In the early nineteenth century, officers of the army acquired their commissions by purchase, a system which lasted until 1871 when it was abolished by the Cardwell reforms. Attempts were made from time to time to regulate the system and prevent the worst abuses associated with it, but it was impossible to keep control over every promotion and it was often too easy for an officer with money to bypass the system. Senior officers used the system to improve their retirement funds and wealthy juniors used it to climb the ladder faster…
Paul had been in Dublin with five companies of the 110th when he had received his promotion to major and with it the news that he would take command of the first battalion under Sir Arthur Wellesley in Denmark. The promotion had come at a relatively young age and he had leapfrogged a number of older and longer serving captains in the regiment. The commander of the second battalion, Major Middleton was in his fifties and considering retirement but there were several men who could have claimed Paul’s promotion as their due. Paul was trying hard not to feel defensive about his good fortune, but he was under no illusions that the main factor in his success had been financial. Under the traditional system, promotion was offered to the next man in line in the regiment. If none were able to come up with the purchase price, the commission could be sold to an officer from another regiment wanting to transfer for promotion. The Duke of York, who had made admirable attempts to reform some of the abuses of the system, had put in place length of service conditions for promotion to captain and major which were effective in peacetime although might be relaxed during campaigns when officers were in short supply. Paul had barely reached the required number of years when the promotion had been offered and in his battalion alone, at least four other captains had served longer; more if the second battalion were taken into account. Money had made the difference. Paul’s mother had been the daughter of a viscount but his father was from a trade background and had made his fortune in shipping and finance many times over. When the elderly Colonel Dixon had decided to retire, his commission was sold to Major Johnstone who was in command of the first battalion. Paul, puzzled by Wellesley’s conviction that the majority was his if he was willing to pay for it, had quickly realised that the colonel was expecting his retirement to be funded by a premium on the sale of his colonelcy, a premium which Johnstone could only afford if he added the sum onto the sale of his own commission. The premium was strictly against regulations but Paul was aware that they were an open secret in fashionable regiments, where commissions were sometimes sold for twice the regulation price set by the government. He was both irritated and amused at the approach by the regimental agent, with Dixon and Johnstone remaining at a discreet distance as if the negotiations might sully their hands. Commissions in the 110th did not generally command much of a premium; it was a relatively new regiment with no history and little reputation thus far, but Colonel Dixon was very well aware of both the personal fortune and the ambition of his most unlikely company officer and had taken the gamble. Grimly aware that he was about to be fleeced, Paul had gone back to his mentor, Sir Arthur Wellesley who was in London on Parliamentary business and invited him to dine at the Van Daans’ London home. Paul’s father and brother were away in Leicestershire and they had dined privately and sat afterwards over a good port. “Have you received your commission, Major?” Wellesley had said. They had talked, during dinner, of neutral matters; of the current situation in India and the proposed expedition to Denmark. They had also spoken of politics and the latest London scandals. Paul had been waiting to see if his chief would raise the subject. “Not yet. I am trying to decide if it is worth the extremely over-inflated price I am being asked to pay for it.” Wellesley gave one of his barking laughs. “Expensive, is it? Yes, I’d heard that Dixon is in need of funds.” “Colonel Dixon,” Paul said, sipping the port, “is currently still my commanding officer so it would be unthinkable of me to call him an avaricious old goat. At least anywhere he can hear me.” “What makes you think I won’t report that, Major?” “You never report any of the other appalling things I say to you in private, sir, so I’m cautiously optimistic.” “Are you going to pay it?” Paul pulled a face. “Sir, it’s not the money. It just galls me that he’s making that kind of profit out of a system which shouldn’t allow it. There are at least six or seven other men in the regiment who are eligible for this promotion. We can discount Longford, Cookson and Graham – none of them could raise even the regulation price. Which is a good thing in Longford’s case because he’s an incompetent arsehole who shouldn’t hold the commission he does. But men like Gervase Clevedon and Kit Young and Jerry Flanagan…they’ve every right to be furious if I buy in over their heads. I really want this. But I have to serve with these men.” Wellesley reached for the decanter. “It is your choice, Major. Would it help if I told you that even if you do not accept it, somebody else will.” Paul raised his eyebrows. “Into the 110th? Have we suddenly become fashionable without my noticing it?” “No,” Wellesley said with a laugh. “But sometimes it is more than that. Have you come across Captain Edmund Willoughby?” Paul frowned, puzzled. “If I have, I don’t remember him. Which regiment?” “He has served variously in the 4th, the 10th and the 24th. Moved each time for promotion and he has come up very fast indeed. Faster than you have.” “How?” “Money. Connections. A considerable enthusiasm on the part of a very high ranking member of the peerage to see his natural son progress. He will use the 110th as his next stepping stone; the timing is very convenient for him. Would you like me to tell you how many weeks actual combat experience he has?” Paul met the hooded eyes across the table. “Sir, are you applying emotional blackmail to get me to cough up the money for this piece of highway robbery we are calling a promotion? Is this gentleman likely to get my battalion killed in his first action with them?” “I imagine it is very possible,” Wellesley said tranquilly. “Either that or you will be on trial for shooting him in the head to prevent it.”
With Valentine’s Day coming up next week, I thought I’d post an extra freebie. An Impossible Attachment is a short story about a French prisoner-of-war in Portugal in 1812. It’s a story in its own right although those of you who have read the Peninsular War Saga and in particular A Redoubtable Citadel, will recognise at least one of the characters and some of the background. Please feel free to share it.
Happy Valentine’s Day Everybody…
British Prison Camp, Near Santarem, Portugal, 1812
He first became aware of the smell.
Second-Lieutenant Damien Cavel had served now for fourteen years since his conscription at eighteen and he was entirely accustomed to the filthy conditions of living in an army camp. Raised in a comfortable farmhouse close to Cambrai he had loathed the army at the start but had become accustomed and then attached and had finally embraced his profession with the enthusiasm of a boy who had never wanted the legal career set out for him by his parents. He had learned to adjust to his circumstances in whatever billet was available and living in close proximity with the men of his various companies he had ceased to notice the everyday smell of sweat and unwashed clothing. But the stench of the British army prison camp on the edge of the Tagus surpassed everything.
He had been taken, along with most of his company, on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca, a battle which had happened for many of the French so quickly that they were bewildered. A bitter disappointment to Damien Cavel, newly promoted after years as a sergeant. It was the second time in a year that he had been a prisoner of the British but the experience was very different. The first occasion had ended in him being sent back to his army with a letter of warm recommendation from the English colonel whose wife he had saved and another from Lord Wellington. It had led to his promotion and Damien was only just beginning to savour his new responsibilities in a company of the line before Salamanca left him wounded and then captured for a second time. This time there was no hope of repatriation and he was sent, thrown around in a wagon because of his injuries, to this holding camp north of Lisbon, waiting for transportation to England.
He remembered nothing of the ensuing weeks, tossing and turning with pain, burning with fever and lying in cramped, damp conditions in a disused grain store. Around him men died and were removed and replaced by others. Damien lived although he suspected, when he was finally conscious, that there had been moments when he wished he had not. Around him men groaned in pain or muttered with fever and there was an overpowering stench of excrement and stale urine and decaying flesh. It made him want to gag.
“This one’s awake over here, sir,” a voice said, a harsh English voice belonging to an orderly in shabby uniform with blood staining the front of his shirt. Footsteps sounded and then a man knelt beside Damien.
“Welcome back,” the man said. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Damien tried to speak and nothing came out. His mouth was dry and tasted foul. The doctor, a tired looking man with thinning hair and red-rimmed blue eyes reached out and felt his forehead.
“Fever’s gone,” he said. “Shelby, bring him some water.”
The orderly approached with a cup and the doctor held it while Damien drank, draining the cup. The blue eyes were studying him.
“Do you speak any English?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” Damien said. English had been compulsory at the good school his father had sent him to before the war, when his parents had hoped for a career in the law, possibly leading to government service. He had practised when he was able through the years of the war, speaking to English prisoners and occasionally to other soldiers during days of informal truce. He remembered such a moment at Talavera when he had talked across the stream to men filling their water bottles. But the biggest improvement had come when his company, escorting a supply column up towards Badajoz, had captured the young wife of an English colonel and he had walked beside her for more than two weeks. There were aspects of that time that Damien could not bear to remember, but the girl herself would never leave him. Her French needed no practice, she was fluent, but she had taken it upon herself to improve his English. It had been a distraction from the horror of her ordeal.
“Good,” the English doctor said. “My French is terrible. I’ll leave you here for now…is it Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant Cavel,” Damien said. “My coat?”
“If you had one, it’s gone,” the doctor said. “Let me have a look at that wound. It was infected but we used maggots and it seems to have done the job.”
Damien lay back and the doctor drew back the thin army blanket and carefully peeled the dressing from a long wound across his midriff. The doctor pressed gently and Damien winced and looked down. He was slightly shocked at the length of the gash, red raw and untidily stitched but there was no smell of decay although Damien wondered if he would have been able to smell it anyway in this foul atmosphere.
“My arm?” he asked, aware of the pain.
“Shoulder wound. Very deep, you’ll have a weakness there for a while. Perhaps always. You use your right or left hand?”
“You’re lucky then. Cavalry sabre, I’d guess, cut you down and then slashed you across the stomach. Ought to have killed you but he didn’t bend low enough. I think you’ll mend. I’ll get them to give you some food and plenty of water, you need rest.”
“Prison transport,” the doctor said in matter-of-fact tones. “Back to England and then if you’ll give your parole you’ll be treated as an officer and a gentleman. Better than most of these lads.”
“Thank you,” Damien said. “Do you know how long?”
“Couple of weeks, maybe. Once the transports have arrived they’ll probably take you by barge down river. You’ll be well enough by then. Eat and get some rest.”
“Thank you,” Damien said again. “May I know your name?”
“Dr Bishop. I’ll send someone up with some food.”
Two weeks was long in the prison hospital. More men died. Others were moved, once they were deemed well enough, to the two barns which housed the bulk of the prisoners. Damien had no idea how much time had passed while he had been ill and was astonished to find that two months had passed since he had fallen at Salamanca and autumn had arrived. Already the days were cooler and once he was well enough to step outside and take the air he could see that the land was turning greener after the heat of the summer months. Vineyards were ripe and heavy with the new harvest, the peasants were busy in the olive groves and the prisoners’ bland and boring diet was supplemented a little with local chestnuts, almonds and walnuts along with oranges and apples.
He was moved away from the fetid hospital into a small house, set aside for the officers, and given a new coat, presumably taken from a dead man and a shabby cloak against the colder evenings. His fellow officers, all bearing the same faint sense of depression, played cards and drank wine when it was available and speculated on their chance of exchange, on conditions in England and on when, if ever, they might see their wives and families again.
Transports arrived and the transport board sent an escort of Portuguese militia to take the prisoners by river on wide, flat bottomed barges to join the ships. Damien went to find Dr Bishop to thank him again and the Englishman saluted and then offered his hand.
“Good luck, Lieutenant Cavel, I hope it’s a smooth voyage and an easy imprisonment.”
“You have been very kind, Doctor. Thank you.” Damien looked out the door at the weather. “I do not think it will be a pleasant trip on the river.”
“No, I’m afraid not. Probably fast though with the rain we’ve had for the past few days, the river is very high.”
It took time to load the prisoners into the boats and standing shivering on the banks watching the laborious process, Damien wondered how many of them would be ill again before they reached the transports. He had no hat, it had been lost on the battlefield, probably looted with his coat and he pulled the thin cloak around him and waited his turn. There were five hundred officers and men, some from Salamanca and others brought in from smaller skirmishes or just picked up in small parties. The Portuguese militia watched them carefully. There was none of the laughter or banter or small kindnesses that the British medical staff had shown and Damien understood why. These men had lived under French occupation, had watched their homes burn, their food stolen and far too often their women raped. They had no sense of kinship with the French troops and he wondered if the small contingent of British infantrymen were there to guard the prisoners or to protect them.
Huddled finally in the barge, Damien looked back as the current swirled them out with the crew steering a course to follow those already gone. The rain was so heavy it was difficult to see the shore or indeed the other boats and he peered through the curtain of water.
“Bloody country,” Captain Bisset said beside him. “Either it rains or it’s baking, there’s no halfway. Perhaps England will be better.”
“Have you ever been?” Damien asked.
“I have,” an older man said. “Spent some time there as a boy. I liked it but the food was terrible.”
“It can’t be any worse than here,” Bisset said and there was laughter. A Portuguese oarsman turned to glare at them and then looked back quickly at a shout from the pilot. Damien understood no Portuguese and had never troubled to learn although he could make himself understood in Spanish.
They were moving quickly on the current, the shore no longer visible, and Damien hoped that there would be a chance to dry out before they were herded aboard the prison transports. Ahead of him he could hear Lieutenant Giroux coughing and he wondered if the man would make it to England alive.
The crash happened without any warning, the barge spinning in a sudden surge of water and hitting an object at great speed. Damien had no idea what it was but there was an ominous crack of splitting wood, and a yell and then water rushed up towards him. The barge had broken across the centre with both sides tilting crazily into the water and he could hear the cries of terror and pain of the men around him as they were pulled in to the grey torrent of the water.
Damien struggled out of the cloak, stood up on the edge of the wooden plank seat, peered through the water and then dived. Something struck his arm hard as he hit the cold water, sending a jolt of pain through the already injured limb but he made himself ignore it and struck out strongly. If he did not get away from the smashed wreckage of the barge quickly he was at risk of being pulled under either by the huge chunks of wood being tossed around in the water or by one of the men, struggling for their lives in the midst. He saw, as he struggled past, what looked like the shape of an enormous tree trunk in the centre of the chaos and he supposed it had come down in the storm and been carried along in the fast current.
They were screaming some of them, helpless in the maelstrom of swirling grey water, broken barge and thrashing arms and legs. Damien did not look back; he could do nothing to help them. Some of them might survive if they could swim or were lucky enough to be able to catch hold of a makeshift float. Already he could hear shouts from the barge behind following up, it’s crew trying desperately to avoid either striking the wreck and being wrecked themselves or hitting the men floundering in the water. Above them the rain continued to fall and Damien swam, following the current at an angle towards the shore.
He had learned to swim as a boy, through long summers with his grandparents on their farm. A river had wound its way across their land and every year one or two venturesome children were lost to drowning. His grandfather had been determined it should not happen to him and by the time he joined the army he was a powerful swimmer. It was not easy in this torrent, weighed down by his clothing, but if he stopped to try to remove his jacket or his boots he was afraid it would be too late. So he relied on the strength lent to him by sheer desperation to keep himself afloat and fought his way towards the shore.
He was thrown, finally, in a muddy swirl onto a stony bank. Steep sides rose above him and Damien, who could never remember feeling more exhausted in his life, dragged himself up and crawled on hands and knees up the bank. Finally, the rain seemed to be easing a little and was more of a fine mist although visibility was terrible. More than anything he wanted to lie down and give in but he knew that if the water rose again he was at risk of drowning while he was unconscious. He used bushes, trees and rocks to scramble up the bank, feeling his way, his hands cut and bleeding on sharp edges and thorns. And then he was there, muddy grass under him but solid ground, and he collapsed and lay still.
Damien awoke some time later. The rain had stopped but the land was covered by a thick fog. There was no sound now but the quiet rush of the river below. He was soaked and shivering so much he could hardly stand, and he pushed himself up, conscious of a terrifying weakness. Whatever had happened to the men in the water had long passed, the sky was darkening through the mist and it was evening. If he lay where he was he would probably be dead of cold by morning.
Stumbling like a drunken man he began to make his way inland. He had no idea where he was or how far from the British army camp but he was unlikely to be able to find his way back there in this weather. He needed shelter; warmth was unlikely in this appalling weather but even a dry barn would be better than this. Food would help but he could not go to some farmhouse and beg for help. The French were so hated here that he was more likely to get his throat cut than a place by the fire.
Damien thought that he must have been staggering for about twenty minutes although it was impossible to be sure, he had lost all sense of time, when he saw the light. It was dim, glowing yellow through the haze. He paused, trying to clear his head which was throbbing. Approaching the farm was a huge risk, but if he could remain undetected he might be able to steal some food and find shelter in an outbuilding. With rest he would be able to think more clearly and decide what to do next.
Close up, he could see a small house, whitewashed with a slate roof, crouching in the midst of a muddy farmyard. There were several buildings nearby, a barn and what looked like a henhouse. Damien moved forward very cautiously. No sensible householder would be out in this weather and night was falling rapidly, but he was suspicious of every sound.
He was almost at the door of the dark barn when disaster struck. Unsteady on his feet and in the darkness he had failed to see the long wooden shape of a broken hoe until he stepped on it. His feet shot from under him and he uttered a cry, quickly cut off but too loud in the darkness.
It could have been heard in the house and with a lamp lit there was clearly someone at home. Damien scrambled to his feet and made for the nearest building, a brick built structure which proved to be a tool shed. He ducked inside and stood very still, peering out through the broken door as the door to the house opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light.
“Cristiano, is that you?” a voice called and a shock ran through him as he realised that the voice was that of a woman and that bizarrely it was speaking English. “Cristiano? Maria?”
There was silence in the enveloping fog and Damien’s brain, numbed by cold and pain, sprang suddenly into life. The voice was tremulous and afraid and he knew suddenly, with complete certainty that this woman was alone here. He stood very still, listening. Nobody replied. She was calling for people she knew but they were not coming and the silence made her afraid.
It changed everything. Inside the cottage was light and probably warmth and food. It was still a risk. The unknown Cristiano and Maria might be close at hand, but once he was inside with this lone female it would be easier to deal with attack. Damien closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his shaking limbs and find some strength. Then he stepped out of the shed and ran to the door of the house.
She had seen his movement and she was very quick, closing the door with a faint sound of alarm. But desperation lent him strength and speed and he had his foot in the door before she managed it. She wrestled with it briefly and Damien shoved hard. The woman fell back with a cry of pain and he was inside, slamming the door behind him. There was a wooden bar which would not hold off an army but might well keep Cristiano and Maria out for a while and Damien pushed it into place and turned, leaning his back against the door to keep himself upright and surveyed the candlelit room and his prisoner who was scrambling to her feet, her eyes on his face.
It was a shock to find that she was younger than he had expected, probably in her twenties, dressed in black. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, long and straight and a bright red gold. Her eyes were cat green with flecks of gold in them, wide with terror, and her skin was pale with a dusting of freckles.
“Who are you?” she asked, but he could see her eyes on the soaked blue of his jacket and she knew the answer. “What are you doing here?”
“Seeking shelter,” Damien said. “Are you alone?”
She shook her head quickly. “No. No. My husband is upstairs asleep but he has a pistol. And my servants are close by…”
It was a brave try and he applauded her but the expression in her eyes showed it a lie and Damien pushed himself off the door.
“You lie to me and I will cut your throat,” he said quietly. “I am a French prisoner – escaped, I suppose – and I am in need of food and warmth. Do as you are told and I will not touch you. Try to get help and I will and you will not enjoy it. Which is it to be, Mademoiselle?”
She did not seem to be able to speak for a moment but she nodded. Damien gave a faint smile, trying to hide his relief. He was reasonably sure if he had tried to attack her she could have fought him off with ease and probably killed him.
“Are you alone?” he asked again.
“Yes.” She had found her voice.
“No husband or servants?”
She shook her head. “No. The farmer and his wife went to Lisbon, to market. They were going to stay with her sister. I thought when I heard you…”
“And the husband?”
“Is dead,” she said, and this time he knew she spoke the truth. The black velvet of her gown, trimmed at the hem and neckline with silver grey embroidery made it obvious. It might also explain the mystery of a young Englishwoman alone in Portugal.
“Anybody else?” he asked.
“No. Truthfully.” The girl’s eyes were studying him. Suddenly she said:
“You are ill.”
Damien nodded. “Yes. I have been wounded and then tonight in the river…”
He broke off and stood regarding her for a moment. Then she moved.
“Sit down, I will build up the fire.”
She moved to the fireplace, reaching for a stack of wood on the hearth and Damien moved to a wooden bench and sat down closing his eyes. He realised he was shaking violently with reaction; partly relief at being inside in the warmth and the dry and partly a sense of shame at having threatened a frightened woman. He knew that many of his countrymen would have seen it as a gift to find a young and attractive female alone in the cottage. Damien wished he could reassure her that she was safe.
The new heat from the fire reached him. He heard her move across the room and opened his eyes, turning. “Where are you going?”
She regarded him. “There is wine in the kitchen. And some food.”
“I will come with you.”
“You do not look as though you will make it that far…is it Captain?”
“Lieutenant Damien Cavel, Madame.”
She nodded then indicated the room with a sweep of her hand. “You were right, I’m alone,” she said. “In the dark and in this weather – where would I go? May I trust you?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “Madame, I am sorry. I am desperate…”
She nodded. “Wait there.”
He sat quietly, his eyes closed, savouring the warmth of the fire. She seemed to take a long time and he wondered if, after all, she had fled. He had no idea if there was a horse on the premises but suddenly he found it hard to care.
He opened his eyes, startled, and realised that he had fallen asleep. She stood before him, holding out not, as he had expected, a plate of food but instead a bundle of clothing.
“My husband’s. You will make yourself ill if you sit around in those clothes. I will be in the kitchen. It is warm there, there is food.”
“Madame…” Damien was appalled. “I cannot use these…”
“He has no use for them now.”
She left and Damien shook out the clothing. He stripped off his soaked clothes, dropping them in a heap on the floor and pulled on the shirt and trousers feeling almost childish pleasure in the sense of clean dry clothing. His boots were still soaked and after a moment’s consideration he set them before the fire and draped his wet clothing over the chair then ran his hands through his dark hair and padded through to the back of the house in bare feet.
It was a typical farm kitchen, wooden beams with bundles of herbs drying, a huge fireplace with spit and a brace holding an iron pot over the flames and a long wooden table with benches either side. Damien paused and the woman turned and indicated the table.
“Sit,” she said.
He obeyed and she spooned stew into a bowl and brought it to him. There was bread and a crock of butter and it smelled good; better than anything he had eaten since he had been captured at Salamanca. He tried not to snatch at the food but he was too hungry to be delicate. The woman watched him eat and then brought a bottle to the table and poured wine into a glass.
When the edge was taken off his hunger, Damien looked up. “Will you sit?” he asked. “I feel like a boor eating and drinking while you stand.”
She moved forward and collected a second glass, poured wine and sat. “I thought you were going to cut my throat,” she said, and Damien found a smile, to his surprise.
“I was not very convincing,” he said apologetically and was astonished when she laughed.
“You were. I was very frightened for a while. I may be wrong, Lieutenant, but you do not look like a man who is going to hurt me. But I do not understand how you are here.”
Damien studied the distinctive face. “I also, Madame,” he said. “Because you are English, are you not?”
The woman sipped the wine, watching him finish his meal. “I am. My name is Wentworth. Elizabeth Wentworth. I came out to see my husband. He was an officer, a Captain. Wounded at Badajoz. He died four weeks ago of his wounds. It took a long time.”
Damien was filled with immense sadness. “I am so sorry, Madame. To come so far. But forgive me, surely you did not travel alone?”
“I had nobody to come with me,” the girl said. “His commanding officer wrote to me. He was very ill, too badly hurt to be moved far. They do not usually keep officers in the hospital you know, alongside the men. He was billeted at this farm and Maria – the farmer’s wife – had been caring for him. I came to nurse him but it was only a few weeks…”
Damien set down his spoon and pushed the bowl away. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “That was so good.”
The green eyes studied him. “I have told you why I am here. You said you are an escaped prisoner?”
Damien smiled tiredly. “By accident,” he said. “It is not a very exciting story.”
“Tell me anyway,” Elizabeth Wentworth said.
Damien did so, beginning briefly with his wounding and capture at Salamanca. She listened quietly, the green-gold eyes on his face as he told it.
When it was done he sat silent and exhausted, sipping his wine. Eventually she said:
“What will you do now?”
“I do not know,” Damien admitted. “I could find my way back to the prison camp. Some of the men must have survived the river, they were probably taken there. Another wait for transports to England. Or I could try to make my way north to find the French army again. Hundreds of miles through country where my army is hated and the partisans wish to kill me – probably very slowly. And I have no news – I do not even know where we are. The British won at Arapiles – they may have taken Madrid by now.”
“A fool’s errand,” the woman said.
“The farmer and his wife…?”
“They will want you gone,” Mrs Wentworth said. “They hate the French. But they took their harvest to market. I am not expecting them back for a week at least.”
Damien was silent, studying her. “You should not be here alone, Madame,” he said finally, quietly. “It is too far from the town. While your husband lived, I understand. But now, you should find accommodation in Lisbon until you can…”
“I have no money for accommodation in Lisbon, Lieutenant,” the woman said, and suddenly she looked very young and very tired. “What I had, I spent on the journey and caring for Charles. The army will arrange my passage home when there are transports – they will send an escort, they have said. This is cheaper than a room in Lisbon.”
“And when you reach England?”
“I have an aunt I can stay with for a while. I have been living with her while Charles was out here. Eventually, I am told there will be a small pension. I thought I might seek a position as a governess or companion.”
“Your parents? Or his? Can they not…”
“My parents died some years ago. Charles married me against his parents’ wishes, they have never accepted me. It sounds far worse than it is, Lieutenant Cavel, I shall not starve. But when Maria said I might remain here until I have passage home it seemed to make sense.”
“Until this evening when you might have been raped and murdered by an escaped French prisoner!” Damien said. He felt angry that she should have been placed in that position. “One might think this commanding officer of whom you speak would have…”
“He knows nothing of it, sir. The regiment is in the field with Lord Wellington, I have not written of my small troubles and I shall not; I’m not a beggar. He has written to Horse Guards about my pension and has assured me he will see that it is paid. Beyond that, I am not his concern.” The surprising green eyes softened slightly. “But don’t think that I do not realise I have been lucky this evening. Are you all right, you are shivering again?”
He had been aware of it for a while, reached for the wine and drank more. “A fever. I was ill for some weeks, have been better, but I think the soaking….”
Cautiously he tried to move his left arm and realised that it was agony to do so. Elizabeth Wentworth got up.
“You are in pain,” she said. “Come, I’ll show you where you may sleep.”
“Madame, I can sleep here.”
She did not reply, merely picked up a candle and waited. Damien rose and followed her. The stairs of the small farmhouse were narrow and dark and he had to stoop his tall frame to avoid hitting his head. She did not have the same problem, she was small and slight and he thought suddenly of that other delicate-looking Englishwoman who had proved to have the strength of a lioness and found himself smiling.
There were two rooms above and she pushed open one of the doors. “This is where Maria and Cristiano sleep. They will know nothing about this. Go.”
It was a bedframe, roughly made from local oak, with straps supporting a straw filled mattress and blankets and pillows neatly folded so that the bed could air. Damien stared at it, trying to remember the last time he had slept in a bed. He turned to see her setting the candle on a wooden chest.
“I know the French are taught to live off the land and these people – and I – are your enemies,” she said. “Please don’t steal from them. There is enough food and when you are ready to go you may take what you like from my husband’s clothing, he has no need of it now and he was much of a height with you. Rest and if you need me I am sleeping in the next room.”
Damien was studying the pale face in the candlelight. “You are not my enemy and I do not know anything of these people. Thank you, Madame. I hope I will be better tomorrow. You have probably saved my life tonight.”
She gave a very slight smile. “You have definitely spared mine, sir.”
She turned to go and Damien moved to the bed. A blanket in his hand, he turned.
“Do you miss him very much?”
Elizabeth Wentworth stood framed in the crooked doorframe. “No,” she said, surprising him. “Although I could only admit that to a complete stranger such as yourself. How can I miss a man I barely knew? I was seventeen when we eloped and I had known him for two months then. He was handsome and dashing and I thought I loved him. He was also about to join his regiment to sail to Portugal with Sir John Moore. I was settled in lodgings and I waved him off proudly. That was four years ago. I have not seen him since. He wrote me a total of ten letters during that time. He sent me money occasionally but not enough, I have survived teaching music and drawing and running errands for wealthy widows. And on the occasional gift from my poor aunt who can ill afford it herself. His family do not receive me and would not even lend me money to travel here when I had word that he was so badly wounded. And when I arrived to nurse him, he was delirious and barely recognised me. He was also riddled with the pox, so I imagine that he had not missed me either.”
“Oh no,” Damien said softly, his own misery forgotten. “Oh cherie, I am so sorry. To come so far and for that. He did not deserve you.”
His compassion seemed to startle her. “You don’t know me, Lieutenant. How do you know what I deserve?”
Farm of Cristiano and Maria Guedes, Portugal, 1812
The bedrooms were cold compared to the heat of the rooms below. Elizabeth went down to bank the kitchen fire and extinguish lamps and candles, taking one up to the tiny box room which she had occupied since coming to Santarem. She removed the black mourning gown and took off her stays then wrapped a thick robe around her and got into the narrow bed. Four weeks ago Charles had breathed his last in this bed and she had stripped and washed the linen herself, not wanting to make more work for Maria who had been kind enough already. She sensed that they wanted her gone once her husband had been buried but they were too good to say so. Their trip to Lisbon had been a regular necessity to sell the produce of the small farm but she suspected they would remain with their family for as long as they could. She had been told that a passage would be available for her within the month and the Lisbon quartermaster would send one of his men with a cart to escort her to the ship with her small trunk.
Elizabeth had not liked being left alone at the farm, but it had also been a relief. She had grown up in the country and had willingly agreed to feed the few animals and take care of the house. It was the least she could do to repay their kindness since their last farmhand had left to join the Portuguese army eight months ago and there was no other help locally. Feeding the goats and milk cow and chickens occupied little of her time. She wrote letters, one to her aunt accepting her generous offer of a bed in her own small house until she might make other arrangements and another to Charles Wentworth’s family, telling them of his death and his burial. They would probably not respond but Elizabeth would have known she had done the right thing.
There was a small sum of money, raised through auctioning Captain Wentworth’s personal possessions, and a one-armed Major of the cavalry had ridden out to give her the money. She had seen his eyes brighten at finding the widow young and personable and she suspected that if she had given him the slightest encouragement he would have ridden out again but she did not. Four years of marriage to a soldier had convinced Elizabeth that if she did ever marry again it would not be to a man in a red coat.
She wondered if the French officer was married. Once the initial terror had eased, she had found nothing threatening in the tall, slender dark haired man with steady grey eyes. Any fear of him harming her had vanished very quickly. Four years alone had accustomed Elizabeth to all manner of impertinences from men who very clearly believed that a woman whose husband had been away for so long must welcome their attentions and she had grown very good at sensing danger. She sensed no threat from the exhausted Frenchman with the surprisingly good grasp of English and in practical terms his presence here for a few days might keep her safe. It was improper for her to be staying in a deserted cottage unchaperoned with him sleeping in the next room but since nobody would ever know of it, it could hardly hurt her reputation.
She slept finally, waking as the dawn filtered through the badly fitting shutters at the small window and rose to dress. The black velvet gown was the only mourning she possessed, saved from the death of her mother several years earlier and she would not wear it about the farm. Instead she donned the practical green wool and the sturdy boots and bundled her hair up into a knot then went down to build up the fire in the kitchen before going outside into a fresh dry dawn with the promise of a sunny day to begin the chores of the farm.
When she came back inside later, hungry and ready for breakfast she was faintly surprised not to see the French officer already down. She had moved his jacket and boots into the kitchen to dry properly and bundled up the soaked, filthy linen to be laundered. Now she took off her cloak and went up to her room. There was a box under the bed which contained the remains of her husband’s clothing and she unpacked it, piling it up neatly folded. She had not given the clothing to be sold with the rest of Charles’ effects. It had little value and she had thought she might give it to Cristiano when she left as thanks for his hospitality. Now she carried the small pile, a couple of shirts, some underclothing, woollen stockings and a spare pair of serviceable grey trousers to the other door and knocked.
There was no reply. Elizabeth knocked again and then pushed the door open very cautiously.
“Lieutenant Cavel? Are you awake? I have brought…”
The sight of him on the bed froze the words. He had thrown off the blankets in the night and lay uncovered still dressed in the shirt and trousers she had given him. They were soaked with sweat and his face was flushed and burning. He did not appear conscious and Elizabeth dropped the clothing onto the chest and ran forward.
“Oh lord,” she said, feeling the burning damp of his forehead. “Lieutenant? Mr Cavel, can you hear me?”
The eyes opened, staring at her in confusion and he spoke in French. Elizabeth spoke enough of the language to be able to teach children the basics but his rapid words made no sense to her. It did not matter. He was ill and it was clear that after four weeks of exhausting nursing, she was going to have to go through the process again. She felt a stab of resentment at the thought and then she sighed and turned to find the discarded bedclothes. She could hardly leave him like this.
The routine was familiar by now and resigned, she fell quickly into the pattern of caring for a fever patient; washing him, changing the bed sheets, changing his clothing and patiently spooning water and other liquids between his dry cracked lips. The fever burned fiercely for three days and Elizabeth wondered if, like Charles, he had already been weakened too much by his wounds and his previous illness to survive. But unlike Charles he was clearly a fit and healthy man in all other ways and on the fourth day he slept more easily, his body no longer racked by violent shivering and his brow cool and dry.
Elizabeth sat beside the bed, watching him. Like this he appeared younger than she had first thought, probably no more than thirty or so although his contained manner had made him seem older. She was twenty-two herself and had been told often that she seemed older than her years, which was less flattering to a woman than a man. Once again she wondered if he had a wife waiting for him back in France. She suspected that the answer was yes, there had been a name he had mentioned more than once in his fevered ramblings and she hoped that Anne, whoever she was, appreciated this unassuming man.
He awoke properly late into the evening. Elizabeth had brought the lamp from the kitchen into his room and settled herself to mend one of the shirts she had washed. She was wrapped in her shawl; the heat from the kitchen barely filtered up to the bedrooms. Seeing him stir she looked up and into bewildered grey eyes.
“Madame Wentworth. What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Elizabeth smiled and got up, putting down her sewing. “You’re awake. That’s good. And you have also remembered your English which is even better because you have made me realise how rusty my French has become these past days. Wait there, I will bring you a warm drink now that you can taste it properly.”
She left him and when she returned he had managed to pull himself into a sitting position. Elizabeth handed him the cup of milk with honey and a little brandy and watched him sip it.
“This is very good, thank you. My throat is so dry. How long have I been ill?”
“This is the fourth day.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve been here four days? I need to leave tomorrow, the farmer and his wife are going to be back…”
“No, they are not,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I received a message from Maria yesterday to tell me they will be at least another week. Her sister has just given birth and they are staying to help and for the baptism. Senor Dias, who has a farm eight miles further up river stopped by on his way back from Lisbon to tell me.”
“Leaving you here alone?”
“I think they are making the most of a holiday. They farm this place alone, you know, they must seldom have the opportunity to leave it because of the animals. All their farmhands left to join the army or the militia. I suppose that with the harvest brought in and taken to market there is little to do here. And I am happy to help them, they were very good to me when Charles was dying. In a few weeks I shall be gone but I will always remember how kind to me the people of Portugal were. Do you feel able to eat some broth?”
“Thank you. I am not sure they would be so kind if they knew you were harbouring an escaped French prisoner.”
“They have no need to know. And you have no need to leave until you are a little stronger. I’ll bring the broth.”
She returned with it and found him holding the half mended shirt. “You are mending my clothes.”
“It was badly torn.”
“And you have also changed them. I was not wearing this nightshirt when I got into bed that night.”
Elizabeth flushed slightly and dropped her eyes. “I could not leave you as you were, you were shivering. I am sorry…”
“Do not apologise, Madame, you have probably saved my life. Again. I am sorry to have been such a charge on you. I will leave as soon as I am able.”
“You have been less trouble than my husband, sir. Are you…do you have a wife at home?”
He smiled. “No. I was young when I joined, have been in the army all my adult life. No time to marry.”
“I wondered. There was a name you mentioned when you were ill. Who is Anne?”
She saw his eyes flicker in surprise. “Anne? Oh. I must have been dreaming, I suppose.”
“An old love or a current sweetheart?” Elizabeth said lightly, teasing, but he did not smile, shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“Neither. A woman I liked very much.”
“I am sorry, I have no right to pry.”
“No, it is not that. I am ashamed to tell you the story; it reflects so badly on some of my countrymen. But then you must know, I am sure, if you have talked to your hosts, that the French are hated for a reason.”
Elizabeth nodded, studying him. She wondered if she wanted to know. After a moment he said:
“I was still a sergeant, posted to a troop escorting supplies. Dull and often dangerous but essential. We had a new commander – a colonel of cavalry, Colonel Dupres. It was odd for a man of his rank to be given such a lowly posting and we all assumed it was a punishment of some kind.”
“And was it?”
“Yes. He had behaved very rashly, more than once, putting his men at risk without need because he felt some sense of rivalry with an English colonel of light infantry. They had clashed several times on the field and Dupres had lost and men had died. During the months I served under him I came to loathe him. He was a thief, looting houses and churches. He was a brute to local people in Portugal and Spain. Not just taking food and supplies; we all do that. But he would kill for sport and torture for fun. And he was a rapist. Any local girl he came across.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth said softly.
“He was in command and many of the men followed him willingly. War makes beasts of so many, Madame. But there was a skirmish with a group of Spanish partisans and a small English escort, taking supplies up from Lisbon. We captured the English and killed many of the Spanish. The others fled. There was a woman with them – a young Englishwoman. She gave him her name, thinking she would be released as an officer’s wife. She was married to the colonel he hated.”
Elizabeth watched the shuttered expression on his face and wished she had not asked. “You don’t have to tell me any more.”
Damien gave a tight smile. “You will have guessed, I imagine. He slaughtered the remains of her escort in front of her and he took her with us on the march. For two weeks I watched him brutalise her. You do not want the details. Some of us tried to help her as much as we could and tried desperately to think of a way to get her free.”
“Did he kill her?” Elizabeth whispered. She was cold with horror, her own vulnerability out here suddenly real all over again. He shook his head.
“No, although eventually I think he would have. He was…he became obsessed with her. Would not release her. But the partisans had taken word back to the Allied lines and we were attacked one night by half a battalion of light infantry. They went through our men as if we were raw recruits. Dupres survived the battle but her husband challenged him when he realised what had been done to her and killed him.”
“Is that how you were taken prisoner?”
“No. She spoke for us, my captain and I, to Lord Wellington. The rest were sent to be transported but we were released to go back to the French lines with a letter of thanks and recommendation for what we had done for her. I was promoted and so was he. Then I fought at a battle just outside Salamanca and was wounded and taken again.”
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. Was she all right?”
He gave a little smile. “I think so. Hard for any woman to endure what she did, but she was unusual. And so was he. I have seen many men in love before but I do not think I have ever seen a man so enamoured as he. I hope they did well. I have seen death and horror. And rape, since many of our troops see nothing wrong with it. But that stayed with me. I got to know her and I don’t think I could ever close my eyes to it again after that.”
He had finished the broth almost without noticing it and she took the bowl from him gently. “I think you are a good man, Lieutenant. Try to sleep again now. No need to dream horrors about her, she sounds very well taken care of. But you have reminded me of how lucky I have been. Goodnight.”
Elizabeth was surprised at how quickly the Frenchman seemed to recover from his fever. He was up within two days, moving slowly around the house, washing himself and dressing and doing what he could to help her. After four days he was outside with her in the crisp autumn air, carrying the feed bucket and hunting for eggs. She found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed the company. He did not talk a great deal but his silences were restful and she felt comfortable with them.
During the evenings they would sit in the kitchen to save lighting two fires and she finished mending his clothing and watched, with some surprise, as he expertly patched the soles of his boots. She quickly realised that life on a farm was as familiar to him as it was to her, and he began, without asking, to effect small repairs about the place as if he, like her, felt a sense of obligation to the absent farmer and his wife whose hospitality was keeping him warm and fed.
He did not speak again of leaving and at the end of another week, Elizabeth felt the need to raise it. Autumn would soon move into winter and the farmer and his wife would return. She was daily expecting a message about her own passage home and was somewhat shocked to realise how little she wanted to go.
They had finished their evening meal and he got up to wash the pottery bowls and stack them to dry. Elizabeth was amused at the action. She suspected that Charles would never have thought to do it; he had remained a gentleman by instinct, waiting for a servant to clear up after him. His occasional letters had been full of grumbles about the lack of good orderlies and servants. Her own years of near poverty had taught her to manage most things alone, with a local woman coming in daily to do the heavy cleaning and she was an excellent cook.
“You cook very well, Madame, I am being ruined for army fare,” the Frenchman said, echoing her thoughts. Elizabeth smiled.
“I enjoy cooking. Lieutenant Cavel, have you decided yet what you are going to do? I do not mean to hurry you, but…”
Damien collected a bottle of wine and seated himself again. He poured for both of them. “I am telling myself that my work around the farm will make up for my free use of my unwilling host’s wine cellar,” he said. “It is very good; does he make it himself?”
“It is made in the village. They all contribute the grapes and share out the wine. Is this not what you call living off the land, Lieutenant?”
“It is too comfortable for that,” Damien said, laughing. “And in answer to your question, Madame, yes, I have decided. I am going to make my way back over the river and east towards Cadiz. I have no idea where I’ll find Marshal Soult’s army – or if I will – but I think it is the best choice.”
“Or you could surrender and go to England,” Elizabeth said suddenly. She had not meant to say it, but his words conjured up the reality; hundreds of miles of lonely marching without a weapon or an ally, through hostile countryside with no sure knowledge of where he might find his compatriots. “If the partisans catch you, they’ll kill you. And even the British might shoot you as a spy. It is a mad idea, Lieutenant, and I do not want you to do it!”
He smiled then, one of his rare broad smiles which made his face that of a boy again. “Madame, I am sorry. But I am a French soldier – I have been for fourteen years – and it is my duty to get myself back and fight for my emperor. As your husband would have done if he could. But thank you for your concern.”
Elizabeth got up. She was fighting back tears. “You will get yourself killed!” she said furiously, walking over to the fire. “And I do not want to know about it! Go if you must. I will remain here until Cristiano and Maria return and then…”
She heard him move and did not look around. Unexpectedly she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “I am not leaving until I am sure they are back. Or until a man in a red coat arrives to take you to the ship. I am not leaving you alone here.”
“It is not your problem, Lieutenant.”
“My name is Damien, cherie. We probably only have another few days here and nobody will hear you use it. Please.”
Elizabeth turned into his arms. “Did she teach you your English?” she asked, fighting the completely irrational sense of jealousy.
Damien laughed. “I already knew some, but she taught me a lot more. I think it helped to take the mind off the pain. Do not look so cross, Elizabeth Wentworth. She would be very happy to see me practising it on you. May I kiss you?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks were wet with tears. She reached up to cup his face with one hand and found that it too was damp. “I do wish you would,” she said.
They spoke little afterwards, having said all that they could. There was no way that she could persuade him and she understood it. If he were a man to take the safe and easy way, he would not be the man he was.
Damien had not meant it to end this way although he quickly realised, with rueful tenderness that on this occasion it was not going to be his decision alone. She moved around the room as she always did at the end of the evening, blowing out candles with housewifely care as he banked the fire and checked the door and shutters. It was a still, cold night and he followed her up the stairs and was startled as she turned not left into her own little room but right into the main bedroom where he had been sleeping. She set the candle down on the chest and turned to him, the green-gold of her eyes bright on his.
“We have so little time left,” she said. “And this may be all we ever have. I am not wasting it on propriety and morality.”
Damien looked at her for a long time. “And if you bear a child?” he asked.
“Then I will tell them it was my husband’s. A last and joyous gift. Nobody but I need know that he could not have done so.”
It quashed the last of his scruples although he was amused, as he moved to take her into his arms, to realise that she had thought of that well before this moment. He had been neatly ambushed by an English force and not for the first time. On this occasion there was no thought of fighting back and he let her draw him to the bed, into her arms and into joy without a moment of regret.
They lived the next three days in each other’s arms, leaving the bedroom only to eat and to perform the necessary chores of living. If this was to be all they had, he understood her need to savour it, simply to hold him. They talked, when they were not making love, telling details of their lives and families, of their history. He whispered endearments to her in French and taught her their meaning and she made him laugh when she used them back to him. They slept little, waking wrapped together in the big bed, not feeling the cold of approaching winter in each other’s arms. It was as though they had known each other for many years; as though these past weeks had been just the culmination of a growing attachment instead of the madness it really was. He had not wanted to fall in love with her and he had prayed that she would not fall in love with him; it could bring only pain to both of them, but it was far too late for such careful common sense.
Halfway through the third day he awoke to an unfamiliar sound and realised suddenly that it was the approach of a horse. He was abruptly alert again after days of simple happiness but she was quicker even than he, scrambling out of bed, wrapping a blanket about her and running to the window.
“Is it the farmer back?”
“No, it is Major Callen. I imagine with news of the transport. Stay here.”
She scrambled into her black dress, frantically combing out her hair and then went down to open the door with the red gold mass loose about her shoulders. Damien dressed quickly and quietly, hoping that the major was not a perceptive man. His love looked very different to the thin, sad widow he had encountered three weeks ago on a foggy evening.
When he was dressed he moved quietly to the door. Both voices were clearly audible in the tiny cottage.
“We’ll send a gig, ma’am, can borrow it from the commissariat, easier to bring your boxes that way.”
“I don’t have much, Major, but thank you, it is kind.”
“Won’t be until the day after tomorrow but it’ll give you plenty of time to make the transport. It’s a fast boat, sailing into Portsmouth, and there will be two other ladies on board, wives going home, so you’ll have female company. Once you’re there, I understand a carriage has been arranged to take you to your family.”
“My aunt lives in Winchester, sir, it’s not that far. Did you arrange this?”
“No, ma’am. Although I would have. I understand it was your husband’s brigade commander. He has also been on about your pension, hurrying them along.”
“In the middle of a campaign that is so good of him, Major.”
“He’ll have had some time, ma’am. Light division have been in Madrid for a couple of months, I understand. And he’s got a good reputation for taking care of his officers and men.”
“I am grateful. I’ll write to him when I am home to thank him. Major, thank you. I am a little worried about the farm – I’ve been taking care of the animals while the farmer is in Lisbon.”
“No need, ma’am. I’ll leave one of my lads here until they get back. Don’t worry, he’ll behave himself.”
“Thank you. I’ll make sure I’m ready.”
Damien was amused, through his sadness, at the major’s evident reluctance to leave. He did so finally and when the horse was out of sight, Damien put on his boots and went downstairs. She turned to look at him and he saw that she was crying.
“Oh ma mie. Come here.”
She flew into his arms and he held her close, murmuring endearments as she cried. There was little that either of them could say that had not already been said.
He moved through the next day like a ghost, helping her to pack and making sure the farm was secure and the animals in good condition. She had his clothing neatly washed and mended and had fashioned a bag out of old flour sacks for him to carry spares and food, slung across his back like a satchel. It was surprisingly effective and probably more comfortable than the worn out pack he had been used to.
They spent the night wakeful in each other’s arms and he thought, holding her close after making love, that if he never saw her again this moment would stay with him forever; the moment he knew without the slightest doubt that he loved her.
“Your aunt lives in Winchester, does she not?”
“Yes. I will probably look for lodgings nearby. She is the only family I have.”
“What is her direction?”
She twisted her head to look at him. “Her direction? She lives close to the Cathedral; my uncle was a cleric there. I can give you details…but why, Damien?”
Damien kissed her very gently. “I may not survive this war,” he said. “I may not even survive the next month. But if I do…one day I would like to come back to you, cherie. If you think…?”
Her mouth stopped his, the kiss leaving him breathless. “Yes,” she said. “I know it will probably never happen. But Damien – I won’t stop hoping. If I have a child…what were your parents’ names?”
“My father was Damien also. My mother was Colette.”
“Thank you. Both very good names.”
He wondered if this much heartache had ever killed a man and then laughed at his own melodrama. It was not like him and no man had ever died of a broken heart. But he had never realised before how much it hurt. “I love you,” he said, very softly.
“I love you too, Damien Cavel. Never forget it, will you?”
“Never. Take care of yourself, Elizabeth Wentworth. And our child, if there is one. If I live, I will see you again one day.”
He left early, not wanting to risk being caught by the arrival of her military escort. She remained upstairs, watching him from the bedroom window. At the edge of the big barn, on his way down towards the river and the ford, he turned and saw her standing there, already dressed in her mourning black. She looked beautiful in it, the warm colour of her hair framing her pale face. This far away he could not see her tears but he knew they were there, reached up to touch his own wet cheeks. Then he turned and walked on into the bright sunlit morning.
Freneida, Portugal, January 1813
Colonel Paul van Daan gave a theatrical groan as his orderly limped into the room and deposited a large pile of mail onto the table. “Take them away!” he ordered. “I spend half my bloody time either reading or replying to letters, none of which is helping us win this war. I need a secretary!”
His wife looked up from the small table on the far side of the room where she was running through a list of medical supplies and fixed him with an arctic glare. “I beg your pardon?”
Paul grinned. “Sorry, love, I know you’re better than any clerk. But honestly, look at this lot.”
Anne van Daan got up, stepped around the basket where her newest child dozed in a patch of winter sunlight like a well-fed cat, and went to sort through the pile. “Major Breakspear can deal with half of these,” she said. “This is from your father, hopefully giving us a date for his arrival. Those are for some of the other officers – Jenson, can you drop them over please. And this…I’ve no idea.”
Her blank tone made him look up again. “For me?”
“For me,” Anne said. He watched as she opened the somewhat grubby folded sheet. There was another letter enclosed, folded and sealed. Anne scanned the missive and the expression on her face made him smile.
“Well clearly that’s not just another delay in the uniform order,” he said. “What is it, love?”
Anne looked up. “It is from Damien Cavel,” she said blankly.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Cavel? Sergeant Cavel?”
“Captain Cavel apparently. Currently serving in Marshal Soult’s army although he doesn’t say where.”
“Well he wouldn’t, would he?” Paul said. “May I see? Is it personal?”
“Not to me,” Anne said. She handed him the letter, looking down at the other one in her hand. “He is asking me to convey this letter to an Englishwoman living in Winchester.”
Paul read the letter twice and then looked at Anne. “He says he wants her to know that he is safe. A love affair?”
“I’m guessing so although don’t ask me how! Paul, what in God’s name are we going to do?”
Paul met her eyes and shook his head regretfully. “We can’t, bonny lass, although I’d like to. You know how grateful I am for what he and his captain did for you last year. But we’ve no idea what this contains. I’m sorry, but it’s for the intelligence service.”
Anne studied him for a long time. “All right,” she said finally. “Give it to George Scovell. He can do what he likes with any information in it, but we can trust him to be discreet about it; we can’t have this poor woman’s name shared with half the army.”
“If Cavel has been as careful in her letter as he is in this one there won’t be anything useful anyway. But this could be some kind of cipher, George will have to see it.”
“Will you take it up to him or shall I?”
“I’ll do it; I need to ride over to see Lord Wellington later anyway. Where’s Manson?”
“Practicing dry firing with the light company I think.”
“He can come with me.”
Paul made to tuck the letter into his pocket and his wife said:
“Will you do something for me, Paul?”
Paul studied her with some misgiving. “What?”
“Leave that on the desk and go and find Leo yourself, will you?”
“Nan. You can’t…”
“I’m not going to copy it directly. I’m going to see what it says and write to her myself.”
“You think this is genuine?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “I know Damien Cavel, Paul. He’s not an intelligencer, he doesn’t have the temperament any more than you do. If he’s managed to get a letter to me about this girl it’s because it means everything to him. And I owe him my life.”
After a moment, Paul nodded. “You’ve got half an hour. Seal it again properly, will you?”
His wife smiled sweetly. “Do you think I would not?”
“No. You do have the temperament to be an intelligencer. Oh – what’s the girl’s name, it doesn’t say it here?”
“Wentworth. Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth, a Winchester address.”
Paul blinked in surprise. “Wentworth. I know who that is. She’s the widow of Captain Charles Wentworth – he used to be with the 43rd but transferred over to the 112th just before Fuentes d’Onoro. He was badly wounded at Badajoz, sent back to Lisbon but died of his wounds. I didn’t know him that well but I’d heard his widow came out to nurse him. I wrote a few letters, chased up her pension and helped with transport home.”
“Pretty?” Anne asked. Paul laughed.
“No idea, bonny lass, I’ve never set eyes on her. It rather sounds as though Cavel has, though. She’s a real person and she was definitely out here which makes this unlikely romance a bit more plausible. Get it done and I know nothing about it.”
He left the room and stood outside for a moment, then looked back in. She had unsealed the second letter and was reading it. He saw her lips curve in a smile and he found himself smiling as well. After a moment she sat down, reached for her pen and drew a sheet of paper towards her to send the good tidings to a woman she did not know.
I’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance. A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am. A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one. Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further. Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800. Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof. While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it. Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling. The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper. Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct. The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over. Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank. Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it. Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years. Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence. Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting. Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years. Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804. Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”. What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service. Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case. In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well. Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident. An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment. I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances. An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued. Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language. Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process. There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…
Beginning in 1802, the Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon, and in particular the story of Paul van Daan who joins the regiment as a young officer and rises through the ranks in Wellington’s army.
A second linked series, about a Manx naval officer, begins with An Unwilling Alliance, due to be published in April 2018 and tells the story of Captain Hugh Kelly of HMS Iris, Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry and the Copenhagen campaign of 1807.
It is 1802, and two new officers arrive at the Leicestershire barracks of the 110th infantry just in time to go to India. Sergeant Michael O’Reilly and Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler have seen officers come and go and are ready to be unimpressed. Neither of them have come across an officer like Lieutenant Paul van Daan.
Arrogant, ambitious and talented, Paul van Daan is a man who inspires loyalty, admiration and hatred in equal measure. His unconventional approach to army life is about to change the 110th into a regiment like no other.
The novel follows Paul’s progress through the ranks of the 110th from the bloody field of Assaye into Portugal and Spain as Sir Arthur Wellesley takes command of the Anglo-Portuguese forces against Napoleon. There are many women in Paul’s life but only two who touch his heart.
Rowena Summers, a shy young governess who brings him peace, stability and lasting affection.
Anne Carlyon, the wife of a fellow officer who changes everything Paul has ever believed about women.
As Europe explodes into war, an unforgettable love story unfolds which spans the continent and the years of the Peninsular War and changes the lives of everyone it touches.
It is 1810 and Major Paul van Daan and the 110th prepare to meet the French on the ridge of Bussaco in Portugal. Back on the battlefield only two weeks after his scandalous marriage to the young widow of Captain Robert Carlyon, Paul is ready for the challenge of the invading French army.
But after a successful battle, Lord Wellington has another posting for his most unorthodox officer and Paul and Anne find themselves back in Lisbon dealing with a whole new set of challenges with army supplies, new recruits and a young officer who seems to represent everything Paul despises in the army’s views on discipline and punishment. Anne is getting used to life as the wife of a newly promoted regimental colonel as two other women join the regiment under very different circumstances. And an old adversary appears in the shape of Captain Vincent Longford whose resentment at serving under Paul is as strong as ever.
It’s a relief to return to the field but Paul finds himself serving under the worst General in the army in a situation which could endanger his career, his regiment and his life. Given a brief by Wellington which requires Paul to use tact and diplomacy as well as his formidable fighting skills, it’s hardly surprising that the army is waiting for Wellington’s most headstrong colonel to fail dismally at last…
Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men. His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities. And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.
In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences. Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England. With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure. But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul. As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife. Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way.
An Untrustworthy Army (Book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga: June – November 1812)
Back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division. Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos. But the end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat. At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, will Colonel van Daan’s legendary brigade manage to hold together and get themselves back to safety? (To be published in July 2018)
An Unrelenting Enmity (Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga: December 1812 – April 1813)
Wellington’s army is in winter quarters, licking it’s wounds after the retreat from Burgos. In the 110th and the rest of the Third Brigade, however, morale is high. Anne van Daan has successfully given birth to her second child and there is time for a trip to Lisbon to see the rest of the children. Things take a turn for the worse when a new commander is appointed to the 115th serving under Paul, a man who represents everything that Wellington’s most unconventional brigade commander despises. In addition, the new Major has a history with Sergeant Jamie Hammond which looks likely to set off a major explosion in the 110th. (To be published in December 2018)
An Uncivilised Storming (Book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga: May- October 1813)
Lord Wellington leads his army into northern Spain. With a better supply train and a new determination the Anglo-Portuguese army are about to make a push to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Wellington’s army, including Colonel Paul van Daan and the Third Brigade of the Light Division face the French at Vitoria win a comprehensive victory. There follows an exhausting series of battles as Marshal Soult tries desperately to rally his forces and push the English back. Weary of battle, Paul is appalled when he arrives in time to witness the sacking of San Sebastian by the Allied troops, an atrocity which makes him question his place in the British army. (To be published in April 2019)
An Inexorable Invasion (Book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga: October 1813 – February 1814)
Wellington’s army is invading France. After almost five years of advancing and retreating across Portugal and Spain, Colonel Paul van Daan and his brigade are about to set foot on French soil, the first time many of them have ever done so. At the battles of the Bidassoa and the Nivelle, the men of the light division are at the forefront of the action as Wellington ruthlessly presses home his advantage. But behind the scenes, the European powers are negotiating for Bonaparte’s abdication and the end of hostilities and the disappearance of Sir Henry Grainger, British diplomat and intelligence agent sends Captain Michael O’Reilly and Sergeant Jamie Hammond with a small force into hostile country on a mission which could lead to peace – or cost them their lives. (To be published in August 2019)
An Improbable Abdication (Book 9 of the Peninsular War Saga: March 1814 – January 1815)
Wellington’s army is in France, marching inexorably towards victory. An inconclusive engagement at Toulouse is cut unexpectedly short when the news comes in that Napoleon Bonaparte has abdicated and that France has surrendered. With war finally over, Colonel Paul van Daan and his battered and exhausted men are bound for England and a round of celebrations and gaiety which Colonel van Daan could do without. While the crowned heads of Europe are feted in London, honours and promotions abound and Anne and Paul find themselves learning how to live a normal life again with their children around them. The light division is broken up with it’s various regiments sent to other duties and Lord Wellington, now a Duke, is despatched to Vienna to represent Britain in the complex peace negotiations which threaten to try his patience almost as much as Marshal Massena. But the early months of 1815 bring shocking news… (To be published in December 2019)
An Unmerciful Engagement (Book 10 of the Peninsular War Saga: Waterloo 1815)
For Paul and Anne van Daan, domestic bliss has been interrupted long before they had grown used to it. Bonaparte is loose and with the light division disbanded and many of it’s crack regiments dispersed to other theatres of war around the globe, Wellington needs to pull together an army from the allied nations of Europe. His Peninsular army no longer exists but he still has Paul van Daan and the 110th. Promoted to General, Paul is on his way to Brussels and to a battle far worse than anything he has yet experienced. (To be published in June 2020)
An Amicable Occupation (Book 11 of the Peninsular War Saga: 1815 – 1818 the Army of Occupation)
With the horrors of Waterloo behind him, Paul van Daan is in France commanding a division of the Army of Occupation under Wellington. It is a whole new experience for the officers and men of the 110th, learning to live beside the men they fought against for six long and painful years.
A Civil Insurrection (Book 12 of the Peninsular War Saga: Yorkshire 1819)
Back in England finally, the 110th have settled back into barracks and are enjoying a rare spell of peace when trouble in the industrial towns of the North sends them to Thorndale, Anne’s home city where her father and other mill owners are under threat from what looks like a revival of the Luddite movement. After many years of fighting the French the men of the 110th are faced with a new challenge which might see them pitted against their own countrymen. (To be published in December 2020)
In Copenhagen, 1807 the British army under Lord Cathcart and the Royal Navy under Admiral Gambier cooperated to seize the Danish fleet to stop it falling into the hands of the French. Denmark was a neutral country and the bombardment of Copenhagen, although it achieved its aim, was not universally popular.
The army reserve was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, keen to return to the field from his position as Chief Secretary in Ireland, and in An Unwilling Alliance a meeting of the various commanders brings together Captain Hugh Kelly, the Manx commander of the Iris and a young army major on the rise, serving under Sir Arthur Wellesley, Major Paul van Daan…
Hugh turned at a sudden noise from the stable yard. The commanders had left their horses in charge of a groom and the man had roped them to a long wooden bar outside the stables. There was no sign of him now but one of the horses, a solid piebald with knots in his mane and a thick neck, had broken loose from the rail and was backing up across the yard. His freedom was making the other horses restive and they were pulling on their tethers. Hugh swore softly under his breath and made his way outside.
Another man was ahead of him, one of the escort who had arrived with the army commanders. He was tall and fair, an officer in a red coat, his back to Hugh as he approached the piebald, placing himself between the horse and the way out of the yard. Hugh went to the bar where the other horses were tied and inspected the ropes. As he had suspected, every one of them was poorly tied, ready to be loosened with a determined tug. Hugh sighed and released the first of them, retying it.
The officer spoke, his voice a clear baritone which was hard to place. The accent spoke of privilege and wealth and the purchase of a commission but the phrasing and words were slightly unusual, as if this man had lived a varied life in many places.
“Stand still, you cross-eyed Danish bastard, I’m not chasing you halfway across the city because a groom can’t tie a knot. Come here.”
He caught the loose rein and then moved in confidently as the horse reared up in fright, putting a soothing hand on the ungroomed neck and running it down the horse’s shoulder. “All right lad, I know you’re scared. No need to be. Come on, let’s get you back where you should be and fed and watered. And by the look of you a brush wouldn’t go amiss. Come on.”
He was holding his body against the horse, steadying him, and the animal quietened immediately, soothed by the confidence in both voice and body. Hugh watched in reluctant admiration as the man turned, leading the horse back into the yard. He was wearing the insignia of a major and looked several years younger than Hugh with fair hair cut shorter than was fashionable, especially in the army or navy, and a pair of surprising blue eyes. The eyes rested on Hugh for a moment, then the major led the horse back to its place at the rail and began to tie him up. Hugh watched him in surprise for a moment, recognising the knot and then looked up into the major’s face.
“I doubt he’ll break away from that,” he said in matter-of-fact tones, moving on to re-tie the next horse.
The major did the same. “How to tie a knot that stays tied was one of the only two useful things the bloody navy taught me,” he responded, pleasantly.
“What was the other?” Hugh asked.
“How to kill people. I got very good at that.” The major tied the last knot and surveyed Hugh’s handiwork to ensure that it was properly done with an arrogance which both irritated and amused Hugh. Then the man looked up and saluted. “Major Paul van Daan, Captain, 110th first battalion. I’m here with Sir Arthur Wellesley.”
“Sir Arthur Wellesley might have been walking back to his lodgings if you’d not been as quick,” Hugh said, returning the salute. “You’d think a groom would be better at tying up horses, wouldn’t you?”
“A Danish groom, this week? What do you think, Captain?”
Hugh grinned. “I think a pack of British commanders having to walk through town because their hired horses have buggered off might be a small victory but very satisfying,” he said. “Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris, Major. How did you end up in the army, then? Navy didn’t suit?”
“I was fifteen and I didn’t volunteer, Captain. Put me off a bit.”
Hugh shot him a startled glance. “Christ, you don’t sound like a man who ought to have been pressed.”
“They don’t always play by the rules. But it was definitely educational.”
“How long were you in?”
“Two years. Made petty officer, fought in a few skirmishes and at the Nile.”
Hugh felt his respect grow. “I was there myself,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink. They’ll be a while, I suspect. You on Wellesley’s staff?”
The major grinned. “Not officially, although he bloody thinks I am. Let me have a word with that groom and I’ll be with you.”
Hugh watched as he went to the stable door and yelled. The man emerged at a run and stood before Van Daan, his eyes shifting to the neatly tied horses in some surprise. He looked back at the major, his expression a combination of guilt and defiance.
Van Daan reached out, took him by one ear, and led him to the horses as if he had been a misbehaving schoolboy. He indicated the newly tied knots, spoke briefly and then clipped the groom around the head, not very hard. Hugh saw him point to the feed troughs and water pump, using gestures to make up for the language difficulties. He then pointed to the piebald’s tangled mane and muddy coat and gestured again. The groom was nodding, his sulky expression lightening a little.
Having given his orders, something with which Hugh observed sardonically that Paul van Daan seemed very comfortable, the young major reached into his coat pocket and took out two coins which he held up. The groom’s eyes fixed on them and Paul van Daan pointed to the horses and spoke again. The man nodded. The major handed him one coin and put the other back into his pocket. Then he smiled, the first real smile Hugh had seen him give, and it transformed his face. The groom smiled back as though he could not help it, and the major put his hand on the man’s shoulder, laughed, and then ruffled the dirty hair with surprising informality as if he were a younger brother or cousin. He released the groom and went to the ugly piebald horse, stroking his neck. The animal nuzzled his shoulder and Van Daan smiled, reached into his pocket and took out a treat. He stroked the horse as he fed it and Hugh watched him and wondered if the small drama he had just watched played out was regularly enacted with Van Daan’s men. If it was, he suspected the man was an asset to the army.
“Major van Daan!”
The voice was cold, clipped, it’s tone biting, coming from an upstairs window of the inn, the room where the commanders were dining. Van Daan turned and looked up.
“Is there a reason why you are in the stable yard socialising with the grooms when the man I have sent to search for you is combing this establishment looking for you? Or are you under the impression that I asked you to accompany me in order to give you a day off?”
Major Paul van Daan saluted with a grin to the upstairs windows where the dark head of Sir Arthur Wellesley protruded. “Sorry, sir, didn’t think you’d need me for a bit.”
“It appears that the secretary provided speaks very little English and I would prefer to have this meeting fully documented in a language that the cabinet in London understands. Sir Home Popham appears to be of the opinion that no minutes are needed at all which makes me all the more determined to provide them. Try to write legibly for once.”
“On my way, sir,” Van Daan said. Wellesley withdrew his head and the major gave one more nut to the piebald, called a word to the groom who was filling water buckets with considerable speed and joined Hugh at the door. “I’m sorry, Captain, we’ll need to postpone that drink, it appears I am now a secretary as well as a battalion commander. Thanks for your help with the horses.”
“You’re welcome,” Hugh said. “You in trouble, Major?”
“Wellesley? Jesus, no, that’s him on a good day,” Van Daan said, laughing. “I’d better go before he causes serious offence. Good afternoon.”
An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018. An Unconventional Officer, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th infantry is available on Amazon.
The storming of Ciudad Rodrigo is the opening scene of book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga, A Redoubtable Citadeland took place in January 1812.
The light division had been instructed to storm the lesser breach, while Picton’s third division had been given the greater breach on the northwest. Paul walked up to meet his commander and found the two commanders of the other brigades already with him. Both men were relatively new in post although both had commanded brigades before. Colonel George Drummond had died of fever the previous September and Colonel Sydney Beckwith had been invalided home in August which placed Paul in the strange position of being the longest serving of the three brigade commanders albeit the youngest. It had cemented his position in the division. He was known to be close to both Wellington and Craufurd, and while Beckwith and Drummond had tended to look upon him as something of a young upstart at times, he found relations with Vandeleur and Barnard, who had not been present when he was surprisingly raised to command a brigade at the age of thirty, far easier. Robert Craufurd glared at Paul as he saluted. “There you are! What the devil was that racket about earlier, I thought you were going over to the French!” “Thought about it,” Paul said. “But I remembered in time how badly they tend to overdo the garlic in their cooking. I was retrieving one of my ensigns from an ill-judged attempt to join one of the forlorn hopes.” Craufurd gave a crack of laughter. “He looking for early promotion, Paul?” “He was looking to avoid gambling debts to some Highland major who’s been fleecing him at the headquarters mess,” Paul said grimly. “I don’t know who, but I’ll find out.” “It’ll be Brodie,” Barnard said. “He’s known for it. Cards and swordplay. He’s a devil with a blade and he keeps up his lifestyle by challenging men to a friendly bout and betting on it. A couple of very promising young officers have had to sell out to meet their obligations, I’ve heard.” Both Craufurd and Paul were staring at him. “Does Wellington know?” Craufurd demanded. “He can’t, or Brodie would be up to his neck in it,” Paul said briefly. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll deal with him after this mess is over. Trust me it’ll be the last time he tries to make money out of one of my junior officers. And if he kicks off about it, he can try challenging me to a friendly bout and having a bet on it.” Craufurd gave a bark of laughter and the other two men smiled politely. “I admire your confidence, Colonel,” General Vandeleur said. “I believe he’s very good.” “I’ll be surprised if he’s good enough to beat this arrogant young bastard,” Craufurd said dispassionately. “I’ve seen Colonel van Daan fight and he’s almost as good as he thinks he is. We’ll talk about it when this is over, Paul. I don’t mind you kicking his arse but I don’t want Lord Wellington on my back over it. For now, we’re going in over the lesser breach. Call them in around the San Francisco convent, I’d like a word with them before we go in. Vandeleur, your lads will lead us over, Barnard to follow. Colonel van Daan will bring his lads up behind to correct all of our mistakes.” Barnard shot Paul a startled glance and seemed relieved to see him laughing. Neither of the other commanders had completely got to grips with Craufurd’s acerbic tongue and were not always sure when he was being genuinely offensive or when he was joking. “It’s what I do best, sir,” Paul said. “You got any orders you particularly want me to ignore today or shall we just see how it goes?” “You disobey an order of mine today, Colonel and I will shoot you in the head!” Craufurd said explosively. “No you won’t, sir, you’re too fond of my wife,” Paul said with a grin. “I’ll bring them up. You going to make a stirring speech? I might make notes.” “You should, Colonel,” Craufurd said shortly. “Then you can make another one telling them the best wine shops to loot when they get in there!” Paul laughed aloud, aware of the shocked expressions of the other two men. “I would, sir, but I don’t know them, not been to Ciudad Rodrigo before.” “Well for those in doubt, follow the 110th, they’ll find them! Get going!” Paul was amused as he stood at the head of his brigade, listening to Craufurd’s speech. He was aware that not all the men would hear it all but the words would be passed among them and probably embellished. Craufurd was disliked by many of his officers but adored by his men despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and his speech was unashamedly aimed at them, sentimental at times but guaranteed to touch their hearts. “Soldiers,” he said finally, his voice carrying through the crisp cold evening air. “The eyes of your country are upon you. Be steady. Be cool. Be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night. Once masters of the wall let your first duty be to clear the ramparts and in doing this, keep together!” They cheered him with riotous enthusiasm and he smiled down at them, black browed and stocky, a man at home in his command and knowing himself loved. “Now lads, for the breach!” They stirred, checking their arms, ready to move, and Paul stepped forward and stilled his brigade with a yell which surpassed anything his commanding officer had managed. “Third brigade halt!” The men froze and snapped to attention. Paul stepped up onto a chunk of broken masonry and looked down over them. “Wine, ale, liquor – I don’t give a damn, providing you bring some back for me and I’m picky so make it good!” he said, and there was a gust of laughter through the brigade. “But if I catch any one of you looting houses or hurting the locals and I swear to God you’ll wish you’d died in that breach. As for the women – every single one of you bastards knows my views on rape and you touch a lassie against her will I will personally cut off your balls and nail your prick to the doorpost! You have been warned. Officers and NCOs make sure everybody heard that message, will you?” “That’s all right, sir,” RSM Carter said pleasantly. “I’m fairly sure they heard that message in London at Horse Guards.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bevan is one of the many tragedies of the Peninsular War and a story which I found particularly sad. There were so many deaths in battle or from wounds or sickness, but in the middle of it, Colonel Bevan took his own life over a matter of honour.
Bevan served in the 28th foot in Egypt, Copenhagen, Walcheren and then in the Peninsula. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in January 1810 and appointed initially to command the second battalion, 4th foot and then the following year moved to the first battalion in the Peninsula.
After the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro on 2nd May, 1811, the French Commander Messena ordered the besieged garrison at Almeida under General Brennier to break out to the north-west and rejoin the French forces via the bridge at Barba del Puerco over the river Agueda. Wellington had been expecting such a move and sent orders to General Sir William Erskine to extend his fifth division northward as far as the bridge at Barba del Puerco by sending the 4th Foot to the bridge itself. Meanwhile, Campbell’s sixth division and Pack’s Brigade were to continue the investment of Almeida. The orders were sent out by 2 p.m. on the 10th and reached Erskine at his Headquarters by about 4 p.m. Erskine claimed to have sent the orders immediately to the 4th Foot at Val de Mula but it seems they were not received until around midnight.
At about midnight, the garrison of 1400 men broke-out from Almeida, blowing up the powder magazines and made it through the pickets of the Portuguese and 2nd Foot. Pack’s Brigade and Campbell with the 36th pursued the French towards the bridge at Barba del Puerco. Lieutenant-Colonel Bevan, having received his orders around midnight, had decided to wait the few hours until day-break before moving. However, on hearing the gunfire, Bevan ordered his regiment to move off quickly towards the bridge. The French arrived at the bridge first, pursued by Pack’s force and the King’s Own with the 36th Foot attacked the second French column in flank as it was descending the steep road to the bridge. Despite losses, the main French force made it across the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Cochrane of the 36th with a detachment from his regiment and the 4th decided to rush the bridge and was beaten back with casualties.
Lord Wellington was furious at both the failure to block the French breakout and the futile attempt to cross the bridge. In a despatch to the Earl of Liverpool, Secretary of State, Wellington wrote that ‘the 4th Regiment which was ordered to occupy Barba del Puerco, unfortunately missed their road and did not arrive there till the enemy had reached the place….’ and that ‘the enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison which they saved principally due to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba del Puerco by the 4th Regiment.’
A second despatch says that orders were sent to Erskine which were received at about 4 p.m., and that Erskine said he forwarded them immediately. The despatch further states that ‘the 4th Regiment, which it is said did not receive their orders before midnight, and had only two and a half miles to march, missed their road and did not arrive, at Barba del Puero till after the French.’…. ‘Thus your Lordship will see, that, if the 4th Regiment had received the orders issued at 1 p.m. before it was dark at 8 o’clock at night, or if they had not missed their road, the garrison must have lain down its arms….’ Lieutenant Colonel Bevan felt that both he and his regiment had been unfairly criticised in the despatches and asked Wellington for an enquiry. Wellington refused this and subsequent requests. Eventually, apparently falling into a black despair at the slur on his own reputation and the honour of his regiment, Bevan shot himself on 8th July 1811. He was buried in the castle yard at Portalegre and his funeral was attended by all divisional officers. His memorial stone reads:
‘This stone is erected to the memory of Charles Bevan Esquire. Late Lieutenant Colonel of the 4th or King’s Own Regiment with intention of recording his virtues. They are deeply engraven on the hearts of those who knew him and will ever live in their remembrance.’
What really happened on that fateful night to enable the French to escape from Almeida will never be known. Historians differ on the exact sequence of events, but there is some consensus that General Erskine, who was dining with Sir Brent Spencer that evening, received the orders and put them in his pocket, forgetting about them until around midnight. Realising the severity of his error he then excused himself to Wellington by claiming that the 4th had set out late and then lost their way. In November 1897 MacMillan’s Magazine published an extract from the diary of Private John Timwell of the 43rd Foot, which included the following entry from the diary of an officer of his regiment:- “The French could never have escaped had it not been for an accident in Sir William Erskine not sending an order in time to Colonel Bevan, which caused him to be too late at Barba del Puerco with his Regiment. Poor Bevan was censured by Lord Wellington, which circumstance preyed so much on his mind, knowing he had done his duty, that he blew his brains out. The order alluded to was sent from headquarters by Lord Wellington’s direction and Sir William Erskine forgot to forward it, and literally, after the business was over, the document was found in his pocket.” Bevan’s wife and children in England were informed that he had died of fever and it was not until 1843, that his eldest son, Charles was told the truth by an uncle, Admiral James Richard Dacres, who wrote informing him that the 4th had received their orders too late and that neither Bevan nor his Regiment were at fault.
Bevan’s story is often cited by critics of Wellington as an example of his autocratic and uncaring behaviour towards his officers and it is true that the commander-in-chief does not come out well from the affair. Wellington was well aware of the problems of Sir William Erskine as a divisional commander. His temporary command of the elite Light Division had been disastrous, he was very near-sighted and apparently had mental health problems as well as being arrogant and unwilling to listen to advice. There were rumours too, that he drank too much, and one wonders if that may have influenced his casual treatment of Wellington’s orders that night. Certainly Wellington was quick to remove Erskine from his position commanding a division and instead sent him to lead four mounted regiments in the newly organized 2nd Cavalry Division in Rowland Hill’s corps. At some time during 1812 Erskine’s problems were too obvious to ignore and he was declared insane. In 1813 he killed himself by jumping out of a window in Lisbon.
Wellington’s tolerance of Erskine for so long can be explained by the man’s connections and possible influence in London. Although the commander-in-chief would have liked to ignore politics and fight his war, it was not always possible. For the same reason, he was probably reluctant to publicly censure Erskine for his likely blunder in the Almeida affair. But it is also very possible that Wellington genuinely believed that Bevan had made a mistake by not setting out for the bridge during the night.
It should be remembered that Wellington did not take any measures against Bevan or the fourth. He was not court-martialled or disciplined in any way. It is very probable that Wellington simply failed to take into account the effect of one of his not infrequent public criticisms of his officers on a man as sensitive as Charles Bevan. Bevan was known to suffer from periods of melancholy, probably what would today be recognised as clinical depression. Other officers had suffered from their commander-in-chief’s insensitivity and bad temper and recovered. Bevan, sadly, was unable to do so.
There is now a memorial to Charles Bevan in the English cemetery in Elvas, a beautiful little place which we visited last year. It is impossible not to feel sad at the waste of a man who was liked and respected by his fellow officers and loved by his wife and children. In a different time, under a different commander, Bevan might have done better. Service under Wellington, it seemed, required a thicker skin than poor Bevan possessed.
Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas
The story of Bevan is told in full in Wellington’s Scapegoat by Archie Hunter and has been discussed by various historians. Some claim that Wellington deliberately scapegoated Bevan to avoid the political consequences of telling the truth about Erskine. Others suggest that Wellington genuinely believed Bevan to have made a mistake and could see no reason to take the matter any further. Bevan had been told and simply needed to get over it and move on.
Rory Muir, in his excellent biography of Wellington, points out that it probably made no sense for Wellington to re-open the unfortunate affair with an enquiry. There was a war to fight and decisions to be made and there was no time for agonising and recriminations. It was a harsh but practical approach which may have sat ill with some of Bevan’s fellow officers, but it probably accounts for some of Wellington’s success as a commander.
What may be true, is that Wellington could have explained his decision not to allow an enquiry to Bevan rather than brusquely refusing without discussion. That, certainly, is Wellington at his most autocratic but it was not personal to Bevan and most of his officers managed to survive it. Poor Charles Bevan, with his periods of depression, simply could not.
The suicide of Charles Bevan is an integral part of the story of An Uncommon Campaign,the third book in the Peninsular War Saga although we do not meet Bevan personally. Colonel Paul van Daan’s reaction to his death is a mixture of sadness, guilt and anger and probably mirrors that of a lot of the officers who knew Bevan. Even today depression and suicide are difficult for many people to understand, and for a character like the belligerent and outgoing colonel of the 110th, Bevan’s despair and his decision to leave his wife and children must have seemed completely incomprehensible. Knowing more about the condition today, it is easier to understand what happened to Bevan.
For me, the story is a reminder of the realities of war in any age. The men who held officers’ commissions under Wellington all experienced combat and army life in their own individual way. We look at the army, marching across the plains and mountain ranges of Portugal, Spain and France, as a unit but, to the officers and men fighting in it their stories were unique. There was no understanding or acceptance of post traumatic stress disorder, shock or depression. No clinician stepped in to declare that Sir William Erskine was not well enough to command men in battle and nobody was there to assess Lord Wellington’s sudden explosions of sarcastic fury and diagnose stress in a man with huge burdens to bear. In the age of the wars against Napoleon no allowances were made for the physical and emotional effect of years of campaigning.
Given everything these men went through, the suicides of Charles Bevan and Sir William Erskine are not that surprising at all. The surprising thing is that it didn’t happen more often.
Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors. It’s New Year’s Day on the Isle of Man, and it’s raining, windy and freezing cold. In some ways this is a relief because if it had been a nice day I would have felt obliged to go out for a walk and I don’t feel like it.
It’s been a very different and very busy Christmas this year, with Richard’s family with us for the whole of the holidays, and then entertaining friends to dinner last night. I’ve had no time to write, research or do anything else and in some ways that’s been quite hard.
I think it has probably done me good, however. Time away from the current book has given me the chance to think through what I’d like to do with it and I feel a lot clearer about where it is going. I’m very happy with the few chapters I’ve written and research is going well so I’m looking forward to getting on with it. I think my head may have needed the break.
It’s made me think a bit more about how I schedule my writing time going forward. I’m very privileged that I don’t have to hold down a full time job at the same time as writing, but I do have a very busy life with a family, my dogs, a big house to maintain and accounts and admin to be done for Richard’s business. I’m aware that it’s very easy to let things slide when I’m in the middle of a book, but I realise that I need to be better organised both with the various tasks through the day and with time off to relax.
This year I’ve edited and published seven existing novels, with all the associated marketing and publicity, I’ve written an eighth book from scratch and published it and I’ve started a ninth. I’ve handed my Irish dance school over to my two lovely teachers to run, I’ve supported son and daughter through GCSEs and AS levels, my old fella Toby through an operation at the age of 13 and I’ve had a major foot operation myself. I’ve toured the battlefields of Spain and Portugal where some of my books are set and I went to Berlin, Killarney, London, Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. I lost a very dear old family friend and went to his funeral. And I’ve gained some amazing new friends, some of whom I’ve not even met yet, although I’m hoping to this year. I’ve set up a website and an author page, joined Twitter and Instagram and I genuinely feel I can now call myself an author, something I had doubts about in one of my first posts on this website.
It has been an amazing year and I’m so grateful for all the help and support I’ve received. I’ve not won any awards, although I’ve had one or two reviews which have felt like getting an Oscar. Still, I’d like to do the thank you speech, because it’s the end of my first year as a published author and I owe so many people thanks for that.
I’m starting with the man I married, who has been absolutely incredible throughout this. He set up my website and taught me how to use it, and has always been there to answer any questions about technology. He spent hours designing the new covers for the Peninsular War Saga and he also took the photographs which are gorgeous. He drove me through Spain and Portugal, scrambled over battlefields and listened to me endlessly lecturing with more patience than I could have imagined. He has celebrated my good reviews and sympathised over the bad ones. He’s been completely amazing this year – thank you, Richard. You are the best.
My son is studying for A levels at home and shares the study with me. That’s not always easy, as during research I tend to spread out from my desk into the surrounding area, onto his table and onto the floor. He has become expert at negotiating his way through piles of history books. He is also a brilliant cook and will unfailingly provide dinner at the point when it becomes obvious I am too far gone in the nineteenth century to have remembered that we need to eat. Thanks, Jon.
My daughter is my fellow historian and brings me joy every day. She mocks my devotion to Lord Wellington ruthlessly, puts up with my stories, lets me whinge to her and makes me laugh all the time. She drags me away from my desk to go for hot chocolate and to watch the sun go down, watches cheesy TV with me, helps me put up the Christmas decorations and corrects my fashion sense. Thank you, bambino.
There are so many other people I should thank. Heather, for always being there and for offering to proof-read; Sheri McGathy for my great book covers; Suzy and Sarah for their support and encouragement.
Then there are the many, many people online who have helped me with research queries, answered beginners questions about publishing and shared my sense of the ridiculous more than I could have believed possible. There are a few of you out there but I’m singling out Jacqueline Reiter, Kristine Hughes Patrone and Catherine Curzon in particular. I’m hoping to meet you all in person in 2018 and to share many more hours of Wellington and Chatham on Twitter, Archduke Charles dressed as a penguin and the mysterious purpose of Lady Greville’s dodgy hat. A special mention also goes to M. J. Logue who writes the brilliant Uncivil War series, and who is my online partner-in-crime in considering new ways for the mavericks of the army to annoy those in charge and laughing out loud at how funny we find ourselves.
The new book is called An Unwilling Alliance and is the first book to be set partly on the Isle of Man, where I live. The hero, a Royal Navy captain by the name of Hugh Kelly is a Manxman who joined the navy at sixteen and has returned to the island after Trafalgar with enough prize money to buy an estate, invest in local business and find himself a wife while his new ship is being refitted. It’s a tight timescale, but Hugh is used to getting things his own way and is expecting no trouble with Roseen Crellin, the daughter of his new business partner. Her father approves, she is from the right background and the fact that she’s very pretty is something of a bonus. It hasn’t occurred to Hugh that the lady might not see things the same way…
The title obviously refers to the somewhat rocky start to Hugh and Roseen’s relationship, but it has other meanings as well. The book moves on to the 1807 British campaign in Denmark and the bombardment of Copenhagen, in which Captain Kelly is involved. The Danes were unwilling to accept British terms for the surrender of their fleet to avoid it falling into the hands of the French and as an alliance proved impossible, the British resorted to force.
In addition, there was something of an unwilling alliance between the two branches of the British armed forces taking part in the Copenhagen campaign. There is a history of difficulties between the Army and the Navy during this period, and given that the Danish campaign required the two to work together, there is an interesting conflict over the best way to conduct the campaign.
The naval commander during this campaign was Admiral James Gambier while the army was commanded by Lord Cathcart. While Captain Hugh Kelly served under Gambier in the British fleet, a division of the army under Cathcart was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley and Brigadier General Stewart and consisted of battalions from the 43rd, 52nd, 95th and 92nd – the nucleus of the future Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s Peninsular army. In An Unconventional Officer, we learn that the expedition is to be joined by the first battalion of the 110th infantry under the command of the newly promoted Major Paul van Daan and An Unwilling Alliance looks at the campaign from both the army and naval perspective, filling in part of Paul’s story which is not covered in the series.
I am hoping that the book will be published at the beginning of April 2018 and it will be followed by book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, covering the Salamanca campaign and the retreat from Burgos some time in the summer. After that I will either get on with the sequel to A Respectable Woman which follows the lives of the children of Kit and Philippa Clevedon or the third book in the Light Division series, set after Waterloo.
We’re hoping to go back to Portugal and Spain this year for further photography and battlefield mayhem. I’ve got some new ideas for the website and will be publishing several more short stories through the year. My first research trip is in a couple of weeks time when I’ll be visiting Portsmouth and the Victory, the National Maritime Museum and possibly the Imperial War Museum if I don’t run out of time. And the Tower of London for no reason at all apart from the fact that Wellington used to enjoy bossing people around there.
My final thanks go to the real stars of Writing with Labradors. Toby, my old fella, is thirteen now and survived a major operation this year far better than I did. Joey is eleven and needs to lose some weight. They are my friends, my babies and my constant companions and I can’t imagine life without either of them although I know that day is going to come. Thank you to my dogs who are with me all the time I’m working and who make every day happier.
Happy New Year to all my family, friends, readers and supporters. Looking forward to 2018.
Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief. While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera. And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…
Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.
Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke. “Move away from my wife, Major.” Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy. “You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.” Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.” Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!” “How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!” “It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!” “Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet. “Get away from my bloody wife, Major…” “That will do!” Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging. “I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?” Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town. “Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.” Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.” “Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.” Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked. “Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.” Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…” “Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.” “Sir…” “I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.” “I’m not his mistress, sir.” “No. But he would very much like you to be.” Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.” “I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…” “No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.” Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?” Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself. He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint. It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed. Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly. The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.” “I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.” “Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.” Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.” “Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.” There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?” “Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him. “I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.” “I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.” Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing. “Paul…” “Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”
An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War was written last year for Halloween but I thought I’d publish it again for anybody who missed it.
It was late afternoon when the storm hit, sudden and violent with a warm wind whipping up dust and sand in choking swirls and the sky becoming leaden and menacing as Giles Fenwick rode south towards Salamanca. His horse, a big rawboned grey was accustomed to long rides in the worst weather conditions, but even he seemed uncomfortable and restive under Giles’ hands. Looking up at the rapidly blackening skies, Giles made the decision to seek shelter for the night.
Since he had transferred to the Corps of Guides from his regiment a year earlier, Giles had become accustomed to sleeping out in all kinds of weather and was surprisingly good at keeping himself warm and dry wrapped in his army greatcoat, but he was sensitive to Boney’s moods. Riding alone for weeks and sometimes months at a time, his horse was his transport, his companion and more than once his lifeline and he was not prepared to risk a night in the open with Boney nervous and ready to bolt at a sudden clap of thunder. Better to make his way to a village and wait the storm out in the relative security of a barn or farmhouse.
Giles did not know the area particularly well. He had been in Ciudad Rodrigo enjoying a rare and all too brief few days of rest when his orders had come. Major Scovell had sounded apologetic in his short note, aware of how exhausting the life of an exploring officer could be and how necessary an occasional spell of respite was, but Lord Wellington was ordering all leave cancelled and Giles had called the commander-in-chief a variety of rude names under his breath, collected supplies and his Spanish guide, Antonio, and had ridden north as ordered, spending weeks dodging the French in the area around Valladolid while Lord Wellington’s Allied army marched on Salamanca. Whatever the result of Wellington’s latest sortie into Spain he wanted intelligence about French troops and defences towards Madrid and beyond out towards Burgos. If he succeeded in driving the French out of Salamanca he wanted to know everything he could about their dispositions to help him decide on his next move.
With his information gathered, Giles had made two coded copies of his notes and sent one off with Antonio via a different route. The risk of either of them being captured was always great. Antonio, a Spanish guide would be shot on sight. Giles was still wearing at least a semblance of British uniform but he was under no illusions that the French would treat him as anything other than a spy. It was a risk he was used to and had accepted when he had taken on the job.
Reaching into his coat, Giles pulled out a sketch map and studied it. If he veered off to the south-west, heading back towards the main road, there was a village marked. It was unlikely that French patrols would be found in this area and he could find shelter for himself and his horse and hopefully some food. When the storm settled he could resume his journey either to the Allied lines outside Salamanca or into the city if Wellington’s attack had been successful. Giles tucked the map away and set off, thinking of Antonio and hoping that he was safe.
The rain started about a mile out of the village, huge raindrops which drove into his eyes with the wind and made it difficult to see anything beyond Boney’s twitching ears. There was a flash across the sky and then a crash of thunder so loud that it made Giles jump. It sounded alarmingly close and Boney reared up in fright. Giles pulled him back and reached out, running his hand over the smooth neck.
“Calm down, boy,” he said gently. “I’m not so keen on it either. Let’s get moving.”
He guided the horse on through the downpour, trying not to react to the thunder claps or the white flashes of lightening which tore into the darkened sky with savage frequency. He could feel Boney’s terror under his hands and he no longer tried to move cautiously. If there was a French sentry at the edge of the village it was too dark to see him until Boney fell over him, but in this weather the enemy could hardly use firepower and Giles had a good deal of faith in his own ability to win in a one to one fight. His care now was for his horse. He could see, finally, a huddle of buildings looming up through the torrential rain, and he quickened his mount slightly and then swore as Boney suddenly skidded and let out a squeal of pain.
Giles reined him in and swung down from the saddle keeping a firm hold on the reins. He could see immediately what had caused the problem, a large rock, smooth and wet and slippery had caused Boney to stumble. The horse, already terrified, was trying to pull away from him and Giles could see that he was lame. There was no point trying to examine the damage here. Giles turned, tugging on the reins to bring Boney in close to him, hoping that his body against the horse’s might soothe him a little. One hand on the reins, the other on the shivering animal’s neck, he led Boney firmly into the village.
It was a small place, a huddle of stone cottages around a crossroads with a church at the centre. As he drew closer, Giles could see that the church had no roof and was damaged, one end of the building sagging dangerously. He wondered initially if the village was deserted. But several of the houses were in reasonable condition, and even had small walled gardens growing vegetables or fruit trees. Somebody was tending those and he ploughed on doggedly towards the largest house, a solid looking farmhouse beyond the church with shuttered windows and a big oak door.
As Giles approached, the door opened. He was relieved although wary. If the French were, for some unlikely reason, in this village miles from where they should be, they were nowhere in sight. But he had learned to be cautious. Most of the villagers in Spain were willing to be friendly enough to a lone English officer, and Giles spoke Spanish fluently; it was one of his qualifications for the job. But he was also aware that there was a considerable proportion of Spaniards who had supported Bonaparte and he was not taking any chances.
“Good evening, Señor. I’m in search of shelter for myself and my horse. Have you a barn or a shelter we can use until this blows over? And some fodder for my lad here, he’s exhausted. I can pay.”
The man held the door wider and in the light of a lamp from the room within, Giles could make out a stocky Spaniard, probably in his forties. He was almost bald although his beard was thick and dark with grey streaks and his eyes were dark. He turned and lifted the lantern, stepping out onto the steps and closing the door.
“This way. Around the back.”
Giles followed him and felt a rush of relief at the sight of a solid looking wooden building at the back of the house. The man unbarred the door, struggling to hold it in the force of the wind and Giles led Boney inside. When the door was closed the man came forward, hanging the lantern up on a hook clearly designed for the purpose and Giles looped Boney’s reins around a wooden rail on the wall and looked around him.
He was surprised at the air of prosperity about the place and was very sure that the French had not been near this place for a long time. The harvest had been brought in and there was hay for the horse. At the far end of the barn, two uninterested mules fed idly from a trough. The farmer moved past him and brought a leather bucket of water for Boney. Giles watched his horse drink and the farmer, without being asked, pulled over a wooden manger and filled it for the horse to eat.
“Thank you,” Giles said. “I’m very grateful. I should introduce myself, Señor. I’m…”
“In the house,” the Spaniard said. “See to your horse and then join me for supper. I can give you a bed for the night.”
“You don’t need to do that, I’ll be all right out here. Although food would be welcome.”
“Join me. We will talk.” The Spaniard surveyed him. “English?”
“You speak my language well. Join me soon.”
Left alone, Giles went to check Boney’s leg. There was a little swelling, but it was not bad and the horse did not seem particularly distressed now that he was warm and dry and out of the storm. As the wind howled and the rain lashed against the sturdy walls, Giles rubbed him down, fussed him and made sure he was securely tied, then left him to rest and ventured out again, running over to the house where he found his host waiting for him in a dark panelled dining room.
“This is very kind of you, Señor, and you don’t even know my name. Captain Giles Fenwick of the Corps of Guides. I’m travelling to Salamanca.”
The Spaniard bowed. “Matias Benitez, Captain, at your service. You are joining the army there?”
Giles nodded. “Either in or out of the city, I’ve no idea which yet.”
“Come closer to the fire, Captain, it will dry your clothes. If you will hand your coat to my servant he will see that his wife dries it and brushes it for you, and she will launder anything else you wish before you leave.”
Giles masked a grin. Given the condition of the few items of spare clothing he carried in his saddlebags he was not sure they would survive a thorough washing. “You’re very hospitable, Señor Benitez, I’m grateful. I hope to be able to move on tomorrow.”
“You should rest your horse for a day, Captain, he was limping. Stay two nights, you will be safe here and you will make it to Salamanca faster with a rested and fed mount.”
Giles knew he was right. He handed his coat to an elderly servant with a smile of thanks and sat down before the fire which was blazing in a stone fireplace set into the wall. The room looked old with little furniture, just a table and some chairs. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no cushions and no ornaments. Giles looked back at his host and realised that he had noticed him looking.
“The French,” Benitez said in matter of fact tones. “They came through on their way to Portugal two years ago. Many houses were destroyed, but they found mine a convenient place for the officers to stay so it survived. When they left they took everything of value with them. Much of the furniture went for firewood but they left some.”
“I’m sorry. You’ve rebuilt to some degree, though, it looked as though some houses are occupied. Did the villagers get away?”
“A few did. Most not. There are a dozen or so houses occupied now. We have managed to plant crops this past year so we no longer starve.”
Giles wanted to ask what had happened to the villagers who had not made it away from the French army but two years out here had taught him better. He accepted a pewter cup of sherry and sipped it appreciatively, feeling it warm his chilled body. He was finally beginning to relax.
“How long were they here?” he asked.
“A few months only. They have not returned, thank God. We are not on the main road so there is little cause for them to march this way unless they are searching for food. Or women, but there are none left apart from Maria, my servant and one elderly woman in the village. Nothing to bring them here.”
The door opened and the servant entered with a tray. Giles was glad as it saved him from responding. He wondered about Benitez’ own family. Travelling as he did, he had seen too many such tragedies in both Portugal and Spain through these years of war, and he was very aware that although the English were fighting and dying in the fight against Bonaparte, they were not fighting at home, watching their houses burn and their wives and daughters raped.
It had been weeks since he had sat down to a proper cooked meal and he tried hard to remember to eat like the gentleman he was supposed to be rather than like a starving beggar. He suspected that his host realised how hungry he was as he called several times for another dish. They talked through the meal of the war and Spanish politics and Giles responded civilly to questions about his aristocratic family. He seldom talked of them, but a man who had given so generously of his hospitality was entitled to have his curiosity satisfied.
When they had shared brandy after the meal, Giles rose. “Will you excuse me, Señor? I would like to see that my horse is secure before I retire.”
“Maria has prepared a guest room for you, Enzo can show you the way. No need to venture out in this weather tonight, the barn is very secure. It was rebuilt from scratch when we returned to the village. In the morning…”
Giles smiled and shook his head. “I won’t sleep unless I go,” he said. “It will only take me a few minutes.”
“You should not go out there, Captain. Not this late. It is dark…”
The Spaniard’s voice was emphatic and Giles was faintly puzzled. “I’ve very good night vision, sir, and I’ll take a lantern if I may. It sounds as though the rain has eased.”
“Still, it is not wise when it is dark.”
“I will be fine,” Giles said, firmly but pleasantly, and his host studied him and then sighed and got up.
“If you insist. Take the lantern from the hall, it is covered. But don’t linger out there, Captain. You’ll be chilled.”
Giles bowed and left, grinning once he was away from the older man. He wondered what Benitez thought he usually did when caught out in bad weather. He was a little touched by his host’s concern for him, however excessive it seemed, and he wondered again about the man’s family. Had they died when the French invaded their village? Had there been a son, cut down for defending his home or a daughter defiled and murdered?
Outside the wind was still strong but the thunder and lightening had passed over, just an occasional rumble in the distance to show the direction of the storm. The driving rain had slowed to a fine drizzle, and Giles pulled his greatcoat around him and made his way by the dim light of the lantern to the barn. Inside it was warm and dry and he could see at once that his concern for Boney was misplaced. The horse had eaten and drunk and appeared to be dozing but as Giles closed the door against the wind, Boney gave a soft whicker of greeting. Giles went to him, rubbing his nose and stroking his neck and the horse nuzzled him affectionately.
The leg did not seem too bad but Giles was aware that Benitez was probably right about resting it. Another day and night would ensure that the rest of their journey did not cause any further injury to Boney and Giles needed his horse to be fit and well. He had no money to buy a new mount, besides which he loved the horse and was not prepared to cripple him by pushing him beyond his limits. Boney was essential to his work and if the strain needed longer to heal, he would have to find a temporary mount for a while. It was not likely to be a problem. Unlike most of the other exploring officers, Giles had maintained close ties with his old regiment and there were several officers of the 110th more wealthy than he who would lend him a spare horse and take care of Boney while he mended, but for that to work he had to get him there. Wondering how lame he was, Giles unlooped the reins and began to walk Boney the length of the barn. He was pleased to see that the limp was already less obvious. Before they reached the end, Boney turned and walked back and Giles went with him, watching the movement of his leg. They reached the two curious mules, and Giles turned and led him back down the barn. Boney stopped at the same point he had turned last time and Giles urged him forwards, concentrating on the fetlock. Boney took four or five reluctant steps towards the end of the barn and without warning stopped dead. Giles looked at him, startled. The big grey uttered a loud squeal and moved back, pulling hard on the reins. His ears were flicking back and forth and his lip had curled back from his teeth, his tail down. He was exhibiting all the signs of being terrified but Giles could see nothing which might have alarmed him.
He led the frightened horse back down the barn and stood fussing him, feeling Boney gradually calm down. When he was settled, Giles left him and went back to the other end of the barn. Any object could have spooked the horse simply by being unexpected, but as far as Giles could see there was nothing there. He looked around curiously. The only difference in this part of the barn was that it was significantly colder presumably caused by a loose board or a badly sealed joint. Giles shrugged and lifted the lantern. The flame flickered suddenly and went out leaving him in complete darkness.
Cursing fluently, Giles stood very still until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was no point in trying to find his tinderbox to relight the lamp. It was not far to the house and once outside he should be able to see his way by the lights from the house. As his vision adjusted, he could see the solid bulk of Boney at the far end of the barn, and a gleam of eyes beyond him showed where the two mules stood. Cautiously, Giles moved forward to the wall of the barn and felt his way along. He had almost reached the door when something came towards him very fast and hit him so hard that he fell backwards, keeping his feet only because his hand was on the wall to steady himself. He stood motionless for a moment, his heart racing, and then a blast of cold air brought the explanation and Giles grinned as he realised that his attacker was the barn door which had swung open in the wind. How, he had no idea because he was sure he had closed it properly, but he was relieved and amused at how jumpy he was.
Outside he latched the door carefully and checked it to make sure it could not blow open again then turned to go back to the house. As he had hoped, there were several well lit windows to guide him and he was almost there when something caught his eye and he stopped and turned. It was coming from the ruined church; an orange flicker of fire. Giles stood staring for a moment and then a voice called and Señor Benitez was opening the door.
Giles hesitated and then went on to the house and his host closed the door firmly behind him. “Your lantern?”
“It blew out – I must have left the barn door open,” Giles said. “But Señor, is there somebody camping out in the old church? I’m pretty sure I just saw a fire there.”
The Spaniard’s eyes widened. “The church? No. No, there is nobody there.”
“I think there is, Señor. Let me get a light and I’ll go down and…”
“No!” Benitez said, and his response was so forceful that it startled Giles. Benitez seemed to realise it because he gave a somewhat forced smile. “I am sure you are wrong, but I will send Enzo to be sure.”
Giles regarded him thoughtfully. “I would if I were you, Señor. In this wind a spark could easily blow this far and the rain has almost stopped.”
He said nothing more. The servant showed him to a small room at the back of the house overlooking the barn and upon request, Giles handed over his shabby garments for laundering with an apologetic smile and went to bed. He was tired and a proper bed was a pleasure after weeks sleeping on the hard ground.
He awoke abruptly and sat up. It was still full dark and Giles had no idea what had awoken him but he was aware that his heart was pounding and all his senses, finely attuned from months of living on his wits behind enemy lines, screaming danger. It might just have been a dream, disturbed by an owl or some other night bird although it was unusual for him to dream. Giles sat still, listening. There was no sound from below, it must be the early hours of the morning and the household was asleep. But something had disturbed him.
He got up, dressed only in his underclothes and padded to the window, pushing open the shutter. It was too dark to make out more than vague shapes; he could see the dark bulk of the barn, and the outline of the little grove of orange trees which he had noticed earlier. The wind seemed to have died down finally and the trees were not moving. But something did, just at the corner of his vision and he turned his head sharply and saw a figure move at the far end of the barn. The surprise of it made him jump.
It was impossible to make out details in the darkness and Giles knew he would not even have seen the man if he had not moved. He peered through the inky night trying to see more. There was no reason why Señor Benitez should not walk in his own garden in the early hours, but Giles could also think of no reason why he would. He thought briefly about Boney, sleeping in the barn and then he turned and reached for his trousers, a pair of thick French overalls which he had stripped off a dead voltigeur months ago and which were far more sturdy than those issued by the British army. He was probably just being over suspicious, but there was a chronic shortage of good horses throughout Spain and he was not risking losing Boney to some passing opportunist.
Aware of how dark it was, he took time to find a lantern in the kitchen and check that it was topped up with oil. There was no sound anywhere in the house but Maria had left the fire banked for the night and his spare clothing was hanging before it to dry. Giles collected his coat and pulled it on, lit the lantern and made his way cautiously out of the back door, leaving it slightly open.
There was no sign of life as he made his way down towards the barn. The door was still barred as he had left it earlier and Giles opened it and went inside. He was immediately reassured. Boney had settled down for the night and barely stirred as he went to stroke him. One of the mules was snoring faintly, snuffling in it’s sleep. Everything was as it should be and Giles shook his head at his suspicious mind, barred the door behind him and turned to go back to the house.
He saw the man once again, just on the edge of his vision, and once again it made him jump. He was further over now, around the side of the house towards the ruined church. Giles stopped, his heart beating more quickly. The figure was not moving but stood outlined against a faint light, and once again Giles saw the flicker of fire from the church.
“Who goes there?” he called out in Spanish. “Come out, you’re safe, I’m not going to hurt you.”
There was no reply and the man did not move. Giles waited a moment and then set off towards the church. He was beginning to suspect that he was not the only traveller to have stopped to find shelter from yesterday’s storm in this isolated village. The war had left many people homeless and it was not unusual to find small groups of miserable refugees camped out in ruined buildings, surviving as best they could, wandering from place to place ahead of the marching armies. He had no quarrel with them sheltering in the old church; it was none of his business, but for his own peace of mind he needed to know.
Watching his footing in the darkness he took his eye off the figure, and when he looked again the man had gone, presumably back into the church. Giles approached the building, speeding up slightly. One end of the church was virtually intact, but the other was damaged, what was left of the tower broken and sagging dangerously. He was not sure that he would have chosen this particular building as a camp site but given the weather yesterday he could believe that a man might be desperate enough to take shelter here, risking the building coming down in the high wind. Cautiously he made his way along the stone wall, aware of the smell of the fire inside. It was very smoky and he coughed, wondering how the travellers were not choking in this. And then suddenly, as he reached the edge of the wall, the church exploded.
Giles was knocked off his feet, crashing to the damp earth, his ears ringing with the blast. He lay there for a moment, too shocked to move. The still of the night was torn apart by the crackle of flame and the crash of falling masonry and the screams of terror and agony and despair. He recognised the voices of women and the shrill high cry of a child and he could smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames on his skin.
A woman screamed again, a scream of sheer, bloodcurdling terror. It roused Giles to action and he opened his eyes, scrambled to his feet and swung round to the church, steeling himself to run into the choking smoke to see if he could get anybody out before the already damaged walls came down and buried them all alive. Already his brain, used to the noise and chaos of battle, was thinking ahead, wondering about the safest way in, wondering how many there were and how many he could reach….
There was nothing there.
Giles froze in complete bewilderment as he realised that all he could see was darkness and all he could smell was the fresh, cold night air. The ruined church loomed before him, dark and ominous as before, but with no fire, no screaming people. The smoke had gone, the sounds had vanished, cut off as if they had never been. He was standing alone, staring at the silent building and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. And then, once again, he caught that movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head slowly with a sense of pure dread, knowing what he would see. The solitary figure was standing closer than Giles had seen him so far. It was clearly a man, and although Giles could not make out his face, the uniform was that of a French officer.
It took a long moment before his shocked brain assimilated what had just happened and then came the fear he ought to have felt before. He was sweating and shivering at the same time, his skin crawling with a sense of repulsion which nothing logical could explain. He had dropped the lantern when he fell and it had gone out, he could smell the oil spilling onto the ground. His eyes fixed on the solitary figure he backed up cautiously until his eyes could stay open no longer and he blinked. The figure was gone. Giles no longer wondered where, or how it could have moved without him seeing it. He turned and ran for the house, slamming the door behind him, and went through into the warmth of the kitchen, needing light and a sense of normality. There were several candles on the wooden table and he lit two from the fire with shaking hands and then stoked the fire into life and sat huddled in a wooden chair before it, waiting for his pounding heart to slow and the sense of horror to settle.
The voice made him jump. He stood and turned. Benitez was standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of robe, a candle held high. Giles studied him without speaking. After a moment, the Spaniard came forward, put the candleholder on the table, and went to the big wooden dresser. He returned with a bottle and two cups and poured for both of them. Giles took the brandy without thanks, sat down and drank. After a moment, he felt something around his shoulders and realised that his host had draped a worn woollen blanket around him. Only then did he realise that he was shivering violently. He set the cup down and Benitez refilled it and then pulled a stool close to the fire.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
Giles raised his eyes from his contemplation of the blaze. “No,” he said. “Of course I’m not bloody all right and you know why! What the hell was that?”
“I am sorry, Captain. I did not wish you to see…”
“Well I saw, so start talking.”
“It was not real,” Benitez said and his voice was curiously gentle. “None of it was real.”
“Well I didn’t dream it, Señor. I was out there. I heard the explosion and I smelled the smoke and I heard…what did I hear? The villagers?”
Benitez nodded. “I was not here. I fought with a partisan band – most of the men did. We had ambushed a French patrol in a valley five miles from here. They were all killed. What we did not know was that there was a second patrol in the area. They came across the bodies and gave chase. We were outnumbered so we went up into the hills. They know better than to follow us there.”
“And they came here instead,” Giles said and he could hear the tremor in his own voice. He picked up the cup again and took another sip of brandy. “Your family.”
“All of them. My wife and two daughters, my tenants…we think they locked them in the church and set fire to it. What they probably did not know was that we were using the church to hide supplies…and ammunition, gunpowder…”
“Did anybody survive?”
“No. When the church blew up a few were able to escape but the French bayoneted them as they ran. They raped the women before they killed them. We found the bodies when we returned.”
Giles did not speak for a while. The story was tragic, but it was not new. He had ridden through villages devastated by war on many occasions and he could remember the campaign of 1811, his first in Portugal with the 110th when the light division had been able to follow the direction of the fleeing French armies by following the plumes of smoke as they burned towns and villages on the way. He found himself wondering if such things always left this violent impression on the land long after the tragedy was over and the armies had marched on.
“When did this start happening? When did you first see it?”
“Not straight away. Most of the men left. There was nothing for them here. A few of us stayed, tried to rebuild.”
“But you don’t go out of the house after dark.”
Giles drained the brandy glass. “Me? I’d do exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, Señor Benitez. I’d get the hell out of here.”
“I’ll take it slow, walk him part of the way if I need to. Our infantry don’t have the luxury of horseback, it won’t kill me. If necessary I’ll find somewhere else to rest him for a few nights. But not here. Thank you, you’ve been very hospitable. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know none of this was your fault. But I don’t know how you’ve lived with that out there every night since you came back. Knowing it’s there, I’m not staying another night.”
“I understand. Go back to bed, Captain. Nothing will disturb you in the house; it never does. Goodnight.”
Giles slept little, lying wakeful and tense until the first rosy light of dawn pushed it’s way between the wooden slats of the shutter. Enzo arrived soon after, bearing his clothing, dry and smelling slightly of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire. He said nothing to Giles of the night’s events although Giles was sure that he must know what had happened, he had made enough noise crashing back into the house to wake the dead. The analogy brought grim amusement as he dressed quickly in the early light and took his pack downstairs to find his host awaiting him.
“Maria has made breakfast, Captain. Eat something before you go.”
“Thank you,” Giles said. He joined Benitez at the dining table again and ate ham and bread warm from the oven and a spicy sausage and made no attempt at conversation since he could think of nothing to say. When the meal was over he got up.
“My thanks to you, Señor. You’ve been a generous host. I’m sorry that I need to leave like this.”
“I am sorry too, Captain.”
“You could have warned me.”
“Would you have believed me?” Benitez asked and Giles grinned in spite of himself, acknowledging the truth of it.
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ghosts are real, Captain. Like God, they do not require belief in them to exist.”
Giles did not reply. He did not want to think about what had happened until he was a long way from the village and the house, preferably in a smoky tavern with a bottle of good red on the table and a pretty barmaid on his lap. He tried to imagine telling any of his friends in the regiment this story and knew with complete certainty that he would not. They would laugh uproariously and accuse him of having been drunk.
Outside the air was chill although he suspected it would be hot by mid morning. Shrugging into his greatcoat he turned to Benitez who was standing on the steps. “Goodbye, Señor Benitez. Good luck. You’ve not asked for advice, but I’m giving it anyway. Leave. Move away. You shouldn’t be here with this. No house, no land is worth that.”
“You are a good man, Captain. Good luck.”
Giles shouldered his pack and picked up the saddlebags. He glanced briefly down at the ruined church, innocent in the early morning sunlight. “Was that the last time the French came here?” he asked curiously. “Did they ever come back?”
“No. I imagine they thought the village deserted. Only once. An officer, on his own. Like you, I suspect he was a courier or an intelligence officer.”
A slight chill touched Giles. He turned to look back at Benitez. “And did he ever see…what I saw?”
“I think not. It had not begun then. Only afterwards.”
Giles nodded and turned to walk over to the barn. He found Boney up and alert and he fed and watered him, leaving the barn door wide to let in light and air. As he saddled the horse, he talked quietly to him, then walked him a little and was delighted to see no sign of lameness. He would ride to start with, taking it slowly, and if Boney appeared to struggle he would dismount and walk him until he found shelter where he might stay a night or two to let the horse recover. Giles did not mind where it was as long as it was miles away from here.
He led Boney outside and looped the reins over a fence post, settled saddlebags and pack comfortably on the horse and checked the girth and saddle methodically. Benitez had gone back into the house. Giles turned back and went to close the big barn door. As he did so he heard a sound, and he stepped inside, wondering if one of the mules was loose. Both stood placidly eating hay; the sound, a creaking noise, was coming from the other end of the barn and Giles turned to look.
It was a rope, swinging lazily from a beam in the roof of the barn, creaking with the weight of the burden it carried. Giles stared in complete bewilderment for a moment and then understood what he was seeing.
The man hung upside down, tied by his feet. He was naked and his skin was striped with red. Blood dripped down both extended arms, pooling under him on the floor, and his body was writhing in agony, a weak sobbing noise accompanying what Giles knew in appalled comprehension must have been his death throes. God knew how long he had taken to die, swinging there from the beam, partially flayed and bleeding into the earth floor.
Giles backed out of the barn and slammed the door, barring it. Outside the sky was a clear blue with no sign of a cloud and Boney pushed his nose into Giles’ shoulder, comforting, seeming to sense his distress. Giles turned and hugged his neck hard, burying his face into the warm smooth coat, trying to shut out the horror, shaking with reaction.
“You bastard,” he whispered, into the horse’s neck. “You bloody bastard. It wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. He was your guest, just passing through. He was like me.”
After a long time, the shaking eased. He straightened, and wiped his face with both hands, surprised to find that he had been crying. He could not have said why he was so sure that the lone French officer who had died in the barn had not been a man who would have slaughtered a village and he did not try to examine his conviction, but he did not look back at the house to see if Benitez was watching him. He did not want to see the Spaniard again. Impossible to encompass the scale of the man’s loss. Giles wondered if the French officer who had been the object of his vengeance had also left family behind him to mourn.
Mounted and ready, he turned finally and looked back past house and barn to the church, knowing already what he would see. For the first time, the solitary figure in the blue coat did not cause him to jump. Nor did he feel any sense of fear. For the first time he saw the man’s face clearly, thin and dark, his stubbled jaw suggesting long days travelling without shaving. Giles ran his hand over his own jaw and it scraped his hand.
The figure stood motionless, the dark eyes appearing to look directly at him. Giles raised his hand and saluted. Then he turned and rode slowly out of the village, back towards the Salamanca road and Wellington’s army.
An Exploring Officer was written as a free gift for Halloween 2017. Oddly enough as a child, I didn’t really associate ghost stories with Halloween, they were a Christmas treat, allowed to stay up late, huddled on the sofa with my Mum and my sister watching the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas. As it’s that time of year I thought I’d share this one again in case anybody missed it.