Wellington on Tinder came about as the result of a recent conversation on Twitter about how the Iron Duke would have coped with modern dating apps, and follows on from my entirely frivolous look at Wellington on Twitter. My thanks to Andrew Bamford, Tansy Kelly Robson and Rohan Gandhy for giving me the idea. You’re all to blame.
No actual history was harmed, or indeed involved, in the writing of this post.
Freneida, Portugal, 1813
“Ah, Fitzroy, come in. Where the devil have you been?”
“Working, my Lord. You gave me…”
“Never mind, never mind. I require your help with something of a personal nature.”
“With a few months in one place, I am in need of relaxation, Fitzroy. I have my hunting of course, and dinners with my ADCs and staff members, and there are plenty of social events, most of which I would gladly avoid. But I require more. Something of a more intimate nature. In short, I am in need of…I would like…I wish for…”
“Are you looking for a girl, sir?”
“Possibly. I mean, yes. Definitely. I am aware that a number of my young officers, you included, have had some success on Tinder.”
“You want to set up a Tinder profile, my Lord?”
“If that is what it is called.” Pause. “You have an expression on your face, Fitzroy.”
“Do I, my Lord?”
“Yes. Explain it or remove it.”
“Well…Tinder is a dating app, my Lord. And it occurs to me that you are…well, I mean, you have a…”
“Who is not here, Fitzroy, nor likely to be. Do not tell me that every one of my officers who have been hooking up with the local beauties through Tinder is a single man. I happen to know for a fact…”
“Don’t tell me, my Lord.”
“If it’s the story about Colonel Cadogan, I’ve already heard it once, and I don’t need to think about it again.”
“As for Lieutenant-Colonel Barnard…”
“He isn’t married, my Lord.”
“Just as well. If even half those stories are true, he would not have the energy for a wife. Anyway, how do I go about meeting an attractive female on Tinder?”
“Well…first you have to set up your profile. Are you sure I’m the best person to help you with this, my Lord? I wondered if General van Daan…”
“Certainly not. He is definitely a married man in every sense of the word, and has no reason to know anything about Tinder or any other way of meeting women, it would be most inappropriate! What do I need for a profile?”
“Well, you need an image. More than one is best.”
“Hmm. There are very few satisfactory portraits of me, but I suppose I could use the Goya sketch, although it makes me look somewhat wooden.”
“It’s generally considered best to have a picture where you’re smiling, my Lord.”
“Yes, my Lord. I read in GQ that it makes you look more friendly and approachable.”
“Fitzroy, are you feeling quite well?”
“That’s a very good point, my Lord. Let’s just work with what we have.”
“What other advice about portraits?”
“I seem to remember reading that it is not a good idea to take your shirt off.”
“TAKE MY SHIRT OFF? Have these people gone completely mad?”
“Well, as I said, my Lord, best not to. The thing to do in images on Tinder is always to be yourself.”
“Who else am I supposed to be, in God’s name? This is nonsense, Fitzroy. Let’s get on with this.”
“Yes, my Lord. Right, I think that will do. Now, I’ve been told that it is often a winning strategy with the ladies to show your softer side. Are there any portraits with children, or animals?”
“I have several on horseback.”
“I was thinking of more sweet, cuddly animals, my Lord.”
“So not Copenhagen, then?”
“Best not, I think. Why don’t we move on to your bio? Now the article I read said to keep it short and to the point.”
“Like my correspondence?”
“Perhaps not exactly like that. What would you like the ladies to know about you?”
“My name. My station. Possibly my titles, although we should leave out the tedious Spanish ones, they go on for ever.”
“What about your interests, my Lord? What do you enjoy?”
“I have no time for anything else, I command an army. What else do they need to know?”
“What do you look for in a woman, my Lord?”
“Attractiveness, intelligence and availability.”
“Right. Possibly we won’t include that. We could put in something about your family.”
“The marital history of my family would make them run for the hills, Fitzroy, it has the same effect on me from time to time. And we can hardly mention my wife. Let us leave it at that.”
“Very good, my Lord. After that, it is simple. You can look at the profiles of girls on the app and if you like them, swipe this way. If not, swipe the opposite way.”
“Women will do the same. If two of you swipe right, you have a match, and you can send them a message.”
“That sounds very simple. Thank you, Fitzroy. I have a number of letters to write, and I have a meeting with Dr McGrigor and then I shall try my fortune. I will let you know how I get on.”
Later that day…
“So how did you get on with Tinder, my Lord?”
“Utterly ridiculous process, Fitzroy, I intend to delete the app.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, my Lord. Did you not get any matches?”
“On the contrary, I was inundated. That was not the problem.”
“The first one was a French actress, currently touring Europe. She was definitely enthusiastic, and not at all worried about my reticence concerning my previous connections. A very attractive woman.”
“But not local, sir.”
“Oh, I have a feeling she might be at some point, Fitzroy. She, however, was not at all reticent, naming several previous lovers, including Napoleon Bonaparte. She is either deluded or highly problematic.”
“Then there was a pretty girl called Maria. She was very happy to converse and seemed genuinely interested in my views on the Spanish government, but it would appear that to enjoy her company I would need to be willing to rescue her from the convent in which she is currently incarcerated. I suspect her motives.”
“Interesting, my Lord.”
“There were a number of other brief conversations, which convinced me that the women who frequent this app have no grasp of reality, are afflicted with melancholy or in some cases, actually insane. Finally, as I was about to give up, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who lives in Ciudad Rodrigo. She seemed a delightful person. Attractive, if her portrait is to be believed, intelligent, and understanding. I confessed that I was married, and she admitted that she was in a similar condition, although her husband deserted her many years ago.”
“That sounds ideal, my Lord. What went wrong?”
“She is far too sensitive. We were engaged in a conversation about horse-riding, when a letter arrived from the Duke of York regarding my provisional battalions. I read it while still talking to her, and it infuriated me. He has no understanding of the difficulties I face out here, and writes utter nonsense about the integrity of the regimental system, going so far to suggest that it is my own understanding that is at fault. Naturally I was obliged to end the conversation in order to write to him, to correct his impression that he is dealing with an imbecile. I was perfectly polite about it.”
“What did she say, my Lord.”
“I will read it to you. Wait – here it is. ‘Oh but surely you can talk a little longer. What can be more important than flirting with me?’ There are then rows of emojis, very few of which seemed relevant to the conversation. I replied, and she has unmatched me.”
“What did you reply, my Lord?”
“Nothing offensive. Should I read it to you?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Forgive my bluntness, ma’am, but a large number of things are more important, and if we are to develop a romantic attachment, it is vitally important that you understand that from the beginning. I am in the middle of reorganising my army, after the most appalling end to the previous campaign. I need to secure my supplies, obtain reinforcements and bully London into providing me with enough money to pay my army. The generals they send me are frequently incompetent, and in at least one case, completely mad. The Portuguese have no money and the Spanish do not seem able to get themselves organised, and in the middle of it all, I have the Commander-in-Chief in London trying to take large numbers of my veteran troops and replace them with raw recruits, as though there was no difference in quality. I am sorry if I cannot always be available to pay you compliments, but you will need to understand that my work comes first. I will message you again when I have time to arrange a meeting. Yours, in haste, Wellington.”
“And that caused her to un-match you? I’m shocked, my Lord.”
“Exactly. I cannot have a female with such unrealistic expectations. I shall delete the app and resign myself to a single life until I have more time. Now, enough of this nonsense. Pass me the letter from Hill, I need to reply immediately.”
Love letters, 1813 is something I wrote last week, in between preliminary reading for book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which covers the Battle of Vitoria. It’s early days, but I suspect the title will be an Indomitable Brigade. Occasionally, I like to imagine correspondence between some of my characters, as I did with Paul and Hugh during the Walcheren campaign, it can be an excellent way of setting the scene in my mind, and getting in touch with my character’s current feelings. It’s not exactly a short story, but it definitely tells a story, and I liked this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all, to whet your appetite for the next book…
For the first time ever, I am struggling to decide which book to write next. My original intention was to write the next book in the Manxman series, and I’ve done some reading for that as well, but at the moment, it appears that my head and heart are very firmly rooted in Spain with the Light Division, so I’m going to go with that and see where it leads me.
I wrote a short story in 2019 for Valentine’s Day, A Winter Idyll, which showed Johnny Wheeler going home during winter quarters to settle his uncle’s affairs, and discovering that his land agent’s daughter has been running the estate. There was the hint of a romance, although Johnny was clear at that point that he still felt bound to his lost love, Caroline Longford. Johnny is back in Spain now, and on the march towards Vitoria with the rest of the third brigade…
Quinta de Santo Antonio, May, 1813
Dear Miss Ludlow
Thank you for your letter. I’m very glad your father continues to improve, and that he is able to get out and about a little, and I’m sure you are right that the fresh air and exercise will do him good. I have to scold you a little, however, since I hear from Mrs Green that you have made no use of the barouche as I instructed. You cannot expect him to go far either on foot or on horseback, and he will quickly grow tired of strolling through the village.
I imagine this is due to your scruples with regard to the horses, so I have made arrangements through friends in Leicestershire, for the purchase of two carriage horses. It is high time that Jed and Carney were put out to grass, and I hope they enjoy their retirement in the meadow as much as I intend to when I come home. Write to me, to tell me that they have arrived safely. There is also a new mare, the one we went to see just before I left, whom I hope to breed. I know I can trust you to exercise her.
Your report of the home farm and the tenancies is excellent, and very detailed. I feel as though I’m there, watching the improvements happen. I wish I was, it must be very pretty at this time of year. I realise I’ve no idea what grows in my gardens as it was under snow for half the time I was there, and barely shooting up as I left.
My journey back was uneventful and it is good to be with my friends again, although I must tell you that I walked into a very difficult situation between two fellow officers, which I will not write in detail, but will save for when I see you again. In happier news, I was in time to assist at the wedding of my very good friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Swanson, and Miss Trenlow.
We have received orders that we shall be on the move again very soon. The postal service is always surprisingly reliable here, and letters seldom go astray. I am not accustomed to receive very many, so I look forward to yours, when you have time.
Colonel John Wheeler
Aberly, Derbyshire, June 1813
Dear Colonel Wheeler
Thank you for your very prompt reply. I am delighted to hear that your return went well, and more than a little apprehensive that by the time you receive this, you will no doubt be on the move, probably into danger. I have paid very little attention to news of the current war until now, other than to listen to your uncle’s stories of you before he died, but now I find myself scanning the Gazette for the slightest mention of an action.
The new horses arrived safely, although I am shocked at how much you must have spent on them, considering you are not here to have the benefit. Cora and Millie, the carriage horses, are beautiful animals, very well matched, and according to Jimmy, they are a “dream to drive”. He is eager to take them out, so I have little choice but to follow your orders and take my father on various excursions. Aphrodite, the black mare, is perfect to ride, but a thoroughgoing aristocrat, turning up her nose at the least thing, so that it makes me laugh. I think it is the fault of her owners for giving her such a name, it has made her conceited. I have begun to call her Affie, in the hope of taking her down a peg or two.
We had a disaster with the hen house, I am sorry to say, since that infuriating fox found his way in and created havoc. I have replaced the birds with stock from Jennings’ farm and personally supervised the rebuilding of the coop, so I hope we will have no more trouble.
Father continues well. In fact, being able to get out in the barouche around the farms seems to have improved his memory, and we have talked very sensibly about estate matters, although I am afraid he sometimes forgets that your uncle is dead. Still, it is good to see him more like his old self. I will send you a summary of the quarterly return when I have made it up, but all is progressing just as it should, and I think you will be pleased.
I cannot find the words to express my gratitude that I have been allowed to continue as I have. Few men would have been willing to allow a female the management of their property, and I promise you that I will ensure that you don’t regret it. I’m very happy here, feeling more settled than I have for a long time. At the same time, would it be very impertinent to say that I have found it a little lonely since you left? It is good to have a like-minded person to talk with, about things one cares about. I’ve missed our talks and our rides together.
With warm regards
San Munoz, May, 1813
My dearest Miss Ludlow
The postal service has surpassed itself, and I am dashing off this reply since we are camped here for two nights only, and I want this to go off with the headquarters mail before we march tomorrow. I’ll try to make it legible.
It is a very beautiful evening, and I have just feasted on roast pork and am seated outside my tent in a pensive mood. Just over six months ago, during the retreat from Madrid and Burgos, I lost my good friend Patrick Corrigan beside this river and I nearly died myself. The limp has gone now, and I’m back to full fitness, but I’ll never forget those days, believing I wouldn’t survive. I hadn’t realised at the time, but along with inheriting my uncle’s estate, it’s made me think differently about a number of things.
I walked up with some of the men to the woods where Pat fell. There’s nothing left now. I am told, and I’m choosing to believe it, that when both armies had moved on, the villagers came out to bury the dead. I think it is at least partly true, because our guide showed us several mounds which have been piled with rocks. It makes me feel better to think that Pat is lying there, and it makes me very thankful that I’m not.
I miss you. I miss talking with you and riding with you and laughing with you. It was only three months, and they passed very quickly, but I am left both restless and strangely content. I hadn’t intended to write this, since I have no idea when I’ll see you again, or even if, given that the general believes we’ll be engaging the French within the month, and none of us are invincible. But since you were very honest with me, I wanted to reciprocate. I miss you, Mary.
You would love this view. We’re camped on the heights, looking out over the river, and there are dozens of lanterns and campfires, pungent but very pretty in the gathering dusk. We’re marching out at dawn, so I’m going to finish this now. I don’t know when your next letter will reach me, but write it anyway, will you? I want to know that it’s on its way.
Vitoria, June 20th, 1813
My dearest Mary
I write Vitoria, since it is the nearest town I have a name for, but we are well outside the city, camped in a valley at the foot of a mountainous ridge, waiting for the rest of the army to complete its flanking manoeuvres. We have been engaged in several sharp skirmishes on the march, including an affair at San Millan, but we have come off very lightly and have given the French something to think about.
I have not received a letter, nor expected to in this time, but as I suspect I will be in battle tomorrow, I wanted to write this. I shall leave it with Mrs van Daan, and asked her to send it on to you. I confess that I have spoken of you to her a good deal, although to nobody else.
I want to be honest with you, dearest girl, since I have been honest from the first, to tell you that I have left two letters with Mrs van Daan, one to the lady I have spoken of. Our attachment was such, that I feel a duty to write to her in case of my death. If I survive, and I generally do, I will destroy that letter and write another.
This letter is for you. I realise that during those few months at Limm, I probably spent more time with you than in all the time I knew Caroline. I fell in love with her when we were both lonely, and had she not been committed to another, I think we could have been happy.
My time with you was different. There was no drama, no headlong rush, no real expectation of anything at all. And yet, looking back, I have the sense that I knew, even before I left, that I had found something that I’d been looking for all my life. Just thinking of you, brings me joy.
I wish I had spoken before I left. I told myself that it was too soon, that I needed to be sure of my own feelings and that it would be wrong to ask you to wait for a man wedded to his career and determined to see this war out. Now you are far away, and I miss you, and I want you to know how I feel.
I think, I hope, that you feel the same way, Mary. Will you be my wife? What a thing to do, asking you in a letter with no certainty that I will ever be able to honour my promise. Even after this battle, I have no hope of more leave for a long time, and will have to beg you to wait for me. I have tried to imagine how I would feel if our situations were reversed, though, and I decided that I would want to know.
Should anything happen to me, I have left my affairs in good order, and you will be very well taken care of, Mr Langley has all the details. Assuming that it goes well for me, I will write again very soon, and I hope you will forgive me and be kind, and tell me if I may hope.
With all my dearest love
Aberly, Derbyshire, July 1813
My dearest Johnny,
It is the worst thing, writing to you without even knowing if you will receive this, but write I must. I comfort myself by thinking that if you are wounded, or exhausted or sorrowful, I may help a little to lift your spirits.
The answer is yes, of course, with all my heart. You must have known that it would be, as I do not suppose I ever made a good job of concealing my feelings. I had begun to hope, when you left, that your former attachment did not hold such complete sway over your heart, but I had not expected you to speak so soon, and under such difficult circumstances. I am so happy that you did.
All is well here. I have told nobody of your offer and will not do so until I am sure that you are safe, but know that you are in my prayers and in my heart, every hour of every day. Write soon, my dear, I cannot rest until I hear from you.
An Unnecessary Affray is my second short story for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop in 2020. It has been a bit of a marathon this year, since in a moment of madness I agreed to two short stories with a book publication date only a few days later, to say nothing of the Covid 19 lockdown. I’m quite proud of myself for getting it all done. As always, the story is free so please share as much as you like.
This tells the story that is not told in An Unconventional Officer, about the action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. I had to be selective about which episodes of Paul van Daan’s early years in the army I covered in that book, but I’ve always wanted to go back and write the stories I didn’t manage to tell, since I’ve always known what happened in my head. I managed it with the Copenhagen campaign in An Unwilling Alliance, and I’m delighted to have finally written about Paul and Craufurd’s spectacular falling out at the Coa.
There are several versions of the events of this day, and Craufurd had his supporters and his critics. Personally, I love Craufurd, you couldn’t make him up, but this wasn’t his finest hour, and I’ve tried to reflect that in my imagined version. As always, I’ve taken some historical liberties to give my fictional battalion something useful to do and I apologise to the gallant officers and men whose roles I have stolen.
A final warning in case you’ve not read the books; I usually try to keep my short stories free of bad language, but I was incapable of writing Paul van Daan’s reaction to this battle without the occasional lapse. His regular readers will understand this. Sorry.
An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa
It was hot on the long march from Viseu to Almeida, with the July sun beating down on the troops over a distance of some seventy miles. The pace was brisk, but not punishing, with the march beginning in the cool early dawn and stopping to rest and eat before the heat of the afternoon sun became unbearable. Ensign Evan Powell was surprised at how much progress they were able to make each day. He mentioned the steady but effective pace to his fellow ensign in the fourth company.
“The major won’t push them beyond endurance unless it’s an emergency, no matter what Wellington or Craufurd might say,” Donahue said. “Chances are we won’t see a battle. Craufurd is under orders to keep a watchful eye on the French but not to risk the light division. By the time we get there he might already be pulling out.”
“Why are we going then?”
Donahue shot him an amused glance. “The official version or my guess?”
“Both, I suppose,” Evan said. He was a little in awe of Donahue, who at nineteen was two years older than him and had almost three years experience on active service with the 110th and had fought at Rolica, Vimeiro and Talavera along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Evan had only recently arrived in Portugal to take up a vacant commission in the fourth company of the 110th and although he had done eight weeks training with the second battalion in Melton Mowbray, and had set sail full of confidence, he found his new messmates intimidating.
“All right then. Officially, Lord Wellington is sending the 110th to reinforce General Craufurd at Almeida in case of a surprise attack by the French. It’s not that strange, we’re not formally designated light infantry yet, but we’re all trained skirmishers and we’ve served with Craufurd’s division out on the border for months.”
Donahue grinned. “Unofficially, old chap, you’ve arrived in the middle of the juiciest scandal this army has seen in a long time. Major van Daan is newly widowed, his wife recently died in childbirth, but it’s very well known that for at least a year he has been enjoying a very passionate affair with the wife of an assistant deputy quartermaster. Last week it all blew up when Captain Carlyon smacked his wife in public right outside headquarters and accused her of making a cuckold of him with the major. Major van Daan took exception to it and challenged him, and the whole battalion held its collective breath until Carlyon did the decent thing and ran like a rabbit taking a fat purse from the army pay chest with him.”
“Better that than dead, which he would have been if he’d got into a fight with our major. Anyway, Wellington took a hand. He doesn’t want to lose Major van Daan over a scandal with a light skirt, so he’s sent him up here to calm down, while I imagine he’ll do his best to get the girl sent home.”
Evan was shocked, although he tried not to show it. His family was Welsh, solid local gentry with low church leanings and the word adultery had never been heard in his mother’s drawing room. His arrival in camp right in the middle of the preparations to march meant that he had barely had time for an introduction to his new commanding officer, but he had felt an instinctive liking for the tall fair officer with the ready smile who had welcomed him, apologised for the chaos, and handed him over to his company captain for further instructions. He was disappointed but also very curious. They were sitting around the camp fires, as darkness fell over the scrub covered, rocky plains and low hills of central Portugal and this was proving to be one of Evan’s most interesting conversations in the midst of orders and marching and picket duty.
“Is she pretty?”
Donahue gave a faint smile. “She’s beautiful. Lucky bastard. I can’t say I blame him.”
“Awful for his wife, though.”
“Not sure she even knew, she was friendly with Mrs Carlyon, they were forever around the place together.”
“Awful for him, then,” Evan said, trying hard to imagine himself in such an appalling position. “He must feel so guilty.”
“Not him. He can’t have cared about her or he wouldn’t have…”
The voice was quiet, and Donahue stopped mid-sentence and scrambled to his feet to salute. Evan did the same, quaking. His company captain was a completely unknown quantity and Evan’s impression of Johnny Wheeler was of a pleasant, even-tempered man in his thirties who seemed well-liked by both officers and men, but there was an edge to his voice now.
“Captain Wheeler. Sir. My apologies, didn’t see you…”
“I’d guessed that, Ensign, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth so freely on the subject of your battalion commander’s personal life to a new officer.”
It was impossible to see if Donahue was blushing in the firelight, but Evan knew that he was. “Sir, very sorry. I was repeating gossip, sir, should know better.”
“How the hell do you think he’d have felt if he’d heard you saying that?She was his wife of six years, she gave him two children, and he’s barely holding himself together.”
“Sir, I didn’t think.”
“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that you can think, Donahue. Get yourself out there, forward pickets, you can relieve Mr Renard. I hope it’s bloody cold.”
Donahue’s voice was subdued. He picked up his hat, saluted and set off into the darkness. Evan followed his example, but Wheeler stopped him.
“Not you, Mr Powell, you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I was part of the conversation, sir.”
“I know, I heard. I also heard what you said last. Empathy is a useful quality, I hope you manage to hold onto it after a few years in the army. Stand down, lad. As you’ve lost your messmate, why don’t you come and join us?”
Evan froze in surprise and glanced over to a group of men around an impressive fire in the centre of the camp. Donahuemockingly called it ‘the golden circle’ where the commanding officer of the 110th and his particular friends congregated. Wheeler was beckoning, so Evan followed, feeling gauche and awkward and painfully aware of his youth and inexperience.
“Johnny, that was the longest piss in history, I was about to send out a search party. While you’re up, grab another bottle of wine, will you, there’s one in my tent. In fact bring two, since I can see you’ve brought a guest. Come and sit down, Mr Powell, there’s a spare camp chair next to Captain Swanson. Sergeant-Major, get him a drink, will you?”
Sergeant-Major O’Reilly unfolded his long limbs from a blanket on the grass and went to collect a pewter mess cup which he filled with wine. Evan accepted with mumbled thanks and sat down, trying to look inconspicuous.
“Why did Mr Donahue disappear into the darkness, Johnny?” Paul van Daan enquired.
“He was being an arsehole and I don’t much like him so I gave him extra picket duty.”
There was a general laugh. Major van Daan surveyed Wheeler thoughtfully. “Now that is something I might have said, but you, Johnny, are a model of rational behaviour. You’re also prevaricating. May I ask…?”
“No, because I’m not going to answer.”
The major turned blue eyes towards Evan. “Mr Powell…”
“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”
Evan could feel his knuckles clenching around the cup and was thankful that it was not a glass. After a long moment, the major’s expression softened into a smile.
“Ensign Donahue isn’t the only one being an arsehole this evening. I beg your pardon, Mr Powell, I’m not quite myself at the moment. Shift that chair over here closer to me, will you, I’m too lazy to yell, and I want to find out more about you. This must have been the worst moment to arrive, I’ve not had a moment to talk to you and I don’t suppose Captain Wheeler has either. It feels ridiculous to ask how you’re settling in, so I won’t. Tell me instead, where you’re from and what brought you into the army?”
The party broke up late, and Evan slept well in his shared tent and woke surprisingly refreshed. He thought about the evening as he mounted Cassie, his bay mare, and set off into the cool dawn light. It had been an evening of laughter and good conversation and for the first time since arriving, Evan had come away feeling a sense of belonging. He wondered if all regiments were like this and if other commanding officers had Paul van Daan’s effective blend of authority and friendliness.
Donahue was tired and miserable the following day, with little to say. He did not ask how Evan had spent the evening and no mention was made of their conversation of the previous day. Evan privately decided that if Donahue attempted to revive the subject, he would decline to take part. Gossiping about his commanding officer no longer felt comfortable after spending an evening in his company. Evan knew nothing about Paul van Daan’s private life but he had the sense that his friends were closing ranks protectively around him and Evan understood why. Bad enough to suffer such a loss in private, but unbearable to do so under the relentless glare of army gossips.
The River Coa was in full flood when the 110th reached the narrow stone bridge leading on to the fortress of Almeida. Captain Johnny Wheeler surveyed the raging torrent as he rode over the bridge and thought that whatever happened, neither French nor Anglo-Portuguese troops would be able to ford the Coa which meant that possession of the bridge would be crucial in any retreat or engagement. There were pickets along the river, outposts from Picton’s third division which was quartered at Pinhel and Major van Daan halted to speak to one of the officers. Johnny watched his friend talking to the young lieutenant and thought how tired Paul looked. In the brief time since his wife’s death, he had slept poorly, rising after only a few hours sleep to sit by the dying embers of the fire with Jenson, his orderly, or walking the perimeter of the camp to chat to the sentries. Johnny was one of the few men who knew something of Paul van Daan’s internal struggle between grief and guilt for his pretty wife, and longing for the dark eyed young woman who seemed to have turned his world upside down.
After about twenty minutes, Paul mounted up and joined Johnny and Carl Swanson who commanded his light company. “I’m not happy,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t sound as though Craufurd has made any attempt to withdraw across the river yet. This lad knows nothing of what’s going on, but he says a lot of the officers are worried that Craufurd is lingering too long. I’m going to speed it up a bit, I want him to read Wellington’s letter, it might get him moving.”
Johnny saluted, wheeled his horse and trotted back to his men with the order, and the 110th set off again at a much faster pace. The area between the Coa and the Agueda rivers was a rough plateau, with low hills and rocky outcrops studded with trees and criss crossed with low stone walls enclosing orchards, olive groves and vegetable gardens. Johnny assessed the ground and thought that it was good country for skirmishing, but given the huge numerical advantage that the French had in this region, he would not choose to pit his men against Ney’s tirailleurs, if it could be avoided.
The 110th met the first pickets of the light division a mile on, and after a brief conversation, Paul returned to Johnny. “I’m riding up to see Craufurd, he’s camped about half a mile west of here. Come with me, Johnny. Captain Swanson, get them bivouacked here until we know where he wants us.”
Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob, partly because of his dark colouring and complexion, and partly because of the violent mood swings and fierce temper which struck terror into the officers and men of his brigade and more recently his division. Paul and Johnny found him in his tent, studying what looked like a sketch map of a fortress spread out on a folding camp table. Paul saluted and Craufurd glared at him.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Lord Wellington’s orders, sir. I’ve a letter from him.”
Paul held it out and Craufurd took it. “Of course you bloody have. I received a letter from him yesterday, and two days before that as well. Does he spend his entire time writing letters?”
“Pretty much, sir,” Paul agreed pleasantly. Craufurd regarded him, black brows drawn together and Johnny tried not to hold his breath. Suddenly, Craufurd grinned.
“Somebody should put sand in his ink pot,” he said. “Well, whatever the reason, it’s bloody good to see you, boy. Sit down. You too…what’s your name again?”
“Wheeler, sir, Paul said, pulling up a camp chair. “Same as last time you asked.”
“Button your lip, Van Daan, and let me read this latest nonsense.”
There was silence in the tent as Craufurd read. The orderly disappeared then reappeared with a tray, and Johnny took a cup of wine with a smile of thanks and waited. Finally, Craufurd looked up.
“Nothing much new there. He wants me to stay on this side of the river as long as it’s safe to do so, but not take any risks. Protect Almeida, but not for too long. Use my initiative but follow orders. Listen to…”
“I get the point, sir. We all do. He’s worried and he’s feeling his way.”
“He isn’t here,” Craufurd said shortly.
“I am, sir.”
“And I’m supposed to consult a junior officer about my division?”
Paul said nothing and Johnny admired his silence for a while. Eventually Craufurd made and exasperated sound.
“I am about to blow up Fort Concepcion,” he said. “I’ve left it as long as possible, but if I leave it much longer, there’s a risk they’ll take it. Burgoyne and his engineers are in there, making the final preparations. The rest of the division has been pulled back a mile or so, leaving only the pickets and vedettes out there. We’ll withdraw when we need to.”
“When will that be, sir?”
“Is that why he’s sent you?” Craufurd demanded belligerently. “Has he had the bloody nerve to send a boy of your age to keep an eye on me because he can’t be here himself?”
“He sent me to provide support if it’s needed, sir.”
“And to write back immediately if you think I’m making a balls-up.”
“No, sir, if I think you’re making a balls-up, I’ll tell you myself. And I’m a bit worried that you might be.”
“Duly noted, Van Daan. Are you sure he didn’t actually send you to stop you doing something stupid in your private life?”
Johnny caught his breath and Paul went very still but did not immediately speak. After a moment, he said:
“You mean losing my wife to childbirth? Not much he can do about that really, sir.”
Craufurd’s expression changed. “Christ, Paul, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Wellington wrote to me to tell me what had happened, he thought I should know. Is the child all right?”
“She seems to be thriving, we’ve found a wet nurse and she’ll be travelling back to England as soon as an escort can be found.”
“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”
“I don’t know her plans, sir.”
“Liar,” Craufurd said, without heat. “Wellington’s worried you’ll persuade her into committing social suicide with you, he has a tendre for that girl.”
“So do you, sir.”
“Yes, I bloody do, so take care of her. And keep that husband of hers away from her. Did he really hit her in the town square in front of half the army?”
“Yes. Don’t worry about her, sir. She’s safe at the farm with the medical staff and Carlyon won’t come back, he’s too much of a coward. Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using my personal troubles to distract me. Where do you want us?”
“You can stay where you are for the moment, I’ll send word once Burgoyne is ready and we’re on the move. Write what you like to Wellington. I know this area and I know my men and what they can do. I’ll march when I’m ready.”
Tension mounted over the next few days. The 110th shared picket duty with several companies of the 95th and Evan listened to their grumbling and tried not to be afraid. He could see no sign of fear in either his fellow officers or his men, but this was not their first experience of war. More and more French troops seemed to be moving into position, and Evan could sense the unease of his seniors. Officers from the other battalions, the 52nd, 43rd, 95th and the Portuguesecaçadores came and went, spending time with Major van Daan, and Evan suspected that the conversation centred around when the light division might withdraw and whether Craufurd was holding on too long.
At dawn on the 21st of July, Evan woke to movement, and then the call of the bugle. During training, he had practised getting to arms at speed, and had been impressed with his men, but he was astonished at how much faster these veteran troops could manage it. Gunfire could be heard through the morning mist as Major van Daan was summoned to Craufurd’s command post and returned to brief his officers.
“There’s action around Concepcion. Ney’s sent in the fourth corps and they’re driving in our pickets and the cavalry vedettes. They’re going to blow the fort, and then, please God he’ll get us over that bridge and out of here.”
“We won’t fight then, sir?”
“Not unless we have to, Mr Barry, we’re hugely outnumbered here and this was never meant to be more than a watching brief. The 14th dragoons are holding them off until the fort is blown. Stand to arms, I want them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
The explosion was shattering, a huge boom followed by a series of lesser charges and Evan felt as though the ground was shaken beneath him. He wondered how it felt to be even closer. Around him, his men were restless, ready now for either action or retreat, and it was a relief when General Craufurd rode up to the edge of Vale de la Mula shortly afterwards and approached Major van Daan. The French were clearly visible in front of the village, three regiments of infantry and a battalion of light infantry. The major saluted.
“Stand to, Major.”
“We’ve been doing that since dawn, sir. Did the explosion do its job?”
“More or less. Some casualties, though, some of the cavalry were too close. A few dead and wounded from both sides. The 14th are holding them nicely, I doubt we’ll see action today.”
“Are we not retreating, sir?”
“Not yet. We can wait a while longer, I believe.”
Paul van Daan was frowning. “We probably can, but what’s the point, sir, if we have to go. Surely…”
“You forget yourself, Van Daan. Wait for orders.”
Evan watched him ride off then looked over at Major van Daan and Captain Wheeler. They were both frowning.
“You think he’s got this wrong?” Wheeler asked.
“I think it has the potential to be a bloody disaster,” the major said shortly. “Carl, Johnny, get the men round, I want to speak to them.”
The rain began during the early evening on the 23rd and continued ceaselessly through the night. Evan was on picket duty with Donahue and a dozen men of their company, and his companion grumbled through the sleepless and rain-sodden night. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay close by, and for several days, the light division had manoeuvred across the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, occasionally exchanging fire with French scouts.
A heavy mist hung over the ground as Evan watched his men lighting a fire to make tea. Sergeant Mackie brought a steaming cup and Evan smiled gratefully.
“Soon warm up, sir. Captain says we’ll be covering some of the wagons, bringing supplies out of Almeida. If we’re lucky, we can bugger off after that.”
As Evan drank his tea and ate two hard biscuits, bugles sounded as the main body of the army called reveille and began the morning muster, formed in companies. Men in red, green or the brown of the Portuguese units toured the pickets with dry cartridges to replace any that had got wet in the night. After only a short time, Evan had learned the morning routine of the army and it felt soothing, familiar, almost safe.
“Mist’s burning off a bit,” Donahue said. “Hope they relieve us soon, I’ve had enough of being out here with the bloody green jackets.”
Evan did not reply. Since the night Donahue had been sent out on extra picket duty, his relationship with his fellow subaltern had cooled a little. Now that he had begun to get to know some of the other officers in the battalion, he was less impressed by Donahue’s stories and found his incessant complaining irritating. Their current bivouac was wet, muddy and uncomfortable but it did not help to constantly moan about it. Evan was tired of his condescending manner and was beginning to loathe some of the tales he told of his conquests among the local women. He did not know if Donahue was really such a Lothario and was painfully aware of his own complete lack of experience, but Donahue’s gleeful descriptions of seduction made him cringe.
“There’s movement from the French lines,” Sergeant Mackie said abruptly, and something in his tone made all the men turn their heads. Suddenly they were alert, reaching for muskets and shouldering packs. Private Brown doused the fire, kicking the embers around to ensure that it could not flare up again. Evan stood staring into the mist until his eyes hurt. He could hear the sounds now, but there had been movement before and he did not know what Mackie had heard that was different although he suspected the men did. There was a sudden breeze which lifted the edge of Evan’s coat and caused a mad flapping as Private Crook finished rolling up his blanket. The mist shifted eerily, like some ghostly creature reaching out white fingers to touch the low stone wall behind which they had camped, and then suddenly sunlight pushed its way through and there was a clearing in the fog, and then another, and Evan felt his innards turn to water at the sight before him.
“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.
The broad plain was covered with French troops as far as the eye could see. They were close and fully armed and Evan knew with utter certainty that this was not another feint in the long dance of advance and retreat that Craufurd had been playing for days. These men were ready to fight, and today he might die.
Alarm calls were sounding up and down the line of pickets, and were picked up in the rear, as the men of the light division scrambled to pack up, abandoning roll-call to line the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept. Donahue drew his pistol and checked it methodically and Evan did the same, although his hands were shaking so much that he was not sure he would be able to aim and fire. As he thought it, there was a shot to his left and then another, and suddenly the air was filled with the crackling of musket and rifle fire as the front line of Ney’s voltigeurs and the first of the rifle pickets exchanged fire.
“They’re coming,” Donahue said, and his voice was suddenly very calm. “Don’t panic, Powell. Hear that noise?”
“That’s right. They’re a way off yet, which means he’s not brought up his main columns, these are just the skirmishers. We’ll hold them off, but when I give the word, we fall back through those trees to the main force. Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting to give support.”
“What if they’re not?”
“They will be. Stick with your men, they know what they’re doing. Christ, these bastards are fast.”
The French skirmishers were moving forward over the rough terrain, ducking behind trees and rocks to let off a shot. They worked in pairs, covering each other skilfully, and Evan was terrified at how quickly they were approaching. He felt painfully isolated and certain that within minutes he would be dead, then the crash of a musket beside him made him jump. It was followed by another and then another and the voltigeurs began to fall. They were replaced immediately by others, and Donahue straightened, took aim with his pistol and fired.
“Fall back,” he called. “We’re too far out here.”
Relief mingled with fear in Evan’s breast, but at least he could move now. Copying Donahue, he drew his sword and ran with his men to the first line of a small copse of trees. The men disappeared behind trees, turning to fire again at the approaching French. Donahue reloaded his pistol and it reminded Evan that he had not yet fired his. He was a good shot, had practised for many hours with his father and brother and could bag a wood pigeon better than either, but these were not birds. Evan took aim, knowing that his shaking hands must be visible to his men, and he wondered if they thought him a coward. A blue jacket came into his sight and he steadied the pistol, feeling as though he would vomit. The Frenchman roared, a meaningless sound, designed to terrorise, and it galvanised Evan into action. He fired, coping well with the recoil, and the Frenchman fell. Evan was shocked, wondering for a moment if he had somehow stumbled, then he heard Crook’s voice behind him.
“Bloody hell, good shot, sir. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
They ran, dodging between trees as the voltigeurs came closer. Shots flew around them, most bouncing harmlessly off tree trunks. Evan did not bother to stop and reload, he could not aim in here and his men seemed intent only on escape now. There were too many Frenchmen, and sounds from the right suggested that the riflemen who had formed the next picket had been overrun. A shot to Evan’s left was followed by a cry of agony and he stopped, knowing that one of his own men had been hit. A hand grasped his elbow, dragging him forward.
“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”
Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.
The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.
Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.
“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.
The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”
Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.
The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.
“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”
Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.
“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”
“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.
“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”
Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.
After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.
“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”
Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.
Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”
“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.
As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to thefarmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.
The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.
There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.
“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”
“We’ve no orders.”
“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”
“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.
“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”
The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.
“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”
“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”
“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”
Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.
“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”
“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”
“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”
“I know. He knows.”
“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”
“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”
Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.
They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.
Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.
As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.
“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”
“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”
“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”
“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”
“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”
Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.
“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”
“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.
“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”
They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.
“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”
“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”
“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”
“He’s not wounded, is he?”
“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”
“We can wait.”
“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”
“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”
“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”
“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”
The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.
Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.
There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.
“What is it, sir?”
“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”
“Should we move?”
“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”
“He’s desperate, sir.”
“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”
Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.
“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”
Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”
Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”
“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”
Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”
“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”
“He must have,” Napier said.
“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”
Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:
“It’s an order, Major.”
Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.
“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”
General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.
“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.
“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”
Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:
“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”
“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”
“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”
“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”
Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.
“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”
Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”
“It’s too risky.”
“It’s too risky not to.”
“I have given my orders, Major.”
There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.
“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”
“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.
“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”
They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.
There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.
There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Sergeant Grogan’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.
Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”
Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.
There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.
Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.
“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”
“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”
“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”
“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”
Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.
“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”
The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.
The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.
“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”
“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”
“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”
Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.
He was wrong.
As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.
It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.
“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”
“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”
“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”
“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”
The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.
At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.
It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.
“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”
Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”
Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.
The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.
“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”
Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”
Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”
There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.
“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.
“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.
“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”
Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”
“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.
“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”
“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”
Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:
“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”
“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”
“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”
He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.
“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”
After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.
After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”
“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”
“Let’s both go.”
Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”
“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.
“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.
“Well, get back to them, then.”
“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”
After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”
“Do you think he meant it?”
“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”
“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”
“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”
“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”
“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”
“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”
“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”
“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”
“That will ruin her, Paul.”
“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”
“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”
His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”
“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”
“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.
“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”
“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”
“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.
“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.
“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”
“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.
Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.
Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.
That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.
“Powell. Got any rations left?”
Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”
“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”
It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.
This is the opening scene of the new book, an Unmerciful Incursion, book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s due out on 31 July 2020 and I can’t wait.
We’re in winter quarters in 1812-13 and the Royal Scots Guards are having an unusually bad day…
Captain Leo Manson was hungry. He had been aware for some time of his stomach growling, but the sound was becoming audible now, or it would have been, if there had not been so much noise on the parade ground. The noise was rising steadily, a combination of marching feet, shouted orders and the quiet grumbling of officers and NCOs who were aware that it was past the dinner hour. The bugle had called some time ago, and the major who was theoretically supervising the drill had hesitated and shot an uncertain glance towards Manson and his companion, who had shaken his head without speaking. Major Beaumont signalled for the drill to continue, but the interruption seemed to have affected the troops, and the manoeuvres, which had been looking considerably better, were deteriorating again.
“To the right, wheel! March!”
The men on the right of the rank stepped off, turning their eyes to the left. Manson watched, hopefully. For the first few steps, things seemed to be going well, but as the movement continued, he realised that some of the troops had forgotten to lengthen their steps. To maintain the wheel in perfect order, each man needed to pay attention to the exact length of his stride or the wheel would fall apart very quickly. It did so, before Manson’s gloomy gaze, with several men treading on those in front of them, and others scrambling in a series of quick, untidy steps to catch up. The celebrated first battalion of the Scots Guards looked like a draught of militia recruits during their first drill session and Manson gritted his teeth to stop himself intervening, silently pleading with the officers to stop the manoeuvre before it got any worse.
The bellow was so loud that Manson physically jumped, even though he knew it was coming. The battalion stopped in its tracks, apart from several men caught in mid-step who cannoned into their comrades, causing a series of collisions which shoved one man out of the front rank on his own. The private froze, recognising his isolation, and looked desperately at his sergeant, who glanced at the nearest officer before jerking his head to indicate that the private retreat. The man made his way back into the line in a sideways shuffle which made Manson want to laugh aloud. Manson’s companion said a word under his breath which was inappropriate for a senior officer on the parade ground and strode to the front of the battalion with the air of a man driven beyond his endurance. Manson, who had served under Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry for more than two years, forgot about his rumbling stomach and just prayed that his commanding officer did not hit anybody.
“You, what’s your name?”
The hapless soldier who had just made it back into the line, stared at the colonel, his mouth open, but no sound came out.
The man did so. Paul van Daan moved closer and inspected him from head to toe with ruthless thoroughness, then held out his hand.
The man hesitated, and his sergeant, who seemed to have regained his wits, stepped forward. “Andrews, the officer of the 110th wishes…”
“Enough!” Paul roared, and the sergeant jumped to attention. “Andrews, give me the bloody musket before I take it from you and shove it where it will never see the sun. Sergeant Bolton, step back, I’ve not given you an order.”
Andrews handed over the musket. He was sweating in fear, and Manson felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Paul turned the weapon over in his hands, inspecting the touch hole, the lock and then the entire weapon very thoroughly. When he had done, he handed the musket back to Andrews who took it and returned to attention, staring woodenly ahead.
“Well, Private Andrews, it’s clear you were paying attention when they taught you how to keep your musket in good order, even if you missed basic drill training. When did you join?”
“When did you arrive in Portugal?”
“Well you were bloody lucky you didn’t arrive earlier, you missed the worst retreat since Corunna. How much drill training have you had, so far?”
“Sir.” Andrews shot an agonised look towards his captain, who was watching the little drama with a thunderous expression. Paul followed his gaze and Manson saw a faint smile.
“Never mind, you can’t really tell me you’ve had virtually none, can you?”
Paul turned away and walked to the front, surveying the battalion. His voice had a carrying power which any drill sergeant would have envied.
“Major Beaumont. Your officers will be missing their dinner. Why don’t you go on ahead, I want a word with the battalion and then I’ll join you.”
There was a rustle of disquiet among the men as the officers left. Colonel van Daan waited until they had gone, then turned back to the men.
“Sergeant-Major Clegg. Separate out the new recruits, get them lined up over there. And get a move on, I’m so hungry my belly is sticking to my spine. Private Andrews, lead them out.”
Manson watched their faces as Paul began to shout out orders, and he wanted to smile. He had seen it happen many times before. Within minutes, the drill was running, and with only experienced troops, it ran very well. The NCOs, visibly relieved at being able to demonstrate how well their men could perform, kept the movements tight, and the companies worked well together. Paul watched, calling out an occasional order, but mostly left the NCOs to their work. Once it was evident that the Royal Scots Guards were moving smoothly, Paul crossed to where the new troops stood watching in miserable silence, and Manson saw Paul put his hand on Andrews’ shoulder. He was speaking to him, pointing out what was happening in the manoeuvre, and Manson could see the man relaxing. Paul said something and several of the men around him laughed.
When the drill was done, Paul called the new recruits back into line. “Well done,” he said. “I’d a feeling you were better than that. Don’t get arsey with the new lads, we were all there once and they’ll learn quicker if you work together. I’m pleased that I’ll be able to report back to Lord Wellington that the Scots Guards are still the men who proved their worth at Salamanca. Is anybody hungry?”
There was a murmur of laughter and then somebody cheered. Paul grinned, and taking it as permission, the battalion yelled to a man, driven, Manson thought, not only by the thought of dinner but by an unexpected sense of camaraderie. Paul gave the order to stand the men down and walked over to Manson.
“Do you think we’re going to get any dinner?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, sir. That went very well, though.”
“Yes, they’re good lads.”
“They’re good officers as well, sir.”
“They might be, Captain, but if they’ve done more than a couple of hours worth of work with their new recruits this winter, I’ll be very surprised. Don’t look at me like that. I’m going to go in there, explain his Lordship’s instructions and be really, really tactful. I give you my word.”
Manson watched as the tall, fair figure walked towards the solid farm building which currently housed the battalion officers’ mess and felt his heart sink. Colonel Paul Van Daan could manage the enlisted men and NCOs better than any officer Manson had ever seen, but his attitude towards a commissioned officer whom he suspected of shirking his duty frequently left chaos in his wake.
“Captain Manson, where the devil are you? Get in here, I’m hungry.”
Manson sighed and followed, reflecting that whatever the atmosphere in the mess, there would at least be dinner.
The atmosphere was uncomfortable enough for Manson to be happy to miss breakfast the following morning. It was approximately thirty miles from Guarda, where the first division was in cantonments, to Freineda where Wellington had his headquarters. Paul, Manson and Sergeant Jenson, Paul’s orderly, were travelling light and made good time. They stopped in the little village of Braga where a farmer made up for the lack of an early meal with excellent fare and a wealth of local gossip. He and Paul were clearly old acquaintances and Manson ate in silence, trying to follow the conversation which was in rapid Portuguese and seemed to consist of a series of enquiries about members of the farmer’s extended family. Back on the road, Paul was considerably more cheerful.
“I’ve known old Barboza since I was out here under Craufurd a few years ago, he was always good to us. Much better manners than the officers of the Royal Scots Guards, I must say.”
“Sir, you threatened to punch one of the officers of the Royal Scots Guards.”
“Only after he challenged me to a duel,” Paul said composedly. “A challenge which I nobly resisted. I wonder if he’ll complain to Lord Wellington?”
“I expect he’s already written the letter, sir.”
“Perhaps Wellington will be so furious that he’ll remove me from this assignment,” Paul said hopefully. “I’m not at all suited to the job.”
Manson could not help smiling. “You are suited to the job, sir, you just hate doing it.”
“I hate being away from my wife,” Paul said. “She’s barely out of her bed after giving birth, and given what a horrendous ordeal that proved to be, she shouldn’t be out of her bed at all. But we all know that she won’t give a button for the list of instructions that I left for her and is probably doing something highly unsuitable without me there to keep an eye on her.”
“Sir, she’d be doing that even if you were there.”
“You know her very well, Captain.” Paul shot him a smile. “I’m glad I asked you to come with me, Leo, it’s been good to get some time with you.”
“Me too, sir. It’s been a mad few months.”
“It’s been a mad few years.”
Manson could not disagree. He had arrived in Portugal with the 112th infantry, and his early introduction to army life and in particular to Colonel Paul van Daan had not been easy, but both Manson and Paul had persevered. Two and a half years later, Manson was captain of the 110th light company and enjoyed a close friendship with both Paul and his young wife, who travelled with the battalion.
Paul was currently in command of the third brigade of the light division, under its Hanoverian commander, General Charles Alten, but during winter quarters, had been given an unwelcome secondment by Lord Wellington to tour the various divisions of the army, inspecting training and combat readiness. Manson was not entirely clear about Paul’s remit and he did not think that Paul was either, but after only a few weeks it was obvious that some of the officers of Lord Wellington’s army were furiously resentful about his interference in the running of their battalions. Paul’s friendship with Wellington, and his past record of taking on jobs that no other officer in the army wanted to do, had led to him being nicknamed Wellington’s Mastiff several years ago. Manson had heard the sobriquet again recently, and not in an affectionate way.
If Paul cared, he gave no sign of it. Manson thought that his commanding officer was more concerned with the problems he was finding with training and discipline in some of the divisions, than with his own unpopularity. Another officer might have treated this job as a sinecure, sending glowing reports back to Wellington on every occasion and making friends throughout the army but Manson knew that Paul would do no such thing. He treated each inspection as a personal quest to improve things and Manson was exasperated both with his over-conscientious colonel and with Lord Wellington who had set him an impossible task. To make it worse, many of the officers he was dealing with, were of higher rank than he, and resented advice and recommendations from a mere colonel.
An Unmerciful Incursion is available to pre-order on Amazon here.
Lord Wellington sings Gilbert and Sullivan follows on directly from my previous post, where Sir Home Popham got the Major-General treatment and came about because of a request from a friend who demanded why Popham got a song and not Wellington. Luckily, this song is very adaptable. This is a reminder of how the original sounds. I hope Wellington fans enjoy it…
Lord Wellington sings Gilbert and Sullivan
I am the very model of a modern Major-General, I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral, I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical From Marathon to Sabugal, in order categorical I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters that are tactical, I understand all strategy both theory and practical On managing in line and square I’m teeming with a lot o’ news While skirmishing light infantry I’m known to have a lot of views I’m very good at reading ground and knowing where to put my troops And baffling the enemy no matter how well he regroups In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I know about intelligence and how to plan a great campaign I’m good at march and counter-march and knowing to retreat again Political manoeuvring is something that I’m noted for And when I write a letter it is something that they can’t ignore I never let my generals believe that they can get away, With too much independence, I prefer they do it all my way And if they don’t obey my orders, I’m prepared to let them know I know it might upset them but that’s just the way it has to go I don’t mind riding roughshod over those who don’t agree with me I know what I am doing and I’m sure in time they’ll come to see In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by “please apply some tact” When I can show artillery officers some more respect When I can treat the HQ staff as if they have intelligence And give the Horse Guards officers some credit for a little sense When I can learn to trust the men who’ve showed me they can do the job When I can accept talent and remember not to be a snob When I stop writing letters without thinking about how they sound And try to think how my remarks affect the people on the ground For my military knowledge, though it’s up there with the best of them My habit of making rude remarks is one that I should overcome But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
Wellington Socially Distancing, is in no way intended to make light of the current situation. Nevertheless, we all have our own ways of coping with stress and something I often do to lighten a difficult situation, is to ask myself What Would Wellington Do? Usually, by the time I’ve come up with a scenario, I am a) laughing and b) feeling better.
As many of you know, Lord Wellington is an important secondary character in the Peninsular War Saga, and over the years, I’ve developed my own personal view of him, which makes it easy to imagine how he might respond to different situations.
Wellington Socially Distancing
It is 1813 in Freineda, Portugal and Wellington has just been informed by his chief medical officer that due to an unusually dangerous and highly contagious outbreak of camp fever, he and his staff must keep away from the rest of the army. His military secretary, Fitzroy Somerset has arrived for his morning briefing.
Wellington: “Ah, Fitzroy. Come in. That is – are you able to come in?”
Fitzroy: “Yes, my Lord. Dr McGrigor tells me that your immediate staff may proceed as usual, although we may not get close to anybody else. This will change the way we mange the post.”
Wellington:“The post? The POST? Are you telling me I will be unable to send letters?”
Fitzroy: “Well, my Lord…”
Wellington: “Absolutely unacceptable, I cannot allow it. I need to be able to give my orders, I need to send reports to London, and I absolutely need to write a great many letters to both the Portuguese and Spanish governments. If I do not constantly remind them of my expectations, it is impossible to know what might go wrong.”
Fitzroy: “No, my Lord, you misunderstand me. The post will go as usual, but it will be delivered differently. Major Scovell has arranged for it to be left on a table at the front door, and when the messenger has gone, I will bring it through. No direct contact, you see.”
Wellington: “Ah. Excellent.”
Fitzroy: “Dr McGrigor says that you may continue with your daily ride, but that social hunting should be avoided for the present.”
Fitzroy: “Hunting, my Lord.”
Wellington: “Why, in God’s name?”
Fitzroy: “Because of the need to keep at least six feet away from the other officers, sir.”
Wellington: “Ha! Well that isn’t going to affect my hunting, Fitzroy, none of them are ever going to get within six feet of me on the hunting field, they ride like a pack of milk maids! What else?”
Fitzroy: “Your immediate staff may continue to work directly with you and to dine with you, sir, as long as we do not mingle with the rest of the army. This means your orders will all need to be given in writing.”
Wellington: “Well that is always my preference, Fitzroy, I cannot rely on any of them to carry out my instructions reliably unless I write everything down.”
Fitzroy: “Just so, sir.”
Wellington: “When you say my immediate staff, do you mean my ADCs?”
Fitzroy: “Yes, sir. I have impressed it upon them that they must not break social distancing until give express permission. I am sure they understand.”
Wellington: “Even the Prince?”
Fitzroy: “I believe so, sir.”
Wellington: “Watch him anyway. If anybody is going to be climbing out the back window to go on a spree with the officers of the grenadiers, it will be the Prince of Orange, trust me.”
Fitzroy: “Very good, my Lord.”
Wellington: “Any visitors allowed?”
Fitzroy: “No, my Lord.”
Wellington: “Excellent. Well, I must say, this is not looking half so bad as McGrigor made out. Oh, Fitzroy, did you send my letter to Colonel van Daan?”
Fitzroy: “I did, my Lord. He has enforced very strict rules to stop the contagion spreading within his regiment and the rest of his brigade.”
Wellington: “What about his wife? Did you tell him of my suggestion that Mrs van Daan move to headquarters during this perilous period, to ensure that she is safely quarantined and remains safe and well.”
Fitzroy: “I did, my Lord.”
Wellington: “And his reply?”
Fitzroy: “Sadly, I appear to have mislaid the letter, my Lord, but I did read it, and the gist of his reply was ‘No’.”
Fitzroy: “There was also a note from Mrs van Daan, my Lord, enquiring after your health, and begging that your Lordship take extra care to wash your hands during this contagion.”
Wellington: “Washing my hands? Why?”
Fitzroy: “I have no idea, sir. It seems that during her work nursing the sick, she has observed that cleanliness improves recovery, and possibly prevents the medical staff from becoming infected. She does not say why.”
Wellington: “What a ridiculous idea. Still, the ladies do take these strange notions, and sometimes it is best just to humour them. I shall write directly assuring her that I will wash my hands frequently. Very well, Fitzroy, I think we can get on with the business of the day, I have wasted enough of my time on this matter. Where is the letter from General Castanos, it requires an immediate reply?”
Fitzroy: “Yes, sir. Oh, there is just one thing. Charles Stewart has been unable to set off for England as planned, due to the travel restrictions, so he will be remaining at headquarters for a time.”
Fitzroy: “Yes, sir.”
Wellington: “Not going home.”
Fitzroy: “No, sir. Not immediately. He will remain at headquarters.”
Wellington: “Is there nothing we can do about that, Fitzroy?”
Fitzroy: “Not really, my Lord. Unless, of course, he should display any signs of infection. Then he would need to be fully isolated.”
Wellington: “Well that is it then! I’ve noticed that he has been looking a little peaky, and I heard him cough three times when we were hunting yesterday. From six feet away, obviously. Inform Dr McGrigor that I believe it will be better if Stewart is kept in isolation until all travel restrictions are lifted.”
Fitzroy: “Where, my Lord?”
Wellington: “Somewhere else. The next village. Or the one after that. It will matter little to Stewart, as long as he is able to take his cook, a pack of cards and a case of champagne. Send him a case of the good port, will you, Fitzroy, with my compliments and good wishes for a speedy recovery.”
Fitzroy: “I will, sir.”
Wellington: “Well, this is excellent. I foresee a few weeks of uninterrupted work, no irritating visitors and no Charles Stewart to cause trouble among the staff. Now all I need is Murray back and a dry spring and we will be ready for the new campaign. New equipment, tents for the whole army and the men will quickly shake off this winter ague. I feel very optimistic, Fitzroy, and am determined to endure every inconvenience without complaint, in order to set a good example to the rest of the army. I shall be perfectly pleased to remain at home, work quietly, and follow the medical board’s instructions.”
Fitzroy: “Yes, my Lord. Although, about the new equipment…”
Fitzroy: “Transport problems, my Lord. Merchant ships are not sailing as often, some of the crews have become unwell. London writes that there may well be considerable delay in the arrival of the new tents and guns, and…”
Wellington: “What? WHAT? Which fool is organising this? Do they not understand the importance of having my supplies delivered in a timely manner? We shall see about this! The letter to Castanos can wait, I shall write to Horse Guards, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary for War and the Commander in Chief! What are the commissariat doing about this? And the quartermasters? Where is De Lancey?”
Fitzroy: “He is in isolation with the rest of the QMG’s department, sir, over at…”
Wellington: “I shall ride over there directly I have finished these letters, he is so idle, he will do nothing without my personal supervision.”
Fitzroy: “But my Lord, the epidemic. The quarantine. What about social distancing?”
Wellington: “Hang social distancing, I shall socially distance De Lancey by kicking him into the Coa if he does not immediately take steps to secure my supplies. Bring me writing materials! And have my horse saddled immediately!”
Disclaimer: No actual history was harmed in the writing of this sketch…
Christmas 2019 #OscarWalks is a special edition to give Oscar the opportunity to with you all a Merry Christmas from everybody at Writing with Labradors. This is a special festive edition of #Oscar Walks. A combination of the weather and the Christmas season has meant that walks have been short and sweet for a few days, but that doesn’t mean Oscar hasn’t been having an adventurous life and I know he has a few things to say.
It’s been a very different Christmas for me in one way; the first one in thirteen years where I’ve not had Joey walking behind me. Toby was never very interested in Christmas until the turkey appeared, but Joey was a big fan. He loved having loads of people around to make a fuss of him and was always prepared to let us dress him up for the occasion. I missed him very much this year.
Luckily, Oscar seems to share Joey’s enthusiasm for the season and has been full of the Christmas spirit over the past week, so I’ll hand over to him to tell you what’s been going on.
What’s been going on? What’s been going on? I’ll tell you what’s been going on. Persecution, that’s what! Persecution, false accusations and fake news!
You sound like a combination of Sir Home Popham and Donald Trump, Oscar. What’s upset you?
You know very well what’s upset me, Mum. That man. That person. That individual who came into the house on Monday.
You mean the dog trainer, Oscar.
I’m sorry you’re offended, but I did explain that I need a bit of help with teaching you to walk nicely on the lead. And to come back when I call you.
I am very good on the lead. I always respond when you say heel.
You do. It’s just that I have to say it four thousand times in a ten minute walk, it’s exhausting.
Exaggeration. And defamation of character. I could sue.
Anyway, you liked the dog trainer. He gave you loads of treats and played with you and you’re already getting better.
You told me I was already perfect.
You are, Oscar. I just need you to be a little more obedient. And to come when I call you.
I already do that.
Except when you see another dog.
Well, obviously, I have to be civil to them.
Or when you’ve found an interesting smell.
That can be very distracting. It might be food.
Or when you see anything new or interesting.
Except sheep. I always come back if there’s a sheep.
That’s true, you’re the opposite of most dogs. Still, a bit of extra training will benefit both of us.
Anyway, this was supposed to be about Christmas. Your second Christmas, Oscar. How’s it been so far?
Fantastic. Excellent. Wonderful. Know what I like about Christmas?
Everybody’s here. None of this going off to work, or school, or University nonsense. Everyone’s here, mostly in the same room, we all get to eat really good food at weird hours of the day and night, watch TV, play some silly games and snuggle up by the fire.
Yes, that pretty much sums up Christmas.
And visitors. Loads of people in and out of the house all the time. They bring cards and presents and most of them give me cuddles and feed me treats. And some bring dogs. I met Roy. I liked Roy. He reminded me a bit of Toby only much smaller and different colours and different fur.
So not that much like Toby at all?
Well he was grumpy with me and growled at me a few times but didn’t really seem to mind when I teased him. Toby was like that to start with but then he got used to me and would let me play with him. Of course Joey let me climb all over him from day one.
He was soft with you. Like the rest of us.
That’s what the dog trainer said. And I got presents. Loads of treats and two new toys. Three, if you count the reindeer you gave me on Christmas Eve. No FOUR if you count the duck that Rachael brought home for me. I LOVE my new toys. And there are lots of pretty lights around, and indoor trees with things hanging off them that I’m not allowed to touch. But they look nice. And the fire’s always lit, which is my favourite.
I’m glad you approve of Christmas.
Mind you, it’s a bit tiring. What’s happening next, Mum?
Well, next week is New Year and Jon and Anya are having a party, so there’ll be lots of your favourite people here that evening. And after that it’s back to work and Anya and Rachael will go back to University.
Boo. Don’t like that.
I know, Oscar, but they’ll be back. And I’ve got lots of exciting walks planned so you can practice what you’ve been learning from the dog trainer before we see him again.
Can I show him my new toys?
You’ve showed them to everyone else, Oscar, so I expect so. Right, say Happy Christmas to your fans, and we’ll brave the rain for a quick walk now.
Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year, everybody! Is that right, Mum?
Close enough, Oscar. Merry Christmas, baby boy.
Merry Christmas, Mum.
Next week it’s back to work on book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga with Oscar’s expert help and advice from his sofa in my study. For more history, humour, fiction and Labradors why not follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.
This year’s Christmas story is part of the Historical Fiction Writers’ December Blog Hop and I’ve chosen to return to the Isle of Man, my adopted homeland. Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story takes place in the winter of 1809-10. For regular readers of both the Peninsular War Saga and the Manxman series, Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell have just arrived back in England after the Walcheren campaign and Paul van Daan is in Portugal, rebuilding his battalion after the bloody Talavera campaign.
When we moved to the island in 2002, I fell in love with Manx culture and loved learning about some of the traditional customs and I’m glad to be able to share them with you. As with all my short stories, it’s free, so please share as much as you like.
Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story
It was frosty on the morning of Colby Fair, an icy wind blowing in from the Irish sea. Lieutenant Thomas Young ofHis Majesty’s Revenue Service was without a ship or any useful occupation and agreed to accompany the officers from the Castletown garrison to the fair on a whim. He quickly regretted it, shivering on his hired horse, wrapped in his worn blue cloak which had seen better days.
Thomas knew the officers had invited him out of kindness and was trying to be grateful. He was billeted with two of them in a cosy inn on the edge of Castletown, while the revenue cutter he commanded underwent essential repairs and Thomas recovered from a shot through the arm received in a deserted bay near Santon when he had been chasing down a fast brig bringing in contraband. His ship, the Bluebird, had hit a rock and his crew had manhandled him ashore and protected him, letting the smugglers get on with their business. Thomas remembered little of the night. His wound was trivial compared to previous hurts and as he recovered he had appreciated the hospitality of the commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart, who found him accommodation and included him in the officers’ mess of the four companies of the Royal Manx Fencibles remaining on the island.
“You won’t get much done on your ship until after Twelfth Night, Lieutenant. On Mann we take our celebrations seriously, only essential work will be done.”
“Does that include the smugglers, sir?”
Steuart gave a wry smile. “I wouldn’t know. There isn’t much you can do about it either way, so why not take some time to recover and enjoy our hospitality? We’ve seen very little of you since you were stationed here.”
Thomas agreed, since he had little choice. He had arrived off the coast of the Isle of Mann three months earlier and found it an odd posting. Fresh from the Sussex coast, where the lives of every riding officer and revenue man were constantly at risk, he had been told that the island was a hotbed of smuggling and had come prepared for battle. In three months he had seen his fair share of action and had known some successes, but there had been remarkably little violence. The shot fired on that November evening had seemed random, and there was no attempt to follow it up.
“A warning shot, most like, sir,” his pilot had said reassuringly, as he helped lift Thomas into the borrowed gig to take him to the surgeon. “Unlucky, like.”
Thomas, used to attempted murder on the south coast, had been slightly bewildered. His reception in Castletown confused him still more. The officers of the garrison, about half of whom were Manx, were very friendly and spent a lot of time trying to get him drunk. The inhabitants of the town were distant but civil. No small boys cried insults at him or threw stones from behind walls. For the most part, the people of Mann seemed to see an injured revenue officer as none of their business. It was curious but very peaceful.
Colby Village was some three miles from Castletown and the annual fair was held in a field close to the whitewashed church with its square tower. Already, despite the early hour, stalls and booths were set up and the ground was alive with people. Thomas followed his companions along the village street to a solidly built inn.
“They’ll stable our horses here, and we can order dinner, the food’s good,” Captain Tobin said. He was Manx and spoke with the authority of a local.
“Why are we here so early?” Thomas asked. “They’ve barely set up.”
“To see the procession,” Lieutenant Taylor said. “I came last year, it’s the quaintest thing. I swear half these people are savages, you wouldn’t believe their customs.”
“Thank you, Mr Taylor.”
Taylor flushed. “I didn’t mean you, sir. Or, you know, the better sort. But honestly, it’s a funny place, Young. Not like England.”
“Not so much like Scotland either, although we’ve some odd customs of our own,” Captain Maclay said with a grin. “Come on, the procession will come this way.”
Standing at the edge of the field, Thomas watched them come, around thirty men, the youth of Colby and its environs. The women and children of the village lined the main street, and visitors from around the island stood with them, cheering as the parade approached, two by two, bearing something on a raised bier made of entwined sticks between them. They were singing.
“What in God’s name is that?”
“A dead hen,” Tobin said. “The song is about Catherine’s hen being dead. They’ll parade it around the field, take it to the inn to be cooked and they’ll all get drunk. Tomorrow they’ll bury its head and feet in the fair field.”
“Why?” Thomas asked. He wondered if it was a stupid question.
“God knows. There are various stories, probably dating back centuries. Something about burying their disputes for the new year. Utter rubbish, of course, it’s an excuse to get drunk. But it’s traditional. St Catherine’s Day.”
“I thought this was St Nicholas’ Day.”
“It’s the same day. Welcome to the Isle of Mann, Lieutenant Young.”
As the parade dispersed, the crowd drifted onto the field. Thomas had seen many country fairs as a boy, growing up in the green prosperity of his parents’ Hampshire estate, and this was no different, although it was smaller than he was used to. The main purpose of the fair was to buy and sell livestock and farm and dairy produce, and on the eastern edge of the field, farmers paraded their stock and bartering was already underway.
There were stalls selling hams and cheeses and all kinds of preserves, and thrifty Manx housewives studied the wares, questioned the prices in scornful tones and ignored their children who chased each other between stalls and booths, shrieking loudly. It seemed as though every tradesman in Mann had set up shop in St Catherine’s field. There were stalls selling saddles and clothing and lengths of good, locally woven cloth. One stall displayed lace goods and Thomas paused, studying a pretty lace collar and cuffs.
“For your sweetheart, Young?”
“For my mother. I’ve sent her nothing for the season and I should.” Thomas took out his purse then tucked the small parcel into his pocket. They passed stalls selling gingerbread and sweets, a rope maker and a knife grinder and a carpenter mending broken chairs. In one corner were several herbalists and travelling doctors, shouting out miracle cures for warts, fevers and nervous disorders.
Finally there were the side shows; casting dice for prizes, climbing a slippery pole to ring a bell and a fortune teller draped in gaudy scarves reading palms for pennies. Tobin, Maclay and Taylor crowded around the striped tent, laughing, and the woman, who was young and attractive, predicted glory in battle, promotion to general and marriage to wealthy and beautiful wives.
“If only,” Maclay said, still laughing as they crossed the field to an area where several tents had been set up selling food and drink. “By the time I can afford to marry, I’ll be too old to care.”
Tobin, who was already married with a young son and another on the way, looked over at Thomas. “No wish to hear your fortune, Young?”
“Not really,” Thomas said, trying to sound lighthearted. “I wonder what she said to Mr Taylor, he went very red. Was that a prediction or a promise?”
They laughed, surprised, Thomas thought, at a joke from a man considered very serious. Thomas knew that he was so, although he had not always been, but the kindness of the colonel and the cheerful friendliness of these young men, none of whom had ever seen a battle, made him determined to make an effort to seem grateful.
An ox and a pig were roasting on spits, the smell making Thomas hungry although he had broken his fast early with fresh bread and Manx honey. The meat was not ready but they bought pies and pasties at a booth, warming their hands on crumbling pastry and hot spiced meat, while joining the crowd surrounding a group of mummers. All were men, dressed in a variety of white draperies, with their faces painted. The play was bewildering, and it must have showed on Thomas’ face, because Tobin laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“The plot is very simple. St Denis fights St George and kills him, and he is then killed by St Patrick. That crazy looking fella in the hat is the doctor who brings them all back to life. In a moment he is going to ask for his fee for this miracle, and the audience will drop their contributions in the hat, and then there will be a sword dance, during which it’s surprising they all aren’t killed over again. It’s a traditional mummers play, they’re called the White Boys. This is more of a rehearsal for them, the real day for mumming is the Saturday before Christmas day, there are several troupes of them and they’ll perform all around Douglas, Peel and Castletown. The Governor always invites them into Castle Rushen for a show and provides them with food and ale afterwards.”
Thomas was grateful for the explanation, although he was not sure how much it helped, but the sword fight was genuinely funny. The mummers wielded their wooden weapons in a choreographed dance for approximately a minute and then quickly degenerated into a fierce mock battle. The young men leaped around each other, hacking at their friends and there was the occasional yell when a wooden blade bruised an arm or cracked a knuckle while the fiddler accompanying the dance played faster and faster. A crack on the head of one of the combatants brought the battle to an abrupt halt and the mummers led their battered member away to the comfort of the ale tent followed by the cheers and whoops of the crowd.
“I need a drink after that,” Tobin said. “My hands are freezing, standing around. Come on, I see old Crellin has set up his tent by the churchyard again.”
“Crellin?” Thomas enquired.
“Josiah Crellin, MHK. Owns the Top House over at Malew, we passed it on the way.”
“Member of the House of Keys. Tynwald, our Parliament.”
“Oh. Oh, yes.” Thomas felt rather foolish. He had temporarily forgotten that this was anything other than a winter fair in a typical English country district, but he knew better than to say so. “Why does Mr Crellin have a tent?”
“Hospitality. He does it every year, his servants provide spiced wine and fruit punch for the gentry who attend the fair. You were here last year, weren’t you Taylor?”
“Yes, sir. Very pleasant afternoon.”
The tent was large and surprisingly warm, with several small braziers providing both heat and a means of warming the big vats of wine and hot punch. Wooden trestles were set up and a dozen servants distributed drinks, while their master stood with his family to greet his guests. Crellingave the impression of being an intelligent active man in his sixties, accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law, who was heavily pregnant. Colonel Smelt, the lieutenant-governor and Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart had joined his party and Thomas was amused to see a manservant stationed at both entrances to the tent to ensure that only the better class of people were admitted.
“Lieutenant Young, I’m glad you could join us,” Steuart said. “Have you met our kind host? Mr Crellin, this is Lieutenant Young of the Revenue cutter Bluebird. You’ll have heard of the incident, I’m sure.”
Crellin offered his hand. Thomas took it, aware that he was holding his breath. He saw the older man’s brown eyes widen in shock and then look away. Thomas tried not to flinch. In the five years since Trafalgar, he had tried to get used to that first shocked reaction when strangers saw the ruin of his face, but it still hurt.
Crellin recovered quickly and shook his hand warmly. “Welcome, Lieutenant Young. A cold day, aye, and you’ll be in need of a drink. Spiced wine or hot fruit punch, sir?”
Equipped with wine, Thomas made awkward conversation for a while then moved to join the other officers. Tobin was talking to some friends, while Taylor and Maclay surveyed the room.
“I didn’t expect so many people,” Thomas said.
“Aye, it’s always the way over here, there’s not much to do. The same people, at the same receptions and dinners. It gets tedious, and since society is so narrow, everybody knows all the gossip. The advantage, though, is that we’re very popular with the young ladies. They like a man in a red coat, and a new face as well.”
Taylor broke off, blushing scarlet as he realised what he had said. Thomas felt sorry for him and at the same time exasperated at having to rescue him. “Well my coat’s the wrong colour and my face is likely to scare them off,” he said, as lightly as he could.
“Sorry, old man. So sorry.”
“It’s all right, I’m used to it. Tell me about some of the people.”
Thomas listened for a while, smiling at some of the more scurrilous stories and trying to ignore covert looks and some open stares. The scar had faded from a scarlet horror to white, but it could not be ignored. The splinter of wood, blown apart by French cannon, had driven into his jaw and travelled upwards to his temple, breaking his cheekbone on the way. It had remained lodged there as he lay in agony waiting for his turn on the surgeon’s bloody table, and when it was gone, his face was bisected, cobbled together with rough stitches. Infection came and went, but the wound touched neither his eye or his mouth. From the right side, Thomas was the same as he had always been, a face of distinction and even some beauty, crowned with bright chestnut hair and well-shaped green eyes with lashes a woman might have envied. From the left, he was a monster and when possible he avoided society so that he did not have to see its reaction.
“That’s old Quayle. Two sons, one’s gone into the law, the other’s learning the business. The daughter went off to London to seek her fortune and did very nicely for herself, some East India merchant, I fancy. She was back here last Christmas showing off the London gowns and diamonds. I danced with her a couple of times. Very pretty.”
Tobin had joined them. “Did you know Crellin has a daughter?”
“No. Where, I’ve never seen her?” Taylor said.
Tobin grinned. “Now that really was a scandal,” he said. “She was a wild one, Roseen Crellin. Set tongues wagging all over the island and then ran away to sea and married a Manx navy captain. He wasn’t from the gentry, but they’ll forgive him because he’s made a fortune in prize money.”
“Who’s that?” Taylor asked, looking across the tent.
Thomas had noticed the girl earlier. She stood beside an older couple, probably her grandparents, and she had been staring very openly at Thomas, making no attempt to hide the fact. Thomas had been trying to ignore it, but now he looked back, hoping she would be embarrassed and look away. To his surprise, she gave him a warm smile instead.
She was probably around twenty, very tall and well-proportioned with shining brown hair curled around a vivid face with well-defined cheekbones and beautiful green eyes. She was dressed very stylishly in a dark green velvet gown, topped with a black cape trimmed with white fur.Thomas looked at Tobin enquiringly.
“Aalin Kennaugh,” the captain said obligingly. “Those are her grandparents, they raised her after her parents died. Very wealthy, he was anEast India merchant, retired now. They’ve property in Liverpool and Bristol and a fortune in stocks, I’m told. There was a proposed match with some wealthy plantation owner, Mrs Kennaugh spent some time in London trying to bring it off, but the lady is having none of it. She’s turned down a few local gentlemen in the past few years. She’ll inherit a fortune when the old man dies, so she can afford to be choosy. She’s also the worst flirt on the island.” Tobin smiled at Thomas. “Our young ladies aren’t raised quite as strictly as you’ll be used to, Lieutenant. There are rules, of course, but on a small island, the chances are that the lass you’re dancing with was a childhood playmate so it’s hard to be formal.”
“It seems the young lady agrees,” Taylor said, smirking. Miss Kennaugh was making her way around the tent towards them. Tobin bowed slightly and accepted the hand she held out to him.
“Miss Kennaugh, how are you?”
“Very well, Captain Tobin. How are you? Is your brother well?”
“Yes, I had a letter from him a few days ago, he is with the Mediterranean fleet.”
“I hope he is warmer than I am, then. Why do we do this every year, I wonder, when we have houses with walls, ceilings and fires? Next year, I shall refuse. I have seen St Catherine’s hen massacred all my life, it is enough. Does it not seem barbaric to you, Lieutenant Young?”
Thomas was startled. She was regarding him steadily from eyes which were close in colour to his own. There was no sign of discomfort as her gaze rested on his marred face, but he supposed her open stares had given her plenty of opportunity to get used to it.
“I see no introductions are necessary,” Tobin said dryly. “Nevertheless, I shall make them. Miss Kennaugh, this is Captain Maclay and Lieutenant Taylor from the Royal Manx Fencibles, and Lieutenant Young from the Revenue service. Gentlemen, Miss Kennaugh.”
Thomas bowed. Taylor said enthusiastically:
“Capital to meet you, Miss Kennaugh. I’ve been here a while but I’ve not had the pleasure.”
“No, I’ve been away,” the girl said. “My grandmother took me to London to see the sights. At least that was her stated intention, but truthfully, it was to try to persuade me to accept a marriage I did not want. I have no idea why she thought the location would make a difference, but I think she knows my mind now. I heard about your cutter being wrecked, Lieutenant. Were you not shot, as well?”
Her tone was faintly mocking. Thomas looked back without smiling. One of the advantages of having no expectation of attracting a pretty girl was that he felt no need to impress. “Yes,” he said evenly. “A minor wound only, I think it was probably a warning shot gone astray. I have had far worse, as you have observed.”
Thomas sensed the shock of his companions and he supposed he had been rude, but then so had she, and he had no reason to care. The girl did not seem to react at all, but he saw a slight flush mount to her pale cheeks. Nobody spoke for an agonising moment and Thomas wondered if he should apologise for the sake of his companions. He saw her lift her chin and stand a little more upright.
“I’m surprised they hit you, Lieutenant, it’s clear you’re not afraid to return fire. My grandfather has expressed a wish to meet you. Should you object?”
Thomas felt his face redden. “I…no. No, of course not.”
She nodded and bowed to the other three men, all of whom seemed stunned into silence. Thomas stepped forward and she did not move but looked at him pointedly. Thomas flushed again and offered his arm. The girl accepted as regally as a duchess.
Halfway around the tent, she said:
“At least you can blush.”
“Only on one half of my face.”
Aalin Kennaugh raised furious eyes to meet his. “Generally, Englishmen have better manners than the Manx. You are an exception, sir.”
“I’m sorry. I thought, by the way you were staring at me earlier, and your reference to my recent misfortunes, that we had decided to dispense with the pleasantries.”
They had reached the elderly couple. Thomas had not been sure that the request for an introduction was genuine, but as he bowed, the old man’s face lit up into a particularly sweet smile.
“It is Lieutenant Young, is it not?”
“Lieutenant, allow me to introduce you to my wife. My dear, this is the young man that Colonel Smelt spoke of at dinner last week.”
Mrs Kennaugh was pink cheeked and round faced and made Thomas ache suddenly for his home and his family. He bowed over her hand and wished he could take back everything he had said to her granddaughter. “Lieutenant Young, I am delighted,” she said. “The lieutenant-governor was telling us of your misfortunes. And – forgive me for referring to it – your previous fine service. You may not know that we lost both our son and our grandson at Trafalgar. He was captain of the Tulip and his son served as midshipman.”
Shock froze Thomas for a moment. He knew that he needed to say something, but all he could think about was his appalling rudeness to a girl who had lost so much. He turned and looked at her. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, no, that’s awful. I’m so sorry, ma’am. Sir. And Miss Kennaugh, you must think me the world’s worst boor. I’m over-sensitive, sometimes, but there was no excuse…”
“No, you were right,” the girl said unexpectedly. “I was staring. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. I have no idea exactly how my father and brother died, it was pure vulgar curiosity.”
Thomas felt rather as though he had been punched in the stomach. “I’m sorry,” he said again, helplessly.
Mrs Kennaugh came to his rescue. “A misunderstanding, I’m sure. You could not have known and Aalin has a very unruly tongue and speaks her mind. Forgive me, sir, you may have made other arrangements, but we were wondering if you would care to spend Christmas with us at our house just outside Douglas. I know the officers will take care ofyou, but you will be so much more comfortable in a home and we would like to offer hospitality to a navy man.”
Something about the warmth of her tone drew a smile from Thomas. He did not smile very often, it twisted the scar on the side of his face into a bizarre crescent. “I’m not really a navy man any more, ma’am. With such a long convalescence I was put on half-pay, and have remained there ever since. It was the revenue service or the impress service and I didn’t like the idea of that.”
“I imagine not. My son used to tell me that impressment was essential to keep the navy functioning and ready to defend our shores, but it’s very hard on families whose sons and husbands and fathers are snatched away. I do not blame you for preferring to chase smugglers, Lieutenant. Do join us.”
Thomas was smiling, he could not stop himself. “I am so grateful for your kindness, but you cannot wish for a stranger in the house, especially one making himself unpopular on the island by interfering in the smuggling trade.”
“That is exactly what we wish for, Lieutenant,” Kennaugh said breezily. “You’ve no duties at present, I’m told the Bluebird won’t be fit to sail until January. Pack up your things and I’ll send the carriage for you tomorrow. It’ll be good for Aalin to have a young person around the house for a while.”
Thomas glanced nervously at the girl. She was looking at him with clinical interest. “How old are you, Lieutenant?” she enquired.
“None of your business, Miss,” her grandfather growled affectionately. Thomas was beginning to realise that Miss Kennaugh’s elderly relatives indulged her beyond permission but he understood why. Having lost so much must have drawn the three closer.
“I will attempt to make up for my horrible rudeness by answering frankly, Miss Kennaugh. I’m twenty five.”
Unexpectedly the pert line of Aalin Kennaugh’s mouth softened into a genuine smile. “Oh no, I thought you must be older,” she said. “You’ve done so much. I’m twenty. I was fifteen that year. It was horrible, and must have been so for you too. Please accept. I cannot promise to behave all the time, because I don’t know how, but I will promise not to be beastly to you again. You don’t deserve it.”
Thomas melted. “Then I’ll accept with pleasure,” he said gravely. “Thank you.”
Aalin Kennaugh spent the twenty-four hours before the arrival of Lieutenant Thomas Young in a flutter of nervous anticipation which infuriated her. A young woman of decided opinions and independent spirit, she had reached the age of twenty without ever feeling the slightest interest in the various young men that her grandparents threw in her way. Most of them were boys she had grown up with, and Aalin already knew that she wanted more than a steady Manx businessman or landowner as her partner in life. She was young for marriage, but along with her grandmother, whom she adored, Aalin accepted her limitations and realised that it would not hurt to plan ahead.
It was not that she was unattractive. Aalin approved the natural curl of her dark brown hair and the wide, well spaced green eyes. Her skin, which had struggled with hideous spots for several years had miraculously cleared about a week after her nineteenth birthday, with no explanation, and she had excellent posture and was a graceful dancer. In terms of accomplishments, she was very well-read, could sing better than any of her contemporaries and was a talented artist. She had a good seat on a horse and light hands and knew how to sew although she seldom bothered, since she could think of nothing more boring. She had all the essential attributes that a gentleman might require in a wife. It was simply that she was so tall and built on far more generous lines than any of the other girls.
When she was younger, Aalin had shed tears over it. Her older cousin, a waif-like creature now married to a Douglas advocate, was three years older than her, and her aunt had sent bundles of clothing over to Aalin regularly through childhood. Aalin had opened the parcels and tried to struggle into the tiny garments until she wept, and eventually her grandmother had put a stop to the process, telling her aunt firmly to stop sending them. Aalin was a head taller than Emma, with curved hips and an impressive bosom, even at the age of fourteen. Dressmakers, arriving to measure for the garments necessary for Aalin’s introduction into society would pause, and study her, and then sigh.
“The young lady is so tall. And so…so womanly.”
Aalin had heard the word ‘fat’ behind the remarks and had cried herself to sleep. The floating muslins of girlhood had made her feel enormous, the white and pale blue and pinks of the debutante had never suited her and none of her grandmother’s soothing words had helped.
London had changed that. One evening spent in the company of Mr David Claybourne had convinced her that she would never wish to marry him, but the city itself had intrigued her. On the one hand, she had hated the crowds and the noise and the sense of never being able to find a moment of solitude. On the other hand, she realised that among so many people, she could become invisible and the experience had been amazingly liberating.
Accompanied by the companion hired by her grandmother, she had explored the city, wandered through the parks and visited libraries and art galleries and museums. She had sat for a portrait, and been gratified at the artist’s blatant admiration. She had been attended by dressmakers, far more experienced and sophisticated than her island could produce and had begun to realise that there was far more to beauty and fashion than a slender figure and an air of innocence. And she had realised, with passionate gratitude, that the proposed marriage had simply been her shrewd and kindly grandmother’s excuse to show her a different world.
Returning home after months away was confusing. Aalin loved being back among her own people and relished silent walks over the hills with her dogs and long fire lit evenings with her grandparents. On the other hand, she found local society parochial and often boring. She was stifled by the small concerns of the Manx gentry and wanted to scream as they picked over every scandal and item of gossip repeatedly. She had grown up and had no idea what to do about it.
Lieutenant Thomas Young was a very welcome distraction. Flirtation was a skill Aalin had learned during her time away and she had been surprised to find that she was good at it and enjoyed it. She no longer felt at a disadvantage among her more dainty fellow debutantes, and she found that the definite colours and well cut clothing she had learned to wear in London made her stand out. Marriage was a different prospect to flirting but Aalin had taken a long look at Thomas Young’s perfect profile across the tent and wanted to know more about him. The scar had been a shock, but his defensive rudeness had not upset her. She understood, better than Mr Young could know, how easy it was for self-consciousness to spill over into bad manners.
On the day of his arrival, Aalin found herself hanging back. They dined that afternoon, and she was content, for once, to listen, as her grandparents gently questioned him and drew out the story she was dying to know. He was, as Aalin had supposed, of good family, a third son, with the estate and lands going to his eldest brother. The second brother had chosen the army and had died on the brutal field of Talavera. Thomas had chosen the navy over the church and had passed his lieutenant’s exam before the bloody battle at Trafalgar had brought glory to England, robbed them of Nelson and left Thomas Young scarred, angry and defensive, trapped in a posting he hated with no prospect of returning to the navy. Without influence or patronage, a young and newly qualified lieutenant might wait a long time once he was placed on half-pay. He had chosen not to return home to rely on the support of his parents and his brother and Aalin strongly approved of his quiet independence.
December proved bright and sunny, although cold, and as her grandparents’ activities were limited, it was left to Aalin to entertain their guest through the daytime. The revenue man had hired a horse from the Castletown inn, but Aalin cast it a scornful glance and produced her own second mount, a tall grey gelding with a sweet temperament. She enjoyed watching Thomas make friends with Diamond and as they clattered out of the yard, she silently approved his seat on the horse. Thomas was several inches taller than Aalin and a good fit for the horse, and she could see he was enjoying himself.
“You approve, Lieutenant?”
Thomas glanced over at her. “Yes, thank you. He’s beautiful.”
“My father bought him in Ireland the year before he died, he was intended for my brother. He’s tall for me, Ruby here is a better fit, but I could never get rid of him and he’s so well-mannered. Far more so than I am.”
“Your manners have been impeccable since I arrived, Miss Kennaugh.”
“So have yours. We got off to a poor start, but I’m proud of us since.”
To her delight, he laughed aloud. “It would be impossible to be rude to your grandparents,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“To Douglas. I’m sure you’ve been there already, but I thought we could ride up to Douglas Head and along the coastal path, the weather is so fine. It’s a beautiful view from up there.”
“It’s a beautiful island. I realise I’ve only seen it from the perspective of the best beaches to land run goods so far. I’ve been surprised at how welcoming the people have been. Not just your grandparents, but generally. In Sussex, I’m a pariah, they hate the revenue and excisemen. I can’t even get served in some of the inns. Which is probably just as well, since I’d be drinking run brandy.”
It was a long sentence, for this reserved young man, and a way in, and Aalin seized it. “Would you tell me more about your work? I know a little about the trade of course, since I live in the middle of it, but only from the Manx perspective. I’m interested.”
Thomas shot her a surprised look, but complied readily. Once he began to talk, he was a good storyteller, and she was fascinated by his tales of the smuggling trade in Sussex, of dark nights and sudden conflict, of intimidation and violence and even murder. It bore no resemblance to the casual acceptance of the trade in Mann and she told him so, although she was careful only to refer to stories thirty years in the past that her grandfather had told her, and she knew by his quiet amusement that he realised it. It set the tone for the following week, and by St Thomas’ Eve, as they rode out to watch the men cutting the huge peat turf which would burn through Christmas and bring good luck into the house, Aalin was on very comfortable terms with their guest and she knew that her grandmother was watching with great interest.
“I am told that you intend to take our guest to church on Christmas Eve for the carval singing,” she said to Aalin, as they sat together writing letters one morning. “I hope he doesn’t find it too tedious.”
“He will find it enormously tedious after the third song,” Aalin said composedly. “But I was telling him about the custom and he was interested. I have told him he should remain close to the back door and leave when he wants to. I’ll be able to see him from the gallery and will slip out to join him.”
“Or you could throw a dried pea at him to attract his attention,” Mrs Kennaugh said placidly.
Aalin blushed scarlet and kept her head bent over the letter she was failing to write. The Christmas Eve service ended with local maidens throwing dried peas down from the gallery at their bachelor acquaintances, and it was an accepted way for a girl to express her interest in a man. The scene usually degenerated quickly into chaos and the parish clerk, whose job it was to oversee the carval singing, would clear the church with the congregation, their religious duty done, making their way to the local public house to continue the festivities.
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” Aalin said firmly. “We shall leave before it becomes disorderly. Anyway, I don’t suppose he knows what that is supposed to mean.”
“He may have found somebody to tell him,” Mrs Kennaugh said.
Aalin looked up. “Grandmother, are you trying to tell me something?”
“I think I am trying to ask you something, child. You are spending a great deal of time with this young man.”
“You told me that you wanted me to entertain him. I am never alone with him. If we ride, my groom follows us. If we walk or drive, I take my maid. It is perfectly…”
“Aalin, I am not scolding you, you have done nothing wrong. It is just that I am beginning to wonder if there is more to this than taking care of a guest. You like him, don’t you?”
Aalin could feel herself blushing. “Do you not like him?”
Mrs Kennaugh smiled. “I like him very much. We invited him, as you know, in memory of your father and your brother. At this time of year, it seemed right to offer hospitality to a Trafalgar veteran, especially one who has suffered so much. Since then, I have got to know him a little, and I find him a most estimable young man. It is a shame he is so very conscious of his scar, since I think it stops him smiling as much as he ought.”
“One can hardly blame him when you see the way people stare. It infuriates me. Did you see Mrs Quayle at dinner last night? She stared at him, as though he was some kind of side show at St Catherine’s Fair, I wanted to slap her. To make it worse, she did not listen properly to his conversation, she was so busy staring at his scar. It was so obvious. No wonder he dislikes going into society if it is full of such ill-mannered fools.”
“I see he has a champion in you.”
Aalin sighed. “Don’t matchmake, Grandmama, it’s a repulsive habit.”
“I have certainly proved a failure at it so far,” Mrs Kennaugh agreed.
“Lieutenant Young is not going to propose marriage to me,” Aalin said firmly. She realised that it would be better to have this conversation and dispose of any false hopes. “He dreams of returning to the navy some day. Besides, he is ridiculously scrupulous and does not believe that a man should offer marriage when he cannot support a wife.”
“Has he told you that?”
“Yes. We have talked of marriage in general, as people do. I wish there was a way he could return to the navy, he misses it desperately, although he tries very hard to make the best of his current work. I think he must have made a very good and conscientious officer.”
“I’m sure he did,” her grandmother said gently. “But you would not wish to be married to a navy officer, would you, Aalin?”
Aalin realised that she was close to tears, and she knew that her grandmother would see it. She looked up, blinking hard, and managed a smile. “Ma’am, if it was a man I cared about, I would not refuse because of his profession,” she said. “But it can not be. He is not…he does not…will you excuse me?”
She did not hear her grandmother’s response as she sought the safety of her bedchamber. Lying full length on her bed, Aalin fought against her tears, knowing that she was being silly. It was not sensible to pine over a man who clearly saw her in the light of a cousin or a sister, and not wise to spend too much time dwelling on the joy of every crooked smile or the flutter she felt every time he took her arm, or lifted her from her horse. She was determined just to enjoy this Christmas then let him go with the memory of friendship and no embarrassment. It had been a mistake to let Grandmama see how she felt, but it was more important to ensure that Thomas had no idea. He would be kind, but it would be painfully awkward, and Aalin had no intention of giving him a moment’s discomfort. It was not his fault that she had developed these feelings and she would manage them herself.
Christmas Eve dawned crisp and dry, but by the afternoon a sharp wind was rising and dark clouds obscured the sun. No rain had fallen by the time they set out for church, but Aalin was fairly sure it would fall before Christmas day. The church was barely half full, mostly with people of the more respectable sort. There were few of the local gentry present, they would go to church the following morning while their servants prepared Christmas dinner, but Mr and Mrs Kennaugh had elected to come. The service was short, dwelling on the story of the nativity and the celebration of Christ’s birth.
When the final prayer was said, the parson gathered together his sermon and prepared to leave. He was followed out by the gentry. Aalin joined them, flashing a reassuring smile to Thomas, who was stationed by the back door of the church, looking nervous. She mounted the stairs to the wooden gallery as sounds of laughter and chatter suddenly filled the church, and the aisle was filled with young men and women. The girls climbed to the gallery and the men filled the pews. There were a number of older men, regular singers at the Oiel Verree service. Mr Corlett, the parish clerk, took up his station just inside the communion rail. Aalin had attended this service many times and wondered what her English guest made of it. Most of the congregation carried a lighted candle. The girls decorated their candles with red ribbons and rosettes. Aalin lit her own candle from one of the others and stood by the door, enjoying the brilliance of the lighted church and the feeling of community.
The carvels began. Most were written in Manx and one or two in English. There were one or two traditional carols but most were written by previous parishioners. Few of them were about the nativity and the themes were usually grim and dark, dwelling more on sin and the prospect of eternal damnation than the hope of Christ’s birth. Sometimes men sang together, sometimes alone. They carried lighted tapers, and could sing until the taper burned down, when they made way for the next singer.
Halfway through the fourth carvel, some of the girls were becoming restless, and one or two had begun to throw the hard, dried peas down into the men below. Voices hushed them. The song being sung was an old one, known locally as Bad Women, and spoke of the sinful nature of some of womankind, with Biblical references. It was never popular with the girls, and Aalin thought dispassionately that the clerk might have done better to leave that one to the end.
Peering over into the body of the church, Aalin almost laughed aloud. The singer of Bad Women, the blacksmith from Lonan, had chosen to sing the carvel in English, and it was the first that Thomas would have understood. The revenue man was staring at the singer as though he could not believe his ears. Aalin leaned on the wooden balcony and watched appreciatively.
“Here, missus, throw this at him.”
Aalin turned, startled, and a thin faced elf of a girl was laughing back at her, holding out several dried peas. The temptation was irresistible. Aalin took aim. The first pea missed, bouncing off the wood of the back pew but the second struck Thomas squarely on the top of his head. He looked up, startled, and caught her eye. Aalin jerked her head towards the door and saw, to her secret delight, a broad smile in response. It happened so seldom. Aalin smiled at the elf girl and returned the remainder of the peas then slipped down the stairs and joined Thomas outside in the cold dark night.
As Aalin had suspected, it was raining. The wind was gusting fiercely, threatening Aalin’s riding hat. They stood in the church porch, listening to the growing hilarity within.
“What on earth was he singing about?”
“Sinful women,” Aalin said. “It’s traditional.”
“Come to church tomorrow, you’ll hear pretty carols about the birth of Jesus. Carval singing concentrates on the darker side of God.”
“I would never have guessed it.”
“Mind, the clerk is going to wish he’d not permitted that one so early in the evening, it’s stirred up some of the sinful women in the gallery, he’s going to get a dried pea in the eye if he’s not careful. This is not pleasant. I knew it was going to rain, we should have asked my grandparents to send the carriage back for us.” Aalin glanced at her companion. “We could take refuge at the parsonage and send Orry back to get it.”
“I’ll be guided by you, Miss Kennaugh. If I was alone, I’d make the ride, it’s not that far, but for a lady…”
“I’m Manx, Lieutenant, we’re used to a bit of rain and wind.” Aalin surveyed the weather thoughtfully. “We could ride back along the coastal path, which would save us ten minutes or more. I’d rather avoid the parsonage, it will be full of very worthy people clicking their tongues over the shocking conduct of the young people at the carvel singing. Shall we?”
“By all means. What are you doing?”
“Saving my hat,” Aalin said. As the groom led the horses forward, she removed her riding hat and tied it by its strings to her saddle. “It will be wet but will probably dry out. If I try to ride with it, it’ll end up in the Irish Sea.”
“You’ll get soaked.”
“That hat is not going to keep me dry,” Aalin said as they set their horses into the wind. Glancing sideways she saw that he was smiling, the second time in one evening. It felt like an achievement.
“You are the most practical-minded female I have ever encountered, Miss Kennaugh.”
“Thank you,” Aalin said, somewhat miserably.
To her surprise, he picked up her tone. “I’m sorry, that was meant as a compliment. I’ve spent little time in society these past years and almost none in the company of a pretty girl, but I like your common sense. It is reassuring to know that the possession of a lovely face doesn’t automatically make a girl an idiot. I had wondered until I met you.”
Aalin did not reply. She could not, and was glad of a sudden huge gust of wind which made it necessary to pay attention to her horse. Thomas had said it in such matter-of-fact tones, there was no hint of flirtation or flattery and he could have no idea how much it meant to her. She had been complimented before, on her graceful dancing and excellent sense of style. She had been called, by various hopeful gentlemen with an eye on her fortune, such epithets as magnificent, queenly and glorious and had been referred to as an Amazon. She had never once been called either pretty or lovely and she had told herself that it did not matter. She discovered that it did.
“Have I offended you?” Thomas said, sounding anxious.
“No, of course not. Thank you. I was just surprised.”
“I can understand that, I’m not very good at giving compliments where they’re due. Or at all, really. My older brother Kit inherited all the charm in the family, Edward and I were always rather envious.”
“Was it Kit who died?”
“Yes. Earlier this year.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise it was so recent.”
“He’s buried in Spain, which is hard for my mother, I think. They held a memorial service in the parish church, but…what was that?”
Aalin had heard it too. Thomas reined in, listening. The path ran fairly close to the cliff edge, and they could hear the sound of the sea, waves crashing onto the rocks below. At first, Aalin thought that she had imagined the noise, that it had just been the howling of the wind between the rocks, but then it came again and this time it was unmistakably human voices, not coming back from the direction of the church, but from below the cliff edge.
“Is there a beach down there?” Thomas demanded.
“No. There’s a small cove about half a mile on, you can reach it through a little glen. Down from here, there’s only rocks.”
It was hard to see his face through the dark and rain, but Aalin could sense him thinking quickly. “You, what’s your name? Orry, isn’t it? Come and take my horse. Move them back from the cliff edge, along with Miss Kennaugh, I don’t want them spooked.”
He dismounted and Orry took the horses. Aalin watched as Thomas moved forward. She longed to join him but knew that in this weather, she should not leave the groom to manage three nervous animals alone. She watched, her heart beating faster, as Thomas reached the edge and then lowered himself to the wet grass. He lay full length peering down into the darkness for no more than a minute, then he scrambled to his feet and ran back to them, squinting through the rain, which was little more than a drizzle now.
“It’s a boat, it’s hit the rocks.”
“It’s still afloat, I think they’re trying to row to the beach, but I doubt they’ll make it the state of her, she’s lost the mast and she’s listing badly. Orry, you’ll need to ride for help. Back to the church, it’s closest. I hope to God they’re still singing Manx dirges and haven’t got to the public house yet or they’ll be of no use. Take Miss Kennaugh with you and leave her at the parsonage.”
“Where are you going?” Aalin said.
“Down the glen to the beach. The wind will push them that way. If they can stay afloat long enough to round the rocks, they might make it ashore. If they’re in the water, they’ll need help.”
“You can’t go alone.”
“You’re not coming.”
“I’ll go back to get help. Orry can…”
“No, I’m not having you ride alone along this path in this weather. If your horse stumbles…”
“You don’t know where you’re going,” Aalin said furiously. “Use some of the common sense you claim to value so highly and stop being a hero. Two people should go to the beach.”
Thomas hesitated, then nodded. “Come with me, then,” he said. “Get going, Orry.”
They watched the groom ride off, then Thomas mounted his horse. “Show me,” he said, and Aalin, appreciating his brisk acceptance of the situation, led the way towards Caly Glen.
The glen was short and steep, not ideal for horses in the darkness, although the advantage was that it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. There were a few trees clinging to the steep sides, but mostly the hills were covered with tangled undergrowth, a narrow slippery track winding its way down to a stony beach. The rain had eased, which made visibility a little better, and Thomas concentrated on getting Diamond safely to the bottom, following Aalin. Ruby, her tall mare, was sure-footed in the darkness and they paused on the rocky shore. The sea was a dark boiling mass, capped with white foam, and huge waves crashed onto the beach, sending up spray which could make them no wetter. At some point during the speedy descent, Thomas realised he had lost his hat.
“There’s somebody on the beach,” Aalin said.
Thomas saw it too, dark figures outlined against the waves, speaking in urgent tones. They had two closed lanterns which bobbed furiously in the wind as they held them up, peering out into the waves. Thomas urged his horse forward and the strangers turned to face him. Both were men, wrapped up in dark coats with woollen fishermen’s hats pulled low over their heads and he could see little of them apart from their faces, one young, one old and lined.
“Any sign of them?” Thomas asked, dismounting.
“Out there.” The younger man’s voice was anguished. “They were rounding the head and hit a rock. She’s broken up, sir.”
Thomas could hear them now, the cries of men in the water, and he felt sick with horror. It was the fear of every seagoing man, to find himself clinging to a flimsy piece of wreckage in a dark, angry sea with no hope of rescue. He guessed all these Manxmen were strong swimmers but it would not matter out there tonight.
“Where’ve you come from?”
“Cottage up on the cliff there,” the older man said. “On our way back from church and heard the noise. Sent my lad running for rope, but we’ve no way to use it, they’re too far to throw it.”
Thomas heard the lie and understood. He was not sure if the two men had been on the beach waiting to guide the boat in with the lights or if they had run down as the storm worsened, but he was certain they had been expecting the craft and knew who manned her and what she carried. Christmas Eve in a rising storm was no time to put to sea, but a good time to evade detection with all law-abiding folk either in church or at home, celebrating the season with family and friends. Thomas guessed they knew who he was. Even without his uniform, the island was too small for any smuggler not to know about the red-headed, scarred revenue officer currently on shore leave. But he had not noticed the rope and it galvanised him into sudden action.
“How many aboard?”
“Don’t know, sir,” the older man said. “Like I said…”
“What’s your name?”
“Kinvig, sir. Illiam Kinvig, that’s my boy Jemmy.”
“Right, Mr Kinvig, I don’t give a single damn what cargo that boat carries or what you know about it, I’m here to save lives tonight. You give me a straight answer or you’ll be going head first into that water, and it looks bloody cold. How many?”
“Six, sir,” Jemmy said instantly. “It’s Colin Shimmin’s boat, two of his lads, Adam Joughin, Juan Kermode and my brother Eedin.”
“Good lad. Give me that rope.”
Thomas turned to Aalin. The wind had torn her hair loose from its pins and it blew in wild curls around her face, the big green eyes looking steadily at him. He wondered if she knew what he was about to ask her.
“Miss Kennaugh, it’s your decision. I can ride out with Diamond, and I can probably reach them. If we tie the rope to him, Kinvig and his boy can help pull us back in. He’s a strong horse, I think he’ll make it. But he might not.”
Aalin’s face was white in the lantern light and her expression pulled at his heartstrings, but she did not hesitate. “You might not make it either, Thomas, and I find that worries me far more. Do it.”
There was no time for more and Thomas could not, in any case, say any of the things he badly wanted to say to this girl, who had walkedinto his life and made him painfully aware of all the things he did not have. Even in this desperate moment, he felt simple happiness that she had used his first name. Thomas reached for her hand, encased in soaked riding gloves, and kissed it.
“I will buy you the finest pair of gloves this island can produce as a New Year’s gift,” he said, and she smiled through tears.
“See that you are here to keep that promise, Mr Young.”
Diamond reared up as Thomas urged him into the raging sea. Waves thundered around them, pushing the horse back, and Thomas held on with an iron grip, forcing his mount forward. He had developed a good relationship with the horse these past weeks and now, when it mattered, Diamond steadied and held and then began to make his way forward into the sea. Thomas felt the moment that the horse was out of his depth, but he kept moving forward, swimming strongly. Thomas reached behind to check that the rope was secure although he had tied it himself.
Then they were among the wreckage and he heard a cry close by. There were two men, clinging to a wooden board, and he could see that they were both quite young. Thomas manoeuvred Diamond around then reached out a hand.
“Let go,” he yelled, his voice a scream to be heard over the sound of the storm. “One at a time. Hold on to the saddle. One each side.”
It took some time to move the two terrified boys over to the horse. One of them struggled to let go of the plank, his face a mask of fear in the darkness, but it was done finally, and Thomas urged Diamond back to shore. It was harder going, the tide pulling seawards, but Diamond was very strong and knew he was heading for safety, and Kinvig and Jemmy hauled on the rope, helping the horse. His hooves found sand and he trudged through the turbulent waves. In the shallows, Kinvig and Jem splashed towards them, lifting the survivors away from Diamond and up onto the shore.
“Where’s the lantern, I can’t see,” Thomas yelled.
“Here.” Aalin was beside him on Ruby, the oil lamp swinging in the wind, the faint light picking up shapes in the swirling gunmetal waves. Several pieces of wood floated quite close to the shore, and what looked like a barrel was bouncing further out.
“Shine it over towards the rocks, Aalin, I can’t see…”
“Fella coming in. Swimming. He’s caught in the tide.”
Aalin lifted the lantern and Thomas saw immediately, the desperate strokes that were making no progress. The tide was not impossible to surmount, but this man was exhausted. He was not that far out, and Thomas urged Diamond forward into the waves. He could feel the pull of the water as the horse struck out strongly, but they reached the swimmer quickly, a burly young man and quick-witted for all his exhaustion. He clung to Thomas’ stirrup and Thomas turned the horse and towed him in. The man kept his feet in the shallows and staggered up the beach into the waiting embrace of Kinvig and Jemmy.
“Eedin. Ah, lad, thank God.”
“Any sign of the others?” Thomas asked.
Eedin Kinvig turned, his startled eyes, taking in Thomas’ uniform and clearly understanding. “We lost Joughin when we hit the rocks,” he said. “He went under, we tried to find him. He’s gone sir. Colin is hanging on for his life to the mast. You might see him.”
Thomas took the lantern and raised it. He could feel Diamond beginning to tremble under him and he was shivering himself. He scanned the waves and then saw it, a faint movement, which might have been a waving arm. For a moment, Thomas knew a sense of sheer misery at the thought of going back into the freezing grey water. He leaned forward and patted Diamond’s neck.
“Reckon we can do it once more, boy?”
The horse baulked as he felt the cold water churning around his legs and for a moment, Thomas thought he had asked too much. Then Diamond steadied and moved forward, striking out strongly towards the faint shape in the distance. The light of one of the lanterns glimmered over the water and Thomas knew that Aalin was holding it high, guiding him towards Colin Shimmin. Diamond swam slowly and Thomas could feel his exhaustion. Whatever happened now, he could not push the horse to do this again.
Shimmin was there, barely conscious, half lying across the broken wooden mast. Thomas tried hard to get him to cling to the saddle, but the older man was too exhausted, and Thomas suspected that if he managed it, he would let go halfway and go under. Desperation lent him strength, and Thomas hauled him up until he was face down over the saddle bow. He concentrated, on the way back, on keeping Shimmin’s head out of the water and thanked God for the rope and the strong arms pulling him in, since he could feel that the horse was spent. As they splashed through the shallows, Thomas could feel Diamond’s legs wobbling and as hands reached up to take Shimmin, he slid from the saddle and put both arms around the horse’s wet, smooth neck.
“All right. It’s all right, boy. No more. You’ve done enough.”
Thomas turned. He realised they were no longer alone on the shore. Other men were coming down the beach, some with blankets and flasks, and the survivors were being wrapped up warmly and given brandy. Thomas recognised the parson, Mr Gawne.
“Lieutenant Young, well done, sir. Four lives saved, thanks to your bravery.”
“Two lost,” Thomas said, bitterly. He was scanning the dark sea, but he could see no sign of life, only a few dark shapes as the wreckage of the boat and her cargo were tossed about on the stormy sea. The wind was beginning to die down finally and it had stopped raining, but Thomas was soaked to his underclothes and shivering. A man he did not know came forward with a rough blanket and draped it awkwardly around Thomas’ shoulders and Thomas nodded his thanks, almost too tired to speak. He looked over at Aalin. She was standing with Diamond, whispering to him, kissing his nose. Somebody had provided a blanket for her as well. She looked as wet as he was, her soaked hair falling in mad curls down her back. Thomas stood watching her and then she looked around and saw him, and smiled.
“You did it,” she said. “You were so brave. Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“You know my name,” Thomas said. “You cannot go back now.”
“Oh. I didn’t think you had noticed.”
“It was my favourite part of the evening,” Thomas said gravely, and loved the splutter of laughter she gave.
“Then you should call me Aalin. Although I don’t know what my grandmother will say about it.”
“We’ll ask her, shall we?” Thomas said. Aalin looked at him uncertainly, and Thomas smiled, not caring what it did to his scar. “We should get this lad back, he’s exhausted.”
“Orry has gone for the carriage, it will be here at any moment. He’ll walk Diamond back. Here, have some of the parson’s brandy. I have told him I don’t think he’ll see us in church tomorrow, but I think he will forgive us.”
“Christmas,” Thomas said. “I’d totally forgotten.”
Aalin was looking around the beach. “These people won’t forget, Thomas,” she said. “And neither shall I.”
Aalin slept late, exhausted, and on waking, went first to the stables. She was surprised to find Thomas already there, fussing Diamond in his stall. Aalin stood watching him for a moment. He was neat and trim again, the red hair tied back. At some point during the previous night he had acquired a cut across his temple and both his hands were covered in scratches and tears, the nails broken and black. Thomas turned and saw her and smiled broadly and Aalin’s heart melted, remembering when he had not smiled at all.
“I thought you’d sleep later,” he said.
“I thought the same of you. He seems well.”
“He’ll be fine, no lasting damage, although he should be rested for a few days. I was just about to go in to breakfast, but there’s something I wanted to show you first.”
He took her hand and led her through the stables, past the stalls and out into the yard. Two of the men were carrying a small barrel and a box towards the kitchen door. One of them grinned at their approach.
“Morning, miss. Unexpected delivery, this morning.”
“What is it?”
“Tea, miss. And good French brandy. There was a note nailed to the box. Seems it’s a gift for the lieutenant from an unknown admirer.”
“Oh.” Aalin glanced at Thomas in some trepidation and saw that he was laughing.
“That’s the first time I’ve knowingly been in receipt of smuggled goods. I am gifting it to your grandparents in gratitude for their hospitality. The parson was here earlier, and brought news that was a better gift to me than illicit brandy. It seems we only lost one man.”
“For reasons I shall not examine, half the village was on the beach at dawn to see what had washed up on the incoming tide. They heard cries and scrambled down the tail of rocks to find Juan Kermode lying across a boulder with a cracked head and a broken leg. I don’t know how he didn’t freeze to death in the night but he’s alive and he’s home.”
“Oh that’s such good news,” Aalin said. “Thank heavens for the greed of the smuggling trade or he might never have been found.”
The house was decorated for Christmas with boughs of greenery from around the estate. Holly, ivy and other evergreens were interspersed with ribbons and candles. Guests had been invited for Christmas dinner. After all, Aalin and Thomas accompanied her grandparents to church and Aalin was pleased by the unmistakable warmth of the welcome given to Thomas, who seemed to have made the step from outsider to valued neighbour overnight. They returned to dinner and ate goose and duck and Twelfth Cake until Aalin was not sure that she could move. After the meal, they played blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and charades and Aalin spent the day in a daze of happiness that she could not explain. Outwardly little had changed, but every time Thomas said her name, he smiled at her and Aalin’s heart beat faster. In the dark of the evening, carol singers came and they stood in the big square hallway joining in with the old carols. Aalin could feel Thomas’ shoulder against hers. She felt him stir, and then to her astonishment, his fingers curled around hers. Aalin did not speak. All her hard won London sophistication had deserted her and she felt girlish and vulnerable and very much out of her depth.
On St Stephen’s Day, the wren boys toured the villages, parading the dead wren at the end of a decorated pole, beating a drum and singing the Hunting of the Wren song outside the great houses in return for food and small gifts. Thomas stood on the front steps of the house beside Aalin watching the proceedings, as the servants cheered the group of young men and joined in the song.
“I would hate to be any kind of bird during your Manx Christmas celebrations,” he said in Aalin’s ear, and she looked up at him, surprised into bubbling laughter. “Am I to expect any other kind of dead bird before Twelfth Night?”
“Only from the kitchens, Thomas, and I notice you’ve no objection to those.”
“Not in the least, I’ve not been fed this well for years. Which reminds me, since I collect there are guests again for dinner. Do you have time to walk with me before we need to change?”
Aalin felt her heart beat faster. “Of course. Where do you wish to go? I’ll ring for my maid.”
“Do you think it would be very shocking to ask you to dispense with her today? I thought we could walk up to the old church, it’s not far.”
“St Adamnan’s? Yes, of course. I’ll get my cloak and change my shoes.”
It was not far up to the partially ruined church, but the walk was fairly steep. The weather had changed again and St Stephen’s Day brought brilliant blue skies and a light breeze. It was cold, but the exercise warmed Aalin and by the time Thomas opened the gate into the small, tangled churchyard with its broken stones and Celtic crosses, she could feel her cheeks flushed with exertion.
“How long has this been unused?” Thomas asked, as they explored the churchyard and peered into the musty interior of the remaining part of the church.
“As long as I can remember. They’re building a new church although it’s taking them forever, which is why we travel back to Douglas for most services. This one isn’t really used. I hope they don’t allow it to fall wholly into ruin, though, it’s so pretty, especially in summer.”
“It’s cold today,” Thomas said. She heard laughter in his voice, and turned to find him studying her, smiling. “I was just thinking that I would very much like to spend some time with you when we’re not at risk of freezing to death.”
“I don’t feel cold after that walk,” Aalin said. “Are you warm enough in that light jacket, though? Your uniform…”
“Every stitch I had on me that night is ruined beyond repair,” Thomas said. “I am reduced to civilian clothing.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I can buy new clothing. In fact, I probably should, I look like a pauper. Which I’m not, entirely, although as a younger son, I’m not wealthy. The estate goes to my brother, of course, but there are some bonds and investments left to me by my grandfather which bring in a small income. There will also be a little family money from my mother.”
Aalin knew that she was blushing bright red and she hoped he would think it was from the walk in the cold air. “What…why are you telling me this, Thomas?”
Thomas walked forward, taking her hand in his. “Aalin, you must know what I want to say. I spent Christmas Day wrestling with the knotty problem of whether I should speak to your grandfather first. I probably should have, but to tell you the truth I am not sure what your answer is going to be, so I thought I would find out first.”
Aalin’s eyes opened very wide. “Thomas, are you proposing to me?”
“I’m trying to. I don’t seem to have quite reached the sticking point yet. You look astonished. Didn’t you realise?”
“No. I had no idea,” Aalin said honestly.
“I must be even worse at this than I thought,” Thomas said. He raised her hand to his lips and suddenly seemed to notice that she wore no gloves. “Where are your gloves? Do not tell me you ruined your only pair?”
“No. Only I could not find them and I was hurrying.”
Thomas made an exasperated sound, released her hand and began to strip off his own gloves. “Your hands are freezing. Here, put these on. Honestly, Aalin…”
“Thomas!” Aalin said furiously. “You cannot stop halfway through a proposal to scold me about my gloves, it is too bad.”
Thomas stopped, staring at her. Unexpectedly, he dropped the gloves, reached out and took her into his arms. Aalin froze in a moment of appalled awkwardness. She felt his lips brush hers very gently and she could feel that he was smiling.
“I love you, Aalin Kennaugh. Don’t look so panicked, I’m not going to carry you into the undergrowth, it’s far too cold. I would like to kiss you though. May I?”
Aalin looked up. Suddenly she felt very sure. Reaching up, she touched her lips very gently to the line of his scar and felt him shiver a little in her arms. “Yes,” she said.
“Was that to the kiss or my proposal?”
“You haven’t asked me, Thomas.”
“Oh. No. The gloves.”
“Yes, the gloves. Which neither of us are now wearing. Should you object if I called you Tommy? I rather like it.”
“Marry me, love, and you can call me anything.”
“Then, yes, Tommy Young. To both.”
Twelfth Night was a celebration both of the season and of the engagement, and Thomas realised he had not danced, or laughed like this, since that moment of agony below decks four years earlier had changed his life. He and Aalin drifted through the remainder of the season wrapped up in their own happiness. They spent Oie Houney, or New Year’s Eve, dancing at a neighbour’s house. It was the beginning of the season of Sauin, marking the formal start of winter and for the Manx farming community, rents were due, new leases began and the livestock was brought in for the winter. Thomas listened to Aalin explaining the various customs of the season, his eyes on her vivid, laughing face.
“You are not listening to me, Tommy.”
“I am. Is there an examination at the end of it?”
“If there is, you will fail.”
“I have never failed an examination. I did very well in the lieutenants’ examination.”
“What was I saying?”
“It involved ashes in the fireplace and something about a cake. Some kind of divination, I think? But no dead birds this time, which is a relief. Have I passed?”
“No. But you may kiss me anyway.”
Thomas wrote to his family, and waited without impatience for their reply. He had no doubt of their approval. His mother had cried many tears over her youngest son’s withdrawal from the world and would welcome the girl who had helped him to find his way back. In the meantime, after lengthy discussions with Aalin, he wrote his resignation from the revenue service. He would remain on half-pay, and accepted without resentment that he brought far less to the marriage than his wife. Thomas did not expect their happiness to depend on how wealthy either of them might be, and it was clear that Aalin and her grandparents cared nothing at all.
They had been discussing spring wedding plans over breakfast when the maid brought in the post. There were two letters for Thomas, one the expected happy response from his mother and the other, to his surprise, bearing an Admiralty seal. Thomas broke it open and read the rather long letter in growing astonishment. Getting to the end, he sat thinking about it for a moment then read it again, to be sure that he had not misunderstood. When he had done, he looked up into the wide green eyes of his betrothed. They were fixed on him anxiously and Thomas realised that she knew exactly what the letter contained.
“It’s an offer of a posting,” Thomas said. “It appears that I have been recommended for the position of second lieutenant aboard HMSIris, a 74 gun third rater currently under refit in Chatham.” He met Aalin’s worried gaze. “But this isn’t news to you, is it, love of my life?”
Mrs Kennaugh rose stiffly. “You will want to discuss this privately, my children, so I will leave you.”
“No,” Thomas said quickly. “No, ma’am, please stay. Since I know very well that it must have been you and Mr Kennaugh who arranged this for me.”
“We arranged nothing,” Mrs Kennaugh said firmly. “I was asked by an old friend, what your situation was with the navy. You have met Mr Crellin many times. I explained to him, and I believe he wrote to his son-in-law.”
“Captain Hugh Kelly is married to his daughter?”
“Yes. They returned to England at the end of last year after that dreadful Walcheren business. I met Captain Kelly several times when he was last home, and of course I’ve known Roseen since she was a child. A dreadful tomboy, but a very good girl.”
“Are you angry, Tommy?”
Thomas could hear the anxiety in Aalin’s voice and he thought about it and decided that he was not angry at all. “No,” he said. “Although I wish you had asked me first.”
“I thought you might refuse because of me,” Aalin said, and she sounded close to tears. Thomas wanted to laugh and stopped himself. Then he changed his mind and gave a broad smile. When he had first begun to smile again, it had felt strange, as though his facial muscles had forgotten how, but he was getting used to it.
“I am going to refuse because of you,” he said. “In a month’s time, I am going to get up in that church and swear before God that I’ll take care of you. It’s a vow I intend to take very seriously. I don’t think leaving you to wait for letters and dread bad news is the best way of doing that.”
“I’m so afraid you’ll come to regret it, love. If you feel that your duty…”
“Hang my duty. Sorry, ma’am. But honestly, my duty took half my face away and Kit’s duty cost him his life. I think my country has had good value out of my family’s sense of duty.” Thomas looked over at Mr Kennaugh who had not spoken. “When we’re married, I’ll be your heir. I should be here, getting to know the land and your people. I should be learning from you what I need to know, not wasting my life on a man o’war doing a job that a dozen other men could do as well. I’ve resigned from the revenue service, sir, and I intend to resign my commission in the navy.”
Aalin was crying. Thomas got up and took her into his arms. “I thought you wanted it so badly,” she said.
“I had nothing else. I have now.”
“I think my granddaughter has made a very good choice,” Mr Kennaugh said. “I’ll speak to Mr Crellin…”
“No, sir. With your permission, I’d like to write to him myself. I’ll send in my papers and I’ll write to Captain Kelly, to thank him for offering me the chance. It was a good opportunity, I’ve heard of Kelly, he’s very well thought of. And I’ve a friend who is in a similar situation to me. Captain Kelly will have a lot of officers interested in this posting, but Alex is a good man, he deserves a chance. It’s worth a shot.”
Mr and Mrs Kennaugh removed themselves tactfully and Thomas was left alone with Aalin. She had stopped crying and they sat quietly for a while, his arms about her. Eventually, she stirred.
“I should go and wash my face, I am supposed to have a fitting at the dressmaker and she’ll think I’m regretting my choice if I turn up like this.”
Thomas kissed her soundly and when she had gone, he took Diamond from the stables and rode out, as he did most days, taking the coast road towards Kion Droghead. He reined in at the narrow path down through the glen and then on impulse, turned Diamond down towards the shore. Today the beach was quiet and the sea still and calm, reflecting bright sparks from the spring sunlight. Thomas dismounted and led the horse down to the edge of the surf.
“Bit calmer today, sir.”
Thomas turned, startled. “Mr Kinvig. Yes, I was just thinking that.”
The old fisherman strolled down to join him, puffing on a strong smelling pipe. “I hear you won’t be putting on that revenue coat again, then, sir.”
“Didn’t suit you anyway, that. How ’bout the navy?”
Thomas wanted to laugh aloud. He was trying to imagine having this conversation on an English beach with a chance met fisherman. “I’m resigning my commission. Plenty to do on the land here.”
“That’s good, then, no call for a nice lad like you to be running around wi’ them excise fellas. She’s a good lass and you’ll fit in here.”
“And you’ll have no need to shoot me again,” Thomas said placidly. The old man gave a cackle of laughter.
“Oh bless you, sir, that weren’t me, I got no call to be firing off shots at a revenue man.”
“No, but you know who did.”
“Accident, sir, plain and simple.”
“I hope my new neighbours won’t hold it against me that I took up a few cargoes last year.”
Kinvig grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “Got a fair few past you as well, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”
“I’ll just bet you did, you unprincipled old rogue. Best take care, the next man they send might not be so casual about his duties.”
“We’ll be careful, sir. It’s not that much these days, not like the old days, before the revocation. Just a few local lads trying to make a bit extra to put food on the table. Nothing to worry about. Should mention, though, keep an eye out in the barn, there’ll be a couple of barrels wi’ your name on, and a bale of silk. Just in time for your wedding.”
“You paid your debt, Mr Kinvig.”
The fisherman puffed on his pipe and withdrew it again. “No, sir. Three lads, I had. Lost one a few years back, impress service picked him up out fishing and he died of some shipboard fever. Thought I was about to lose another. That debt stands.”
Thomas made no reply and Kinvig seemed to need none. They stood watching the tiny waves running in on the sand for a few minutes and then Kinvig turned and lifted his cap with an awkward bobbing bow. Thomas watched him head up the glen towards his cottage and then mounted Diamond, patted his smooth neck, and turned the horse back up the path towards the main road and home.
I’ve very much enjoyed returning to the Isle of Man for this year’s Christmas story and it was fun to research some of the old Manx traditions. I’d like to express my appreciation to Culture Vannin’s excellent online resources for helping with this and suggest you have a look at their site if you’d like to know more. I find Hall Caine’s nineteenth century novels set in the Isle of Man very hard to read, but his account of carvel singing in She’s all the World to Me is genuinely worth it and I have him to thank for the idea of interrupting the service with a shipwreck.
Some of the locations in the story are real such as St Adamnan’s Church and the village of Kion Droghead, which was the old name for Onchan. To make my story work, I’ve taken a few liberties with the exact location of the parish church and the fictional Caly Glen and beach, although I had Groudle Beach in mind for the wreck.
As always, I’ve dropped in the odd reference to my regular characters from the books. For readers of my latest, This Blighted Expedition, I had every intention of allowing my scarred revenue man to join Captain Hugh Kelly and First Lieutenant Alfred Durrell aboard the Iris in the next book, but he surprised me at the end and flatly refused to go. I was quite pleased, so many of my heroes have an unbending sense of duty it was quite refreshing to find one who was prepared to put his girl first. As for his elder brother, it was indeed Captain Kit Young who served under Major Paul van Daan in the 110th and died at Talavera in An Unconventional Officer.
I’d like to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors. Thank you so much for your support. To keep in touch, you can subscribe to the website and follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Medium, I’d love to hear from you.
There are some great posts in the December Blog Hop and I really recommend you keep an eye out for more. This is the full list. Tomorrow’s post will be from the fabulous Samantha Wilcoxson
Jolabokaflod 2019 is intended as a gift to my readers, old and new and is a regular Christmas feature at Writing with Labradors
What is the Jolabokaflod?
In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving. At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi. Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.
The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”
There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity. In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books. The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.
Jolabokaflod at Writing with Labradors
The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me. For the past few years I have celebrated my own version of the Jolabokaflod with my readers, by giving away the e-book versions of some of my books on kindle on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It’s my way of saying thank you to all my readers and hello to any new readers out there.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all from Blogging with Labradors.
Although this post is entitled Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors, my more observant readers will notice that this is in fact the first day of posting. That probably tells you how I’ve been getting on.
For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, is an annual Internet-based writing project that takes place during November. Participants try to write a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1 and November 30 with online encouragement from well-known authors and from fellow participants.
I’ve been tempted to do this before, but the time has never been right. Once, I did actually do a chapter of a possible historical romance before realising that a) I didn’t have time and b) I hated what I was writing. This year, however, it seemed that the timing was perfect.
My latest book, This Blighted Expedition, was published on 31st October. It took me a long time to write this one; generally I manage two books a year but there was a lot of research and it was a challenging storyline which I rewrote several times before I was happy with it. I really wanted to get on with my next project, which will be book six of the Peninsular War Saga, as soon as possible, knowing that a lot of readers are really waiting for that one.
For the past couple of books, I’ve given myself a month off before starting the next one. That month inevitably drifts into two and possibly even three, and I was determined not to do that this time. I already knew the basic storyline of An Unrelenting Enmity and I know my characters and background very well. Why not use NaNoWriMo to kickstart me into getting on with book six? It sounded very simple.
Needless to say it was not. What made me think that I could leap straight into a new book on the day after the last one was published, I have no idea. There were things to do, publicity, blog posts, a mini blog tour and a last minute scramble over the paperback formatting. The first of November came and went and I hadn’t even logged in to the site.
I was determined to do it this year though, and so yesterday I finally sat down, logged in, and updated my pitifully small word count so far. To my amazement, it really worked. Seeing the chart cheerfully predicting that at this rate I wouldn’t reach my 50000 word goal until the eighteenth of December was surprisingly motivating, and I sat down and got on with it. I really like using the timer, to see how long I’ve worked, and the word count is already back on target, after only two days.
I’m generally a very fast writer, and having good touch typing skills helps with that. It’s research, planning and displacement activities like social media and housework that slow down my writing process. Or writing blog posts, maybe…
It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have achieved my goal, which will be about half a book for me. That won’t give me anything like a finished product, and there will still be days when I have to take time out to research and plan and to simply live my life. Oscar isn’t going to walk himself, after all…
Still, I’m excited about this month and will continue to post updates and perhaps an occasional snippet as I go along. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the second book of the Manxman series, but it is so lovely to be back in the Peninsula with Paul, Anne, Johnny and of course Lord Wellington. I cannot describe how much I’ve missed Lord Wellington. I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from today, bearing in mind that this is a first draft and not everything that I post will make it into the final book. This one might, though…
“I have no time to celebrate Christmas, Colonel, as you well know. I am setting out for Cadiz tomorrow. Really, I should be back at my desk now, there are some final orders…”
“Stop it,” Paul said. He saw the blue eyes widen in surprise, he was seldom so abrupt with his chief, but he was suddenly exasperated. “I know you need to go to Cadiz, sir, and I know why. I think you’re bloody mad to travel in this weather, you’ll be forever on the road and my sympathy lies with every single one of the men travelling with you, you will be horrible. And I am grateful that you didn’t insist on me going with you. But my wife has organised this very early Christmas dinner so that you at least have one day to eat a decent meal, have a drink with some of your officers and mend some bridges after that appalling memorandum you sent out last month. She’s put a lot of work into this, and I am not having you grumbling over the roast mutton because there is one more rude letter to some hapless Portuguese administrator that you forgot to write. Are we clear?”
There was a long and pointed silence and Paul tried not to look as though he was holding his breath. Eventually, Lord Wellington took a long drink of wine.
“There is still time for me to insist that you come with me,” he said, and Paul laughed.
“Having me with you while you insert one of Congreve’s rockets up the arse of the Spanish government sounds like a really bad idea, sir, they do not need two of us.”
Wellington snorted. “That is why I am leaving you behind to do the same to every senior officer in my army who fails to follow my instructions on the drills and training to be conducted during winter quarters this year,” he said. “By the time we are ready to march, which I hope will be no later than April, I want every man of my army to know what he is doing. That is your job, Colonel.”
“And a lovely Christmas gift it was too, sir. I’m already having to take a bodyguard out with me when I visit the other divisions, I have been doing this for two weeks, and they hate me.”
“Not in the light division.”
“No. They’ve no need of me there, General Alten is doing a very fine job. And here he is.” Paul shot his chief a sideways glance. “Come and be social, sir. Just for today.”
Wellington studied him for a moment, then gave one of his rare genuine smiles. “This is very good wine,” he said, as though the preceding conversation had not taken place. “Where is it from, Colonel?”
For anybody new to the Peninsular War Saga, they’re available on Amazon kindle here and will be available in paperback before Christmas.
I’ll be posting daily updates on my NaNoWriMo journey over on Facebook and Twitter from now on.