Tangled Spirits by Kate Shanahan: reviewed by Lynn Bryant

Tangled Spirits by Kate Shanahan: reviewed by Lynn Bryant

Tangled Spirits by Kate Shanahan is a historical time-travel novel set in tenth century Japan. It is utterly off the grid for me and turned out to be the best book I’ve read for ages.

I heard of this book through the Historical Writers Forum as it was about to be published and I’ve no idea what made me decide to try it, as I know very little about Japanese history. I’m really glad I did.

The plot revolves around two young women. Mina is an American student, currently studying in Japan while Masako is an aspiring shaman in the tenth century, dabbling in magic after the death of her mother. The result is that Mina is drawn into Masako’s body and the two girls have to find a way to co-exist while working out how to get Mina back home.

The plot is relatively simple but the world that Mina finds herself in is rich, complex and beautifully drawn. Fictional characters blend easily into a brilliantly researched historical landscape and rub shoulders effortlessly with real historical characters.

The author writes really well and has a talent for characterisation. She manages to convey the different personalities of the two girls. Mina and Masako both have strengths and faults and can both be exasperating at times, which makes them endearingly human.

The complicated world of the Japanese court and the unfamiliar culture are very well described but the author manages not to allow her deep knowledge of the history overwhelm the story. By the end of the book, I was rooting for Mina to get back home while at the same time saddened by the impending separation from her spiritual partner. Even the denouement back in the modern world, which could have been trite, worked really well.

The author provides a great deal of historical explanation at the end of the book which can be easily skipped but which is great for a nerd like me who always wants to know which bits were real. The answer was a surprising amount. I have huge admiration for the way Kate Shanahan has woven her fictional story into known history to create a fabulous tapestry of a novel.

Highly recommended.

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week

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?”

“No, sir.”

“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: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

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 Manxman series 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.

 

 

 

April Fool’s Day with Lord Wellington.

Just a very brief comic glimpse into April Fool’s Day with my fictional Lord Wellington during winter quarters 1812-13. Personally, I have decided that the weather is enough of an April Fool’s prank this year, we seem to have gone from barbecues to snow within a week… I wasn’t at all sure if April Fool’s Day was a thing back in 1813 but it appears to have been going on for a long time before that. Whether Lord Wellington would have been in the mood for jokes in the spring of 1813 I’m not sure. But he might have been.

Happy April 1st to all my readers. Summer is on the way. It’s just not going to rush things…

Army Headquarters, Freineda, April 1813

“Morning, sir.”

“Ah, General van Daan. Come in and sit down. I have a job for you.”

“That always brightens my day, sir.”

“I have received a letter from London requiring me to provide troops for an expedition to South America. It would appear that there is some local unrest and I have been asked to send a battalion of experienced troops commanded by an officer who can be trusted to support the Portuguese royal family while not inflaming local sentiment. Naturally my thoughts turned to you.”

“That’s only habit, sir. The minute you hear about an unpleasant task my name just pops into your head. You should try to curb it, though. One of these days you’ll accidentally send me halfway across the world in an absent-minded moment and then you’ll spend a week yelling for me because you’ve forgotten where I’ve gone.”

“I am not senile, General.”

“Nor am I, sir. I even know the date.”

“Ah, I see. Well, it was worth the attempt.”

“Brazil, though, sir? Whose idea was that?”

“March came up with it and the idea amused me. Fitzroy said you would never fall for it. Do you have those reports for me?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid there’s been a delay. My wife’s dog ate them.”

Pause.

“I have no idea whether that is an April Fool’s prank or not, General. It is frighteningly plausible.”

“It is, isn’t it? That’s why I yelled for fifteen minutes this morning and threatened to drown the dog before she produced them alongside my breakfast and a very sweet note wishing me a very happy April Fool’s Day.”

“You would have had no idea of the date if she hadn’t done that, would you?”

“Not an earthly clue, sir. Which is why every year, she is able to find a way to make me yell before I’ve even put my boots on.”

“Just occasionally, General, I am less envious of your marital bliss. It must be like living with an unexploded mine.”

“That’s a remarkably good analogy, sir. Jenson has the reports, I’ll just call him.”

The Recruit

The Three Bullet Gate at New Ross

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

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

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

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

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

The Recruit

 

Ten Guineas Bounty

And a Crown to drink His Majesty’s Health

Wanted, to complete the Companies of His Majesty’s

One Hundred- and Tenth-Line Infantry

Commanded by Colonel Charles Dixon

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

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

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

God Save the King

 

 

Ireland, June 1798

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t see you yesterday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, sir. It’s shocking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Nineteen. Almost twenty. You?”

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

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

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

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

“That sickened me too.”

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

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

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

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

There was a long silence, then Furlong said:

“What’s her name?”

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

“That’s hard. Is she back in Sligo?”

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

“She probably doesn’t, Donnelly.”

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

“But your religion was the price?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we do now?” he asked.

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

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

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

“Good lad. Let’s get moving.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Donnelly, take this.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened, O’Leary?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where to?”

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

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

“The day or the struggle?”

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

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

“What’s happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So do I, Thomas.”

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

“Do you?”

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

“So are you.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s not funny, Tom.”

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

***

Chester, September 1798

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why me?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re going to Chester.”

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

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

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes.”

“Do we know how many, sir?”

“About twenty, I believe.”

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

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

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lieutenant Wheeler?”

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

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

“Another volunteer?”

“He didn’t say, sir, but what else?”

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

“In the tap room, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grand Redoubt

Plan of Dungeness Redoubt

To begin with, I should explain that this is not a serious post about the history of the Grand Redoubt, Dungeness, although I have included a little information just to put the hilarity in context.

The following correspondence was discovered in the archives some years ago by my good friend Dr Jacqueline Reiter.  Surprisingly, she wasn’t trying to research anything about the latrines at the Grand Redoubt, but she thought this was a hilarious little window into real life in the coastal defences in 1809 and shared them with me. I laughed a lot. Despite the old-fashioned language, my first thought was that nothing changes. Exchanges like this still happen when red tape goes mad every day, all over the world.

Then, inevitably given the date, my thoughts wandered to my fictional officer of light infantry and I mused on the fact that this is just the kind of bureaucratic nonsense which would drive Paul van Daan up the wall. From there, I found myself wondering exactly where Paul might have been while this exchange took place. At that point I realised he would probably have been on the south coast waiting to embark for Portugal with Sir Arthur Wellesley.

Once I’d worked that out, I couldn’t resist composing a typical Van Daan response to this situation. It’s very silly, but  I’ve recently rediscovered it and thought I’d share it for the benefit of those of you who enjoy a good rant from the commander of the 110th. Or for anybody who still sniggers at jokes about toilets.

1867 Map of Defences around Dungeness

Romney Marsh has always been vulnerable to attack from across the Channel and with the threat of invasion from Napoleon, Britain began planning a number of defensive measures across Romney Marsh. These included the building of the Royal Military Canal, Martello Towers and a number of gun batteries and forts on the coast at Dungeness and Lydd-on-Sea. The Martello Towers covered the  coast as far as St Mary’s Bay which left the Dungeness peninsular vulnerable to attack. Four batteries were built and these were were supported by a redoubt at Dungeness Point itself.

For clarity, the original letters found in the archive are in italics. The rest, I made up.

Grand Redoubt, Dungeness, 18 April 1809

To Captain Jones, Barrack Master

Sir,

I do hereby certify that the whole of the Privys at this Redoubt wants emptying, and do therefore require you to cause the same to be done with as little delay as possible.

Capt Kynaston, Commanding the Flint Militia

Barrack Office, 9 May, 1809

The Privies to be emptied and the Glass replaced…Mr Jones (Barrack Master) is desired in future to put proper headings and certificates to his Estimates as Emptying Privies cannot be Repairs to Buildings.

By order of the Board, Fred. Mackenzie Esq.

Heretofore Emptying of Privies was always included with Repairs to Buildings

 

From Captain Jones, 25 May 1809

Emptying Privies is not a business that requires any uncommon hurry, it is the usual Monthly Business…

From Major Paul van Daan, Oporto, 1 June 1809

Dear Captain Jones

Thank you for copying your letter on the matter of the barracks privies. It thoroughly brightened a wet Tuesday in Braga, I must say, I wasn’t expecting it.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what you’re expecting me to do about your privies from Portugal, but since you’ve been kind enough to invite my comments, let me be very precise.

As you are aware, Sir Arthur Wellesley sent me on a tour of inspection of several of the fortifications along the south coast while waiting to embark my battalion to Portugal. I have no idea why he did so, other than to give me something to do, since as far as I’m aware he has no responsibility for these defences and no earthly right to interfere with the running of them. This has never stopped him before and will not stop him in the future.

The inspection was fairly memorable for a number of reasons, but the one that really stands out for me was the stench arising from the privies of the Grand Redoubt at Dungeness. I could smell it as I rode in and I rather imagine that the townspeople of Rye were able to smell it on a daily basis as well; it carried for miles.

What your usual arrangements for getting the privies emptied might be, I neither know nor care. It appears that applying to the Board under the wrong heading could have something to do with the delay according to Mr Frederick Mackenzie’s correspondence. If this was indeed the case, you may reassure yourself that it is unlikely to occur again since I have explained in considerable detail to Mr Mackenzie that he may enter that Estimate under any bloody heading he likes, including Shit Shovelling, for all I care, as long as it gets done in a regular and timely manner. I am fairly sure Mr Mackenzie now understands that if I come back to England to find that those poor bastards manning that redoubt are still having to live with that smell because of his petty, bureaucratic, small-minded need to get the paperwork right, he is going to end up with a wagonload of militia turds on his doorstep under the heading of Just Desserts the following morning.

While Mr Mackenzie is a problem in himself, the fact remains that Captain Kynaston told you those privies were a disgrace on 18th April and it took you until 13th May to get them emptied. That is approximately 25 days too long. You’ve a tool shed and some spades and if you can’t get the contractor out in a timely manner, it is your duty as Barrack-Master to get the job done however you can. You have a collection of perfectly able-bodied men there, and presumably if they’re capable of filling the privies, they’re capable of emptying them as well. Start with the ones who failed my kit and uniform inspection, I gave you a list of them, and there were enough of them to keep those privies fit to dine out of, they were a disgrace.

I sincerely hope you have no further problems with this matter, but in case you do, be assured that I’ve written not only to your commanding officer, but to Major-General Whetham reporting on the conditions I found there, so I rather imagine you’ll be subjected to more regular inspections in the future. I do hope so for the health and well-being of the men you command.

Finally, I refer to your comment suggesting that Emptying Privies is not a business that requires any uncommon hurry. That’s an interesting perspective, and not one I share. Every single aspect of your duty as Barrack-Master requires uncommon hurry if it affects the men who will be expected to defend their country against a French invasion. I’ve no idea when I’ll be back in England, but when I am, I intend to travel via Dungeness and if I find those privies in the condition they were when I visited last month, you are going to end up head first in the worst of them with your boots waving in the air, and we’ll see how long any of your men take to haul you out.

Don’t bother me with this nonsense again, there’s a war on.

Respectfully yours

Major Paul van Daan

110th Infantry.

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

The Gift

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift

1st March, 1812

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

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

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

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arabella was dead.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know what happened?”

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

“Had she other family?”

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

“What of the child?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

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

“I would have done the same.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who told you?”

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

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

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

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

“Have you not done so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None at all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

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

“It isn’t very good.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And my wife?”

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

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

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

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

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

“We were separated.”

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

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

“Where is she buried?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard that she died, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Public institution?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it possible to find out?” David asked. “What would happen to such a child? Is there an orphan asylum?”

“The parishes have combined in Shrewsbury, to fund a House of Industry where the indigent and the sick are tended. Older children have their own facilities and schooling within the House, but it is customary for the Parish to send babies out to nurse in local households.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Women are paid to take care of the child until it becomes old enough to enter the House of Industry. I presume this child would be very young?”

“Around eighteen months, I suppose. There must be records of where such children are sent.”

“You should apply to the workhouse clerk, Mr Jackson. Wait, I will write a brief note to him. He knows me and it will probably speed your enquiries along.” The Rector reached for his pen, then paused and looked at David. “Major – what do you intend to do if the child is alive?”

David was unable to reply. He realised he had no idea.

***

Mr Jackson scanned the Rector’s letter and gave a sigh which blew the papers about on his desk. He got up and went to collect a ledger from a shelf. David watched as he ran a bony finger down a column, muttering to himself. He turned a page, then another, and began a tuneless whistle, peering at the unintelligible scrawl which passed for writing. David wondered if it was Mr Jackson’s own writing and if so, why he did not learn to read it more quickly.

“Aha!” Jackson said triumphantly. “Aha! As I thought. Now we have him. Now we have him, indeed.”

“Him?” David said quickly.

“Him. A boy. The boy. Delivered to this establishment on the date in question by Gareth Southern, clerk to Mr Timothy Prestcote. It says here…well now. It says the boy is an orphan.”

“Does it not say the mother’s name?” David asked.

“It does,” Jackson said doubtfully, peering so closely that his nose almost touched the page. “Difficult to read it…Cartridge…no, Cartwright, I think. Looks like Billy. Billy Cartwright. Funny name for a female.”

“Bella,” David said, trying to sound patient.

“Is it? Oh. Oh yes, could be. Yes, I think it is.” Jackson sounded pleased. “Bella Cartwright, prostitute. Presumed deceased.”

Jackson froze. On his desk beside the Rector’s note was the calling card David had given him. David watched as he read the name again and made the connection, then saw his eyes widen. He looked up very slowly and suddenly there was a wealth of apprehension in his expression.

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

“Oh my. Oh dear. How awkward. How very embarrassing. I have no memory for names, sir, but in this case I ought to have. Oh my. But this child…he cannot be related to you, surely?”

“I think you’ll find he is,” David said pleasantly. “Was no effort made to trace his mother?”

“Well no, sir. Not given that she was reported to be dead. I cannot understand…was she not dead?”

“Not then,” David said. “She left the child in the care of her aunt, Mrs Gladstone, who sadly died soon afterwards.”

“Gladstone? Do you refer to the family of Mr Jasper Gladstone, Major? But this is extraordinary. He is a member of our board. I cannot think how such a terrible mistake came to be made.”

“I can,” David said briefly. “Am I to understand that the boy is still alive? Where can I find him?”

“Yes. Yes, indeed. At least, according to our records. He was sent out to nurse with Mrs Bonel, and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

“But?”

“They don’t always tell us straight away, sir. If the child dies. Sometimes they bury them quietly and keep taking the money. Eventually the yearly inspection comes around and then they’ll come forward and claim the death was recent.”

David felt sick again. “Annual inspections for a baby that young?” he said. “Is that all?”

“We’ve not the time or the staff to do more, sir. I can give you Mrs Bonel’s address if you want to visit the boy.”

David found the cottage easily enough. There was a narrow frontage open to the River Dee, with chickens scrabbling in a fenced yard and a strong stench of excrement and urine. David paused by the door, taking a deep breath. His stomach was churning so badly, he was worried he might vomit and for the first time ever he felt the urge to flee in the face of the enemy. Before he had the opportunity to do so however, he heard the cry. It was a long wail of misery which drowned out the cackling of the hens and the steady rush of the river, swollen with winter rains.

Inside the smell was stronger, but there was no sign of life in the main living area of the cottage. David walked through to a small doorway at the back and out into a muddy yard, where two pigs snuffled around, splashed with mud, and snorting indignantly. There was still no sign of occupation, but at the back of the yard was a rough wooden lean-to and the wail was stronger, floating out into the freezing winter air. It sounded like a young child. David walked across the yard and went in through the door.

He found the child in a rough wooden cot, little more than a box, built high against the wall of the shed. He was dressed in a linen smock which was smeared with his own dirt. There were several reeking, threadbare blankets in the cot and the child was crying and shivering, his voice high and thin in the chill air. He was thin and pale and his hair was a coppery red.

“There, then, what’s that yelling about, it’s not nearly time for your dinner, and if you don’t shut up…”

David turned. The woman was thin herself, with sharp features and brown eyes, wearing a respectable brown dress and a warm woollen shawl. She looked irritated, but at the sight of David she froze, ran her eyes over him then managed a wholly false smile. She dropped a little curtsey.

“Good day to you, sir. May I help you?”

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve come about the child. I understand he was put out to nurse last year by the Parish?”

“That’s right, sir. A poor little orphan mite. I’ve looked after him as if he was my own, haven’t I, poppet?”

The child had stopped wailing and was staring at David, one grubby fist pushed into his mouth.

David walked forward. He had spent the walk down to the cottage calculating the boy’s age and decided he must be around seventeen months, though he was small, probably through poor nourishment. David studied the child and saw Bella’s beautiful hazel eyes looking back at him with wary interest.

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. He doesn’t…”

David spun around in sudden fury. “What name did they give you for him, you slovenly bitch? Any more of this and I’ll have the magistrate down here, and if you’ve nothing to hide from them I’ll be very surprised.”

The woman visibly flinched. “George. They called him George.”

George had been the name of both David’s and Arabella’s fathers. He looked back at the child. “George? Georgie?”

The boy stared at him for a long moment. Then, cautiously, he shifted onto his knees, reached for the wooden slats of the cot and pulled himself up to his feet. David looked at the streaks of filth on the smock and consciously reined in his anger. He studied the child. The child stared back. After a moment, David reached out and touched one of the tiny hands clutching the edge of the cot. George flinched away as if expecting a blow and David felt an overwhelming wave of protective tenderness.

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

“It’s his own fault, sir, he throws off his blankets. And they’re like that at this age. Skittish, like.”

David kept his eyes on the child and reached past him into the cot to feel the blankets. As he had suspected, they were soaked.

“Does he have any other clothing?”

“Another gown, but it’s wet. I do my best, but I can’t keep up with the laundry.”

“Then get me a dry blanket to wrap him in. I’m taking him with me.”

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

David turned to look at her. “You will receive authorisation before the end of the day,” he said in icy tones. “Get me a blanket for him. Now.”

Afterwards, seated in the post-chaise as it rattled its way towards London and then on towards Rye, David looked back over that long day and found it hard to recognise himself. He had been carried on a wave of indignant fury which swept aside all difficulties and opposition. His years as an army quartermaster had given him a talent for organisation and the ability to juggle too many tasks, all of them urgent. David was thankful for the experience since he did not think he would ever have made it into the coach early the following morning otherwise.

He was also thankful for the support of Mrs Hetherington, who greeted his arrival with the child with blank astonishment.

“I know I’m imposing on you, ma’am, but it’s only for today. I’ve nobody else to turn to in Shrewsbury, and I’ve a great deal to do to be ready to travel with him tomorrow.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said, studying the crying child. “Who is he? Where does he come from? Dear God, look at the state of him. He’s filthy and he looks half-starved.”

“He is half-starved,” David said grimly. “It’s a disgrace, sending a child out to a place like that. She was keeping him in an outhouse, with the pigs and the chickens. I could kill her, and the Parish Board along with her, except that I don’t have time.”

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

“Yes. She can’t have known where he was, though. She left him with her family. She probably thought it best for him, but when her aunt died, that odorous piece of pig’s excrement Jasper Gladstone sent him to the parish. His own cousin’s child. When I’ve got time, I’m going to ensure that his reputation in this town ends up in the sewer. I don’t need to be here to do that, I can write letters, and I intend to ask for the assistance of my Brigadier’s wife in the matter. She will enjoy the challenge.”

Mrs Hetherington looked amused. “And I thought you such a quiet gentleman,” she said. “But Major…he may be your wife’s child, but surely he isn’t yours? A gentleman like you wouldn’t have let her take his son away like this. Are you sure you can just remove him from the Parish because you want to? There will be regulations.”

“If they try to stop me, I will take their regulations and shove them where they deserve to be. But they won’t. They can’t. He is my wife’s child, born within wedlock. We were legitimately married, that never changed. If I say he is my son, and can prove she was my wife, there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it.”

Mrs Hetherington gaped at him. “Sir…are you sure?”

George had stopped crying, probably because he was too exhausted to continue. He was watching David from enormous tear-drenched eyes, but David thought that he seemed more relaxed in his arms. He looked back at the child and finally admitted to himself what he had been unable to recognise two years earlier.

“Yes,” he said. “Oh God, yes. I should have done it then. I should have gone to her and offered to acknowledge the child. Because I wanted a child so badly that it hurt. Arabella didn’t really, and when I found out, I was furious. It seemed so unjust, because I realised that it might have been my fault that we couldn’t have children. Which meant I might never be able to have a child.” David stopped, realising that he was babbling. “I’m sorry, this is the most inappropriate conversation I have ever had.”

“Lord bless, you sir, I run a lodging house. You’d be amazed what people tell me. Leave him with me. I’ll get him bathed and fed, and I’ll send Sally to the market, if you’ll leave the money. There’s a booth that sells used clothing, they’ll have baby clothes there. I don’t know how you’ll manage him on the road, mind. He’s not clean yet, so you’ll need to change his clouts and wash him, and it’s not work for a gentleman.”

“I’ll learn, you can show me. It’s only for three days, and once I’m back in Rye I can hire a nursemaid. I’m going to have to write to extend my furlough, but they’ll understand. It’s winter quarters. Mrs Hetherington, thank you. I will never forget what you’ve done for me today.”

It took longer to reach Rye on the return journey. It was necessary to stop more frequently because of George, and overnight stops were more complicated. David had no experience of taking care of a child, but Mrs Hetherington gave him an emergency lesson in feeding, bathing, and changing clouts in half a day. The journey was a nightmare of a crying child, desperate inn staff and irritable post boys.

After two days of almost constant wailing, and fighting against every attempt to comfort him, George fell suddenly into an exhausted sleep in David’s arms. He barely awoke as David carried him into the Swan Inn. The landlord was more sympathetic than on the previous two nights, and sent a chamber maid to wash, change and sit with the boy so that David could eat in peace in the dining room. After two glasses of burgundy, David was almost falling asleep at the table. He went up to his room and found that the girl had just changed George and was settling him into the bed.

“Will you be all right with him, sir? You should have a nursemaid with you.”

“She fell ill, and I couldn’t delay my journey,” David said with a smile. It was the story he had told all along, not really caring who believed it. This girl apparently did and gave him a somewhat misty smile.

“Bless you, sir, I’ve never seen such a devoted father. Have you much further to go?”

“No, we’ll be home before tomorrow evening.”

“I’m glad to hear it, you’re in need of a rest. With your leave, sir, I’ll come back in the morning and get him fed and ready while you have your breakfast.”

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

David undressed, then checked that there was water in the jug on the washstand and that there were clean clouts available in case of disaster, then he got into bed. The boy lay beside him, long lashed eyes watching him curiously. Over the past days he had seemed to David to see every human contact as a potential threat, and David tried not to imagine the miserable existence that had taught such a young child that nobody was to be trusted. Now, though, he lay wakeful but calm. David looked back at him.

“Are you in the mood for conversation, Georgie? I’m not sure I’ll be much use at it, I’m so tired. Still, we can give it a try. I’m your Papa. You don’t know it yet, and nor did I until just recently, but we’ve a lot of time to get acquainted. At least we will have, when Bonaparte is gone, and I can come home to you. In the meantime, we’ll need to find you a good nursemaid and a new housekeeper…”

David froze suddenly. He realised that he had forgotten, in the stress of the past days, that his departing housekeeper might well still be in residence when he arrived with a child she knew nothing about. It had not occurred to him to write to Helen Carleton, he had been too busy. Now he realised he should have done so. He wondered if she had already left for her family home in Leicester for Christmas. Part of him hoped she had done so. The other part hoped he would have the chance to see her again, to thank her for her kindness.

He fell asleep quickly and woke in the half-light of dawn. To his surprise, George still slept, curled up against his body, warm in the chill air of the inn bedroom. David lay very still, savouring the moment. Very gently, he kissed the top of the child’s head. The colour of his hair reminded David sharply of Arabella and he wept a little, regretting all the things they might have shared.

They arrived at Oak Lodge late in the afternoon, several days before Christmas. George was asleep when David lifted him from the chaise and instructed the coachmen to go to the kitchen for refreshment while the baggage was unloaded. He walked into the house and stopped in the hallway in considerable surprise. The stairs were decorated with greenery and tied with red ribbons. It reminded him of the Christmases of his childhood, and he stood in the hall, the child in his arms, unexpectedly assailed by a rush of memories.

“Major Cartwright.”

The girl’s voice was astonished. David turned to see her emerging from the kitchen area, still wearing her white apron. She had discarded her lace cap and looked neat and efficient and surprisingly attractive. David quailed internally but took his courage in both hands, remembering that this was his house, and he was her employer.

“Miss Carleton, what on earth are you still doing here?” he asked sternly. “By now, you should be at home with your family, ready to celebrate…”

Helen came forward, ignoring him, and drew back the grubby blanket from George’s flushed face. “Is this your wife’s boy?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” David said. “His name is George. And he is my son.”

Helen lifted her eyes to his face. “I’m not going home for Christmas,” she said. “I’m sorry, Major, I know I was ordered to do so. But it occurred to me that I might be needed here. And it turns out that I was more right than I knew. Here, let me take him. How on earth did you manage on the journey with him?”

“Very well, ma’am,” David said haughtily. He decided not to mention how appalling it had been at times. “I’m an army man, we’re very adaptable.”

Helen looked up at him, a smile lurking in the blue eyes. “So am I, Major Cartwright. And since I do not think you intend to abandon your profession just yet, that is just as well. I’ve had a lot of practice taking care of my sisters’ children, you know, and we still have a few days before Christmas to get the nursery set up just as it ought to be. He’s a beautiful child.”

“He’s been badly treated. I will tell you everything, ma’am. But just now…”

“Just now, we should take him upstairs. I think he needs changing.”

David trod up the stairs in her wake, remembering his resolve of earlier. “I told you to go home.”

“I ignored you.”

“You cannot remain in my employ if I dismiss you.”

“That is very true. I think we should discuss it again after Christmas.”

“You are not going to listen to me, are you?”

Helen shot him a look. “Don’t you trust me with him, Major?”

David looked back at her steadily. “I cannot think of anybody I would trust more,” he said simply. “But Miss Carleton…”

“Major Cartwright, why don’t you let me decide for myself? There is nothing more irritating than a man trying to tell a woman how she should think or feel. Just now, let us take care of your son.”

***

It was frosty on Christmas morning. Helen reluctantly left George in Sarah’s devoted charge and went to church with her employer. Inside, she headed towards her usual seat among the tradespeople and upper servants at the back, but Major Cartwright took her arm and steered her firmly into the pew beside him.

Gossip travelled fast in a small town like Rye and there were sly looks and veiled hints which, over sherry in the rectory, turned into open questions about Major Cartwright’s new charge. Helen watched admiringly as the Major responded, his replies so bland that eventually even the most avid gossip became frustrated.

“He is my son. My wife and I were temporarily estranged. Tragically she died just as we were planning to reconcile. I am, as you can imagine, heartbroken. Miss Carleton has agreed to remain in my employment as his governess, and to oversee the nursery once I return to the army. I am very grateful to her.”

He told the story over and over, varying the words but sticking firmly to the message. Helen felt enormous respect for him. She could not imagine how badly he must have been hurt by his wife, but his thoughts were all of the child. After church, he sat at a table in the hastily furnished nursery, with George on his lap, showing him how to build a simple tower with wooden blocks. George picked up the idea quickly, and then abruptly reached out and pushed the tower over. The hazel eyes flew to the Major’s face apprehensively. David Cartwright was laughing.

“Good at siege warfare, I see. Shall we do it again?”

He did so, and this time George gave a crow of laughter as the tower fell. The Major bent and kissed the soft copper hair. Helen stood up, fighting back sentimental tears.

“I will be needed in the kitchen, Major, so I’ll leave you to it.”

He looked around quickly, smiling. “Come back as soon as you can. It’s important that he gets to know both of us, but you especially. If you’re really going to take on the job of raising him. Are you good at building towers, Miss Carleton?”

Helen smiled, her heart full. “I have three nephews, Major, I am an expert. I just don’t want to intrude.”

“This is your home too, ma’am, for as long as you choose to stay. You couldn’t intrude. And I hope you’ll be dining with me as usual. It’s Christmas, you cannot leave me to eat alone.”

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

Helen laughed. “Yes,” she admitted. “But she is happier that I am now able to call myself a governess rather than a housekeeper, so it could have been worse.”

She had received the letter from her mother the previous day. Lady Carleton had expressed herself freely, but Helen felt that the anger was half-hearted. It seemed that Kitty had made the acquaintance of a titled gentleman at a hunt ball, who appeared very taken with her, and who openly expressed his hope of renewing their acquaintance in London next year. Helen had no idea if the attachment was real, but it was a useful distraction for her parents.

They dined on roast goose and traditional Christmas pudding and drank a rich red wine which Major Cartwright told her came from the vineyards around the River Douro and was a favourite of Lord Wellington. He made her laugh with stories of various Christmases spent on campaign and asked her about her family. Helen had wondered if she would miss the noisy family gatherings of her childhood, but she did not.

They went together to settle George into his cot. He was already half asleep, worn out by the unaccustomed excitement. Major Cartwright bent to kiss him, then stood back for Helen to do the same. She did so, suddenly very aware of how domestic the moment was. They might have been any young couple, putting their child to bed after a busy and very happy Christmas Day. It made Helen feel unexpectedly shy and she wondered if the Major was aware of it. If he was, David Cartwright gave no indication.

Afterwards, Helen sat beside the fire, in the drawing room, sipping sherry and trying to pretend that this was normal behaviour for a governess who was also a housekeeper and a cook. David Cartwright sat opposite her.

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

They sat with the board between them like a shield and Helen concentrated on her moves and tried not to think about anything else, until he said:

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to increase your salary, and I’d like you to employ a kitchen maid and a nursery maid. You can’t leave it all to Sarah and you’ll be very busy with George.”

“Thank you, Major. I…”

“I feel as though I ought to send you home, but I don’t want to. You’ll be so good for him. I want to be here, but I can’t. Not yet. Still, it’s a huge responsibility, and if you change your mind, please tell me and I’ll find somebody else.”

“I won’t change my mind, Major. I really want this post. He’s a beautiful child, I’m already a little in love with him.”

“Will you write to me with news of him?”

“All the time,” Helen said warmly. “There will be nothing of him that you do not know.”

“Thank you. I’ve felt so resentful about Arabella but in the end, she gave me something priceless, something I’ve wanted for so long. A child. A family. I’m so grateful. It’s your move, Miss Carleton.”

Helen studied the board. After a long moment, she moved her rook. “I think you are going to lose, Major Cartwright.”

“I don’t.”

Helen looked up in surprise and found that he was looking at her, with a hint of a smile behind the steady brown eyes.

“I’m playing the long game,” he explained, and reached to move his piece.

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

The run-up to Halloween 2021 marks a new venture here at Writing with Labradors as for the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is an anthology of ghost stories, with ten supernatural historical tales which range from Roman and Viking times all the way up to the 1960s. Which brings us to my guest today on Blogging with Labradors, the talented Danielle Apple who writes as D Apple.

Danielle’s contribution to Hauntings is a story called Hotel Vanity which brings a light-hearted tone to the collection. It is set in a decaying hotel, where the owner’s efforts to sell-out are hampered by some mischievous ghosts.

Danielle, welcome to Blogging with Labradors and thanks very much for joining me to tell us a bit more about Hotel Vanity and the story behind it.

To begin with, Hotel Vanity is an unusual ghost story. What was your inspiration for it?

 Well, I really wanted to write a gothic mystery, but every time I put pen to paper, some sassy ghost muse would whisper in my ear. Try as I might to shut her up, Nancy became my ghost, and Humphrey, the beleaguered hotel owner, became me. I thought…what if ghosts aren’t really how we typically think of them? What if the things that go bump in the night are really an old ghost dropping books on the floor as he falls asleep reading, or perhaps an ethereal being trying to taste whiskey again for the hundredth time?

I think that’s a fantastic idea and raises all sorts of interesting possibilities for future stories. There’s an interesting mix of humour and drama in your story and in the lives (and deaths) of the characters. Did you plan it that way or did that develop as you wrote?

I was supposed to be writing a story for a Valentine’s Day competition, and while the muse managed to steer me away from Gothic Mystery, I apparently don’t do romance without making it an annoying ghost mystery. This insertion of humor is a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience that happens with nearly every short story, but I had to daydream about the drama for a while before it made sense.

I should think with a character like Nancy yammering in your ear it would be impossible NOT to include humour. I must say that for me, it wasn’t just the humans, alive or dead, who brought the story to life. You give a very good descriptive sense of this decaying old building – it’s almost like one of the characters. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Is there a real building somewhere that inspired it?

At the time I was going through some difficult personal changes, and the building became an embodiment of my comfort zone, limitations, and the things I still valued. The vines are beautiful and once served to avoid soil erosion, but they also choke the life out of a building. Humphrey tries to get a vine by the window to grow a different way by twisting it around itself, but the problem has gotten so massive that this simple act is futile.

Poor Humphrey. You can really sense his struggle. You’re not specific about dates in the story, either for the present day or for the flashbacks to Tom’s younger days. What period did you have in mind and what made you choose it?

While my primary work usually ends up in the early 1800s, for some reason these ghosts decided they were in the 1960s. Tom’s dated letters have seen a lot of wear and tear, and at the time of this story, the characters briefly discuss a United States presidential candidate. They are in their own bubble of sorts, stuck in the past away from the outside world but not totally unaware. It was easier for me to imagine ghosts from a couple of my favorite time periods and place them in a more familiar setting to me. Not to mention the buildings from my favorite times would have been slowly falling apart, but still viable. I think this is why the 1960s felt right.

Yes, that makes perfect sense, given how important the building is to your storyline. I think I can guess the answer to this one, but I have to ask. Who is your favourite character in the story and why?

 Gosh, I love all of them for different reasons, but Nancy was the most fun to write. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of her outrageous behavior with her wise advice. In fact, every beta reader who has encountered Nancy wants to know more about her. So…maybe she gets her own story next.

I genuinely hope so. I’d love to know who she was when she lived and how she died. But on to the storyline. The idea of a lost soul trapped in a mirror is very evocative. Can you tell us a bit more about how you came up with the idea and the meaning behind it?

I had a thought to examine the human experience in the realm of society’s expectations. I think there is a soul in many of us that we keep trapped. Do we shove it away, direct what it should do and where it should go, all the while giving us the illusion that it is free to move about? When we look in the mirror at our soul…what do we see exactly? Is it us, a totally different person, or is it a part of ourselves that we ignored for too long? Of course this soul in the mirror can be a representation of many scenarios in peoples’ lives, so it can easily slip into whatever form the reader needs.

It’s very effective in this story. I’m hoping that people are going to read this and want more of your work. What’s your current writing project and how is it going? Any publication dates in the pipeline?

I’m working on a historical mystery saga in Northern Alabama, spanning 1834-1850. The first book is about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade-long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. This is the project I’ve been working on for ages, but each setback has taught me valuable lessons and brought new, amazing people into my life. I’m grateful for the experience! In the next few months it will be ready for final beta readers and cultural accuracy readers, then I revise and it’s off to copy edits. That will probably land the publication date in mid-2022. If anyone is interested in being a beta, accuracy, or arc reader, go ahead and contact me for a more detailed description.

That sounds like a fascinating project, and probably takes an enormous amount of research, but it looks as though the end is in sight.

 Danielle, it’s great that you’ve been able to take the time to contribute to Hauntings. I know that all the other authors have thoroughly enjoyed working with you and I personally enjoyed meeting Nancy, Humphrey, and the others. Thanks for joining me on Blogging with Labradors and good luck with your current project.

 If you’d like to find out more about Danielle and her work, you’ll find all her social media links and contact details here. Don’t forget that she’s looking for beta readers for her current project, so do make contact if you can help.

More about Danielle Apple…

When she’s not pursuing research bunny trails, Danielle is reading. Her happy place is cozying up on the couch with her dog and a 19th century gothic mystery novel, but you’ll also find her hiking and exploring ghost towns and forgotten graveyards. An avid photographer and language learner, Danielle finds it difficult not to see the story potential in every place or turn of phrase. Sometimes the muses are humorous, and sometimes they are dark, but they always come from an integral place. Her upcoming novel takes place in Northern Alabama, 1834. It’s about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. You can follow the progress here https://linktr.ee/Dapplewrites

Keep an eye out for more blog posts in the Historical Writers Forum Hauntings blog hop as more of our authors get the chance to talk about their ghost stories in the run-up to Halloween.

 

 THE HISTORICAL WRITERS FORUM: who we are

 The Historical Writers Forum (HWF), started out as a social media group where writers of historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and historical fantasy could come together to share their knowledge and skills to help improve standards amongst this genre of writers, whether they be new or well-practiced. The aim is to encourage peer support for authors in a field where sometimes writing can be a very lonely business. We currently number over 800 members and are growing. We have recently been busy organising online talks via Zoom and now have our own YouTube channel where you can find our discussions on a variety of topics. Our membership includes several well-known authors who regularly engage to share their experiences and strengths to help other members build their own skillset.

We can be found on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writersofhistoryforum/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HistWriters

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSsS5dFPp4xz5zxJUsjytoQ

The Combat at San Millan

Church in San Millan de San Zadornil

The Combat at San Millan

I’ve been driven off course during my writing of book seven of the Peninsular War Saga this week by the tangled story of the Combat at San Millan. Having emerged from the other end with enough of a grasp of events to write the chapter, I decided to prolong the distraction a little longer by sharing the story in a blog post, since this is a really interesting example of how I use research to put the books together. It’s also an example of how important it is to me to find a variety of sources if I possibly can, and how challenging it can be to come up with a coherent account.

Lieutenant-General Charles Alten

The Combat at San Millan was a small action fought by Lieutenant-General Charles Alten’s Light Division on 18th June 1813 during the march on Vitoria. To give a brief summary, Alten’s division was ordered to march across the hills via La Boveda towards the village of San Millan with the intention of outflanking General Reille’s corps at Osma. At San Millan, they unexpectedly encountered General Maucune’s division which was on its way to join up with Reille’s main force. After a short, sharp fight, Reille’s forces retreated before the Light Division, leaving behind approximately 400 dead, wounded and prisoners and the entire baggage train.

My usual first source for any battle that I’m about to write is Sir Charles Oman’s epic History of the Peninsular War. Generally speaking, he can be relied upon for a straightforward account of who did what, and where and when. Once I’ve got the sense of what happened from Oman, I will search any other histories, published letters and memoirs from the period which might cover that action for further details which can be incorporated into my fictional account.

In the case of San Millan, there are a number of different accounts, but as I began to plan out the action and to work out the best way to weave in my fictional brigade it was clear that not all these agreed. As I went on, I became more and more confused.

There were two brigades in Alten’s division in 1813. To avoid confusion I will leave out the fictional exploits of Paul van Daan and his men at this point.

Sir James Kempt

The first brigade was led by Major-General Sir James Kempt and consisted of the 1st battalion of the 43rd foot, the 1st battalion of the 95th rifles, five companies of the 3rd battalion of the 95th rifles and the 1st Portuguese caçadores.

The second brigade was led by Major-General John Ormsby Vandeleur and consisted of the 1st battalion of the 52nd foot, the 2nd battalion of the 95th rifles and the 3rd battalion of the Portuguese caçadores.

Under normal circumstances, the Light Division would march in brigade order with Kempt’s men at the front.

According to all sources, the first to encounter the French were the cavalry scouts attached to the Light Division, the hussars of the King’s German Legion. After chasing away the French cavalry patrols, the KGL reported back to Alten, who ordered in the first troops. This is where it becomes confusing.

Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur

Oman says that Vandeleur’s Brigade was at the head of the British column and were sent in to attack immediately, the 95th and Portuguese caçadores in the front line and the 52nd in support. Macaune initially stood to fight, knowing that his second brigade with his baggage train was approaching. Shortly afterwards, Kempt’s brigade made an appearance and began to deploy to the left of Vandeleur’s at which point Macaune gave the order to retreat through the village. Macaune’s second brigade then appeared with the baggage in the rear and were attacked, by Kempt’s brigade, while Vandeleur’s men continued to pursue the first brigade through the village.

Tim Saunders and Rob Yuill in their recently published Light Division in the Peninsular War 1811-1814, give the same account of the French presence at San Millan, but give Kempt’s brigade as being the leading brigade. They say that Wellington arrived immediately on the spot as the cavalry was giving Kempt the information and immediately directed the 1st and 3rd battalions of riflemen, supported by the rest of Kempt’s brigade, to attack the French. They then go on to say that the 52nd along with the 1st and 3rd caçadores attacked and cleared the village. Meanwhile, Vandeleur’s brigade, which had been some distance behind Kempt’s came forward and the 43rd and second 95th were deployed across the valley. This account goes on to say that Kempt’s brigade continued the pursuit of the French 1st brigade through the village while Vandeleur’s brigade chased the 2nd brigade into the hills.

We now move on to English Battles And Sieges In The Peninsula by Lieut.-Gen. Sir William Napier. Napier gives a very brief summary of the battle but does not separate out the different brigades or battalions apart from the fact that the first attack was by riflemen followed by the 52nd. He says the rest of the Light Division remained in reserve. He then describes the 52nd’s fight on the hillside and says that the reserve were chasing the French who then came up behind the 52nd. Reading between the lines, it appears that Napier views Vandeleur’s Brigade as the reserve, but does not give any explanation as to why the 52nd, which was part of Vandeleur’s Brigade, seemed to have been fighting with Kempt’s Brigade.

There is enough agreement between Napier and the more recent history of the Light Division to suggest that Saunders and Yuill agree with his interpretation of events. To move on to another earlier history, I looked at J W Fortescue’s History of the British Army. Fortescue describes the skirmish in volume 9 and once again agrees with the role of the German hussars. In his account, Alten received the news of the presence of the enemy and sent forward the Rifles from Kempt’s Brigade.

At this point, Wellington arrived. He sent the rest of Kempt’s Brigade (i.e. the 43rd and 1st caçadores) along with the 3rd caçadores from Vandeleur’s Brigade in support. This is interesting. There is no information about how much time elapsed between Alten’s first orders and Wellington’s arrival and secondary orders, but what seems clear is that by this time, Vandeleur’s Brigade was close enough for Wellington to give orders to send in both battalions of Portuguese. What is also interesting is that Fortescue does not mention the 52nd being sent in with them.

Fortescue then goes on to describe one of the notable parts of the skirmish:

“While this fight was going on , Macune’s second brigade suddenly emerged from a rocky defile, where upon Vandeleur’s brigade instantly flew upon their left flank. The unhappy French made for a hill a little way to their front; but the Fifty-second, who were stationed beyond this hill, turned about and raced them for the summit . A rude scuffle followed , but the bulk of the enemy…made their escape through wood and mountain to Miranda del Ebro.”

This account seems to suggest that the 52nd were already stationed upon the hill when the rest of their brigade chased the French up the hill. Does this mean they had already been stationed there before the sighting of the French second division? Or were they placed there when Vandeleur’s brigade first came up as part of the reserve? It’s not clear from this.

Another history of the Rifle Brigade was written in 1877 by William Henry Cope. It’s old, but I found some of the details delightful and they’ll definitely be finding their way into the book. With the usual early agreement about the actions of the German hussars, Cope goes on to say that Colonel Barnard, who commanded a battalion of the 95th in Kempt’s brigade led the first attack. This definitely seems to disagree with Oman’s account of Vandeleur’s brigade leading the attack, and makes more sense, as Kempt’s brigade should have been in the lead. 

While Cope gives no specific details about the 43rd or 52nd, he does state that  the second brigade of the Light Division (Vandeleur’s brigade) came up to San Millan at the same time as the rear brigade of the French rear-guard and that Vandeleur’s brigade attacked them.

Moving on to published memoirs and letters, we start with A Light Infantryman with Wellington: the letters of George Ulrich Barlow, edited by Gareth Glover. Barlow was in the 52nd and gives a very brief summary of the battle. He describes the incident with the 52nd atop the hill and says they were too winded to pursue successfully but gives no specifics of any other battalions or where they were.

William Surtees was a quartermaster in the 1st battalion of the 95th. He confirmed that his battalion was the first into the attack, and describes the attack on the French first brigade as being conducted by Kempt’s brigade. His description then goes as follows:

“The first brigade of the enemy being thus beaten, retreated along the great road in the direction of Espeja, leaving their second brigade and all their baggage to their fate. These latter being pressed by our second or rear brigade, and seeing us in possession of the village, and the road they had to pass, immediately broke in all directions, and dispersed themselves in the mountains over the village, each man making the best of his way. This their baggage could not do, and it consequently fell into the hands of the captors, an easy and valuable booty; but although my brigade, by beating and dispersing the enemy at the village, had been the principal cause of its capture, yet those whose hands it fell into had not the generosity to offer the least share of it to us, but divided it amongst themselves.”

This very clearly states that the first attack was made by Kempt’s brigade and the second attack upon the baggage by Vandeleur’s brigade which came in later. There is no mention of the 52nd coming in earlier and fighting with a different brigade.

Andrew Francis Barnard

John Kincaid was another rifleman who wrote several entertaining accounts of his service in the Peninsula. His account of San Millan is brief. He served in Kempt’s brigade under Andrew Barnard.  He described being part of the first attack, and chasing the French. He also complains that Vandeleur’s brigade got all the baggage even though his brigade had done most of the fighting.

While his account of the action in his memoirs is limited, there is an interesting letter from Kincaid, which was written many years later to W S Moorsom after the publication of his Historical record of the Fifty-second Regiment (Oxfordshire Light Infantry) from the year 1755 to the year 1858. I’m indebted to Gareth Glover once more for providing me with this letter along with several other accounts of the combat all of which are due to be published by him over the course of the next year. Kincaid complains to Moorsom that his account gives undue credit to the actions of the 52nd, ignoring the contributions of the rest of the battalions, particularly the 95th.

This letter sets out far more clearly than any of the other accounts, the timing of the skirmish. According to Kincaid:

“We all arrived on the hill above San Millan, at the same time, we were about half an hour there before our battalion was ordered to attack the Brigade of Maucune’s Division, which was on the road below. It was probably half an hour later before the 52nd attacked the 2nd brigade of that division, which at the time our attack was made, had not arrived within sight. I must therefore submit to you whether your description does not leave it to be inferred by those unacquainted with what took place, that there had been only one brigade of Maucune’s Division near San Millan, and that it had been attacked and dispersed by Vandeleur’s Brigade but as the other brigade of that same division had been defeated but a few minutes before by our old 1st battalion I think.”

Until Gareth provided me with this letter, I’d never come across Moorsom’s history. I was delighted to find that it is available online, courtesy of the fantastic HathiTrust website and it is clearly destined to become a regular source for my research. Like Kincaid, Moorsom is very useful for the timing of the combat. His account reads as follows:

“The following day the Light Division crossed that river at Puente Arenas, and on the 18th it suddenly came upon two brigades of Maucune’s division, which, being in observation, and proceeding from Frias to Osma, had quitted the high-road, and were moving along a small ridge of hills to the right of the road near the village of San Millan, with a large interval between them, and thus crossed the route of the division. The brigades of the Light Division were separated on the march, some distance apart; and as soon as the enemy were discovered, General Alten halted the division to reconnoitre, and a considerable delay took place before the first brigade (in which were the 43rd and 1st battalion 95th Rifles) were allowed to attack.

“As soon, however, as the force and intentions of the enemy were ascertained, Colonel Barnard led his battalion of the 95th Rifles down the hill, with three companies in skirmishing order among the brushwood, and three in reserve: on this the enemy at once threw out a body of skirmishers to meet the 95th, and put his column to a running pace to escape the flank fire which the first brigade now opened on him and which was kept up for some miles, inflicting on him a severe loss.

“Meantime the second brigade of the Light Division found Maucune’s rear brigade encumbered with baggage, and so far behind its comrades of the leading brigade that the action was entirely a separate affair without concert on the part of the French. On this being perceived, the 2nd battalion of the 95th, immediately extending in the brushwood, commenced a fire on the rear of the French, while the 52nd, pushing on at double quick along the flank of their column, as soon as they had gained a sufficient advance, charged upon it, and took three hundred prisoners and a great quantity of baggage, the remainder of the enemy dispersing among the mountains.”

Despite Kincaid’s complaints, I actually think Moorsom sets out the roles of the various brigades and battalions very clearly; in fact I wonder if he may have adjusted a more biased account for a later edition because he seems to give full credit to all concerned in this excerpt. It also solves many of the problems of the previous accounts that I’ve mentioned above. It seems clear that General Alten did not send in his men quite so precipitately as suggested, and in fact waited until both his brigades had arrived on the hills above San Millan. That would give Lord Wellington time to make his appearance. It also sounds far more like the meticulous Alten to me. 

Moorsom is also very specific that the 43rd and not the 52nd was with Kempt’s Brigade, and it was that brigade which was sent to attack the French first brigade which was waiting in and around the village. Most of the fighting seems to have been done by the riflemen, with the 43rd ready in support. This left Vandeleur’s Brigade, including the 52nd, in reserve and they only became involved in the fight when the French second brigade with the baggage train made its unexpected appearance.

As an interesting aside, Moorsom’s account, written as a regimental history in the mid-nineteenth century, makes no mention at all even of the existence of the two Portuguese battalions even though they were an integral part of the Light Division, and both Oman and Fortescue agree that they were sent into battle very early on by Lord Wellington himself. He also fails to mention the role of the Spanish division who continued the pursuit of the French into the hills. Clearly Moorsom preferred to ignore the multi-national nature of Wellington’s Peninsular command. 

An account by William Freer of the 43rd (courtesy of Gareth Glover) confirms Moorsom’s suggestion that the 43rd remained ready in support, leaving most of the fighting to the riflemen:

“We were not brought into play, but were kept in reserve dreading another [column] coming from the same point which would (had we been all pursuing) have been an inconvenience.”

Gareth Glover also provided me with an account by William Rowan of the 52nd, which makes it easy to see how some of the confusion of the various accounts may have come about. Rowan describes the combat thus:

“We then crossed the River Ebro and on the 18th (my birthday) we had a stirring affair, when our brigade unexpectedly and to our material surprise, near the village of San Milan cut in between the two brigades of a French division on route to Vitoria by a road that crossed the one on which we were marching our regiment; immediately wheeled into line and dashed at one of the brigades as it attempted to form on some high ground to our right. It did not however, want to receive us, but after a desultory fire it dispersed in all direction among the hills. We pursued for some time, taking several hundred prisoners and capturing all the baggage.”

The tone of Rowan’s account suggests that the 52nd flew into action the moment the French were sighted, and contradicts the measured account given by Moorsom. However, when you read it carefully, Rowan agrees that the 52nd’s attack was in fact made on the second brigade and the baggage, which most accounts agree did not even appear until after Kempt’s brigade was engaged fighting the French in the village. Rowan was definitely only interested in his own regiment’s part in the affair and does not mention any of the other battalions involved.

Which brings me very neatly to my own part in the Combat at San Millan. As a writer of historical fiction, it isn’t my job to decide which historian has it right and which doesn’t. In order to write a believable story, I need to choose the accounts that seem most likely, weave in my fictional regiment, and allow the historians to pick apart the rest. The list I’ve given is probably by no means complete. More accounts are being discovered all the time, and historians such as Gareth Glover do an amazing job of editing, publishing and interpreting them for their readers.

I already know the part I want Paul and his men to play at San Millan, and I’m going to go with the accounts of Moorsom and Kincaid. Their detailed timings are very useful and the delay before the initial attack gives me the opportunity to introduce a ‘Wellington moment’. In the face of so much conflicting evidence, I’m going to fall back on the most likely scenario which is that Kempt’s brigade, with the 43rd, was sent in first leaving Vandeleur’s brigade to deal with the second French brigade when it turned up. I will also borrow some of the individual stories from the other accounts, because they’re fun.

The enormous amount of information that needed to be sifted for an account of a small fight at San Millan makes it easy to understand why there are so many books written about a huge battle such as Waterloo. I’m going to end with a quote from Wellington. There are so many quotes attributed to him, but this one, or at least a version of it, seems more reliable than most. It also sums up very nicely what I’ve learned from researching battles for historical fiction.

“The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.” (Letter to John Croker, 8 August 1815, as quoted in The Waterloo Letters (1891) edited by H. T. Sibome)

Now let’s see what Major-General Paul van Daan makes of the Combat at San Millan…

Book Seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade, is due to be published this November.

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Once again I’d like to thank Gareth Glover for generously providing me with several as yet unpublished sources for this post. There is a full list of the sources I’ve used here but I’d recommend you have a look at Gareth’s website and watch out for future publications as there are still many more unpublished Peninsular War memoirs to come, and they’re all fascinating.

Sources

Cope, William Henry     The History of the Rifle Brigade (the Prince Consort’s Own) Formerly the 95th, Chatto and Windus, 1877)

Fortescue,  J W    A History of the British Army (Volume 9), Naval & Military Press, 2004

Glover, Gareth (ed)    A Light Infantryman with Wellington: the letters of George Ulrich Barlow,  Helion and Co, 2018

Glover, Gareth (ed) Unpublished account of Henry Booth (43rd)

Glover, Gareth (ed) Unpublished account of William Freer (43rd) 

Glover, Gareth (ed) Unpublished account of Surgeon Gibson (52nd)

Glover, Gareth (ed)    Unpublished letter from John Kincaid to W S Moorsom 

Glover, Gareth (ed) Unpublished account by William Rowan (52nd)

Kincaid, John    The Complete Kincaid of the Rifles,  Leonaur, 2011

Maxwell, W H (ed)    Peninsular sketches; by actors on the scene, H.Colburn, 1844

Moorsom, W S (ed)    Historical record of the Fifty-second Regiment (Oxfordshire Light Infantry) from the year 1755 to the year 1858, R Bentley, 1860

Napier, Lt-Gen Sir William     English Battles And Sieges In The Peninsula (Extracted From His ‘Peninsula War.’) John Murray, 1855

Oman, Sir Charles     History of the Peninsular War (Vol 6), Naval & Military Press, 2017

Surtees, William    Twenty five years in the Rifle Brigade,  William Blackwood, 1833