Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief. While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera. And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…
Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.
Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke. “Move away from my wife, Major.” Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy. “You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.” Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.” Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!” “How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!” “It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!” “Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet. “Get away from my bloody wife, Major…” “That will do!” Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging. “I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?” Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town. “Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.” Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.” “Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.” Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked. “Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.” Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…” “Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.” “Sir…” “I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.” “I’m not his mistress, sir.” “No. But he would very much like you to be.” Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.” “I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…” “No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.” Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?” Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself. He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint. It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed. Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly. The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.” “I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.” “Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.” Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.” “Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.” There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?” “Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him. “I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.” “I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.” Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing. “Paul…” “Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”
An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War was written last year for Halloween but I thought I’d publish it again for anybody who missed it.
It was late afternoon when the storm hit, sudden and violent with a warm wind whipping up dust and sand in choking swirls and the sky becoming leaden and menacing as Giles Fenwick rode south towards Salamanca. His horse, a big rawboned grey was accustomed to long rides in the worst weather conditions, but even he seemed uncomfortable and restive under Giles’ hands. Looking up at the rapidly blackening skies, Giles made the decision to seek shelter for the night.
Since he had transferred to the Corps of Guides from his regiment a year earlier, Giles had become accustomed to sleeping out in all kinds of weather and was surprisingly good at keeping himself warm and dry wrapped in his army greatcoat, but he was sensitive to Boney’s moods. Riding alone for weeks and sometimes months at a time, his horse was his transport, his companion and more than once his lifeline and he was not prepared to risk a night in the open with Boney nervous and ready to bolt at a sudden clap of thunder. Better to make his way to a village and wait the storm out in the relative security of a barn or farmhouse.
Giles did not know the area particularly well. He had been in Ciudad Rodrigo enjoying a rare and all too brief few days of rest when his orders had come. Major Scovell had sounded apologetic in his short note, aware of how exhausting the life of an exploring officer could be and how necessary an occasional spell of respite was, but Lord Wellington was ordering all leave cancelled and Giles had called the commander-in-chief a variety of rude names under his breath, collected supplies and his Spanish guide, Antonio, and had ridden north as ordered, spending weeks dodging the French in the area around Valladolid while Lord Wellington’s Allied army marched on Salamanca. Whatever the result of Wellington’s latest sortie into Spain he wanted intelligence about French troops and defences towards Madrid and beyond out towards Burgos. If he succeeded in driving the French out of Salamanca he wanted to know everything he could about their dispositions to help him decide on his next move.
With his information gathered, Giles had made two coded copies of his notes and sent one off with Antonio via a different route. The risk of either of them being captured was always great. Antonio, a Spanish guide would be shot on sight. Giles was still wearing at least a semblance of British uniform but he was under no illusions that the French would treat him as anything other than a spy. It was a risk he was used to and had accepted when he had taken on the job.
Reaching into his coat, Giles pulled out a sketch map and studied it. If he veered off to the south-west, heading back towards the main road, there was a village marked. It was unlikely that French patrols would be found in this area and he could find shelter for himself and his horse and hopefully some food. When the storm settled he could resume his journey either to the Allied lines outside Salamanca or into the city if Wellington’s attack had been successful. Giles tucked the map away and set off, thinking of Antonio and hoping that he was safe.
The rain started about a mile out of the village, huge raindrops which drove into his eyes with the wind and made it difficult to see anything beyond Boney’s twitching ears. There was a flash across the sky and then a crash of thunder so loud that it made Giles jump. It sounded alarmingly close and Boney reared up in fright. Giles pulled him back and reached out, running his hand over the smooth neck.
“Calm down, boy,” he said gently. “I’m not so keen on it either. Let’s get moving.”
He guided the horse on through the downpour, trying not to react to the thunder claps or the white flashes of lightening which tore into the darkened sky with savage frequency. He could feel Boney’s terror under his hands and he no longer tried to move cautiously. If there was a French sentry at the edge of the village it was too dark to see him until Boney fell over him, but in this weather the enemy could hardly use firepower and Giles had a good deal of faith in his own ability to win in a one to one fight. His care now was for his horse. He could see, finally, a huddle of buildings looming up through the torrential rain, and he quickened his mount slightly and then swore as Boney suddenly skidded and let out a squeal of pain.
Giles reined him in and swung down from the saddle keeping a firm hold on the reins. He could see immediately what had caused the problem, a large rock, smooth and wet and slippery had caused Boney to stumble. The horse, already terrified, was trying to pull away from him and Giles could see that he was lame. There was no point trying to examine the damage here. Giles turned, tugging on the reins to bring Boney in close to him, hoping that his body against the horse’s might soothe him a little. One hand on the reins, the other on the shivering animal’s neck, he led Boney firmly into the village.
It was a small place, a huddle of stone cottages around a crossroads with a church at the centre. As he drew closer, Giles could see that the church had no roof and was damaged, one end of the building sagging dangerously. He wondered initially if the village was deserted. But several of the houses were in reasonable condition, and even had small walled gardens growing vegetables or fruit trees. Somebody was tending those and he ploughed on doggedly towards the largest house, a solid looking farmhouse beyond the church with shuttered windows and a big oak door.
As Giles approached, the door opened. He was relieved although wary. If the French were, for some unlikely reason, in this village miles from where they should be, they were nowhere in sight. But he had learned to be cautious. Most of the villagers in Spain were willing to be friendly enough to a lone English officer, and Giles spoke Spanish fluently; it was one of his qualifications for the job. But he was also aware that there was a considerable proportion of Spaniards who had supported Bonaparte and he was not taking any chances.
“Good evening, Señor. I’m in search of shelter for myself and my horse. Have you a barn or a shelter we can use until this blows over? And some fodder for my lad here, he’s exhausted. I can pay.”
The man held the door wider and in the light of a lamp from the room within, Giles could make out a stocky Spaniard, probably in his forties. He was almost bald although his beard was thick and dark with grey streaks and his eyes were dark. He turned and lifted the lantern, stepping out onto the steps and closing the door.
“This way. Around the back.”
Giles followed him and felt a rush of relief at the sight of a solid looking wooden building at the back of the house. The man unbarred the door, struggling to hold it in the force of the wind and Giles led Boney inside. When the door was closed the man came forward, hanging the lantern up on a hook clearly designed for the purpose and Giles looped Boney’s reins around a wooden rail on the wall and looked around him.
He was surprised at the air of prosperity about the place and was very sure that the French had not been near this place for a long time. The harvest had been brought in and there was hay for the horse. At the far end of the barn, two uninterested mules fed idly from a trough. The farmer moved past him and brought a leather bucket of water for Boney. Giles watched his horse drink and the farmer, without being asked, pulled over a wooden manger and filled it for the horse to eat.
“Thank you,” Giles said. “I’m very grateful. I should introduce myself, Señor. I’m…”
“In the house,” the Spaniard said. “See to your horse and then join me for supper. I can give you a bed for the night.”
“You don’t need to do that, I’ll be all right out here. Although food would be welcome.”
“Join me. We will talk.” The Spaniard surveyed him. “English?”
“You speak my language well. Join me soon.”
Left alone, Giles went to check Boney’s leg. There was a little swelling, but it was not bad and the horse did not seem particularly distressed now that he was warm and dry and out of the storm. As the wind howled and the rain lashed against the sturdy walls, Giles rubbed him down, fussed him and made sure he was securely tied, then left him to rest and ventured out again, running over to the house where he found his host waiting for him in a dark panelled dining room.
“This is very kind of you, Señor, and you don’t even know my name. Captain Giles Fenwick of the Corps of Guides. I’m travelling to Salamanca.”
The Spaniard bowed. “Matias Benitez, Captain, at your service. You are joining the army there?”
Giles nodded. “Either in or out of the city, I’ve no idea which yet.”
“Come closer to the fire, Captain, it will dry your clothes. If you will hand your coat to my servant he will see that his wife dries it and brushes it for you, and she will launder anything else you wish before you leave.”
Giles masked a grin. Given the condition of the few items of spare clothing he carried in his saddlebags he was not sure they would survive a thorough washing. “You’re very hospitable, Señor Benitez, I’m grateful. I hope to be able to move on tomorrow.”
“You should rest your horse for a day, Captain, he was limping. Stay two nights, you will be safe here and you will make it to Salamanca faster with a rested and fed mount.”
Giles knew he was right. He handed his coat to an elderly servant with a smile of thanks and sat down before the fire which was blazing in a stone fireplace set into the wall. The room looked old with little furniture, just a table and some chairs. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no cushions and no ornaments. Giles looked back at his host and realised that he had noticed him looking.
“The French,” Benitez said in matter of fact tones. “They came through on their way to Portugal two years ago. Many houses were destroyed, but they found mine a convenient place for the officers to stay so it survived. When they left they took everything of value with them. Much of the furniture went for firewood but they left some.”
“I’m sorry. You’ve rebuilt to some degree, though, it looked as though some houses are occupied. Did the villagers get away?”
“A few did. Most not. There are a dozen or so houses occupied now. We have managed to plant crops this past year so we no longer starve.”
Giles wanted to ask what had happened to the villagers who had not made it away from the French army but two years out here had taught him better. He accepted a pewter cup of sherry and sipped it appreciatively, feeling it warm his chilled body. He was finally beginning to relax.
“How long were they here?” he asked.
“A few months only. They have not returned, thank God. We are not on the main road so there is little cause for them to march this way unless they are searching for food. Or women, but there are none left apart from Maria, my servant and one elderly woman in the village. Nothing to bring them here.”
The door opened and the servant entered with a tray. Giles was glad as it saved him from responding. He wondered about Benitez’ own family. Travelling as he did, he had seen too many such tragedies in both Portugal and Spain through these years of war, and he was very aware that although the English were fighting and dying in the fight against Bonaparte, they were not fighting at home, watching their houses burn and their wives and daughters raped.
It had been weeks since he had sat down to a proper cooked meal and he tried hard to remember to eat like the gentleman he was supposed to be rather than like a starving beggar. He suspected that his host realised how hungry he was as he called several times for another dish. They talked through the meal of the war and Spanish politics and Giles responded civilly to questions about his aristocratic family. He seldom talked of them, but a man who had given so generously of his hospitality was entitled to have his curiosity satisfied.
When they had shared brandy after the meal, Giles rose. “Will you excuse me, Señor? I would like to see that my horse is secure before I retire.”
“Maria has prepared a guest room for you, Enzo can show you the way. No need to venture out in this weather tonight, the barn is very secure. It was rebuilt from scratch when we returned to the village. In the morning…”
Giles smiled and shook his head. “I won’t sleep unless I go,” he said. “It will only take me a few minutes.”
“You should not go out there, Captain. Not this late. It is dark…”
The Spaniard’s voice was emphatic and Giles was faintly puzzled. “I’ve very good night vision, sir, and I’ll take a lantern if I may. It sounds as though the rain has eased.”
“Still, it is not wise when it is dark.”
“I will be fine,” Giles said, firmly but pleasantly, and his host studied him and then sighed and got up.
“If you insist. Take the lantern from the hall, it is covered. But don’t linger out there, Captain. You’ll be chilled.”
Giles bowed and left, grinning once he was away from the older man. He wondered what Benitez thought he usually did when caught out in bad weather. He was a little touched by his host’s concern for him, however excessive it seemed, and he wondered again about the man’s family. Had they died when the French invaded their village? Had there been a son, cut down for defending his home or a daughter defiled and murdered?
Outside the wind was still strong but the thunder and lightening had passed over, just an occasional rumble in the distance to show the direction of the storm. The driving rain had slowed to a fine drizzle, and Giles pulled his greatcoat around him and made his way by the dim light of the lantern to the barn. Inside it was warm and dry and he could see at once that his concern for Boney was misplaced. The horse had eaten and drunk and appeared to be dozing but as Giles closed the door against the wind, Boney gave a soft whicker of greeting. Giles went to him, rubbing his nose and stroking his neck and the horse nuzzled him affectionately.
The leg did not seem too bad but Giles was aware that Benitez was probably right about resting it. Another day and night would ensure that the rest of their journey did not cause any further injury to Boney and Giles needed his horse to be fit and well. He had no money to buy a new mount, besides which he loved the horse and was not prepared to cripple him by pushing him beyond his limits. Boney was essential to his work and if the strain needed longer to heal, he would have to find a temporary mount for a while. It was not likely to be a problem. Unlike most of the other exploring officers, Giles had maintained close ties with his old regiment and there were several officers of the 110th more wealthy than he who would lend him a spare horse and take care of Boney while he mended, but for that to work he had to get him there. Wondering how lame he was, Giles unlooped the reins and began to walk Boney the length of the barn. He was pleased to see that the limp was already less obvious. Before they reached the end, Boney turned and walked back and Giles went with him, watching the movement of his leg. They reached the two curious mules, and Giles turned and led him back down the barn. Boney stopped at the same point he had turned last time and Giles urged him forwards, concentrating on the fetlock. Boney took four or five reluctant steps towards the end of the barn and without warning stopped dead. Giles looked at him, startled. The big grey uttered a loud squeal and moved back, pulling hard on the reins. His ears were flicking back and forth and his lip had curled back from his teeth, his tail down. He was exhibiting all the signs of being terrified but Giles could see nothing which might have alarmed him.
He led the frightened horse back down the barn and stood fussing him, feeling Boney gradually calm down. When he was settled, Giles left him and went back to the other end of the barn. Any object could have spooked the horse simply by being unexpected, but as far as Giles could see there was nothing there. He looked around curiously. The only difference in this part of the barn was that it was significantly colder presumably caused by a loose board or a badly sealed joint. Giles shrugged and lifted the lantern. The flame flickered suddenly and went out leaving him in complete darkness.
Cursing fluently, Giles stood very still until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was no point in trying to find his tinderbox to relight the lamp. It was not far to the house and once outside he should be able to see his way by the lights from the house. As his vision adjusted, he could see the solid bulk of Boney at the far end of the barn, and a gleam of eyes beyond him showed where the two mules stood. Cautiously, Giles moved forward to the wall of the barn and felt his way along. He had almost reached the door when something came towards him very fast and hit him so hard that he fell backwards, keeping his feet only because his hand was on the wall to steady himself. He stood motionless for a moment, his heart racing, and then a blast of cold air brought the explanation and Giles grinned as he realised that his attacker was the barn door which had swung open in the wind. How, he had no idea because he was sure he had closed it properly, but he was relieved and amused at how jumpy he was.
Outside he latched the door carefully and checked it to make sure it could not blow open again then turned to go back to the house. As he had hoped, there were several well lit windows to guide him and he was almost there when something caught his eye and he stopped and turned. It was coming from the ruined church; an orange flicker of fire. Giles stood staring for a moment and then a voice called and Señor Benitez was opening the door.
Giles hesitated and then went on to the house and his host closed the door firmly behind him. “Your lantern?”
“It blew out – I must have left the barn door open,” Giles said. “But Señor, is there somebody camping out in the old church? I’m pretty sure I just saw a fire there.”
The Spaniard’s eyes widened. “The church? No. No, there is nobody there.”
“I think there is, Señor. Let me get a light and I’ll go down and…”
“No!” Benitez said, and his response was so forceful that it startled Giles. Benitez seemed to realise it because he gave a somewhat forced smile. “I am sure you are wrong, but I will send Enzo to be sure.”
Giles regarded him thoughtfully. “I would if I were you, Señor. In this wind a spark could easily blow this far and the rain has almost stopped.”
He said nothing more. The servant showed him to a small room at the back of the house overlooking the barn and upon request, Giles handed over his shabby garments for laundering with an apologetic smile and went to bed. He was tired and a proper bed was a pleasure after weeks sleeping on the hard ground.
He awoke abruptly and sat up. It was still full dark and Giles had no idea what had awoken him but he was aware that his heart was pounding and all his senses, finely attuned from months of living on his wits behind enemy lines, screaming danger. It might just have been a dream, disturbed by an owl or some other night bird although it was unusual for him to dream. Giles sat still, listening. There was no sound from below, it must be the early hours of the morning and the household was asleep. But something had disturbed him.
He got up, dressed only in his underclothes and padded to the window, pushing open the shutter. It was too dark to make out more than vague shapes; he could see the dark bulk of the barn, and the outline of the little grove of orange trees which he had noticed earlier. The wind seemed to have died down finally and the trees were not moving. But something did, just at the corner of his vision and he turned his head sharply and saw a figure move at the far end of the barn. The surprise of it made him jump.
It was impossible to make out details in the darkness and Giles knew he would not even have seen the man if he had not moved. He peered through the inky night trying to see more. There was no reason why Señor Benitez should not walk in his own garden in the early hours, but Giles could also think of no reason why he would. He thought briefly about Boney, sleeping in the barn and then he turned and reached for his trousers, a pair of thick French overalls which he had stripped off a dead voltigeur months ago and which were far more sturdy than those issued by the British army. He was probably just being over suspicious, but there was a chronic shortage of good horses throughout Spain and he was not risking losing Boney to some passing opportunist.
Aware of how dark it was, he took time to find a lantern in the kitchen and check that it was topped up with oil. There was no sound anywhere in the house but Maria had left the fire banked for the night and his spare clothing was hanging before it to dry. Giles collected his coat and pulled it on, lit the lantern and made his way cautiously out of the back door, leaving it slightly open.
There was no sign of life as he made his way down towards the barn. The door was still barred as he had left it earlier and Giles opened it and went inside. He was immediately reassured. Boney had settled down for the night and barely stirred as he went to stroke him. One of the mules was snoring faintly, snuffling in it’s sleep. Everything was as it should be and Giles shook his head at his suspicious mind, barred the door behind him and turned to go back to the house.
He saw the man once again, just on the edge of his vision, and once again it made him jump. He was further over now, around the side of the house towards the ruined church. Giles stopped, his heart beating more quickly. The figure was not moving but stood outlined against a faint light, and once again Giles saw the flicker of fire from the church.
“Who goes there?” he called out in Spanish. “Come out, you’re safe, I’m not going to hurt you.”
There was no reply and the man did not move. Giles waited a moment and then set off towards the church. He was beginning to suspect that he was not the only traveller to have stopped to find shelter from yesterday’s storm in this isolated village. The war had left many people homeless and it was not unusual to find small groups of miserable refugees camped out in ruined buildings, surviving as best they could, wandering from place to place ahead of the marching armies. He had no quarrel with them sheltering in the old church; it was none of his business, but for his own peace of mind he needed to know.
Watching his footing in the darkness he took his eye off the figure, and when he looked again the man had gone, presumably back into the church. Giles approached the building, speeding up slightly. One end of the church was virtually intact, but the other was damaged, what was left of the tower broken and sagging dangerously. He was not sure that he would have chosen this particular building as a camp site but given the weather yesterday he could believe that a man might be desperate enough to take shelter here, risking the building coming down in the high wind. Cautiously he made his way along the stone wall, aware of the smell of the fire inside. It was very smoky and he coughed, wondering how the travellers were not choking in this. And then suddenly, as he reached the edge of the wall, the church exploded.
Giles was knocked off his feet, crashing to the damp earth, his ears ringing with the blast. He lay there for a moment, too shocked to move. The still of the night was torn apart by the crackle of flame and the crash of falling masonry and the screams of terror and agony and despair. He recognised the voices of women and the shrill high cry of a child and he could smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames on his skin.
A woman screamed again, a scream of sheer, bloodcurdling terror. It roused Giles to action and he opened his eyes, scrambled to his feet and swung round to the church, steeling himself to run into the choking smoke to see if he could get anybody out before the already damaged walls came down and buried them all alive. Already his brain, used to the noise and chaos of battle, was thinking ahead, wondering about the safest way in, wondering how many there were and how many he could reach….
There was nothing there.
Giles froze in complete bewilderment as he realised that all he could see was darkness and all he could smell was the fresh, cold night air. The ruined church loomed before him, dark and ominous as before, but with no fire, no screaming people. The smoke had gone, the sounds had vanished, cut off as if they had never been. He was standing alone, staring at the silent building and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. And then, once again, he caught that movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head slowly with a sense of pure dread, knowing what he would see. The solitary figure was standing closer than Giles had seen him so far. It was clearly a man, and although Giles could not make out his face, the uniform was that of a French officer.
It took a long moment before his shocked brain assimilated what had just happened and then came the fear he ought to have felt before. He was sweating and shivering at the same time, his skin crawling with a sense of repulsion which nothing logical could explain. He had dropped the lantern when he fell and it had gone out, he could smell the oil spilling onto the ground. His eyes fixed on the solitary figure he backed up cautiously until his eyes could stay open no longer and he blinked. The figure was gone. Giles no longer wondered where, or how it could have moved without him seeing it. He turned and ran for the house, slamming the door behind him, and went through into the warmth of the kitchen, needing light and a sense of normality. There were several candles on the wooden table and he lit two from the fire with shaking hands and then stoked the fire into life and sat huddled in a wooden chair before it, waiting for his pounding heart to slow and the sense of horror to settle.
The voice made him jump. He stood and turned. Benitez was standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of robe, a candle held high. Giles studied him without speaking. After a moment, the Spaniard came forward, put the candleholder on the table, and went to the big wooden dresser. He returned with a bottle and two cups and poured for both of them. Giles took the brandy without thanks, sat down and drank. After a moment, he felt something around his shoulders and realised that his host had draped a worn woollen blanket around him. Only then did he realise that he was shivering violently. He set the cup down and Benitez refilled it and then pulled a stool close to the fire.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
Giles raised his eyes from his contemplation of the blaze. “No,” he said. “Of course I’m not bloody all right and you know why! What the hell was that?”
“I am sorry, Captain. I did not wish you to see…”
“Well I saw, so start talking.”
“It was not real,” Benitez said and his voice was curiously gentle. “None of it was real.”
“Well I didn’t dream it, Señor. I was out there. I heard the explosion and I smelled the smoke and I heard…what did I hear? The villagers?”
Benitez nodded. “I was not here. I fought with a partisan band – most of the men did. We had ambushed a French patrol in a valley five miles from here. They were all killed. What we did not know was that there was a second patrol in the area. They came across the bodies and gave chase. We were outnumbered so we went up into the hills. They know better than to follow us there.”
“And they came here instead,” Giles said and he could hear the tremor in his own voice. He picked up the cup again and took another sip of brandy. “Your family.”
“All of them. My wife and two daughters, my tenants…we think they locked them in the church and set fire to it. What they probably did not know was that we were using the church to hide supplies…and ammunition, gunpowder…”
“Did anybody survive?”
“No. When the church blew up a few were able to escape but the French bayoneted them as they ran. They raped the women before they killed them. We found the bodies when we returned.”
Giles did not speak for a while. The story was tragic, but it was not new. He had ridden through villages devastated by war on many occasions and he could remember the campaign of 1811, his first in Portugal with the 110th when the light division had been able to follow the direction of the fleeing French armies by following the plumes of smoke as they burned towns and villages on the way. He found himself wondering if such things always left this violent impression on the land long after the tragedy was over and the armies had marched on.
“When did this start happening? When did you first see it?”
“Not straight away. Most of the men left. There was nothing for them here. A few of us stayed, tried to rebuild.”
“But you don’t go out of the house after dark.”
Giles drained the brandy glass. “Me? I’d do exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, Señor Benitez. I’d get the hell out of here.”
“I’ll take it slow, walk him part of the way if I need to. Our infantry don’t have the luxury of horseback, it won’t kill me. If necessary I’ll find somewhere else to rest him for a few nights. But not here. Thank you, you’ve been very hospitable. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know none of this was your fault. But I don’t know how you’ve lived with that out there every night since you came back. Knowing it’s there, I’m not staying another night.”
“I understand. Go back to bed, Captain. Nothing will disturb you in the house; it never does. Goodnight.”
Giles slept little, lying wakeful and tense until the first rosy light of dawn pushed it’s way between the wooden slats of the shutter. Enzo arrived soon after, bearing his clothing, dry and smelling slightly of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire. He said nothing to Giles of the night’s events although Giles was sure that he must know what had happened, he had made enough noise crashing back into the house to wake the dead. The analogy brought grim amusement as he dressed quickly in the early light and took his pack downstairs to find his host awaiting him.
“Maria has made breakfast, Captain. Eat something before you go.”
“Thank you,” Giles said. He joined Benitez at the dining table again and ate ham and bread warm from the oven and a spicy sausage and made no attempt at conversation since he could think of nothing to say. When the meal was over he got up.
“My thanks to you, Señor. You’ve been a generous host. I’m sorry that I need to leave like this.”
“I am sorry too, Captain.”
“You could have warned me.”
“Would you have believed me?” Benitez asked and Giles grinned in spite of himself, acknowledging the truth of it.
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ghosts are real, Captain. Like God, they do not require belief in them to exist.”
Giles did not reply. He did not want to think about what had happened until he was a long way from the village and the house, preferably in a smoky tavern with a bottle of good red on the table and a pretty barmaid on his lap. He tried to imagine telling any of his friends in the regiment this story and knew with complete certainty that he would not. They would laugh uproariously and accuse him of having been drunk.
Outside the air was chill although he suspected it would be hot by mid morning. Shrugging into his greatcoat he turned to Benitez who was standing on the steps. “Goodbye, Señor Benitez. Good luck. You’ve not asked for advice, but I’m giving it anyway. Leave. Move away. You shouldn’t be here with this. No house, no land is worth that.”
“You are a good man, Captain. Good luck.”
Giles shouldered his pack and picked up the saddlebags. He glanced briefly down at the ruined church, innocent in the early morning sunlight. “Was that the last time the French came here?” he asked curiously. “Did they ever come back?”
“No. I imagine they thought the village deserted. Only once. An officer, on his own. Like you, I suspect he was a courier or an intelligence officer.”
A slight chill touched Giles. He turned to look back at Benitez. “And did he ever see…what I saw?”
“I think not. It had not begun then. Only afterwards.”
Giles nodded and turned to walk over to the barn. He found Boney up and alert and he fed and watered him, leaving the barn door wide to let in light and air. As he saddled the horse, he talked quietly to him, then walked him a little and was delighted to see no sign of lameness. He would ride to start with, taking it slowly, and if Boney appeared to struggle he would dismount and walk him until he found shelter where he might stay a night or two to let the horse recover. Giles did not mind where it was as long as it was miles away from here.
He led Boney outside and looped the reins over a fence post, settled saddlebags and pack comfortably on the horse and checked the girth and saddle methodically. Benitez had gone back into the house. Giles turned back and went to close the big barn door. As he did so he heard a sound, and he stepped inside, wondering if one of the mules was loose. Both stood placidly eating hay; the sound, a creaking noise, was coming from the other end of the barn and Giles turned to look.
It was a rope, swinging lazily from a beam in the roof of the barn, creaking with the weight of the burden it carried. Giles stared in complete bewilderment for a moment and then understood what he was seeing.
The man hung upside down, tied by his feet. He was naked and his skin was striped with red. Blood dripped down both extended arms, pooling under him on the floor, and his body was writhing in agony, a weak sobbing noise accompanying what Giles knew in appalled comprehension must have been his death throes. God knew how long he had taken to die, swinging there from the beam, partially flayed and bleeding into the earth floor.
Giles backed out of the barn and slammed the door, barring it. Outside the sky was a clear blue with no sign of a cloud and Boney pushed his nose into Giles’ shoulder, comforting, seeming to sense his distress. Giles turned and hugged his neck hard, burying his face into the warm smooth coat, trying to shut out the horror, shaking with reaction.
“You bastard,” he whispered, into the horse’s neck. “You bloody bastard. It wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. He was your guest, just passing through. He was like me.”
After a long time, the shaking eased. He straightened, and wiped his face with both hands, surprised to find that he had been crying. He could not have said why he was so sure that the lone French officer who had died in the barn had not been a man who would have slaughtered a village and he did not try to examine his conviction, but he did not look back at the house to see if Benitez was watching him. He did not want to see the Spaniard again. Impossible to encompass the scale of the man’s loss. Giles wondered if the French officer who had been the object of his vengeance had also left family behind him to mourn.
Mounted and ready, he turned finally and looked back past house and barn to the church, knowing already what he would see. For the first time, the solitary figure in the blue coat did not cause him to jump. Nor did he feel any sense of fear. For the first time he saw the man’s face clearly, thin and dark, his stubbled jaw suggesting long days travelling without shaving. Giles ran his hand over his own jaw and it scraped his hand.
The figure stood motionless, the dark eyes appearing to look directly at him. Giles raised his hand and saluted. Then he turned and rode slowly out of the village, back towards the Salamanca road and Wellington’s army.
An Exploring Officer was written as a free gift for Halloween 2017. Oddly enough as a child, I didn’t really associate ghost stories with Halloween, they were a Christmas treat, allowed to stay up late, huddled on the sofa with my Mum and my sister watching the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas. As it’s that time of year I thought I’d share this one again in case anybody missed it.
A Regimental Christmas is a short story based in Lisbon during the winter of 1810-11 while Wellington’s army occupied the Lines of Torres Vedras against Massena’s French army and the Portuguese civilians who had fled behind the lines suffered and starved in the cause of scorching the land and driving the French out. For readers of the Peninsular War Saga, this fits into book two, An Irregular Regiment, while Paul and Anne are based in Lisbon for the winter.
A Regimental Christmas
After two weeks of miserably damp weather, two days before Christmas dawned exceptionally bright, with wispy clouds decorating a brilliant blue sky. It was cold, not with the freezing weather of England but certainly much colder than was usual for Portugal, and as Colonel Paul van Daan watched his wife emerge from the officers’ block to watch early drill, he could see her breath in the chill air.
There were twelve companies on the parade ground. To the fore, neatly turned out and moving through the drill with immaculate timing was the light company of the 110th infantry under the temporary command of Lieutenant Michael O’Reilly. At the sight of Anne, the Irishman saluted but did not pause in his work. Anne stood watching, shivering slightly, and Paul looked around and saw one of her maids just coming out of the block.
“Captain Corrigan, take over, please,” he said. “Keren, do me a favour and get my wife’s cloak, would you? She’s going to freeze out here like this.”
“Yes, sir.” Anne’s maid disappeared into the block and Paul took his wife’s hands between his.
“Gloves?” he enquired and Anne laughed.
“I do own some.”
“In order to work, they need to be on your hands. You’re hopeless, Nan.”
“I am.” Anne was watching the drill. “They’re looking better,” she commented.
Colonel van Daan turned, running an experienced eye over the companies. In addition to his light company there was a company of new recruits, recently arrived from the second battalion, eight companies of the 112th infantry which had been in complete disarray when they arrived in Lisbon and the seventh and eighth company of the 110th who were serving directly under him for the first time.
“Better,” he admitted. “They still need some work.”
Anne laughed, accepting her cloak from her maid with a smile of thanks. “Paul, they are never going to be good enough for you.”
“They will when they look as good as my light company, girl of my heart. What are your plans for the day?”
“Breakfast. Then I’m riding into Lisbon with Caroline, I’ve some last minute shopping to do. After that…”
“Take an escort.”
“Keren and Teresa are coming with us, Paul. I…”
“Take an escort. Don’t look at me like that, Nan. I know Lisbon is usually very safe. But just at the moment there are refugees dying in the streets. It’s not a good place to be.”
Anne looked at him soberly. “I know,” she said. “I hate it, Paul. Those poor people.”
Paul nodded, without speaking. Retreating south after his victory at Bussaco, Lord Wellington had instructed the Portuguese population to go with him, leaving the land scorched so that Marshal Massena’s French army would have nothing to live on. The success of this had been very mixed. Some people had refused to go, believing they would be able to hide from the advancing French troops. Others had fled as instructed, crowding behind Wellington’s defensive Lines of Torres Vedras, but too many of them had left food hidden, hoping to be able to find it when they were finally able to return to their farms and villages. The French had become experts in discovering caches and it had enabled them to remain outside the lines for far longer than Wellington had thought possible.
Paul had expected to remain with his battalion up at the lines or possibly outside them patrolling the border along with General Robert Craufurd’s light division. His battalion was still there under the temporary and very competent command of Captain Johnny Wheeler and Captain Carl Swanson but in the aftermath of Bussaco, Lord Wellington had given Paul the glad news of his promotion to colonel in charge of the 110th, a command that Paul had wanted, but not expected to achieve so young.
He had also given him a temporary posting for winter quarters which had been less welcome. In preparation for the next campaigning season, Wellington wanted to ensure that his army was properly supplied with sufficient transport and instead of protecting the border with Craufurd, Paul found himself in Lisbon struggling with requisitions and orders and the knotty problem of the 112th infantry, a battalion which had been sent out under two very young and inexperienced officers. The 112th had proved a bigger headache than the commissariat and the quartermaster’s department combined. Many of them were ill with fever after their time in the Indies, discipline and training were appalling and there were only two officers to staff eight companies. At times during the past few months, buried in paperwork and working insane hours to try to prepare the 112th for combat, Paul had contemplated shooting his chief.
Paul looked over at his wife, who was watching drill. They had been married now for less than six months although he had known her for two years before that, but this would be their first Christmas as a married couple. He was aware of a sense of guilt about his dead wife along with a sense of pure joy at spending the season with Anne. Christmas on campaign often passed without more than a passing acknowledgement but this year was different. They were away from the war zone and there was time to enjoy the season. And he was with Anne.
“Is there anything I need to do, bonny lass? I’ve a feeling this is the easiest Christmas since I joined the army.”
Anne turned, smiling. “You’re all right, Colonel. Get on with training. Just remember we have this ball at Dom Alfonso’s tonight.”
“I’m trying to forget,” Paul said and she laughed and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
Paul moved back towards his men, aware of covert smiles from some of them. There were men of his light company who had been with him since he had first joined eight years ago and they had followed the difficult progress of his love affair with the lovely young wife of Captain Robert Carlyon with considerable sympathy. Anne was not the only officer’s wife to have accompanied her husband to war, and not the only one to have found herself stranded in the middle of a difficult retreat, but in Paul’s experience she was the only one to have made herself quite so beloved by the enlisted men. She had marched with his wounded and his light company through the difficult weeks of the retreat from Talavera and by the time she had been returned to her undeserving spouse in Lisbon, the 110th had adopted her as their own.
A voice from the far side of the training ground interrupted his thoughts. “Sergeant Williams! Get them back into line, we’ll do that again, I’ve seen a flock of sheep with more precision! Move it, you slovenly bastards, unless you want to spend the rest of Christmas practicing short order drills out here with me!”
Paul grinned and moved to stand beside Lieutenant O’Reilly of the light company. “Mr Manson’s in good voice this morning,” he said softly.
“Mr Manson isn’t giving that lot an inch,” O’Reilly said, equally quietly. “It’s working, too, they’re looking bloody good. In fact, I might give them an outside chance against our seventh and eighth companies just now.”
Paul glanced over at the seventh. “Where’s Longford?” he asked.
“No idea, sir. Still in bed?”
“Even he’s not that stupid.” Paul raised his voice. “Mr Fenwick, where’s Captain Longford?”
“He’s in Lisbon, sir. Was invited to dinner with the captain of the Berwick. He sent a message just now with apologies, he was taken ill but will be back later.”
“Just in time to accompany his wife to this ball and with no time to do any bloody work!” Paul snapped. “All right, Mr Fenwick, carry on. See if you can run that again a bit faster, will you? The French are surprisingly quick you’ll find.”
“Yes, sir,” Fenwick said woodenly. He moved back to his company, yelling an order and Paul went back to O’Reilly who was grinning.
“He does not like to be told,” he said.
“No, he doesn’t. But he’s getting better. He’s a very good officer, it’s not his fault he’s been stuck with Longford all these years. He knows they’re not as good as they should be and it pisses him off, but he’s a worker.”
“Unlike his captain. You should leave him in charge of barracks tonight, serve him right.”
“It would. It wouldn’t be fair on Caroline, though and she can hardly attend without him. I’m leaving Sergeant Carter in charge of barracks. I know officially there ought to be a duty officer, but sod it, it’s Christmas and the French aren’t going to invade. If there’s a crisis, Carter knows where to find us.”
Paul had hired a carriage for his wife’s use while they were in Lisbon, although she seldom used it other than to attend evening parties. The local Portuguese grandees were very hospitable to the English officers in Lisbon. There were not many of them; most of Wellington’s troops were up at the lines, but there were a number of officers of the quartermaster’s department based in Lisbon along with a collection who were recovering from illness or injury. In addition, there was a battalion of one of the Borders regiments who had recently arrived to replace their existing battalion, and a dozen or more officers who had been granted leave during winter quarters.
Dom Alfonso’s house was in the upper part of Lisbon, not far from the villa which Paul rented, an elegant white building with graceful arched windows and a red tiled roof. Dona Juana had opened up the whole of the ground floor, with an orchestra playing in the largest salon for dancing and drinks and refreshments set out in several other rooms. For Anne’s sake, Paul had invited Captain Vincent Longford and his wife to accompany them in the carriage. His dislike of Longford did not extend to the man’s wife. Although she had only been with them for a few weeks, Paul liked what he had seen of Caroline Longford and he knew that his wife was enjoying her company. Anne did not make friends easily among the officers’ wives, many of whom tended to look down their noses at her unconventionality and to whisper behind their hands about past scandals, but if Caroline Longford had heard any of the gossip she gave no sign of it.
Paul glanced at his wife as they entered the brilliantly lit rooms to be greeted by their hostess. Anne was dressed in white, trimmed with black embroidery and a black sash. The gown was not new but the trimming was and he wondered whose idea it had been and who had done the embroidery, which was very effective. It was definitely not Anne, who regarded household sewing and fine embroidery with equal disdain. She wore her dark hair in smooth coils on her head pinned with one white silk rose and Paul was aware of male heads turning as they made their way into the room.
He led her first onto the dance floor, enjoying dancing with her, remembering the first time he had done so at her coming out ball in Yorkshire more than three years ago. She had been seventeen and he had been on temporary secondment to the 115th Yorkshire, a man already married with two young children, who should not have been flirting with the lovely daughter of Sir Matthew Howard. He met her eyes and she smiled at him.
“You’re a good dancer, Colonel.”
“So are you, Mrs van Daan. I can feel them watching me here. Once I let you go, I am not going to get anywhere near you for the rest of the evening.”
“Better make the most of me now then, Colonel.”
He grinned and raised her hand to his lips. “You look very lovely, lass, I can’t say I blame them.”
The music ended and he surrendered her to his officers and went to join Captain Corrigan, watching as she danced her way through the evening. He danced with Caroline Longford and with several Portuguese ladies and reclaimed his wife finally as the supper bell rang, neatly removing her from three disappointed ensigns of the Royal Marines.
“They’ll be crying into their wine,” he said, leading her to a table. “Wait there, I’ll get you some food. And if I find anybody else sitting there when I get back I’m going to challenge him.”
“You’re so dramatic, Paul,” his wife said, arranging her skirts elegantly. Paul collected food and champagne and seated himself opposite her.
“Caroline is proving very popular,” Anne said, watching her friend who was seated at a table surrounded by a collection of young officers who were falling over themselves to provide her with supper.
“She is. I don’t see her husband fighting them off, mind. It’ll serve him right if she finds herself some pretty young officer of the line who will treat her properly.”
“I quite agree,” Anne said serenely, tucking in to cold chicken. “After all, I did.”
Paul choked on his wine. “Are you calling me pretty?” he demanded.
Anne put her head on one side and surveyed him thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I’d go that far,” she said. “But you’re definitely easy on the eye, Colonel, especially in dress uniform.”
Paul was laughing. “Make the most of it, girl of my heart, in a few weeks’ time you’ll have forgotten I was ever this clean.”
“Clean,” Anne said thoughtfully. “Now that reminds me of something.”
“What?” Paul asked, faintly suspicious and his wife gave him a smile sweet enough to chill him.
“Nothing you need to worry about, love. Do you still have that meeting in the morning with the Lisbon Council?”
“I do. I’m trying to get them to set up a more organised system for supplying the refugees. There is food coming in from England but it’s not getting to where it’s needed.”
She was smiling, sipping her champagne. “It’s not really your problem, Colonel.”
“No. And in a few weeks’ time I’ll have to leave it alone. But at the moment…”
He broke off, slightly sheepishly and she laughed. “Well I’m busy tomorrow. But if you want me to come to a meeting with you after Christmas, Paul, let me know.”
“I wonder what they would say?” he asked.
“Oh they’d be appalled. A woman applying herself to men’s business? Shocking. But that won’t stop me if you’d let me.”
Paul studied her for a moment. He was thinking of his gentle sister-in-law, Patience, who was rearing his children and taking care of his father and brother and who had probably never once stepped out of her domestic sphere. Anne’s willingness to become involved had surprised him when she had first arrived in Portugal with her first husband but he had become accustomed to it by now.
“Yes, why not?” he said. “You’ll shock the hell out of them, but that might do them some good. Come and dance with me, if you’re finished. I’ve just remembered how much I love you.”
They left under a soft new moon. Paul handed both women into the carriage and climbed in. The streets were very dark and quiet under a midnight hush, and he reached for his wife’s hand in the folds of her cape and held it, feeling very content. There had been times when he had railed against Lord Wellington for sending him on this posting, so far from what action there was, but tonight he felt a sense of gratitude to his commander for giving him this first Christmas with Anne beside him. He knew that the idea would not have occurred to his chief, who had thought only of the job he wanted done, but it had given Paul a brief spell of normality with his new wife before the war overtook them again.
There was a squeal of carriage brakes, and the vehicle lurched suddenly as one of the two horses reared up, whinnying in fright. Paul caught Caroline Longford who had been thrown forward and would have ended up on the floor. His own wife had managed to steady herself without aid.
“What the bloody hell was that?” Captain Longford demanded. “Sorry, ma’am, forgot myself.”
“Don’t worry about it, Captain. Paul…”
“I’ll see,” Paul said, his hand already on the carriage door. He jumped down onto the cobbled street and saw his coachman, lantern in hand, peering into the darkness. “What happened, Jose?”
“Your pardon, Colonel. Are the ladies injured?”
“No, they’re fine. What is it?”
“Beggars, sir.” Jose waved his whip in the direction of a huddled form by the side of the road. “Stupid fool almost got herself killed. Be off with you!”
The form shifted and began to move, hunched and shapeless in the darkness, and Paul hesitated, torn between a desire to find out if the woman was hurt and the wish to get his wife away from a dark street where anybody might be lurking. Lisbon was generally very safe, but he was not naive enough to believe that some of the refugees might not be desperate enough to snatch what they could. As he dithered, a sound emerged from the woman, a keening wail of distress. The woman spoke quickly, trying to quiet the noise, and behind him Paul heard the carriage door open.
“Paul, what was that?”
“I’ll find out. Get back inside, Nan.”
She had already jumped down and the lantern light picked out the gleam of pearls at her neck. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Nan, get back in the damned carriage, I’m not armed and you’re wearing a small fortune around your neck and in your ears. I’ll…”
His wife shot him a look which he could only partially see in the darkness. He suspected he should be grateful for that. “That was a child’s cry,” she said, and turned to the woman. “Wait,” she called, in Portuguese. “Are you hurt? Let me see.”
The woman turned. Paul could see nothing of her in the enveloping cloak apart from a flash of white face and enormous frightened eyes. His wife moved forward quickly and Paul bit back his urge to yell at her and followed.
“I am sorry, Senora,” the woman whispered. Anne had reached her and Paul saw her kneel down on the cobbles.
“Your children?” she asked.
“My sister and brother,” the woman said. Her voice was hoarse, but Paul realised that she was younger than he had first realised. “We are not hurt. Your coachman was quick…”
“Let me see her,” Anne said, gently but firmly, and the woman allowed her to draw the folds of the cloak back. “She’s ill.”
“Not fever, Senora, I promise you. Just hungry.”
Anne placed her hand on the forehead of the child in her arms, and then reached down and took one of the hands of the boy. He was probably five or six, Paul guessed, thin and shivering in a ragged jacket and bare feet. He wondered suddenly how tall his own son had grown now and felt unexpectedly sick at the thought that Francis might be the same age as this skeletal child.
“I’m not leaving them here,” Anne said.
There was a challenge in her voice. Paul heard it and felt himself smile.
“No. But lass, we can’t be sure there’s no sickness here, it’s rife in the refugee camps and I’m fairly sure that’s where these have come from.”
“I’m not afraid of fever, Paul, I’m never ill.”
“I know you’re not, but Caroline might be.”
“Then I’ll walk back with them.”
“You bloody won’t. God knows who could be lurking in some of these alleyways.” Paul looked around, and saw Caroline Longford looking out of the window. “Ma’am, don’t get out. Look, I’ll stay with them. Longford, get the ladies back to barracks, will you, and send the carriage back for me, it’s only ten minutes away.”
“I’ll wait with you,” Anne said.
Paul wanted to protest, but even a short time living with Anne had taught him the meaning of that particular tone of voice. He sighed.
“Get Caroline home, Longford,” he said. “Jose, come back as quickly as you can.”
It was silent in the dark street once the carriage had rattled away. Paul looked round at his wife. The woman had sat down on the cobbles. She was shivering violently, whether from cold or fear or some other cause that Paul could not see, he had no idea. Anne crouched beside the boy.
“What is your name?” she asked.
The child’s teeth were chattering. Paul saw Anne reach for the clasp of her cape and stopped her with a gentle hand.
“That gown wasn’t designed for a night under the stars, bonny lass. Here.”
He took off his red coat and draped it around the boy who looked up at him from startled dark eyes. Paul smiled slightly and crouched beside Anne.
“How old are you, Alfredo?” he asked in careful Portuguese.
“I have a son a little younger than you. And your sister?”
“Maria is two. Francisca is fifteen.”
He was startled, realising that the older girl was no more than a child herself. His wife was bending over the smallest child, talking gently to her sister, and after a moment the girl relinquished the child into Anne’s arms. Paul watched as she shifted the burden onto her shoulder, wrapping the velvet cape around her. He suspected that all three of them were filthy and probably crawling with lice but he had observed before how little such matters seemed to bother his wife. Something about the sight of her, murmuring softly to the child, touched his heart and he wondered if he might one day watch her with their own child in her arms. She had been married to her first husband for two years and had never conceived, while Paul had three older children, but there was no reason to suppose that she could not.
The sound of carriage wheels interrupted his thoughts and he rose and turned to the boy. “That sounds like our transport. Up you come, lad.”
He scooped the boy up and lifted him into the carriage then helped Anne and the older girl to climb in. They were silent on the short drive back to barracks.
Both his wife’s maids awaited their arrival having clearly been warned by Caroline Longford. Paul stepped back and watched as she gave instructions for the care and accommodation of the refugees. He knew that she would not relax until she had made sure that they were settled, so he took himself up to their rooms and poured a brandy, stoking up the fire. She joined him around half an hour later, looking tired, and he observed that the white of her gown was muddy from kneeling in the street. She saw his gaze and looked down, then up again, smiling ruefully.
“It might come out.”
“I don’t care if it doesn’t, love. Come to bed, you look completely shattered.”
“I am. No early bugle, thank God.”
Anne slept later than usual the following day and joined him as he was finishing breakfast. She was dressed in one of the plain dark gowns she wore when working in the hospital and had the abstracted air of a woman with plans for the day. Paul, his mind on the approaching meeting, kissed her and left, riding the short distance into Lisbon at an easy pace. The air was warmer than it had been and it was a pleasant ride along roads lined with trees.
The meeting was less pleasant. Paul was quietly seething by mid-afternoon when he set off to ride back to the barracks. He knew that he needed to step back and let it go. It had not been part of his brief from Wellington to get involved with the problem of Lisbon’s refugees and back with his regiment he would have no time or opportunity for further involvement but seeing the misery every time he rode into town made it impossible for him to ignore.
Riding through the archway which led into the Sir John Moore barracks, Paul reined in, aware of unexpected activity. He sat his horse, looking around him, and the sight drove the refugees from his mind.
On the far side of the yard, two men were seated on upturned crates, while a barber worked on each of them with scissors and razor, bowls of soapy water beside them. One, he recognised as Garner from the light company who had been a barber before joining up; the other was young and dark and probably Portuguese from one of the shops in town. A queue of men stood patiently waiting, and Paul was astonished to realise that each one of them had damp hair and the air of men who had recently bathed.
Further around he saw Charlton, one of several cobblers in his ranks, working industriously at his last. Outside one of the barracks blocks, somebody had set up two long tables and there were piles of new kit laid out. Behind it sat Corporal Hammond of his light company with Captain Corrigan, his temporary quartermaster beside him, checking off a list as Sergeant Carter and Sergeant Williams inspected the kit of each man queueing up. These were the men who had already been washed and shorn and Paul, staring at them in complete astonishment, realised that he had probably never seen his men this clean all at the same time.
“You’re back nice and early, sir,” a voice said beside him, and Paul turned to see Private Jenson, his orderly, limping towards him. “Shall I take him for you?”
Paul dismounted, unable to take his eyes from the neat lines. “Jenson, what in God’s name is going on?” he demanded.
“Annual bath and kit replenishment, apparently, sir.”
“Is that…I mean does that happen? I don’t seem to remember it happening before.”
“No, sir, nor do I. But then you weren’t married to Mrs van Daan before. She lined them up the minute you were out of here and had the officers and NCOs march them down to the river to bathe. They bloody hated it, it was freezing, but who’s going to argue with her? Nearly done now, sir, these are the last few.”
Paul could feel himself beginning to smile. “What a bloody brilliant idea,” he said softly.
“Yes, sir. Women and children too. She’s bought half a dozen bolts of material from the warehouse in town for new clothing for them. A couple of them were crying like babies.”
“I suspect they’ll be busy sewing for the next week or two. Christ, they’ll wonder what’s happened when we get back to Pere Negro. I wonder if she’ll try and do this to my entire regiment next year.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her, sir,” Jenson said placidly. “Corporal Hammond is keeping a record of what gets taken from the stores…”
“Good. Do me a favour and make sure the lads know it doesn’t come out of their pay. I’ll make up the difference as a Christmas gift. Although if they’ve lost half of it by Easter I will bleed the bastards dry for it!”
Jenson laughed. “Yes, sir. I’ll get him rubbed down and bring up hot water for you in a bit.”
“Thanks, Jenson.” Paul looked around. “Freddie?”
“I was going to save this until tomorrow, but actually I’d rather do it now when it’s just us.”
He put his hand into his coat pocket and drew out a small item which he handed to Jenson. “There’s a bottle of rum from my wife as well. This is from me. Happy Christmas, Corporal.”
Jenson looked down at the cloth in his hand and then up. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “Go and find your wife before she gets any more bright ideas. Mind you, barracks will smell better than normal this Christmas.”
The weather had turned again the following morning. Paul awoke early as usual, and slid quietly from the bed so as not to disturb Anne. He went through to their sitting room to dress and then went to the window and was surprised in the early light to find the rosy glow of sunrise falling over a world turned white with a rare frost. Lisbon could get cold at times but he had never seen it this bad and it made him smile, thinking of Christmas at home. He missed his children at moments like this, and thinking of his last Christmas with them, when snow had fallen in Dublin, he missed suddenly, with an ache of loss, his pretty gentle first wife, Rowena, who had died giving birth to her namesake. She had worn a fur trimmed cape that cold December and he had walked to church holding her hand and thought how lucky he was. Going to the door of the bedroom he looked at Anne, asleep in a tangle of long limbs and black hair and wondered how one man could be that fortunate twice.
He went down to the mess and stood still in the doorway, looking about him in some surprise.
“You’re up early, sir. Merry Christmas.”
Paul turned with a smile at his mess sergeant who was approaching with a mug of tea. “Merry Christmas, George. Who did all this?”
George Kelly looked around at the greenery which decked the long dining room and grinned. “Mr Manson and Mr Grey with a few of the lads did it yesterday after dinner, sir.”
“I’d a feeling they were up to something. How are our guests, any idea?”
“Doing well, sir. Not much wrong with them apart from half starved. Mrs van Daan went shopping for clothes for the children and she’s found a dress for the lassie. She’s settled them in the infirmary for now, sir, she said it would be warmer.”
Paul nodded and set off across the frosty parade ground and between several of the barracks blocks to the infirmary. He found Teresa, his wife’s Spanish maid already there and she was accompanied, to his surprise, by Sergeant Carter of his light company.
“Morning, sir. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Danny. What the devil are you doing up at this hour? Even I’m not calling early drill on Christmas morning.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you, sir. Came down to see if Teresa needed any help. We thought our refugees might like to come and have breakfast with the lads, sir.”
Paul surveyed the refugees in some amusement. All three of them had clearly been bathed. The boy was dressed in dark trousers and a rough woollen jacket which was a little too big for him and black slippers which looked a fairly good fit. His younger sister was dressed in an embroidered linen dress like those sold in the markets in Lisbon with a warm woollen shawl about her shoulders. She was seated on the lap of the older girl who wore a plain dark gown which Paul suspected was one of Anne’s winter dresses.
Paul looked at the older girl and summoned his Portuguese, wishing that he had studied harder or had Anne’s easy ability to pick up languages.
“It is Francisca, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. Your lady was so kind. The children were starving.”
He could see, in the cold light of morning, that she had been starving herself. Her wrists were stick thin and the bones on her face were too prominent, her face gaunt. For all that, it was a face of some distinction, her hair newly washed, falling in red gold waves over the blue wool of the shawl Anne had found for her. Her eyes were an unusual shade of green and she was small and delicately made. He rather thought, that with a few weeks of good food and enough rest, she might prove to be a very pretty girl.
“You’re safe,” he said quietly. “We’ll take care of you now, and when you’re all well enough we’ll make sure you’ve somewhere to stay and some work to keep you. Where are you from?”
“Coimbra, sir, a farm about six miles from the town.”
“And your parents?”
“My mother died when Maria was born. My father and another sister died this winter. We had no food, sir, and they got sick.”
“I am sorry,” Paul said gently. “Rest and keep warm. We will take care of you.”
His wife joined him in the mess for breakfast, dressed warmly in green velvet, and he kissed her. “Merry Christmas, bonny lass.”
“Our first,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of Rowena, today, we had Christmas dinner with you last year. Are you all right, Paul?”
He thought how like her it was. “I’ve been thinking of her too,” he admitted. “I can’t believe it was only a year ago. And I can’t believe how good it feels to be here with you and how bad I feel that she’s not with me. Very confusing.”
Anne took his hand. “I miss her too,” she said gently. “But she’d have wanted this, Paul.”
“I know she would. Come and eat, love.”
They ate and then she went to speak to his officers to wish them happy Christmas. Paul sat for a while, watching her move along the table and thought how easily she had fitted into his life and that of his regiment.
She stopped beside Lieutenant Manson, talking to him, and Paul saw him smile. Manson did not smile enough. After a difficult start in the regiment, he had begun to settle down and had seemed much happier but the arrival of Captain Longford had caused him to withdraw back into his shell. Longford was unpopular with all the officers of the 110th but he had taken a particular dislike to Manson and Paul was very aware that he took every opportunity to make the boy’s life difficult. Glancing over at Longford, Paul smiled at the expression on his face. Anne’s obvious liking for his youngest officer did not help matters; Longford was patently jealous.
With no English church nearby, Paul had managed to find a German minister who had agreed to give a Christmas service in English. He had not made attendance compulsory for his men but he was faintly touched when they crowded into the empty barrack block where he had planned to hold the service. Eventually Anne went to speak to Mr Gruber and his wife and some time was spent moving the proceedings out onto the parade ground where all the men could attend. There was little organised religion in Wellington’s army, but Paul supposed that on this one day the familiar ritual reminded some of them of home.
Christmas dinner was served in the mess with a good deal of wine and a lot of hilarity. Over in the barracks the men would be eating their own meal, followed by dancing and probably a good deal more drinking through the evening. It was good to be able to let them celebrate for once, without having to worry too much about sentries and the possibility of attack.
Aware that he was neglecting his social duties, Paul turned with a smile to Caroline Longford who was seated beside him, but realised she was looking beyond him down the room and he followed her gaze and saw, to his considerable surprise, Sergeant Carter in the doorway. He got up.
Paul moved forward. “All right, Sergeant.” He looked over at Anne. “Carry on,” he said, and she nodded. Paul went out into the hallway.
“What’s going on, Carter. Don’t tell me the French have been sighted?”
“Not that I know of, sir. If they’ve made it past our lads and the light division, I’ll be very surprised.”
“Sir – it’s the lassie. The girl you brought in from town.”
Paul shook his head to clear it of the wine he had drunk. “Francisca? What is it, Carter, is she ill?”
“No, sir. We brought them through to the barracks, sir – for dinner. The women are in there with us eating. Didn’t want to leave them alone. Didn’t realise straight away – we’ve all had a few drinks, sir.”
“You and me both, Carter. It’s bloody Christmas. What’s happened?”
“She’d gone, sir. Maggie Bennett offered to settle the little one with her boy, they were both exhausted. The lad has taken a liking to Private Terry, following him around. So none of us noticed for a while. When we realised, Hammond took off after her. He was worried, like. Didn’t think she’d abandon the children. Easy enough to follow her tracks, it’s been raining again.”
“Did he find her?”
“Yes, sir. Not just her, though.” Carter took a deep breath. “She’d made off with some food. Not that much – Christ, nothing we can’t spare. There’s a camp, sir, just across the river. No idea they were there. We always use the widest part for water and bathing. We were all down there yesterday, they must have heard us freezing our arses off in that water…a refugee camp, sir. She was taking them food, it’s where she came from.”
Paul stood looking at him. “How many?”
“About thirty or so. Men women, about eight or nine children. Looking at the state of them, I’d say they’ve lost a few.”
“Starvation, sir. And cold. They’ve tried to make shelters out of blankets. Sitting huddled together under the trees, shivering, soaked. Waiting to die, I reckon.”
Paul took a deep breath. His mind was suddenly clear, as if he were about to go into battle. “Do you think they can walk, Sergeant?”
“Not the old ones, sir.”
“All right. You have enough sober men to hitch up a couple of wagons and get them up here.”
“We’ll sober them up, sir.”
“Do it. We’ll find blankets for them from the stores. This Christmas is going to cost me a bloody fortune. I’ll get my wife to organise opening up one of the empty barracks blocks and we’ll put a couple of braziers in there to warm it up.”
He turned back into the room and saw Anne coming towards him, her eyebrows raised. “What is it?”
“Bit of a refugee crisis, love.”
He explained quickly and then left her to it, hearing her issuing crisp instructions to his junior officers. Going outside he found his men pulling out two of the supply wagons, clumsy in places from too much wine and food. Turning, he found Jenson leading out Rufus and his own horse.
“Thought you might want to ride down and see for yourself, sir.”
“I do. Thank you, Jenson.”
It was less than ten minutes ride down to the camp, splashing through the ford and up a slope, slippery with soaked vegetation, to the pitiful enclave under the trees. Paul dismounted and moved forward, finding the girl crouching beside an elderly woman with iron grey straggling hair, her black skirts soaked and her body shivering violently.
Paul looked at her. “Did you go into town to try to find food for her?”
“To earn it if I could.”
He understood with sharp distress. “The children.”
“I can’t leave them here; they might wander off. She isn’t well enough. Alfredo will look after Maria while I…it doesn’t take long.”
“I wish you’d told us, lass,” he said. “Come on, let’s get her up. The wagons can make it to the top of the bank but we’ll have to get them up there.”
He carried the old woman up the slippery bank, appalled at how light she was in his arms and then returned to help some of the others up. They were silent and bewildered, blank eyed and gaunt, no longer trusting in the goodwill of others and Paul was silently furious, fighting back tears as he lifted emaciated bodies up to his men on the wagons and then rode ahead of them back to the barracks where his wife waited in the doorway of an empty block with towels and blankets and the calm practicality which always seemed to him to be at war with the delicate beauty which would have made her the toast of London had she cared to return there.
They carried the remains of the Christmas feast from both barracks and officers mess and the refugees received roast pork and duck and George Kelly’s pudding as if they had never seen such riches. Paul watched his wife supervising to ensure that they only ate a little at a time.
She sat, finally, on the bunk beside one of the men, a white haired man who could have been forty or eighty; it was hard to tell from his gaunt face.
“Senora, we are so grateful.”
“Hush. You’re safe and we’ll make sure you’re warm and fed. Rest tonight, you’ve nothing more to care about. Tomorrow I’ll tend to any sickness.”
“God has sent you to us, Senora.”
Anne smiled and to Paul’s amusement, lifted the gaunt hand and kissed it. “It’s Christmas,” she said. “Perhaps he sent you to us.”
She joined him finally as the officers and men congregated around the fires which had been lit on the parade ground. Private Flanagan was tuning his fiddle, and Paul took his wife’s hand. “All right, bonny lass?”
“Yes. I hope they’ll be all right. I’m a bit worried about one or two of the older ones, but we’ll see in a few days if they improve with food and warmth. Oh Paul, they were ten minutes away from us and we didn’t know it.”
“I know. Christ, what a bloody mess. I hope Wellington has got this right.”
“Paul, he’s doing the best he can. We all are.”
The music began, an Irish jig, and Paul watched, holding her hand as his men and their women began to dance. It warmed them in the cold night air, and shortly he saw Michael O’Reilly approaching.
“Ma’am, are you too tired…?”
“No, but she’s dancing with me first. Piss off and find yourself a pretty Portuguese lass, I notice a few of them from the village have turned up. Dance with me, girl of my heart.”
“You put it so nicely, Colonel.”
He took her hand and drew her into the circle by the firelight. “Best make the most of this, lass. God only knows where we’ll be this time next year.”
He left the thought unfinished, but she picked it up as he had known she would. “And who will have survived the year? Make sure you do, will you, Paul? I’ve got very attached.”
“So have I, bonny lass. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Colonel,” Anne said, and in a swirl of black hair, she spun away from him and was caught up in the dance and the firelight and the temporary joy of the cold Christmas night.
Riding down from the villa he arrived through the arched gate of the barracks. The place was teeming with men. Two companies were executing a tight drill in squares on the parade ground, and Paul reined in to admire their work. They were almost as good as his men, and he nodded approval to a grinning captain as he rode on past. In the distance he could hear the clicks of muskets as a company of infantry practiced dry firing out at the range. And ahead of him there was a tangle of wagons as two Portuguese carters delivering food and bedding locked wheels and began to shout loudly at each other, gesticulating wildly. An English voice bellowed at the two men and Paul grinned, recognising the dulcet cockney tones of Private Danny Carter, formerly of the rifles and now permanently part of his light company. Like Paul’s other skirmishers from the rifles Carter flatly refused to change uniform and Paul did not try to make them. He still wore the white armband that Carter’s men had given him after his first battle, and he retained an immense fondness for the independent, obstreperous riflemen. Carter’s voice rose above the two Portuguese. “Jesus bloody Christ if ever I saw such a pig’s ear! Stop whipping the horses you silly bugger and hold still or you’ll have the winter feed for the officers’ horses used as carpet for the bloody Connaught rangers to dance on!” Carter had run to the centre to try to disentangle the two locked wheels. Paul stopped to admire the chaos, but before he could ride forward to intervene there was a peal of laughter and a woman’s voice called out to Carter. “You’re making a worse mull of it than they are! Hold still and I’ll come down and help!” She had called from an upstairs window of the officer’s block and Paul would have recognised her voice anywhere. In a moment she had arrived through the door and went quickly to the head of one of the frightened horses. “Here, ma’am, you’re going to get hurt!” Carter said in a panic, worried, Paul knew, about whether he could somehow be held responsible for the injury to some officer’s mad wife. But the girl took the bridle of the frightened beast and spoke quietly to him. The carter lifted his whip and she held up an imperious hand to stop him. “Stop that! It will frighten him. Stop and wait!” The sense of her words if not the content was clear and the driver lowered his whip. Anne beckoned to Carter. “Come here and hold him. Gently, now.” “Yes, ma’am.” Carter had clearly just seen the girl properly for the first time, and Paul did not blame him for the expression on his face. She wore a white shirt, like a man’s, open at the throat, and a dark riding skirt, which emphasised the small waist and gentle curve of her hip. She had obviously run down without finishing her toilette because her hair was still loose about her shoulders and Paul remembered the feel of it under his hands and felt a stab of longing. Carter took the bridle and Anne went to the other horse. Talking soothingly to him, she carefully backed him up, and Carter led the other horse to one side, separating the carts. The two drivers both burst into voluble thanks in Portuguese and Anne smiled at them impartially. One of them, the younger of the two, took a flower from the buttonhole of his dark jacket and leaned down to give it to Anne. “Obrigada, señor,” Anne said, and the carter, who had the benefit of knowing that he would be gone before the lady’s husband reappeared, placed his fingers to his lips and blew her a dramatic kiss before driving off. Anne stood twirling the flower between long elegant fingers. The other driver moved away and Private Carter came forward uncertainly. “Thank you, ma’am.” Anne turned to look at him. Then she pointed at the retreating carter. “It’s all very well scattering flowers around to passing females,” she said, “but if he doesn’t improve his driving skills the next person he comes across is likely to be a fat choleric colonel with a riding crop and a bad attitude.” She tapped the flower onto Carter’s chest to emphasise her point and turned at the sound of an approaching horse. Shading her eyes against the sun she looked up at Paul. “And I notice that you kept well out of reach until the work was done.” Paul was conscious of poor Carter, unable to take his eyes from the vivid laughing face. He swung down from Rufus. “I was admiring your technique,” he said. “With the horses or the drivers?” Anne enquired going to Rufus’ head. “Hello, boy, how are you again?” “Both,” Paul said. “Rufus is pleased to see you. He knows a woman who keeps carrot tops in her pocket.” “He’s out of luck, I left my jacket upstairs,” Anne said. “How are you, Paul?” “You know I do think we may have to find you a billet out of the barracks,” Paul said. “Now that I have seen you in action, I realise that it is a matter of keeping my men safe. Close your mouth, Carter.” “Yes, sir,” Carter said. “You know the lady, sir?” “To my cost. This is Mrs Anne Carlyon. Lieutenant Carlyon is on Sir Arthur Wellesley’s staff. I met Mrs Carlyon on my trip to Yorkshire last year. At the time she was still choosing between her many suitors.” “Welcome to Portugal, ma’am.” “Thank you, Private Carter. You have much better manners than your commanding officer.” “We’ve tried to teach him, ma’am.” Anne shot him a startled glance and then burst out laughing. She had heard Paul talking with affection about his men, but she had not fully realised the level of informality that reigned within the light company. “Keep trying, Carter, he may improve,” she said. “I have come with messages from Rowena. Is it possible that you could stop flirting with the enlisted men and invite me in for a drink?” “Unchaperoned?” Anne looked up at him from under long lashes. “Is that the right thing to do here? I need Rowena to tell me how to behave.” “You actually do,” Paul said, laughing. “Robert has all my sympathy. He is never going to be able to control you.” “And what makes you think you’d do any better?” Anne said lightly. “I’d never make the attempt; I know my limitations.” Paul was very aware of Carter’s interested regard. “Excuse me, sir, but this has just come for you.” Paul turned at the melodious Irish tones of his sergeant. “Good morning, Sergeant O’Reilly. Thank you. Carter, would you take Rufus to the stables and deliver him to the groom, who should have been here to take him if he were not probably flirting with the cook’s daughter.” “How do you know the cook has a pretty daughter, sir?” “I notice these things,” Paul said, scanning the message quickly. “This is an invitation to something that I have no intention of attending. Lose it, Sergeant.” “Just as you say, sir.” Michael O’Reilly had noticed Anne. He gave her a friendly nod, and then looked again, and hard. Carter had moved away with the horse, still watching Anne. Paul glanced from one to another. “I think perhaps introductions are in order,” he said. “Sergeant…” “Sir, the lady may not wish to be introduced to an NCO,” Michael said warningly. At times he found himself wondering if his commanding officer had ever been taught the rules of society. But the girl with the lovely dark eyes was smiling. Paul smiled back at her and continued as though Michael had not spoken. “Sergeant O’Reilly, this is Mrs Anne Carlyon, who is married to Lieutenant Robert Carlyon on Sir Arthur’s staff. Nan, this is Michael O’Reilly, my sergeant, without whom the light company would not function. Michael is here to remind me of my duty, and Nan is here to flirt with Danny Carter and two Portuguese drivers.” Michael was looking at the girl’s face. He remembered her as he had last seen her, a gallant little figure in a blue cloak who refused to cry. He wondered if she had any idea who he was. And then she smiled again, a smile of warmth and recognition and genuine interest and to his complete astonishment held out her hand. “I remember you,” she said. “I saw you in the carriage that morning in Thorndale.” Michael felt a jolt of surprise, not at her recollection but at her willingness to acknowledge it. “You’ve a good memory for a passing face, ma’am.” Paul looked at her. “I didn’t know you’d seen him,” he said quietly. “Nan…” “Don’t look so worried, Paul. If you trust him, then so do I. I am glad to have met you properly, though, Sergeant. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Michael was studying her. He was very aware of her startling beauty, but there was something more about this girl that he found immensely appealing. Her frank acknowledgment of her relationship with his commanding officer was both surprising and impressive and he glanced at Paul and was shocked at the unguarded expression on his face. It was clear that the passage of time and her marriage had not affected Major van Daan’s feelings about Anne Carlyon. “It’s good to meet you too, ma’am,” he said gently. “I’ll be getting on.” Michael looked at his commanding officer. “Are you coming, sir?” “Yes, I’ll be with you in a moment.” Paul turned back to Anne. “Are you attending this ghastly reception this evening?” She nodded. “Yes. Was that the invitation that you were just trying to get your sergeant to lose?” “It was. But if you’ll be there, I’ll come. We’re only going to be here for a week or so. Wellesley wants to take Oporto back and he’s in a hurry. I don’t know if he’ll want Robert with us or if he’ll leave him here, but I’m concerned about you living in barracks without him here.” “You mean without you here,” Anne said. “Yes, I do.” Paul ran his eyes over her with a rueful smile. “Look at you. Poor Carter nearly passed out when he got a good eyeful, and he won’t be the only one. I don’t know how much your husband cares. I only know how much I do. I’ll talk to you later, I have to go.” He lifted her hand to his lips and turned to catch up with his sergeant. Neither of them spoke for a while. They walked up towards the training field. Finally Paul said: “If you’ve anything to say, Michael, better get it over with now.” “Yes, sir. Something of a surprise, and that’s for sure. Did you know she was coming?” “No. They were on their way to the Cape and Hookey intercepted them. He needed a good administrator. And Carlyon is one, whatever else he is. She, of course, thought we’d gone to South America.” “And what about your wife, sir?” “She’s met my wife already, Sergeant,” Paul said with grim humour. “They like each other.” “God love you, sir, only you could get yourself into this one! Does anybody but me…?” “No. I’ve told nobody and I won’t. She was a lass I met in Yorkshire and now she’s Carlyon’s wife and Rowena’s friend. That’s all.” “Well, you’d better get bloody better at it than that, then, sir, because you just looked at her as though she’s a gift you never expected to get.” “She is,” Paul said quietly. Michael turned to study his commander’s face. Paul had an unusually expressive countenance and Michael had learned to read him very well. It made for an effective working relationship and an easy friendship which his sergeant had come to take for granted but he had never seen his friend like this. “Jesus Christ, Paul, how in God’s name after sleeping with half the women in England did you come to fall in love with a girl that young and that out of reach?” he said softly. “I swear to God I thought you immune.” “So did I,” Paul said. He glanced sideways at his sergeant. “I never intended it, Michael, but I’ve never met a woman remotely like her. I know what you see, lad, and that’s what the rest of the army are going to see as they trip over their own feet every time she walks past. But I’m telling you, there’s a lot more to this girl than the way she looks.” Michael could not help smiling. “I get that, sir. But you need to be careful, not just for Rowena’s sake but for hers too, she’s newly married and very young and you know what the headquarters gossips are like with a reputation.” “Michael, she’s here, when I never expected to see her again. And I will get better at it, and I’m not going to hurt Rowena. But don’t ask me to lie to you and pretend that I’m not bloody happy. Because I am. And next week I’m going to fight the French, which believe it or not is what I came here for.”
“Absolutely brilliant. For 40 years I’ve been fascinated by this period of history, and have read everything I could get my hands on, history, biography, memoirs and fiction. This series is the best fiction I’ve ever read – fantastically well researched and historically accurate, with wonderfully drawn characters and relationships. They give a brilliant idea of what war was like then, as well as a moving love story and brilliant relationships between the male characters.” 5 out of 5 * on Amazon.co.uk
The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place in May 1811 on the border between Portugal and Spain as Lord Wellington led his army to invest the fortress of Almeida. Much of the action took place in the narrow streets of the village, with brutal and bloody hand to hand fighting. The battle is at the heart of An Uncommon Campaign.
Wellington admitted himself once the battle was over that it had been a near-miss. He had extended his line along a ridge above the village with the intention of keeping his potential line of retreat back to Lisbon open, but on this occasion he over-extended himself and the newly formed seventh division found itself stranded out on his right, under huge pressure from the French. Massena was desperate for a win, knowing that his difficulties over the past year had left him unpopular with his Emperor and victory for Wellington was by no means certain.
His right was saved by the light division. General Robert Craufurd had been on leave in England for several months and Wellington’s crack troops had been under the leadership of the disastrous Sir William Erskine who had made a number of atrocious mistakes. After Sabugal, Wellington moved Erskine over to the fifth division and Craufurd arrived back with his men on the battlefield on the eve of the battle and proceeded to show the army how it was done by performing an outrageously perfect fighting retreat over several miles of open country under constant attack in order to rescue the beleaguered seventh division and shift Wellington’s line to something more defensible.
In the novel, the final square in this retreat was commanded by Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th who encounters a French cavalry colonel whom he had met a few days earlier during skirmishing out on the road towards the village…
Thatcher had wheeled his horsemen again and was bringing them round to take a pass back at the guns which Dupres had ordered up against the 110th. Even at a distance, Paul could hear him calling his cavalrymen into line and he felt a surge of sheer horror as he realised. “Jesus Christ, he’s going to cut them off! The rest of his men are behind that outcrop!” He ran towards Nero and swung himself into the saddle yelling, but the Allied cavalry had already begun to gallop towards the guns, sabres ready. The gunners were limbering up and preparing to move, and Paul saw Dupres swing around and give a signal. To the rear of Thatcher’s small troop, a mass of French cavalry appeared, and Dupres galloped his men forward, trapping Thatcher’s men neatly between the rocky ridge and the solid lines of the 110th. They were vastly outnumbered, and half of Dupres’ men were armed with lances. Paul felt his guts twist in horror. The only possible help he could give would involve opening his square and once it was broken, the French would be in and his men would be slaughtered. Paul swung around. “Carter, four ranks. Hold square, but back three ranks loaded and ready. Take out every one of them you can.” Thatcher had realised his danger, but there was no option but to carry on. He raised his sword and pulled out at the head of his men, thundering down towards Dupres and his cavalry. Paul slid from Nero’s back and ran to the side of his square nearest to the approaching cavalry. He placed a hand on the shoulders of the nearest men. “On my word,” he said softly. “Open up.” He saw Carl look over, appalled, but he did not look back at him. Around him the rifles and muskets had opened fire, and Dupres cavalry were beginning to fall. Paul stood waiting, watching the Allied cavalry approach. “Now,” he said, and his square parted. Thatcher saw the move and Paul saw him haul back on the reins with a yell. His horse reared up and he was shouting orders. His troopers wheeled sharply right and rode into the centre of the square, pulling up quickly and shuffling close together to make space. Paul found that he was counting them in as his men continued to pound in three ranks into the approaching French cavalry. The centre of the square was becoming crowded but the horses and men were highly trained and stood very still, leaving space for more. Paul watched, his heart in his mouth as Dupres’ men moved in towards the gap. There were fewer of them, but he knew he had only moments left before they broke into the square. Looking up he saw Thatcher watching, and then the boy looked over at him. There were twenty cavalrymen still outside the square. Thatcher lifted his hand and then wheeled and yelled to his men. Paul watched in sick horror as the men thundered away, galloping on towards Dupres. “Close it!” he yelled. The gap closed smoothly, and the rifles and muskets continued to fire. Paul looked over to where Dupres waited and saw the Colonel looking directly back at him. The Frenchman’s face was flushed. He stared at Paul, and Paul looked back. Dupres’ lips curved into a smile and he lifted his sabre and yelled an order, and Thatcher’s men crashed into him, with the other half of the Frenchmen hitting them from behind. It was short and brutal. Paul’s rifles continued to fire where they they could but the muskets were silenced; it was impossible to aim at the French without risking hitting the English. It was quickly over, and the English cavalrymen were cut down. Around him, Paul could sense the distress of his men and of the rest of the troop. They had all seen deaths in battle many times, but there was something deliberately cruel about the massacre of twenty men within a few feet of them. Paul could no longer see the young captain, but Thatcher’s horse was loose and galloping off and he stood watching, feeling tears behind his eyes. The French cavalry massed around the English troopers who were on the ground, and then there was a thunderous volley of fire, and Paul looked up and saw that Crauford was up on the ridge and the light division were lined up, rifles at the front, firing volleys down on the French. Dupres wheeled his horse with a shouted order and the French were on the run, some of them falling as they galloped away, their Colonel at their head. The rifles of the 110th thundered out and the last half dozen of the cavalry fell from their horses as Dupres men rode out of reach. Paul watched, feeling sick and grief-stricken. For a moment, unusually, he felt unable to move or speak. Around him the guns still fired and he moved his eyes to the bodies on the ground. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “We need to get moving, Paul,” Carl said quietly, and Paul stirred and nodded and looked over to the lines. “Open up,” he said to Carter. “Let the cavalry out first.” He stood watching as the men filed out, then called his men into line and let his officers lead them up onto the ridge to join the rest of the light division. Further away he was conscious of the French infantry advancing in column but they were too far away to be an immediate concern. As his men moved ahead, Paul broke away and ran to where the bodies of the English cavalry lay. Captain Thatcher lay on his back and his body had been slashed over and over. Across his throat was a savage cut, which reminded Paul of what had almost happened to Manson. Thatcher’s eyes were open, staring at the sky. Paul reached out and closed his eyes very gently. “Colonel van Daan!” He recognised the bellow of General Craufurd from the ridge above. Ignoring it, Paul stooped and lifted the long form of the young captain. He moved forward towards the lines, and saw several of his men break away and come back, ignoring the yells of their general. Carter, Hammond and Dawson came to assist him and they carried Captain Thatcher’s body up the ridge and behind the lines. At the top Paul stepped back and let his men carry Thatcher to the back. Craufurd came forward. “Colonel van Daan. That has to have been one of the…” Paul swung around. “Don’t!” he said softly, and Craufurd stopped. “Well done, lad,” he said quietly, and Paul shook his head. “No it wasn’t. I couldn’t save him. I stood there and watched that bastard cut him down and I couldn’t do anything to help him. And he came in to save our arses.” Craufurd put his hand on Paul’s shoulder. “I know, Colonel. Nastiest thing I’ve ever seen on the field, they could have taken them prisoner, no need for that. Come on, get back to your men. Nothing more you can do for him now.” Paul nodded and turned away, making his way over to his lines. His men had taken up position on the edge of the ridge. Mechanically he checked their lines and approved the rocky outcrops behind which they were stationed. He was conscious of his immense pride in them. Their retreat across the plains had been a textbook piece of infantry work and at some point he wanted to tell them so, but his eyes and ears were still full of the tragedy of Thatcher’s pointless death. Craufurd had moved away and was speaking to one of the Spanish runners, giving him a message to take to Lord Wellington. Paul watched, feeling curiously detached. Craufurd moved away and came back towards him. “They’ve attacked Fuentes de Onoro again,” he said briefly. “They’ve got the highlanders fighting down there, they’re holding their own. We’re to hold up here, wait and see what those infantry columns do. They might attack, although we’re in a strong position up here.” “Yes, sir,” Paul said. Craufurd nodded and moved away up towards the first and second brigade to speak to Beckwith and Drummond. Paul turned and looked out over the French columns, three infantry divisions moving into place to threaten the British lines. Silently Paul assessed the distance and the situation and then he turned and yelled an order. Shock rippled through the first division and light division as the 110th fired. Their first tremendous volley ripped into the first line of French infantry and blew them apart. Craufurd moved forward with an oath. “What the bloody hell is he doing?” he said furiously. There was another enormous blast of gunfire and the second French rank exploded. It had taken them that long to realise, incredulously, that the British were not waiting for them to attack. Under shouted orders from their commanders they fell back quickly, dragging some of their wounded with them. Paul stood watching their frantic movements, his face expressionless. “Major Swanson, Major Clevedon, Colonel Wheeler. You’ve got the range. Any one of them steps within it, I want him dead. See to it.” “Yes, sir,” Johnny said quietly, and watched as his commander walked away and back up to where Craufurd waited with Beckwith and Drummond. “This could be interesting,” Clevedon said mildly. “Yes. Bet Craufurd is wishing his holiday had lasted longer,” Carl said with a grin. There was something about the set of his commander’s back which suggested that he was ready to take on General Craufurd and possibly Lord Wellington as well. “All right, Sergeant, you heard what the colonel said. Keep them loaded and if there’s a Frenchman you can hit, he’s dead. The colonel is seriously pissed off with them and I do not want him pissed off with us as well, it’s never pleasant.” Paul approached Craufurd, saluted silently and waited. “I did not give permission for your men to open fire, Colonel!” Craufurd said furiously. “No, sir. I did that.” “Without orders! What in God’s name is wrong with you, Colonel? You’ve been in command of a brigade for five minutes and you already think you don’t have to follow my commands.” “Sorry, sir.” “Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? You’re not fucking sorry at all!” “No, sir. Not at all. Just being polite.” “Polite?” Craufurd looked as though he might explode. Paul glanced at Beckwith and Drummond then back at his chief. “Permission to go back to my men, sir?” “Van Daan, you are an arrogant young bastard without any respect for authority or…” “Yes, I have, sir. Immense respect for authority, especially your authority. I could point out that you didn’t tell me not to fire those volleys, but you and I both know that would be nit picking! I fired them because I’m fucking angry and I felt like letting them know that they cut down our men like that and I’m going to fucking slaughter them any chance I get! And you know what? I think they got the fucking point! Let’s see how quickly they come forward against my lads again today, shall we? And if Lord Wellington is looking for volunteers to march down to Fuentes de Onoro and kill a few more of them, you just let me know because I’m in the mood! Permission to go back to my men, sir?” Craufurd studied him for a moment. Unexpectedly he said quietly: “Go ahead, Colonel.” “Thank you, sir.”
(From An Uncommon Campaign; Book 3 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)
Church in Fuentes de Onoro.
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Many thanks to Richard for the brilliant photographs. It was the most amazing feeling to stand looking at some of the buildings and places associated with my story – I’d read endless descriptions and battlefield guides but actually going there gave the whole thing a completely different feeling.
They also gave me some fantastic new book covers. I’ve been unsure about the original covers for these books from the start. Partly this was because despite all Sheri’s amazing efforts, I just couldn’t find the right couple to portray Paul and Anne as I saw them. I don’t have the money to pay a commercial artist to draw them and the couple on the book just don’t work for me. They were a brilliant compromise to get me started and I love all Sheri’s other covers for me, but I was unsettled about these.
Secondly, I am aware that the covers gave a very strong impression of a romantic novel, with the couple being the main feature. I’m all in favour of romantic novels, but these books are something more and I wanted to convey that. Richard, who is as good with technology as he is with photography, offered to try to create something different, and the results are actually rather stunning, with a scene from each book layered with an old map of the Peninsula. I love them to bits and I genuinely think they’re helping to sell the books to people who would probably not have thought to try them before. They’re only available on the kindle version at present, but we are working on the paperback covers. None of this detracts from the great work done by Sheri McGathy on all my covers and I will continue to use her and heartily recommend her, especially for romance and fantasy novels. Her prices are reasonable, she’s quick and reliable and very patient with fiddling around to get the result you want.
Working on the new covers with the man I married was definitely a challenge at times. I can’t speak highly enough of his patience and tolerance of my uncertainty about “home made covers”. In the end he came up with something which I think is better than some commercially produced covers that I’ve seen. There is a theme, and I’m looking forward to going back to the Peninsula next year, and possibly to Waterloo as well to take more photographs for future covers. I’m also going to get him to design one for my Manx themed novel since we’d be spoiled for choice for beautiful photographs here.
The areas of Spain and Portugal we visited were not major tourist areas, and having a car is essential, although there are a number of very good tour companies which do Peninsular War trips for those who don’t want to drive. I loved both countries, but on this trip I think Portugal won for me. In A Redoubtable Citadel, Paul is described as having fallen in love with Portugal: the language, the culture and the people. I think the same thing happened to me.
There are several blog posts from the trip but I’m currently putting together a section of the website specifically for travel and reviews of historic sites which I’ll share when it’s complete.
In the meantime, enjoy the photos and if you want to see more, there are galleries associated with all my books here.
This is the link to Richard’s flickr page which has a variety of photographs on it and is well worth a visit.
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We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antoniojust outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.
Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas
In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz. Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly). Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.
The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.
Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows. For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops. They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.
(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)
Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz. The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.
The aqueduct, Elvas
Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence. During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.
The Cathedral in Elvas
There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily. The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed. We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.
The cathedral, Elvas
The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town. With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.
Countryside around Elvas, Portugal
Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.
English Cemetary in Elvas
On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.
Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas
Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here. I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people. I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.
Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window. It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and I can hear the cattle in the background. It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.
He succeeded but the cost was horrendous. Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.
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Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.
They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly. The Irishman grinned at him. “Welcome to the light company, laddie. You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”
“I’m fine, sir.” Manson gave a brief smile. “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked. “He doesn’t normally say that.”
Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile. “Clever lad,” he said. “No he doesn’t. He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this. No democracy here. He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”
Manson studied him through the mist. “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility. Nobody else can be scapegoated.”
“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him. “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”
“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.
“I wasn’t talking about me, sir. It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball. I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”
“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused. “Hope this goes well for his sake.”
They marched into eerie silence. Paul had drawn his sword. Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch. They made their way steadily up the hill. He watched his light company moving ahead. Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position. He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.
(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)
We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal. It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it. Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here. It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.
The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy. It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army. General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division. In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores. Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.
Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.
Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition. This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally. From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love. It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food. There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.
Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal
Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa. This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place. In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to. I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.
Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge
After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13. I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.
Wellington's Headquarters in Freineda
We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes d’Onoro. Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located. In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.
Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro. Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.
Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.
An amazing day. By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.
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The Lines of Torres Vedras were an extraordinary achievement, their existence hidden from the French for many months.
“This is a matter of the utmost secrecy, Major,” Wellington said. “I do not wish this to reach anybody, even your own officers. Before we proceed, I need your word on that.” Paul was puzzled. “You have it, sir.” “Good. Because Sir Richard has some drawings to show me, and I would like to know what you think. Come over to the table.” Paul got up and followed his chief to a long table at the other end of the room. There were a number of maps and drawings laid out upon it. Fletcher drew one towards him and pointed. It was a map of Portugal, with drawings and notations over it. Paul studied it for a moment. Then he set down his glass, leaned on the table and looked closer. Nobody spoke for some minutes. After a while, Paul looked up at his chief. “Bloody hell!” he said. “Is this how you’re spending the winter?”
The meeting above was Major Paul van Daan’s introduction to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington’s ambitious defensive system which created three lines of fortifications to stop the French taking Lisbon again.
Touring the lines for the first time, I was surprised at the sheer scale of the project. Driving through the countryside, there were signs everywhere pointing to ruined forts and redoubts, and we visited various visitor centres and interpretation centres.
It rained all day which was a shame, because the fantastic views from the heights which we saw yesterday were shrouded in mist. Still it was atmospheric driving up the unmetalled road around impossible bends to the high point of Serra do Socorro which was the main semaphore station during the war. There is a hermitage at the top with an exhibition which concentrates on Wellington’s communication system along the lines. Wellington used to ride up here most days from his headquarters in Pero Negro.
Going back down the hill we drove to the little village of Pero Negro where Wellington had his headquarters during the winter of 1810. The house, Quinta dos Freixos, belonged to Baron Manique and is now privately owned but can be photographed.
Wellington's house in Pero Negro
From Pero Negro we drove along winding roads through valleys and up and down hills, following paths which must have been daily ridden by the officers of Wellington’s army during those difficult days. Arriving at the pretty town of Arruda dos Vinhos we visited the small visitor centre at the Centro Cultural do Morgado. This area was the centre of operations for Robert Craufurd’s light division and the streets would have been populated with Portuguese cacadores mingling with the redcoats of the 52nd and 43rd light infantry along with the green jackets of the 95th rifles.
From there we followed the trail to Mafra to the magnificent National Palace. This building was occupied by the Portuguese royal family before they fled to Brazil and subsequently by the French, Spanish, British and Portuguese armies. The English established a military hospital there and later, Marshal Beresford requested permission to establish a recruitment and training centre for the Portuguese army there. Today it is the home of the Escola Pratica de Infantaria training the modern Portuguese army. The visitor centre gives fascinating insights into how the presence of foreign armies affected the ordinary people of the region, especially in terms of provisions and the requisition or purchase of supplies.
Mafra - Palace
I went back to Torres Vedras feeling slightly sobered. I have tried to give some indication in the books about the impact of war on the local population, but I feel somehow that I’ve missed something and might want to revisit it. We have both been slightly surprised by how important this war seems to have been in this part of the world. For many English people, the Peninsular war is just part of the great war against Napoleon and very few are aware of the huge number of refugees who were displaced from homes and farms and villages, fleeing with the English behind the lines so that Wellington could proceed with his policy of scorching the earth and starving out the French. Even worse, and this was not really mentioned anywhere we went today, was the fate of those Portuguese people who chose not to follow instructions and flee south. For them, the starving French army was a plague of locusts who stripped them of everything they owned.
When finally Massena was obliged to give up and retreat back to Spain, pursued by Wellington’s army, their fate was even worse. The Anglo-Portuguese army was able to follow the French by the plumes of smoke rising from burning villages and towns, and writings of the time report civilian bodies lying in the streets.
In a small town in England, the central square is likely to be occupied by a monument to those who died in the first or second world wars. In Torres Vedras, outside our hotel, the monument is to the horrors of the French wars and for me being there brought a genuine sense of the impact of that war on this country. Wellington was here fighting the war and English soldiers died, but the tragedy behind it was that of Portugal, of the men, women and children who suffered as the armies marched across their homeland.
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