NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week has gone better than I ever expected. There’s something very motivating about sitting down each day knowing that you’re not going to give up until you’ve at least come close to your word count.
As I’ve said before, I discovered when I came back to this book that I’d written more than I realised, although it was a bit all over the place, with a series of unconnected scenes. They weren’t all bad though. In fact I was really happy with some of them. Others were interesting but just not right for this book. I quickly realised that the first two chapters were probably the reason I found it so difficult to progress when I first started to work on this book last year. They slowed the book down unbearably from the beginning and kept impinging on the action later on as I had to justify their existence by keeping those narratives going. I’ve scrapped them completely and rewritten the following chapters to fit in and I’m now very happy with the start of this book.
Including the remaining excerpts which will either be scrapped or incorporated into the book when I get to them, I’ve now got seventy-nine thousand words, which is probably more than half the book. It’s going incredibly well. I’ve sent the first four chapters to my editor, just to read through, and she loves it, so I think I’m on the right track. To complete a first draft before the end of May I need to write an average of three to four thousand words a day, and I think I can probably manage that. After that will be a major edit, but I’m hopeful this book will be out before the end of the year, which makes me very happy after the disasters of the previous two years.
I love writing about Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell but in order to be able to tell the full story of the siege of Tarragona I needed men on the ground. As with the storming of Castro Urdiales in An Unmerciful Incursion, the British army wasn’t involved in this campaign. In that book, I solved the problem by giving some of my regular characters a reason to be in the town at the time of the siege. At Tarragona, I found that there were several published narratives written by men on the ground. Both General Suchet and General Contreras wrote their own accounts of what happened at Tarragona giving me some excellent source material to put alongside the account of Captain Codrington of the Royal Navy.
Accordingly, this will be the first outing for the French Captain Gabriel Bonnet of the 30th légère who later makes an appearance in An Indomitable Brigade. From the Spanish side, I’ve introduced a brand new character who is presenting me with an interesting challenge. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez, ADC to General Contreras who commanded the Spanish garrison in Tarragona is a complex individual who is not always likeable and not easy to write. I’ll be interested to see how this one goes.
It’s the start of a new week. I’ll keep you updated on progress on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out for posts there. I’m very excited to see where this book takes me next.
Oscar and Alfie are excited as well, as you can see…
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the early part of the voyage to Tarragona. Enjoy.
Hugh turned his attention to his sextant. It was a bright clear day, making the readings easy. Beside him Manby worked out his latitude in a small notebook and there was silence over the group of observers who were suddenly intent on their work. When the master had finished, he walked aft to where Lieutenant Pryce, the officer of the watch waited. Pryce accepted his report of noon along with the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed.
Hugh watched, hiding his smile, as Pryce approached him to make the same report. Manby had needed to walk past him to reach Pryce, but it would not have occurred to the master to report directly to Hugh and Hugh would not have asked him to do so. The daily rituals of shipboard life were important, not because of routine days such as this when Hugh was present and available, but for the one day when he would not be, and a crisis might occur.
Pryce saluted, announced that it was twelve o’clock and gave the latitude which Hugh already knew. Hugh nodded.
“Make it twelve, Mr Pryce.”
“Aye, sir.” Pryce raised his voice to the mate of the watch. “Make it twelve, Sanders.”
“Aye, sir.” Petty Officer Sanders turned to the waiting quarter-master. “Sound eight bells.”
The quarter-master stepped onto the ladder and called below. “Turn the glass and strike the bell.”
As the first stroke of the bell rang out, Pryce turned to where Geordie Armstrong waited, his whistle ready. “Pipe to dinner, Bosun.”
Hugh stood watching as officers and men dispersed. The officers dined in the wardroom at one o’clock and then Hugh dined an hour later, theoretically in solitary splendour. In practice, if he had no other guests, Hugh dined with his first lieutenant. He knew that one or two of his other officers during the past few years had looked askance at his close friendship with Durrell. There had been mutterings of favouritism, particularly after Walcheren when Hugh had stood by Durrell against all attempts to put him on half-pay.
Hugh could see Durrell now, his long form leaning against a grating. He was demonstrating something in a notebook to two of the midshipmen, waving his pencil in the air as he explained. Hugh had no idea what he was teaching them, but he knew it would be accurate, very well-explained and incredibly detailed. Hugh had received many such lectures from his junior and at times they had driven him mad, but he had also learned a great deal. He stood waiting for Durrell to finish, watching the midshipmen. Mr Clarke was staring into space, looking as though he would rather be somewhere else. His companion, one of the new boys by the name of Holland, was scribbling frantically in his own notebook, looking up every now and again with something like hero-worship at Durrell’s oblivious form. Hugh made a mental note to spend some time with Mr Holland and came forward.
“Mr Durrell. As it’s our first day at sea, I’ve invited the other officers to join us for dinner.”
Durrell smiled. “We’re very grateful, sir.”
“I’m sure you’ll be willing to act as my second host. And I’d be grateful if you’d do the same tomorrow when I’m hosting the midshipmen. I may need help with that.”
Durrell laughed aloud. “I’d be delighted, sir. I’m sure the young gentlemen will be on their best behaviour.”
“They’d better be.” Hugh surveyed Durrell’s two pupils. “Mr Clarke, I hope you’re studying hard. Mr Holland, you’re new to us. How are you enjoying your lessons?”
“Very much, Captain.”
“Excellent. You were taking notes there.”
“Yes, sir. Mr Durrell was explaining the difference between various instruments when making calculations and how they…” Holland stopped suddenly and blushed scarlet. “It was very interesting,” he said lamely.
“It’s fascinating,” Hugh said, amused. “I applaud your ability to rein in your enthusiasm but don’t do it with me, you’re exactly the kind of young officer I’m looking for. I’d like to get to know you better, you’ll sit beside me tomorrow at dinner. Now go and get your own dinner before your messmates eat it all.”
He watched as the younger men raced away to their meal then turned to Durrell. “Are you sure you’re ready to help me at this dinner tomorrow?”
“Of course I am, sir. There are one or two very promising men among the new midshipmen, but Mr Holland is my favourite so far.”
“I can see why. If he’s as good as he seems, why don’t you find him some extra duties that will give you a chance to work with him?”
Hugh saw his first lieutenant’s eyes light up. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you at dinner. As my clerk is struck down with sea-sickness, I intend to spend the next hour setting out my accounts book.”
Hugh heard the gloom in his own voice. Durrell laughed. “Would you like me to do it, sir?”
“Yes, but you’re not going to, you take on far too many duties that are not yours, including schooling the midshipmen. I…”
Hugh broke off at the sound of raised voices from the gangway. Before he could move, Durrell was ahead of him. Hugh watched as his first lieutenant crossed the deck and barked an order. Three boys scrambled up onto the deck and lined up before him and Durrell looked them over unsmiling.
“Mr Oakley, Mr Bristow. Can you explain to me why you’re brawling with Lewis when you should be on your way to dinner?”
“Not a brawl, sir. Just joking around.”
Durrell said nothing. He let the silence lengthen until the boys were shuffling their feet. Hugh could feel their discomfort and he did not blame them. Durrell’s withering expression was enough to discompose even the liveliest midshipman.
Eventually, Durrell moved his gaze to the third boy. Teddy Lewis was a wiry ex-pickpocket from Southwark who had been pressed as a landsman and had chosen to remain as a volunteer, acting as Durrell’s servant. He was sixteen and smaller than most of the boys but made up for it with a belligerent willingness to fight even the biggest of them. Durrell glared at Lewis for a full minute then looked back at the other two boys.
“Aboard a Royal Navy vessel, a midshipman is considered a young gentleman. I happen to know that you both qualify by birth if not behaviour. Repeatedly picking on one who is both smaller and below you in rank because you think he cannot fight back is not the act of a gentleman or a future officer, it is the act of a snivelling coward. Please do not be under the misapprehension that because you joined this ship as midshipman, you will necessarily remain so. If you persist in bullying the other boys I will have you broken to common seaman, and you’ll find that below decks the men will be unimpressed with your status. Now get to your dinner. I will see you at four o’clock after the watch is called and we will spend some time improving your mathematics.”
“But sir, study time is over then,” Bristow said in appalled tones.
“Not for you, Mr Bristow, since it appears that you struggle to find constructive ways to spend your leisure. Dismissed. Not you, Lewis.”
When the other boys had gone, Durrell regarded his servant thoughtfully. “Are you hurt?”
“Did they take anything?”
Lewis hesitated and Hugh could see him considering whether he could get away with a lie.
“I will find out, Lewis, and you will regret it.”
“My lesson book, sir.”
“Did you get it back?”
“It’s spoiled, sir. In the animal pen, it’s covered in shit…I mean dung, sir.”
Durrell did not speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was pleasant and even. Hugh could tell that he was furious.
“Go to the purser after dinner and get another one, with my authorisation. When you’re not using it, you have my permission to keep it in my cabin. The money will be deducted from their pay. In the meantime, Lewis, in addition to practicing your reading and penmanship, I would like you to practice walking away. If you spend your time defending every inch of your dignity you’ll never rise above able seaman and that would be a shame, because you are more intelligent than either of them. Now go and get your dinner.”
NaNoWriMo with Labradors appeared in my brain when I was trying to get back to sleep at 3.45am. I often struggle with sleep due to back problems, but I do try not to actually think when I’m awake. Thinking is fatal as I have the kind of brain which, once it’s fired up, sets off a series of ideas like a row of fireworks going off. This is really useful when creating fictional plots but a complete pain in the early hours of the morning. Let’s just say I’m going to be tired today.
Those of you who have grown old waiting for the release of An Indomitable Brigade will know that I’ve been struggling to be productive since the beginning of the pandemic. I was absolutely delighted to finally publish book seven of the Peninsular War Saga and even more pleased at how well it’s been received so far. This has given me a really good push to get on with the next book.
This Bloody Shore is book three in the Manxmanseries and is centred around the Siege of Tarragona in 1811. I started to write this book immediately after the publication of An Unmerciful Incursion in July 2020 and made a good start, but after a while I stalled and simply couldn’t get moving with it. Eventually I decided to set it aside and move back to the 110th in Spain. Hugh and Durrell have waited ever since, fairly patiently for them, until last week when I hauled them off half-pay and back aboard the Iris, setting sail for the Mediterranean.
I realised I’d written a lot more of this book than I thought, which was excellent news. Even better, most of it is very good with the exception of the first two chapters which were utterly superfluous to requirements and probably explain why I struggled with this book first time around. I’ve come up with some new ideas, done some more research, invented a useful new character (with major links to the other series, incidentally) and am ready to go.
That’s when I came up with this mad idea. I’ve never seriously done NaNoWriMo. Partly it’s because I write all the time anyway and have never felt the need to do a particular push like that. Partly it’s because the allocated month is November and that’s not generally the best time for me to be going all out on a novel. I’ve always quite liked the idea of a determined push like that, though, and as I’d really like to get another book out this year, it occurred to me that I could do my very own NaNoWriMo to try to get at least the first draft of this book finished.
For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month which usually takes place every November. Writers can register on the website and log their daily word count, as well as receiving encouragement and finding writing buddies. It’s a great resource and I suspect an amazing way to get people started. I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it, but the timing has just never been right for me.
So, my plan is, starting tomorrow, to write between four and five thousand words a day between now and the end of May. That’s probably going to be quite variable, because life will get in the way, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll post regularly giving my word count and to let you all know how I’m getting on.
My notebook is ready, my laptop is fired up and the desk army and navy are ready to offer support. This book is happening people…
Oscar and Alfie are excited about this new initiative at Writing With Labradors, as long as it doesn’t interfere with walks, playtime and mealtimes.
This Bloody Shore: Book 3 of the Manxman series.
It is 1811.
A desperate struggle takes place on the Eastern coast of Spain. The French are threatening the coastal town of Tarragona and Bonaparte holds out the glittering prize of a Marshal’s baton if General Suchet can capture the town.
Far from Wellington’s theatre of war, the town is held by Spanish forces under the Marquis of Campoverde. Supporting them is a small Royal Navy squadron, including the 74-gun third rater, HMS Iris.
After the frustration and political wrangling of the Walcheren campaign, Captain Hugh Kelly is missing Roseen but is relieved to be back at sea under the command of a man he trusts even though the situation in Tarragona is more complicated than it appears. Lieutenant Alfred Durrell is keen to put his family troubles behind him, but an unexpected encounter in London has left him feeling unsettled.
On shore, two very different men face each other across the walls of Tarragona. Captain Gabriel Bonnet, a scarred cynical veteran discovers a surprising sympathy for one particular victim of war. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez is a former Spanish Bonapartist but the atrocities he has seen have turned him into an implacable enemy of the French.
Meanwhile in England, Faith Collingwood’s long months of banishment are ended by an event which will change her life forever.
As Suchet’s troops creep ever closer to the walls, the armies, the navy and the townspeople are swept up in a brutal conflict which ends on the bloody shores of Tarragona.
When I began these posts I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue them all the way through lockdown. I didn’t really have a plan when I started, I was just trying to cheer myself – and any readers – up a bit. It did work to begin with, but after a few days I experienced a bit of a lockdown slump, and that is definitely not something I wanted to share with my poor readers.
I wanted to come back to this though, now that it’s over. We’re back to where we were before as from today, with life returning to normal in our lovely little bubble, apart from closed borders and even more stringent quarantine restrictions for anybody who leaves and wants to return. And the vaccine of course, which is being rolled out gradually, and which we hope one day will allow us to make choices about our own lives again.
At least daily walks with Oscar should get easier. After a few days of experimenting with the best way of walking Oscar in lockdown, I decided that driving to somewhere a bit less busy is a good idea. Usually in the week I just walk him from our front door, but the streets have been much more crowded through lockdown with people getting their daily exercise. Some of the pavements and footpaths are very narrow, and some people are more nervous than others. Add dogs into that mix and it’s just good to find some space. Accordingly my daughter and I have been taking him to the beach or down to St Michael’s Isle where it’s relatively empty and he can run around, swim and jump in puddles without upsetting anybody.
It’s been a joy to have my daughter on our daily walks and I’m going to miss her dreadfully when she goes back to University, which she’s decided to do this weekend. There will be on online teaching of course, and the library is still closed, but now that she can travel, she wants to be back in her student house with her friends, even if they can’t see anybody else. She’s already left home in her head and these weeks of uncertainty and not knowing when she can go back have been miserable. I’ll miss her, but I understand.
Covid rules do odd things to people. I heard a story from somebody I know about being yelled at for not wearing a mask in the street. From the other side of the road. Needless to say there were no rules about wearing masks out on a walk, and there is no way to know if somebody has a good reason for not doing so anyway. It’s extraordinary how this crisis brings out the best in so many people and the worst in others.
I’ve set myself some difficult writing goals for this year, but since I’m unlikely to be interrupted very much by inconvenient holidays or family visits, I’ve decided to go for it. I’m currently four chapters in to book three of the Manxman series, which is called This Bloody Shore and it’s going very well. I struggled this time to decide which book to write next. Technically, it should be the Manxman, as I tend to alternate the two series, but when I finished An Unmerciful Incursion I was so immersed in the world of the 110th that I began book seven straight away. For a few weeks I worked on both, then Hugh and Durrell began to demand my attention and point out that it was their turn.
For the first time in a few years, I’m aiming to get two books out this year. Both of these are already well planned out, and as the subject of book seven is relatively easy to research (although the plotline is difficult) I think I might well manage it. Certainly it will keep me very busy and that’s a good thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I love so much that I can completely immerse myself in it. I am not convinced that life in 1811 would have been much fun, but writing about it is a wonderful way of removing myself from the current situation.
It’s good to know that we have a measure of freedom again, although I think I’m very aware of how fragile that can be. I really hope that my friends elsewhere in the world can achieve the same thing soon. I miss you all very much.
I miss travel and libraries and seeing my sister. I miss planning research trips and going to conferences. I miss big things like my holidays and I miss silly things like watching football on the TV and seeing real fans at Old Trafford. I miss my daughter being able to come and go from Uni freely, without worrying. I miss new films at the cinema, and shows coming over from the UK at the theatre and being able to look ahead and plan. I think we all miss different things, and I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. Whatever the awfulness in the world, it’s natural and normal to miss things that have been taken away from us. The key is to try to find other things to make us happy.
In the meantime, some lessons from Lockdown with Oscar: the End.
I really hate lockdown
Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
Talking to people about history is great
I’m not good at rules
Or being locked up
Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
Dogs don’t understand social distancing
I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
I’m incredibly lucky
The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
I’m sort of proud of us
Did I mention I hate lockdown?
The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
I’m pretty odd though
My family are great and I adore them
My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
So I need them all to stay safe.
Can’t believe I just said that.
I want this to be over for everybody.
“Mum. Mum. What are you going on about, you said this would be a short post and then we’d go out.”
“Just coming, Oscar.”
“Is it true I can play with all my friends again?”
“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”
“That’s right, Oscar.”
“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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 roughlyconstructed 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.
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.
“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 tothe 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 wasalso 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 thatit 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.
“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…”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
I got the idea of writing a blog post about Major-General Paul van Daan, the leading character in the Peninsular War Saga from the Historical Writers Forum on Facebook. Every week, we do a #FunFursday post, where members are invited to post something related to a particular theme. It can be an excerpt, a picture, a meme or just some random thoughts. Generally, I post an excerpt from one of my books, if I can find something relevant, but on seeing that the theme was Favourite Character, I decided to write about Paul.
I was quite surprised to discover I’ve not written a blog post about Paul before. I mean, he features quite heavily in many other posts, and is obviously the man behind my most popular series, but I don’t appear to ever have written a post about him. My initial reaction when I saw the theme was to wonder if I should maybe choose one of my other characters, but then I decided, no. I have an entire host of favourite characters in all three of my ongoing series, but when I sit down and start to write, the voice that echoes loudest in my brain, the one I know the best, is undoubtedly the overbearing, noisy, over-conscientious commander of the 110th Light Infantry.
Many of you have already met Paul, and some people have read and re-read his adventures so many times that you probably know him almost as well as I do. This post isn’t written with you in mind, but you’ll all read it, because you’re all waiting for the next book, and anything Van Daan related will do at this point.
For those of you new to the series, we first meet Paul in 1802, at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer, when he has just joined the light company of the 110th infantry in barracks at Melton Mowbray along with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson. Paul is twenty-one and has joined the army later than a lot of young officers, having spent two years at Oxford first. This might have been seen as a disadvantage against young ensigns of sixteen or even younger, but it is clear right at the start that this new officer has the one quality that could pretty much guarantee a quick rise up the ranks in the early nineteenth century. Paul van Daan has money, and a lot of it. He isn’t embarrassed by it or apologetic about it, and he’s very willing to use it to get where he wants to be.
So who is Paul van Daan?
Obviously, Paul is fictional, and when I decided I wanted to write a series set in the Peninsular War, I had a long hard think. A lot of books have been written in this setting, ever since Bernard Cornwell launched Richard Sharpe on the world back in 1981, and while the setting and the campaigns fascinated me, I was looking for a different kind of hero. Many of the books in this genre that I read, including Sharpe, were based around officers struggling against the military purchase system. They had little or no fortune, no influence and fought against injustice, trying to make their way against all the odds. I decided that had been done many times and very well. But what about the man who didn’t have to struggle at all?
In many books of the genre, the wealthy officer, purchasing his way up the ranks as fast as possible, is portrayed as an incompetent, idle amateur, who comes unstuck in the face of the enemy and can’t gain the respect of his men. It seemed to me, that while there may have been some of these, there were also a very large number of good, steady career officers who could afford purchase but still took their jobs very seriously, worked hard, made friends, loved their wives and families and probably got no mention in modern fiction because they just didn’t seem interesting enough.
Enter Paul van Daan.
Paul is the younger son of a very wealthy City businessman, who runs a shipping Empire and has investments all over the world. Franz van Daan was born in Antwerp and spent his youth making a fortune in India, before moving to England and marrying the daughter of a Viscount, which gave him a respectable place in English society. He had two sons, Joshua and Paul and a daughter, Emma. The Van Daan family divided their time between their London house in Curzon Street and the family estate in Leicestershire.
When Paul was ten, his mother and sister both died in a smallpox epidemic, and Paul’s world changed forever. He had been close to his mother, and after her death his relationship with his father deteriorated. Franz sent him to Eton, where he spent two years before being expelled for throwing the Greek master into a fountain. It was clear that the explosive temper which is to get Paul into trouble all his life was already very much in evidence. With no idea how to deal with his difficult fourteen year old son, Franz took the decision to send him to sea aboard one of his merchantmen, in the hope that it would teach him discipline.
The thought of sending a grieving fourteen year old boy to sea is horrific to modern sensibilities, but during this period it would have been quite common, and many midshipmen in the Royal Navy started their careers at an even younger age. Franz probably hoped that the discipline of shipboard life would bring his wayward son under control, and perhaps thought that Paul might choose a career at sea before joining him in the shipping business. Paul enjoyed his time aboard the merchantman, and it’s possible that his father’s plan might have paid off if disaster hadn’t struck. In a storm off the West Indies, the ship went down. Some of the men made it to shore on Antigua in the ship’s boats, but were immediately picked up by a Royal Navy press gang, and Paul found himself below decks on a man o’war with none of the advantages of wealth or privilege. It took two and a half years before he was able to notify his father that he was still alive, during which time he lived through brutal treatment, flogging, battle at sea and achieved promotion to petty officer.
The story of Paul’s time in the navy will be written one day. In terms of the main storyline, it is the period which defined his adult life. He grew from a boy into a man during those years, and by the time he joined the army in 1802, he had battle experience, had fought and killed men, and had learned something of his own capacity for leadership. He had also learned more than most officers ever knew about living alongside men from the lower orders, in filthy, miserable conditions. He had experienced hunger and flogging and brutality, and his knowledge of that informed his style of leadership when he finally commanded men in the 110th infantry. It is immediately obvious to both his fellow officers and his enlisted men, that Lieutenant van Daan, in terms of the army, is a bit odd…
“He’s the strangest officer I’ve ever served under.”
“You could do worse.”
“Believe me, sir, I have. The seventh company is commanded by a complete arsehole that flogs the men just for a laugh.”
“Tut, tut, Sergeant, that’s no way to speak about Captain Longford. We’ve met. Has he flogged you, Sergeant?”
“More than once, when I first joined. Wonder what your laddie would make of him? Could be good entertainment. I don’t think Mr van Daan gives a shit about seniority somehow.” Michael glanced sideways at Carl. “Or about any other rules.”
Carl shook his head. “Mr van Daan knows every rule in this army, Sergeant, he’s read the training manuals which is more than I have. How closely he’ll stick to them is another matter.”
“He’ll get himself into trouble sooner or later, if he doesn’t, sir.”
“I’m confidently expecting it, Sergeant.”
(An Unconventional Officer)
From his earliest days in the regiment, we follow Paul’s steady rise through the ranks. His progress is made easier through an unlikely, but increasingly close friendship, with the difficult, austere General Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who first meets Paul on a hillside in India. That friendship is a key element in Paul’s story. The two men are very different, with Wellington’s distant, often cold and unsympathetic personality contrasting with Paul’s warmth and exuberance.
Through the six books (so far) of the Peninsular War Saga, plus an appearance in the first book of the Manxman series, we follow Paul’s career from junior lieutenant, to captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, full colonel and then to major-general in command of a brigade of the light division. We also follow his personal life, through several fleeting relationships, a warm and affectionate first marriage, and finally to a union with the lovely and forthright daughter of a Yorkshire textile baron, who brings her own particular brand of eccentricity to the 110th.
Paul van Daan is an immensely popular character with my readers. From the start, he is both engaging and exasperating. With all the advantages of birth and money, he regularly gets himself into trouble because of his quick temper and his determination to do things his own way. He has very little patience with senior officers he sees as incompetent, and absolutely no tolerance at all with junior officers who don’t do their job properly. He is a talented commander, who can think on his feet and manage his men and he often gets on quite well with officers considered difficult by other people. Wellington is an obvious example, but he also has a good relationship with Black Bob Craufurd, the mercurial, brilliant commander of the light division until his death in 1812, even though the two men definitely had their differences…
“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.”
There is another side of Paul, often hidden behind his outbursts of temper, his ruthlessness in battle and his undoubted talent as an officer. Paul is a family man. He adores his wife and children, cares deeply about his friends and has a passionate determination to take care of his men, in an army where that was not always the first concern of an officer. I’ve tried, throughout the books, to balance out the two sides of Paul’s character to make a believable whole.
There have been some complaints in reviews, that in Paul, I’ve created too much of a ‘modern man’. I’m not always sure what this refers to – possibly his attitude to discipline, possibly his readiness to express his emotion or possibly his devotion to his wife. It’s a point open to debate, but I’d actually dispute that there is any one aspect of Paul’s character that isn’t mirrored by somebody I’ve read about in the letters and memoirs of officers during the Peninsular War. Anybody who has read Harry Smith’s open devotion to his young Spanish wife can’t argue that Paul’s feelings for Anne are unrealistic. Anybody who has read of Colonel Mainwaring’s dislike of flogging, or Sir Rowland “Daddy” Hill’s kindness to his soldiers, can’t argue that all officers were indifferent to the hardships of their enlisted men.
Thinking about Paul van Daan, I realise that I’ve written quite an old-fashioned hero. Paul is a good man, often placed in difficult and painful situations, but who generally does the right thing, even though he messes up from time to time. I think I’ve done that deliberately. In an era when cynicism and the anti-hero are popular, I’ve chosen to write about a man I like. He isn’t always right, and sometimes he is incredibly exasperating, but I can trust him, sooner or later, to come down on the right side. He’s a man of his time, but a good man. He’s funny and affectionate and kind. He’s also angry and arrogant and overbearing and at times I want to slap him. Paul kills people for a living. He also saves them. Sometimes that’s an uncomfortable reality, but that’s the reality of a military man of his time. Luckily, Paul doesn’t suffer from that particular angst. I don’t think many army officers in the early nineteenth century did.
As a writer, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to write a darker character, with greater moral dilemmas, reflecting some of the difficulties of our modern age. I decided against it. I decided that for a change, I’d write about a dashed good fellow, with a very straightforward view of the world, an imperfect but likeable hero that people could get behind and cheer for, even if sometimes they wanted to smack him. I think many other writers do an excellent job of darkness and angst. I wanted to do something revolutionary in these days, and write about courage, and kindness and integrity.
Look out for more Paul van Daan in book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade, out next year. Also to follow will be book three of the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore.
When I decided to write a post on Sir Edward Codrington for the latest Historical Writers Forum blog hop, I can honestly say that I hadn’t really taken on board, that the title of the blog hop was going to be “My favourite historical character” or I might have chosen somebody else. Codrington is by no means my favourite. Anybody who has read my books will know that the Duke of Wellington tops my list, with honourable mentions for General Robert Craufurd and General Charles Alten. However, I’ve already written blog posts on all of these, and I wanted to do somebody different.
I introduced Codrington and his wife in This Blighted Expedition, and he is going to be an important character in the next book in the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore, which will be out during the second half of next year. And having spent some time reading his published memoirs, as well as looking into his career, I admit, that while Codrington isn’t my favourite, I do like him. So what’s the problem?
The problem, dear reader, is that Edward Codrington was a slave owner. But we’ll come back to that later.
Edward Codrington was born in 1770, a youngest son in an aristocratic family. His mother died the same year, possibly giving birth to him, and his father died when he was five, leaving him to the care of an uncle by the name of Bethell. He was educated at Harrow for a short time and entered the Royal Navy in 1783 at the age of thirteen.
Codrington served in the Mediterranean, off the United States and in home waters, until 1793 when he was promoted to lieutenant. By this time, he seems to have been under the patronage of Lord Howe, who was possibly an acquaintance of his uncle, and he was chosen as signal lieutenant in the Channel fleet and served on HMS Queen Charlotte in the battle of the Glorious First of June. Having distinguished himself during the battle, he was promoted to commander in October 1794 and then post-captain in April 1795 at the age of 25. He commanded HMS Babet and then HMS Druid in the Channel and off Portugal, and took part in the capture of a French vessel carrying troops to assist the rebels in Ireland in 1797.
This was followed by a period on land and on half-pay. This was not unusual as there were always more captains than ships to command. Patronage was vitally important and Lord Howe, Codrington’s patron, died at his home in London in 1799. Codrington did not waste his time on land, however, and was married in 1802 to Jane Hall, a young woman from Kingston, Jamaica. The Codringtons had three sons and two daughters and appear to have been a devoted couple. In 1810, Codrington wrote to his wife:
“To be a hero one needs not to be a bad husband, most certainly; but I fear that, in order to obtain the lofty situation from which heroism can be adopted practically, in the mode of external warfare to which the sons of England are subject in these times, a man must possess none of those yearnings after his wife and children which interfere with all my official proceedings. And therefore, my dear Jane, never expect that your weak, loving husband will become a hero, a Nelson, until some other Lady Hamilton shall, by her wicked influence, utterly quench those feelings of father and husband which are now his pride and his consolation. My only resource will be, if ever I should become an admiral and Commander – in – chief, to petition that my wife may be allowed to accompany me as my secretary; – and therefore prepare yourself for this contingency!”
In 1803 the Peace of Amiens ended and England was once more at war with France. Codrington was back at sea, initially in a series of small frigates, and finally in 1805, in HMS Orion, a ship of the line. Codrington fought at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October. The Orion attacked the French ship, the Swiftsure, forcing her to surrender, made an unsuccessful attack on the Spanish flagship and then attacked the Intrepide along with several other English ships.
For the following few years, in command of HMS Blake, Codrington fought in the Mediterranean alongside the Spanish, commanding a squadron to harry the French along the coast. He was then called to take part in the disastrous Walcheren expedition in 1809, and it was at this point, researching This Blighted Expedition, that I first came across him. Codrington and his wife would have been only a few years older than my fictional navy couple, Hugh and Roseen Kelly, with children of a similar age, and a friendship seemed like a good plot device. In Codrington’s published memoirs is a vivid description of Jane’s terrifying ordeal during the shipwreck of HMS Venerable when she travelled to visit him in Walcheren, and in the novel, Roseen accompanies her.
After Walcheren, Codrington returned to Spain’s eastern seaboard. He was very involved when Tarragona was besieged by the French army, bringing in reinforcements, guiding cannon launches against the enemy and trying to assist the garrison. When the city fell, he performed a daring rescue operation on the beach, under fire from enemy guns and rescued more than 600 people, going to the trouble to personally reunite families who were separated during the evacuation. Codrington also showed a willingness to intervene in political matters when he spoke against the disarming of the local Catalan militia.
Codrington’s distinguished service was rewarded when he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1814, while serving off the coast of North America as Cochrane’s captain of the fleet. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1815, a rear admiral of the Red in 1819, and a vice admiral in 1821. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1822.
Tragedy struck the family some time in 1821 or 1822 when Codrington’s son Edward, a midshipman aboard Cambrian was drowned in the Mediterranean. He was taking a cutter to Hydra when a squall overturned the boat, drowning Edward, a merchant, and three crewmen.
In 1826, Codrington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and sailed for Greek waters in 1827, with orders to impose a peaceful solution on the chaos of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. Codrington was in command of a combined British, French and Russian fleet, and had been told to find a diplomatic solution. Diplomacy does not seem to have been Codrington’s strong point, and although he appears to have been under the mistaken impression that the Ottomans had broke an agreed truce, I suspect that the suffering of the local population would have been enough to set him off anyway. On 20 October 1827, in an action which very clearly exceeded his orders, Codrington destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino.
After the battle Codrington went to Malta to refit his ships, then in May 1828, he sailed to join the French and Russian fleets on the coast of the Morea to attempt to force the capitulation of the governor, Ibrahim Pasha, who was employing brutal tactics to suppress rebellion in the area, desolating the countryside and sending thousands of the inhabitants into slavery in Egypt, intending to replace them with Muslim settlers from Africa.
On 22 June, Codrington received the news that he was to be recalled, probably to account for his actions. Before his successor could arrive, however, the three admirals agreed that Codrington should travel to Alexandria to persuade Mehemet Ali to recall Ibrahim Pasha. With typical disregard for the probable terms of his recall, Codrington went, and the evacuation of the Morea was settled in the treaty 6 August 1828. A French expeditionary force landed, and in October 1828 Ibrahim Pasha evacuated the country.
After his return home, Codrington mounted a spirited defence of his actions, and was fully exonerated and rewarded by the grant of the Grand Cross of the Bath, although there is no doubt that the British government was embarrassed by his intervention. It was considered that his action had further weakened the Ottoman Empire, which was seen as a bulwark against the ambitions of Russia.
Codrington spent the rest of his career close to home. He commanded a training squadron in the Channel in 1831 and became a full admiral in 1837. He was an MP between 1832 and 1839, when he became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth until 1842. His beloved Jane died in 1837.
Codrington died in London on 28 April 1851. He was survived by two sons, both of whom achieved distinction in the British armed forces. Sir William Codrington was a commander in the Crimean War and Sir Henry Codrington became an Admiral of the Fleet. His daughter Jane, married Sir Thomas Bourchier and was responsible for the publication of Codrington’s memoirs. There was another daughter, Elizabeth, but I’ve not yet been able to find out much about her, so I’m wondering if she died young.
Codrington was buried in St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, then in 1954, the remains were reburied at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Plaques to his memory can be found in St Paul’s Cathedral and All Saints Church, Dodington, close to the family home and there is an obelisk dedicated to the memory of Codrington and his officers who fought at Navarino at Pylos, in Greece. Numerous roads are named after him in Greece, and stamps with his image have been issued.
That was Sir Edward Codrington the hero. He was brave, intelligent and not afraid to put his own life and reputation on the line in order to do the right thing. He was well-liked and had many friends. He was a devoted husband, who adored his wife. He was compassionate, as demonstrated by his personal quest to reunite mothers and babies separated during the evacuation of Tarragona.
And he was a slave owner.
I’ve spent some time trying to find out more about this aspect of Codrington’s life. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Codringtons, the Bethell and the Hall families were plantation owners, slave owners and an integral part of the high-ranking families who made fortunes from the human misery of slavery in eighteenth century Britain. It’s much harder to establish the actual personal involvement of each individual member of every family to the institution of slavery. From my little outpost on the Isle of Man, especially in the middle of a pandemic, my research facilities are limited. Having said that, thanks to the fantastic website run by The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at UCL, I’ve been able to find out a surprising amount about Sir Edward Codrington’s family, and I’m going to follow this up with another blog post, since that has been a whole different research rabbit hole.
Here’s what I know so far about Sir Edward Codrington and slavery. On 5th October 1835, under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Codrington was awarded government compensation of £2588 6s 6d for the 190 slaves he had owned at the Rooms plantation on Antigua, and who had been freed under the terms of the act. The plantation was part of an inheritance shared by his siblings, from his uncle, Christopher Bethell in 1797.
Sir Edward’s memoirs and published letters are very quiet on the subject of slavery. Most of the references I could find, concerned his horrified indictment of the Ottoman practice of taking Greek prisoners into slavery in Egypt, but there is no hint in any of his letters that he drew any parallel with the slaves he owned in Antigua. This is probably not surprising, since most of these letters were of a professional and highly public nature and Codrington was fighting for his career after Navarino.
The only reference I could find to plantation slavery, is in a letter to his wife, dated February 1806. It seems that Codrington sent Jane an article from the Edinburgh Review which he hoped she would read.
“As I see no marks whatever, I fancy you did not look over the (article in the Edinburgh Review on) the Examen de l’Esclavage; which I lament, because that brutal publication has called forth from these gentlemen an investigation into the merits of the slave trade, and some reasoning on its merits and consequences, which I think well worthy the consideration of the planters. A new system must take place sooner or later in that part of the world; and I am fully convinced that it would be much better for it to originate with the most interested; and I think also, that they would find their advantage in anticipation, instead of waiting till the necessity of the case runs away with all the credit which might be due to the measure.”
The book to which Codrington refers was “Examen de l’esclavage in général, et particulierement de l’esclavage des Nègres dans les colonies françaises de l’Amérique” which was published in 1802. I’ve not yet managed to read it, given that my French takes a while and a lot of patience, but as far as I am able to judge, it is written from an abolitionist standpoint. Britain was in the process of abolishing the slave trade, if not yet slavery itself, and it is interesting to see that Codrington was engaging with the debate in a way that suggests that he saw abolition as both desirable and inevitable. This was a very different standpoint to his brother, Christopher Bethell-Codrington, who in the same year rejected pressure from constituents to support the abolition of the slave trade, and continued to oppose abolition right to the bitter end.
However, whatever doubts Edward Codrington may have entertained about slavery did not cause him to free the slaves he owned in Antigua. Slaves they remained until emancipation, and Codrington accepted government compensation along with the other slave owners of the British Isles. I find myself wondering if Codrington ever visited the West Indies. There is no mention of it in his published memoirs. Did he ever even see the men, woman and children he owned, or was he, like so many others, an absentee plantation owner, who took the revenue and gave no thought to the misery behind it?
In 2009, the Greek Ambassador unveiled a blue plaque at the former home of Sir Edward Codrington in Brighton, and local newspapers spoke of Codrington as a hero. In 2020, the plaque was removed after local protests, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd.
So who was Edward Codrington – compassionate war hero who risked his life and reputation for the citizens of Tarragona and the freedom of Greece or a man who made money from the misery of black African slaves? The truth is, of course, that he was both
My fictionalised Ned Codrington needs to encompass all aspects of his character as far as I can discover them. I’d no idea what I was taking on when I decided to include him in my novels, but he’s there now. I already have a sense of how he might be, and I’m looking forward to getting to understand him better.
There is undoubtedly more to know about Codrington, and one day I’d like to try to find out. Perhaps lurking in some archive that I don’t currently have access to, there is evidence that he did speak out openly against slavery during his lifetime. Or perhaps there is evidence that he was the opposite, a man actively involved either in the trade or the running of his plantation, greedy for profit and careless of the lives he ruined. Perhaps, and this would be my guess, Codrington didn’t spend much time thinking about it at all. Antigua was a long way away, and it must have been so easy for a man with a burgeoning career and a growing family to make use of that extra income and ignore where the money came from. I’ll let you know if I find out more. What I do know, is researching this blog post has given me an entire raft of new ideas for the future of the Manxman series.
I wonder what Codrington would have thought of the removal of that blue plaque, if he could somehow see it? I think he might have been surprised that it was there in the first place, Codrington didn’t strike me as a man chasing fame. But he was a man who valued his good name and I think he’d have been sad that a hundred and sixty-nine years after his death, his reputation seems to have been tarnished not by active cruelty but by indifference.
The Memoir of the Life of Edward Codrington vols 1 and 2, edited by Lady Jane Bourchier available online here.
The Centre for the Studies of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership at UCL available online here.
The History of Parliament Online, a work in progress, but available here.
The Story of the Peninsular War Saga is based on readers’ questions over the three years since the publication of An Unconventional Officer, the book which launched the series and introduced Paul van Daan to the unsuspecting reading public. I’ve just revisited that book, as I’m in the process of re-editing the whole series for paperback.
This is something I’ve been intending to do for several years, but I’ve continually put it off. Researching and writing the books is much more fun than the boring technical details of formatting and re-editing, and somehow I always delay this job until after the next book. My readers, who are an enthusiastic lot, make this far more difficult by constantly screeching for more in the series. However, after the very successful launch of book six, a number of people contacted me asking when the series would be available in paperback as they wanted to be able to buy them as gifts for friends and family who don’t use kindle. This made a lot of sense.
I also found myself in the unusual position of being unsure whether to move on with book seven or to write book three in my linked Manxman series. It seemed to make sense to do some reading for both, before making a decision, while working with Heather, my editor, to make the books as perfect as possible before launching the paperback editions. It also felt like a good time for me to look back over the past three years at both the story behind the story, and at my own development as a writer.
I get a lot of questions sent to me by e-mail and messenger and I try, if possible, to reply. When I was trying to write this post, I looked back over both questions and answers, and decided this was a good way of structuring the article, so I’ve reproduced some of them here, often with extended answers.
What made you want to write about the Napoleonic Wars?
I first got interested in the Napoleonic wars at University, although I never actually studied them then. I did a course on the history of South Africa, and was introduced to a larger than life character by the name of Sir Harry Smith. As background reading, I got hold of his autobiography and read about his younger days fighting under Wellington in the Peninsula. That led me on to Georgette Heyer’s fabulous novel about Harry and his Spanish wife Juana, and also to other Peninsular War memoirs like Kincaid.
I was completely hooked. I already had ambitions to write historical novels, and I’d thought of various different periods including the English Civil Wars, which I studied at Uni, or the Anglo-Scottish conflicts in the sixteenth century. I also really wanted to write a novel set in nineteenth century South Africa. But the Napoleonic Wars seemed to me to be an excellent setting for a series.
I messed around with a lot of ideas for all of these over the next few years, but I was also busy getting my degrees, finding jobs and getting on with life. I wrote several books of various types during this time, none of which stood a hope in hell of getting published, and even scribbled down some ideas for the Peninsular War Saga. Then in 1993 a TV series began, starring Sean Bean. That led me to read some of the Sharpe novels, and I decided that with Bernard Cornwell doing it so well, and a lot of other authors publishing similar books off the back of his success, there was no chance that anybody was going to pick up a series by an unknown writer who also happened to be a woman.
2. Was An Unconventional Officer your first book?
Written or published? The answer is no and no. I tried to get an agent and a traditional publishing contract for many years before the advent of Kindle and self-publishing, and I wrote a number of different books on advice from people in the industry. I was usually told that as a woman, I should write romance, and that my best chance was with Mills and Boon, so I tried both historical and contemporary with a lot of very positive comments, but no success.
By the time I decided to publish independently, I was sick of the whole thing. I had four completed historical novels that I was reasonably happy with, none of which, I was told, were ‘marketable’. An Unconventional Officer was one of them. I still really wanted to write the full series, and I was already almost at the end of book two, with two more fully researched and planned out, when I made the decision to go for it, egged on by my husband.
Because the publishing process was new to me, and I had literally NO idea how to market my books, I decided to publish the three ‘standalone’ novels first to see how they went. So I published A Respectable Woman,A Marcher Lord and The Reluctant Debutante fairly close together, before being brave enough to put An Unconventional Officer out there. Later on, I re-edited The Reluctant Debutante, in order to link it in with the Peninsular War Saga and wrote a second Regency to go with it.
3. How did Paul van Daan come about? Is he based on a real historical person?
Paul isn’t based on a real person, although he has characteristics of a number of different people.
There’s definitely something of Harry Smith in there, and I’ve deliberately included Harry and Juana in the books as minor characters. Smith was a flamboyant character, very full of himself, and a favourite of Wellington’s despite not being of the social class most generally favoured by his Lordship. He also had a much adored young wife who shared all the dangers of life on campaign with him, and I don’t think anybody would believe me if I said that idea didn’t make its way into the Peninsular War Saga.
With regard to Paul’s care for the welfare of his men, I’ve taken some of that from Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill although I can’t really imagine any of Paul’s lot nicknaming him ‘Daddy’. But in terms of his eccentric style of managing his men and his aversion to flogging, I got the idea from a rather fabulous book called The Letters of Private Wheeler.
William Wheeler of the 51st wrote a series of letters which began with his early days in the regiment, shortly before embarking on the disastrous Walcheren campaign in 1809 and run through to 1828. They are an amazing source of information on the life of an infantryman during this period and I use them all the time. They also introduced me to Wheeler’s first commanding officer, an eccentric gentleman by the name of Lt-Colonel Mainwaring. Wheeler gives several different anecdotes about the colonel, but this gives the flavour of the man.
“It is the general custom of most regiments to shut up the gates, and confine the men to Barracks when under orders for Foreign service. Not so with us. Colonel Mainwaring does not approve of this plan. When he received the order, the gates were thrown wide open that the good soldier might make merry and enjoy himself, at the same time adding that if there should be any poltroons in disguise among us they might be off, it was only the good soldiers he wished to take with him. We were going to reap laurels, therefore he should not hinder the good soldier from enjoying himself for the sake of keeping a few good for nothing fellows. If any such had crept into the Corps, they would only cover the regiment with disgrace. The confidence reposed in us was not in one singe instance abused, not one man having deserted.”
With regard to the practice of flogging, Wheeler tells us that:
“Lt-Colonel Mainwaring is a very humane man. He is no advocate for the cat o’nine tails. I have more than once heard it remarked that if he could not stand fire better than witness a flogging, he would be the worst soldier in the army.”
Over the years I have had one or two reviewers complaining that Paul van Daan’s attitude to discipline is unrealistic and could not possibly have existed at this period. Colonel Mainwaring is my answer to that one. He probably wasn’t the only one, but he is certainly my favourite.
4. Why is Paul half Dutch?
I’m amazed this question hasn’t been asked more often. The answer is very simple and has nothing to do with the Peninsular War Saga. As I mentioned above, before I wrote An Unconventional Officer, I wrote another book which was set in South Africa in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The main character was a young Boer from an Anglicised family who was partly educated in England, and who served under Sir Harry Smith, and one of the themes of the book was his struggle to come to terms with the conflicting parts of his heritage. The character’s name was Paul van Daan. At a certain point it became clear that book was never going to be published for a number of reasons, but I rather fell in love with him, so I decided to transport him back in time to the Peninsular War. I had every intention of changing the surname and making him English, but it just didn’t work, he was too well established in my head. So I gave him a Dutch father instead.
5. How did you come up with Anne’s character and is she based on anybody real?
Anne isn’t really based on any one person. I wanted my heroine to be able to fit into the period and into army life, so I gave her a background which I thought made that possible. I wanted a hard-headed, practical woman who was very intelligent, and very adaptable. The daughter of a Yorkshire mill owner sounded down-to-earth, but because I also wanted her to have the social skills to shine at headquarters, I gave her a well-born stepmother who taught her to ride and to manage a large household. I also deliberately made her quite young, to give her that adaptability.
When I first wrote the books, Anne was not traditionally beautiful. I re-thought that, and decided that it would be more of a contrast for a girl with the wow-factor to turn out to be more interested in keeping accounts and learning how to sew up battle wounds than she is in fashion and parties. I also wanted Anne to have her own friendship with Wellington, to bring out his softer side, so she needed to combine both beauty and brains.
6. A lot of heroes in other books, like Sharpe, are known for moving from one woman to another? Why did you decide to give your hero a wife and a steady family life?
I thought it would be more interesting. Partly it was the Harry and Juana factor, but mostly it was because I wanted to be able to write from both a male and a female perspective, and the only way I could really do that was by giving my leading man a leading lady.
7. How much research do you do for each book?
How long is a piece of string? I do an enormous amount of reading. I know the period details fairly well by now, so I don’t have to keep checking things like uniform and commanding officers every five minutes, but I do need to do detailed research into every campaign, and I also like to find contemporary accounts like Wheeler’s as they are a fabulous source of anecdotes that I can weave into my fictional storyline. I wrote a post about my research and note taking for anybody who is interested in learning more.
8. Who are your favourite real characters in the books?
Wellington has to be top of the list, he is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve spent so much time reading his correspondence by now, I feel as though I know him really well. Of course that’s just my personal version of Wellington, but it is based on a lot of research.
I really like both the Light Division commanders, Craufurd and Alten. They are totally different personalities, but I’ve given each of them their own character in the books and I love their different relationships with Paul. Harry and Juana Smith are favourites, of course, and because of Heyer’s book, The Spanish Bride, so many of my readers recognise them. And I’m a little in love with Colonel Andrew Barnard, a man who genuinely knew how to enjoy himself in the middle of a campaign.
9. Do you already know which characters are going to make it through the war?
Some. Not all. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Paul and Anne make it, and there are a few spoilers scattered through my short stories and the Regency romances. But there are some names you won’t hear mentioned in those.
10. Are you going to write the books all the way through Waterloo, as Bernard Cornwell did?
If I don’t get run over by a bus, I promise I am. I’m about halfway through now, maybe a little more, as I’ve not yet decided how I’m going to split up the Pyrenees campaigns, they’re terribly all over the place.
11. Are you going to write any more books after Waterloo? Will they be about Paul van Daan?
I’m going to write until I can’t write any more. Whether that will follow Paul, or pick up some other characters in other campaigns, or even take a look at his children, I don’t know yet. I just hope I live a long time, I’ve got so many ideas.
12. What made you start writing the Manxman series?
Local pressure. I live on the Isle of Man and I was always being asked in local interviews, if I would ever write a book set on the island. The Isle of Man was more suited to a book about the navy than the army, so I began An Unwilling Alliance as a standalone novel. Then I remembered that Paul van Daan had been at Copenhagen and thought I could give him a small cameo role. Then he took over a third of the book. Then I realised I needed to know what happened to Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell next.
13. Will Hugh Kelly and Paul meet again during the war?
I think so. Almost certainly. I know where Hugh will be for the next couple of books, but there’s a book after that which could very easily bring the two series together, and I think I’ll write it.
14. Why did you decide to publish independently?
I couldn’t get a publisher for the stories I was writing because I was told nobody wanted to read that kind of book any more. I couldn’t stop writing, and it proved impossible to swap genres, I just couldn’t manage it. I resisted for a long time, because I felt as though it was ‘vanity publishing’. But eventually, I figured that even if only a few people read them, it was better than having half a dozen completed books sitting on my laptop doing nothing.
It turned out that the agents and publishers were wrong, and there was very definitely a market for this series.
15. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
Don’t wait as long as I did. By all means try the traditional route, and keep doing so if that’s what you want. But if you’ve written something you’re proud of, make it as good as you know how, take all the advice you can, and then go for it. If nobody buys it, all it has cost you is some time.
16. Have you ever written any non-fiction or contemporary fiction?
I’ve written some articles and blog posts for people. And I made a couple of attempts at writing contemporary romances for Mills and Boon. They were pretty awful.
17. Will you write any more Regency romances?
I’m sure I will. Before I started the Manxman series, my intention was to intersperse the Peninsular books with the Regency series. But I’ve decided that I can’t manage three series on the go, plus regular short stories. Besides, writing books set after the war meant that I was at risk of introducing too many spoilers. I will go back to them, however.
In A Marcher Lord, I’d like to follow up the story of Jenny’s cousin. And I’d also like to take the characters forward into the period of Mary, Queen of Scots reign. I think that would be fascinating.
I actually started writing a sequel to A Respectable Woman, following the fortunes of Kit and Philippa’s grown up children. Their adopted son Alex is definitely an army man, and I suspect one of their daughters to be a bit of a radical politically. I think I will come back to that.
19. What are your plans for future books? How many are you going to write in both series?
The Peninsular War Saga will go through to Waterloo, and I quite fancy doing a book set during the period of the Army of Occupation. I also have a real yen to write a novel set during the Congress of Vienna, but that will not feature Paul, as I am not taking him into the middle of a pack of diplomats, it would end in murder.
The navy books will probably continue beyond the war, and I’d like to feature the war of 1812 with the USA. I might even do some of the land battles featuring the second battalion. There are a few other campaigns like Bergen op Zoom that I wouldn’t mind looking at.
20. How long does it take you to write a book?
Six months to a year, depending on how much research and what else is going on in my life. This year has been tricky, with the pandemic, it’s been hard to concentrate and I’ve had a house full of people working at home, but once these paperbacks are up and running, I’d like to try to speed up a bit.
And there we have it – the story behind the Peninsular War Saga in twenty questions. Thanks so much to all of you who have written to me over the years to find out more about the books and my writing. Keep the questions coming, I love hearing from you, and I’d be very happy to make contact on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram or you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
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.”
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.”
“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…”
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.”
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. Donahuemockingly 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.”
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 Portuguesecaçadores 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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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 thefarmyard, 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 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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
Good weather gave us the chance for a beautiful walk in the south of the island. Oscar was on the lead for most of the way, but was able to have a couple of off-lead runs which he loves. I have to tell you in advance that he was a VERY GOOD BOY today.
St Michael’s Isle, also known in the past as Fort Island, is about 400 metres long and is just off the Langness Peninsula, joined by a narrow causeway and it features inAn Unwilling Alliance, when Hugh Kelly takes Roseen to visit. It’s a beautiful place, covered in springy grass and vegetation, surrounded on all sides by a rocky coastline. I’ve been there in a high wind and it’s a wild place, but today was sunny and calm, although freezing, and there were few people about.
“I’ve been here before, haven’t I, Mum?”
“A few times, Oscar. The last time we came, Anya was with us. And Joey.”
“Don’t cry, Mum. He’s all right, really he is.”
“I know that, Oscar. I just miss him.”
“So do I. Do you remember that day, when he ran off?”
“I really do. We were so concerned about you, we kept you on the long lead, but we let him off. He gave us one look and then started waddling at high speed right towards the rocks and Anya had to run after him.”
“He was after a swim, he loved swimming. Can I swim today?”
“Not here, it’s too rocky. Later you can go in at the beach.”
“What’s that, Mum?”
“That’s St Michael’s Chapel, Oscar. It was built in the twelfth century on the site of an older Celtic keeill.”
“A keeill. It’s a Manx Gaelic word for a chapel. Very old.”
“It looks it. What’s that other building over there. It’s broken too.”
“Ruined. Broken. Whatever. What is it?”
“It’s called Derby Fort, it was built in the 17th century by James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby who was Lord of Mann during the English Civil War, to protect what was then the very busy port of Derbyhaven.”
“Doesn’t look that busy now.”
“Nowadays we have an airport, Oscar. Times change.”
“I suppose so. Can I look inside?”
“Through the gate, it’s not open. Over here.”
“A big gun.”
“Oh right. Like the ones at the bottom of Summerhill Glen?”
“I like it here. Lots of grass and rocks and sea and smells and…what are those flying things that I like to chase?”
“It’s a bird sanctuary.”
“It must be. I never catch them. But look, Mum – DOOOOOGS!!! Can I go and play?”
“Off you go then.”
“Whew, that was fun. They’re not youngsters, those two, but they could run. Although that one waddled a bit like old Joey. Where now?”
“Let’s get your lead back on. We’re going along the coast towards Derbyhaven.”
The walk along the Derbyhaven coast was just over three miles and we were able to do a lot of it on the beach although retreated up to the path or the road where it was too wet or too rocky. Oscar loves the beach, but needs watching as bizarrely, he likes to eat seaweed. This was new to me; neither Toby or Joey would have dreamed of eating anything so nasty and smelly. Recently, Oscar has been learning the valuable command “Leave” and we had the chance to practice this a lot today. It went very well.
“You’re being very good, Oscar.”
“Thanks. What’s that?”
“It’s the back of the airport. When we go away, we sometimes go on airplanes.”
“That’s why I hate airplanes. You should stay here. What’s that big building over there. It’s not broken.”
“Ruined. No, that’s King William’s College. It’s the only public school on the island. Which really means it’s a private school, because you have to pay to go there. I’ve never really understood that.”
“I don’t care. Did Jon go there?”
“Not an interesting place then. What’s that?”
“It used to be a cafe and bar. I’ve never been in, but I think it’s closed down now.”
“Pity. We could have gone for tea. I like this walk.”
“So do I, it’s very pretty. Right, we’re going to turn back and go up to Hango Hill on the way back.”
“Can I go on the beach?”
“Yes, but don’t eat the seaweed.”
“Oscar, leave it!”
“What is it with you and seaweed? Neither of your brothers ate seaweed.”
“I just like the smell. And the taste.”
“Try not to, Oscar, it’s really bad for your tummy.”
“I’ll do my best. I’ll go and paddle instead.”
“Good idea. A bit cold to swim.”
“Ooh. What’s that?”
“It’s called Hango Hill.”
“It’s a very small hill.”
“More of a mound, really, but it’s very old.”
“It’s got another one of those broken buildings on top.”
“You mean ruins?”
“That’s them. You really like ruins, don’t you, Mum? Ruins and books. And dogs, of course.”
“Yes, that pretty much sums me up. Come and see, Oscar.”
Hango Hill is a small mound by the side of the coast road between Castletown and Derbyhaven, overlooking the beach. It was possibly an ancient burial site and a Bronze Age flat axe was apparently discovered there. The name derives from the Norse words for Gallows Hill and was used as a place of execution until the seventeenth or possibly early eighteenth century.
The most famous execution to take place on Hango Hill was that of William Christian, also known as Illiam Dhone, (Brown William) for his participation in the 1651 Manx rebellion against the Derby family who were Lords of Mann at the time.
Christian was a Manx politician of his day and is seen variously as a patriot, a rebel or a traitor. He was appointed as Receiver-General by Derby and when the Earl left for England to fight for Charles II he left Christian in charge of the island militia. Derby was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester and his wife, a redoubtable lady called Charlotte de la Tremouille, who held Castle Rushen for the King, tried to save her husband’s life by negotiating the surrender of the island to Parliament.
The ensuing rebellion, led by Christian in 1651, was partly due to national politics and partly due to local discontent at some of Derby’s new agrarian policies. The rebels took several local forts and Christian then began negotiations with the Parliamentarians. The Countess was forced to surrender Castle Rushen and Peel Castle, and failed to prevent the execution of her husband. Christian remained Receiver-General and became Governor of the Isle of Man in 1656.
Derby’s family did not forgive or forget. Fraud charges were brought against Christian, who fled to England and was imprisoned for a year in London. On his release he chose to return to Mann, believing that his rebellion against the Earl would be covered by the Act of Indemnity, but the new Earl immediately ordered his arrest. Christian refused to plead at his trial, was found guilty and executed by shooting on Hango Hill on 2 January 1663.
“So what was this place before it was ruined, Mum?”
“I’m not sure, Oscar, but I think it’s the remains of a kind of summerhouse used by the Earl of Derby. It was built after Illiam Dhone’s execution. They used it as a banqueting hall as well, and used to organise horse racing along these dunes towards Langness. I read somewhere that these were the very first “Derby” races. I suppose that’s when they stopped using it for executions.”
“Good thing too. Bet it’s spooky at night.”
“Shall we come down here one evening and see?”
“Not funny, Mum, you know what I’m like in the dark. What does that writing say?”
“It’s just a little bit about the history of the place and Illiam Dhone. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, they have a gathering here and make a speech in the Manx language.”
“I’m surprised you don’t come, it’s the sort of thing you’d do.”
“I might one year. It’s always so cold in January, though.”
“It’s blowing up a bit now.”
“It is. The light’s starting to fade as well, I forget how early it gets dark. Right, back to the car then, we’ll be warmer if we’re walking.”
“Mum. This was a long walk. How far?”
“Probably almost six miles with all the detours and the running around on the beach and the island, Oscar.”
“That’s a long way. I’m going to need a long sleep when I get back. And dinner. I’m starving.”
“Have a biscuit, then. You’ve been such a good boy today, Oscar, I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Mum. Won’t be going out next week much, I suppose?”
“No, you’ve got your operation on Friday. But it won’t take long to recover and the weather will be getting better soon. There’s the car. Hop in, baby boy.”
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Peel #OscarWalks is the first of Oscar’s posts for 2020 and he’s very excited about it. Since the appearance of the dog trainer at the end of last year, we’ve been working very hard to get Oscar to behave better on the lead so that we can take him to more interesting places. Peel was a bit of an experiment, but on the whole it worked very well, apart from one minor incident involving Vikings which I’ll leave him to explain for himself.
Peel is a seaside town and small fishing port on the west of the Isle of Man and the third largest town on the island after Douglas and Ramsey. It is a charming little town, with the older part of Peel mostly built of reddish sandstone, the narrow streets of the old fishing and merchant community winding down to the quayside. In the early eighteenth century, Peel had a thriving trade with European ports such as Amsterdam, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was a busy fishing port.
We parked the car at Fenella Beach, at the foot of Peel Hill and the castle and ten minutes was spent walking Oscar up and down the car park to get him to calm down. It didn’t help that it was fairly breezy and the tide was in, with huge waves crashing onto the little beach.
“OMG, it’s so exciting. Mum, can I go on the beach and swim?”
“Not today, Oscar, it’s a bit wild. Look at those waves.”
“Those waves are bigger than me.”
“Where are we going, then?”
“We’re going to explore Peel, Oscar. Stop jumping about and we can get going.”
Peel was the capital of the island before 1344 and is still the island’s main fishing port, while St German’s Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Sodor and Man. It it still a pretty seaside resort and has a Victorian promenade and sandy beach. From Fenella Beach, we walked towards Peel Castle which overlooks the town from St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was first built in the eleventh century and is now largely ruined, but definitely worth visiting. There are walkways up around the outside of the castle with a lot of steps, a challenge with an excitable young Labrador but well worth it for the views.
“Mum, stop pulling on the lead!”
“Oscar, it’s you that’s pulling on the lead, I cannot run this. Settle down.”
“Sorry. It’s great up here, I can see for miles. Are those white dots over there sheep?”
“I don’t like sheep.”
“They’re miles away, Oscar. Come on, let’s go down and walk into town. And calm down a bit, they’ll be thinking the Moddy Dhoo is on the loose up here.”
“I’ve heard of him. Wasn’t he a demon dog?”
“Yes, he’s supposed to haunt Peel Castle. People used to call Toby the Moddy Dhoo”
“Someone called me that down Summerhill Glen one night.”
“I’m not surprised, you frightened the life out of them in the dark. This way.”
“What’s that water?”
“It’s the River Neb.”
“What are those things with big poles?”
“They’re boats, Oscar, there’s a marina here. And some fishing boats. When we first moved to the island, this area was tidal, but in 2005 they built a new floodgate to keep the river water in, so that the moored boats can float at low tide. This way.”
There’s a footbridge over the river, but Oscar and I walked the long way round by the road, skirting the bottom of Peel Hill. The hill was one of my favourite walks with Joey and Toby, but it’s very steep in places and when he was only a little older than Oscar is now, Toby injured himself by taking off after a rabbit and rolling a very long way down the hill, rather like the heroine of An Unwilling Alliance, only with more legs and a tail. I’m going to give it another few months before I take Oscar up there, but we did climb a little way up and sit on one of the benches to admire the view over the town. There’s a lovely woodcarving at the foot of the path, which Toby used to take exception to. Oscar was doubtful, but seemed to accept my word for it that Fenella, the seven foot tall carving, was harmless. After that, following the road round, we arrived on the far side of the river.
“What’s that smell?”
“Smell? That amazing smell. It’s fantastic. It smells of food. Yummy, yummy food cooking. Where is it? Can I have some? I’m hungry. Muuuummmmm!!!”
“Calm down, Oscar, it’s just the kipper smokeries. There are a couple of them here, they smoke kippers the traditional way. You can do a tour of Moore’s to see how the smoking is done, but I doubt I could take a Labrador. I have been though, and it’s really interesting. I agree, the smell is amazing, but I can’t take you to buy kippers today. We’ll get some another day though, I think you’d love them.”
“I already love them and I’ve not eaten them yet. What’s that building?”
“That’s the Manx Transportation Museum, it’s in the old brickworks. I’ve never been inside, but I must do so this summer.”
“Can I come?”
“I’ll find out. This way. Heel, remember.”
“Sorry. It’s that smell. What’s that?”
“That’s the back of the House of Mannanan. It’s one of the best museums on the island, it’s partly a new building and partly built in the old Peel railway station. It covers the history of the island right up to the present and contains Odin’s Raven, which is a two-thirds scale replica of a Viking longship which was built in Norway, and sailed to the island to arrive on 4 July 1979 to celebrate the millennium of Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man. Fascinating.”
“Not sure I’d like museums, but I do like this place, it’s by the sea and it’s got great smells, and it’s…Oh My God, what’s that??????”
“Oscar, calm down, it’s all right, it’s not real.”
“Whaddd’you mean it’s not real? Of course it’s real, I’m looking right at it, it’s right here on the pavement. They’re terrifying! They’re huge! They’re worse than sheep! How did they get here? Why are they walking through walls? Why is nobody doing anything about them? Well I’m not having this, it’s not safe! I’m going to tell them what for! Woof! Woof woof woof! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”
“Oscar, calm down, they’re just statues. It’s a sculpture. They’re Vikings.”
“Woof woof woof! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”
“Woof, woof, woof woof, woof! Woof, woof….OMG what this now? What’s happening to my paws? I’m being attacked from all sides, it’s sharp! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”
“Oscar, heel! Over here, now. Come and sit on this bench, have a drink of water and calm down.”
“That’s enough. Look at you, you’re shaking. Here, have a drink, there’s a water bowl here. That’s better. Are you all right?”
“Okay. Those aren’t real Vikings, they’re statues. The boat itself is inside the museum, and they’ve carried on the Viking theme out here, which is why it looks like they’re coming through the walls. I know they made you jump but they’re no more real than the two statues of the dogs outside that house at the top of our road.”
“I barked at them too.”
“I know, but you don’t any more, because you know they’re not real.”
“My paws hurt.”
“It’s just a gravel pathway around the display, I think the stones were a bit sharp and you were jumping on them. There, are you calm now?”
“It’s all right. Had enough Vikings?”
“More than enough.”
“Lets walk along the prom. If the sea is calm enough, you can have a paddle.”
Peel Beach was one of my favourites when the children were young. It’s very sandy, with a good kiosk serving food, drinks and ice creams, and it’s just over the road to Davison’s Ice Cream Parlour. Oddly enough, though, it’s not brilliant for building sandcastles, the consistency of the sand isn’t quite right. Still, Oscar doesn’t mind that, and a good splash in the sea soothed his paws and restored his equilibrium.
From there, we walked up through the narrow streets of the town towards St German’s Cathedral. This is no bigger than a large church, but it’s very pretty and has a very welcoming feel to it. Churches vary when it comes to allowing dogs, but I wasn’t going to chance it anyway with Oscar, in case he saw a religious statue that he took a dislike to, it seemed to be a bit of a theme today. Instead, we walked all around the outside, admiring the work that’s been done on the new gardens. A series of seventeen small gardens are being developed within the grounds; twelve will tell the story of the island and how Christianity has affected it and five will have special themes. I’ve been enjoying watching this develop and Oscar seemed to enjoy the peace and quiet after his encounter with Vikings.
“Are you getting tired, Oscar?”
“A bit. It’s been a great day, though.”
“Come on, let’s walk back to the car along the prom.”
“What’s that building, Mum?”
“That’s the Leece Museum. It used to be the old courthouse and gaol and it has exhibitions about the history of Peel, it’s very interesting. One day, I’m going to do a post or two about the island museums, but I’ll have to do that without you, I don’t think they’d cope with you in a museum, and frankly the idea terrifies me.”
“I don’t mind. They’re probably all full of Vikings. And Fenellas. And possibly sheep.”
“Here we are, back at the car. Hop in.”
“Might have a sleep on the way back, Mum.”
“Go ahead, Oscar. You’ve been a very good boy. I’ve got work to do when I get back, so you can have a snooze on the sofa.”
“Where are we going next week?”
“I don’t know. Castletown, perhaps. We could get pizza for lunch.”
“Castletown it is then!”
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