounted, motioning for Ciaran to join him. There was an iron ring set into the side of the house and they looped the reins around it then entered the house.

Bagenal Harvey was seated at the head of a long table in the farmhouse kitchen. The room was crowded with men, most of whom Ciaran recognised from his weeks with the rebel army. Several of them nodded to him. At a big fireplace on the outside wall, a woman, possibly the farmer’s wife, was stirring something savoury in a pot over the fire. The room was far too hot.

Harvey was a pleasantly spoken man in his thirties with a worried expression. Cloney had confided that he was not convinced that Harvey had really wanted this command, but he had accepted it when offered and seemed to be doing his best to bring the wilder elements under control and to extend at least some protection to local loyalist families who lived in terror of rebel reprisals. He listened to Cloney’s story without interruption, then looked around the room at his officers.

“I think we’re in agreement that we must take action, gentlemen.”

“Of course, sir. It’s shocking.”

There was a murmur of indignant assent. Ciaran, with only an observer’s part to play, thought there was also a sense of discomfort. As he thought it, Ciaran saw Cloney look over at him. To his surprise, Cloney gave an unmistakeable wink.

“Who will you send, sir?” Cloney asked.

“We will need a strong party of horse. They can intercept these scoundrels on their way back. Captain Keogh, will you take command? Or perhaps you, Mr Donoghue? You both have experience of…”

“I’d rather not, sir,” Donoghue said quickly. “We’ve no information as to the numbers of these yeomanry and our horsemen are not yet reliably trained. It’s one thing to command as part of an army, but to go out alone without proper intelligence…”

“Well, I’m not going,” Keogh said decidedly. “I’d not trust that rebel rabble not to take off and plunder the neighbourhood. Best keep them here, and busy with the drink while we finish reorganising, and decide…”

“It’s going to be difficult to reorganise any of them if they’re half-sprung all the time,” Cloney said, echoing Ciaran’s thought. “General Harvey, if you’ll trust me…”

“I was just going to suggest it,” Harvey said, apparently completely ignoring the outrageous disregard for military discipline displayed by two of his officers. “Select fifty of the best horsemen, Colonel Cloney. And perhaps another officer.”

“With your leave, General, I’d like to take my good friend Mr Donnelly. May I introduce him? He’s from Sligo but was a student in Dublin and had to make himself scarce when the arrests began. He fought beside me on the advance to Wexford and is an excellent horseman and a brave man in a fight.”

Harvey gave his sweet, slightly abstracted smile. “I am happy to meet you, Mr Donnelly, and thankful for your courage and dedication. I hope you will continue to act as Colonel Cloney’s lieutenant.”

“Have I been promoted?” Ciaran enquired of his friend, as they left the farmhouse.

“I’m thinking you might have, if you want the job. I’ve become used to a reliable man beside me, but it’s good to make it official. Come on, I want to catch these bastards before they get back to Ross.”

It proved an exhilarating, but ultimately pointless, expedition. They rode fast, intent on their prey, but the yeomanry, returning with whatever plunder they had acquired, could easily see the fifty horsemen descending from Carrigburn Hill. Cloney spotted them at the same time and stood up in his saddle with a triumphant yell, which Ciaran suspected did not feature in any army training manual. He touched his heels to Denis’ flanks and set him to a gallop, pulling up beside Cloney who was careering down the hill like a madman. Behind them, Ciaran could hear the thundering of fifty sets of hooves, the jangling of harness and the occasional whoop of excitement as the rebels began to pull closer to their quarry.

The yeomanry galloped ahead, racing over the crossroads of Old Ross towards the town of New Ross, and sanctuary. Ciaran found himself caught up in the thrill of the chase, but as the town walls came into view, common sense reasserted itself. He had never been to New Ross and did not know anything about the strength of its defences, but he could see several towers joined by an imposing wall. He glanced over towards Cloney, who had pulled a little ahead of him. Cloney’s eyes were fixed on the retreating cavalry and his expression told Ciaran that he had no intention of pulling back. Ciaran looked at the walls and found himself mentally placing musket men along the ramparts. There was room for a good few. He had no idea if they had artillery. He took a deep breath and yelled.

“Colonel Cloney, we need to pull back. We can’t get within musket range of the town.”

Cloney did not pull up or look around. Ciaran could not decide if the man had not heard him or was ignoring him. They were getting closer, and the yeomanry had almost reached one of the town gates. Ciaran glanced behind him. Not one of the horsemen appeared to have realised that they were charging into potential disaster and Ciaran felt suddenly cold with fear. He had only moments to make his decision.

Ciaran tightened his hands on the reins and Denis pulled up immediately, without rearing up. Two of the following horsemen had to veer sharply to one side to avoid crashing into him. Ciaran stood up in the saddle, snatched off his hat and waved it in huge circles in the air, yelling like a madman.

“Halt! Pull back. Cavalry halt and turn about!”

He thought for a long agonising minute that nobody was hearing him, then he realised that the men behind him were slowing and stopping, dragging back their sweating horses into a rough line. Those few who had passed him continued their headlong rush towards the town, and Ciaran said something vulgar, took a deep breath and yelled again.

“Thomas! For the love of Christ, get yourself back here!”

Cloney looked around, realising for the first time that most of his men had pulled up. He looked over his shoulder then bellowed an order, turned his horse in a wide arc, and began to gallop back towards Ciaran. The rest of his men followed, thundering out of range of the town walls. As they drew closer to Ciaran, a musket crashed from the defenders, the shot falling harmlessly short. Cloney pulled up in front of Ciaran, the blue eyes steady on his. Ciaran took a deep breath and waited.

“Mother of God, Donnelly, I’m glad I’d the wit to bring you with me. I got bit carried away there, don’t you think?”

Ciaran let out his breath. “I think so, sir,” he said.

Cloney studied him for a long moment. “We’re both fairly new at this,” he said in conversational tones. “Myself, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re going to be better at it than I am. Come on, let’s get them back. General Harvey is holding a meeting to discuss our next move and I’m hoping to be there.”

***

Ciaran had a hangover on the morning of the attack on New Ross. Given that Harvey planned a dawn start, it had probably been unwise to stay up so late eating and drinking, but the food was good, the wine plentiful and Ciaran was flattered to be included in the feasting as Cloney’s lieutenant. Eighteen months as a student in Dublin had given him a good head for drinking, but as he attempted to rouse his men in the pre-dawn darkness and get them into some kind of order, Ciaran had a thumping headache and a dry mouth. He had a useful water bottle on a strap which he had looted from the army stores at Enniscorthy, and he drank it dry and refilled it several times over before the army was ready to march.

Ciaran wondered if the garrison lined up to defend New Ross had been able to hear the laughter and the music, and to smell the roasted meat from the camp on Carrigburn Hill. If they had, would they have been intimidated by the sheer numbers they must face the following day? Or would they be contemptuous of an army so ill-disciplined that it spent the night before battle in an orgy of feasting, drinking and dancing? Ciaran had a suspicion it might be the latter.

He spent much of the evening with a young gentleman farmer by the name of Matthew Furlong, who acted as one of General Harvey’s aides. Ciaran had not met Furlong properly before and found the man very likeable. Furlong was from much the same background as Ciaran and they talked of crops and horses, alongside philosophy and the revolution in France. They also spoke, more candidly than Ciaran had managed with anybody else, about their experience so far of war.

“I’d never fought before this. I’d certainly never killed. Never really thought I would. All those meetings in Dublin, where they spoke of rising up and crushing the government troops, and I was thumping the table with the best of them. It’s different somehow when you’re at the safer end of a pike or a musket and the man you’ve just killed looks no older than you are.”

Furlong gave a little smile. “How old are you, Donnelly?”

“Nineteen. Almost twenty. You?”

“Twenty-three. It’s the same for most of us. We weren’t soldiers before this. Some had joined the militia or the yeomanry, but the rest are just farmers or farriers or over-educated students of classics…”

Ciaran aimed a mock punch at him, and Furlong ducked, laughing. “Sorry. I’m not laughing at what you feel, Donnelly. It’s good that you feel it. I do myself. It’s men like us – and like Cloney and Harvey – who can make something out of this mess if we win. The rest of them would just slaughter the Protestants – or the Catholics – and get drunk to celebrate.”

“That’s something else I’m struggling with,” Ciaran admitted. “The reprisals. Christ aid me, I know what they’ve done to our people over the years. But I watched them shoot twenty unarmed loyalist prisoners last month, with the bodies thrown into the river. It sickened me.”

“And the unarmed United Irishmen they slaughtered at Dunlavin Green and Carnew?”

“That sickened me too.”

“It sickens me as well,” Furlong said. “There are some of us that will have none of it, Donnelly.”

“Are there enough of us to stop these men going mad if they get into New Ross tomorrow morning? It’s well known what they did in Wexford.”

“I hope so, lad. Though from what I’ve been told, you’d be hard put to know if it’s Protestants or Catholics you’re more worried about.”

“I’m Catholic,” Ciaran said. He realised it was a long time since he had said the words. “And if they’re saying I’m a man who abandoned his religion for gain, and the chance of a scholarship to Trinity, they’d be right. Though it wasn’t just for that.”

There was a long silence, then Furlong said:

“What’s her name?”

Ciaran looked up sharply, but he could see only sympathy in the other man’s eyes. “Her name is Sinead, and it’s over. It should never have begun. Stupid to think I could turn myself into something I’m not. Her parents would never have agreed, no matter how well I did and what I made of myself.”

“That’s hard. Is she back in Sligo?”

“It’s where her home is, but the last I saw her she was in Dublin, staying with her uncle’s family while they look for a good Protestant gentleman for her to marry. I went to see her before I left. She hates me.”

“She probably doesn’t, Donnelly.”

“Oh, I think she does. Her father was my patron. He’d no son of his own, and he’s known me since childhood. He offered to pay for my education and help me find a position afterwards. He’s a generous man. A good man.”

“But your religion was the price?”

“He didn’t insist on it, but it made no sense to go unless I started attending Anglican services. They’ll let us study there now, but we can’t be elected Scholars or Fellows or be made a professor. More to the point, most of the positions I could apply for afterwards are open only to Anglicans. I was ambitious. And I thought if I did what he clearly wanted, if I pleased him enough, he might consider a marriage with Sinead in a few years. She wanted it too, we talked it through many times. She said she’d wait for me, refuse any other offers. She argued that one church was much the same as another and that God didn’t care. But it turned out that I cared. I hated myself for it. I disappointed my parents by turning away from the church in search of personal gain and now I’ve betrayed my patron in turning my coat again. I’m ashamed of it.”

“No wonder you were ripe for rebellion, boy. Here, have another drink. General Harvey is coming this way.”

Harvey appeared to be completely sober. “Furlong, Donnelly. I’m looking for a volunteer for the morning. I’ve written a note to General Johnson asking for an early surrender to avoid the town being sacked.”

“Do you think he’ll listen, sir?” Furlong asked, in surprise.

“I have no idea, Matthew. But I feel that I should try. I need a reliable man to ride in under a flag of truce tomorrow, before we attack.”

“I’ll do it,” Ciaran said quickly, then realised Furlong had spoken at the same time. He looked at the other man and Furlong laughed.

“It’ll only take one of us. Do you have a coin on you? I’ll toss you for it.”

***

As the first pale light of dawn showed over the waiting walls of New Ross, Ciaran heard a rustle of sound behind him, and then a hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Good morning to you, Donnelly. How’s your head?”

Ciaran grinned. “Sore. How’s yours, Furlong?”

“Hammering like the gods of thunder. No hard feelings, I hope?”

“None at all,” Ciaran said cheerfully. “Last night, with the drink in me, it felt like a good idea to be riding out under a flag of truce to ask General Johnson to surrender. This morning, I have to tell you, it feels an awful lot safer to be hiding here amongst my men.”

Matthew Furlong chuckled. “I can’t tell if you’re speaking the truth or just a gracious loser, Donnelly, but whichever it is, you’re a good lad. Keep an eye on Cloney in the battle today, will you? He told me about the charge on the town yesterday, and how well you kept your head. We need a few men of sense among us today.”

Ciaran watched him ride downhill towards the gates of New Ross. The flag was made from a white handkerchief tied to a sturdy stick, and it was reassuringly visible in the rapidly improving light. At the same time, Ciaran wished his new friend had not chosen to approach the town at a gallop. The past few weeks trying to train and lead inexperienced men had taught Ciaran the value of allowing them time to react, and he supposed it was true for regular units as well. In Furlong’s place, Ciaran would have walked his horse forward, giving the men of the garrison a chance to see him properly and plenty of time to wait for orders.

It was still only half light as Furlong approached the gate. Ciaran could see the white flag very clearly and there was no possibility that the guards on the gate could miss it. He found that he was holding his breath, waiting for the sound of a shouted challenge which would cause Furlong to slow down or stop, but none came, or if it did Ciaran did not hear it. What he heard, shockingly loud, was gunfire, not just one shot but the thundering of half a dozen muskets.

The horse reared up in terror and Furlong’s body hit the ground. Ciaran was surprised that the horse was not injured too, but if it was it was not serious, because the animal wheeled around and came galloping back up Corbet’s Hill to the rebel lines, where half a dozen men ran forward to catch it. Ciaran did not move. His eyes were on Furlong’s body, as two redcoats ran out from their post by the gate, bending over him. After a moment they straightened and walked away, back to their line. From here, Ciaran could not see the blood on Furlong’s dark coat, but he knew it must be there. It had been minutes only since Furlong had put his hand on Ciaran’s shoulder, and Ciaran could almost still feel it there, warm and steady with the promise of future friendship. He wanted very badly to be sick.

“The murdering bastards,” Cloney breathed beside him. “Under a flag of truce. Poor Matthew.”

“That could have been me,” Ciaran said. He could hear the tremor in his voice. “I volunteered. We threw a coin for it, and he won. On the toss of a coin, I could be lying there dead.”

Around him, he was suddenly aware of a rising sound, and he looked about him. The shocked silence which had followed Furlong’s brutal death was rapidly turning into a clamour of angry voices. Ciaran glanced at Cloney.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“We fight, laddie. They’re not bloody surrendering, are they? But I’m not sure the General’s plan is going to count for much now. This lot are going in whether we like it or not. We can choose to go with them or stay behind.”

Ciaran knew he was right. Already the men were moving forward, the angry clamour rising to a roar of fury and no order was going to pull them back. Ciaran took a deep breath and tightened his grip on his looted musket, instinctively checking that the bayonet was properly fixed.

“Best lead from the front then, sir,” he said, hoping that his voice was steady. Cloney gave a small, tight smile and clapped him on the shoulder, very much as Furlong had recently done.

“Good lad. Let’s get moving.”

***

Superficially New Ross seemed well defended, with high walls, nine towers and several strong gates, but local intelligence pointed to weaknesses. Some of the fortifications had been taken apart during the previous century and the walls were old and not built to withstand modern artillery. The gates had been widened to improve the flow of traffic, and the town was overshadowed by the high ground of Corbet’s Hill. A modern, well-equipped army could probably have stormed New Ross relatively quickly, but Harvey did not command such an army.

What his army did have was reckless courage, fuelled by anger, and they swept down from the heights of Corbet’s Hill roaring like wild animals and firing muskets and ancient blunderbusses towards the line of redcoats guarding the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey’s original plan had been to attack the town from three sides at once. Eight hundred men under Captain John Kelly were ordered to concentrate on capturing Johnson’s scattered outposts rather than attack the town itself.

Either Kelly had forgotten his orders or he was unable to control his men, because Ciaran could see him at the front of the attack on the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey had attempted to send a herd of panicking cattle ahead of the main advance, a tactic which had worked brilliantly at Enniscorthy. Here, the cows swerved away long before they reached the gate and took off into the countryside leaving the rebels, headed by Kelly and his men, to make a desperate assault on the gate.

 It was terrifying. The attackers were under fire on both sides from flanking companies placed there for the purpose. Ahead, artillery fire raked the disordered ranks, cutting down men in swathes. Ciaran, who was in the second rank along with Cloney and his men, had never experienced an assault like this. Around him, those men who had accompanied Kelly in the first rush were seriously depleted, and Ciaran found himself scrambling over dead and dying men to reach the redcoats in the defensive trenches.

Ciaran wanted to run, but it was impossible, and he would probably have been cut down as he fled. Most of his men had discharged their firearms, if they had them, and it was too close for the defenders to use either muskets or artillery without risking their own men. He fought with a bayonet, while around him most of his men used pikes. There was no organisation and no plan, only the desperate cut and thrust at each man ahead of him, dodging their bayonets, stabbing down ruthlessly, killing and maiming in order to avoid being killed or maimed. It was exhausting. Ciaran’s arms and shoulders ached, there was blood on his clothing and the sickly metallic smell of it in his nostrils. He could almost taste it.

Close to the gate the smoke of musket and artillery fire still lingered in the air, choking him and making his eyes water. Ciaran stood during a brief respite in the action, blinking and trying to catch his breath. Around him his men were pushing forward, driving on despite cruel losses. Unexpectedly, Ciaran was proud of them. They had everything to lose, these men, and he knew very well that it was blind rage over a lifetime of oppression that was driving them, but they were brave, and they endured, and their courage revived him.

The rebels did not break. They pressed on, foot by agonising foot. The two flanking companies fell back, shocked at their inability to hold this disorganised rabble. Cloney’s men captured the trenches and then drove forward right up to the gate. The fighting was bloody, and nearby some of the buildings were already on fire, the air thick with eye-watering smoke.

Kelly’s men were the first into the town. Kelly himself had been shot in the thigh and had to be carried to the rear while his men stormed the barracks near the gate. The building was poorly defended and, as Cloney and Ciaran led their men into the barrack yard, the last of the guards fled before them. Cloney made no attempt to give chase.  

“We need arms. Muskets and ammunition. Spread out and start breaking down doors, there’ll be a storeroom somewhere. Donnelly, take that side.”

Ciaran obeyed. As he led his men along a row of doors, kicking or battering them down, he was aware that the yard was rapidly filling with smoke. Houses on both sides had been set alight, the thatched roofs burning fiercely. Ciaran shouted at the men to move faster. He had no wish to be caught anywhere near the barracks if the fire spread to a gunpowder store.

“Here. Over here,” Cloney yelled. The men raced to the open stores, and four men stripped the shelves, handing out muskets and ammunition. Once armed, the men were off, running back out into the streets. Ciaran turned to follow them.

“Donnelly, take this.”

Ciaran turned to see Cloney holding out a pistol. He took it and turned it over in his hands.

“Do you know what you’re doing with it?”

“Yes,” Ciaran said, taking the ammunition. He had learned to shoot as a boy on the estate, following Sir James Howarth through the coverts for long hours. They were some of the happiest times of his childhood, along with the time spent in Howarth’s excellent stables. Ciaran could remember wishing with a passion that he had been born the son of this kindly, intelligent man and then had immediately felt disloyal to his own parents.

He loaded the pistol quickly, putting the spare ammunition into his pocket, then shoved the weapon into his belt and took up his bayonet again. Outside, he and Cloney separated, searching through the smoky streets to find their men. Ciaran caught up with them on the approach to the town gaol. They were following Kelly’s leaderless men who were making an attack on the building. Ciaran ran to join them, then stopped, wondering if this might be a trap. There were several side streets where loyalist troops could be waiting. Leaving his men to continue their advance, Ciaran ran back cautiously, peering into each of the narrow streets to make sure they were not about to be hit from behind by a well-placed ambush.

There was an enormous crash from the gaol which made Ciaran jump violently. He spun around to find the building half-hidden in clouds of smoke. Somewhere a man was screaming, a high-pitched cry of agony, over and over. Those of Ciaran’s troops still visible were backing away from the gaol, then turning to run. Another crash brought several of them down and startled the rest into precipitate retreat. Ciaran made no attempt to stop their flight. He was under no illusion about how much control he had over these men today, and he was not prepared to stand firm against the enemy with nobody beside him. He reached the end of the street and turned to look back at further blasts. One of his men paused beside him.

“What happened, O’Leary?”

“Grapeshot, sir. We lost half a dozen men in the first blast, but Kelly’s men were ahead of us, they’ve been cut to pieces. What a bloody mess.”

Ciaran could see the survivors emerging from the smoke, some of them limping, being helped by their companions. They were pitifully few and as they reached the stragglers from his own men, they pushed through without stopping, desperate to reach the gate and the relative safety of Corbet’s Hill. Some of Ciaran’s men followed them, and Ciaran retraced his steps, yelling at them to halt, wondering if the attack was about to disintegrate into a full rout.

The abrupt retreat through the gate set off a panic in those still storming down from the hill. Looking back up to the remainder of the army who had waited for orders, Ciaran could see some of them beginning to flee. He felt a sense of despair. They had already lost so many men. He looked around him, wondering if it was time to cut their losses and call a general retreat, and wondering also if any one of the rebel leaders had enough control over their men to do so. He could not see Harvey, but Cloney was there, trying to direct a chaotic group of musket men into a firing line. Ciaran thought, with sudden anger, that if they had been given proper weapons and training, these men had enough courage to defeat a whole army of redcoats. Then, unexpectedly through the noise of battle, he heard horses, the clink of bridles and the clattering of hooves over the cobbled road out of town.

Ciaran spun around and stared in horror. He could not be sure of numbers but there looked to be between thirty and forty cavalrymen riding out through the Three Bullet Gate and forming up in the open space as if preparing for a charge. Around Ciaran was a confused melée as some men continued their flight back up the hill, while others tried to find their companies and their leaders amidst the chaos. He could no longer see Cloney anywhere and wondered in sudden panic if he had been hit.

Ciaran had trained on the fields outside Dublin with three former militia officers who had joined the United Irishmen. They drilled with broom handles and tree branches, and at times Ciaran had thought it a waste of time. Instead, he had talked to the men, asking questions about battles and tactics and weapons. They had spoken of cavalry, and the best way to stop them, and Ciaran knew that in this conflict so far, pikes had proved remarkably successful. If his men fled, they were going to be cut to pieces as the cavalry rode them down.

“To me!” he roared. “Pikemen, to me, they’ve cavalry. We can take them if we stand!”

To Ciaran’s immense surprise, the men around him turned. Ciaran looked around him, then dropped his bayonet and stooped, snatching up a pike from a fallen man. He whirled to face the approaching horsemen, and felt a solid wall of men around him, pikes pointing upwards ready to impale the cavalry.

“Come on, you bastards!” he yelled. “Let’s see how you do against Irish pikemen!”

The first horseman died with a high-pitched scream, and the sound echoed round and round in Ciaran’s head. The line of cavalry crashed into the pikemen and Ciaran thrust upwards and was astonished at how easy it was, with this weapon, to unseat a horseman. Some of the horses were wounded, though none fatally, and with no rider to urge them on, they turned and galloped back through the gate, or out into the countryside, causing further chaos among the rest of the charging cavalry. Ciaran’s men were yelling in triumph and several of them broke ranks, ran forward and finished off those dragoons still alive on the ground. One of them was the commanding officer, and his loss broke the nerve of the remaining troopers. They wheeled and galloped back through the gate, and with an inhuman roar, Ciaran’s men raced after them, all thought of retreat forgotten.

Ciaran paused to catch his breath. He looked around him at the fallen horsemen, and realised he was counting them in his head. There were twenty-eight. He was crying, tears pouring down his face. He tried to wipe them away with his sleeve and felt his eyes sting as black dirt from the smoke and powder mingled with salt tears.

“Donnelly. Ciaran. Jesus Christ, are you all right?”

Ciaran looked around to find Thomas Cloney staring at him in concern. He nodded, because he could not speak. Cloney put his hand on Ciaran’s filthy sleeve.

“I thought you were about to get yourself killed there, you stupid bastard,” he said. “That was unbelievable. I could never have rallied them like that.”

“I think you could, sir. They’re brave men.” The words steadied Ciaran. He took another deep breath. “They’ve gone back to the attack. We need to join them. Where’s General Harvey?”

“He’s over there, I’m not sure he’s made it into the town yet. It’s down to us, Donnelly. Can you do it?”

“Yes,” Ciaran said. Suddenly he felt very calm and very sure. “Yes, I can do this.”

Within the town walls it was chaos as, for the second time that day, the garrison were pushed back through the streets in a confused melée of cavalry, infantry and artillery. After them fled the townspeople, terrified of reprisals from the enraged rebels. They ran towards the quay and the bridge with Harvey’s musketeers and pikemen chasing them down. Ciaran pushed himself to run faster, overtaking his men, shouting to them to leave the civilians alone. He was not sure whether they heard, understood or even cared.

Many of the houses in the streets around had been set on fire, and it spread quickly, sending billows of black smoke through the narrow lanes. Ciaran prayed that the houses were empty. In most of the town, the garrison had fled leaving only a stubborn group of officers and men with artillery which protected the crossroads leading to the bridge.

Ciaran found himself abruptly with nobody to fight. He took the opportunity to rest for a moment, drinking from his water bottle. It was almost empty. Around him, the rebel soldiers seemed confused, as though they had no idea what to do next. The crash of guns suggested that General Johnson’s men were continuing to guard their retreat, but there seemed to be no fighting at all within the town. Ciaran found a water pump and drank gratefully, tipping cold water over his head, then refilling his bottle.

“Donnelly? Jesus, I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

Ciaran turned in relief at the sound of Cloney’s voice. His friend was making his way across the small square. He was filthy and there was blood on his coat. Ciaran held out the water bottle and Cloney gulped it down.

“You too, sir. I’m not sure what’s happening though. Have they retreated?”

 “Most of them are across the river, and our lads don’t seem so keen to charge those guns. I’m going back to find Harvey, we need orders. The men are exhausted, and a lot of them are breaking into the houses and looking for food and wine.”

“If they don’t get orders soon, they’ll get drunk and fall asleep,” Ciaran said.

“If I don’t get orders soon, I’ll be doing the same thing. Look, stay here. Find some food if you can and see if you can keep an eye on our men. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Ciaran waited. Eventually, he made his way to the stone steps leading up to what looked like a public building and sat down. Around him, small groups of men wandered aimlessly, some of them with bottles in their hands. One of them, a man Ciaran knew from his own company, approached him and held out a piece of bread. Ciaran took it and thanked him. It seemed ridiculous to be sitting alone on the steps in the middle of a battle eating rye bread, but he was very hungry.

Somewhere nearby, he could hear men singing. Ciaran wondered if they were drunk, and if it was really the right time to celebrate their victory, with no information about whether the garrison had wholly abandoned the town or if they were regrouping for another attack. He finished the bread, drank more water and was just getting to his feet with the intention of going to find Cloney, when he heard his name called, and the tone chilled him.

“Donnelly! Get moving, we need to get the men together. They’re attacking. They’re coming back over the bridge. We need to fight, man!”

Ciaran snatched up his bayonet and began to run in the direction of the singing. Around him, men were beginning to appear from houses and cottages, many of them unsteady on their feet though whether it was from exhaustion or drink Ciaran had no idea. He was chasing them, trying desperately to pull them together into a defensive line, yelling himself hoarse, but he could already hear the approaching troops, the hooves of the cavalry and the disciplined marching of infantry, as General Johnson mobilised his tired troops and drove them back into the town.

The rebels had nothing left to give. Cloney and Ciaran held those they could, and through the streets of New Ross other leaders did the same, but it was impossible. Some attempts were made to use the captured guns against Johnson’s men, but there were no trained artillerymen among the rebels, and attempts to force prisoners to operate the guns proved a failure. Ciaran’s pikemen fought on, making repeated charges back through the streets, but there were too few of them and they were exhausted. Ciaran continued to exhort them, to urge them to stand, and then realised that he must either call a retreat or watch them die in front of him. He called it and stood watching as they poured back through the Three Bullet Gate. Some of them could barely stand, but they staggered on, back up the slope towards the camp on Corbet’s Hill. Ciaran prayed that Johnson would not order an immediate attack, but he doubted the garrison had either the men or the ammunition to do so.

Well away from any stray musket ball fired from the walls, Ciaran retrieved his horse, thankful that the makeshift stable nearby had survived the fires, and watched the last of the rebels stagger away from New Ross. Beyond the last ditch, General Harvey, Thomas Cloney and a few other officers sat mounted, watching the flames which were beginning to die down now. Ciaran walked his horse to join them.

“General Harvey. I’m glad you’re safe, sir.”

“You too, Donnelly.” Harvey’s voice was muffled, and Ciaran suspected he had been crying. “A terrible day. A terrible loss.”

They rode in silence back towards the camp, the gentle light of early evening settling over the town and the hill. Part of the way, Cloney’s horse stumbled then stopped and began to graze. Ciaran reined in, momentarily worried that his friend had a concealed injury, then realised to his surprise that Cloney had fallen asleep in the saddle. As Harvey and the others plodded on, Ciaran reached for the bridle and gently shook Cloney awake.

“Come on, Thomas. Just a bit further and you can sleep.”

“Not for long,” Cloney said. “We’ll need to get out of here early, before they have time to regroup, or get reinforced.”

“Where to?”

“Back to Carrigburn to start with. After that, I don’t know.”

Cloney sounded depressed as well as exhausted and Ciaran knew how he felt. “Is it over, Thomas?”

“The day or the struggle?”

“I think the day is over,” Ciaran said.

“Not for me, it isn’t,” Cloney said, and suddenly Ciaran realised that something was badly wrong, something more than the slaughter of the battle.

“What’s happened?”

“I have to speak to General Harvey. To tell him what’s been done. I took the message, just before the final assault, and I couldn’t tell him then. There wasn’t the time, and I hadn’t the stomach for it.”

Ciaran felt an icy chill settling around his already bruised heart. “What’s happened?” he asked again.

Cloney picked up his reins and began to walk his horse towards the camp and Ciaran drew Denis alongside.

“There’s been murder done,” Cloney said flatly. “Murder of innocents and done in our name. In Harvey’s name. You know him, Ciaran. You’ve seen what he’s like. This news, on top of what he’s been through today…it’s going to break him.”

“Tell me.” Ciaran felt sick but he needed to know. “You need to speak of it, Thomas.”

Cloney said nothing for a moment. Ahead, there were flickering lights, which suggested that some of the exhausted men had managed to get fires lit around the camp. Ciaran waited, his heart beating fast.

“You’ll know that before the battle, there were prisoners taken. Loyalists from the surrounding countryside. Protestants mostly, people who might have taken information to the garrison. A few Catholics as well, those loyal to the government. Around two hundred people, mostly men but some women. And children. They were being held in a barn at Scullabogue. Harvey…General Harvey told me yesterday he’d hold them only until the day was won, then would send a message for their release.”

“Go on.”

“At some point during the day, messengers arrived from the battle. I’ve no idea who they were, they might even have been deserters, for God knows we had enough of those today. They claimed that the garrison were butchering our wounded men and that the prisoners in the barn should be killed in retaliation. The captain in charge said no at first, but eventually they convinced him it was an order. They took out thirty-five men and shot them on a lawn. The rest of them – the families – were locked in and the barn was set alight. They’re all dead.”

Ciaran pulled up and slid from Denis’ back. He dropped the reins, not caring if the horse ran, and fell to his knees, vomiting by the side of the track. He was shivering violently, as if with cold, though the evening air was mild. There was little food in him, but he continued to retch distressingly for some time.

Eventually it stopped. Ciaran got to his feet, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He turned and realised that Cloney had dismounted and was standing looking at him. His face was streaked with tears.

Ciaran stepped forward and Cloney hugged him hard. They remained together for a long time, finding friendship a comfort, in the midst of death and injustice and misery. Eventually, Cloney stirred and stepped back. He looked around. Both horses were grazing peacefully beside the ditch.

“They’re too knackered to run away,” Ciaran said.

“Are you joking me? The idle bastards have done nothing but eat looted hay in a cosy barn all day. Jesus, I wish I’d had the wit to stay with them.”

“So do I, Thomas.”

Cloney managed a smile. “My friends call me Tom, Ciaran, and I’d think by now you qualify.”

They mounted up and continued up the path to the camp. “I’ll come with you,” Ciaran offered. “When you tell him.”

“Thank you, I’d be glad of it. I don’t think he’ll continue in command, Ciaran, he never wanted it in the first place.”

“Good.”

Cloney shot him a surprised glance. “I thought you liked him.”

“I do like him. But he shouldn’t be doing this. He hasn’t the stomach for it.”

“Do you?”

“I think my stomach made its point very well just now, Tom. But I’m in it now. I’ll stick with it, until it’s over. Which might not be very long, unless Wolfe Tone really has managed to convince the French to lend a hand. King George has an awful lot more men than we do, and they’ve trained for this. So far, we’re fighting the militia and whatever troops they’ve got to hand, but a battalion of experienced soldiers is going to slaughter us where we stand. They’re good at this.”

“So are you.”

Ciaran gave a tired smile. “I was lucky today.”

Cloney shook his head. “That wasn’t luck, boy, I know the difference. When it comes to organising the resistance and writing political speeches, I reckon I’ve got you beat. But when you stood out there, pulling those men together today…didn’t you realise I was leaving it to you?”

Ciaran had not, and the idea shook him a little. “I’m not old enough,” he said. “And I think the responsibility would scare the shit out of me.”

“It might do thinking of it now, lad, but once you’re in a fight, it’s a different matter. I’m telling you, if you need to run and have nowhere to hide, you should join the army. You’d look all right in a red coat.”

“That’s not funny, Tom.”

“It’s the best I can manage today. Come on, let’s pick up the pace. I want to get up to headquarters and break the news, get it over with. And there might be food. My heart is broken into twenty pieces right now, but I’m still bloody hungry.”

***

Chester, September 1798

The magistrate was late to arrive in the private parlour at the back of the Castle and Falcon, but made an impressive entrance. Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler, who had rushed his breakfast, decided it was easy for a man of Sir Thomas Woodbridge’s girth to look impressive. Woodbridge was almost as wide as he was high, and Johnny managed not to laugh as he surveyed the chair which had been set out for him, which had wooden arms. Woodbridge said nothing, merely looked, and there was a further awkward delay as Sergeant Stewart sent a man out into the tap room to find a chair wide enough for the magistrate. That done, Woodbridge seated himself, looked over at Sergeant Stewart and nodded to indicate that he was ready to begin.

The swearing in of new recruits was not a lengthy process, but Johnny had seen it often enough during the past month to be heartily bored with it. The 110th infantry had been under orders to embark for India when it was discovered to be significantly under strength. Johnny had no idea why this had come as a surprise to Colonel Dixon, since most of the company officers had been grumbling about it for a year or more, but the matter was rapidly turning into a crisis as the date of departure approached.

Johnny had not wanted to join the recruiting party, and there was an enthusiastic volunteer in the person of Lieutenant Vincent Longford of the seventh company. Johnny thought that his enthusiasm had probably aroused the suspicions of his seniors. Longford was a lazy officer, notorious for finding ways to avoid hard work. Touring the local area staying in inns and public houses accompanied by a sergeant, a drummer and four enlisted men was far easier than the long hours of training and drilling in barracks which were being supervised by Major Johnstone, but Johnny was in no doubt which he would have preferred.

Captain Mason called Johnny into the mess room to inform him that he was to join Longford’s party. He grinned sympathetically at Johnny’s expression and placed a glass of wine in front of him.

“Cheer up, Mr Wheeler. It will only be for a few weeks.”

“Yes, sir. But may I ask why? It isn’t usual to send two officers. And even if they wanted to, can’t Longford take one of his ensigns? Two lieutenants seems excessive.”

“One of his ensigns can hardly be expected to keep an eye on him. Longford loves doing this, but some of his recruitment practices are a little unscrupulous and we’ve no wish to find half our new recruits released from their oaths because it can be proved that Longford tricked them into it.”

Johnny thought privately that the wording of the recruitment poster could be considered a piece of trickery in itself, given what he knew of the pay and conditions of the men under his command, but he decided not to mention it. He sipped the wine and asked gloomily:

“Why me?”

“Major Johnstone asked for you specifically,” Mason said. “I was annoyed, to be honest, I could do with you on the training ground this week. But it’s a compliment, Wheeler. He trusts you to see it’s done right. If we leave it up to Longford, he’ll find himself a comfortable inn and stay there an extra week at the army’s expense.”

Johnny thought that Mason probably had a point. “Then why send Longford at all?”

“Longford can be unscrupulous. You, on the other hand, are at risk of being over-scrupulous, you’d never recruit anybody. Between the two of you, I think we’ll reach our quota before we have to sail.”

Johnny was not sure if he had just been complimented or reprimanded. “Thank you, sir. Where are we…?”

“You’re going to Chester.”

“Chester?” Johnny said in surprise. “Isn’t that rather out of the way for us? We could try Leicester and possibly Nottingham, with the towns and villages in between. I’m sure…”

“You’re going to Chester on the Colonel’s orders, Mr Wheeler, because he wants to speed up the process, and as it happens, he has a friend in Chester who is a magistrate,” Mason said grimly. Johnny’s heart sank.

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes.”

“Do we know how many, sir?”

“About twenty, I believe.”

“Oh sir, that’s too many. Even if we split them between the companies, they’re going to cause trouble. It’s one thing to take one or two at a time from the courts, but that sounds as though they’re emptying out their gaol into our ranks.”

“I suspect they are. There is nothing we can do about it, however. I’m sorry, Wheeler, I know you’d rather be doing anything other than this. You have my sympathy, I loathe the process. Longford is rather good at it though. He enjoys the spectacle of parading through town with a drummer. Let him have his way and only intervene if he’s doing something obviously illegal, or if he’s spending the army’s money on himself. Oh, and don’t let him snaffle all the best men for the seventh company. They’re only about ten men short, we need at least fifteen or so. If you two are doing the work, you’ll get first pick. You know what we’re looking for in the light company. Fast, agile and with a modicum of intelligence. And try not to allow half the pickpockets and highwaymen of Cheshire into my company, will you?”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

The journey was not as bad as Johnny had feared. Despite his reservations, Johnny had to admit that Captain Mason was right about Vincent Longford. The man would do almost anything to avoid drill or training with his men, but given the opportunity to strut through a market town or a country fair to the sound of a beating drum, Longford was in his element. He could be surprisingly gracious to even the humblest of the potential recruits although once they joined, Johnny knew he was more likely to order a flogging than a offer a kind word. Longford was a harsh and unpredictable disciplinarian.

They had picked up eighteen men by the time they reached Chester, and Johnny only needed to intervene once, to remind Sergeant Stewart that while some magistrates would turn a blind eye to the common practice of making a man so drunk that he would swear to anything, others would call a halt to proceedings if the recruit appeared to be inebriated and wait for him to sober up before taking the oath. Longford did not attempt to intervene or contradict him, although Johnny was sure that if he had not been present, Longford would have happily signed up two men who could barely stand and taken a chance with the magistrate.

The weather remained fair into early October, with some days as hot as midsummer. Despite his reservations, Johnny realised he was quite enjoying the break from routine. Longford was happy to take on the job of advertising their presence in the towns and villages, leaving it to Johnny to organise the paperwork, arrange the necessary medical examination that each recruit must pass and approach the local magistrate to oversee the taking of the oath. They stayed at inns and taverns along the way and although Johnny did not particularly like Longford, they got on well enough to enjoy a meal and a drink together. They were the same age and having managed to raise or borrow the funds for promotion to lieutenant, both found themselves looking at the faintly depressing prospect of not being able to progress further without money or a great deal of luck.

Johnny understood Longford’s feelings, but after a week in his company was bored with his litany of complaints. Though he could not imagine how or when he would be able to obtain his captaincy, he preferred not to dwell on it. The army had been his life since he was seventeen and, at twenty-five, he had no desire to pursue any other profession. While Longford dreamed of finding a wealthy or influential patron to smooth his path, Johnny preferred to work hard and hope that at some point, somebody would recognise that intelligence and steady competence had as much value as noble connections.

Longford and Johnny called on Sir Thomas Woodbridge and accepted an invitation to dine. Woodbridge was clearly delighted with the prospect of a solution to the overcrowded city gaol and proudly informed his guests that he had no less than twenty-five men from Chester and the surrounding area, who had declared themselves willing to don a red coat rather than face prison or transportation. Longford was at his most obsequious and Johnny cringed inwardly and hoped that at least some of the men would be pronounced unfit to serve by Dr Howland when he examined them. The custom of encouraging convicted felons to join the army was considerably less popular with serving officers than with serving magistrates.

Johnny studied the men who assembled in the parlour the following day, as Longford administered the oath which bound them to serve at his Majesty’s pleasure. They ranged between a thin-faced cutpurse in his forties to a terrified boy who did not look older than fifteen, though he gave his age as seventeen. Only one of the prison recruits had been refused by the doctor on the grounds of a marked curvature of the spine. Most of these men looked skinny and underfed, but that was probably due to poor food in gaol and in many cases, the grinding poverty that had pushed them into criminality in the first place. Johnny had quizzed Dr Howland to ensure there were no signs of gaol fever. He had no wish to march back to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his new recruits dropping by the roadside.

With the swearing in completed, Johnny joined Longford and Dr Howland in the dining room, leaving Stewart and his men to get the new men settled in their temporary barracks. Over dinner, they discussed the time of their departure on the following day and the route to be taken on the way back. Longford suggested a slightly longer route, taking in the towns of Derby and Nottingham and Johnny agreed. It was unusual for a recruiting party to fill its intended quota but if they were as successful as they had been in Leicester on the way out, Johnny thought they might do very well.

Johnny was awake early the following morning and, since they were not marching until noon and breakfast would not be for an hour or more, he dressed quietly so as not to wake Longford or Howland and went out into a world painted rosy by the first light of dawn. Strolling through quiet streets, he made his way down to the River Dee and stood watching the sun come up over the water. It was chilly this early, but with the promise of another lovely day, and Johnny lingered for a while. He knew he would miss days like this in the heat and dust of campaigning in India.

The inn had come to life by the time he returned, with a bustle of early departures in the stable yard and the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen at the back of the building. Johnny stood for a moment watching a family party climbing into an elegant travelling carriage, piled high with luggage.

“Lieutenant Wheeler?”

Johnny turned to find the landlord calling him, framed in the open doorway of the kitchen.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, it’s just there’s a man arrived asking about the recruiting officers. Mr Longford and the doctor aren’t down yet, so I was going to direct him to the barn where the men are, but as you’re here…”

“Another volunteer?”

“He didn’t say, sir, but what else?”

Johnny sighed. “I’ll speak to him. Where is he, Turner?”

“In the tap room, sir.”

Johnny walked into the wood-panelled tap room. The man was seated at the bar with a tankard before him. Seen in profile, it was a face of considerable distinction. He was young, probably not much above twenty, with dark curly hair tied back neatly with a black ribbon. His clothing was dusty and travel stained, as though he had spent some time on the road, but Johnny observed that it was of far better quality than any of the other recruits. As Johnny studied him, the young man seemed to sense his regard and turned his head, revealing deep-set dark eyes. After a moment, he got up and bowed politely as Johnny approached.

“Lieutenant Wheeler of the 110th light company. I understand you’re wishing to join the army.”

“Aye, sir, I am. I’m hoping I’m not too late. The landlord said you’re moving on today.”

The voice was pleasant, with a musical lilt which was wholly and unmistakeably Irish. Johnny did not reply immediately. He looked again at the stained clothing, the stubble on the man’s face and the dark, serious eyes and a warning bell clanged loudly in his head. Ireland was in turmoil, with the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen only just defeated. The army had its share of Irishmen, both officers and enlisted men, but Johnny was instinctively suspicious. This man was young, well-spoken and looked as though he had been sleeping rough on the road for days. Most of the Irish recruits in the 110th came either from the cities, where unemployment was high or from recruiting in Ireland itself, when a poor crop and a round of evictions made serving King George seem the only alternative to starvation. This man was cut from a different cloth.

“You’ve missed the swearing in, and we’re marching out later today.”

“I could go with you and be sworn in when it’s possible.”

Johnny studied him, troubled. It was his job to accept every willing recruit and he knew Longford would not hesitate. Johnny was already concerned about the collection of thieves, drunkards and vagrants they had signed up on the previous day and was trying to work out how best to divide them between the ten companies of the first battalion so that they could not easily influence each other. He had no particular desire to throw an Irish rebel fleeing for his life into such a dangerous mix.

“I’ll ask the landlord to bring you breakfast,” he said finally. “It’s the least we can do, given that you’ve travelled to find us.”

Unexpectedly the younger man smiled. “I didn’t travel to find you, sir. I was travelling to find work, and I stumbled across you on the way. It seemed a good solution.”

He reached into his pocket and drew out a crumpled sheet, which Johnny recognised as one of the posters or handbills they had distributed around taverns and ale houses in the district. It explained at least where the man had found out about the recruiting party.

“The army is a very hard life for a young man. Especially if you’re not accustomed to hardship. You should give it some thought before taking that oath.”

The Irishman laughed aloud and indicated the paper. “High pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages. Are you telling me that’s not true?”

Despite himself, Johnny smiled. “It might be to a starving peasant, but I’m not convinced that’s you.”

The Irishman smoothed out the paper. “High-spirited, handsome young men. Don’t I qualify, Lieutenant?”

Johnny did not speak for a long moment. Eventually, he said:

“Get yourself over and speak to Sergeant Stewart, he’ll arrange breakfast for you. If you still want to, you can march with us until the next signing on. It may be a few days. You can change your mind at any time between now and then but if you’re staying, you’ll need to improve your attitude. If you speak to the other officers like this, you’re going to end up at the wrong end of a flogging before the end of the month.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll learn to do better.”

“Good.” Johnny studied him for a long moment. “Have you any experience of training or drilling? Or fighting?”

For the first time, the dark eyes did not meet his. The Irishman looked down at the paper which he still held. He crumpled it up again and put it back in his pocket, and Johnny was suddenly sure.

“Not really, sir. Apart from a few weeks when I thought I might join the militia. But I’m a quick learner.”

“I’ll just bet you are,” Johnny said softly. “What’s your name?”

The younger man looked up. There was just enough hesitation to convince Johnny that the name he was about to be given was not this man’s real name and was possibly one he had thought up at a moment’s notice.

“It’s O’Reilly, sir. Michael O’Reilly.”

“Is it now?” Johnny said, making no attempt to conceal his scepticism. “Welcome to the 110th, O’Reilly. I’m sure you’ll be an asset in no time at all.”

The Irishman said nothing for a moment. He withdrew the paper from his pocket and studied it in silence. Johnny wondered if his disbelief had put the man off. Eventually O’Reilly looked up again.

“If you’ll take me on, sir, I’ll do my best to see you don’t regret it.”

There was unexpected emotion behind the words and suddenly Johnny was very aware of the travel stained clothing, the unshaven face and the haunted expression in the dark eyes.  He wondered what this boy had seen or done during this past year to make the army seem a refuge. He also wondered how long it would be before the independent spirit he was trying so hard to conceal got him into trouble. Johnny sighed.

“I’m already regretting it,” he said resignedly.

The door opened and Sergeant Stewart came in. He saluted, looking curiously at the Irishman.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Captain Longford’s not down yet. The farrier is here to replace that shoe.”

“That’s all right, Sergeant. This is O’Reilly, he’ll be marching with us and if he still wants to, he’ll be sworn in at our next halt. Get him fed and take his details, will you?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll add him to Captain Longford’s company, they…”

“No.” Johnny was still studying the young Irishman who waited with wholly unconvincing meekness to learn his fate. “I don’t think Captain Longford is the right officer for O’Reilly. Put him in the light company, Stewart.”

Johnny watched them cross the yard to the barn, O’Reilly half a head taller than his companion. Briefly he wondered exactly how much trouble the young Irish rebel was likely to cause and if he had done the right thing. Then the smell of bacon wafting out of the kitchen reminded him of his growling stomach and he abandoned all thoughts of O’Reilly and went in search of breakfast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unassuming Gentleman

Welcome to An Unassuming Gentleman, my free short story for Valentine’s Day 2022. For this story, I’ve gone back to the first weeks of 1809 when Sir John Moore died on the field of Corunna and his army returned to England suffering from sickness, exhaustion and starvation after an appalling retreat over the mountains in winter.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, this story is not about that retreat, it’s about one of the officers who took part in it. Gervase Clevedon has been part of the Peninsular War Saga from the first, one of Paul van Daan’s inner circle, moving in and out of the action regularly. Yet very little has been said about his personal life. We know he is the younger son of an Earl, with a difficult relationship with his elder brother but the books have been silent on the subject of his marital status.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyTo set this story in context of the books, it would slot in part way through An Unconventional Officer. Paul van Daan has returned from his memorable time in Yorkshire and sailed with Wellesley to fight at the battles of Rolica and Vimeiro. After the unpopular convention of Cintra, the three commanders were summoned back to London to face an inquiry and the army marched into Spain under Sir John Moore. The exception was a few companies left behind in Lisbon under Major Paul van Daan, many of whom were suffering, like Paul’s wife, from camp fever. After Moore’s disastrous campaign, which ended with his death at Corunna, the army returned to England for a few months to recover before going back to Portugal under Wellesley. Captain Gervase Clevedon was with them.

I wanted to make a brief mention of my heroine’s name. I’m very fond of the name Heather, and I’ve been dying to use it, in honour of my editor but I wasn’t sure if it was used as a girls’ name during this era. A check of the incredibly useful Ancestry.com told me there was no problem with it.

As I know my readers love to work out links to characters in other books, I’ve managed to work in links to both my standalone early novels in this story. Readers of A Respectable Woman may like to know that Gervase Clevedon is the uncle of Kit Clevedon who is the hero of that book. Meanwhile Heather MacLeod’s brother is Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish title going back to the sixteenth century where the second Baron Crawleigh defended his lands against the invasion of the Earl of Hertford in A Marcher Lord. 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers. This one is unashamedly romantic. I hope you enjoy it, and it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

An Unassuming Gentleman.

 

It rained on the evening of Lady Sefton’s ball and a canopy had been set up across the street, to shelter the revellers during the short walk from the carriage steps to the house. Mrs Heather MacLeod, who had not particularly wanted to attend the ball, found herself wondering how much it had cost to effectively close off part of the square, so that her Ladyship’s guests might keep their feet dry.

Heather had been on a routine visit to London when she found herself ambushed by her sister-in-law. Lady Crawleigh had invited her down from her home in Scotland for a few weeks, with the promise of the theatre, the opera, some concerts and a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. Taking part in the balls and receptions of the London Season was not part of the plan and Heather was infuriated when Lady Crawleigh presented her with a pile of invitations on which her name was included.

“You may take those away, Fiona, for I shall not be attending any of them. I didn’t come here to go to parties, I cannot think what possessed you.”

“I have already replied on your behalf, Heather, so it will seem very rag-mannered if you don’t turn up,” Fiona said cheerfully. “You could of course write to the hostesses excusing yourself. I’ll leave them on the mantlepiece in case you wish to do so.”

“I? It was not I who accepted in the first place.”

“They don’t know that.”

“Fiona, how dare you? You know how much I dislike this kind of thing. I shall be bored witless. Besides, I don’t have anything suitable to wear since I never go to balls or receptions since Alex died and you promised me culture.”

“You shall have all the culture you desire, my love, providing you come out of your self-imposed seclusion and join the rest of the world for a few months. It won’t hurt you at all. I’ve made an appointment with my dressmaker. You are quite right, your gowns are looking dated. And…”

“I don’t want this.”

“You need this,” Fiona said with sudden quiet ferocity. “You’ve been hiding away in Comrie Castle for three years now and it is enough. Charles and I both agree on this. It isn’t good for you.”

“Charles is a traitor and I disown him as my brother.”

“Charles loves you. Alex was his friend he knows how much you miss him. But you’re only twenty-eight, Heather, you’re too young to wear widows’ weeds for the rest of your life.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Fiona, I stopped wearing mourning two years ago.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. And how would I know what you’ve been wearing? I never see you.”

“Nonsense, I’ve stayed with you every summer.”

“And refuse to see anybody else. It’s not good for you, Heather.”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“Well this year you will have to put up with it. I mean it, Heather. Not one single concert or play will I attend with you unless you agree to accompany me to these parties. Your word on it.”

Heather glared at her. “This is blackmail and you will regret it. You may force me to attend, but you cannot make me enjoy it.”

“You sound like a five-year-old, dearest sister-in-law. Well, we shall see.”

Heather’s new gowns had not arrived by the date of Lady Sefton’s ball. Fiona had offered to lend her something, but Heather refused. Partly it was from sheer perversity, and partly it was because Fiona was six inches taller than her, with a fuller figure, and Heather suspected that even when altered, the gown would look cobbled together. She selected the best of her ballgowns, a charming green silk which she had not worn since her husband had died of a summer fever three years earlier. Heather supposed that the eagle-eyed ladies of fashion would be able to detect that the gown was out of date but she decided she did not care. She allowed Fiona’s maid to arrange her hair in the latest style, purchased new slippers and gloves and accepted a very pretty painted fan as a gift from her brother with a grim smile. The fan would be useful since Lady Sefton’s rooms were insufferably hot.

Heather was not new to London society and recognised enough people to make her feel at ease despite her long absence. Lord Crawleigh and his wife kept a house in town which they used during the Parliamentary season and were very much at home in government and diplomatic circles. Several women who had made their debut at the same time as Heather, and were now married, stopped to speak to her. She made polite conversation, accepted their congratulations at her re-emergence into society and tried not to grit her teeth too obviously.

Heather met with nothing but kindness and within an hour, she realised she was beginning to thaw. She was not ready to admit it to her interfering relatives, but she was quite enjoying renewing old acquaintances and catching up on the gossip. The music was infectious, and Heather stood beside her brother watching a cotillion and realised her feet were tapping. She remembered a little sadly how much she had enjoyed dancing with Alex during the first heady days of their courtship. She watched this year’s debutantes, their faces bright and eager and full of hope for the future and wondered if any of them was experiencing the breathless happiness of falling in love that she remembered so well.

Heather’s drifting thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. She glanced around and saw that it came from a group of men who, like her, were watching the dancing. At their centre was a tall, well-built individual who was probably in his thirties. He was expensively dressed, with his hair carefully styled and he had an over-loud voice which made everything he said easily audible to those around him.

“What do you say then, Alverstone? Who is to be this Season’s Incomparable? Miss Hibbert? Lady Caroline Forster?”

“Not at all,” the big man said. “The Hibbert is too tall and the Forster has crooked teeth. The Middleton girl is pretty, but her father’s got money troubles, or so I’ve heard. No, the girl for me is the little Flood heiress. Going to speak to her father as a matter of fact. It’s time I got my house in order now that I’ve come into the title. Nice little thing, good manners, very good Ton and a lovely figure. No reason to kick her out of bed on a cold night.”

There was more laughter. “You’d better watch it, old man, she’s over there dancing with Evesham, and he looks very pleased about it.”

“I don’t need to dance with her, Sheldon. I’ve got the title and the fortune. All I need is for her father to agree, and he will, believe me.”

Heather could feel her lip curling in distaste. She began to turn away but realised that the unpleasant Lord Alverstone had noticed her scrutiny and possibly her expression. He was staring at her, running his eyes over her in a way that made Heather’s skin crawl. Deliberately she turned towards her brother, presenting the other man with a view of her back.

“Who’s that with Crawleigh, Sheldon?” Alverstone asked loudly.

“I believe it’s his sister, Mrs MacLeod. I vaguely remember her from her debut, it was years ago. I think she’s widowed now.”

“Ha! Well her late husband did himself a favour if you ask me. Fancy being leg-shackled to a nondescript dwarf wearing last season’s gown. Couldn’t she be bothered to tidy herself up to enter polite society again?”

The words were loud enough to be heard by everybody in the vicinity. Heather was furious to feel herself blushing scarlet. She felt her brother stiffen in anger beside her and heard a murmur of comment, and one or two hastily suppressed sniggers.

“Heather, do you want me to…”

“No, Charles, please don’t. It will only encourage him.”

Heather took a deep breath and turned to look fully at Lord Alverstone. He was looking back at her mockingly, daring her to make a scene. Heather very much wanted to slap him, but she knew that for her brother’s sake she must not.

She turned away, furious to realise that she was shaking a little, with a combination of anger and embarrassment. She should not have agreed to attend such a fashionable ball in her outmoded gown, but she had been enjoying herself and nobody else had shown any sign of caring until Alverstone had drawn it to everybody’s attention.

“Are you all right, Heather?”

“Yes. No. I need to get out of here, Charles, but I don’t want him to think that I’m running away…”

“Lord Crawleigh.”

Heather turned in surprise. The voice was very different to Alverstone’s. It was a quiet baritone which held unconscious authority. She had noticed him standing on the edge of Alverstone’s group of cronies, a man of medium height, in military dress with mid-brown hair and attractive hazel eyes. Heather had no idea who he was and wondered if he had come to apologise for his friend’s rudeness. She hoped not.

“Clevedon,” her brother said delightedly. “I didn’t realise you were here tonight. Or even that you were back in England. How are you, old boy? Were you at…I mean, I’m assuming you must have been…”

Captain Clevedon smiled slightly. “Corunna? Yes, I was there. I’ve not been all that well as you can imagine, this is my first proper attempt at being social.”

“Well, I should think so. Dreadful business. Very sorry to hear about Sir John Moore, he’ll be much missed.”

“He will.” Captain Clevedon transferred his attention to Heather. He bowed. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, ma’am.”

“No, of course,” Charles said quickly. “This is my sister, Clevedon, Mrs MacLeod. She married Alex MacLeod, you’ll remember him. Died three years ago, some ghastly fever epidemic. Heather, this is Captain the Honourable Gervase Clevedon, a friend from my army days. He started off in the 71st with me then transferred to the 110th.”

Heather recognised the name and was furiously aware that Captain Clevedon had indeed approached her to apologise, not for his friend but for his brother. She glared at Charles, since she could hardly glare at the hapless Clevedon, and wished he would get this over with so that she could leave with dignity and have a good cry in the carriage home.

“It is very good to meet you, Mrs MacLeod. I was wondering if you would consider dancing with me? I’ve been away from London for so long. I am hopelessly out of practice, but if you’d take pity on me I would be very grateful.”

It was worse than she had expected. Heather shot her brother an indignant look, and Charles looked back with eyes which entreated her not to make a scene. He was right, she knew. There was no way to withdraw without making it look as though she was storming out. She gave a rigid smile and placed her gloved hand in Clevedon’s.

The dancers were forming up for a country dance. Heather took her place opposite Clevedon. He shot her a reassuring smile and she forced herself to respond, wishing this were over. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and Clevedon held out his hand.

“If I forget the steps, just push me,” he whispered. “I’m very good at taking orders, I promise you. Good luck.”

The remark was so unexpected that Heather let out a giggle. Her partner grinned back at her as he stepped back and then forward into the opening figure of the dance. Heather took a deep breath and let him turn her neatly before passing her hand onto the opposite gentleman in the set.

It was immediately clear that if Gervase Clevedon had not danced in London for a while, he had definitely danced somewhere. Heather had not and she had to concentrate to remember the steps. The music was lively and within a minute, Heather stopped thinking about her gown or her wounded pride and was caught up in the sheer joy of dancing again after so long.

When the music ended, Captain Clevedon bowed and raised her hand to his lips. “Thank you, I enjoyed that so much. I was worried I’d run out of energy halfway through, but we carried the day.”

Heather smiled. “I almost refused to dance with you.”

“I know you did, ma’am, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. You must have been furious.”

“I thought you were going to apologise to me.”

Clevedon led her from the dance floor and neatly removed two champagne glasses from the tray of a passing waiter. “For Alverstone? I make a point of never apologising for him, or I’d never do anything else.”

Heather laughed aloud as she took the champagne. “Then why did you ask me to dance?”

“Mostly to annoy him. But also, I’d noticed you earlier because of that green silk gown. Several years ago, when I was last in London, I solicited a lady for a dance, who was wearing just that particular shade. She was a considerable heiress and a noted beauty and she turned me down very haughtily. I was hoping I might do better this time. I’m delighted to say that I did.”

Heather could not stop laughing. “I have no idea if any of that is true,” she said.

“I promise you that it is.”

“I collect you don’t get on with your brother.”

“I dislike him excessively. I hope that doesn’t shock you? Your own brother is a very good fellow. I’m deeply envious of you.”

“Doesn’t that make it difficult living with him?”

“Oh, I’m not staying at Alverstone House, ma’am, I wouldn’t dream of it when he is in residence. I have a house of my own near Ampthill in Bedfordshire. I inherited the estate from my mother’s family. And when I’m in London, I have a standing invitation to stay with the family of my commanding officer in Curzon Street. They’re very good hosts, especially just now, because none of them are there. Are you staying with Crawleigh?”

“Yes, for a few weeks. I live in Scotland, I inherited my husband’s estate and I seldom come to London. My sister-in-law has been bullying me, saying I should make more effort to be social.”

“Well I’m very glad you did,” Clevedon said. “May I take you into supper?”

“I…yes, if you wish it.”

“Will you dance with me again?”

Heather was laughing again. “Isn’t there some kind of rule which says we may only dance together twice?”

“Oh no, surely that rule only applies to debutantes.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well can we pretend that neither of us knows any better? They won’t be surprised. You’ve been hiding in a Scottish castle for three years and I’ve been in the army, they don’t expect any better from us.”

Heather felt as though her head was spinning slightly. “Are you always like this? How did you know it was a castle?”

“No, is it? I just made that up. I must have the second sight. Dance with me again, Mrs MacLeod. I’ve just survived the worst retreat…you honestly can’t imagine. Please?”

Heather sipped the champagne. “Was it really that bad? The retreat to Corunna?”

Unexpectedly the laughing eyes were serious. “Yes,” he said. “So bad, in fact, that I’m trying not to think about it too much at the moment. I’m supposed to be convalescing.”

“By dancing.”

“It is good for both the body and the soul. Especially dancing with you. You have the prettiest eyes.”

“Captain Clevedon, are you trying to flirt with me?” Heather said in what she hoped was a repressive voice.

Clevedon looked at her for a long moment. “Do you know, I think I am,” he said cordially. “Do you think that’s a sign of recovery? Come along, they’re about to start the quadrille and I think I can remember that one.”

***

The rain had stopped when Gervase Clevedon stepped out into the cool winter air. London was not particularly sweet smelling most of the time, but the rain had washed down the streets and given them a fresh damp scent. Gervase stood for a moment, his head swimming pleasantly, and decided he was sober enough to walk home. A queue of carriages stood waiting to collect their occupants. Gervase’s hosts had informed him that he was to make use of their town carriage without hesitation, but Gervase preferred to walk although he knew perfectly well that his brother would never dream of walking the ten minutes to his home in Berkeley Square. More than ten years in the army had given Gervase considerable hardiness and he would have been embarrassed to call for the carriage for such a short distance.

Gervase had stood up with Heather MacLeod for more than the regulation two dances. If anybody had cast disapproving glances their way, he had not noticed and did not care. When he had limped off the transport from Corunna to begin his convalescence, Gervase had been so weak from starvation, exhaustion and a minor wound to his shoulder that he could not have contemplated even a short walk, let alone an evening dancing. Physically he had recovered very quickly but the emotional effects of the long agonising retreat followed by a battle he was not fit to fight were taking longer to shake off.

The retreat to Corunna had been a disaster for the British army. Only two thirds of Gervase’s battalion had marched into Spain with Sir John Moore. The rest of them remained in Lisbon, struck down by the worst epidemic of camp fever Gervase had ever seen. At the time, Gervase had thought himself lucky to have avoided it. Colonel Johnstone rallied those men fit enough to fight and joined the main army, and Gervase felt sorry for Major Paul van Daan who was both his commanding officer and his friend. Paul’s friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley had given him a significant part to play in the victories at Rolica and Vimeiro the previous year, but this time he was left in Lisbon in command of the sick troops while Johnstone marched to potential glory. To make it worse, Paul’s wife succumbed to the sickness and Gervase knew he had spent a miserable six weeks in Lisbon fretting over her before returning to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his much-depleted companies, to receive the news of Moore’s death.

Moore’s campaign had gone wrong from the start. He had taken over command of the army when the three previous commanders had been summoned back to London to face an inquiry over the convention of Cintra, which had caused public outrage because of the lenient terms granted to the defeated French. Gervase wondered if Sir Arthur Wellesley would have done any better than Moore, given the impossible circumstances. Moore could not be asked to account for the failure of his campaign. He had been killed during the desperate battle fought on the shore at Corunna where his sickly, starving and exhausted army managed to beat back the French long enough to board the transports waiting to take them home.

Gervase had lost both his horses during the long retreat, and too many of his men. They fell beside the road, dying of sickness and hunger and cold and he could do nothing for them. He also lost control of them, unable to prevent episodes of looting and drunkenness whenever they happened upon a village or a farm where food was available. Spanish farmers and their families were murdered and women were raped. Gervase did not know if any of his men were responsible for the worst of the depredations but even the fact that they might have been left him depressed and ashamed.

Flirting with Heather MacLeod on the dance floor and across the supper table had made him happier than he had been for months and Gervase was enormously grateful. He was also intrigued. She was an attractive woman who seemed entirely without vanity. In place of it, she had ideas, and interests and laughter. She laughed more than any woman he had ever met. She also talked a lot. Gervase thought of himself as a quiet man, but Heather MacLeod was amazingly easy to talk to. He discovered, with some surprise, that they shared a lively sense of the ridiculous and her conversation was peppered with observations about their fellow revellers that kept him in a ripple of laughter all evening. He realised, as he turned into Curzon Street, that he could not wait to see her again.

It was past two o’clock as Gervase mounted the steps to Tevington House. He did not knock, unwilling to wake up the neighbours, knowing that the butler or one of the footmen would be on the watch for his return. Sure enough, the door opened after only a few moments and Gervase stepped into the hallway, which was dimly lit by a branch of candles set on a polished table. He took off his hat.

“If you think I’m taking your damned hat as well as waiting up to let you in, you’re much mistaken, Captain Clevedon.”

Gervase turned in astonishment, his face lighting up at the sight of a tall fair man in uniform who was smiling at him.

“Paul! What on earth are you doing here, acting as butler at this hour?”

“Are you drunk, Gervase? This is my house. At least it’s my father’s house.”

Gervase set his hat down on the side table, carefully avoiding the candles, and remembered to salute. Major Paul van Daan regarded him critically. “Not much more than half-sprung, I suspect. I got here very late after the journey from hell, so I had supper and thought I’d wait up for you. They said you were at Lady Sefton’s.”

“I was. It’s the first time I’ve ventured out to anything more strenuous than a supper party at White’s, but unexpectedly I enjoyed myself. I’m surprised to see you, sir, I thought you fixed in Leicestershire.”

“I am. In fact, I’m completely invisible and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from advertising my presence in town. Wellesley wrote to me asking me to come up for a few days. I’m dining with him tomorrow. It seems we’ll be going back to Portugal with him.”

“They’ve given him the command?”

“Yes, although I don’t know how official it is yet. Are you too tired for another drink? I’ve kept the fire going in the library.”

“As long as it isn’t champagne. I have drunk enough champagne this evening. Why are you travelling incognito?”

Paul picked up the candles and led the way into the library. He set them down and went to pour wine. “Because I don’t want to see anybody,” he said frankly. “Apart from Wellesley, and of course you. I’m enjoying the life of a country layabout for a month or two, with nothing more strenuous than the ride into barracks, and I promised Rowena I wouldn’t stay long.”

“How is she, sir?”

“She seems fully recovered, but it’s going to take me a while to get over the fright she gave me.”

“And how are the men?”

“Improving. We’ve lost some, Gervase, I can’t lie to you. I can’t decide if I feel guilty or relieved that I wasn’t there.”

“Feel relieved,” Gervase said sombrely, drinking the wine. “It was pure hell, appallingly organised with a complete breakdown of discipline. We lost control of our men, Paul, and I’ve never had to say that before. It’s a miracle we got as many of them out of there as we did. You missed nothing.”

“That’s never going to happen again.”

Gervase grinned at the ferocious certainty of the other man’s tone. “Yes, sir. Now let’s talk of other things, it depresses me. I saw Wellesley tonight. He was dancing with a number of pretty women, none of whom were his wife.”

“That is no surprise at all. He has reason to celebrate. Wholly exonerated by the inquiry, a vote of thanks from Parliament, and the promise of a new command.”

Gervase gave a faint smile. “And did he deserve all of those?”

Paul grinned. “Two out of three,” he said honestly. “He signed that bloody thing along with the other two. I doubt he agreed with it, but I’m also damned sure he didn’t realise the furore it was going to cause, or he’d never have done it. Needless to say, he didn’t ask my opinion. I’m glad he got away with it though because he deserves the command and the approbation. Now let’s see what he can do with nobody holding him back. Was your brother at Lady Sefton’s tonight?”

“To my sorrow. He’s the reason I was planning to post up to Bedfordshire at the end of the week. Just being in the same room as him makes me want to punch him, I cannot think how we came to be related. He tells me he is about to make an offer of marriage to some unfortunate girl. I wish I could put a spoke in the works because he’ll treat her appallingly, but there’s nothing I can do. He’s an Earl, her parents cannot wait to hand her over.”

“Who is it?”

“Lady Clarissa Flood. She’s nineteen.”

“Dear God.”

“I know. He can’t even be bothered to woo the girl. He’ll just sign the marriage contract and start giving her orders. Thank God I’ll be back in Portugal with you and won’t have to watch it.”

“Ambitious parents create a lot of misery. When are you going to Ampthill? It’s not that far, you should come up to Southwinds for a few days. I promise not to make you run drill or skirmish training.”

Gervase laughed. “You would break that promise in two days, sir, you can’t help yourself. I’m not sure actually. I was going to go, but I may decide to stay in town for a week or two. I ran into an old friend this evening. Do you know Crawleigh? We were in the 71st together, but he sold out when he inherited the title. His wife has invited me to dine on Tuesday, and I’m joining them at the theatre on Friday.”

Paul van Daan studied him for a long silent moment, sipping his wine. Gervase drank his, saying nothing. Eventually, Paul set his glass down and got up to bring the bottle to the low table before the fire. He refilled both glasses, sat back and studied Gervase thoughtfully.

“What’s her name?” he asked.

***

It was the first time in many years that Gervase had spent any time in London during the season and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. As the younger son of the Earl of Alverstone, his place in society was assured but his loathing for his elder brother meant that he tended to avoid town when the new Earl was in residence.

Gervase could tell that Alverstone was baffled by his extended stay. They spoke occasionally when meeting at social events and his brother was probing, trying to discover what was keeping Gervase in London. His curiosity amused Gervase since it was clear that Alverstone had absolutely no idea of his real motives. He questioned Gervase about possible financial problems, difficulties with his Bedfordshire estate, health problems after the brutal retreat to Corunna and even asked if Gervase was considering selling his commission and returning to civilian life. Gervase gave him little information and enjoyed watching his brother’s puzzlement.

Gervase could not believe Alverstone had not noticed the object of his real interest. Lord Crawleigh and his wife were definitely aware, and they encouraged him shamelessly. Gervase wondered if they had bullied Heather into coming to London in the hope of finding her another husband, but he did not think so. Lady Crawleigh was clearly devoted to her and he suspected that Heather’s self-imposed solitude since the death of her husband had been a source of concern for some time.

It puzzled Gervase, because it was quickly clear that Heather MacLeod was not a naturally solitary person. She was awkward at times, but he thought that was lack of practice rather than a native dislike of company. Over the following weeks he spent increasing amounts of time with her, and he found her completely charming.

Heather quickly admitted to him that Lady Crawleigh had tricked her into coming to London with the promise of cultural activities. It proved an excellent opportunity for Gervase to spend time with her in settings more conducive to conversation than a ballroom. He accompanied her to the theatre and the opera, escorted her to the Royal Academy and attended several concerts, both private and public. She laughed at his willingness to accede to any of her suggestions.

“Captain Clevedon, you are far too amenable. I am tempted to see how far I can push this. There are several public lectures coming up on the subject of anatomy and the structure of the brain. I’m sure they will be interesting. Would you be willing, should I require an escort?”

Gervase surveyed her with interest. “How fascinating, ma’am. You may not know it but I have always wanted to know more about human anatomy. Should we ask Lady Crawleigh if she wishes to attend with us?”

Heather gave him a long look. “I’m not sure if I should call your bluff. Would you really endure such a trial just to prove me wrong?”

“The difficulty you have, ma’am, is that if you call my bluff and I don’t fold, you’ll have to attend the lectures yourself. Is it really worth that just to watch me squirm?”

Heather gave a peal of laughter. “You are the most exasperating man, Captain. It’s impossible to put you out of temper.”

“It can definitely be done, ma’am. You should talk to my brother.”

“Goodness, why ever would I do that?”

“I’ve no idea. Silly notion, forget I mentioned it. Will you ride with me tomorrow? Major van Daan has offered me the pick of their stable. I’m sure I can find suitable horses.”

“I would love to, but I will provide my own horse. Fiona always brings several to town during the season, because she knows she looks good on horseback and likes to show off. I can borrow one of hers.”

“Excellent. I hope the weather holds.”

They rode together through the cold weeks of February and into early March, danced at every ball and took long walks through the London parks, trailed by Heather’s uninterested maid. She told him about her husband, about the sixteenth century castle she had inherited near the village of Comrie and about the lands and people who had become her responsibility through her marriage. Gervase talked of his parents, his career in the army and of the extensive estate in Bedfordshire that he intended one day to make his home.

“Most of the family estates are entailed, of course, and went to my brother. I didn’t mind, it’s the way things are done. It’s why I joined the army when I was younger. I wanted a career of my own, to make my way in the world. I didn’t want to depend on him. My mother always understood that. She inherited the estate from a childless uncle and made it over to me as soon as I came of age. She lives there now and keeps house for me. She doesn’t get on particularly well with Alverstone either.”

“It must be a great joy to him, to be so universally loved.”

Gervase spluttered with laughter. “I think he strives to deserve it,” he said, when he could speak again. “You were able to inherit Comrie Castle unentailed, I gather.”

“Yes. There’s no title to inherit, just the lands. If we’d had a son they’d have gone to him, with me to manage them until he was older, but we never had children. I wish we had.” Heather smiled unselfconsciously. “Alex had several male cousins who were most put out when he left everything to me, but he was perfectly entitled to do so.”

“I think you had a very happy marriage, ma’am.”

“I did. I was the most fortunate of women.”

The sadness in her voice pierced Gervase’s heart. It was unworthy he knew, to envy a dead man, but sometimes he could not help it. As the weeks passed, it was becoming more and more clear to him that his feelings for Heather MacLeod went well beyond friendship, but he was by no means sure that she felt the same way. Clearly, she enjoyed his company, and Gervase suspected that to the outside world their uncomplicated friendship looked very much like courtship, but he worried that to Heather it was nothing than a pleasant way to pass her time in London. He was beginning to understand why she had locked herself away in her grey stone tower at the edge of the Highlands for so long. Heather MacLeod had been passionately devoted to her husband and Gervase was not sure she would ever be ready for another man to take his place.

It grieved Gervase, because he wanted more, and he was becoming conscious that he had very little time. He received regular letters from his regiment, informing him of arrangements for travelling to Portugal and he was torn between the usual sense of anticipation at the beginning of a new campaign and a feeling of misery that if he sailed away from Heather without at least making a push to tell her of his feelings, he would lose any chance with her. It could be several years before he returned to England, and by then she would probably have met somebody else.

His commanding officer had returned to Leicestershire, offering several wholly unsolicited pieces of advice about Gervase’s courtship before he left. Gervase was glad to see him go. His friendship with Paul van Daan was of long-standing and he generally enjoyed his commander’s lively sense of humour, but his relationship with Heather was too new and too precious to be the subject of even the most well-meaning banter. Gervase fretted pointlessly at the problem. He knew that the only possible solution was to pluck up the courage to speak to her before he had to leave, but he was discovering that it was far easier to display courage in the face of a French cavalry charge than when faced with making an offer of marriage to a young woman who might well say no. The weeks flew past, and Gervase was beginning to dread the arrival of orders to return to duty immediately, which would rob him of any chance of speaking to Heather. He needed to gather his courage in both hands and take the risk, and he needed to do it soon.

They rode out on a bright Spring morning towards Barnet, where the horse fair sprawled out over several fields. Gervase was under no illusion that he would find a suitable opportunity to propose on this day, but he was in dire need of new horses. He had several excellent hunters in his stables in Bedfordshire but none of them were suitable for the long hours and difficult conditions of campaign life.

It was many years since he had been to Barnet Fair, and he discovered that Heather had never been. She was openly delighted with the eclectic mix of market stalls, sideshows, food and drink booths and huge pens where cattle and horses were displayed for sale. The buying and selling of livestock was the real purpose of the fair and farmers and landowners rubbed shoulders with private customers looking to buy a riding hack or a pair of carriage horses.

It was crowded and noisy. Gervase had attended such fairs in several countries and entertained Heather with stories of India as they stabled their borrowed horses in a temporary horse pen and left them under the watchful eye of one of the Van Daan’s grooms. They made their way through the throng to the horse pens, accompanied by Southworth, Gervase’s own groom. Southworth had accompanied Gervase on campaign for ten years and knew exactly what he was looking for in an officer’s mount.

Gervase had wondered if Heather would be bored by the laborious process of selecting and purchasing horses, but she seemed to enjoy herself. She was a good horsewoman and was knowledgeable enough to make intelligent comments about the various animals. They wandered through the pens, stopping every now and then to examine a promising mount and Gervase had to force himself to pay attention to the horses, since he actually needed to buy some, instead of watching Heather.

It was afternoon by the time he had made his selection and agreed the arrangements for delivering the horses. They spent the rest of the day at the fair, wandering through the market stalls, eating hot pasties in a crowded food tent and drinking cider at a rickety table overlooking the huge field where a racetrack had been laid out. In addition to its commercial purposes, Barnet Fair was famous for its sports, and both horse racing and boxing matches attracted visitors, not only from London, but also from the surrounding counties.

Heather disclaimed any interest in watching the races and the entirely masculine crowd of sportsmen surrounding the boxing ring was clearly unsuitable for a lady. The groom who had looked after their horses told them that the Prince of Wales had arrived with a party of friends for the boxing and was expected to remain for the races. It seemed like an excellent time to leave before the light began to fade and the fair grew even more rowdy.

Heather was unusually quiet on the ride back into town, but it was a comfortable silence. Gervase rode beside her, pleasantly tired after a very productive day, and decided that he was going to speak to her as soon as possible. If he had completely misread her feelings, it was better to know it. Today had clarified his own feelings and he no longer had any doubts.

Gervase was at the breakfast table two days later when the note was delivered. He did not recognise the hand, and he opened it and began to read, his teacup halfway to his mouth. After the first few lines he put the cup down and pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. It was from Heather MacLeod, a pleasant note informing him that she had made the decision to return home to Scotland almost immediately.

Gervase read the letter again. There was no mistaking the warm, friendly tone of her farewell. She thanked him for his friendship and for the many occasions when he had escorted her and expressed her hope that they would meet again at some future date. Gervase, depressed, tried to imagine how that might come about and could not. When they had parted after their day at the fair, she had given no hint of any intention to go home so soon. He found himself running over their conversations in his head, wondering if he had said or done something to upset her. He did not think he had. Foolish to think this was about him. It was looking increasingly likely that Heather MacLeod had not considered him at all when making her decision.

The thought hurt, but at the same time it was a call to action. Gervase realised that he could not allow her to leave without at least trying to tell her how he felt about her. It would be awkward for her and painfully embarrassing for him if she rejected his proposal, but it would be far worse if he just let her walk out of his life. He was in love with her and had begun to believe that she might feel the same way about him. If he was wrong, then he needed to know it and he could not put this off any longer or he might miss his opportunity.

***

Heather had been prepared for her family to object to her sudden decision to go home, but she had not been prepared for the ferocity of the storm.

She made the announcement at breakfast, dropping it casually into a conversation about Lord Crawleigh’s lame horse and the likelihood of rain that day. Neither topic served as an effective screen. Both Crawleigh and Fiona stopped their conversation and turned to stare at Heather.

“Going home? When?”

“On Friday, I think,” Heather said lightly. “I’ll make the arrangements today. I’ll travel post.”

“Heather, you cannot. We are promised to Lord and Lady Jersey on Saturday and there is the Mortimer’s ball on Monday. You have so many engagements.”

“I have made a list,” Heather said, keeping her voice steady. “I will write to all of them with my apologies, Fiona, I am not so rag-mannered as to leave that to you.”

“It seems fairly rag-mannered to walk out on your family halfway through a visit without so much as a conversation,” Crawleigh said bluntly. Heather shot him a look.

“May I remind you, dear brother, that this is not the visit I had planned? You took control of my time without so much as a by-your-leave, as though I were a silly girl of eighteen, and I think I’ve been very patient about it. I’ve had enough now and I want to go home and get on with my life.”

“What life? Mooning about the castle and discussing cattle feed and crop rotation with the farmhands? Don’t pretend you’ve not enjoyed yourself, Heather, I’m neither blind nor stupid. Three days ago you were talking about ordering new gowns for the warmer weather. What’s got into you?”

“I have enjoyed myself and I am very grateful,” Heather said between gritted teeth. “But it is enough. I don’t belong in London. I miss home. I want to go home.”

She was horrified at the little break in her voice. Fiona heard it and motioned for the servants to leave the room, then gave Crawleigh a look.

“Don’t bully her, Charles. Heather, what has happened to upset you? Do not spin me some tale, if you please, I’ve known you for too long. You had no intention of leaving early, this is a sudden decision.”

Heather got up and walked over to the long windows which overlooked the square. “That does not mean it is the wrong decision.”

“Is this about Clevedon?” her brother demanded. “Does he know you’re about to head for the Scottish hills, dear sister? Or were you just going to leave him without a word?”

Heather felt a rush of sheer fury. She spun around. “And now we have reached the truth of it, have we not, Charles? You do not give a rush about me or my feelings or how difficult this is for me. You just want me respectably married again so that the likes of Lord Alverstone do not whisper behind their hands that your sister is a little odd.”

Crawleigh got to his feet, almost upsetting the chair in his anger. “How dare you say that to me? I’ve offered you nothing but sympathy since Alex died, he was my friend. But you…”

“And now you’ve found another one of your friends to marry me off to…”

“That’s enough!” Fiona broke in angrily. “Sit down immediately, both of you. I do not care how upset you are, you will not yell at each other across the breakfast table and make a gift of our family business to the servants. Sit down.”

Heather stood irresolute. She wanted to run to her room, probably slamming several doors on the way, but the expression on Fiona’s face made her pause. Her sister-in-law was generally very placid, but she looked furious now. After a moment, Crawleigh seated himself again. Heather stalked back to her chair and did the same.

“Have you written to Captain Clevedon, Heather?” Fiona asked.

“Yes. I sent a note to him this morning.”

“I hope it was civil,” Crawleigh growled.

“It was more than civil,” Heather snapped. “I expressed my warmest friendship and appreciation for all his kindness and hoped we should meet again one day.”

“You’ll be glad you said that, sister, if you get the news he’s been blown apart by French cannon before the end of the year,” Crawleigh said unforgivably.

Heather burst into tears. She got to her feet and ran to the door of the breakfast parlour just as the butler opened it.

“Captain Clevedon, my Lord,” Campbell said, sounding surprised. “I believe he is engaged to go for a walk with Mrs MacLeod.”

Heather had completely forgotten the arrangement. She froze for a long moment, staring into Clevedon’s astonished eyes. Clevedon looked back steadily, and Heather wondered how much of the altercation he had heard. Nobody moved or spoke.

Captain Clevedon was the first to recover. He stepped to one side, his eyes not leaving hers. “It’s all right,” he said gently. “Go on. But if you can bear to come back down, I would like to speak to you.”

Heather ran past him. She was crying too much to answer, but she was grateful for his quick understanding. It made her feel rather worse. She paused at the bottom of the wide, sweeping staircase and looked back. The Captain had just entered the parlour. Before the door closed, she heard his voice, using a tone she had never heard from him before.

“I heard every word of that, Crawleigh, and you can thank God there’s a lady present or I’d punch you so hard you’d still be unconscious at dinner. Lady Crawleigh, your servant, ma’am. Sorry to arrive so early.”

***

After ten minutes of painfully stilted conversation, Lady Crawleigh excused herself to see how her sister-in-law did. When she had gone, Gervase looked at Crawleigh. The Earl groaned.

“That expression is the reason I sold out, Clevedon. I couldn’t bear you looking at me for another week like a weevil in a tack biscuit.”

“You sold out when you inherited the title, Crawleigh. It had nothing to do with me. And just at the moment, I’d say the weevil is ahead of you for brains.”

“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. I lost my temper.”

“It isn’t me you should be apologising to, you bloody idiot. Of all the things to say to the poor girl, given what she’s been through.”

“Clevedon, I love my sister dearly, but you have no idea how infuriating she can be. I’m assuming you had her note.”

“Yes, it’s why I came so early. I read it twice and decided she’d forgotten that she’d promised to go for a walk with me today. I wanted to get over here before she remembered and sent me another note to cry off.”

“That’s the reason you’re a captain and I’m a member of the idle classes. You always were a planner. I’m surprised you’re not angry with her yourself. She’s been leading you a fine dance for more than two months. It was unforgiveable to turn you off with a note because she has a whim to go home all of a sudden. I’ve no idea what’s got into her. I would have sworn…”

He broke off realising what he had been about to say. Gervase grinned. “I would have sworn as well. She’s not been leading me a dance. Your sister doesn’t have it in her to behave that way. Whatever has happened to upset her, she’s not being deliberately difficult.”

“Really? I do hope you manage to marry her, Clevedon, you’re far nicer to her than I am.”

“After today’s effort, I will not argue with you.”

“Look, I’ll ring for more tea for you and then I’ll go up and tell her…”

“If you go anywhere near her, Crawleigh, I will beat you senseless, I swear it. I’ll have the tea and you can pass me the Times. I’m going to wait.”

Thirty minutes passed. Gervase read the newspaper, which contained nothing of interest at all. Crawleigh worked his way through a pile of letters. Eventually he looked up.

“How long are you going to wait?”

“Until she comes downstairs.”

“What if she stays upstairs?”

“Then I’m staying for dinner.”

Crawleigh rolled his eyes. “Is it too early for brandy, do you think?”

“Yes.” Gervase took out his watch. “Give it another hour.”

“Do I have to sit here with you?”

“You can go to the devil for all I care.”

There was a sound in the hallway and then the door opened and Heather appeared. She was dressed in a stylish full-length blue pelisse, complete with military-style epaulettes and frogging. Only the hem and lace collar of her white gown were visible, and she wore neat black half boots and a cream-coloured bonnet trimmed with feathers. Gervase had not seen the pelisse before and, as he rose and bowed, he thought how well the colour suited her fair hair and skin. He moved forward and took her hand, raising it to his lips.

“Mrs MacLeod, I’m so glad you came down. As you are dressed for walking, I’m hoping you haven’t come to tell me you’re crying off. I’m sorry I arrived so early. I wanted to speak to Crawleigh, but it was thoughtless of me.”

“Not at all, Captain. You weren’t responsible for my dramatic exit, my brother has the tact of a bear.”

Crawleigh got up. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” he said morosely. “Good day, Clevedon. Feel free to drown her in the Serpentine if the mood takes you.”

When he had gone, Gervase looked at his love. She had been crying, but had done a good job of disguising it with a little powder and seemed perfectly calm. He took her arm and they made their way through the grey early afternoon towards the gates of Hyde Park, with Heather’s maid following at a respectable distance. Gervase realised he was dry mouthed with nerves. His strategy to speak to her alone had succeeded very well, but he was not sure that he could carry the next line of her defences.

“Are you really going back to Scotland?” Gervase asked, once they were in the park and walking along a tree lined avenue. He realised that the usual easy flow of their conversation had dried up and he was struggling to know how to raise the subject.

“Yes, I think so. I’ve done as I promised and spent a season in London. I’ve ridden in the Row and attended the balls and the receptions and the routs. I’ve been entertained by the Prince of Wales and eaten the worst supper I’ve ever been offered in my life, and I’ve seen the very latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. I’ve even been to Horse Guards and seen some very pretty soldiers on parade. I’m exhausted with all the frivolity.”

“You haven’t danced at Almack’s yet,” Gervase pointed out.

Heather laughed aloud. “The underworld will freeze over before they allow me through those hallowed doors, Captain, and you know it. Besides, I’ve no wish to go.”

“The suppers are even worse than Prinny’s, and they make the gentlemen wear knee breeches.”

“Then it’s no place for a – what did the Earl call me? A nondescript dwarf in last Season’s gowns, wasn’t it?”

“My brother’s manners are as appalling as his arrogance. I am ashamed to be related to him.”

“I would be too. I like Lady Clarissa Flood, though, it will be a pity if her parents shuffle her into it. He’ll lead her a dog’s life.”

“I cannot allow myself to think about it, ma’am, since I can do nothing to prevent it.”

Heather gave him one of her grave looks, as though she was assessing his sincerity, then she gave a rather sad smile.

“I feel the same way. But it’s another good reason to be home in Scotland, so that I don’t have to watch it. I’ll miss our talks though. When do you leave for Portugal?”

“I had a letter this morning. I’ll need to leave for Southampton in about three weeks. Major van Daan has given me leave to go straight there with no need to travel up to Melton first.”

“That’s good, as you’ll have time to say goodbye to your friends in London.”

“I thought I might go back to Ampthill, to spend a week or two there and to see my mother. I think I’ve been social enough for a while.”

“Won’t you find that hard back with your regiment?”

“The regiment…oh, you mean my fellow officers? That’s different, they’re my friends.”

Heather’s smile broadened. “The way you say that makes me wish I’d had the opportunity to meet them.”

“Oh, I wish you had too. Meeting me in London like this, during the Season, will have given you very little idea of me really. This is not…these are not really my friends.”

Another awkward silence fell. Behind them, Gervase could hear the maid sniffing noisily as though she intended it to be heard. He turned to look at her and his companion giggled.

“She doesn’t like walking,” she said softly. “I wish they’d stop this nonsense about having me chaperoned every time I walk outside the house, it’s ridiculous. I’ve been married and widowed and I’ve no reputation to worry about.”

“That’s not true and you know it, ma’am. London is very censorious.”

“It can be as censorious as it likes, I’m unlikely to hear it from my crumbling pile of stone in Scotland.”

Gervase laughed. “Is that another one of my brother’s remarks?”

“No, that one was Lady Commyngton. Though to be fair, I think she only said it when it became clear to her I’d no intention of encouraging the attentions of her youngest son. He’d have been very happy to take on my crumbling pile of stone and the income my husband left me.”

“Is it really crumbling?”

“Well it’s old, and the plumbing could do with updating,” Heather admitted cheerfully. “Alexander never really cared for such things, but since he left me in better case than I expected, I had thought of doing a little work on it. But it’s a castle, Captain, not a mansion. I doubt Mr Commyngton would have wanted to live there much, and I’d never marry a man who wanted to sell my home to fund a London lifestyle.”

“I suspect your Scottish castle suits you far better than these well-tended gardens, Mrs MacLeod.”

“I suspect you’re right. Though this is pretty with the spring flowers coming up, even on such a dark day. I wonder if we should turn back before my maid develops inflammation of the lung?”

Gervase felt a sudden lurch of misery, realising that this might be the last time he saw her. He sought frantically for the right words, wishing for a more fluent tongue.

“Do you ever get leave once they get you out of England, Captain?”

The question surprised him. “It’s very unpredictable, ma’am. When the entire army has fallen apart and the campaign has collapsed into disaster, leave is very likely, as you can see from Corunna. But we try not to hope for that too often. It will depend on how successful Wellesley is. He’s the man of the hour just now, the government would far rather focus on his triumphs than on poor Moore’s failure.”

“Is he truly that good?”

“A general is only as good as his last campaign, ma’am. But my commanding officer says he’s the best general in the army.”

“Now that is high praise indeed. Do you trust Major van Daan’s opinion?”

“I trust him with my life, ma’am, so I suppose I’d have to say yes.”

“Captain Burrows described Major van Daan as a monied upstart who has bought his way to promotion over longer serving men.”

Gervase considered it for a moment. “I think he’d agree with that.”

She gave a peal of laughter. “Oh no, you’re such a disappointment, Captain. I was sure that would make you angry.”

“Captain Burrows has never set foot on a battlefield, ma’am, and I suspect if they ever try to send him abroad, his Mama will quickly pay for a transfer to a safer regiment. Preferably not the 110th because Major van Daan would end up punching him.”

She was smiling up at him as they approached the park gates. “I wish I had met your Major when he was in town.”

“If there is ever the opportunity, Mrs MacLeod, I will gladly introduce you.”

“I hope we meet again, Captain. I realise you may be away from England for a long time, but should you find yourself with a period of leave…”

Heather stopped and Gervase glanced at her and realised, to his complete astonishment, that she was blushing. He had never before seen her do so and had thought her incapable of it.

“If I ever find myself in Scotland, ma’am, I will definitely call.”

“Scotland is a long way away, Captain. I might possibly find myself in London again.”

Gervase stopped in his tracks, so abruptly that the maid, who was not looking where she was going, almost walked into him. Heather was a few steps ahead of him before she realised. She turned with a surprised expression.

“Are you all right, Captain?”

Gervase looked at the maid. He realised guiltily that she actually did not look well. Her nose was red and her eyes were sore.

“What’s your name?”

“Brown, sir.”

“Brown, you look terrible. I’ve been listening to you sneeze for the past twenty minutes. Go home immediately. Tell Lady Crawleigh that you had no choice, I ordered you home because I was worried about contagion. Mrs MacLeod and I will take another turn about the park, and then I will return her home, I swear it.”

The woman stared at him in blank surprise, then unexpectedly she seemed to understand and gave a broad smile and dropped a curtsey.

“Yes, Captain. Thank you, sir.”

Gervase dug in his pocket and produced a coin. She took it, looked at it then looked up with wide, surprised eyes.

“Thank you, sir.”

When she had gone, Gervase took a deep breath and risked a look at his companion. She was wearing exactly the expression he was expecting.

“That was extremely high-handed of you, Captain Clevedon. How did you know I wasn’t tired and ready to go home?”

“A lucky guess, ma’am. Besides, I suspect you’re used to walking a lot further than this, and over far rougher ground.”

She gave a smile. “Yes, I am. This is very tame. Very well, let’s walk over to the lake. I have taken a liking to the lake.”

“I like it myself. I’ve a small ornamental lake on my estate in Bedfordshire. It is home to the most aggressively hostile flock of geese I have ever encountered in my life. They barely tolerate my presence.”

Heather gave a gurgle of laughter. “Really? Birds can be like that. When I married Alexander, one of his cousins presented us with a pair of peacocks. I think she thought they would lend an air of gentility to the place. All they did, of course, was leave droppings all over the carriage drive and kept us awake with their shrieking. Fortunately, my sister married the following year, so we presented them to her.”

“I wonder who she passed them on to when she got tired of them?” Gervase said, much entertained. “I envision them being passed on through the family until they have toured the whole of Scotland and finally settled into honourable retirement somewhere in Berwick.”

Heather was giggling. “Don’t. Now I am going to have to ask her. I wonder if she did pass them on again. I don’t remember seeing them the last time I visited her.”

They were still laughing as they arrived at the Serpentine. The water was silver-grey on this cloudy afternoon, and the path around the lake was deserted. It was growing colder, and a breeze blew across the water, rippling the smooth surface and setting the feathers on Heather’s bonnet dancing. Gervase eyed her blue pelisse.

“Are you going to be warm enough? I hadn’t realised it was this cold. In fact, I’m looking at the sky and wondering if this was a good idea. It might rain.”

“Well if it does, we shall not die of it. Though my hat may not survive. A good thing too, I dislike it very much.”

Gervase studied the bonnet. “I don’t see why. It’s a perfectly good hat.”

“With half an aviary pinned to the top. My sister-in-law chose the trimming, she assured me that it was all the crack, but every time I wear it, I expect to be the target of some amorous pigeon. Look at it, it’s ridiculous.”

Gervase began to laugh again. “I’m never going to be able to look at a feather trimmed bonnet in quite the same way.”

“You certainly won’t have to look at this one for much longer. Once I get home it will go into a hat box and remain there until one of my periodic cleaning frenzies, when I will find it in some dark corner, remember why I never wear it and give it to the housekeeper.”

“It’s too pretty for a housekeeper.”

“Don’t be so appallingly top-lofty, Captain, you sound like your brother. Why should a housekeeper not have a stylish bonnet? You have quite decided me, Mrs Mackinnon shall have this hat. She will wear it to church with the greatest pride and be the envy of every other female in the servants’ pews.”

“I wish I could see it,” Gervase said wistfully.

“So do I.”

They stopped to watch two swans gliding gracefully over the surface of the lake, occasionally bending their necks in search of food in the water. After a moment, Gervase transferred his gaze to the woman’s face. Heather was smiling a little, either because the elegant birds pleased her or because she was still amused at their previous conversation. She was a small woman, and very slight, which gave Gervase the pleasant sensation of being taller than he was. He thought how much he liked her upright carriage and the confidence with which she held herself.

She seemed to sense his gaze and turned her head to look at him. “You look very serious, Captain. Tell me you are not regretting the impending loss of this hat.”

“I am not regretting the loss of the hat, ma’am. I’m afraid I’m finding it difficult to contemplate losing the wearer, though.”

As soon as he said it, Gervase wished he had not. He had no idea how to say what he wanted to say, but the glib compliment made him cringe. He waited for the set-down he so richly deserved. Instead, she tilted her head to one side and regarded him thoughtfully.

“I am not about to succumb to some fatal illness, Captain, I am simply returning to Scotland.”

“I know, but it’s too far. I only have three weeks, I can’t possibly travel all that way. If you lived in Hertfordshire or Kent I could wait a few days then invent a perfectly plausible and entirely spurious reason to visit the county and follow you. And possibly, away from the balls and the routs and the worst supper in history, I might be able to pluck up the courage to say…to tell you…”

He broke off, trying to read her expression. To his surprise, she still wore the little half-smile. “To tell me?”

“To ask you.”

“What is it that you wish to ask me, Captain?”

“If you would consider postponing your journey in favour of marrying me instead.”

Heather did not move or speak for such a long time, that Gervase felt an urge to babble, simply to fill the silence. He managed to restrain himself with a huge effort. He had not really intended to blurt out his proposal so clumsily, but now that he had done so, he needed to close his mouth and give her time. He wished she was not taking so long.

Finally, she stirred. “I want to say yes,” she said.

“Then say it.”

“I’m afraid to. I did not think I would ever marry again. Not because I have anything against marriage. Quite the opposite. I was very happy for a few years. I simply did not think I would ever meet a man I could care about, the way I cared about Alex.”

“And have you?”

“Oh yes, I think I have. The problem is that I didn’t expect Alex to die so young. It was a terrible shock, and for a time I think I was quite beside myself with grief. It passed eventually and I recovered. But you…with you…I would need to come to terms with the fact that it could very well happen to me again. And I would not even be there.”

Gervase understood, with a sharp pain around his heart. “Because I am a soldier.”

“Yes, of course.”

“I could stop being a soldier.”

She gave a little laugh. “No, you could not, Gervase. You know you couldn’t. The army is part of you, it’s woven into the very fibre of your being. If you failed to report for duty in three weeks’ time, you would be dreadfully unhappy. And I should never stop feeling guilty.”

Her use of his name brought a flood of happiness and with it, a rush of misery as he understood that she was right. He studied her features, admiring the well-marked brows, the slightly arched nose and the mouth which always seemed to hover on the edge of a smile.

“I don’t know what to say to persuade you,” Gervase said finally. “Heather, I love you. I know this is too sudden, I know I’ve not given you time. I’m sorry, I don’t have the time. I want to make some dramatic declaration about giving everything up for you, but…”

“Oh, please do not, it would be so embarrassing,” Heather said fervently. “And then I should be in such a quandary because I haven’t the least intention of giving everything up for you. I don’t want to give up my home and move to London. I’m not even sure it is good for people to give up the things they love to be with another person. Surely there is a better way.”

Gervase reached out and took her hand, raising it to his lips. “I hope there is,” he said. “I hope we can find it. Please don’t give me an answer now. This may be rushed, but at least think about it. Please.”

Heather reached out and caressed his cheek. “Of course, I’m going to think about it,” she said, and Gervase was surprised to hear the catch of tears in her voice. “If I didn’t love you, Gervase, I would just say no.”

Something splashed onto Gervase’s hand. He looked down in surprise and then felt another splash and another. He looked up and realised that the clouds had darkened while they had been talking, and huge raindrops had begun to fall.

“Oh no. No wonder we’re the only people in the park. We need to get back. I think we’re in for a downpour.”

“I think we may be in for a storm, Captain.”

Gervase realised she was right. As they made their way back along the path, it grew steadily darker. Long before they reached the gates the sky lit up with the sudden brilliance of a flash of lightning, followed by the crash of thunder. The rain increased to a downpour and Gervase was soaked within minutes. He looked at Heather. Her pelisse clung to her as though she had fallen into the lake and the despised feathers were a sodden mess over her bonnet. He had thought the pelisse warm enough for a spring walk in the park, but she was shivering now. He hesitated and she flashed him her familiar grin.

“Don’t bother, Captain, your coat is just as wet as I am. I’d suggest we run but soaked skirts are a hazard.”

Another flash of lightning split the dark sky and the crash of thunder was so immediate that Gervase jumped. He looked around him but there was no shelter to be had. The avenue which led to the gate was lined with trees, which bothered him, but it was by far the most direct route and he decided that speed was of the essence. He reached for her hand, and her soaked kid glove squelched.

“I think I may need new gloves as well as a hat,” Heather said. She was trying to sound matter of fact, but the effect was rather spoiled by her chattering teeth.

“I know you can’t run but let’s walk as quickly as possible. It will keep you warmer.”

She kept up with him very well, despite the heavy sodden skirts. The rain was torrential, showing no sign of easing off and there were repeated flashes of lightning. The thunder reminded Gervase of the roar of cannon. He had been through a number of bad storms but this one felt as though it was happening directly over his head.

To his relief, he could make out the shapes of the elaborate iron gates through the rain. Heather sounded breathless and he glanced at her, wondering if it was because she was shivering so much or if he was walking too fast for her.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, of course. Just cold and wet. My sister-in-law will be having a fit, she hates thunderstorms.”

“At least she’s not out in it. Take my arm, it’s not far now, and only ten minutes once we’re outside the gates. I’d call a cab but we’d never find one, they’ll all be hiding out waiting for this to finish.”

“They have my sympathy, I’d welcome a nice dry stable right…”

The crash was enormous, shockingly loud amidst the steady beating of the rain, and very close. Gervase jumped violently, and his companion cried out. The dark sky was illuminated above them, then the thunder boomed. Something fell onto the path beside them and it took Gervase a moment to assimilate that it was a piece of burning wood. The brilliance of the lightning was gone, but there was still a fiery glow and an ominous cracking sound. Gervase spun around. The tree was ablaze, orange flames leaping up into the sky. It was also listing dangerously towards the path.

Gervase gave a yell of warning, grasped Heather’s arm and began to run. She kept pace for a few seconds before her legs became entangled in the heavy dragging skirts and she stumbled and fell heavily. Gervase bent to help her up, hearing the crackling of the flames and the creaking, rumbling sound of the tree. The strike had gone deep into its core and it was falling, the branches on fire and the entire trunk looking as though it was alight from within.

Heather made it to her feet, but as they began to run, the tree came down behind them, with a thunderous crash. They were out of reach of the trunk, but not of the blazing branches. Gervase felt one strike his arm, the flames terrifyingly close to his head, and he threw out his arm to bat it away. He thought they were clear, then Heather screamed and went down again, dragging on the hand he was holding. He turned and saw, in horror, that a blazing branch had hit the back of her legs, knocking her off her feet again.

Gervase released her hand and hooked his boot under the branch, kicking it away. Heather’s skirts were blackened to the knee at the back, but they were not alight, probably because they were too wet to catch. Gervase bent and scooped her up into his arms, thanking God that she was not heavy. He ran towards the gates, intent only on getting far enough away from the burning tree to be out of further danger.

When he was sure it was safe, he stopped. Carefully he lowered Heather to the ground. He thought she was unconscious, but as he bent over her, rain pouring off the brim of his hat, she opened her eyes.

“Are you all right, Gervase?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Your legs…”

“It hurts.”

“I need to get help.”

“No. Help me up, would you? I don’t want to lie here in the rain, I’ll freeze. It’s painful, but I think I can walk.”

Gervase complied reluctantly. As he stood, holding her arm, waiting for her to compose herself enough to begin the walk, he heard voices raised in a babble of consternation. Turning, he realised that the lightning strike had attracted attention out in the street and a dozen or more people were running towards them. Gervase felt a rush of relief.

“It’s the cavalry, ma’am. Late as usual and no clue what they’re doing, but when they see something bright and shiny, they can’t resist. Which on this occasion, is a good thing, because they can find me a carriage of some kind, and I can get you home. Just hold on, it won’t be long now.”

He realised that she was swaying on her feet, and he put his arm about her and lowered her once again to the soaked grass. She closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, I feel very dizzy. What an unexpectedly dramatic end to a walk.”

“It didn’t really end the way I’d hoped, ma’am.”

Heather opened her distinctive blue-grey eyes and fixed him with a look. “If you call me ‘ma’am’ once more, I will not be answerable for my actions,” she said, and closed her eyes again with an air of finality.

***

By the time the doctor had left, Heather was exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Dr Medway had dressed the burns on her calves, examined and commented on her very badly skinned and bruised knees from her fall, and bled her. Heather submitted although she privately thought that she might have been better without his treatment. The burns were superficial although sore, her knees hurt but would recover and the bleeding made her feel light-headed. She was not hungry but ate supper to please her brother and his wife who hovered anxiously around her until she feigned sleep to make them go away. Gervase Clevedon had left as soon as he had seen her safe. Heather was both sorry and glad. Their conversation had resolved nothing, and she knew she needed to give him a definite answer, but she had to have some time to herself.

She had expected to lie awake turning the matter over in her mind, but to her surprise she fell asleep quickly and did not wake until her sister-in-law appeared along with a maid carrying a breakfast tray. Fiona watched critically until she was sure that Heather was eating, then sat down.

“You seem surprisingly well for a woman who was almost burned to death in Hyde Park yesterday.”

“Yes, I take these things in my stride,” Heather said, sipping her tea. She put down her cup and met Fiona’s interested gaze. “It was utterly terrifying,” she admitted.

“I’m not surprised. What on earth possessed you to stay out so long? We could see that storm coming in. When Susan returned to the house alone, I was about to send the carriage out to find you.”

“We lost track of time, we were talking. I didn’t notice anything until it began to rain.”

“I see.”

Heather finished her tea and contemplated a baked egg. “Fiona, if you continue to beat around the bush, it will be dinner time before you have discovered what you wish to know, and you know how quickly I become bored.”

“Did he ask you to marry him?”

“Yes.”

“Did you give him an answer?”

“No. I asked for time to think about it. After that, events rather took over.”

“I can see that they would. Heather, I don’t wish to pry…”

“Yes you do.”

“All right. I have every intention of prying as much as I am able. My dear, I’ve known you since we were both children. I’ve been watching you for two months trying not to fall in love with Captain Clevedon, and you have made a very poor job of it. Why did you not say yes?”

“It isn’t that simple, Fiona. I do…like him. And he seems to like me as well. But…”

“From the moment you walk into a room, Heather, he cannot see anybody else.”

Heather felt her pulse quicken a little. She looked up from her plate. “Really?”

“Really. It is generally assumed, you know, that you will be engaged before he goes back to Portugal.”

“By whom?”

“By everybody who has seen you together. Nothing could be more suitable. He is charming, personable, not at all bad to look at…”

“Not bad?” Heather said indignantly. “I consider him very handsome.”

“He could be taller, but he has very fine eyes.”

“Well, he is quite tall enough for me, given that I am a midget. Besides, looks do not matter. Alex had a face rather like a friendly goat, and I was devoted to him.”

Fiona studied her sympathetically. “Is Alex the problem? It’s been three years, Heather.”

“It isn’t Alex. He would tell me to do whatever I wanted and be happy. I think he would approve of Gervase.”

“So do I.”

“But I never thought I would marry again, Fiona. I don’t need to. I have Comrie Castle and a comfortable income.”

“Don’t you want children?”

“I’ve no idea if I can have children. Fortunately, you and Charles seem willing to provide me with plenty of nephews and nieces. That’s not a reason for me to marry, Fiona.”

“But you love him.”

Heather lowered her eyes to the tray. She had lost interest in the food. “I don’t know. I thought I did. I think I do. But surely if I did, I wouldn’t have these doubts?”

“Were you going home early because you were running away from him, Heather?”

Heather looked up with a rueful smile. “Yes. And if it had not been for this wretched accident, I would be packing now.”

“Well you can’t leave yet, the doctor is adamant you should at least rest for a few days. And those burns look nasty.”

“They’re not that bad. But you’re right, I am not feeling equal to days of travelling. Besides, now that he has asked me, I cannot run away without giving him my answer.”

“I don’t think he’s going to let you, my love. He’s already called this morning and asked if he might come back this afternoon if you’ll be ready to receive callers.”

“Oh no,” Heather said, startled. “I cannot see him like this, I look like a scarecrow.”

Fiona stood up, laughing. “I’ll call Sally to take that tray and I’ll send up Susan to help you dress.”

“Fiona, are you by any chance trying to coerce me into this marriage?”

“I’m not, Heather, truly. But I don’t understand what is stopping you. Perhaps you can explain it to him.”

“I’ve already explained it to him,” Heather said in a rush. Suddenly she was close to tears. “He’s a soldier. Three weeks, that’s all I have. After that, I wave him off and sit waiting for the post to see if he is alive or dead. It could be years before he comes home, and we can be married. I don’t know if I can bear it, Fiona.”

Her sister-in-law stood looking at her for a long moment. Then she said quietly:

“Heather, do you think you will feel any better if you refuse him and read about his death in the Gazette? Or if he comes home and finds a pretty little debutante and it’s his marriage announcement you’re reading?”

“Don’t. You’re as bad as Charles.”

“Charles is a tactless oaf, but he is right. You’ve already fallen in love with Gervase Clevedon. What he does and where he goes is always going to matter to you, whether he’s betrothed to you or to somebody else. And he’s the son of an Earl, you can’t avoid hearing about him unless you never read another newspaper.”

“That would not be a hardship.”

“Utter rubbish, you’ll be scanning the army lists and the gossip columns for the rest of your life. I know how much losing Alex hurt you, Heather, I was there, remember? But you can’t shield yourself from pain without losing the chance of happiness. And I think this man might make you very happy.”

Heather realised she was crying. She scrubbed at her face fiercely and the china on the tray rattled dangerously. Fiona caught it before it slid onto the floor, lifted it onto Heather’s dressing table, then went to the bell pull.

“You have to see him,” she said.

***

Captain Clevedon arrived punctually at the afternoon calling hour and was shown into the ladies’ parlour. Heather was sure Fiona had instructed the butler to refuse all other callers. Fiona greeted him pleasantly, thanked him again for taking care of Heather on the previous day, then departed with no excuse at all. Heather glared after her retreating back, then turned to her visitor, quaking.

He was as immaculately turned out as ever, with no sign of their adventure apart from a long scratch on one cheek. As soon as the door had closed behind Fiona, he came forward and took Heather’s hand.

“How are you? Lady Crawleigh said that the burns weren’t serious, but I didn’t sleep last night worrying about you.”

Heather felt irrationally guilty. “I slept very well, I must have been exhausted.”

“I’m not surprised. I’ve never known a stroll in Hyde Park to be so exciting, I’m almost looking forward to a battlefield in Portugal for a rest. Seriously though…”

“Seriously, Gervase, I’m very well. What of you? I didn’t notice that scratch yesterday.”

“Nor did I, it must have been a branch. I’ve a burn on my upper arm and my jacket is beyond hope, but I’ve a spare and time to order a new one, thank goodness.”

“I’m afraid my hat did not survive,” Heather said apologetically. “I’m sorry, I know you were very attached to it.”

He started to laugh. “We’re about to start talking utter nonsense again. And I do enjoy it, Heather, really I do. But I’m too nervous to make the best of it today. Do you mind if we’re serious, just for a short time?”

Heather smiled back at him. “Of course. Shall we sit down, then? It’s far better to have serious conversations when seated, it checks the urge to pace about the room dramatically.”

“I’d never thought of that. I might suggest it to Major van Daan. From a safe distance, mind, just in case he punches me.”

When they were seated, Gervase cleared his throat. Heather recognised his nervousness and decided to speak first. They spoke at the same time and both stopped immediately.

“Gervase…”

“Look, Heather…”

There was a short awkward silence. Then Gervase said quickly:

“I know that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to allow you to go first, but may I?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday. Sorry that it descended into such a disaster, but sorry as well that I made such a mull of proposing to you. I’ve been trying to work myself up to it, but I was rather thrown when you told me you were going out of town so soon. I rushed it.”

Heather smiled. “Gervase, it didn’t matter how you said it, I was always going to panic.”

“Didn’t you realise I was going to ask you?”

“Oh…I don’t know. I knew how I felt of course, and I suspected that you…I don’t know, Gervase. I think I did know. I think that’s why I decided to leave. I was running away, which was very silly and a little unkind. I’ve been concentrating so hard on how I feel that I’ve not considered you at all. I’m not usually this selfish.”

“Are you still leaving town?”

Heather shook her head. “No. I can’t travel that far until I feel a little better. But I wouldn’t anyway, now. I’m so glad you spoke when you did, it has made me realise that I cannot flee back to Scotland and pretend this has not happened.”

“I’m glad too. I asked you to think about it, but I don’t suppose you’ve had the chance…”

“Oh for goodness sake, Gervase, do not speak like an idiot when you are clearly very intelligent. I’ve thought of nothing else all day.”

“Then tell me.”

“I am very confused,” Heather said, twisting her hands together in her lap. “When I try to imagine agreeing to a betrothal, it terrifies me. I will have three lovely weeks as your fiancée, and I know perfectly  well that by the end of them I will love you more than ever. And then I will wave you off and go home to wait for you, and dread every letter that is delivered in case it is bad news. I know how it feels to lose the man I love. I don’t know if I can bear it again. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Oh love, yes, of course I understand. No wonder you’re terrified. But I am too.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. I had no intention at all of falling in love this season, it is a ridiculous thing to have done. I meant to attend a few parties, meet some old friends and then go home to Ampthill and spend a week or two recovering before going back to barracks in Melton Mowbray. You turned everything upside down.”

Heather was astonished. “Are you telling me you have remained in London because of me?”

“Of course I have. My brother is here, Heather, which is always my cue to be somewhere else. It’s been torture seeing so much of him.”

“I must say, that is an impressive sign of your devotion.”

“Don’t start, or we shall get nowhere, and we’re running out of time. I want so much to tell you that I will leave the army and devote my life to making you happy. But…”

“I wouldn’t allow you to do that, Gervase. It would be like you asking me to sell Comrie.”

“One day I’ll be home, love, but I can’t tell you when that will be and I won’t lie to you. I love you. I want to marry you. I know I’m asking a lot. I know it might be too much. It’s all I have.”

Heather could feel tears beginning to fall. “Gervase, I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do.”

“Nor do I, but I’ve found that panic is a great motivator, so here’s what I’ve done. Yesterday, after I left you here, I made a number of calls, while still soaking wet, covered in mud and looking like a lunatic. I’m surprised nobody sent a message to either Bow Street or Bedlam, but I managed to obtain this.”

Heather regarded the folded paper he was holding out to her. After a moment, she reached out and took it. She unfolded it and stared at it for a long time. He waited in silence. Eventually she looked up.

“It’s a special licence.”

“It is. I also made a visit to the rector of St George’s, who is an old family friend. He clearly thought I was mad, but he examined his church calendar and, subject to your approval, he is able to marry us on Wednesday at eleven o’clock. You may invite whomever you choose, but I would be happy with just your brother and his wife.”

“Oh.” Heather knew she sounded utterly witless, but she felt the need to say something and could think of nothing better. “That is very organised of you, Captain Clevedon.”

“Thank you. If you agree to this piece of insanity, I propose to take you home to Bedfordshire to meet my mother and I will spend three weeks trying to convince you you’ve made the right choice. After that, I have to leave, and you’re free to remain for a while to get to know your new home, or to return to your old one and wait for me there. Or you can come back to London and cut a dash as the new Mrs Clevedon. As long as you’re happy and safe and well and will wait for me…Heather, I know this isn’t good enough for you. Nothing I can offer is good enough for you. But…”

“Yes, it is.” Suddenly, Heather found that she could both move and speak, and she followed her instinct and moved towards him. He put his arms about her without any hesitation and kissed her. For a while, she lost all sense of time and when they were finally interrupted by a polite cough from the doorway, Heather realised that she was lying across his lap in the most ridiculous position. It felt very comfortable and she sat up somewhat resentfully, noticing that her hair had come down.

“I am so sorry to interrupt,” Fiona said. “It’s just that Dr Medway has called. He wants to look at the dressing on your burns. And I was wondering if Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner. We don’t have any other guests today.”

Heather turned her head to look at him. He was smiling at her, waiting, and she knew with complete certainty that even now, if she sent him away, he would go without recrimination. She decided that life back at Comrie would be far better waiting for his letters and knowing that he would be coming home to her one day.

“Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner,” she said firmly. “And Fiona, I need your help. I’m getting married in two days’ time, and I don’t think I have anything suitable to wear.”

***

 It was the usual chaos at Southampton and it took Gervase half a day to find the correct transport for his company. He felt slightly guilty knowing that his subalterns had done all the work preparing the company for embarkation, but there was little for him to do, so he inspected his men, complimented his juniors and then went in search of his commanding officer.

Gervase found him in a comfortable inn not far from the quayside. Major Paul van Daan was writing a letter at a table in the tap room, but he rose as Gervase entered and came forward. Gervase saluted and Paul returned the salute and then pulled out a chair.

“Sit down and have a drink. It’s good to see you, Gervase. Are you fully recovered? You look so much better, I was delighted when you wrote that you were well enough. Not everybody has done as well, we’ve only six companies setting sail, but I’m hoping they can bring the others up to strength soon.”

“I’m very well, sir. Looking forward to getting back to work. Is Sir Arthur Wellesley sailing with us?”

“Yes, he’s aboard my transport. Along with my wife, she’s coming with me this time, at least as far as Lisbon. I’ve kept on the villa I rented last year.”

“I look forward to seeing her, sir.”

They talked for a while of army news and Gervase enjoyed the sense of being part of the regiment again. He had no particular desire to share his own news. It was too new and too precious and he would have liked to keep it to himself for a while longer, but he knew he could not. In the general conversation of regimental life, and the banter in the officers’ mess, he would either have to speak up or lie, and he would not lie. He waited until the first exchange of news was over. Eventually, Paul summoned the waiter with more drinks.

“Did you see your brother?”

“Briefly. I also saw your brother, sir, which was much more pleasant.”

“Did you? Joshua didn’t mention it, but he’s been busy. What about…”

“Sir, I imagine some of the others are going to be joining us for dinner, and there’s something I need to speak to you about first.”

Paul stopped and regarded him in surprise. “Of course. Go on. Unless it’s going to annoy me, in which case stop now.”

Gervase laughed. “I don’t think it will annoy you, sir, but I do have a confession. I’ve rather broken army rules, I’m afraid. A minor matter. I didn’t even think about it until afterwards.”

“Captain, in the five years I’ve known you, I swear to God you’ve not put a toe out of place. I’d be amazed if you could upset me. What have you done?”

Gervase took a very deep breath. “I got married, sir, without asking your permission.”

There was a very long silence. The waiter appeared with the wine and poured. Paul waited until he had gone.

“You did what?”

“I got married, sir.”

“And you didn’t think to write to me?”

“I’m sorry, sir. It was all rather sudden. It honestly didn’t occur to me.”

“Gervase, I do not give a damn about permission. You have it, retrospectively. But this great hurry…is everything all right?”

Gervase tried to suppress a grin and failed. “We married in a hurry because we wanted some time together before I left,” he said.

Paul’s expressive face cleared. “An excellent reason. I’m assuming this is the attractive Mrs MacLeod.”

“Yes,” Gervase said suspiciously. “How do you know she’s attractive?”

“I asked Wellesley if he knew her and he managed to point her out her when we were riding in the Row on the day before I left. You’ve excellent taste, Captain.”

“Sir…”

“I will behave, I swear it. Gervase, congratulations. I wish I’d known, I’d have posted down to meet her. Was there even a notice in the Times?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I missed it. I never read the thing anyway. This has been done very quietly. Is that how you want it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll tell my friends of course, but I don’t want a big announcement or a celebration. It was a very quiet affair, which is what we both wanted.”

“That’s your choice, Captain. Johnny and Carl and a few of the others are dining here today. Do you want to tell them, or shall I?”

“You can do it,” Gervase said gratefully.

“I’ll propose a toast to the bride and groom and after that, we’ll leave it alone. If I were you, I’d tell the men though. They’ll find out anyway and they’ll appreciate it coming from you especially with an extra grog ration to drink your health.”

“I’ll see to it, sir. Thank you.”

Paul sipped his wine and regarded him with amusement. “Of all the men I’d have expected to make a hasty marriage on furlough, Captain, you’d have been close to the bottom of the list. She must have made a big impression on you.”

Gervase suppressed a grin. He felt suddenly as though Heather was in the room with him and he managed not to snigger.

“Like a bolt of lightning, sir,” he said seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

Welcome to The Gift, my free Christmas story for 2021. After spending last year in London at the Frost Fair, with Captain James Harker, I’ve decided to follow another of my secondary characters home on furlough. The fairly long time spent in winter quarters in 1812-13 presented an opportunity for a number of officers to travel home to see family, recover from injuries or sickness or to deal with family business. Lord Wellington hated giving leave, although he was more generous with it when it was an officer he liked making the request. However, the need to deal with business matters following a bereavement would probably have been granted. Grudgingly, of course.

After the publication of the Frost Fair, one of my most engaged readers told me she would love to read a short story about Captain David Cartwright, as she felt he’d had a raw deal in the books so far. Davy’s career prospects improved with his promotion to major in An Unmerciful Incursion, but after the long, painful retreat from Burgos and Madrid towards the end of 1812, his personal life is still in the doldrums. This story is dedicated to Janet Watkinson – I hope this is what you wanted.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. I feel so guilty about the slow progress of the latest book, but family difficulties have made it impossible to meet my intended deadlines. I’m working frantically on the edits for book seven, An Indomitable Brigade, and if it’s not ready for Christmas, it will be ready very soon afterwards. I hope 2022 is better for all of us, and I’m hoping I’ll have a great writing year and be back on track.

Thanks once again to Heather Paisley, my amazing editor and very good friend, who dropped everything in her very busy life to edit this for me. She is, and always will be, a star.

As always, the story is free, so please share as much as you want. Enjoy.

The Gift

1st March, 1812

Wanted, for immediate employment. Respectable female to act as housekeeper and companion to elderly lady, living alone in the town of Rye.  References required. Apply in writing to Captain Cartwright, via this newspaper. 

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

I write to apply for the situation advertised. I am a single lady, aged thirty-four, with considerable experience in housekeeping. Until recently, I was employed in taking care of an elderly relative. I have provided a recommendation from a clerical gentleman and, should this prove satisfactory, I would be free to take up the position immediately.

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

Major David Cartwright of the 112th infantry did not generally consider himself burdened by family responsibilities, so it was a shock to find a package of letters awaiting him on his arrival in Ciudad Rodrigo in the November of 1812, giving him news of two bereavements.

The first of them, that of his elderly Aunt Susan, should not have been a surprise. Mrs Everton was in her eighties and had been unwell for so many years that David was amazed she had lasted this long. During her final months her recent memory had faded, and she had drifted into the distant past. She had done so happily enough, according to Miss Forbes, her long-time housekeeper and companion, who wrote to David occasionally with news. David was grateful, but missed his aunt’s regular letters, full of acerbic remarks about her neighbours, the current government, and the iniquities of the butcher.

Miss Forbes was elderly herself and had written to David as her own health began to decline, suggesting that it was time for a younger replacement. David, newly transferred into the 112th from a tedious post in the quartermaster’s department, had no time to take furlough to attend to distant family affairs. He had taken Miss Forbes’ advice and advertised the post, leaving it to the departing housekeeper to select the new incumbent.

Miss Forbes wrote to him just before she left for an honourable retirement with her widowed sister, expressing cautious approval of her successor. Miss Helen Carleton was, in her opinion, young for the post, but appeared very efficient and good with her elderly charge. David grinned at her assessment, since Miss Carleton was apparently in her thirties, but he supposed she seemed young to a woman approaching seventy. Having discharged his duty to Aunt Susan, he thought no more about it until he arrived back on the Portuguese border, exhausted and dispirited after a long and dangerous retreat, to find a letter from his aunt’s solicitor informing him that she had died, leaving a simple will making him her sole heir.

David read the letter again, thinking about his aunt. He had last seen her just before leaving for Portugal to join Wellesley’s army four years ago and there had already been signs of her deterioration. Their meeting had been hurried, made awkward by the presence of Arabella, David’s wife, whom Mrs Everton cordially disliked. David found himself wishing he had made time to see his aunt alone that week, given that it had been the last time he saw her, but he could not have known it.

Mrs Everton was not a wealthy woman, but she had left David her rambling house in the little seaside town of Rye, in Sussex, and a small income from government bonds. Along with a similar income from his deceased parents, it would enable him, should he decide to leave the army, to live comfortably. David wondered what his wife would have thought of that, then dismissed the thought. Arabella would never have been satisfied with mere comfort. She wanted wealth and social status and a number of other things David was unable to give her, and her disappointment had led to repeated infidelity and their eventual separation.

It had been eighteen months since he had last heard anything of Arabella and during the past year, busy with an unexpected revival of his career, he thought of her less and less. Their marriage had been unhappy, and their separation, although painful, had come as a relief to him. He thought of her briefly when he received the news of his recent promotion to major, but he did not think even that would have satisfied Arabella’s ambition.

David opened the next of his letters and began to read. After a moment, he put it down and sat very still, staring out of the window into a damp winter morning, not seeing the drizzling rain.

Arabella was dead.

The letter was from a Mrs Hetherington, who claimed to run a lodging house in Shrewsbury where Arabella had lived for five months before her untimely death. She had died on the charity ward of a local hospital and Mrs Hetherington, who needed to let the room, had taken it upon herself to pack up her possessions and had found several letters giving David’s name and regiment. She gave the impression of being surprised to discover that her lodger’s claim to a married woman’s status was true but stated that she considered it to be her Christian duty to inform him. There were several trunks and boxes of Mrs Cartwright’s possessions, and Mrs Hetherington would store them until the end of January, when if not collected, they would be sold. David wondered if the rent was unpaid. He was surprised that the woman had taken the trouble to write to him but supposed she had genuinely felt that it was her duty.

David read both letters several times, unable to decide what to do. Eventually, he took his troubles to his commanding officer.

“I’m wondering if it would be possible to take furlough, sir,” he concluded. “I’ll have missed my aunt’s funeral, but I should see the lawyers and work out what’s to be done about the house. It’s a decent property just on the edge of town, with a big garden. I’ll probably rent it out rather than leave it empty. It shouldn’t take much more than a month to arrange everything, but…”

“Take whatever time you need, Major,” Colonel Wheeler said. “I’m sorry to hear about your aunt, but in terms of convenience, this couldn’t be better. We’re in winter quarters and are likely to be for a few months yet. If it was the middle of a campaign, I couldn’t manage without you but we’re not going anywhere until spring.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wheeler stood up and limped to a side table to pour wine for them both. David got up quickly and went to carry the glasses back to the table. Wheeler had been badly injured during the recent retreat and could only walk using a cane for support. Wheeler hobbled back to his chair and sat down with relief.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “I’m not accustomed to being waited on. Thank you, Major.”

David sipped the wine. “Is it still painful, sir?”

“Bloody painful, but not as bad as when they first brought me in. I can put weight on it now, but Dr Daniels says I should rest it as much as possible. Davy, I’m conscious that I’ve said everything that’s proper about your aunt and nothing at all about your wife. I don’t know what to say. I know you were separated and there was no possibility of a reconciliation, but she was very young. I am sorry.”

David was grateful. His own emotions about Arabella’s death were still raw and too muddled to make sense of, but he appreciated Wheeler’s tact and also his bravery in raising the matter where another man would have let it pass. Wheeler had known Arabella during the time she had travelled with the army and knew the full circumstances of her various, very public infidelities. One of her first affairs had been with David’s current brigade commander. A recent one had left her carrying a child which could not possibly have been her husband’s and had led to their final separation.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say myself. It doesn’t feel real. I hadn’t heard from her since the day she left, but it’s difficult to believe that she’s dead. As you say, she was so young, only just thirty. And she was always so full of life.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“Some kind of fever, according to her landlady. There was an outbreak in the town. She was taken into the local hospital but died within a few days.”

“Had she other family?”

“Her father is still alive as far as I know, and there was an aunt. Her mother died a few years ago. I doubt Bella had any contact with her father. When the scandal broke, he wrote to her telling her he never wished to see her or hear from her again. I think I should write to him all the same. He should know she’s dead.”

“What of the child?”

“I don’t know,” David said. “I don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl, or if it’s alive. Possibly not, so many children die in infancy and the landlady doesn’t mention it. But I should at least make a push to find out.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Davy,” Colonel Wheeler said gently.

David looked at him, troubled. “I know it isn’t. But sir, who else is going to bother?”

***

Arriving in Southampton on a bright, blustery day, David made enquiries about the best method of travelling to Rye, which was about a hundred miles along the south coast. There were no direct mail coaches, and David objected to the cost of hiring a post chaise, but he was able to find a place on a carrier’s wagon leaving early the following morning. The journey was not particularly fast, but was surprisingly entertaining, as Mr Samuel Rochester regaled his passenger with stories of his life on the road. David slept in small inns along the way and was finally deposited, along with his luggage, at the gates of Oak Lodge just after midday. He had written to inform Miss Carleton of his expected arrival.

The door was opened by a maid in a plain dark gown and white apron. She bobbed a curtsey and stood aside, murmuring that she would call the boy to bring in his box. The boy turned out to be a sturdy manservant who was probably approaching forty. As far as David was aware these were the only two servants apart from the housekeeper.

He stood in the hallway awaiting the appearance of Miss Carleton. A door opened and a young woman emerged from the kitchen area at the back of the house. She wore a respectable dark green woollen gown, with a lace-trimmed cap pinned to very fair hair, and she had a pair of bright blue eyes, a decided nose and an expression which hovered between apprehension and defiance. David, who was hopeless at such things, thought she was probably not much above twenty. The girl approached and gave a little curtsey. David bowed, utterly bewildered.

“Major Cartwright. Welcome home, sir. Harvey will put your luggage in the master bedroom. It’s been cleaned and aired, and I’ll ask Sarah to unpack for you. Unless you’ve brought a valet?”

“No, I haven’t,” David said. “Thank you. Only, I do not perfectly understand…who are you?”

The girl folded her hands at her waist. “I am Miss Carleton, sir, your aunt’s companion and housekeeper. You arranged for my employment.”

David stared at her for a very long time, then surprised out of his customary good manners, he said:

“I’m not sure who I employed, ma’am, but I’m very sure it wasn’t you. The lady who applied for that post gave her age as thirty-four, and I’ll be surprised if you’re older than twenty. Who the devil are you?”

The girl raised well-marked eyebrows and looked down her slightly long nose. “Well you must be surprised then, Major, because I am twenty-four. And I am indeed Miss Carleton. I have been working here since Miss Forbes left at the beginning of the year, and I nursed your aunt through her final illness. Obviously I am in the process of seeking a new post but Mr Bourne, her solicitor, suggested I remain to keep the house in order until your arrival. And to cook your meals for you, unless you intend to do that for yourself, because neither Harvey nor Sarah has the least aptitude for cooking.”

David stared at her open-mouthed. Miss Carleton stared back. There was definitely defiance in her expression now. Eventually David said:

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

“Because yours was the tenth post I had applied for, and all of the others rejected me on the grounds of my age.”

“I would have done the same.”

“Then it is unnecessary for you to ask why I told an untruth.”

“Was any of your application true?” David asked. He was genuinely curious. Miss Carleton lifted her chin with something like indignation.

“Of course it was. All of it, apart from that one small detail. I am a gentleman’s daughter, I have been used to acting as housekeeper to my parents, who live in Leicester, and I cared for my elderly grandmother before she died.”

David studied her for a long time. “So why were you seeking employment?” he asked finally. “If your parents…”

“My parents do not employ a housekeeper, Major Cartwright, and I was tired of working for nothing. My mother was not grateful for my efforts, I spent my time running the household or visiting my older sisters to help with their children. All my mother’s attention was focused on finding a husband for my youngest sister, in the hope that might repair the family fortunes. I was sick of being an unpaid drudge, so I chose to seek paid employment instead. My father called me undutiful, and my mother prophesied that I would ruin my reputation and come to a bad end, but so far, I think it has gone rather well. Until today, that is.”

David could think of nothing at all to say. He stood looking at her, struggling to think of a suitable response. Miss Carleton looked back, daring him to speak. The silence went on.

Abruptly, the girl straightened her back and bobbed another neat curtsey. “Would you like some tea, Major? I can serve it in the small parlour. Neither the drawing room or the dining room have been much used this past year, although I have cleaned the whole house and removed the holland covers. I baked a cake this morning.”

“Thank you,” David said faintly. “That would be very welcome. No, don’t trouble yourself to show me the way. I know the house very well.”

The small parlour was situated at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. At this time of year, it was a tangle of damp greenery, but David remembered it as a riot of colour in the spring and summer. His aunt had loved gardening during her younger days.

It was obvious that Miss Carleton had made the room her own. A cosy arrangement of furniture around the fireplace included her sewing box, and a partly darned stocking lay neatly folded on top. On another small table was an inlaid portable writing desk. Against the far wall was a small table and two chairs, which suggested that Miss Carleton dined in this room as well. It was common for upper servants to take meals in the kitchen or in their own room, but Miss Carleton was effectively mistress of this small household and David did not blame her for making herself comfortable.

She returned shortly, shepherding the maid who carried the tea tray. David ran his eyes over it and looked at the maid. “Bring another cup, please. Miss Carleton will be joining me for tea.”

The girl did so. David indicated that Miss Carleton should pour. The tea was welcome after his long journey and the cake was excellent. Both improved David’s mood considerably. He watched her sip her tea.

“How did you persuade Miss Forbes to collude with your falsehood, Miss Carleton?”

The girl gave him a look. “I did not,” she said. “She had no idea, of course, that I had lied about my age. She expressed surprise at how young I was, but once she saw what I could do, she did not mention it again. Why should she? I can cook, I can keep house and I was very good with your aunt. She liked me.”

David could not help smiling. “I don’t suppose you gave her much choice, ma’am, you’re a very decided young woman.”

The blue eyes were unexpectedly misty with unshed tears. “I was very fond of your aunt. Even though she was confused, she was so kind. And she could be very funny. I am sorry she’s gone, sir.”

“So am I,” David said. “I’ve not inspected the rest of the house yet, ma’am, but I don’t need to, I can see you know your work. The place is immaculate. Thank you for your efforts.”

“Thank you for acknowledging them.” Miss Carleton sniffed audibly. “I’m sorry I deceived you, sir. It was wrong of me, but I was becoming desperate.”

“What will you do now? You mentioned seeking another post, but have you not thought of going home?”

“Not unless I have to,” the girl said. “I have written several applications, and I shall continue to do so. I am not sure if you intend to sell the house, Major, but if so, I will naturally leave as soon as you wish me to do so. I am not wholly estranged from my family, they will have me back if needs be. I hope I don’t have to though, my mother will be unbearable.”

Unexpectedly, David laughed. “Is she really that bad?”

“Yes. She has never got over my father’s reversal of fortune. He made several bad investments, and my mother was extravagant. She also had five daughters. Marrying us off successfully has been the aim of her life, and she tried hard to maintain her position in society in the hope that a good marriage could save the family fortunes, but it was not to be.”

“But your elder sisters married, I think you said?”

“Yes, eventually. But not the kind of marriage my mother had in mind. They are respectably established, with a collection of children, but none of them could afford to give anything away to my parents. Recently they were obliged to sell Carleton Hall. It has been in the family for almost two hundred years, and it was a great blow.”

“I can imagine it was,” David said. Now that he was beginning to relax, he decided he rather liked this straightforward young woman. She was easy to talk to, with no affectations or pretensions to grandeur. David, who had married a woman full of affectations and pretensions, had developed a dislike of both.

“Not that they are in any way destitute, you understand,” Miss Carleton said. “They own the house in Leicester, and it is a perfectly good house. A little larger than this, and not as old. With the proceeds of the sale of Carleton House and the estate and the income from my father’s remaining investments, they could live perfectly comfortably. They could even afford a housekeeper. But my mother still has ambitions. My youngest sister, Katherine is just seventeen and is by far the prettiest of all of us. My mother is saving up to give her a London Season in the hope that she will attract a wealthy or titled gentleman and we shall all be saved. Well, at least, I shall not be saved because I have ruined my reputation by seeking paid employment as a housekeeper instead of doing the same job at home and being paid nothing.”

David laughed aloud. “I do hope it is not that bad,” he said. “Although now you have explained your situation, I do have some qualms about staying here myself. You are, when all is said and done, a young unmarried lady and…”

“If you continue in that vein, Major Cartwright, I shall not be answerable for what I may do,” Miss Carleton said in freezing tones. “I am your housekeeper. Your servant. Your paid employee. Nobody gives a fig about such things with the staff. And if I had not told you my background, neither would you.”

David took a second slice of cake. “Well either way, I’m not going to stay at an inn. The cooking here is far too good. Miss Carleton, I have no set plans, but I won’t be here for long. I have to see my aunt’s solicitor to find out how things stand, and then I have to make a journey to Shrewsbury on a separate family matter. I had not thought of selling the house. I may rent it out while I remain with the army. I’m fond of this place, I spent a lot of time here as a boy, fishing off the quay and listening to smuggler’s tales from the grooms.”

“I’m glad you said that sir. Your aunt would be happy to think that you intend to settle here one day.” Miss Carleton stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be needed in the kitchen. Will you be dining at home today?”

“Yes, thank you. If it is not too much trouble.”

“It is my job, Major Cartwright. You pay me.”

“You seem keen to remind me of it. I am not sure what your usual arrangements are, but will you join me for dinner? It seems foolish for two people to eat in solitary splendour, and there is nobody to mind.”

Miss Carleton studied him for a moment, then smiled broadly. “Do you know, Major, when you arrived and looked at me so censoriously, I decided that you were a very strait-laced gentleman, but I think I was wrong.”

David found himself smiling back at her. “I think I was in my younger days,” he said. “Army life alters your priorities. Although it is unlikely to change my opinion that you should return to Leicester and make your peace with your parents. At least for the Christmas season.”

***

Helen found cooking a very soothing activity. The kitchen at Oak Lodge was old-fashioned, but well designed and after almost a year in post, she felt at home there. The thought that she might not be here for much longer saddened her. She had been telling the truth when she told Major Cartwright that she was happy in her position.

Helen understood she had potentially committed social suicide in taking the post as Mrs Everton’s companion-housekeeper. It was one thing for a young lady in straitened circumstances to seek employment as a governess or companion, or even as a schoolmistress in some respectable establishment. But cooking and cleaning placed one firmly among the ranks of the upper servants. Helen had accepted the post in a spirit of seething resentment at the constant, unreasonable demands of her family and the complete lack of appreciation for the work she did, but she had not really intended to stay for so long. When the expected letters began to arrive from her family, pleading, cajoling, and castigating her rash decision, Helen had expected she would probably give in and go home. To her surprise, she realised she was happy where she was and wanted to stay.

Taking care of Mrs Everton was not difficult and with two servants to assist her, and most of the rooms in the house unused, Helen’s housekeeping duties took considerably less time than when she was living at home. Her mother employed a cook, but Mrs Beech could manage only plain dishes, and when the Carletons entertained, it was Helen who planned elaborate menus and spent long hours in the kitchen preparing them. She enjoyed the challenge of complicated dishes but was tired of being used as an unpaid servant, while her elder sisters clamoured, from their various households, for her equally free services as nursemaid and governess. Her youngest sister Katherine spent hours studying her reflection, dreaming of a titled husband, demanding Helen’s help with refurbishing her gowns and pouting when Helen told her shortly that she did not have time.

“You are so grumpy, Nell. It isn’t as though you did not choose to remain as the daughter at home. Everybody knows that you had every opportunity to marry and have a home of your own, and you refused two perfectly good offers.”

“One offer was from Mr Grant the solicitor,” Helen said, trying not to grit her teeth. “He is forty-five and drinks so much port that his nose looks like an overripe plum. The other was from the curate, who informed my father that his interest had alighted upon me because he thought it his duty, as a man of God, to eschew all thoughts of beauty in favour of a plain woman with a light hand for the pastry. He further said that he thought in time he would be able to repress my tendency to levity and teach me to show greater modesty in public. Even Mother thought that was a bad idea.”

“Well it is your own fault, Nell. You are not at all plain, you have beautiful hair and lovely eyes. You simply refuse to try.”

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

“It is a perfectly nice nose, if a little more prominent than others. If you would look at your wardrobe and curl your hair and learn to flirt a little, you would do so much better. Look at Eliza. Nobody thought she would do so well.”

“I have the greatest respect for Mr Ingram, Kitty, but if I had to be married to a man that dull I should expire within a year.”

Her younger sister laughed. “Well I shall not care how dull my husband is, dearest Nell, as long as he is rich. Now come and look at my old blue and tell me if you think we can remove the train.”

Helen paused in rolling out her pie crust, surprised to realise that there were tears in her eyes. She blinked them back firmly. She missed Katherine’s laughter and occasional sisterly confidences, but she did not miss being expected to act as a ladies’ maid every time her sister was invited out. She supposed that Major Cartwright was correct, and she should go home to her family for the Christmas season, but she was surprised at how little she wanted to.

It felt strange to sit across the table from the Major at dinner. Helen had never eaten in the dining room. She instructed Harvey and Sarah to remove all the extra leaves from the big table and set out the various dishes on the polished sideboard so that they could serve themselves. Major Cartwright went to investigate the wine cellar and as Helen filled their plates, poured two glasses of cool white wine. Helen eyed it suspiciously and the Major laughed.

“I take it you haven’t been raiding my aunt’s cellar?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been down there. She liked a glass of wine with her dinner though, right up to the end. I remember you sent her some, once or twice, and it pleased her very much to receive the gift, though I’m not sure she understood where it came from.”

He smiled. “I’m glad she got some enjoyment from it. She and I shared a liking for good wine and when I first joined the army and began to travel, I used to try to send her some local wine from wherever I was stationed. When I was in Naples…”

He broke off abruptly and Helen said nothing. She sipped the wine, enjoying the crisp, fruity taste of it. Her employer did the same. She could see him considering, wondering what he should tell her, and whether it was at all suitable for him to tell a housekeeper anything at all. He would not normally have shared details of his personal life with an unmarried young lady from a respectable family whom he had just met, but then he would not have been dining alone with such a person either.

“I was married,” Cartwright said abruptly. “I don’t suppose you knew, since my aunt was already very forgetful by the time you arrived. She cannot have told you anything about it. Naples was my first posting after we married. Less than a year and Arabella was already very bored with me and wishing she had waited for a better prospect.”

“I know about your wife,” Helen said. She saw his head snap up and the brown eyes darken in sudden anger and wished for a moment that she had not spoken.

“Who told you?”

“Miss Forbes. She had been with your aunt for so many years, I think they were more like family than employer and servant. I asked, very casually, if you were single or a widower. I thought it unusual that it should be a gentleman placing the advertisement for such a post. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Major, it wasn’t my intention. Miss Forbes was not gossiping, but she said that she thought I ought to know in case I did come across any idle gossip in the town.”

“Miss Forbes was probably right. What did she tell you?”

“That your marriage had not been a success and that you were separated from your wife. She told me that Mrs Everton used to say that she thought your wife a fool for not appreciating you.”

Cartwright gave a very faint smile and began to eat again. “My aunt was invariably biased in my favour, Miss Carleton. She and Arabella never got on well, they were too different. She tried to persuade me against the match. I had very little money, but when I was younger I was ambitious and thought I could make my own way in the world.”

“Have you not done so?”

“Yes, I think I have. But it did not come fast enough for Arabella.” Cartwright hesitated, seeming to recollect that he was talking to a stranger. “My apologies, Miss Carleton, this is a very unsuitable conversation. Did you make this pastry? It’s excellent, I feel very spoiled.”

Helen allowed him to turn the conversation neatly away from personal matters. She asked him about his service in the army and found it unexpectedly interesting. He had served in Italy, in Portugal and in Spain, with a spell in Ireland. He spoke little of the battles he had fought, but a great deal about the places he had seen and the people he had met. There was nothing boastful or vainglorious about Major David Cartwright, but Helen thought that he had seen more and done more than most people of her acquaintance. She did not usually find it easy to talk to people she did not know well, particularly gentlemen, but as they finished their meal and Helen rose to clear the table, she was aware of a sense of regret that it was coming to an end.

“I should get these to the kitchen, sir.”

“Let the maid do that. Please, sit down and join me in a glass of port. Or if you prefer, you can watch me drinking it. I feel as though I have bored you senseless with my army tales all through dinner and given you no chance to talk about yourself.”

Helen subsided, watching Sarah clear the plates. “I’ve already told you about my situation, sir. I left home in a temper with my ungrateful family. I remained because I liked it here. But I suppose that unless I find another situation as much to my taste as this I shall have to go home.”

“Do you think it will be a problem for you? Socially, I mean?”

“I don’t suppose for one moment my mother has told anybody that I have been employed as a housekeeper, let alone a cook. She will have said that I am acting as companion to an elderly lady, which is perfectly respectable, you know. Anyway, I had no social life.”

“None at all?”

“I used to go to parties when I was Kitty’s age. But I didn’t really enjoy them that much. Dancing and trying to flirt and speaking nothing but inanities never suited me.”

“I can imagine. That doesn’t mean you have nothing to say. I’ve really enjoyed this. May I…that is, I shall be here for a few days, seeing the lawyers and working out how things stand. After that, I am travelling to Shrewsbury on business. But I would like it if you would dine with me again while I’m here. As you are, even temporarily, my housekeeper.”

Helen laughed. “As you are, for a short time longer, my employer, sir, I am at your disposal.”

As she rose to leave finally, he escorted her into the hallway and bowed. “Thank you again, ma’am, for the meal and the company. Both were excellent.”

“I enjoyed it too, sir, although I’m aware that I’ve stepped above my station this evening.”

“Or back into the station you were born to, depending on your perspective. Look, about earlier. The conversation about my wife. I should tell you, that she recently died. A fever outbreak. It was very sudden.”

Helen felt a little shock. “Oh no. Oh Major, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. I’m going to Shrewsbury to see where she’s buried. I want to make sure she has a proper gravestone. There are some things I need to collect, and I’ll pay any debts that I can find out about.”

Helen studied him for a long moment. Major Cartwright was unexceptional, apart from a pair of very fine brown eyes and a rather nice smile. Helen wondered how old he was. She thought possibly in his thirties, although his self-contained manner may have made him seem older than he was.

“I think that is the right thing to do, Major. I hope you won’t find it too distressing. I wish, while you are here, that you would furnish me with a list of what you most like to eat. And if there is anything else I can do for you – laundry or mending or suchlike – please let me know. With your aunt gone, I have so little to do.”

Cartwright smiled, and she could see the warmth in his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll probably take you up on that. But there is one thing you should do. Write to your family, ma’am, and tell them you’ll be home for Christmas, even if it is just a visit.”

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

“I’ll stay here and make do with Sarah’s cooking.”

“It isn’t very good.”

“It will still be better than what I ate during the retreat from Madrid, ma’am. Goodnight.”

***

David decided to hire a post-chaise for his journey to Shrewsbury. He had quite enjoyed his adventure with the carrier’s cart, but Shrewsbury was a lot further and David had no wish to spend weeks on the road. He admitted to himself, with some amusement, that some of his desire to have this journey over and done with, was because he wanted to get back to Rye before his eccentric housekeeper left for Christmas with her family.

He had not formally given Helen her notice, though he knew he should have done. He was sure that once she was back home, she would decide to stay, and write to tell him so. So far he had made no arrangements with the lawyer about advertising the house for rent. He had asked Helen, during her remaining weeks, to go through his aunt’s personal possessions, dispose of the clothing however she thought best and pack up the rest. When he returned, he would go through the boxes for any small items he wanted to keep and make arrangements to put the rest into storage, along with the contents of the wine cellar and a few of the finer items of furniture. He could manage all of that without the help of the estimable Miss Carleton, but he did want to see her again to say goodbye. He had taken a liking to the girl, and she had made his week at his aunt’s house thoroughly enjoyable.

He left Helen indulging in an orgy of cooking and food preparation. Clearly the thought of him spending the Christmas feast at the mercy of Sarah’s cooking troubled her mind, and David suspected he would be left with a larder stuffed with enough puddings, cured hams and pies to feed half his company. He wondered if she would have to do the same work over again for her unappreciative family and hoped that her mother had the decency to employ a proper cook for the season, so that her prodigal daughter could take her rightful place as a family member. Then again, remembering the sight of Helen in the kitchen, singing Christmas carols, with flour on the end of her nose and her hair curling in little wisps around her face with the steam from the puddings, David wondered if in fact, Helen might be perfectly happy in the kitchen if her family would just show some appreciation.

David had been to Shrewsbury once before, in the early days of his courtship of Arabella, when she had taken him to spend a few days with her aunt who lived in a graceful eighteenth century house close to the Abbey. He had rather liked the ancient town and had hoped that Arabella might settle there with her child, finding some respectable occupation and using the opportunity to make a new start. Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house suggested that she had not managed to do so.

The lodging house was better than he had expected, and Mrs Hetherington was a dark-eyed handsome woman in her thirties, who kept a clean house, served plain food to those lodgers who required it and showed a rather touching reticence at sharing with her widower the details of Arabella’s life. David set aside his awkwardness in favour of plain speaking and over a good cup of tea at the big square kitchen table, managed to drag the information from his reluctant informant.

“I wouldn’t normally have let a room to a woman like her,” Mrs Hetherington said. “Not that I haven’t had lady boarders before. Mostly it’s gentlemen, though. Music masters and young officers and those fallen on hard times. I don’t take the labouring classes, my rooms are too good for that. I even had a poet once. I take the money up front for some of them, mind, being as they come from a class used to paying their bills when they feel like it. Still, I don’t have much trouble. The rooms are clean and well furnished, and I’ve got three gentlemen who have been with me a long time. The ladies come and go. Governesses and the like, between jobs. I feel sorry for them. Nowhere to go and no money for expensive lodgings. I keep the top two attic rooms for the ladies. They can be private up there, and I let them share my sitting room while they’re here.”

“And my wife?”

“Anybody could see she’d fallen on hard times. And anybody could see that she’d no intention of finding a respectable position as a governess or a companion, although that was the story she told me when she applied for the room. Still, she’d the money to pay and both rooms were empty, so I let her have one of them, providing she paid in advance for the month and didn’t bring anyone back to the room. She laughed when I told her that. ‘Mrs Hetherington,’ she said. ‘My gentlemen friends do not frequent common lodging houses. Although perhaps they should, this is the most comfortable room I have occupied for months.’”

David winced and tried not to show it. “She was here for five months?”

“She had the room for five months. She paid me, regular as clockwork and I never had to ask her for it. I wouldn’t say she stayed here for five months, mind, she was in and out. Sometimes she’d be here for a week or two. Slept half the day, ate her meals in her room and was out in the evening, dressed up like a duchess. Sometimes I’d see nothing of her for a month. I always imagined, begging your pardon, sir, that she’d found a gentleman friend who was taking care of her.”

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

“I’d no idea she was truly wed. She called herself Mrs, but they often do.”

“We were separated.”

“It’s a tragedy. She wasn’t a respectable woman, sir. She had this way about her, like she was laughing at herself almost. But she was never anything but civil to me.”

David remembered the many times when Arabella had failed to be civil to anybody and was obscurely glad. Perhaps in her darker times, she had learned something that comfort, and prosperity had failed to teach her.

“Where is she buried?”

“At St Mary’s, sir. The Rector will know the details.”

The Rector was surprised but sympathetic. He led David to the plain unmarked grave and left him alone for a while. When David went to find him, he provided sherry and spiritual guidance in the Rectory and gave David the name of a reputable stonemason who could erect a gravestone.

David spent the night at the Lion Hotel, then returned to Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house the following day. She led him up two flights of stairs to a small room under the eaves, where a trunk, a wooden box and several bags contained all that was left of Arabella Cartwright’s short, tragic life. David sat on the narrow bed and cried, remembering their courtship, the first heady days of their marriage when all he could think about was making love to her, and the first painful realisation that their love was not after all based on solid ground, but on the shifting sands of her discontent and relentless pursuit of something better.

Eventually, David pulled himself together and repacked the bags and boxes carefully, piling them up for collection by the carter whom he had arranged to take them to the Lion Hotel. There was another call he should make, although he was not looking forward to it. It must have been ten years or more since he had last seen Mrs Gladstone, Arabella’s aunt, but he remembered the house well from his previous visit. The butler took his card with an expression of surprise and asked him to wait. He returned soon afterwards and ushered David into a panelled book room where a portly gentleman who looked to be around forty came forward to greet him.

“Major Cartwright. This is a surprise and no mistake, you’re the last person I expected to see here. On furlough, eh?”

David shook his hand. “Yes, sir, for a short time. I had family affairs to attend to, both here and on the south coast. I was hoping to speak to Mrs Gladstone.”

“Can’t be done, I’m afraid, Major. My mother died almost a year ago. Smallpox outbreak. Very sad. Jasper Gladstone, at your service. I don’t think we ever met.”

“No, I think you were in India when I visited last. It was a long time ago.”

“Aye, that’ll be right. I left the company service about two years ago and set up in business for myself in Bristol. When my mother died, I inherited the house, so my family moved here. I still keep rooms in Bristol, it’s where my offices are. I think I can guess what’s brought you to Shrewsbury, Major. A bad business.”

“You heard that she died, then?”

“Yes, though I didn’t wish to. The Rector took it upon himself to inform me. Damned piece of impudence, I called it. I told him I’d heard nothing of my cousin since she disgraced herself and didn’t consider her any business of mine. And frankly, Major, I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way.”

David did not speak immediately. He had no wish to be hypocritical and he thought that if Arabella’s death had not coincided with that of his aunt, he would probably not have asked for furlough to visit her grave. He had tried hard to set aside his feelings for Arabella a long time ago and he almost resented the stirring up of painful memories. At the same time, she had lived as his wife for six years and he did not think he could have dismissed all thought of her as Gladstone appeared to think he should.

“As I said, I had other family business to attend to,” he said finally. “Since I was in England, I thought it right to see where she was buried and arrange for a gravestone.”

“Women like her shouldn’t be given the luxury of a proper burial,” Gladstone said shortly. “Sherry, Major? Throw them in the ground and forget about them, that’s what I say. The grief she brought to her poor parents, and my mother. And you, of course.”

He held out the sherry glass. David took it and set it on the table, having no desire to drink it. “I understand Arabella came here to have her child.”

“So I believe. I wasn’t here then, of course, or I’d have put a stop to that. My mother was always sentimental about my cousin. I think she had some notion of finding somebody to take the brat and rehabilitating Bella, but I could have told her that wouldn’t wash. My cousin was a whore, Major. A bad ‘un, through and through. You can’t help a woman like that, and I wouldn’t have tried.”

David’s anger was beginning to settle into a cold disdain. “I am sure you would not,” he said. “Will you tell me what happened after the child was born?”

“She stayed for a month or two. I wrote to my mother to inform her that we would be unable to visit her, of course, while she had that woman and her bastard in the house. I’ve children of my own, I couldn’t have them exposed to that kind of thing. Once Bella was back on her feet after the birth it went pretty much as you’d expect. She took up with some man again – don’t know who he was, some sort of financier I believe, invested in canals and bridges and engineering works. She took off in the middle of the night with all her fine clothing, leaving my mother with the brat on her hands. I don’t know how long it lasted, but not long. She wrote to my mother begging to come back, but this time the old lady had the sense to say no, though she kept the brat. Bella had a small income of some kind.”

“It was very little, just the interest on her marriage settlement. Pin money only.”

“I think she took rooms in town and made up for any shortfall by selling herself to whoever would have her.”

David felt very sick. He had guessed the bare bones of the story, but hearing it related so brutally hurt all over again. He hoped his distress did not show on his face, because he did not wish to give this man a present of his feelings. He would not willingly have given him the time of day.

“What happened to the child?” he asked in neutral tones. “Did it contract the smallpox as well?”

“Lord, no. My mother had the nursemaid keep it isolated. No, it outlived her, that’s for sure. Probably dead by now, though. Not many of them survive beyond their first year in those public institutions, do they?”

“Public institution?”

“You know. Charity wards. Orphan asylums. Workhouses. Wherever they put the little bastards nobody wants. The Rector might know if you’re interested, though I can’t think why you should be. It wasn’t your brat and I doubt she even knew who sired it. And don’t look at me like that, Major. It was nothing to do with me. When we’d buried my mother, I left the whole thing in the hands of my man of business. He paid off the staff, got the house in order and took the little bastard to the Parish and dumped it there. What in God’s name was I expected to do about it? She made her bed, my cousin Arabella, and if she’d cared about that child, she’d never have run off again. She’s better off dead, where she can’t bring any more disgrace to this family, and her bastard with her. Let’s drink to it.”

David looked at Gladstone, a florid, prosperous-looking man with thinning hair and a substantial paunch, as he raised his sherry glass and tossed back the warm amber liquid. He reached for his own glass, waited politely for Gladstone to finish drinking, then threw the contents of it fully into the man’s face. Gladstone gave a squawk of surprise, scrubbing the liquid away with his sleeve as it stung his eyes.

“You…you…how dare you, sir? To come into my house, acting as though your bitch of a wife should matter to me, and then…we’ll see about that, sir.”

He surged forward. David waited for him to be completely off balance, then punched him once, very hard. Blood spurted from the bulbous nose and Gladstone fell back, clutching his face as he hit the floor with a crash which rattled the glasses on the polished sideboard. David had only taken up boxing a year earlier in winter quarters, under the tuition of a friend in his brigade. He had never punched a man in anger in his life before and he was astonished at how satisfying it was. He stood for a moment watching Gladstone bleed onto what looked like an expensive Persian rug.

“Thank you for your time, Mr Gladstone. Please don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

It had started to rain as David made his way back to St Mary’s Church. He found the Rector in his study and blurted out his story and his concerns with little regard for good manners. He was too angry to care what the man thought. The Rector heard him out patiently.

“I am sorry, Major Cartwright. I can see this has all been a shock to you. I respect your compassion and your charity in very difficult circumstances but I’m afraid I have no information about your wife’s child. Mrs Gladstone was not a member of my church, and I did not know much about her family, although we had met socially on occasion. Naturally…Shrewsbury is not a large town, and there is always gossip. Many people felt that Mrs Gladstone was wrong to have taken in her niece in such circumstances, and I know there was a general feeling that she would never be accepted back into polite society, but no such attempt was made. When I was asked by the Parish to arrange for your wife’s burial, there was no mention of any family. I had rather assumed that if there was a child, he or she must have died.”

“Is it possible to find out?” David asked. “What would happen to such a child? Is there an orphan asylum?”

“The parishes have combined in Shrewsbury, to fund a House of Industry where the indigent and the sick are tended. Older children have their own facilities and schooling within the House, but it is customary for the Parish to send babies out to nurse in local households.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Women are paid to take care of the child until it becomes old enough to enter the House of Industry. I presume this child would be very young?”

“Around eighteen months, I suppose. There must be records of where such children are sent.”

“You should apply to the workhouse clerk, Mr Jackson. Wait, I will write a brief note to him. He knows me and it will probably speed your enquiries along.” The Rector reached for his pen, then paused and looked at David. “Major – what do you intend to do if the child is alive?”

David was unable to reply. He realised he had no idea.

***

Mr Jackson scanned the Rector’s letter and gave a sigh which blew the papers about on his desk. He got up and went to collect a ledger from a shelf. David watched as he ran a bony finger down a column, muttering to himself. He turned a page, then another, and began a tuneless whistle, peering at the unintelligible scrawl which passed for writing. David wondered if it was Mr Jackson’s own writing and if so, why he did not learn to read it more quickly.

“Aha!” Jackson said triumphantly. “Aha! As I thought. Now we have him. Now we have him, indeed.”

“Him?” David said quickly.

“Him. A boy. The boy. Delivered to this establishment on the date in question by Gareth Southern, clerk to Mr Timothy Prestcote. It says here…well now. It says the boy is an orphan.”

“Does it not say the mother’s name?” David asked.

“It does,” Jackson said doubtfully, peering so closely that his nose almost touched the page. “Difficult to read it…Cartridge…no, Cartwright, I think. Looks like Billy. Billy Cartwright. Funny name for a female.”

“Bella,” David said, trying to sound patient.

“Is it? Oh. Oh yes, could be. Yes, I think it is.” Jackson sounded pleased. “Bella Cartwright, prostitute. Presumed deceased.”

Jackson froze. On his desk beside the Rector’s note was the calling card David had given him. David watched as he read the name again and made the connection, then saw his eyes widen. He looked up very slowly and suddenly there was a wealth of apprehension in his expression.

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

“Oh my. Oh dear. How awkward. How very embarrassing. I have no memory for names, sir, but in this case I ought to have. Oh my. But this child…he cannot be related to you, surely?”

“I think you’ll find he is,” David said pleasantly. “Was no effort made to trace his mother?”

“Well no, sir. Not given that she was reported to be dead. I cannot understand…was she not dead?”

“Not then,” David said. “She left the child in the care of her aunt, Mrs Gladstone, who sadly died soon afterwards.”

“Gladstone? Do you refer to the family of Mr Jasper Gladstone, Major? But this is extraordinary. He is a member of our board. I cannot think how such a terrible mistake came to be made.”

“I can,” David said briefly. “Am I to understand that the boy is still alive? Where can I find him?”

“Yes. Yes, indeed. At least, according to our records. He was sent out to nurse with Mrs Bonel, and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

“But?”

“They don’t always tell us straight away, sir. If the child dies. Sometimes they bury them quietly and keep taking the money. Eventually the yearly inspection comes around and then they’ll come forward and claim the death was recent.”

David felt sick again. “Annual inspections for a baby that young?” he said. “Is that all?”

“We’ve not the time or the staff to do more, sir. I can give you Mrs Bonel’s address if you want to visit the boy.”

David found the cottage easily enough. There was a narrow frontage open to the River Dee, with chickens scrabbling in a fenced yard and a strong stench of excrement and urine. David paused by the door, taking a deep breath. His stomach was churning so badly, he was worried he might vomit and for the first time ever he felt the urge to flee in the face of the enemy. Before he had the opportunity to do so however, he heard the cry. It was a long wail of misery which drowned out the cackling of the hens and the steady rush of the river, swollen with winter rains.

Inside the smell was stronger, but there was no sign of life in the main living area of the cottage. David walked through to a small doorway at the back and out into a muddy yard, where two pigs snuffled around, splashed with mud, and snorting indignantly. There was still no sign of occupation, but at the back of the yard was a rough wooden lean-to and the wail was stronger, floating out into the freezing winter air. It sounded like a young child. David walked across the yard and went in through the door.

He found the child in a rough wooden cot, little more than a box, built high against the wall of the shed. He was dressed in a linen smock which was smeared with his own dirt. There were several reeking, threadbare blankets in the cot and the child was crying and shivering, his voice high and thin in the chill air. He was thin and pale and his hair was a coppery red.

“There, then, what’s that yelling about, it’s not nearly time for your dinner, and if you don’t shut up…”

David turned. The woman was thin herself, with sharp features and brown eyes, wearing a respectable brown dress and a warm woollen shawl. She looked irritated, but at the sight of David she froze, ran her eyes over him then managed a wholly false smile. She dropped a little curtsey.

“Good day to you, sir. May I help you?”

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve come about the child. I understand he was put out to nurse last year by the Parish?”

“That’s right, sir. A poor little orphan mite. I’ve looked after him as if he was my own, haven’t I, poppet?”

The child had stopped wailing and was staring at David, one grubby fist pushed into his mouth.

David walked forward. He had spent the walk down to the cottage calculating the boy’s age and decided he must be around seventeen months, though he was small, probably through poor nourishment. David studied the child and saw Bella’s beautiful hazel eyes looking back at him with wary interest.

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. He doesn’t…”

David spun around in sudden fury. “What name did they give you for him, you slovenly bitch? Any more of this and I’ll have the magistrate down here, and if you’ve nothing to hide from them I’ll be very surprised.”

The woman visibly flinched. “George. They called him George.”

George had been the name of both David’s and Arabella’s fathers. He looked back at the child. “George? Georgie?”

The boy stared at him for a long moment. Then, cautiously, he shifted onto his knees, reached for the wooden slats of the cot and pulled himself up to his feet. David looked at the streaks of filth on the smock and consciously reined in his anger. He studied the child. The child stared back. After a moment, David reached out and touched one of the tiny hands clutching the edge of the cot. George flinched away as if expecting a blow and David felt an overwhelming wave of protective tenderness.

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

“It’s his own fault, sir, he throws off his blankets. And they’re like that at this age. Skittish, like.”

David kept his eyes on the child and reached past him into the cot to feel the blankets. As he had suspected, they were soaked.

“Does he have any other clothing?”

“Another gown, but it’s wet. I do my best, but I can’t keep up with the laundry.”

“Then get me a dry blanket to wrap him in. I’m taking him with me.”

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

David turned to look at her. “You will receive authorisation before the end of the day,” he said in icy tones. “Get me a blanket for him. Now.”

Afterwards, seated in the post-chaise as it rattled its way towards London and then on towards Rye, David looked back over that long day and found it hard to recognise himself. He had been carried on a wave of indignant fury which swept aside all difficulties and opposition. His years as an army quartermaster had given him a talent for organisation and the ability to juggle too many tasks, all of them urgent. David was thankful for the experience since he did not think he would ever have made it into the coach early the following morning otherwise.

He was also thankful for the support of Mrs Hetherington, who greeted his arrival with the child with blank astonishment.

“I know I’m imposing on you, ma’am, but it’s only for today. I’ve nobody else to turn to in Shrewsbury, and I’ve a great deal to do to be ready to travel with him tomorrow.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said, studying the crying child. “Who is he? Where does he come from? Dear God, look at the state of him. He’s filthy and he looks half-starved.”

“He is half-starved,” David said grimly. “It’s a disgrace, sending a child out to a place like that. She was keeping him in an outhouse, with the pigs and the chickens. I could kill her, and the Parish Board along with her, except that I don’t have time.”

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

“Yes. She can’t have known where he was, though. She left him with her family. She probably thought it best for him, but when her aunt died, that odorous piece of pig’s excrement Jasper Gladstone sent him to the parish. His own cousin’s child. When I’ve got time, I’m going to ensure that his reputation in this town ends up in the sewer. I don’t need to be here to do that, I can write letters, and I intend to ask for the assistance of my Brigadier’s wife in the matter. She will enjoy the challenge.”

Mrs Hetherington looked amused. “And I thought you such a quiet gentleman,” she said. “But Major…he may be your wife’s child, but surely he isn’t yours? A gentleman like you wouldn’t have let her take his son away like this. Are you sure you can just remove him from the Parish because you want to? There will be regulations.”

“If they try to stop me, I will take their regulations and shove them where they deserve to be. But they won’t. They can’t. He is my wife’s child, born within wedlock. We were legitimately married, that never changed. If I say he is my son, and can prove she was my wife, there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it.”

Mrs Hetherington gaped at him. “Sir…are you sure?”

George had stopped crying, probably because he was too exhausted to continue. He was watching David from enormous tear-drenched eyes, but David thought that he seemed more relaxed in his arms. He looked back at the child and finally admitted to himself what he had been unable to recognise two years earlier.

“Yes,” he said. “Oh God, yes. I should have done it then. I should have gone to her and offered to acknowledge the child. Because I wanted a child so badly that it hurt. Arabella didn’t really, and when I found out, I was furious. It seemed so unjust, because I realised that it might have been my fault that we couldn’t have children. Which meant I might never be able to have a child.” David stopped, realising that he was babbling. “I’m sorry, this is the most inappropriate conversation I have ever had.”

“Lord bless, you sir, I run a lodging house. You’d be amazed what people tell me. Leave him with me. I’ll get him bathed and fed, and I’ll send Sally to the market, if you’ll leave the money. There’s a booth that sells used clothing, they’ll have baby clothes there. I don’t know how you’ll manage him on the road, mind. He’s not clean yet, so you’ll need to change his clouts and wash him, and it’s not work for a gentleman.”

“I’ll learn, you can show me. It’s only for three days, and once I’m back in Rye I can hire a nursemaid. I’m going to have to write to extend my furlough, but they’ll understand. It’s winter quarters. Mrs Hetherington, thank you. I will never forget what you’ve done for me today.”

It took longer to reach Rye on the return journey. It was necessary to stop more frequently because of George, and overnight stops were more complicated. David had no experience of taking care of a child, but Mrs Hetherington gave him an emergency lesson in feeding, bathing, and changing clouts in half a day. The journey was a nightmare of a crying child, desperate inn staff and irritable post boys.

After two days of almost constant wailing, and fighting against every attempt to comfort him, George fell suddenly into an exhausted sleep in David’s arms. He barely awoke as David carried him into the Swan Inn. The landlord was more sympathetic than on the previous two nights, and sent a chamber maid to wash, change and sit with the boy so that David could eat in peace in the dining room. After two glasses of burgundy, David was almost falling asleep at the table. He went up to his room and found that the girl had just changed George and was settling him into the bed.

“Will you be all right with him, sir? You should have a nursemaid with you.”

“She fell ill, and I couldn’t delay my journey,” David said with a smile. It was the story he had told all along, not really caring who believed it. This girl apparently did and gave him a somewhat misty smile.

“Bless you, sir, I’ve never seen such a devoted father. Have you much further to go?”

“No, we’ll be home before tomorrow evening.”

“I’m glad to hear it, you’re in need of a rest. With your leave, sir, I’ll come back in the morning and get him fed and ready while you have your breakfast.”

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

David undressed, then checked that there was water in the jug on the washstand and that there were clean clouts available in case of disaster, then he got into bed. The boy lay beside him, long lashed eyes watching him curiously. Over the past days he had seemed to David to see every human contact as a potential threat, and David tried not to imagine the miserable existence that had taught such a young child that nobody was to be trusted. Now, though, he lay wakeful but calm. David looked back at him.

“Are you in the mood for conversation, Georgie? I’m not sure I’ll be much use at it, I’m so tired. Still, we can give it a try. I’m your Papa. You don’t know it yet, and nor did I until just recently, but we’ve a lot of time to get acquainted. At least we will have, when Bonaparte is gone, and I can come home to you. In the meantime, we’ll need to find you a good nursemaid and a new housekeeper…”

David froze suddenly. He realised that he had forgotten, in the stress of the past days, that his departing housekeeper might well still be in residence when he arrived with a child she knew nothing about. It had not occurred to him to write to Helen Carleton, he had been too busy. Now he realised he should have done so. He wondered if she had already left for her family home in Leicester for Christmas. Part of him hoped she had done so. The other part hoped he would have the chance to see her again, to thank her for her kindness.

He fell asleep quickly and woke in the half-light of dawn. To his surprise, George still slept, curled up against his body, warm in the chill air of the inn bedroom. David lay very still, savouring the moment. Very gently, he kissed the top of the child’s head. The colour of his hair reminded David sharply of Arabella and he wept a little, regretting all the things they might have shared.

They arrived at Oak Lodge late in the afternoon, several days before Christmas. George was asleep when David lifted him from the chaise and instructed the coachmen to go to the kitchen for refreshment while the baggage was unloaded. He walked into the house and stopped in the hallway in considerable surprise. The stairs were decorated with greenery and tied with red ribbons. It reminded him of the Christmases of his childhood, and he stood in the hall, the child in his arms, unexpectedly assailed by a rush of memories.

“Major Cartwright.”

The girl’s voice was astonished. David turned to see her emerging from the kitchen area, still wearing her white apron. She had discarded her lace cap and looked neat and efficient and surprisingly attractive. David quailed internally but took his courage in both hands, remembering that this was his house, and he was her employer.

“Miss Carleton, what on earth are you still doing here?” he asked sternly. “By now, you should be at home with your family, ready to celebrate…”

Helen came forward, ignoring him, and drew back the grubby blanket from George’s flushed face. “Is this your wife’s boy?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” David said. “His name is George. And he is my son.”

Helen lifted her eyes to his face. “I’m not going home for Christmas,” she said. “I’m sorry, Major, I know I was ordered to do so. But it occurred to me that I might be needed here. And it turns out that I was more right than I knew. Here, let me take him. How on earth did you manage on the journey with him?”

“Very well, ma’am,” David said haughtily. He decided not to mention how appalling it had been at times. “I’m an army man, we’re very adaptable.”

Helen looked up at him, a smile lurking in the blue eyes. “So am I, Major Cartwright. And since I do not think you intend to abandon your profession just yet, that is just as well. I’ve had a lot of practice taking care of my sisters’ children, you know, and we still have a few days before Christmas to get the nursery set up just as it ought to be. He’s a beautiful child.”

“He’s been badly treated. I will tell you everything, ma’am. But just now…”

“Just now, we should take him upstairs. I think he needs changing.”

David trod up the stairs in her wake, remembering his resolve of earlier. “I told you to go home.”

“I ignored you.”

“You cannot remain in my employ if I dismiss you.”

“That is very true. I think we should discuss it again after Christmas.”

“You are not going to listen to me, are you?”

Helen shot him a look. “Don’t you trust me with him, Major?”

David looked back at her steadily. “I cannot think of anybody I would trust more,” he said simply. “But Miss Carleton…”

“Major Cartwright, why don’t you let me decide for myself? There is nothing more irritating than a man trying to tell a woman how she should think or feel. Just now, let us take care of your son.”

***

It was frosty on Christmas morning. Helen reluctantly left George in Sarah’s devoted charge and went to church with her employer. Inside, she headed towards her usual seat among the tradespeople and upper servants at the back, but Major Cartwright took her arm and steered her firmly into the pew beside him.

Gossip travelled fast in a small town like Rye and there were sly looks and veiled hints which, over sherry in the rectory, turned into open questions about Major Cartwright’s new charge. Helen watched admiringly as the Major responded, his replies so bland that eventually even the most avid gossip became frustrated.

“He is my son. My wife and I were temporarily estranged. Tragically she died just as we were planning to reconcile. I am, as you can imagine, heartbroken. Miss Carleton has agreed to remain in my employment as his governess, and to oversee the nursery once I return to the army. I am very grateful to her.”

He told the story over and over, varying the words but sticking firmly to the message. Helen felt enormous respect for him. She could not imagine how badly he must have been hurt by his wife, but his thoughts were all of the child. After church, he sat at a table in the hastily furnished nursery, with George on his lap, showing him how to build a simple tower with wooden blocks. George picked up the idea quickly, and then abruptly reached out and pushed the tower over. The hazel eyes flew to the Major’s face apprehensively. David Cartwright was laughing.

“Good at siege warfare, I see. Shall we do it again?”

He did so, and this time George gave a crow of laughter as the tower fell. The Major bent and kissed the soft copper hair. Helen stood up, fighting back sentimental tears.

“I will be needed in the kitchen, Major, so I’ll leave you to it.”

He looked around quickly, smiling. “Come back as soon as you can. It’s important that he gets to know both of us, but you especially. If you’re really going to take on the job of raising him. Are you good at building towers, Miss Carleton?”

Helen smiled, her heart full. “I have three nephews, Major, I am an expert. I just don’t want to intrude.”

“This is your home too, ma’am, for as long as you choose to stay. You couldn’t intrude. And I hope you’ll be dining with me as usual. It’s Christmas, you cannot leave me to eat alone.”

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

Helen laughed. “Yes,” she admitted. “But she is happier that I am now able to call myself a governess rather than a housekeeper, so it could have been worse.”

She had received the letter from her mother the previous day. Lady Carleton had expressed herself freely, but Helen felt that the anger was half-hearted. It seemed that Kitty had made the acquaintance of a titled gentleman at a hunt ball, who appeared very taken with her, and who openly expressed his hope of renewing their acquaintance in London next year. Helen had no idea if the attachment was real, but it was a useful distraction for her parents.

They dined on roast goose and traditional Christmas pudding and drank a rich red wine which Major Cartwright told her came from the vineyards around the River Douro and was a favourite of Lord Wellington. He made her laugh with stories of various Christmases spent on campaign and asked her about her family. Helen had wondered if she would miss the noisy family gatherings of her childhood, but she did not.

They went together to settle George into his cot. He was already half asleep, worn out by the unaccustomed excitement. Major Cartwright bent to kiss him, then stood back for Helen to do the same. She did so, suddenly very aware of how domestic the moment was. They might have been any young couple, putting their child to bed after a busy and very happy Christmas Day. It made Helen feel unexpectedly shy and she wondered if the Major was aware of it. If he was, David Cartwright gave no indication.

Afterwards, Helen sat beside the fire, in the drawing room, sipping sherry and trying to pretend that this was normal behaviour for a governess who was also a housekeeper and a cook. David Cartwright sat opposite her.

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

They sat with the board between them like a shield and Helen concentrated on her moves and tried not to think about anything else, until he said:

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to increase your salary, and I’d like you to employ a kitchen maid and a nursery maid. You can’t leave it all to Sarah and you’ll be very busy with George.”

“Thank you, Major. I…”

“I feel as though I ought to send you home, but I don’t want to. You’ll be so good for him. I want to be here, but I can’t. Not yet. Still, it’s a huge responsibility, and if you change your mind, please tell me and I’ll find somebody else.”

“I won’t change my mind, Major. I really want this post. He’s a beautiful child, I’m already a little in love with him.”

“Will you write to me with news of him?”

“All the time,” Helen said warmly. “There will be nothing of him that you do not know.”

“Thank you. I’ve felt so resentful about Arabella but in the end, she gave me something priceless, something I’ve wanted for so long. A child. A family. I’m so grateful. It’s your move, Miss Carleton.”

Helen studied the board. After a long moment, she moved her rook. “I think you are going to lose, Major Cartwright.”

“I don’t.”

Helen looked up in surprise and found that he was looking at her, with a hint of a smile behind the steady brown eyes.

“I’m playing the long game,” he explained, and reached to move his piece.

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

The run-up to Halloween 2021 marks a new venture here at Writing with Labradors as for the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is an anthology of ghost stories, with ten supernatural historical tales which range from Roman and Viking times all the way up to the 1960s. Which brings us to my guest today on Blogging with Labradors, the talented Danielle Apple who writes as D Apple.

Danielle’s contribution to Hauntings is a story called Hotel Vanity which brings a light-hearted tone to the collection. It is set in a decaying hotel, where the owner’s efforts to sell-out are hampered by some mischievous ghosts.

Danielle, welcome to Blogging with Labradors and thanks very much for joining me to tell us a bit more about Hotel Vanity and the story behind it.

To begin with, Hotel Vanity is an unusual ghost story. What was your inspiration for it?

 Well, I really wanted to write a gothic mystery, but every time I put pen to paper, some sassy ghost muse would whisper in my ear. Try as I might to shut her up, Nancy became my ghost, and Humphrey, the beleaguered hotel owner, became me. I thought…what if ghosts aren’t really how we typically think of them? What if the things that go bump in the night are really an old ghost dropping books on the floor as he falls asleep reading, or perhaps an ethereal being trying to taste whiskey again for the hundredth time?

I think that’s a fantastic idea and raises all sorts of interesting possibilities for future stories. There’s an interesting mix of humour and drama in your story and in the lives (and deaths) of the characters. Did you plan it that way or did that develop as you wrote?

I was supposed to be writing a story for a Valentine’s Day competition, and while the muse managed to steer me away from Gothic Mystery, I apparently don’t do romance without making it an annoying ghost mystery. This insertion of humor is a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience that happens with nearly every short story, but I had to daydream about the drama for a while before it made sense.

I should think with a character like Nancy yammering in your ear it would be impossible NOT to include humour. I must say that for me, it wasn’t just the humans, alive or dead, who brought the story to life. You give a very good descriptive sense of this decaying old building – it’s almost like one of the characters. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Is there a real building somewhere that inspired it?

At the time I was going through some difficult personal changes, and the building became an embodiment of my comfort zone, limitations, and the things I still valued. The vines are beautiful and once served to avoid soil erosion, but they also choke the life out of a building. Humphrey tries to get a vine by the window to grow a different way by twisting it around itself, but the problem has gotten so massive that this simple act is futile.

Poor Humphrey. You can really sense his struggle. You’re not specific about dates in the story, either for the present day or for the flashbacks to Tom’s younger days. What period did you have in mind and what made you choose it?

While my primary work usually ends up in the early 1800s, for some reason these ghosts decided they were in the 1960s. Tom’s dated letters have seen a lot of wear and tear, and at the time of this story, the characters briefly discuss a United States presidential candidate. They are in their own bubble of sorts, stuck in the past away from the outside world but not totally unaware. It was easier for me to imagine ghosts from a couple of my favorite time periods and place them in a more familiar setting to me. Not to mention the buildings from my favorite times would have been slowly falling apart, but still viable. I think this is why the 1960s felt right.

Yes, that makes perfect sense, given how important the building is to your storyline. I think I can guess the answer to this one, but I have to ask. Who is your favourite character in the story and why?

 Gosh, I love all of them for different reasons, but Nancy was the most fun to write. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of her outrageous behavior with her wise advice. In fact, every beta reader who has encountered Nancy wants to know more about her. So…maybe she gets her own story next.

I genuinely hope so. I’d love to know who she was when she lived and how she died. But on to the storyline. The idea of a lost soul trapped in a mirror is very evocative. Can you tell us a bit more about how you came up with the idea and the meaning behind it?

I had a thought to examine the human experience in the realm of society’s expectations. I think there is a soul in many of us that we keep trapped. Do we shove it away, direct what it should do and where it should go, all the while giving us the illusion that it is free to move about? When we look in the mirror at our soul…what do we see exactly? Is it us, a totally different person, or is it a part of ourselves that we ignored for too long? Of course this soul in the mirror can be a representation of many scenarios in peoples’ lives, so it can easily slip into whatever form the reader needs.

It’s very effective in this story. I’m hoping that people are going to read this and want more of your work. What’s your current writing project and how is it going? Any publication dates in the pipeline?

I’m working on a historical mystery saga in Northern Alabama, spanning 1834-1850. The first book is about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade-long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. This is the project I’ve been working on for ages, but each setback has taught me valuable lessons and brought new, amazing people into my life. I’m grateful for the experience! In the next few months it will be ready for final beta readers and cultural accuracy readers, then I revise and it’s off to copy edits. That will probably land the publication date in mid-2022. If anyone is interested in being a beta, accuracy, or arc reader, go ahead and contact me for a more detailed description.

That sounds like a fascinating project, and probably takes an enormous amount of research, but it looks as though the end is in sight.

 Danielle, it’s great that you’ve been able to take the time to contribute to Hauntings. I know that all the other authors have thoroughly enjoyed working with you and I personally enjoyed meeting Nancy, Humphrey, and the others. Thanks for joining me on Blogging with Labradors and good luck with your current project.

 If you’d like to find out more about Danielle and her work, you’ll find all her social media links and contact details here. Don’t forget that she’s looking for beta readers for her current project, so do make contact if you can help.

More about Danielle Apple…

When she’s not pursuing research bunny trails, Danielle is reading. Her happy place is cozying up on the couch with her dog and a 19th century gothic mystery novel, but you’ll also find her hiking and exploring ghost towns and forgotten graveyards. An avid photographer and language learner, Danielle finds it difficult not to see the story potential in every place or turn of phrase. Sometimes the muses are humorous, and sometimes they are dark, but they always come from an integral place. Her upcoming novel takes place in Northern Alabama, 1834. It’s about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. You can follow the progress here https://linktr.ee/Dapplewrites

Keep an eye out for more blog posts in the Historical Writers Forum Hauntings blog hop as more of our authors get the chance to talk about their ghost stories in the run-up to Halloween.

 

 THE HISTORICAL WRITERS FORUM: who we are

 The Historical Writers Forum (HWF), started out as a social media group where writers of historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and historical fantasy could come together to share their knowledge and skills to help improve standards amongst this genre of writers, whether they be new or well-practiced. The aim is to encourage peer support for authors in a field where sometimes writing can be a very lonely business. We currently number over 800 members and are growing. We have recently been busy organising online talks via Zoom and now have our own YouTube channel where you can find our discussions on a variety of topics. Our membership includes several well-known authors who regularly engage to share their experiences and strengths to help other members build their own skillset.

We can be found on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writersofhistoryforum/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HistWriters

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSsS5dFPp4xz5zxJUsjytoQ

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.”

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.

 

Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol

Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol was written as a Christmas gift to my very good friends Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone, but I know they’ll be very happy to share it. It’s very silly, but it probably does reflect something of the way I see and write these two characters in fiction. I hope you enjoy it. Grateful thanks to Charles Dickens whose work I have shamelessly used. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.

Sir Home Popham

It is Christmas, and Captain Sir Home Popham, the well-known genius of navigation, cartography, communications, amphibious operations and driving people up the wall, is settling down in his London lodgings for the night under the supervision of Able Seaman Glossop (aka Gloomy Glossop) his trusty valet.

“Well, well, well, Glossop, Christmas tomorrow, eh? It’s a shame I didn’t make it home to be with my wife and the children, but I had so much to do here. I’m sure she’ll understand. I wrote her a long letter explaining the circumstances.”

“I’m sure you did, sir.”

“Although she’s not replied yet.”

“She’s probably still reading it, sir.”

“Yes, yes. Very probably. And did I tell you I received an invitation to dine with several City gentlemen tomorrow? They are still very grateful about the excellent work I did in South America, and…”

Glossop backs up hastily. “Very good, sir. Goodnight.”

For a long time, nothing can be heard in the room but the sound of Popham snoring. He is in the middle of a very satisfying dream about the Admiralty burning down with most of its occupants and any incriminating paperwork pertaining to himself, when a strange noise awakes him. The room is filled with a peculiar light, and at the foot of the bed, a woman in an old-fashioned gown.

“Who the devil are you, ma’am? And why on earth are you dressed up like that? Have you lost your way home from the Victuallers Fancy Dress Ball?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“I don’t care who you’re meant to be, you’re in the wrong room. Bugger off.”

“I am not in fancy dress, I am the REAL ghost of Christmas Past, and I’m here to see YOU Sir Home Popham. Your activities have displeased the Powers That Be, and you need to mend your ways. You will be visited by three spirits…”

Popham gets out of bed and reaches for his robe) “This is outrageous! I knew I was being persecuted by the Admiralty, but to send a message with fresh accusations on Christmas Eve, and via a female who has clearly strayed from a Masquerade Ball is too much! I shall write a letter of complaint in the morning, worded in the strongest terms, and if this is about the business in the Red Sea again, I have irrefutable proof that I wasn’t even there!”

“The Admiralty? What on earth has this to do with the Admiralty?”

“Well you said the Powers That Be, and I hardly think you’re here from His Majesty, you wouldn’t get past the gates dressed like that. They’ve no standards at the Admiralty, so…”

“Oh for God’s sake, will you stop talking, this is going to take all night and we’ve two more ghosts to get through yet! Look, I’ll break it down for you, Dumbhead. I’m a ghost. We’re going on a trip to show you what you’ve been doing wrong in the past. Hopefully, you’ll repent. Got it?”

“Dumbhead? Did you just call me Dumbhead? Well, I must say…wait, where are we going?????”

After a blur and a flash of light, Popham opens his eyes and looks around him. After a moment, his expression brightens.

“Ahhh, the good old Etrusco. I’d know her anywhere. What a fine ship.”

“I’m glad you recognise her, Sir Home.”

“Of course I do. But what on earth are we doing here? I thought this was about things I’d done wrong.”

“Sir Home, you seem to have forgotten a few things. During your time with the Etrusco, you were accused of carrying contraband and infringing the East India Company’s monopoly. Both were illegal. People suffered because of you. People got into trouble. People lost money…”

“Ahem.”

“What do you mean, ahem?”

“I was trying to attract your attention.”

“You’re supposed to be repenting.”

“Well of course, I’d like to oblige. But in this case, you’ve been misinformed. As it happens, I wasn’t even aboard the Etrusco…”

“Yes, you were. The Powers That Be can see all…”

“Well before they make a final decision, The Powers That Be need to read this.”

“What is it – a book?”

“No. Although I did pay to have it professionally published. It is a memorandum, explaining very briefly, over two hundred concise pages, why all the accusations against me with regard to the Etrusco were complete and utter nonsense.”

The ghost looks confused. “Nonsense?”

“Absolute balderdash. That document proves it.”

“I see. Well I’ll have to take this back…”

“Do so immediately.”

“Aha! You’re trying to get rid of me! I see through you, Sir Home Riggs Popham!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the ghost, not me. What next?”

“Right. Hold on to your hat. We are going to…..”

“Ahhhh – Buenos Aires. Now those were the days!”

“So you admit it. Those were the days when you took off from Cape Town to effect an entirely illegal and unauthorised invasion of South America which completely failed.”

“I was exonerated.”

“No you weren’t. You were court martialled, found guilty and…”

“And then what?”

“You were censured.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Well…they said you’d been bad.”

“Oh boo, hoo hoo. As if that meant anything. Being censured is the same as being given a slap on the back and told to hide the bodies better next time. I did nothing wrong. Do you seriously think I’d be daft enough to do something like that without a nod or a wink from a Man who Knows?”

“Knows what?”

“It’s clear you’re not a politician, my good woman. Anyway, just in case you’re in any doubt, read this.”

“What is this?”

“A three hundred-and-eighty-six page document which I had privately published, proving that I did nothing wrong in South America. The Powers That Be need to read it. It’s riveting. Now, is there anything else?”

“Well…errr…there was some dodgy stuff at Walcheren.”

“Take this. A hundred and eighty pages.”

“Well what about when you were in Russia, then?”

“Two-hundred and twenty pages. With personal recommendations and footnotes. Do you need any help carrying those?”

“No. I should be getting back, since it’s clear that the Powers That Be will need a bit of time to study all this.”

Popham waves his hand airily. “Oh, tell them to take all the time they need, ma’am. No hurry. Now you said something about some other ghosts?”

“Yes. Shortly, you will be visited by the ghost of Christmas present.”

“Right. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll get some sleep while I’m waiting. Busy day tomorrow, you know.”

Back in his bed, Popham is dreaming about Lord St Vincent being disgraced over an embarrassing incident with a chamber maid when he is once again rudely awoken. This time, an enormous man in a green cloak, with an impressive beard and a holly wreath on his head is standing at the foot of the bed.

“Sir Home Riggs Popham, I am the ghost of Christmas present, and I have come to show you…”

“Dear Lord, it’s difficult to get any sleep at all. I feel like the Earl of Chatham when his valet mistook the time and brought him breakfast at ten minutes to noon. Well, what is it this time?”

“I have come to show you the effects of your actions in the present day.”

“Get on with it then. Where first?”

There is a flash of light and Popham finds himself in an elegant drawing room. There is a reception in progress and the room is ablaze with candles, and filled with elegant people. A middle aged couple stand at the end of the room greeting their guests. She looks drawn and a little tired, but is very well dressed, and is talking to two officers in red coats. He is engaged in an enthusiastic conversation about hunting.

“Do you recognise this man, Sir Home?”

“Of course I do. It’s the Earl of Chatham. And that’s his wife. She’s been very ill, but I’d heard she was a little better. Where is this?”

“They are at home, entertaining some family and friends for the Christmas season, Sir Home. Of course had you not deliberately lied at the Walcheren inquiry, wrecking both his military and political career, he might have been serving his country overseas.”

“Two things. Firstly, take this. It is a three hundred page document demonstrating without any shadow of a doubt, that I was wholly innocent of any wrongdoing at Walcheren. I was merely the Captain of the Venerable. Hardly involved at all. Secondly, look at them. Don’t they look happy? She’s been ill for years. Now she’s having a brief spell of better health. If he was overseas, he’d be missing it, and it might cause her to deteriorate again. Even if I was involved in the destruction of his career, which of course I wasn’t, wouldn’t you say this is good for them in a way?”

“Errr….I don’t know. Three hundred pages, you say?”

“Give or take. Right, what’s next?”

“Very well. Do you recognise this man?”

“Of course I do. It’s Lord Melville. Now, I’m glad to see him, because I wanted to speak to him about…”

“Lord Melville no longer holds office, Sir Home. But when he did, you persecuted him.”

“I did not. Lord Melville and I were on the best of terms. I wrote him many letters…”

“Do you see the boxes before him. Those are your letters, Sir Home. Dozens and dozens of them. Even after he left office, you did not cease.”

Popham looks happy. “Well. I am glad to see he’s kept them all, I must say. Right, who else?”

“We could visit your wife, who is alone without you this Christmas.”

“Oh, nonsense, she has the children, she’s perfectly happy.”

“That’s true actually, I checked on her earlier.”

“You see? Who can you find, in this present day, who has actually been harmed by me. I mean, seriously harmed.”

“Your correspondents?”

“Pooh. They need to toughen up, man, they’re only letters. Right, if that’s it, I’m going back to bed. I’m going to be shattered tomorrow.”

Popham was deep in dreamless sleep when the third and final ghost appeared, a faceless figure in a dark cloak which actually managed to make him jump when he awoke to find it standing at the end of his bed.

“Good God, you might have knocked. For a moment, I thought that Gloomy Glossop had been off on one of his drinking spells and was waking me up to cry about the girl he left in Middelburg. I’m guessing you’re ghost number three, then? The ghost of Christmas future?”

The ghost nods without speaking. This is supposed to be terrifying, but for Popham, it is a gift.

“Not much of a talker, eh? Never mind. Right, where are we off to now? I must say, I’m excited. I’ve been wanting to know what happens next in my fabulous career. Obviously, I’m off to Spain shortly, where I’m sure I’ll be invaluable to Lord Wellington and to the Spanish guerrillas. After that, I imagine they will finally see sense and offer me a position at the Admiralty. If it hadn’t been for St Vincent constantly blocking me, I’d have been there years ago. Now in case you need any information about the constant persecution I’ve endured from that man and his acolytes at the Admiralty, I’ve a four hundred-and-twenty-one page document here giving full details. Please take it. Right, good man. What’s next?”

In a swirl of light, Popham is transported to a quayside. A hot sun beats down on him, and up on the hillside, there is a sombre little procession. Popham observes it for some minutes.

“A funeral, eh? Well, where is this place? Nothing to do with my life so far. Is this a future posting? Hold on, I’ll find out. I say, my good man, let me see that notice you’re holding if you please? A sale to be held in…oh. Oh, I see. Jamaica.” Popham looks at the ghost. “So I’m at the Jamaica Station. Commander in Chief? Yes. Good. Well that’s an honour, of course. But still – an unhealthy place, the Indies.”

There is a long period of quiet, as Popham follows the funeral procession up to the graveyard. The ghost waits in silence. After a while, Popham returns.

“There is another grave up there, Ghost.”

The ghost nods.

“My son and my daughter. Both died out here.”

The ghost nods again.

“That’s hard. That’s very hard. I love my children very much. My wife…I saw my wife up there. It broke her heart.”

The ghost nods again.

“And what about me? Do I also succumb to the unhealthy climate of this place? Do I make it home again?”

There is another flash of light, and Popham finds himself in a small churchyard, in front of a monument. Popham looks around.

“The church of St Michael and All Angels. Is this where I’m buried? And this is my grave. My monument.”

There is a long pause.

“It’s very big. I mean, pleasingly big. I must say I’d hoped to live longer than 57 years, I suppose it was that dreadful last posting. I wonder who at the Admiralty suggested that for me? I have my suspicions, they were always out to get me. All the same, I’m pleased to see that I’ve been remembered. Several of my finest portraits scattered about, and I discover that on Twitter, there is an entire community dedicated to talking about me. There is a fine biography by a family member, and another being written by a young woman whom I am personally supervising. Plenty of people will be able to read about me, me, me, me. On the whole, despite my early death, I am not displeased, Spirit.

“Now, have you finished? I have an important dinner engagement tomorrow, and a large number of letters to write. For all you tell me what my future is to be, I say it is nonsense. I have friends in high places, they would not allow me to be sent off to some ghastly posting in the Indies, they could not possibly manage without me. Why don’t you pop off now, and visit somebody else? There must be somebody needing some spiritual guidance. What about Lord St Vincent? He’s probably a little bored these days…”

The following morning, Popham awakes as Gloomy Glossop brings his tea into the room. He puts it down and retreats fast, but doesn’t make it out of the door in time.

“Good morning, Glossop, and what a fine one it is by the look of it. A very Merry Christmas to you, although by your expression, I should say that isn’t very likely. Tell me, did anything odd happen during the night?”

“Like what, sir?”

“No disturbances in the house. Nobody tried to break in?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. You were talking in your sleep when I passed earlier, but there’s nothing unusual in that, you generally talk all night.”

“Really? I…”

“And all morning.”

“Yes, but…”

“And all afternoon and evening. But nothing unusual.”

“Just as I thought. The whole thing was nothing but a foolish nightmare, and I shall knock off the cheese board at dinner and think no more of it. Now before I go out, I must write to Lord Melville.”

“Yes, sir. Er – why?”

“Well, it’s Christmas Day, Glossop, it will cheer him up to get a letter from his old friend. It may have been a dream, but it made me realise how much he must value all those letters I sent him over the years. That will be all, Glossop.”

The Duke of Wellington

It is Christmas, 1835 and the Duke of Wellington is sleeping peacefully at his London home, when he is awoken by a strange sound. A woman in old-fashioned dress is standing at the foot of his bed.

“Who the devil are you? Did I send for you, Madam?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, your Grace.”

“Utter nonsense. I don’t believe in ghosts. What are you doing here?”

“I am here to take you to scenes of your past life, to teach you things you need to learn.”

“Can you not just send a memorandum? I am in need of sleep, I am dining with my brother’s family tomorrow, which is always exhausting.”

“The Powers That Be do not send memoranda, your Grace.”

“Poppycock, they send them all the time, most of them complete drivel, not worth my time. Very well, if you insist, I shall accompany you. But do not be all night about it, if you please, I am a busy man.”

There is a flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in a brilliantly lit ballroom, watching a dance in progress. A young couple are dancing in the middle of the set, laughing and whispering every time they come together. Wellington watches them for a while.

“Do you know where you are, your Grace?”

“Of course I do. Dublin. Kitty Pakenham. I had forgotten how pretty she was when I first met her.”

“You did not always think her pretty.”

“She did not always think me kind, and we were both right. Although at the end, I found that I felt very close to her again. She was the mother of my sons, and I realise now that has more meaning than any fleeting encounter. And she was a good woman.”

“You remember her fondly then.”

“Naturally. Just as I remember all the times I was not kind to her. Is that what this is intended to teach me? If it is, you are wasting your time. I was a poor husband, ma’am. What next?”

In another swirl of light, Wellington is transported to a sunny room overlooking a harbour. Several men are seated around a long table, talking, looking over a document.

“Do you recognise this, your Grace?”

“You seem to think I have succumbed to senility, ma’am. It is the palace at Cintra. Dalrymple and Burrard. And myself, of course. We were discussing the peace terms with the French.”

“The Convention of Cintra. A shameful peace. Which you signed.”

“I was exonerated by the inquiry.”

“I wonder what might have happened if you had not agreed to such generous terms. Would the rest of that long, bloody war even have occurred?”

“Are you perfectly well, ma’am? Do you know, I have been thinking that this was a dream, brought on by some very bad port at the Arbuthnots yesterday, but I see that I was wrong. Even my worst dreams have never been this nonsensical. In the first place, as I was junior to both these men, my agreement was irrelevant. In the second place, how would harsher terms have prevented Bonaparte running rampant through Europe for the next six years? All it might have done would have been to deprive him of some equipment and some men. He would have found more. He always found more, until the end. Nothing I did that day could have prevented that war, and if I was economical with the truth afterwards, what of it? If I had not been given command, we may have ended up with the Earl of Chatham in command in Portugal, and that would have been a very different outcome. Really, if this is intended to make me regret aspects of my younger life, you are doing a very poor job of it. Is there more?”

“One more visit, your Grace.”

Wellington finds himself outside Parliament in London. Members are making their way inside while a noisy crowd of protestors chants and yells insults at them.

“Do you know…?”

“The Reform Act. A poor piece of legislation, in my opinion. But it passed.”

“Against your fervent wishes.”

“I have never denied it.”

“Your stubbornness brought down your premiership.”

“An office to which I was patently unsuited. What lesson, pray, am I expected to learn from this? That a man should sit quietly in a corner and say nothing controversial?”

“Perhaps that a man should pay more attention to the opinions of those he commands?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, one cannot do that in command of an army, nothing would ever get done!”

“Parliament is not an army, and you were not its general, your Grace.”

“What a pity that was, since it would get through a great deal more business with a great deal less fuss. I have had enough of this nonsense and intend to return to my bed.”

“You will be visited by…”

“Pray tell them not to bother. I will tell my housekeeper not to admit them.”

When the ghost of Christmas present arrives an hour later, he is somewhat baffled to find that the Duke is not in his bed. Wandering through the house, he finds him in his study, writing letters by lamplight.

“Ah, there you are. I was beginning to think you had decided not to bother, but I suppose you had committed your forces and could hardly draw back now.”

“You should be asleep, your Grace.”

“So that you could wake me up? As I was awake already, I decided to make use of the time. I hope you have this properly planned, for I can give you no more than half an hour, I wish to finish this letter regarding the next stage of draining the moat at the Tower of London, before…good God, man, what are you wearing? You look like Harry Smith in the Light Division Amateur Theatrical performance back in 1812, and that is a sight I hoped never to see again. Never mind, let us go.”

The scene is a country park. Half a dozen children are playing under the supervision of a governess. Wellington watches them for a while.

“Do they remind you of your own children, your Grace?”

“You know perfectly well that I hardly knew my own children, ma’am, I was never there. These are some of my godchildren. I am very attached to them. Is it your point that I am a poor father as well as a husband? I do not deny that either. Where next?”

“You seem in a great hurry, your Grace.”

“I wish to get this piece of nonsense over with, so that I may return to my desk. I have a great deal to do. So, where next?”

“I was intending to take you to Spain, your Grace, where the country is…”

“The country is engaged in a civil war, which may be seen to negate my achievements during the late war. I am aware of it, no need to travel there. Next?”

“To France, where…”

“Where the Bourbon restoration proved less than satisfactory. I have no wish to go there either. Am I also to be held account for that?”

“Your Grace, I am trying to show you that…”

“All you are showing me is that no one man can be held responsible for the fortunes of the world. He might well, however, be held responsible for the fortunes of his own family. I have done the best I can with both and have had both successes and failures. These journeys are unnecessary and a waste of my time. I intend to return to my desk.”

One hour later, Wellington is still working when a shadow falls over his desk. He looks up to see the cloaked, hooded figure of the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

“You are late. I expected you fifteen minutes ago.”

The figure nods slowly.

“Well, it makes no difference, I suppose. As I told your predecessor, I can spare you only half an hour, so if you have a point to make, make it quickly.”

There is the usual flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in an elegant salon, crowded with people. A very young woman in a white gown stands at the far end, with a gentleman bowing to her.

“Good God, that is me. And not so very far in the future, by the look of it. And is that…it’s little Alexandrina Victoria. So we avoided a regency, did we? Thank God for that.”

Wellington pauses, then looks at the ghost in some alarm. “Wait – I’m not Prime Minister again, am I? No? What a relief, I hated the job. I hope I live for a while longer though. She’s very young, she’ll need an advisor. Very well, let’s move on.”

The Duke of Wellington by Antoine Claudet from Wikimedia Commons

The next room is very familiar to Wellington. A much older version of himself sits at the head of the table, talking to a group of children.

“The breakfast room at Stratfield Saye. And more children. I don’t recognise…wait. Are these my grandchildren?”

Wellington watches for a while longer. “They seem very happy to be here. Very talkative. Very…very much as I always wished it had been with my own boys. Almost like a second chance. Spirit – this is a good future. I was rather expecting something gloomier. Have you more to show me?”

The scene is in London, and it is clear that a great event is taking place. The streets are crowded with people, and some kind of procession is going past. Wellington finds himself on a balcony overlooking what is obviously a state funeral.

“What in God’s name is this? Oh, don’t tell me the queen died before I did? What was it? Childbirth? An illness? Or…oh, wait…”

The procession moves slowly on. Wellington recognises soldiers from regiments who fought under him, including the green jackets of the rifles. The family are directly behind the impressive funeral carriage, and suddenly, Wellington realises who they are.

“A state funeral? Surely not. Whoever thought that this was a good idea? If they had asked me, I would have told them…I suppose they could not ask me, could they? Damn it, what an infernal waste of time and money.”

The final scene is in a crypt, a dim, quiet room with guardsmen on duty beside an enormous granite tomb. Wellington walks forward and touches the lettering.

“Arthur, Duke of Wellington. What year is it? No – you can’t tell me of course, and I don’t want to know. I saw myself with the children…I looked older there. A long life, then. And this tomb. I loathed all that pomp and ceremony, but this…this feels right. Thank you for bringing me, Spirit. I’ve no idea if this was intended as a lesson, a warning or whether you really are the product of Charles Arbuthnot’s damned bad port. But I’m glad to have seen this.”

The following morning, Wellington is still at his desk when a visitor is announced. Wellington rises to greet him.

“Good morning, General van Daan.”

“Morning, sir, and Merry Christmas. I can see you’re throwing yourself into the Christmas spirit as usual. I want a word with young Fraser, I gave him explicit instructions to lock this room for Christmas Day to keep you away from your desk.”

“I know where he hides the key.”

“He needs to hide the ink, then. Are you all right, sir, you look tired?”

“I did not sleep well. I had a ridiculous dream. Really, there must have been something wrong with Charles’ port yesterday.”

“It didn’t affect me, I slept like a baby. What was it about?”

“Ghosts, escorting me on a journey through my life. Past present and future.”

“Where precisely did this journey end?”

“Where you would expect, General. At my tomb.”

“Jesus, no wonder you’re tired. I hope it was a very handsome tomb, sir.”

“It was very appropriate. An utterly ridiculous dream. But I feel oddly comforted.”

“Comforted enough to enjoy dinner with your brother?”

“Good God, are you mad? I would rather undertake a Grand Tour with imaginary spirits than spend an afternoon at Richard’s table. But I am fond of his wife, so I will do my best. I will escape as quickly as possible, so expect me early.”

“We’re looking forward to it, sir. Happy Christmas.”

London, Christmas 1842, Three Spirits Meet…

“So are you ready for tonight? I’m told it’s a tough one. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is the meanest old goat in London.”

“That’s all right. I sent his old partner, Marley, to soften him up a bit. You remember Marley?”

“Any friend of Marley is going to be hard work.”

“Not the worst though.”

“No. Oh no. Which do you think?”

“Wellington. Definitely Wellington. The man had an answer for everything.”

“Rubbish. Do you remember how much Popham talked? And talked and talked and talked…”

“He was convinced Lord St Vincent had sent us. Kept going on and on about being persecuted.”

“And those publications. Pages and pages and pages of drivel about how hard done by he was. The Powers That Be nearly cried.”

“I nearly cried carrying them back. Yes, Popham was definitely the worst. What was that, number three?”

A sepulchral voice emerges from under the dark hood. 

“Wellington was by far the most difficult. Do you not remember, number two, that he did not even complete your part of the journey? He informed you that he wanted to go home, and you took him. I do not believe that has ever happened before.”

“No. Well. He just gave the order, and I found myself obeying it. Couldn’t seem to help it.”

“I imagine he had plenty of practice. And of course he is still with us. Enjoying his retirement and spoiling his god-children and his grandchildren. Just as we said.”

“And Popham? I never really felt anything we said made any difference to him.”

“No. That was as we predicted too. But we had to try. And now it is Scrooge’s turn. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll give us as much trouble. Are you ready, number one?”

As the cold winter sun sets over the roofs of London, three spirits move silently through the darkening streets towards the house of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge…

By John Atkinson Grimshaw from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Sentry

Welcome to the Last Sentry, my ghost story for Halloween 2020 and I hope you enjoy it. As always it’s free, so please share as much as you like. This year, in addition to being available to read online, I’ve included a link to a pdf.

As usual, the story is based around the world of the Peninsular War Saga, with its mixture of real and fictional characters. Readers of the books will have heard mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton in book six, and I imagine you’ll meet him again at some point. There is one character in this story who is definitely not fictional, and I suspect you’ll know him when you meet him.

If you enjoy this, please take a look at my other free short stories.

While I have your attention, can a give a shameless plug to an excellent website for those interested in learning more about the Napoleonic Wars. You’ll find huge amounts of information there. I also recommend Zack White’s excellent podcast, the Napoleonicist,  and not just because he interviewed me on it.

Happy Halloween, (or Hop tu Naa to all my Manx friends and followers), and I sincerely hope things start to look up very soon. In the meantime, reading can be a great escape…

***

The Last Sentry

The journey from England to Spain was beset with problems and delays, and on arrival in Oporto, when it became obvious that due to a particularly unpleasant voyage, the officers’ horses would not be fit to travel for some days, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton listened with half an ear to the complaints of the other five officers who had arrived with the Sally-Anne and acknowledged that he was relieved. A week of almost constant sickness had left him feeling weak and exhausted, and he found himself a comfortable inn, ensured that his groom, his valet and his horses were well-cared for and went to bed.

Philip was on his way to take up a new command, in charge of the first battalion of the 115th. He should have joined the regiment during the previous year, but within days of the confirmation of his promotion and transfer to a new regiment, his personal life had fallen apart with terrifying speed, leaving Philip  floundering in the midst of the chaos of his deceased father’s affairs. He had written to his new brigade commander, horribly aware that Lord Wellington’s army would be marching into Spain without him, and had dreaded the response. It had been kinder than he had expected and had given him a good impression of the commander of the third brigade of the light division, making him all the more eager to settle his affairs and get back to his job.

Settling his affairs had taken some time. The death of the Honourable Thomas Norton had come as a shock, though not a grief, to his only son. Norton had died as he had lived, half-drunk and throwing his horse over a fence on the hunting field. Philip was in London, making arrangements for his journey to Portugal while awaiting the birth of his third child. Emma had been well through the pregnancy, and was her usual placid self when Philip apologetically told her that he would need to post down to Hampshire to be with his mother and sister, and to help arrange the funeral.

“Go, Phil. If the baby comes, it comes, it isn’t as though this is the first time I’ve done this. I’m sorry I can’t come with you, since I know it will be hard for you, but I shouldn’t travel this close to my time.”

Philip kissed her warmly. “I’m so sorry, Em, and you’re an angel. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”

Emma was dead before Philip reached his family estate, having gone into early labour the day he left. The child died with her, leaving Philip alone to manage his two small sons, his mother who was apparently prostrated with grief over a husband who had never been faithful to her, and a sister of twenty trying to conceal her fears for the future.

Mrs Norton raised herself from her bed at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and made her pronouncement.

“Dearest, it is terribly sad, of course, but it is not as though it was a love-match, after all. Indeed, I have never understood why…however, your duty is now clear. With your father gone, and your two little boys motherless, you will naturally sell out and come home. Nobody would expect anything else.”

Philip bit his tongue and took himself from the room. He knew that she was right, and that the army would fully understand and support his decision to sell out. His father’s affairs were in disarray, and he had no idea how his wife’s money was settled. He had married Emma in full understanding that she was looking for a place in society that her late father’s situation could not provide. In return, she had agreed to pay his family’s debts and purchase his promotions.

Philip respected his wife’s clear-sighted practicality and insisted that she settle her considerable fortune on their sons when they were born, with a dowry set aside for his sister, Amelia, and a comfortable jointure for his mother should she be widowed. He had asked the lawyers, during the negotiation of the marriage settlement, to ensure that Emma’s personal fortune remain with her, well out of reach of his feckless father and grasping mother. Philip had made a marriage of convenience to secure his future, but he was not greedy and he had no wish to watch his family bleeding his wife dry.

Emma’s will was a shock, and brought with it a fresh flood of grief, as Philip listened to the lawyer’s dry tones and understood that alongside the agreed provisions, she had left him a wealthy man. He cried bitter tears alone in his room, hoping that she had known how much she had come to mean to him. Philip had hoped for friendship in this unlikely marriage, but instead, they had fallen in love, and he read, in those brief lines of her final testament, her firm and abiding affection and trust.

It made his job much easier, although no less tedious and painful. Philip told neither his mother or his sister of his unexpected prosperity, merely assuring them that there was money to support them. Amelia, as he had expected, was relieved and grateful, while his mother was visibly discontented. She was furious at Philip’s announcement that he intended to rent out the London house for the foreseeable future, and even more so, when he informed her that when his sister was ready to return to town for another Season, she would do so under the care of her aunt.

“I hope you’re happy with that, Ammie. I know you didn’t much enjoy London last year. I’d hoped that once the baby was born, you could try again with Emma, but…”

“So did I, Philip. Please don’t worry, I’m thankful. I’ve no wish to do the round of balls and parties just now, I couldn’t think of it. Ignore Mama, she would be angry whatever you did.”

“I can’t give her free rein to run through Emma’s money in London.”

“You should not, she is very comfortably provided for. At present, I am happier at Hanley. And you, dear brother, will be happier back in the army.”

“I will. My new commander has been very generous with my furlough, which makes me all the more determined that I will get back as soon as I have sorted out the chaos of my father’s affairs and paid his debts. I am trusting you to look after Tom and Ned for me, they’ll have Miss Carling and Nurse, but they’re going to miss Emma so much, she was…”

“She was the best mother ever, and I envied them. I’ll do everything I can for them, Phil. Just don’t do anything foolish. I know how much you loved her, I couldn’t bear it if…”

“I give you my word. As far as any soldier can. Take care of yourself, Ammie.”

After the turmoil of family drama, it was bliss to don his uniform and to think only of transport and kit and billets. Even the misery of the voyage gave Philip something to think about other than Emma. It was eleven months since her death and Philip had begun to believe that he was recovering, but away from England’s shores, he missed, all over again, the weekly routine of writing to her.

From Oporto, Philip joined a supply convoy travelling towards army headquarters on the Portuguese-Spanish border. His fellow officers were all veterans of the Peninsula, having been home either on furlough or sick leave. Along with the wagon train of weapons and medical supplies, there were a hundred and eighty reinforcements for the 43rd and 112th, so the officers travelled at marching pace. To Philip, suddenly eager to join his battalion, it felt painfully slow, and he was not at all surprised when they reached the commissary office in Pinhel to discover that Lord Wellington had marched his army into Spain three days earlier.

“There’s a supply depot in Ciudad Rodrigo, sir,” Captain Jones said helpfully. “Only a day’s march from here. Lord Wellington sent instructions that all reinforcements and supply wagons are to be sent on to there, where he’ll have left orders for them.”

Ciudad Rodrigo was a small cathedral town situated at the top of a rocky rise on the right bank of the River Agueda. Philip knew it was one of the key fortresses along the Portuguese-Spanish border, and two of his companions had been present when Lord Wellington’s army had stormed the town at the beginning of the previous year in a bloody engagement. Philip and the other officers were greeted by Colonel Muir, a depressed-looking Scot in his fifties, who commanded the district supply depot and looked as though he would rather be somewhere else.

“Aye, I’ve orders for you, I’ve got details of the quickest and safest route for you to follow to catch up with the light division, it seems you’re expected.”

“I have been for some time,” Philip admitted. “Will the supply column be taking the same route?”

“ The supply column is my problem now, Colonel Norton, don’t worry your head about them. The reinforcements, now – that’s another matter. You’ll be staying a few days to rest the horses, I’m guessing?”

Philip eyed him suspiciously, sensing an unwelcome request. “One or two, maybe, but I don’t want to delay longer than I have to, sir. My brigade commander has been incredibly generous in granting extensions to my furlough to sort out my late father’s affairs, I don’t want him to think I’m taking the long way round.”

“That’ll be Van Daan, will it? He’s not in my good books just now, since he poached two of my best officers on his way out, blast him. He doesn’t deserve that I do him a favour, the thieving bastard, but I’m going to. I’m asking if you’ll wait a few more days, Norton. We’re expecting another draft of reinforcements for the 110th within the week.”

“Can’t they follow when they arrive?”

“The thing is, Colonel, we’ve been having a lot of problems with discipline among troops making their way back to their regiments. Half the time, they either don’t have an officer with them at all, or the officers are young and inexperienced, or from a different regiment and don’t really give a damn about looting the local population. Wellington’s furious about attacks on Portuguese and Spanish farms and villages. You’ve got a few officers with these drafts for the 43rd and 112th, but they’re all very junior, and they tend to take a casual attitude to their duties on the march. If they’ve a colonel of the 115th  to supervise them, it’s very unlikely any of the men will try sloping off to raid a wine cellar or rape the farmer’s wife.”

“Jesus, is it as bad as that?”

“On occasion.” Muir eyed Philip thoughtfully. “And not just among the enlisted men. I don’t know if the gossip has reached you yet, Colonel Norton, but…”

“If you’re referring to the murder of Major Vane, I received a very full letter from Major-General van Daan,” Philip said. “A terrible business.”

“Aye, it was. Did you know him?”

“Never met the man in my life, I’m new to the 115th, I transferred in for promotion. And I believe Vane did the same. I’d never wish a man dead, Colonel, but I find myself thankful that I don’t have to manage an officer like that in my battalion.”

“Aye, his conduct wasn’t right, that’s for sure. All the same, a lot of the officers I’ve spoken to, don’t think it’s right that his murderer escaped the death penalty. Sets a bad example to the men.”

Philip did not particularly want to get into a pointless argument with a senior officer, so he said:

“So you’d like me to wait until the rest of the light division reinforcements arrive and march them up to the lines?”

“I think your brigade commander would appreciate it, Colonel. We can make you comfortable here, you can join our mess.”

Philip could see the sense of it, and firmly quashed his frustration at yet another delay. Now that he was formally, if temporarily in command of the new troops, he went to inspect their bivouac outside the city walls, gave strict instructions to the NCOs about leave passes and behaviour and rounded up the few junior officers who would be marching with him, to remind them of their obligations. His duty done, he decided to make the most of his enforced leisure to see something of the town and the surrounding area.

Ciudad Rodrigo was a walled city, dominated by its solid medieval cathedral. Narrow streets opened up into wide squares with houses and churches built in mellow local stone, and although there were still many signs of the destruction of the previous year, the citizens had already made good progress with rebuilding damaged houses and there was scaffolding up at several of the fine churches. Philip could see damage to the walls and tower of the cathedral caused by artillery, and the Spanish garrison of the town were out daily to supervise work parties who were close to completing the repairs to the town walls, where Wellington’s guns had blown two enormous breaches in the ancient stonework.

It was hot during the day, and Philip rode out with one or two of the Spanish officers to shoot game in the countryside. Neither of them had been present during the siege, and seemed more interested in complaining about delayed pay and poor leadership in the Spanish army than talking about the recent history of the town. Muir, when applied to, was more helpful, and provided Philip with Sergeant Griffith from his department. Griffith had lost an arm and an eye during the storming and proved a willing guide, walking out to the Greater and Lesser Teson with Philip, to explain the placement of Wellington’s troops and the direction taken by the storming parties.

Dinner was a protracted affair, with a good deal of wine and brandy, and afterwards Philip developed a habit of going for an evening walk through the pretty cobbled streets of the town and up onto the walls. The sentries along the walls were all Spanish, and Philip thought that they seemed to take a relaxed attitude to their duties, although he supposed that with the French a long way off, they probably had little to do other than drink, smoke and complain. He spoke Spanish fairly well from his time in South America, and he stopped to chat to them, listening to their stories of battles fought and friends lost and wives and families left behind.

Philip lingered late one evening, watching the sun go down from the Citadel, colouring the slate roofs of the outlying villages with a dazzling palette of rose gold and brilliant orange. He had drunk a little too much wine in the company of some Spanish officers in Colonel Muir’s cosy dining room and realised it was becoming a habit. It was too comfortable here, and felt a long way from the war. Philip walked around the walls to clear his head, pausing to look out over the old Roman bridge and smiled at himself as he realised he was willing the new troops to march in over the bridge, leaving him free to do his job.

Further around the walls, he climbed down a flight of steep stone steps and stood looking up at the repaired section of wall where the men of the light division had fought and died on that bloody night in January. The different colour brickwork reminded Philip of a scar, and he realised that he felt a connection standing here, even though he had not been present and his new battalion had not even been part of the light division at that point.

Walking back along the walls to his billet, Philip noticed that the sentries were out of position again. He had observed it several times, and although they were not his men, and the town was in no danger of attack, it irritated him as a breach of discipline. Four or five men were grouped together, a lazy spiral of cigarillo smoke rising into the air, while only one man, dressed in a dark cloak, stood in position above the breach. Philip paused to watch him, standing completely immobile looking out over the countryside. He did not appear to have his musket with him, and Philip wondered if he should go back and speak to the man, but decided against it.

Philip remembered the incident the following afternoon at the dinner table. He was seated beside Colonel Ramirez, determinedly avoiding a third glass of port, when Colonel Muir said:

“Are you still having trouble with the men on the northern wall, Ramirez?”

Ramirez rolled his eyes expressively. “Always, Colonel. Only last week, I have two men on a charge for deserting their post. I tell them that if Lord Wellington comes back, he will have them shot for their cowardice. I hope to make an example of them, so that we have no more problems.”

“Cowardice?” Philip said, surprised. “Surely it can’t be that, they’re miles from the French lines with the whole of Lord Wellington’s army in between. Perhaps they’ve just got sloppy, sir. I admit I walk the walls most evenings, and they’re often not in position, particularly along that wall. They tend to gather together in groups, smoking and talking. I suppose they’re bored, but you’re right, it’s poor discipline.”

“They are not afraid of the French, Colonel Norton, they are afraid of the ghosts.”

Philip spluttered on the last of his port and set his glass down. It was immediately refilled. “Ghosts? Surely you’re not serious?”

“I am not serious, Colonel,” Ramirez said. “Me, I do not believe in ghosts. But my officers tell me that the men complain that sometimes they hear things up there after dark. Screams and cries and the echoes of guns that have not fired since that night.

Muir snorted, reaching for the bottle. “Drunken bastards. If they’re hearing things that aren’t there, they’re coming from the bottom of a bottle, if you ask me.”

“I have told my officers to search them for drink, Colonel, and they assure me they go on duty sober.”

“Over-imaginative, then. A lot of you Spaniards are, I believe.”

Philip blinked at what felt like an astonishing lapse in good manners. He shot an apologetic look at Ramirez, and was relieved that the Spanish colonel seemed amused rather than offended. He winked at Philip, then said smoothly:

“It is possible, I suppose, Colonel, but we do not pay them to feed their imagination with ghostly tales. I will tell my officers to make frequent inspections again.”

“There was one man up there last night,” Philip said. “You’re right, sir, the others were all huddled further round by the steps, but one brave soul didn’t mind the ghosts, he was standing right above the breach. Although it looked as though he’d forgotten his musket, I couldn’t see it.”

“On sentry duty without his weapon?” Muir said scathingly. “Wouldn’t catch an English sentry doing that.”

Philip wished he had not spoken. “He probably had it, sir, he might have just leaned it against the wall while he was having a smoke and forgotten to pick it up. Look, why don’t I take a walk around there after dinner and have a chat with the men? They might speak more freely to me, given that I’m not their commanding officer.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully for a moment, then gave his charming smile. “Thank you, Colonel, it is a kind offer. I fear, if they do not improve, I will be obliged to take more drastic action against them.”

It was pleasantly cool as Philip began his nightly circuit of the walls. The Spanish sentries had grown used to the sight of him by now, and greeted him cheerfully, although without the formal salutes and springing to attention he would have expected from an English garrison. Philip took his time, stopping to chat. One group on the eastern wall offered him a drink from a bottle concealed in a coat pocket, and Philip took a swig, then reminded them pleasantly that their own officers might not be so tolerant.

It was beginning to grow dark as he approached the section of the northern wall above the lesser breach, and Philip could neither see nor hear the sentries. He paused, listening, peering ahead into the dim light. This entire section of the wall appeared to be unguarded, and Philip quickened his step. He had been inclined to take a light-hearted view of the Spanish garrison’s dislike of manning this section of the wall at night, but to find no guards at all was beyond a joke.

It was cooler now that darkness was falling, and there was a faint summer mist. Staring ahead in search of the missing guard, Philip caught his foot on a jutting piece of masonry and stumbled a little, catching the edge of the wall to steady himself. The fall brought him up short. The ramparts were not high, and it would be easy for a man to tumble over the edge. Philip made his way forward again, but more cautiously.

The sound of footsteps made him pause again. Clearly somebody was up here after all, although Philip still could not see him. He wondered if it was the lone sentry once more, the stocky figure who seemed the only member of the garrison willing to patrol this part of the wall. Philip waited, as the footsteps came towards him, puzzled by his inability to see the man. The steps were firm and confident, and were growing very close. It was not yet fully dark, and Philip could easily see through the mist, but there was no sign of the Spanish sentry.

A sudden breeze ruffled the feather in Philip’s hat, and he felt it, cool on his face. The footsteps were inexplicably fading again, as though a man had walked briskly past him and onwards down the walkway, but there was nobody there. For a moment, a shiver ran through Philip, then he heard voices from below. Going to the inside edge of the walkway, he peered over, and thought he understood. The foot of the wall was paved all the way up to the next bastion, and the footsteps must have been below him, the sounds distorted by an echo in the quiet evening air. Philip grinned at his momentary superstitious folly and ran lightly down the bastion steps, surprising the Spanish guards who were huddled in the shelter of the small tower passing a bottle between them. They turned in surprise at Philip’s abrupt descent from above, and one put the bottle behind his back. Philip was suddenly angry.

“To attention!” he barked, in Spanish. “Give me that bottle, that you’re so pointlessly trying to hide. Why aren’t you at your posts?”

There was a scramble into  line, and Philip held out his hand and took the bottle. “You have deserted your posts,” he said. “I am not your officer, is not my job to walk the wall and ensure you do your duty, but I am here to tell you that Colonel Ramirez is well aware that you are not where you should be. He has declared that it is enough, and your officers will be checking on you each night. If you continue this way, you are going to be disciplined, possibly flogged. I will not be here to see it, I will be leaving in a few days, but it is sad that I leave with such a poor impression of Spanish troops. You – step forward. What is your name?”

“Garcia, sir.”

“What’s going on, Garcia?”

The Spaniard threw out his hands in a dramatic gesture. “It is not our fault, Colonel. Time and again we tell the officers that we cannot be on that part of the wall at night. All other places, we will guard. From this bastion to the further tower only. But they will not change the location of the sentry posts.”

“Why can’t you be on that wall?”

“Because of what we see and hear, Colonel. That place belongs to the ghosts, it is not for men.”

“Nonsense,” Philip said firmly. “At least one of your men has been up there, I’ve seen him twice now, the man in the dark blue cloak. Clearly it holds no fears for him.”

There was a long, awkward silence. Then Garcia said:

“He is not one of our men, Colonel, and he has no reason to fear a ghost.”

The tone of his voice brought a momentary chill to Philip, but he mentally brushed it aside. “Well, if he isn’t one of yours, it must be one of the townspeople,” he said. “Either way, it isn’t a ghost.”

“How do you know it is not, Colonel?”

“Because I don’t believe in ghosts, Garcia. And a ghost isn’t a good enough reason for you to shirk your duty. I’m going to talk to Colonel Ramirez, but I’m warning you, you’ll need to improve your behaviour if you don’t want to get into trouble. For tonight, get yourselves back up there. One picket at the top of this bastion, the other along the wall at the further tower.”

Garcia sprang to attention and gave a dramatic salute. “Yes, Colonel. That, we can do.”

Philip watched them go, not sure whether to laugh or be irritated, but the Spanish garrison was not really his problem. He walked back to his billet, giving the bottle to a surprised old man who was smoking on his doorstep, and grinned at the extravagant thanks and blessings that followed him up the narrow lane as the man realised it was more than half full.

A message arrived as Philip was writing a letter to his brigade commander the following day, to say that the new troops had arrived. Philip finished and sealed the letter quickly, and sent his groom to add it to the daily post, then took himself out to the bivouac by the Agueda, to ensure that the new men had set up camp properly and had rations. There were six junior officers from various regiments who would join him on the march to Wellington’s lines, and Philip ran an experienced eye over the camp, spoke to one or two of the NCOs and decided that it would be a fairly easy command. Most of these men were new recruits, and although there would be the usual sprinkling of troublemakers, either criminals who had come through the courts into the army, or simply men who found it hard to learn discipline, there would be no time for idleness on the march. Philip gave orders to his juniors to make regular inspections of the camp, ordered a forty-eight hour rest period before the march and went to see the quartermaster to make sure that rations would be issued. Once he was on the move, Philip wanted to reach the army as quickly as possible.

Philip dined with Colonel Muir and some of the Spanish officers, who drank enthusiastic toasts to his journey and his new posting. Going outside into the warm evening air, he hesitated. Knowing he would be on the road in two days, he had asked both his valet and his groom to check his kit and his horses, and to let him know if he needed to make any last minute purchases. He wrote to his brigade commander informing him of the date of his departure, and wrote a dutiful letter home to his mother and his sister, and missed once again, the writing of a long letter to Emma, filled with army news and gossip and the trivia of his daily life. For the first time since arriving in Ciudad Rodrigo, Philip felt lonely, and he realised he was longing to reach his new battalion, to get to know his fellow officers and to make friends with the easy facility which was an asset in the shifting relationships of army life. Philip recognised the importance of this extended journey, as a pause between his old life and his new, but it had gone on for too long and he wanted it done with.

Almost without thinking, Philip passed his billet and walked down into the Plaza Mayor, where lanterns hung outside every shop and tavern and the people of Ciudad Rodrigo went about their business as though no war had ever touched them. Philip knew that after the bloody fighting in the breaches, the English and Portuguese troops had run wild for a while, looting the town and terrorising its inhabitants. Returning the smiles of men and women at the sight of his red coat, he marvelled at their resilience and their forgiveness.

Philip was approaching the cathedral, when the sight of another red coat made him pause. No leave passes had been granted to the English troops, as Philip wanted them sober and fit to march. The officers were free to wander through the town unless they were on duty, but this was not an officer. Philip stopped and surveyed the man. He was of medium height and compact build, with curly dark hair, and the insignia on his coat told Philip that he was a sergeant.

Philip stood watching with considerable interest, laced with admiration, as the sergeant went through the process of bartering with the elderly Spaniard selling wine from a market trestle. It was clear that the sergeant spoke Spanish fairly well, and it was equally clear that this was not the first time he had done this. Most of the newly arrived troops were raw recruits, but there was a sprinkling of old hands returning from sick leave, and after ten minutes, three bottles of wine had been neatly stowed in the battered pack, and Philip was certain that this man was not new to this.

The sergeant seemed in no hurry to return to camp. With his purchases made, he wandered through the market, stopping at a food stall to buy a hot tortilla wrapped in vine leaves, which he ate as he paused to watch a juggler giving a performance outside the convent. Philip stopped too, and looked up at the windows of the house. He was not surprised to see a flutter of white at the window, proving that the novices were not above enjoying a glimpse of the outside world. He also observed that the sergeant looked up as well, noticed the girls, and gave an impudent wave, sending them scuttling away in maidenly confusion, and probably, if they were unsupervised, a fit of irreverent giggles.

Philip realised that he was delaying approaching the sergeant, because he was enjoying watching the man. There was something about him which spoke of happiness, and a sheer love of life, and Philip was reluctant to end his illicit holiday too soon, although he was definitely going to. He kept his distance, shadowing the sergeant through the town, until it was growing very dark. The townspeople were beginning to gather their children and their purchases and head for home, and some of the shopkeepers were putting up their shutters. By now, the sentries on the walls would have changed over and Philip wondered if the deserted stretch of the northern wall was properly manned tonight.

It was clear that the sergeant was in no hurry to get back to camp. He stopped at a tavern and sat outside with a cup of wine for a while, watching the people of Ciudad Rodrigo head home to their beds with a benign expression. Philip hesitated for a moment, then gave in to his baser self, slipped into the tavern, and bought his own cup of wine, then walked outside and approached the sergeant’s bench from behind.

“Lovely evening for it, Sarge, mind if I join you?”

“Not if the next drink’s on you, my dear, it’s good to…”

The sergeant broke off as Philip walked to the bench opposite him and set down his drink. The expression on his thin, pointed face almost made Philip laugh out loud. He scrambled to his feet, tripping over the bench, managed to right himself and stood rigidly to attention, saluting, staring straight ahead, his dark eyes fixed on a point above Philip’s head.

“Sir. Very sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you. Many apologies.”

“I’d rather guessed that, Sergeant. Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to see your leave pass. One of the officers clearly didn’t understand my orders about no leave granted, I need to see who signed it.”

The sergeant shifted his gaze to Philip. Philip held out his hand and waited, and the sergeant did not disappoint him. He clapped his hand to his breast pocket, then shoved both hands into coat and trouser pockets, rummaging industriously. Coming up empty, he reached for his pack, opened it, and rustled around inside it, skilfully concealing the clink of bottles. Eventually he looked up, wide-eyed.

“Well I don’t know how I’ve done that, Colonel, but it looks like I’ve lost it,” he said, and his voice was rich and mellow with the rounded vowels of the West Country. “Maybe I left it in my tent, but I don’t think so, I’ve got an excellent memory, and I’m sure I picked it up. Now, I wonder if some thieving brat has picked my pocket for me in this crowd, knowing I’m new here and taking advantage…”

Philip held up his hand. He was enjoying the performance, and recognised in the sergeant a natural comedian, but he did not have all night. “That’s enough, Sergeant, you’ll have me weeping into my wine cup in a minute. Name and rank?”

“Sergeant Nick Coates, sir, 110th second company. Was under Captain Elliott, but I’ve been away for a while now.”

“Wounded?”

“Aye, sir. At Badajoz. Been convalescing ever since.”

“That’s a long convalescence, Sergeant Coates.”

“It was a bad wound, sir. More than one. They bayonetted me in the chest as I reached the top of the ladder, then I broke an arm and a leg when I hit the ground.”

“Christ, you’re lucky to have survived that with all your limbs.”

“We’ve good doctors in the 110th, sir.”

“And now you’re on your way back and thought you’d give yourself a night off as a treat. Don’t start searching for the leave pass again, it never existed. What I do want to know is where you got the money for three bottles of good wine. Have you been looting, Coates?”

“No, sir.” Coates hesitated, then took the plunge. “Not my money, sir. It’s more of a commission.”

“A commission? For whom?”

“A gentleman, sir, new to Spain, and with none of the language. They’ll fleece the youngsters something awful, sir, when they first get here.”

Philip was beginning to understand. “So you did have permission.”

“Informally, sir.”

“Which officer?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir. They’re not my officers, you know, and he didn’t approach me directly. One of the men brought the money and said I could keep the change as an incentive to get a good price. They must have heard I’d been out here before and could speak Spanish.”

Philip shook his head. “I suppose if I asked you to point out the soldier in question…?”

“Not one of my men, sir, I didn’t know him. They all look very much alike, don’t they. I was to put the wine outside the officers’ billet, I was just on my way to do that, sir. Sorry I’m not more help.”

Philip studied Coates for a long moment. “I think you know bloody well who ordered that wine,” he said softly. “Do you think he realised that you could end up flogged and demoted if you got caught?”

Shrewd dark eyes met his. “Oh yes, sir, I expect the young gentleman knew that all right. But I didn’t have to say yes, of course.”

“Why did you, you bloody fool?”

Coates looked around the darkened square, where only the taverns remained well lit, men sharing wine on rough benches outside. “I liked this place. Met a girl here. Army hospitals weren’t that much fun, and it was a bloody awful journey, mopping up puke from the new lads and running out of food on the march because the greenhorns don’t know the ropes. I fancied a night out, sir. Didn’t expect to get caught.”

Philip managed to bite back a grin at the other man’s matter-of-fact tones. Picking up his cup of wine, he sat down. Coates remained standing to attention. Philip waited for at least two minutes.

“All right, Sergeant. Sit down and drink your wine, and then we’ll walk back to camp together, I want to check on them. When I leave, I’ll take those bottles and deliver them personally, with a word or two about using the NCOs as errand boys and hanging them out to dry afterwards. Next time, make the young bleater give you a permission slip and then you’re covered, and it’ll be him that’ll get the bollocking.”

Coates stared at him in astonishment, then lowered his compact form onto the bench with a broad grin. “Thank you very much, sir. Your very good health. I’m guessing this is not your first time out here either, you’re not new at this.”

“By no means, Coates, but not out here. Alexandria, Walcheren, Ireland and Naples, with a spell in South America, which is why I was able to admire your bartering so thoroughly.”

Coates sipped the wine. “It’s good that you’re going to Van Daan’s brigade, sir, you’d get cashiered anywhere else, drinking with the NCOs like this.”

“I don’t usually drink with the NCOs, Sergeant, so don’t get any ideas. It’s my night off. And besides, you looked as though you were enjoying yourself.”

Coates looked up and grinned. “I was, sir. Am I on a charge?”

“Not this time, although you were a bloody idiot. But I’m looking for experienced men to help out on this march, since I seem to have been landed with two hundred and fifty raw recruits and half a dozen officers so wet behind the ears they need a nursemaid. I will do you a deal, Sergeant Coates. I will forget all about this little escapade, and in return, I get your unqualified support in getting these sorry specimens up to Lord Wellington’s army.”

Coates studied him for a moment, then picked up his cup and raised it. “Sir, you have yourself a deal.”

“Excellent. You can start tonight. On the way back to camp, I want to walk via the walls. The Spanish are having trouble with ghosts.”

“Ghosts, sir?” Coates sounded bewildered. “What ghosts?”

Philip explained, and Coates seemed to enjoy the story. They sat late into the evening. Philip was aware that his conduct in drinking with an NCO was reprehensible and would bring at best a stern reprimand and at worst, a conduct charge, but there were few English officers presently in Ciudad Rodrigo, and those would be up in the mess with Colonel Muir. Philip had missed his friends in the regiment badly and Coates, although only a sergeant, was intelligent, very funny and shrewd. Philip was careful to keep some distance, but enjoyed Coates’ colourful account of his entry into the army seven years earlier, through the agency of a magistrate in Truro.

“Smuggling was it, Sergeant?”

“I prefer to call it free trading, sir. It was my job to provide the gentlemen with their port and their brandy and the ladies with their silks and tea.”

“And sugar?”

“No, sir, I didn’t deal in sugar, on account of the slaves. Nasty business, slavery.”

Philip stared in astonishment. “A Cornish smuggler who is an abolitionist? I might need another drink to hear this story, Coates.”

“It’s not a long one, sir, though I’ll happily stand you another drink. I was fifteen and on my father’s boat, running brandy and tea into a cove near Marazion when we picked up a body in the water. Younger than me, he looked, half-starved and beaten bloody, poor little beggar.”

“Oh Christ. Slaver gone down?”

“Not as such. Runaway page boy, caught in Plymouth and sold back to the West Indies. He could remember life on the plantations, preferred to drown himself.”

“He was alive?”

“Yes, sir. Algy, his name was. Crewed that boat with me for nigh on ten years, until we got picked up on a run from Roscoff, and after a spell in gaol found ourselves with the choice of the army, the navy or a trial which could have ended much worse. Algy chose the navy, safer for him. Often wonder how he got on, he was a good mate, was Algy.”

“It sounds as though you were too. Right, come on. Time to earn your parole all over again, Sergeant Coates. Let’s get up there and put the fear of God into those sentries, then I will take the officers’ wine and let them know I want a word with them in the morning.”

“You could always confiscate it, sir. Good wine, that.”

“You were born to be hanged, Coates. Get moving.”

There was no sound or movement along the town walls. This late, the sentries were in position, huddled together for warmth and companionship, the air around them hazy with cigar smoke. Philip paused by each group in turn as they saluted and spoke a few words. It was the last night he would do this, and he hoped he was making enough noise to get the sentries on the northern wall into position so that he could give a favourable report to Colonel Ramirez. They approached by the small bastion, and Philip was pleased to see four men, albeit on the wrong side of the tower, muskets shouldered. They looked grim and miserable, but they were there, and he stopped to compliment them on their fortitude, although he was aware that he could not see the next picket.

The night was very clear, with a full moon, and Philip heard the clink of bottles from Coates’ pack as the sergeant followed him onto the wall above the breach. He wondered suddenly if this place held painful memories for Coates, but the sergeant showed no signs of discomfort.

Further along the wall, Philip caught sight of a lone figure and immediately recognised him. He knew by now that the man was not one of the garrison, but must be a townsman, probably from one of the houses directly below the wall, who came up each night for a breath of fresh air before bed. Philip had not been this close to him before, and as he drew nearer, he realised that what he had thought was a cloak, was actually a dark blue caped great coat. He wore a simple bicorn hat, and Philip wondered if he was in fact an officer, either on sick leave or visiting, although he was surprised he had not met him during his week in the town, as the English officers all knew each other socially.

Behind him, Coates echoing footsteps stopped abruptly. Philip paused and looked round in surprise. The sergeant’s face was clearly illuminated in the moonlight, and his expression chilled Philip to the bone. The thin face wore an expression of utter terror, the dark eyes wide, and Coates was backing up so fast that Philip sprinted to grab him by the arm, worried he might tumble backwards over the low parapet. He realised as he grasped Coates, that the sergeant was shaking violently.

“Sergeant, what the hell is wrong with you? Look stand here for a moment and catch your breath. Are you ill?”

“No. No, no, no, no. It can’t be. He’s not here, he’s not here. He’s dead. He’s bloody dead, I saw them bury him.”

Understanding was slow to dawn, and by the time Philip understood, the brisk footsteps along the walkway were coming close. Suddenly, he was afraid as well, and it took all his courage to turn around to see what had caused the sergeant’s sheer terror. The sight was so ludicrously normal that Philip felt completely disoriented.

For the first time, he could see the face of the stocky man who guarded the lesser breach every evening, and although there was nothing spectral about it, it was formidable. He was not old, possibly in his fifties, with very dark hair under his hat, and a pair of piercing dark eyes under thick, beetling brows. His complexion was swarthy, as though he had spent many days in the saddle under the hot Spanish sun, and he walked with deliberate authority, his sword belt jingling slightly as he moved. There was a sense of power and controlled energy about him, and Philip found himself standing to attention and saluting even before he saw the glimpse of a red jacket beneath the swinging coat. Unquestionably this was a senior officer.

The man turned to look at him as he passed. Dark eyes flickered over Philip, as though to check that he was correctly turned out, and then the officer nodded in approval and saluted. He walked past the shivering sergeant without comment. Philip watched his retreating back, feeling as though he had just passed an inspection from a difficult commanding officer, and turned to Coates.

Coates was white in the pale moonlight, and looked as though he might be sick. Philip took him firmly by the arm. “Come on, Sergeant, let’s get you off this wall before you kill yourself. No, don’t try to speak. We’ll go back to my billet and if necessary, I’ll call the surgeon.”

Philip waited until they were inside his warm little room. He pushed Coates into a chair and went for brandy then realised that he had run out. Making a mental note to send Barlow, his valet, to buy more before the march, Philip went to the sergeant’s pack and removed one of the bottles of wine. He poured for both of them and set a glass down in front of Coates.

“I’m going to get cashiered, drinking with a sergeant twice in one day. If I’d not been with you earlier, Coates, I’d have thought you were half-sprung already, but you’re clearly not. What happened, were you ill?”

Coates was beginning to regain his colour. He drank half a glass of wine without taking breath and set it down, then looked up at Philip.

“Thank you, sir. Sorry. Must have taken a turn. Won’t happen again. I’ll leave the wine here, you can give it to the gentlemen in the morning.”

He made as if to rise, and Philip pushed him firmly back into the chair and refilled his glass. “What happened?”

“Permission not to talk about it, sir?”

“Not granted. What were you on about – he’s dead. Who’s dead, Coates? Was it the breach – did you lose friends up there?”

The sergeant drank more wine and did not reply. Philip sat down and sipped his own wine. “Look, I understand. I know what it can do to you sometimes, although we all pretend it doesn’t affect us. I don’t need the details, Coates, but if this is something…”

“You said you’d served in South America, sir,” Coates said abruptly. “Mind me asking when?”

“I was with Beresford during the first invasion, but I developed fever and was sent home, so I missed the worst of that shambles. What on earth has that to do with anything?”

“Because he was out there afterwards. Major-General Craufurd. But you won’t ever have seen him.”

Understanding flooded through Philip along with a chill of horror. He stared blankly at Coates, not wanting to believe what he was saying. “Don’t be funny, Sergeant, I’m not…”

“Did it look as though I was joking up there, sir?” Coates said furiously. “It was him. I know him, I’ve seen him a thousand times. I served in the 110th and we fought under him at Fuentes d’Onoro and at the Coa, and in a dozen skirmishes out on the border. And before then, I marched in his column during Moore’s retreat. I saw that bastard flog the skin off a starving man’s back for stealing a turnip and then give the same man the remains of his own rations later in the day. I was out there, climbing over dead and dying men into the breach last year and I saw him go down. I was at his burial, at the foot of the wall, in the breach. I know him. It was Craufurd.”

Philip believed him. He sat in silence, drinking wine, shocked and feeling slightly shivery. Neither man spoke until Coates set down his empty glass and got to his feet. He saluted.

“Permission to return to camp, sir.”

“Granted. Don’t go that way again.”

“I’m going nowhere near it, sir.”

“Get your kit and the men organised, Sergeant, and be ready to march out the day after tomorrow. I’m counting on you to make my life easier along the way.”

“My word on it, Colonel.” The Cornishman hesitated. “Sir?”

“What is it?”

“I’d prefer not to speak of this to anyone else, sir.”

Philip gave a small, grim smile. “Not a chance of it, Sergeant. They’d think I was mad. Look – are you absolutely sure? It couldn’t have been another man? A trick of the light, maybe you were thinking about Craufurd up there?”

“I saw him, sir. As clearly as I can see you now.” Coates shook his head. “He was a bloody good general, his men thought the world of him. I’d have been glad to see him again, but he shouldn’t have been there.”

Philip thought about it. “I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. Maybe he should.”

The following day was taken up with preparations for the march, and by dinner time, Philip was fully packed and had inspected the men and the baggage wagons, spoken to the Spanish guide allocated to him and said farewell to his hostess. He dined in the mess as usual, but rose early from the table, as he hoped to be on the road at dawn and did not want to set off with a hangover. Colonel Muir shook his hand and wished him well, and Philip was engulfed in a wave of handshakes and good wishes from both English and Spanish officers.

When Colonel Ramirez shook his hand, he said:

“Did you visit my idle sentries last night, Colonel?”

“I did,” Philip admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it, Colonel, and it’s possible the problem is easier to solve than we thought. It seems there’s one stretch of that wall that they hate to patrol. It’s right above where the breach was, and I’d guess they imagine horrors when they’re up there. Perhaps if you moved the pickets a little further apart to either side of that stretch, they’d be better behaved.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully. “It is an interesting idea, Colonel Norton. I will think about it. Goodbye, and good luck.”

Outside the mess, Philip hesitated. He had things to do still, but the wall was there, still and quiet in the sleepy late afternoon air. After a long moment, Philip turned away from his billet and walked down to the small bastion, going up the steps onto the wall. He walked along the stretch between the two small towers, then turned and walked back again. Nobody was there, but it was early, and he would not expect to see a ghost in broad daylight.

The thought made Philip smile, it was so ridiculous. He turned again, to go down the steps, and saw him immediately, the stocky figure in the dark coat and hat, staring out over the countryside to the position where almost eighteen months ago, the light division had formed up, ready to storm the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Philip did not move or speak. After a moment, Major-General Robert Craufurd turned towards him and began his brisk, confident march along the walkway until he reached Philip. As before, he turned his head to look at him, and Philip straightened and saluted. It should have felt ridiculous, saluting a man who was not and could not be there, but Philip did not care. Whatever shadow of Black Bob Craufurd that lingered on in the place where he had fallen, deserved his respect.

Craufurd returned the salute with the same quirk of his lips, and walked past Philip. After a moment, the footsteps could no longer be heard. Philip turned to look, but both the bastion and the walkway were empty once more.

It was barely light when the two hundred and fifty men formed up under their temporary officers and set off at a brisk march around the outside of Ciudad Rodrigo towards the Salamanca road. Philip rode at the head of the small column, with the walls rising to his right, bathed in rose pink and golden rays from the awakening sun. The repaired wall was clearly visible, looking more than ever like a scar, and Philip looked up and was not surprised to see the lone figure standing above it, watching them leave. He reined in to allow the troops to march past him, until he was at the back of the column. Unobserved, he took off his hat, and saluted for a long, silent moment. Then he replaced it and cantered forward to the head of his men, setting his horse and his thoughts firmly towards Wellington’s distant army.

The Last Sentry pdf

 

 

Love Letters, 1813

Love letters, 1813 is something I wrote last week, in between preliminary reading for book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which covers the Battle of Vitoria. It’s early days, but I suspect the title will be an Indomitable Brigade. Occasionally, I like to imagine correspondence between some of my characters, as I did with Paul and Hugh during the Walcheren campaign, it can be an excellent way of setting the scene in my mind, and getting in touch with my character’s current feelings. It’s not exactly a short story, but it definitely tells a story, and I liked this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all, to whet your appetite for the next book…

For the first time ever, I am struggling to decide which book to write next. My original intention was to write the next book in the Manxman series, and I’ve done some reading for that as well, but at the moment, it appears that my head and heart are very firmly rooted in Spain with the Light Division, so I’m going to go with that and see where it leads me.

I wrote a short story in 2019 for Valentine’s Day, A Winter Idyll, which showed Johnny Wheeler going home during winter quarters to settle his uncle’s affairs, and discovering that his land agent’s daughter has been running the estate. There was the hint of a romance, although Johnny was clear at that point that he still felt bound to his lost love, Caroline Longford. Johnny is back in Spain now, and on the march towards Vitoria with the rest of the third brigade…

Quinta de Santo Antonio, May, 1813

 Dear Miss Ludlow

Thank you for your letter. I’m very glad your father continues to improve, and that he is able to get out and about a little, and I’m sure you are right that the fresh air and exercise will do him good. I have to scold you a little, however, since I hear from Mrs Green that you have made no use of the barouche as I instructed. You cannot expect him to go far either on foot or on horseback, and he will quickly grow tired of strolling through the village.

I imagine this is due to your scruples with regard to the horses, so I have made arrangements through friends in Leicestershire, for the purchase of two carriage horses. It is high time that Jed and Carney were put out to grass, and I hope they enjoy their retirement in the meadow as much as I intend to when I come home. Write to me, to tell me that they have arrived safely. There is also a new mare, the one we went to see just before I left, whom I hope to breed. I know I can trust you to exercise her.

Your report of the home farm and the tenancies is excellent, and very detailed. I feel as though I’m there, watching the improvements happen. I wish I was, it must be very pretty at this time of year. I realise I’ve no idea what grows in my gardens as it was under snow for half the time I was there, and barely shooting up as I left.

My journey back was uneventful and it is good to be with my friends again, although I must tell you that I walked into a very difficult situation between two fellow officers, which I will not write in detail, but will save for when I see you again. In happier news, I was in time to assist at the wedding of my very good friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Swanson, and Miss Trenlow.

We have received orders that we shall be on the move again very soon. The postal service is always surprisingly reliable here, and letters seldom go astray. I am not accustomed to receive very many, so I look forward to yours, when you have time.

Your servant

Colonel John Wheeler

***

Aberly, Derbyshire, June 1813

Dear Colonel Wheeler

Thank you for your very prompt reply. I am delighted to hear that your return went well, and more than a little apprehensive that by the time you receive this, you will no doubt be on the move, probably into danger. I have paid very little attention to news of the current war until now, other than to listen to your uncle’s stories of you before he died, but now I find myself scanning the Gazette for the slightest mention of an action.

The new horses arrived safely, although I am shocked at how much you must have spent on them, considering you are not here to have the benefit. Cora and Millie, the carriage horses, are beautiful animals, very well matched, and according to Jimmy, they are a “dream to drive”. He is eager to take them out, so I have little choice but to follow your orders and take my father on various excursions. Aphrodite, the black mare, is perfect to ride, but a thoroughgoing aristocrat, turning up her nose at the least thing, so that it makes me laugh. I think it is the fault of her owners for giving her such a name, it has made her conceited. I have begun to call her Affie, in the hope of taking her down a peg or two.

We had a disaster with the hen house, I am sorry to say, since that infuriating fox found his way in and created havoc. I have replaced the birds with stock from Jennings’ farm and personally supervised the rebuilding of the coop, so I hope we will have no more trouble.

Father continues well. In fact, being able to get out in the barouche around the farms seems to have improved his memory, and we have talked very sensibly about estate matters, although I am afraid he sometimes forgets that your uncle is dead. Still, it is good to see him more like his old self. I will send you a summary of the quarterly return when I have made it up, but all is progressing just as it should, and I think you will be pleased.

I cannot find the words to express my gratitude that I have been allowed to continue as I have. Few men would have been willing to allow a female the management of their property, and I promise you that I will ensure that you don’t regret it. I’m very happy here, feeling more settled than I have for a long time. At the same time, would it be very impertinent to say that I have found it a little lonely since you left? It is good to have a like-minded person to talk with, about things one cares about. I’ve missed our talks and our rides together.

With warm regards

Mary Ludlow

***

San Munoz, May, 1813

My dearest Miss Ludlow

The postal service has surpassed itself, and I am dashing off this reply since we are camped here for two nights only, and I want this to go off with the headquarters mail before we march tomorrow. I’ll try to make it legible.

It is a very beautiful evening, and I have just feasted on roast pork and am seated outside my tent in a pensive mood. Just over six months ago, during the retreat from Madrid and Burgos, I lost my good friend Patrick Corrigan beside this river and I nearly died myself. The limp has gone now, and I’m back to full fitness, but I’ll never forget those days, believing I wouldn’t survive. I hadn’t realised at the time, but along with inheriting my uncle’s estate, it’s made me think differently about a number of things.

I walked up with some of the men to the woods where Pat fell. There’s nothing left now. I am told, and I’m choosing to believe it, that when both armies had moved on, the villagers came out to bury the dead. I think it is at least partly true, because our guide showed us several mounds which have been piled with rocks. It makes me feel better to think that Pat is lying there, and it makes me very thankful that I’m not.

I miss you. I miss talking with you and riding with you and laughing with you. It was only three months, and they passed very quickly, but I am left both restless and strangely content. I hadn’t intended to write this, since I have no idea when I’ll see you again, or even if, given that the general believes we’ll be engaging the French within the month, and none of us are invincible. But since you were very honest with me, I wanted to reciprocate. I miss you, Mary.

You would love this view. We’re camped on the heights, looking out over the river, and there are dozens of lanterns and campfires, pungent but very pretty in the gathering dusk. We’re marching out at dawn, so I’m going to finish this now. I don’t know when your next letter will reach me, but write it anyway, will you? I want to know that it’s on its way.

Affectionately yours

Johnny Wheeler

***

Vitoria, June 20th, 1813

 My dearest Mary

I write Vitoria, since it is the nearest town I have a name for, but we are well outside the city, camped in a valley at the foot of a mountainous ridge, waiting for the rest of the army to complete its flanking manoeuvres. We have been engaged in several sharp skirmishes on the march, including an affair at San Millan, but we have come off very lightly and have given the French something to think about.

I have not received a letter, nor expected to in this time, but as I suspect I will be in battle tomorrow, I wanted to write this. I shall leave it with Mrs van Daan, and asked her to send it on to you. I confess that I have spoken of you to her a good deal, although to nobody else.

I want to be honest with you, dearest girl, since I have been honest from the first, to tell you that I have left two letters with Mrs van Daan, one to the lady I have spoken of. Our attachment was such, that I feel a duty to write to her in case of my death. If I survive, and I generally do, I will destroy that letter and write another.

This letter is for you. I realise that during those few months at Limm, I probably spent more time with you than in all the time I knew Caroline. I fell in love with her when we were both lonely, and had she not been committed to another, I think we could have been happy.

My time with you was different. There was no drama, no headlong rush, no real expectation of anything at all. And yet, looking back, I have the sense that I knew, even before I left, that I had found something that I’d been looking for all my life. Just thinking of you, brings me joy.

I wish I had spoken before I left. I told myself that it was too soon, that I needed to be sure of my own feelings and that it would be wrong to ask you to wait for a man wedded to his career and determined to see this war out. Now you are far away, and I miss you, and I want you to know how I feel.

I think, I hope, that you feel the same way, Mary. Will you be my wife? What a thing to do, asking you in a letter with no certainty that I will ever be able to honour my promise. Even after this battle, I have no hope of more leave for a long time, and will have to beg you to wait for me. I have tried to imagine how I would feel if our situations were reversed, though, and I decided that I would want to know.

Should anything happen to me, I have left my affairs in good order, and you will be very well taken care of, Mr Langley has all the details. Assuming that it goes well for me, I will write again very soon, and I hope you will forgive me and be kind, and tell me if I may hope.

With all my dearest love

Johnny

***

Aberly, Derbyshire, July 1813

My dearest Johnny,

It is the worst thing, writing to you without even knowing if you will receive this, but write I must. I comfort myself by thinking that if you are wounded, or exhausted or sorrowful, I may help a little to lift your spirits.

The answer is yes, of course, with all my heart. You must have known that it would be, as I do not suppose I ever made a good job of concealing my feelings. I had begun to hope, when you left, that your former attachment did not hold such complete sway over your heart, but I had not expected you to speak so soon, and under such difficult circumstances. I am so happy that you did.

All is well here. I have told nobody of your offer and will not do so until I am sure that you are safe, but know that you are in my prayers and in my heart, every hour of every day. Write soon, my dear, I cannot rest until I hear from you.

Yours, now and always

Mary

 

An Unnecessary Affray

An Unnecessary Affray is my second short story for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop in 2020. It has been a bit of a marathon this year, since in a moment of madness I agreed to two short stories with a book publication date only a few days later, to say nothing of the Covid 19 lockdown. I’m quite proud of myself for getting it all done. As always, the story is free so please share as much as you like.

This tells the story that is not told in An Unconventional Officer, about the action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. I had to be selective about which episodes of Paul van Daan’s early years in the army I covered in that book, but I’ve always wanted to go back and write the stories I didn’t manage to tell, since I’ve always known what happened in my head. I managed it with the Copenhagen campaign in An Unwilling Alliance, and I’m delighted to have finally written about Paul and Craufurd’s spectacular falling out at the Coa.

There are several versions of the events of this day, and Craufurd had his supporters and his critics. Personally, I love Craufurd, you couldn’t make him up, but this wasn’t his finest hour, and I’ve tried to reflect that in my imagined version. As always, I’ve taken some historical liberties to give my fictional battalion something useful to do and I apologise to the gallant officers and men whose roles I have stolen.

A final warning in case you’ve not read the books; I usually try to keep my short stories free of bad language, but I was incapable of writing Paul van Daan’s reaction to this battle without the occasional lapse. His regular readers will understand this. Sorry.

An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa

It was hot on the long march from Viseu to Almeida, with the July sun beating down on the troops over a distance of some seventy miles. The pace was brisk, but not punishing, with the march beginning in the cool early dawn and stopping to rest and eat before the heat of the afternoon sun became unbearable. Ensign Evan Powell was surprised at how much progress they were able to make each day. He mentioned the steady but effective pace to his fellow ensign in the fourth company.

“The major won’t push them beyond endurance unless it’s an emergency, no matter what Wellington or Craufurd might say,” Donahue said. “Chances are we won’t see a battle. Craufurd is under orders to keep a watchful eye on the French but not to risk the light division. By the time we get there he might already be pulling out.”

“Why are we going then?”

Donahue shot him an amused glance. “The official version or my guess?”

“Both, I suppose,” Evan said. He was a little in awe of Donahue, who at nineteen was two years older than him and had almost three years experience on active service with the 110th and had fought at Rolica, Vimeiro and Talavera along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Evan had only recently arrived in Portugal to take up a vacant commission in the fourth company of the 110th and although he had done eight weeks training with the second battalion in Melton Mowbray, and had set sail full of confidence, he found his new messmates intimidating.

“All right then. Officially, Lord Wellington is sending the 110th to reinforce General Craufurd at Almeida in case of a surprise attack by the French. It’s not that strange, we’re not formally designated light infantry yet, but we’re all trained skirmishers and we’ve served with Craufurd’s division out on the border for months.”

“And unofficially?”

Donahue grinned. “Unofficially, old chap, you’ve arrived in the middle of the juiciest scandal this army has seen in a long time. Major van Daan is newly widowed, his wife recently died in childbirth, but it’s very well known that for at least a year he has been enjoying a very passionate affair with the wife of an assistant deputy quartermaster. Last week it all blew up when Captain Carlyon smacked his wife in public right outside headquarters and accused her of making a cuckold of him with the major. Major van Daan took exception to it and challenged him, and the whole battalion held its collective breath until Carlyon did the decent thing and ran like a rabbit taking a fat purse from the army pay chest with him.”

“He deserted?”

“Better that than dead, which he would have been if he’d got into a fight with our major. Anyway, Wellington took a hand. He doesn’t want to lose Major van Daan over a scandal with a light skirt, so he’s sent him up here to calm down, while I imagine he’ll do his best to get the girl sent home.”

Evan was shocked, although he tried not to show it. His family was Welsh, solid local gentry with low church leanings and the word adultery had never been heard in his mother’s drawing room. His arrival in camp right in the middle of the preparations to march meant that he had barely had time for an introduction to his new commanding officer, but he had felt an instinctive liking for the tall fair officer with the ready smile who had welcomed him, apologised for the chaos, and handed him over to his company captain for further instructions. He was disappointed but also very curious. They were sitting around the camp fires, as darkness fell over the scrub covered, rocky plains and low hills of central Portugal and this was proving to be one of Evan’s most interesting conversations in the midst of orders and marching and picket duty.

“Is she pretty?”

Donahue gave a faint smile. “She’s beautiful. Lucky bastard. I can’t say I blame him.”

“Awful for his wife, though.”

“Not sure she even knew, she was friendly with Mrs Carlyon, they were forever around the place together.”

“Awful for him, then,” Evan said, trying hard to imagine himself in such an appalling position. “He must feel so guilty.”

“Not him. He can’t have cared about her or he wouldn’t have…”

“Mr Donahue.”

The voice was quiet, and Donahue stopped mid-sentence and scrambled to his feet to salute. Evan did the same, quaking. His company captain was a completely unknown quantity and Evan’s impression of Johnny Wheeler was of a pleasant, even-tempered man in his thirties who seemed well-liked by both officers and men, but there was an edge to his voice now.

“Captain Wheeler. Sir. My apologies, didn’t see you…”

“I’d guessed that, Ensign, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth so freely on the subject of your battalion commander’s personal life to a new officer.”

It was impossible to see if Donahue was blushing in the firelight, but Evan knew that he was. “Sir, very sorry. I was repeating gossip, sir, should know better.”

“How the hell do you think he’d have felt if he’d heard you saying that?  She was his wife of six years, she gave him two children, and he’s barely holding himself together.”

“Sir, I didn’t think.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that you can think, Donahue. Get yourself out there, forward pickets, you can relieve Mr Renard. I hope it’s bloody cold.”

“Yes, sir.”

Donahue’s voice was subdued. He picked up his hat, saluted and set off into the darkness. Evan followed his example, but Wheeler stopped him.

“Not you, Mr Powell, you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I was part of the conversation, sir.”

“I know, I heard. I also heard what you said last. Empathy is a useful quality, I hope you manage to hold onto it after a few years in the army. Stand down, lad. As you’ve lost your messmate, why don’t you come and join us?”

Evan froze in surprise and glanced over to a group of men around an impressive fire in the centre of the camp. Donahue  mockingly called it ‘the golden circle’ where the commanding officer of the 110th and his particular friends congregated. Wheeler was beckoning, so Evan followed, feeling gauche and awkward and painfully aware of his youth and inexperience.

“Johnny, that was the longest piss in history, I was about to send out a search party. While you’re up, grab another bottle of wine, will you, there’s one in my tent. In fact bring two, since I can see you’ve brought a guest. Come and sit down, Mr Powell, there’s a spare camp chair next to Captain Swanson. Sergeant-Major, get him a drink, will you?”

Sergeant-Major O’Reilly unfolded his long limbs from a blanket on the grass and went to collect a pewter mess cup which he filled with wine. Evan accepted with mumbled thanks and sat down, trying to look inconspicuous.

“Why did Mr Donahue disappear into the darkness, Johnny?” Paul van Daan enquired.

“He was being an arsehole and I don’t much like him so I gave him extra picket duty.”

There was a general laugh. Major van Daan surveyed Wheeler thoughtfully. “Now that is something I might have said, but you, Johnny, are a model of rational behaviour. You’re also prevaricating. May I ask…?”

“No, because I’m not going to answer.”

The major turned blue eyes towards Evan. “Mr Powell…”

“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”

Evan could feel his knuckles clenching around the cup and was thankful that it was not a glass. After a long moment, the major’s expression softened into a smile.

“Ensign Donahue isn’t the only one being an arsehole this evening. I beg your pardon, Mr Powell, I’m not quite myself at the moment. Shift that chair over here closer to me, will you, I’m too lazy to yell, and I want to find out more about you. This must have been the worst moment to arrive, I’ve not had a moment to talk to you and I don’t suppose Captain Wheeler has either. It feels ridiculous to ask how you’re settling in, so I won’t. Tell me instead, where you’re from and what brought you into the army?”

The party broke up late, and Evan slept well in his shared tent and woke surprisingly refreshed. He thought about the evening as he mounted Cassie, his bay mare, and set off into the cool dawn light. It had been an evening of laughter and good conversation and for the first time since arriving, Evan had come away feeling a sense of belonging. He wondered if all regiments were like this and if other commanding officers had Paul van Daan’s effective blend of authority and friendliness.

Donahue was tired and miserable the following day, with little to say. He did not ask how Evan had spent the evening and no mention was made of their conversation of the previous day. Evan privately decided that if Donahue attempted to revive the subject, he would decline to take part. Gossiping about his commanding officer no longer felt comfortable after spending an evening in his company. Evan knew nothing about Paul van Daan’s private life but he had the sense that his friends were closing ranks protectively around him and Evan understood why. Bad enough to suffer such a loss in private, but unbearable to do so under the relentless glare of army gossips.

***

The River Coa was in full flood when the 110th reached the narrow stone bridge leading on to the fortress of Almeida. Captain Johnny Wheeler surveyed the raging torrent as he rode over the bridge and thought that whatever happened, neither French nor Anglo-Portuguese troops would be able to ford the Coa which meant that possession of the bridge would be crucial in any retreat or engagement. There were pickets along the river, outposts from Picton’s third division which was quartered at Pinhel and Major van Daan halted to speak to one of the officers. Johnny watched his friend talking to the young lieutenant and thought how tired Paul looked. In the brief time since his wife’s death, he had slept poorly, rising after only a few hours sleep to sit by the dying embers of the fire with Jenson, his orderly, or walking the perimeter of the camp to chat to the sentries. Johnny was one of the few men who knew something of Paul van Daan’s internal struggle between grief and guilt for his pretty wife, and longing for the dark eyed young woman who seemed to have turned his world upside down.

After about twenty minutes, Paul mounted up and joined Johnny and Carl Swanson who commanded his light company. “I’m not happy,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t sound as though Craufurd has made any attempt to withdraw across the river yet. This lad knows nothing of what’s going on, but he says a lot of the officers are worried that Craufurd is lingering too long. I’m going to speed it up a bit, I want him to read Wellington’s letter, it might get him moving.”

Johnny saluted, wheeled his horse and trotted back to his men with the order, and the 110th set off again at a much faster pace. The area between the Coa and the Agueda rivers was a rough plateau, with low hills and rocky outcrops studded with trees and criss crossed with low stone walls enclosing orchards, olive groves and vegetable gardens. Johnny assessed the ground and thought that it was good country for skirmishing, but given the huge numerical advantage that the French had in this region, he would not choose to pit his men against Ney’s tirailleurs, if it could be avoided.

The 110th met the first pickets of the light division a mile on, and after a brief conversation, Paul returned to Johnny. “I’m riding up to see Craufurd, he’s camped about half a mile west of here. Come with me, Johnny. Captain Swanson, get them bivouacked here until we know where he wants us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob, partly because of his dark colouring and complexion, and partly because of the violent mood swings and fierce temper which struck terror into the officers and men of his brigade and more recently his division. Paul and Johnny found him in his tent, studying what looked like a sketch map of a fortress spread out on a folding camp table. Paul saluted and Craufurd glared at him.

“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Lord Wellington’s orders, sir. I’ve a letter from him.”

Paul held it out and Craufurd took it. “Of course you bloody have. I received a letter from him yesterday, and two days before that as well. Does he spend his entire time writing letters?”

“Pretty much, sir,” Paul agreed pleasantly. Craufurd regarded him, black brows drawn together and Johnny tried not to hold his breath. Suddenly, Craufurd grinned.

“Somebody should put sand in his ink pot,” he said. “Well, whatever the reason, it’s bloody good to see you, boy. Sit down. You too…what’s your name again?”

“Wheeler, sir, Paul said, pulling up a camp chair. “Same as last time you asked.”

“Button your lip, Van Daan, and let me read this latest nonsense.”

There was silence in the tent as Craufurd read. The orderly disappeared then reappeared with a tray, and Johnny took a cup of wine with a smile of thanks and waited. Finally, Craufurd looked up.

“Nothing much new there. He wants me to stay on this side of the river as long as it’s safe to do so, but not take any risks. Protect Almeida, but not for too long. Use my initiative but follow orders. Listen to…”

“I get the point, sir. We all do. He’s worried and he’s feeling his way.”

“He isn’t here,” Craufurd said shortly.

“I am, sir.”

“And I’m supposed to consult a junior officer about my division?”

Paul said nothing and Johnny admired his silence for a while. Eventually Craufurd made and exasperated sound.

“I am about to blow up Fort Concepcion,” he said. “I’ve left it as long as possible, but if I leave it much longer, there’s a risk they’ll take it. Burgoyne and his engineers are in there, making the final preparations. The rest of the division has been pulled back a mile or so, leaving only the pickets and vedettes out there. We’ll withdraw when we need to.”

“When will that be, sir?”

“Is that why he’s sent you?” Craufurd demanded belligerently. “Has he had the bloody nerve to send a boy of your age to keep an eye on me because he can’t be here himself?”

“He sent me to provide support if it’s needed, sir.”

“And to write back immediately if you think I’m making a balls-up.”

“No, sir, if I think you’re making a balls-up, I’ll tell you myself. And I’m a bit worried that you might be.”

“Duly noted, Van Daan. Are you sure he didn’t actually send you to stop you doing something stupid in your private life?”

Johnny caught his breath and Paul went very still but did not immediately speak. After a moment, he said:

“You mean losing my wife to childbirth? Not much he can do about that really, sir.”

Craufurd’s expression changed. “Christ, Paul, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Wellington wrote to me to tell me what had happened, he thought I should know. Is the child all right?”

“She seems to be thriving, we’ve found a wet nurse and she’ll be travelling back to England as soon as an escort can be found.”

“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”

“I don’t know her plans, sir.”

“Liar,” Craufurd said, without heat. “Wellington’s worried you’ll persuade her into committing social suicide with you, he has a tendre for that girl.”

“So do you, sir.”

“Yes, I bloody do, so take care of her. And keep that husband of hers away from her. Did he really hit her in the town square in front of half the army?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about her, sir. She’s safe at the farm with the medical staff and Carlyon won’t come back, he’s too much of a coward. Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using my personal troubles to distract me. Where do you want us?”

“You can stay where you are for the moment, I’ll send word once Burgoyne is ready and we’re on the move. Write what you like to Wellington. I know this area and I know my men and what they can do. I’ll march when I’m ready.”

***

Tension mounted over the next few days. The 110th shared picket duty with several companies of the 95th and Evan listened to their grumbling and tried not to be afraid. He could see no sign of fear in either his fellow officers or his men, but this was not their first experience of war. More and more French troops seemed to be moving into position, and Evan could sense the unease of his seniors. Officers from the other battalions, the 52nd, 43rd, 95th and the Portuguese  caçadores came and went, spending time with Major van Daan, and Evan suspected that the conversation centred around when the light division might withdraw and whether Craufurd was holding on too long.

At dawn on the 21st of July, Evan woke to movement, and then the call of the bugle. During training, he had practised getting to arms at speed, and had been impressed with his men, but he was astonished at how much faster these veteran troops could manage it. Gunfire could be heard through the morning mist as Major van Daan was summoned to Craufurd’s command post and returned to brief his officers.

“There’s action around Concepcion. Ney’s sent in the fourth corps and they’re driving in our pickets and the cavalry vedettes. They’re going to blow the fort, and then, please God he’ll get us over that bridge and out of here.”

“We won’t fight then, sir?”

“Not unless we have to, Mr Barry, we’re hugely outnumbered here and this was never meant to be more than a watching brief. The 14th dragoons are holding them off until the fort is blown. Stand to arms, I want them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

The explosion was shattering, a huge boom followed by a series of lesser charges and Evan felt as though the ground was shaken beneath him. He wondered how it felt to be even closer. Around him, his men were restless, ready now for either action or retreat, and it was a relief when General Craufurd rode up to the edge of Vale de la Mula shortly afterwards and approached Major van Daan. The French were clearly visible in front of the village, three regiments of infantry and a battalion of light infantry. The major saluted.

“Orders, sir?”

“Stand to, Major.”

“We’ve been doing that since dawn, sir. Did the explosion do its job?”

“More or less. Some casualties, though, some of the cavalry were too close. A few dead and wounded from both sides. The 14th are holding them nicely, I doubt we’ll see action today.”

“Are we not retreating, sir?”

“Not yet. We can wait a while longer, I believe.”

Paul van Daan was frowning. “We probably can, but what’s the point, sir, if we have to go. Surely…”

“You forget yourself, Van Daan. Wait for orders.”

Evan watched him ride off then looked over at Major van Daan and Captain Wheeler. They were both frowning.

“You think he’s got this wrong?” Wheeler asked.

“I think it has the potential to be a bloody disaster,” the major said shortly. “Carl, Johnny, get the men round, I want to speak to them.”

The rain began during the early evening on the 23rd and continued ceaselessly through the night. Evan was on picket duty with Donahue and a dozen men of their company, and his companion grumbled through the sleepless and rain-sodden night. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay close by, and for several days, the light division had manoeuvred across the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, occasionally exchanging fire with French scouts.

A heavy mist hung over the ground as Evan watched his men lighting a fire to make tea. Sergeant Mackie brought a steaming cup and Evan smiled gratefully.

“Soon warm up, sir. Captain says we’ll be covering some of the wagons, bringing supplies out of Almeida. If we’re lucky, we can bugger off after that.”

As Evan drank his tea and ate two hard biscuits, bugles sounded as the main body of the army called reveille and began the morning muster, formed in companies. Men in red, green or the brown of the Portuguese units toured the pickets with dry cartridges to replace any that had got wet in the night. After only a short time, Evan had learned the morning routine of the army and it felt soothing, familiar, almost safe.

“Mist’s burning off a bit,” Donahue said. “Hope they relieve us soon, I’ve had enough of being out here with the bloody green jackets.”

Evan did not reply. Since the night Donahue had been sent out on extra picket duty, his relationship with his fellow subaltern had cooled a little. Now that he had begun to get to know some of the other officers in the battalion, he was less impressed by Donahue’s stories and found his incessant complaining irritating. Their current bivouac was wet, muddy and uncomfortable but it did not help to constantly moan about it. Evan was tired of his condescending manner and was beginning to loathe some of the tales he told of his conquests among the local women. He did not know if Donahue was really such a Lothario and was painfully aware of his own complete lack of experience, but Donahue’s gleeful descriptions of seduction made him cringe.

“There’s movement from the French lines,” Sergeant Mackie said abruptly, and something in his tone made all the men turn their heads. Suddenly they were alert, reaching for muskets and shouldering packs. Private Brown doused the fire, kicking the embers around to ensure that it could not flare up again. Evan stood staring into the mist until his eyes hurt. He could hear the sounds now, but there had been movement before and he did not know what Mackie had heard that was different although he suspected the men did. There was a sudden breeze which lifted the edge of Evan’s coat and caused a mad flapping as Private Crook finished rolling up his blanket. The mist shifted eerily, like some ghostly creature reaching out white fingers to touch the low stone wall behind which they had camped, and then suddenly sunlight pushed its way through and there was a clearing in the fog, and then another, and Evan felt his innards turn to water at the sight before him.

“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.

The broad plain was covered with French troops as far as the eye could see. They were close and fully armed and Evan knew with utter certainty that this was not another feint in the long dance of advance and retreat that Craufurd had been playing for days. These men were ready to fight, and today he might die.

Alarm calls were sounding up and down the line of pickets, and were picked up in the rear, as the men of the light division scrambled to pack up, abandoning roll-call to line the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept. Donahue drew his pistol and checked it methodically and Evan did the same, although his hands were shaking so much that he was not sure he would be able to aim and fire. As he thought it, there was a shot to his left and then another, and suddenly the air was filled with the crackling of musket and rifle fire as the front line of Ney’s voltigeurs and the first of the rifle pickets exchanged fire.

“They’re coming,” Donahue said, and his voice was suddenly very calm. “Don’t panic, Powell. Hear that noise?”

“Drums?”

“That’s right. They’re a way off yet, which means he’s not brought up his main columns, these are just the skirmishers. We’ll hold them off, but when I give the word, we fall back through those trees to the main force. Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting to give support.”

“What if they’re not?”

“They will be. Stick with your men, they know what they’re doing. Christ, these bastards are fast.”

The French skirmishers were moving forward over the rough terrain, ducking behind trees and rocks to let off a shot. They worked in pairs, covering each other skilfully, and Evan was terrified at how quickly they were approaching. He felt painfully isolated and certain that within minutes he would be dead, then the crash of a musket beside him made him jump. It was followed by another and then another and the voltigeurs began to fall. They were replaced immediately by others, and Donahue straightened, took aim with his pistol and fired.

“Fall back,” he called. “We’re too far out here.”

Relief mingled with fear in Evan’s breast, but at least he could move now. Copying Donahue, he drew his sword and ran with his men to the first line of a small copse of trees. The men disappeared behind trees, turning to fire again at the approaching French. Donahue reloaded his pistol and it reminded Evan that he had not yet fired his. He was a good shot, had practised for many hours with his father and brother and could bag a wood pigeon better than either, but these were not birds. Evan took aim, knowing that his shaking hands must be visible to his men, and he wondered if they thought him a coward. A blue jacket came into his sight and he steadied the pistol, feeling as though he would vomit. The Frenchman roared, a meaningless sound, designed to terrorise, and it galvanised Evan into action. He fired, coping well with the recoil, and the Frenchman fell. Evan was shocked, wondering for a moment if he had somehow stumbled, then he heard Crook’s voice behind him.

“Bloody hell, good shot, sir. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

They ran, dodging between trees as the voltigeurs came closer. Shots flew around them, most bouncing harmlessly off tree trunks. Evan did not bother to stop and reload, he could not aim in here and his men seemed intent only on escape now. There were too many Frenchmen, and sounds from the right suggested that the riflemen who had formed the next picket had been overrun. A shot to Evan’s left was followed by a cry of agony and he stopped, knowing that one of his own men had been hit. A hand grasped his elbow, dragging him forward.

“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”

Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.

The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.

“Come on.”

Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.

“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.

“Here.”

The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”

Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.

The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.

“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”

Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.

“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”

“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.

“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”

Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.

***

After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.

“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”

Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.

Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”

“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.

As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to the  farmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.

The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.  Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.

There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.

“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”

“We’ve no orders.”

“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”

“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.

“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”

The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.

“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”

“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”

“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”

Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.

“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”

“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”

“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”

“I know. He knows.”

“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”

“The 95th…”

“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”

Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.

***

They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.

Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.

As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.

“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”

“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”

“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”

“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”

“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”

Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.

“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.

“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”

They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.

“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”

“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”

“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”

“He’s not wounded, is he?”

“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”

“We can wait.”

“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”

“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”

“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”

“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”

The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.

***

Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.

There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.

“What is it, sir?”

“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”

“Should we move?”

“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”

“He’s desperate, sir.”

“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”

Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.

“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”

Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”

Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”

“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”

Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”

“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”

“He must have,” Napier said.

“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”

Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:

“It’s an order, Major.”

Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.

“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”

General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.

“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.

“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”

Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:

“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”

“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”

“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”

“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”

Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.

“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”

Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”

“It’s too risky.”

“It’s too risky not to.”

“I have given my orders, Major.”

There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.

“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”

“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.

“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”

They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.

There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.

There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Corporal Carter’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.

“Sir, here.”

Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”

Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.

There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.

Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.

“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”

“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”

“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”

“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”

Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.

“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”

The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.

The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.

“Colonel Beckwith.”

“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”

“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”

“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”

***

Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.

He was wrong.

As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.

It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.

“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”

“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”

“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”

“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,  that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.

At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.

It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.

“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”

Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”

Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.

General Robert Crauford

The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.

“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”

Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”

Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”

There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.

“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.

“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.

“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.

“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”

“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”

Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:

“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”

“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”

“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”

He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.

“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”

***

After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.

After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”

“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”

“Let’s both go.”

Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”

“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.

“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.

“Well, get back to them, then.”

“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”

After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”

“Do you think he meant it?”

“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”

“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”

“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”

“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”

“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”

“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”

“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”

“To Lisbon?”

“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”

“That will ruin her, Paul.”

“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”

His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”

“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”

“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.

“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”

“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”

“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.

“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.

“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”

“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.

***

Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.

Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.

That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.

“Powell. Got any rations left?”

Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”

“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”

It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.