An Unassuming Gentleman

Welcome to An Unassuming Gentleman, my free short story for Valentine’s Day 2022. For this story, I’ve gone back to the first weeks of 1809 when Sir John Moore died on the field of Corunna and his army returned to England suffering from sickness, exhaustion and starvation after an appalling retreat over the mountains in winter.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, this story is not about that retreat, it’s about one of the officers who took part in it. Gervase Clevedon has been part of the Peninsular War Saga from the first, one of Paul van Daan’s inner circle, moving in and out of the action regularly. Yet very little has been said about his personal life. We know he is the younger son of an Earl, with a difficult relationship with his elder brother but the books have been silent on the subject of his marital status.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyTo set this story in context of the books, it would slot in part way through An Unconventional Officer. Paul van Daan has returned from his memorable time in Yorkshire and sailed with Wellesley to fight at the battles of Rolica and Vimeiro. After the unpopular convention of Cintra, the three commanders were summoned back to London to face an inquiry and the army marched into Spain under Sir John Moore. The exception was a few companies left behind in Lisbon under Major Paul van Daan, many of whom were suffering, like Paul’s wife, from camp fever. After Moore’s disastrous campaign, which ended with his death at Corunna, the army returned to England for a few months to recover before going back to Portugal under Wellesley. Captain Gervase Clevedon was with them.

I wanted to make a brief mention of my heroine’s name. I’m very fond of the name Heather, and I’ve been dying to use it, in honour of my editor but I wasn’t sure if it was used as a girls’ name during this era. A check of the incredibly useful Ancestry.com told me there was no problem with it.

As I know my readers love to work out links to characters in other books, I’ve managed to work in links to both my standalone early novels in this story. Readers of A Respectable Woman may like to know that Gervase Clevedon is the uncle of Kit Clevedon who is the hero of that book. Meanwhile Heather MacLeod’s brother is Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish title going back to the sixteenth century where the second Baron Crawleigh defended his lands against the invasion of the Earl of Hertford in A Marcher Lord. 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers. This one is unashamedly romantic. I hope you enjoy it, and it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

An Unassuming Gentleman.

 

It rained on the evening of Lady Sefton’s ball and a canopy had been set up across the street, to shelter the revellers during the short walk from the carriage steps to the house. Mrs Heather MacLeod, who had not particularly wanted to attend the ball, found herself wondering how much it had cost to effectively close off part of the square, so that her Ladyship’s guests might keep their feet dry.

Heather had been on a routine visit to London when she found herself ambushed by her sister-in-law. Lady Crawleigh had invited her down from her home in Scotland for a few weeks, with the promise of the theatre, the opera, some concerts and a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. Taking part in the balls and receptions of the London Season was not part of the plan and Heather was infuriated when Lady Crawleigh presented her with a pile of invitations on which her name was included.

“You may take those away, Fiona, for I shall not be attending any of them. I didn’t come here to go to parties, I cannot think what possessed you.”

“I have already replied on your behalf, Heather, so it will seem very rag-mannered if you don’t turn up,” Fiona said cheerfully. “You could of course write to the hostesses excusing yourself. I’ll leave them on the mantlepiece in case you wish to do so.”

“I? It was not I who accepted in the first place.”

“They don’t know that.”

“Fiona, how dare you? You know how much I dislike this kind of thing. I shall be bored witless. Besides, I don’t have anything suitable to wear since I never go to balls or receptions since Alex died and you promised me culture.”

“You shall have all the culture you desire, my love, providing you come out of your self-imposed seclusion and join the rest of the world for a few months. It won’t hurt you at all. I’ve made an appointment with my dressmaker. You are quite right, your gowns are looking dated. And…”

“I don’t want this.”

“You need this,” Fiona said with sudden quiet ferocity. “You’ve been hiding away in Comrie Castle for three years now and it is enough. Charles and I both agree on this. It isn’t good for you.”

“Charles is a traitor and I disown him as my brother.”

“Charles loves you. Alex was his friend he knows how much you miss him. But you’re only twenty-eight, Heather, you’re too young to wear widows’ weeds for the rest of your life.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Fiona, I stopped wearing mourning two years ago.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. And how would I know what you’ve been wearing? I never see you.”

“Nonsense, I’ve stayed with you every summer.”

“And refuse to see anybody else. It’s not good for you, Heather.”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“Well this year you will have to put up with it. I mean it, Heather. Not one single concert or play will I attend with you unless you agree to accompany me to these parties. Your word on it.”

Heather glared at her. “This is blackmail and you will regret it. You may force me to attend, but you cannot make me enjoy it.”

“You sound like a five-year-old, dearest sister-in-law. Well, we shall see.”

Heather’s new gowns had not arrived by the date of Lady Sefton’s ball. Fiona had offered to lend her something, but Heather refused. Partly it was from sheer perversity, and partly it was because Fiona was six inches taller than her, with a fuller figure, and Heather suspected that even when altered, the gown would look cobbled together. She selected the best of her ballgowns, a charming green silk which she had not worn since her husband had died of a summer fever three years earlier. Heather supposed that the eagle-eyed ladies of fashion would be able to detect that the gown was out of date but she decided she did not care. She allowed Fiona’s maid to arrange her hair in the latest style, purchased new slippers and gloves and accepted a very pretty painted fan as a gift from her brother with a grim smile. The fan would be useful since Lady Sefton’s rooms were insufferably hot.

Heather was not new to London society and recognised enough people to make her feel at ease despite her long absence. Lord Crawleigh and his wife kept a house in town which they used during the Parliamentary season and were very much at home in government and diplomatic circles. Several women who had made their debut at the same time as Heather, and were now married, stopped to speak to her. She made polite conversation, accepted their congratulations at her re-emergence into society and tried not to grit her teeth too obviously.

Heather met with nothing but kindness and within an hour, she realised she was beginning to thaw. She was not ready to admit it to her interfering relatives, but she was quite enjoying renewing old acquaintances and catching up on the gossip. The music was infectious, and Heather stood beside her brother watching a cotillion and realised her feet were tapping. She remembered a little sadly how much she had enjoyed dancing with Alex during the first heady days of their courtship. She watched this year’s debutantes, their faces bright and eager and full of hope for the future and wondered if any of them was experiencing the breathless happiness of falling in love that she remembered so well.

Heather’s drifting thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. She glanced around and saw that it came from a group of men who, like her, were watching the dancing. At their centre was a tall, well-built individual who was probably in his thirties. He was expensively dressed, with his hair carefully styled and he had an over-loud voice which made everything he said easily audible to those around him.

“What do you say then, Alverstone? Who is to be this Season’s Incomparable? Miss Hibbert? Lady Caroline Forster?”

“Not at all,” the big man said. “The Hibbert is too tall and the Forster has crooked teeth. The Middleton girl is pretty, but her father’s got money troubles, or so I’ve heard. No, the girl for me is the little Flood heiress. Going to speak to her father as a matter of fact. It’s time I got my house in order now that I’ve come into the title. Nice little thing, good manners, very good Ton and a lovely figure. No reason to kick her out of bed on a cold night.”

There was more laughter. “You’d better watch it, old man, she’s over there dancing with Evesham, and he looks very pleased about it.”

“I don’t need to dance with her, Sheldon. I’ve got the title and the fortune. All I need is for her father to agree, and he will, believe me.”

Heather could feel her lip curling in distaste. She began to turn away but realised that the unpleasant Lord Alverstone had noticed her scrutiny and possibly her expression. He was staring at her, running his eyes over her in a way that made Heather’s skin crawl. Deliberately she turned towards her brother, presenting the other man with a view of her back.

“Who’s that with Crawleigh, Sheldon?” Alverstone asked loudly.

“I believe it’s his sister, Mrs MacLeod. I vaguely remember her from her debut, it was years ago. I think she’s widowed now.”

“Ha! Well her late husband did himself a favour if you ask me. Fancy being leg-shackled to a nondescript dwarf wearing last season’s gown. Couldn’t she be bothered to tidy herself up to enter polite society again?”

The words were loud enough to be heard by everybody in the vicinity. Heather was furious to feel herself blushing scarlet. She felt her brother stiffen in anger beside her and heard a murmur of comment, and one or two hastily suppressed sniggers.

“Heather, do you want me to…”

“No, Charles, please don’t. It will only encourage him.”

Heather took a deep breath and turned to look fully at Lord Alverstone. He was looking back at her mockingly, daring her to make a scene. Heather very much wanted to slap him, but she knew that for her brother’s sake she must not.

She turned away, furious to realise that she was shaking a little, with a combination of anger and embarrassment. She should not have agreed to attend such a fashionable ball in her outmoded gown, but she had been enjoying herself and nobody else had shown any sign of caring until Alverstone had drawn it to everybody’s attention.

“Are you all right, Heather?”

“Yes. No. I need to get out of here, Charles, but I don’t want him to think that I’m running away…”

“Lord Crawleigh.”

Heather turned in surprise. The voice was very different to Alverstone’s. It was a quiet baritone which held unconscious authority. She had noticed him standing on the edge of Alverstone’s group of cronies, a man of medium height, in military dress with mid-brown hair and attractive hazel eyes. Heather had no idea who he was and wondered if he had come to apologise for his friend’s rudeness. She hoped not.

“Clevedon,” her brother said delightedly. “I didn’t realise you were here tonight. Or even that you were back in England. How are you, old boy? Were you at…I mean, I’m assuming you must have been…”

Captain Clevedon smiled slightly. “Corunna? Yes, I was there. I’ve not been all that well as you can imagine, this is my first proper attempt at being social.”

“Well, I should think so. Dreadful business. Very sorry to hear about Sir John Moore, he’ll be much missed.”

“He will.” Captain Clevedon transferred his attention to Heather. He bowed. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, ma’am.”

“No, of course,” Charles said quickly. “This is my sister, Clevedon, Mrs MacLeod. She married Alex MacLeod, you’ll remember him. Died three years ago, some ghastly fever epidemic. Heather, this is Captain the Honourable Gervase Clevedon, a friend from my army days. He started off in the 71st with me then transferred to the 110th.”

Heather recognised the name and was furiously aware that Captain Clevedon had indeed approached her to apologise, not for his friend but for his brother. She glared at Charles, since she could hardly glare at the hapless Clevedon, and wished he would get this over with so that she could leave with dignity and have a good cry in the carriage home.

“It is very good to meet you, Mrs MacLeod. I was wondering if you would consider dancing with me? I’ve been away from London for so long. I am hopelessly out of practice, but if you’d take pity on me I would be very grateful.”

It was worse than she had expected. Heather shot her brother an indignant look, and Charles looked back with eyes which entreated her not to make a scene. He was right, she knew. There was no way to withdraw without making it look as though she was storming out. She gave a rigid smile and placed her gloved hand in Clevedon’s.

The dancers were forming up for a country dance. Heather took her place opposite Clevedon. He shot her a reassuring smile and she forced herself to respond, wishing this were over. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and Clevedon held out his hand.

“If I forget the steps, just push me,” he whispered. “I’m very good at taking orders, I promise you. Good luck.”

The remark was so unexpected that Heather let out a giggle. Her partner grinned back at her as he stepped back and then forward into the opening figure of the dance. Heather took a deep breath and let him turn her neatly before passing her hand onto the opposite gentleman in the set.

It was immediately clear that if Gervase Clevedon had not danced in London for a while, he had definitely danced somewhere. Heather had not and she had to concentrate to remember the steps. The music was lively and within a minute, Heather stopped thinking about her gown or her wounded pride and was caught up in the sheer joy of dancing again after so long.

When the music ended, Captain Clevedon bowed and raised her hand to his lips. “Thank you, I enjoyed that so much. I was worried I’d run out of energy halfway through, but we carried the day.”

Heather smiled. “I almost refused to dance with you.”

“I know you did, ma’am, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. You must have been furious.”

“I thought you were going to apologise to me.”

Clevedon led her from the dance floor and neatly removed two champagne glasses from the tray of a passing waiter. “For Alverstone? I make a point of never apologising for him, or I’d never do anything else.”

Heather laughed aloud as she took the champagne. “Then why did you ask me to dance?”

“Mostly to annoy him. But also, I’d noticed you earlier because of that green silk gown. Several years ago, when I was last in London, I solicited a lady for a dance, who was wearing just that particular shade. She was a considerable heiress and a noted beauty and she turned me down very haughtily. I was hoping I might do better this time. I’m delighted to say that I did.”

Heather could not stop laughing. “I have no idea if any of that is true,” she said.

“I promise you that it is.”

“I collect you don’t get on with your brother.”

“I dislike him excessively. I hope that doesn’t shock you? Your own brother is a very good fellow. I’m deeply envious of you.”

“Doesn’t that make it difficult living with him?”

“Oh, I’m not staying at Alverstone House, ma’am, I wouldn’t dream of it when he is in residence. I have a house of my own near Ampthill in Bedfordshire. I inherited the estate from my mother’s family. And when I’m in London, I have a standing invitation to stay with the family of my commanding officer in Curzon Street. They’re very good hosts, especially just now, because none of them are there. Are you staying with Crawleigh?”

“Yes, for a few weeks. I live in Scotland, I inherited my husband’s estate and I seldom come to London. My sister-in-law has been bullying me, saying I should make more effort to be social.”

“Well I’m very glad you did,” Clevedon said. “May I take you into supper?”

“I…yes, if you wish it.”

“Will you dance with me again?”

Heather was laughing again. “Isn’t there some kind of rule which says we may only dance together twice?”

“Oh no, surely that rule only applies to debutantes.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well can we pretend that neither of us knows any better? They won’t be surprised. You’ve been hiding in a Scottish castle for three years and I’ve been in the army, they don’t expect any better from us.”

Heather felt as though her head was spinning slightly. “Are you always like this? How did you know it was a castle?”

“No, is it? I just made that up. I must have the second sight. Dance with me again, Mrs MacLeod. I’ve just survived the worst retreat…you honestly can’t imagine. Please?”

Heather sipped the champagne. “Was it really that bad? The retreat to Corunna?”

Unexpectedly the laughing eyes were serious. “Yes,” he said. “So bad, in fact, that I’m trying not to think about it too much at the moment. I’m supposed to be convalescing.”

“By dancing.”

“It is good for both the body and the soul. Especially dancing with you. You have the prettiest eyes.”

“Captain Clevedon, are you trying to flirt with me?” Heather said in what she hoped was a repressive voice.

Clevedon looked at her for a long moment. “Do you know, I think I am,” he said cordially. “Do you think that’s a sign of recovery? Come along, they’re about to start the quadrille and I think I can remember that one.”

***

The rain had stopped when Gervase Clevedon stepped out into the cool winter air. London was not particularly sweet smelling most of the time, but the rain had washed down the streets and given them a fresh damp scent. Gervase stood for a moment, his head swimming pleasantly, and decided he was sober enough to walk home. A queue of carriages stood waiting to collect their occupants. Gervase’s hosts had informed him that he was to make use of their town carriage without hesitation, but Gervase preferred to walk although he knew perfectly well that his brother would never dream of walking the ten minutes to his home in Berkeley Square. More than ten years in the army had given Gervase considerable hardiness and he would have been embarrassed to call for the carriage for such a short distance.

Gervase had stood up with Heather MacLeod for more than the regulation two dances. If anybody had cast disapproving glances their way, he had not noticed and did not care. When he had limped off the transport from Corunna to begin his convalescence, Gervase had been so weak from starvation, exhaustion and a minor wound to his shoulder that he could not have contemplated even a short walk, let alone an evening dancing. Physically he had recovered very quickly but the emotional effects of the long agonising retreat followed by a battle he was not fit to fight were taking longer to shake off.

The retreat to Corunna had been a disaster for the British army. Only two thirds of Gervase’s battalion had marched into Spain with Sir John Moore. The rest of them remained in Lisbon, struck down by the worst epidemic of camp fever Gervase had ever seen. At the time, Gervase had thought himself lucky to have avoided it. Colonel Johnstone rallied those men fit enough to fight and joined the main army, and Gervase felt sorry for Major Paul van Daan who was both his commanding officer and his friend. Paul’s friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley had given him a significant part to play in the victories at Rolica and Vimeiro the previous year, but this time he was left in Lisbon in command of the sick troops while Johnstone marched to potential glory. To make it worse, Paul’s wife succumbed to the sickness and Gervase knew he had spent a miserable six weeks in Lisbon fretting over her before returning to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his much-depleted companies, to receive the news of Moore’s death.

Moore’s campaign had gone wrong from the start. He had taken over command of the army when the three previous commanders had been summoned back to London to face an inquiry over the convention of Cintra, which had caused public outrage because of the lenient terms granted to the defeated French. Gervase wondered if Sir Arthur Wellesley would have done any better than Moore, given the impossible circumstances. Moore could not be asked to account for the failure of his campaign. He had been killed during the desperate battle fought on the shore at Corunna where his sickly, starving and exhausted army managed to beat back the French long enough to board the transports waiting to take them home.

Gervase had lost both his horses during the long retreat, and too many of his men. They fell beside the road, dying of sickness and hunger and cold and he could do nothing for them. He also lost control of them, unable to prevent episodes of looting and drunkenness whenever they happened upon a village or a farm where food was available. Spanish farmers and their families were murdered and women were raped. Gervase did not know if any of his men were responsible for the worst of the depredations but even the fact that they might have been left him depressed and ashamed.

Flirting with Heather MacLeod on the dance floor and across the supper table had made him happier than he had been for months and Gervase was enormously grateful. He was also intrigued. She was an attractive woman who seemed entirely without vanity. In place of it, she had ideas, and interests and laughter. She laughed more than any woman he had ever met. She also talked a lot. Gervase thought of himself as a quiet man, but Heather MacLeod was amazingly easy to talk to. He discovered, with some surprise, that they shared a lively sense of the ridiculous and her conversation was peppered with observations about their fellow revellers that kept him in a ripple of laughter all evening. He realised, as he turned into Curzon Street, that he could not wait to see her again.

It was past two o’clock as Gervase mounted the steps to Tevington House. He did not knock, unwilling to wake up the neighbours, knowing that the butler or one of the footmen would be on the watch for his return. Sure enough, the door opened after only a few moments and Gervase stepped into the hallway, which was dimly lit by a branch of candles set on a polished table. He took off his hat.

“If you think I’m taking your damned hat as well as waiting up to let you in, you’re much mistaken, Captain Clevedon.”

Gervase turned in astonishment, his face lighting up at the sight of a tall fair man in uniform who was smiling at him.

“Paul! What on earth are you doing here, acting as butler at this hour?”

“Are you drunk, Gervase? This is my house. At least it’s my father’s house.”

Gervase set his hat down on the side table, carefully avoiding the candles, and remembered to salute. Major Paul van Daan regarded him critically. “Not much more than half-sprung, I suspect. I got here very late after the journey from hell, so I had supper and thought I’d wait up for you. They said you were at Lady Sefton’s.”

“I was. It’s the first time I’ve ventured out to anything more strenuous than a supper party at White’s, but unexpectedly I enjoyed myself. I’m surprised to see you, sir, I thought you fixed in Leicestershire.”

“I am. In fact, I’m completely invisible and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from advertising my presence in town. Wellesley wrote to me asking me to come up for a few days. I’m dining with him tomorrow. It seems we’ll be going back to Portugal with him.”

“They’ve given him the command?”

“Yes, although I don’t know how official it is yet. Are you too tired for another drink? I’ve kept the fire going in the library.”

“As long as it isn’t champagne. I have drunk enough champagne this evening. Why are you travelling incognito?”

Paul picked up the candles and led the way into the library. He set them down and went to pour wine. “Because I don’t want to see anybody,” he said frankly. “Apart from Wellesley, and of course you. I’m enjoying the life of a country layabout for a month or two, with nothing more strenuous than the ride into barracks, and I promised Rowena I wouldn’t stay long.”

“How is she, sir?”

“She seems fully recovered, but it’s going to take me a while to get over the fright she gave me.”

“And how are the men?”

“Improving. We’ve lost some, Gervase, I can’t lie to you. I can’t decide if I feel guilty or relieved that I wasn’t there.”

“Feel relieved,” Gervase said sombrely, drinking the wine. “It was pure hell, appallingly organised with a complete breakdown of discipline. We lost control of our men, Paul, and I’ve never had to say that before. It’s a miracle we got as many of them out of there as we did. You missed nothing.”

“That’s never going to happen again.”

Gervase grinned at the ferocious certainty of the other man’s tone. “Yes, sir. Now let’s talk of other things, it depresses me. I saw Wellesley tonight. He was dancing with a number of pretty women, none of whom were his wife.”

“That is no surprise at all. He has reason to celebrate. Wholly exonerated by the inquiry, a vote of thanks from Parliament, and the promise of a new command.”

Gervase gave a faint smile. “And did he deserve all of those?”

Paul grinned. “Two out of three,” he said honestly. “He signed that bloody thing along with the other two. I doubt he agreed with it, but I’m also damned sure he didn’t realise the furore it was going to cause, or he’d never have done it. Needless to say, he didn’t ask my opinion. I’m glad he got away with it though because he deserves the command and the approbation. Now let’s see what he can do with nobody holding him back. Was your brother at Lady Sefton’s tonight?”

“To my sorrow. He’s the reason I was planning to post up to Bedfordshire at the end of the week. Just being in the same room as him makes me want to punch him, I cannot think how we came to be related. He tells me he is about to make an offer of marriage to some unfortunate girl. I wish I could put a spoke in the works because he’ll treat her appallingly, but there’s nothing I can do. He’s an Earl, her parents cannot wait to hand her over.”

“Who is it?”

“Lady Clarissa Flood. She’s nineteen.”

“Dear God.”

“I know. He can’t even be bothered to woo the girl. He’ll just sign the marriage contract and start giving her orders. Thank God I’ll be back in Portugal with you and won’t have to watch it.”

“Ambitious parents create a lot of misery. When are you going to Ampthill? It’s not that far, you should come up to Southwinds for a few days. I promise not to make you run drill or skirmish training.”

Gervase laughed. “You would break that promise in two days, sir, you can’t help yourself. I’m not sure actually. I was going to go, but I may decide to stay in town for a week or two. I ran into an old friend this evening. Do you know Crawleigh? We were in the 71st together, but he sold out when he inherited the title. His wife has invited me to dine on Tuesday, and I’m joining them at the theatre on Friday.”

Paul van Daan studied him for a long silent moment, sipping his wine. Gervase drank his, saying nothing. Eventually, Paul set his glass down and got up to bring the bottle to the low table before the fire. He refilled both glasses, sat back and studied Gervase thoughtfully.

“What’s her name?” he asked.

***

It was the first time in many years that Gervase had spent any time in London during the season and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. As the younger son of the Earl of Alverstone, his place in society was assured but his loathing for his elder brother meant that he tended to avoid town when the new Earl was in residence.

Gervase could tell that Alverstone was baffled by his extended stay. They spoke occasionally when meeting at social events and his brother was probing, trying to discover what was keeping Gervase in London. His curiosity amused Gervase since it was clear that Alverstone had absolutely no idea of his real motives. He questioned Gervase about possible financial problems, difficulties with his Bedfordshire estate, health problems after the brutal retreat to Corunna and even asked if Gervase was considering selling his commission and returning to civilian life. Gervase gave him little information and enjoyed watching his brother’s puzzlement.

Gervase could not believe Alverstone had not noticed the object of his real interest. Lord Crawleigh and his wife were definitely aware, and they encouraged him shamelessly. Gervase wondered if they had bullied Heather into coming to London in the hope of finding her another husband, but he did not think so. Lady Crawleigh was clearly devoted to her and he suspected that Heather’s self-imposed solitude since the death of her husband had been a source of concern for some time.

It puzzled Gervase, because it was quickly clear that Heather MacLeod was not a naturally solitary person. She was awkward at times, but he thought that was lack of practice rather than a native dislike of company. Over the following weeks he spent increasing amounts of time with her, and he found her completely charming.

Heather quickly admitted to him that Lady Crawleigh had tricked her into coming to London with the promise of cultural activities. It proved an excellent opportunity for Gervase to spend time with her in settings more conducive to conversation than a ballroom. He accompanied her to the theatre and the opera, escorted her to the Royal Academy and attended several concerts, both private and public. She laughed at his willingness to accede to any of her suggestions.

“Captain Clevedon, you are far too amenable. I am tempted to see how far I can push this. There are several public lectures coming up on the subject of anatomy and the structure of the brain. I’m sure they will be interesting. Would you be willing, should I require an escort?”

Gervase surveyed her with interest. “How fascinating, ma’am. You may not know it but I have always wanted to know more about human anatomy. Should we ask Lady Crawleigh if she wishes to attend with us?”

Heather gave him a long look. “I’m not sure if I should call your bluff. Would you really endure such a trial just to prove me wrong?”

“The difficulty you have, ma’am, is that if you call my bluff and I don’t fold, you’ll have to attend the lectures yourself. Is it really worth that just to watch me squirm?”

Heather gave a peal of laughter. “You are the most exasperating man, Captain. It’s impossible to put you out of temper.”

“It can definitely be done, ma’am. You should talk to my brother.”

“Goodness, why ever would I do that?”

“I’ve no idea. Silly notion, forget I mentioned it. Will you ride with me tomorrow? Major van Daan has offered me the pick of their stable. I’m sure I can find suitable horses.”

“I would love to, but I will provide my own horse. Fiona always brings several to town during the season, because she knows she looks good on horseback and likes to show off. I can borrow one of hers.”

“Excellent. I hope the weather holds.”

They rode together through the cold weeks of February and into early March, danced at every ball and took long walks through the London parks, trailed by Heather’s uninterested maid. She told him about her husband, about the sixteenth century castle she had inherited near the village of Comrie and about the lands and people who had become her responsibility through her marriage. Gervase talked of his parents, his career in the army and of the extensive estate in Bedfordshire that he intended one day to make his home.

“Most of the family estates are entailed, of course, and went to my brother. I didn’t mind, it’s the way things are done. It’s why I joined the army when I was younger. I wanted a career of my own, to make my way in the world. I didn’t want to depend on him. My mother always understood that. She inherited the estate from a childless uncle and made it over to me as soon as I came of age. She lives there now and keeps house for me. She doesn’t get on particularly well with Alverstone either.”

“It must be a great joy to him, to be so universally loved.”

Gervase spluttered with laughter. “I think he strives to deserve it,” he said, when he could speak again. “You were able to inherit Comrie Castle unentailed, I gather.”

“Yes. There’s no title to inherit, just the lands. If we’d had a son they’d have gone to him, with me to manage them until he was older, but we never had children. I wish we had.” Heather smiled unselfconsciously. “Alex had several male cousins who were most put out when he left everything to me, but he was perfectly entitled to do so.”

“I think you had a very happy marriage, ma’am.”

“I did. I was the most fortunate of women.”

The sadness in her voice pierced Gervase’s heart. It was unworthy he knew, to envy a dead man, but sometimes he could not help it. As the weeks passed, it was becoming more and more clear to him that his feelings for Heather MacLeod went well beyond friendship, but he was by no means sure that she felt the same way. Clearly, she enjoyed his company, and Gervase suspected that to the outside world their uncomplicated friendship looked very much like courtship, but he worried that to Heather it was nothing than a pleasant way to pass her time in London. He was beginning to understand why she had locked herself away in her grey stone tower at the edge of the Highlands for so long. Heather MacLeod had been passionately devoted to her husband and Gervase was not sure she would ever be ready for another man to take his place.

It grieved Gervase, because he wanted more, and he was becoming conscious that he had very little time. He received regular letters from his regiment, informing him of arrangements for travelling to Portugal and he was torn between the usual sense of anticipation at the beginning of a new campaign and a feeling of misery that if he sailed away from Heather without at least making a push to tell her of his feelings, he would lose any chance with her. It could be several years before he returned to England, and by then she would probably have met somebody else.

His commanding officer had returned to Leicestershire, offering several wholly unsolicited pieces of advice about Gervase’s courtship before he left. Gervase was glad to see him go. His friendship with Paul van Daan was of long-standing and he generally enjoyed his commander’s lively sense of humour, but his relationship with Heather was too new and too precious to be the subject of even the most well-meaning banter. Gervase fretted pointlessly at the problem. He knew that the only possible solution was to pluck up the courage to speak to her before he had to leave, but he was discovering that it was far easier to display courage in the face of a French cavalry charge than when faced with making an offer of marriage to a young woman who might well say no. The weeks flew past, and Gervase was beginning to dread the arrival of orders to return to duty immediately, which would rob him of any chance of speaking to Heather. He needed to gather his courage in both hands and take the risk, and he needed to do it soon.

They rode out on a bright Spring morning towards Barnet, where the horse fair sprawled out over several fields. Gervase was under no illusion that he would find a suitable opportunity to propose on this day, but he was in dire need of new horses. He had several excellent hunters in his stables in Bedfordshire but none of them were suitable for the long hours and difficult conditions of campaign life.

It was many years since he had been to Barnet Fair, and he discovered that Heather had never been. She was openly delighted with the eclectic mix of market stalls, sideshows, food and drink booths and huge pens where cattle and horses were displayed for sale. The buying and selling of livestock was the real purpose of the fair and farmers and landowners rubbed shoulders with private customers looking to buy a riding hack or a pair of carriage horses.

It was crowded and noisy. Gervase had attended such fairs in several countries and entertained Heather with stories of India as they stabled their borrowed horses in a temporary horse pen and left them under the watchful eye of one of the Van Daan’s grooms. They made their way through the throng to the horse pens, accompanied by Southworth, Gervase’s own groom. Southworth had accompanied Gervase on campaign for ten years and knew exactly what he was looking for in an officer’s mount.

Gervase had wondered if Heather would be bored by the laborious process of selecting and purchasing horses, but she seemed to enjoy herself. She was a good horsewoman and was knowledgeable enough to make intelligent comments about the various animals. They wandered through the pens, stopping every now and then to examine a promising mount and Gervase had to force himself to pay attention to the horses, since he actually needed to buy some, instead of watching Heather.

It was afternoon by the time he had made his selection and agreed the arrangements for delivering the horses. They spent the rest of the day at the fair, wandering through the market stalls, eating hot pasties in a crowded food tent and drinking cider at a rickety table overlooking the huge field where a racetrack had been laid out. In addition to its commercial purposes, Barnet Fair was famous for its sports, and both horse racing and boxing matches attracted visitors, not only from London, but also from the surrounding counties.

Heather disclaimed any interest in watching the races and the entirely masculine crowd of sportsmen surrounding the boxing ring was clearly unsuitable for a lady. The groom who had looked after their horses told them that the Prince of Wales had arrived with a party of friends for the boxing and was expected to remain for the races. It seemed like an excellent time to leave before the light began to fade and the fair grew even more rowdy.

Heather was unusually quiet on the ride back into town, but it was a comfortable silence. Gervase rode beside her, pleasantly tired after a very productive day, and decided that he was going to speak to her as soon as possible. If he had completely misread her feelings, it was better to know it. Today had clarified his own feelings and he no longer had any doubts.

Gervase was at the breakfast table two days later when the note was delivered. He did not recognise the hand, and he opened it and began to read, his teacup halfway to his mouth. After the first few lines he put the cup down and pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. It was from Heather MacLeod, a pleasant note informing him that she had made the decision to return home to Scotland almost immediately.

Gervase read the letter again. There was no mistaking the warm, friendly tone of her farewell. She thanked him for his friendship and for the many occasions when he had escorted her and expressed her hope that they would meet again at some future date. Gervase, depressed, tried to imagine how that might come about and could not. When they had parted after their day at the fair, she had given no hint of any intention to go home so soon. He found himself running over their conversations in his head, wondering if he had said or done something to upset her. He did not think he had. Foolish to think this was about him. It was looking increasingly likely that Heather MacLeod had not considered him at all when making her decision.

The thought hurt, but at the same time it was a call to action. Gervase realised that he could not allow her to leave without at least trying to tell her how he felt about her. It would be awkward for her and painfully embarrassing for him if she rejected his proposal, but it would be far worse if he just let her walk out of his life. He was in love with her and had begun to believe that she might feel the same way about him. If he was wrong, then he needed to know it and he could not put this off any longer or he might miss his opportunity.

***

Heather had been prepared for her family to object to her sudden decision to go home, but she had not been prepared for the ferocity of the storm.

She made the announcement at breakfast, dropping it casually into a conversation about Lord Crawleigh’s lame horse and the likelihood of rain that day. Neither topic served as an effective screen. Both Crawleigh and Fiona stopped their conversation and turned to stare at Heather.

“Going home? When?”

“On Friday, I think,” Heather said lightly. “I’ll make the arrangements today. I’ll travel post.”

“Heather, you cannot. We are promised to Lord and Lady Jersey on Saturday and there is the Mortimer’s ball on Monday. You have so many engagements.”

“I have made a list,” Heather said, keeping her voice steady. “I will write to all of them with my apologies, Fiona, I am not so rag-mannered as to leave that to you.”

“It seems fairly rag-mannered to walk out on your family halfway through a visit without so much as a conversation,” Crawleigh said bluntly. Heather shot him a look.

“May I remind you, dear brother, that this is not the visit I had planned? You took control of my time without so much as a by-your-leave, as though I were a silly girl of eighteen, and I think I’ve been very patient about it. I’ve had enough now and I want to go home and get on with my life.”

“What life? Mooning about the castle and discussing cattle feed and crop rotation with the farmhands? Don’t pretend you’ve not enjoyed yourself, Heather, I’m neither blind nor stupid. Three days ago you were talking about ordering new gowns for the warmer weather. What’s got into you?”

“I have enjoyed myself and I am very grateful,” Heather said between gritted teeth. “But it is enough. I don’t belong in London. I miss home. I want to go home.”

She was horrified at the little break in her voice. Fiona heard it and motioned for the servants to leave the room, then gave Crawleigh a look.

“Don’t bully her, Charles. Heather, what has happened to upset you? Do not spin me some tale, if you please, I’ve known you for too long. You had no intention of leaving early, this is a sudden decision.”

Heather got up and walked over to the long windows which overlooked the square. “That does not mean it is the wrong decision.”

“Is this about Clevedon?” her brother demanded. “Does he know you’re about to head for the Scottish hills, dear sister? Or were you just going to leave him without a word?”

Heather felt a rush of sheer fury. She spun around. “And now we have reached the truth of it, have we not, Charles? You do not give a rush about me or my feelings or how difficult this is for me. You just want me respectably married again so that the likes of Lord Alverstone do not whisper behind their hands that your sister is a little odd.”

Crawleigh got to his feet, almost upsetting the chair in his anger. “How dare you say that to me? I’ve offered you nothing but sympathy since Alex died, he was my friend. But you…”

“And now you’ve found another one of your friends to marry me off to…”

“That’s enough!” Fiona broke in angrily. “Sit down immediately, both of you. I do not care how upset you are, you will not yell at each other across the breakfast table and make a gift of our family business to the servants. Sit down.”

Heather stood irresolute. She wanted to run to her room, probably slamming several doors on the way, but the expression on Fiona’s face made her pause. Her sister-in-law was generally very placid, but she looked furious now. After a moment, Crawleigh seated himself again. Heather stalked back to her chair and did the same.

“Have you written to Captain Clevedon, Heather?” Fiona asked.

“Yes. I sent a note to him this morning.”

“I hope it was civil,” Crawleigh growled.

“It was more than civil,” Heather snapped. “I expressed my warmest friendship and appreciation for all his kindness and hoped we should meet again one day.”

“You’ll be glad you said that, sister, if you get the news he’s been blown apart by French cannon before the end of the year,” Crawleigh said unforgivably.

Heather burst into tears. She got to her feet and ran to the door of the breakfast parlour just as the butler opened it.

“Captain Clevedon, my Lord,” Campbell said, sounding surprised. “I believe he is engaged to go for a walk with Mrs MacLeod.”

Heather had completely forgotten the arrangement. She froze for a long moment, staring into Clevedon’s astonished eyes. Clevedon looked back steadily, and Heather wondered how much of the altercation he had heard. Nobody moved or spoke.

Captain Clevedon was the first to recover. He stepped to one side, his eyes not leaving hers. “It’s all right,” he said gently. “Go on. But if you can bear to come back down, I would like to speak to you.”

Heather ran past him. She was crying too much to answer, but she was grateful for his quick understanding. It made her feel rather worse. She paused at the bottom of the wide, sweeping staircase and looked back. The Captain had just entered the parlour. Before the door closed, she heard his voice, using a tone she had never heard from him before.

“I heard every word of that, Crawleigh, and you can thank God there’s a lady present or I’d punch you so hard you’d still be unconscious at dinner. Lady Crawleigh, your servant, ma’am. Sorry to arrive so early.”

***

After ten minutes of painfully stilted conversation, Lady Crawleigh excused herself to see how her sister-in-law did. When she had gone, Gervase looked at Crawleigh. The Earl groaned.

“That expression is the reason I sold out, Clevedon. I couldn’t bear you looking at me for another week like a weevil in a tack biscuit.”

“You sold out when you inherited the title, Crawleigh. It had nothing to do with me. And just at the moment, I’d say the weevil is ahead of you for brains.”

“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. I lost my temper.”

“It isn’t me you should be apologising to, you bloody idiot. Of all the things to say to the poor girl, given what she’s been through.”

“Clevedon, I love my sister dearly, but you have no idea how infuriating she can be. I’m assuming you had her note.”

“Yes, it’s why I came so early. I read it twice and decided she’d forgotten that she’d promised to go for a walk with me today. I wanted to get over here before she remembered and sent me another note to cry off.”

“That’s the reason you’re a captain and I’m a member of the idle classes. You always were a planner. I’m surprised you’re not angry with her yourself. She’s been leading you a fine dance for more than two months. It was unforgiveable to turn you off with a note because she has a whim to go home all of a sudden. I’ve no idea what’s got into her. I would have sworn…”

He broke off realising what he had been about to say. Gervase grinned. “I would have sworn as well. She’s not been leading me a dance. Your sister doesn’t have it in her to behave that way. Whatever has happened to upset her, she’s not being deliberately difficult.”

“Really? I do hope you manage to marry her, Clevedon, you’re far nicer to her than I am.”

“After today’s effort, I will not argue with you.”

“Look, I’ll ring for more tea for you and then I’ll go up and tell her…”

“If you go anywhere near her, Crawleigh, I will beat you senseless, I swear it. I’ll have the tea and you can pass me the Times. I’m going to wait.”

Thirty minutes passed. Gervase read the newspaper, which contained nothing of interest at all. Crawleigh worked his way through a pile of letters. Eventually he looked up.

“How long are you going to wait?”

“Until she comes downstairs.”

“What if she stays upstairs?”

“Then I’m staying for dinner.”

Crawleigh rolled his eyes. “Is it too early for brandy, do you think?”

“Yes.” Gervase took out his watch. “Give it another hour.”

“Do I have to sit here with you?”

“You can go to the devil for all I care.”

There was a sound in the hallway and then the door opened and Heather appeared. She was dressed in a stylish full-length blue pelisse, complete with military-style epaulettes and frogging. Only the hem and lace collar of her white gown were visible, and she wore neat black half boots and a cream-coloured bonnet trimmed with feathers. Gervase had not seen the pelisse before and, as he rose and bowed, he thought how well the colour suited her fair hair and skin. He moved forward and took her hand, raising it to his lips.

“Mrs MacLeod, I’m so glad you came down. As you are dressed for walking, I’m hoping you haven’t come to tell me you’re crying off. I’m sorry I arrived so early. I wanted to speak to Crawleigh, but it was thoughtless of me.”

“Not at all, Captain. You weren’t responsible for my dramatic exit, my brother has the tact of a bear.”

Crawleigh got up. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” he said morosely. “Good day, Clevedon. Feel free to drown her in the Serpentine if the mood takes you.”

When he had gone, Gervase looked at his love. She had been crying, but had done a good job of disguising it with a little powder and seemed perfectly calm. He took her arm and they made their way through the grey early afternoon towards the gates of Hyde Park, with Heather’s maid following at a respectable distance. Gervase realised he was dry mouthed with nerves. His strategy to speak to her alone had succeeded very well, but he was not sure that he could carry the next line of her defences.

“Are you really going back to Scotland?” Gervase asked, once they were in the park and walking along a tree lined avenue. He realised that the usual easy flow of their conversation had dried up and he was struggling to know how to raise the subject.

“Yes, I think so. I’ve done as I promised and spent a season in London. I’ve ridden in the Row and attended the balls and the receptions and the routs. I’ve been entertained by the Prince of Wales and eaten the worst supper I’ve ever been offered in my life, and I’ve seen the very latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. I’ve even been to Horse Guards and seen some very pretty soldiers on parade. I’m exhausted with all the frivolity.”

“You haven’t danced at Almack’s yet,” Gervase pointed out.

Heather laughed aloud. “The underworld will freeze over before they allow me through those hallowed doors, Captain, and you know it. Besides, I’ve no wish to go.”

“The suppers are even worse than Prinny’s, and they make the gentlemen wear knee breeches.”

“Then it’s no place for a – what did the Earl call me? A nondescript dwarf in last Season’s gowns, wasn’t it?”

“My brother’s manners are as appalling as his arrogance. I am ashamed to be related to him.”

“I would be too. I like Lady Clarissa Flood, though, it will be a pity if her parents shuffle her into it. He’ll lead her a dog’s life.”

“I cannot allow myself to think about it, ma’am, since I can do nothing to prevent it.”

Heather gave him one of her grave looks, as though she was assessing his sincerity, then she gave a rather sad smile.

“I feel the same way. But it’s another good reason to be home in Scotland, so that I don’t have to watch it. I’ll miss our talks though. When do you leave for Portugal?”

“I had a letter this morning. I’ll need to leave for Southampton in about three weeks. Major van Daan has given me leave to go straight there with no need to travel up to Melton first.”

“That’s good, as you’ll have time to say goodbye to your friends in London.”

“I thought I might go back to Ampthill, to spend a week or two there and to see my mother. I think I’ve been social enough for a while.”

“Won’t you find that hard back with your regiment?”

“The regiment…oh, you mean my fellow officers? That’s different, they’re my friends.”

Heather’s smile broadened. “The way you say that makes me wish I’d had the opportunity to meet them.”

“Oh, I wish you had too. Meeting me in London like this, during the Season, will have given you very little idea of me really. This is not…these are not really my friends.”

Another awkward silence fell. Behind them, Gervase could hear the maid sniffing noisily as though she intended it to be heard. He turned to look at her and his companion giggled.

“She doesn’t like walking,” she said softly. “I wish they’d stop this nonsense about having me chaperoned every time I walk outside the house, it’s ridiculous. I’ve been married and widowed and I’ve no reputation to worry about.”

“That’s not true and you know it, ma’am. London is very censorious.”

“It can be as censorious as it likes, I’m unlikely to hear it from my crumbling pile of stone in Scotland.”

Gervase laughed. “Is that another one of my brother’s remarks?”

“No, that one was Lady Commyngton. Though to be fair, I think she only said it when it became clear to her I’d no intention of encouraging the attentions of her youngest son. He’d have been very happy to take on my crumbling pile of stone and the income my husband left me.”

“Is it really crumbling?”

“Well it’s old, and the plumbing could do with updating,” Heather admitted cheerfully. “Alexander never really cared for such things, but since he left me in better case than I expected, I had thought of doing a little work on it. But it’s a castle, Captain, not a mansion. I doubt Mr Commyngton would have wanted to live there much, and I’d never marry a man who wanted to sell my home to fund a London lifestyle.”

“I suspect your Scottish castle suits you far better than these well-tended gardens, Mrs MacLeod.”

“I suspect you’re right. Though this is pretty with the spring flowers coming up, even on such a dark day. I wonder if we should turn back before my maid develops inflammation of the lung?”

Gervase felt a sudden lurch of misery, realising that this might be the last time he saw her. He sought frantically for the right words, wishing for a more fluent tongue.

“Do you ever get leave once they get you out of England, Captain?”

The question surprised him. “It’s very unpredictable, ma’am. When the entire army has fallen apart and the campaign has collapsed into disaster, leave is very likely, as you can see from Corunna. But we try not to hope for that too often. It will depend on how successful Wellesley is. He’s the man of the hour just now, the government would far rather focus on his triumphs than on poor Moore’s failure.”

“Is he truly that good?”

“A general is only as good as his last campaign, ma’am. But my commanding officer says he’s the best general in the army.”

“Now that is high praise indeed. Do you trust Major van Daan’s opinion?”

“I trust him with my life, ma’am, so I suppose I’d have to say yes.”

“Captain Burrows described Major van Daan as a monied upstart who has bought his way to promotion over longer serving men.”

Gervase considered it for a moment. “I think he’d agree with that.”

She gave a peal of laughter. “Oh no, you’re such a disappointment, Captain. I was sure that would make you angry.”

“Captain Burrows has never set foot on a battlefield, ma’am, and I suspect if they ever try to send him abroad, his Mama will quickly pay for a transfer to a safer regiment. Preferably not the 110th because Major van Daan would end up punching him.”

She was smiling up at him as they approached the park gates. “I wish I had met your Major when he was in town.”

“If there is ever the opportunity, Mrs MacLeod, I will gladly introduce you.”

“I hope we meet again, Captain. I realise you may be away from England for a long time, but should you find yourself with a period of leave…”

Heather stopped and Gervase glanced at her and realised, to his complete astonishment, that she was blushing. He had never before seen her do so and had thought her incapable of it.

“If I ever find myself in Scotland, ma’am, I will definitely call.”

“Scotland is a long way away, Captain. I might possibly find myself in London again.”

Gervase stopped in his tracks, so abruptly that the maid, who was not looking where she was going, almost walked into him. Heather was a few steps ahead of him before she realised. She turned with a surprised expression.

“Are you all right, Captain?”

Gervase looked at the maid. He realised guiltily that she actually did not look well. Her nose was red and her eyes were sore.

“What’s your name?”

“Brown, sir.”

“Brown, you look terrible. I’ve been listening to you sneeze for the past twenty minutes. Go home immediately. Tell Lady Crawleigh that you had no choice, I ordered you home because I was worried about contagion. Mrs MacLeod and I will take another turn about the park, and then I will return her home, I swear it.”

The woman stared at him in blank surprise, then unexpectedly she seemed to understand and gave a broad smile and dropped a curtsey.

“Yes, Captain. Thank you, sir.”

Gervase dug in his pocket and produced a coin. She took it, looked at it then looked up with wide, surprised eyes.

“Thank you, sir.”

When she had gone, Gervase took a deep breath and risked a look at his companion. She was wearing exactly the expression he was expecting.

“That was extremely high-handed of you, Captain Clevedon. How did you know I wasn’t tired and ready to go home?”

“A lucky guess, ma’am. Besides, I suspect you’re used to walking a lot further than this, and over far rougher ground.”

She gave a smile. “Yes, I am. This is very tame. Very well, let’s walk over to the lake. I have taken a liking to the lake.”

“I like it myself. I’ve a small ornamental lake on my estate in Bedfordshire. It is home to the most aggressively hostile flock of geese I have ever encountered in my life. They barely tolerate my presence.”

Heather gave a gurgle of laughter. “Really? Birds can be like that. When I married Alexander, one of his cousins presented us with a pair of peacocks. I think she thought they would lend an air of gentility to the place. All they did, of course, was leave droppings all over the carriage drive and kept us awake with their shrieking. Fortunately, my sister married the following year, so we presented them to her.”

“I wonder who she passed them on to when she got tired of them?” Gervase said, much entertained. “I envision them being passed on through the family until they have toured the whole of Scotland and finally settled into honourable retirement somewhere in Berwick.”

Heather was giggling. “Don’t. Now I am going to have to ask her. I wonder if she did pass them on again. I don’t remember seeing them the last time I visited her.”

They were still laughing as they arrived at the Serpentine. The water was silver-grey on this cloudy afternoon, and the path around the lake was deserted. It was growing colder, and a breeze blew across the water, rippling the smooth surface and setting the feathers on Heather’s bonnet dancing. Gervase eyed her blue pelisse.

“Are you going to be warm enough? I hadn’t realised it was this cold. In fact, I’m looking at the sky and wondering if this was a good idea. It might rain.”

“Well if it does, we shall not die of it. Though my hat may not survive. A good thing too, I dislike it very much.”

Gervase studied the bonnet. “I don’t see why. It’s a perfectly good hat.”

“With half an aviary pinned to the top. My sister-in-law chose the trimming, she assured me that it was all the crack, but every time I wear it, I expect to be the target of some amorous pigeon. Look at it, it’s ridiculous.”

Gervase began to laugh again. “I’m never going to be able to look at a feather trimmed bonnet in quite the same way.”

“You certainly won’t have to look at this one for much longer. Once I get home it will go into a hat box and remain there until one of my periodic cleaning frenzies, when I will find it in some dark corner, remember why I never wear it and give it to the housekeeper.”

“It’s too pretty for a housekeeper.”

“Don’t be so appallingly top-lofty, Captain, you sound like your brother. Why should a housekeeper not have a stylish bonnet? You have quite decided me, Mrs Mackinnon shall have this hat. She will wear it to church with the greatest pride and be the envy of every other female in the servants’ pews.”

“I wish I could see it,” Gervase said wistfully.

“So do I.”

They stopped to watch two swans gliding gracefully over the surface of the lake, occasionally bending their necks in search of food in the water. After a moment, Gervase transferred his gaze to the woman’s face. Heather was smiling a little, either because the elegant birds pleased her or because she was still amused at their previous conversation. She was a small woman, and very slight, which gave Gervase the pleasant sensation of being taller than he was. He thought how much he liked her upright carriage and the confidence with which she held herself.

She seemed to sense his gaze and turned her head to look at him. “You look very serious, Captain. Tell me you are not regretting the impending loss of this hat.”

“I am not regretting the loss of the hat, ma’am. I’m afraid I’m finding it difficult to contemplate losing the wearer, though.”

As soon as he said it, Gervase wished he had not. He had no idea how to say what he wanted to say, but the glib compliment made him cringe. He waited for the set-down he so richly deserved. Instead, she tilted her head to one side and regarded him thoughtfully.

“I am not about to succumb to some fatal illness, Captain, I am simply returning to Scotland.”

“I know, but it’s too far. I only have three weeks, I can’t possibly travel all that way. If you lived in Hertfordshire or Kent I could wait a few days then invent a perfectly plausible and entirely spurious reason to visit the county and follow you. And possibly, away from the balls and the routs and the worst supper in history, I might be able to pluck up the courage to say…to tell you…”

He broke off, trying to read her expression. To his surprise, she still wore the little half-smile. “To tell me?”

“To ask you.”

“What is it that you wish to ask me, Captain?”

“If you would consider postponing your journey in favour of marrying me instead.”

Heather did not move or speak for such a long time, that Gervase felt an urge to babble, simply to fill the silence. He managed to restrain himself with a huge effort. He had not really intended to blurt out his proposal so clumsily, but now that he had done so, he needed to close his mouth and give her time. He wished she was not taking so long.

Finally, she stirred. “I want to say yes,” she said.

“Then say it.”

“I’m afraid to. I did not think I would ever marry again. Not because I have anything against marriage. Quite the opposite. I was very happy for a few years. I simply did not think I would ever meet a man I could care about, the way I cared about Alex.”

“And have you?”

“Oh yes, I think I have. The problem is that I didn’t expect Alex to die so young. It was a terrible shock, and for a time I think I was quite beside myself with grief. It passed eventually and I recovered. But you…with you…I would need to come to terms with the fact that it could very well happen to me again. And I would not even be there.”

Gervase understood, with a sharp pain around his heart. “Because I am a soldier.”

“Yes, of course.”

“I could stop being a soldier.”

She gave a little laugh. “No, you could not, Gervase. You know you couldn’t. The army is part of you, it’s woven into the very fibre of your being. If you failed to report for duty in three weeks’ time, you would be dreadfully unhappy. And I should never stop feeling guilty.”

Her use of his name brought a flood of happiness and with it, a rush of misery as he understood that she was right. He studied her features, admiring the well-marked brows, the slightly arched nose and the mouth which always seemed to hover on the edge of a smile.

“I don’t know what to say to persuade you,” Gervase said finally. “Heather, I love you. I know this is too sudden, I know I’ve not given you time. I’m sorry, I don’t have the time. I want to make some dramatic declaration about giving everything up for you, but…”

“Oh, please do not, it would be so embarrassing,” Heather said fervently. “And then I should be in such a quandary because I haven’t the least intention of giving everything up for you. I don’t want to give up my home and move to London. I’m not even sure it is good for people to give up the things they love to be with another person. Surely there is a better way.”

Gervase reached out and took her hand, raising it to his lips. “I hope there is,” he said. “I hope we can find it. Please don’t give me an answer now. This may be rushed, but at least think about it. Please.”

Heather reached out and caressed his cheek. “Of course, I’m going to think about it,” she said, and Gervase was surprised to hear the catch of tears in her voice. “If I didn’t love you, Gervase, I would just say no.”

Something splashed onto Gervase’s hand. He looked down in surprise and then felt another splash and another. He looked up and realised that the clouds had darkened while they had been talking, and huge raindrops had begun to fall.

“Oh no. No wonder we’re the only people in the park. We need to get back. I think we’re in for a downpour.”

“I think we may be in for a storm, Captain.”

Gervase realised she was right. As they made their way back along the path, it grew steadily darker. Long before they reached the gates the sky lit up with the sudden brilliance of a flash of lightning, followed by the crash of thunder. The rain increased to a downpour and Gervase was soaked within minutes. He looked at Heather. Her pelisse clung to her as though she had fallen into the lake and the despised feathers were a sodden mess over her bonnet. He had thought the pelisse warm enough for a spring walk in the park, but she was shivering now. He hesitated and she flashed him her familiar grin.

“Don’t bother, Captain, your coat is just as wet as I am. I’d suggest we run but soaked skirts are a hazard.”

Another flash of lightning split the dark sky and the crash of thunder was so immediate that Gervase jumped. He looked around him but there was no shelter to be had. The avenue which led to the gate was lined with trees, which bothered him, but it was by far the most direct route and he decided that speed was of the essence. He reached for her hand, and her soaked kid glove squelched.

“I think I may need new gloves as well as a hat,” Heather said. She was trying to sound matter of fact, but the effect was rather spoiled by her chattering teeth.

“I know you can’t run but let’s walk as quickly as possible. It will keep you warmer.”

She kept up with him very well, despite the heavy sodden skirts. The rain was torrential, showing no sign of easing off and there were repeated flashes of lightning. The thunder reminded Gervase of the roar of cannon. He had been through a number of bad storms but this one felt as though it was happening directly over his head.

To his relief, he could make out the shapes of the elaborate iron gates through the rain. Heather sounded breathless and he glanced at her, wondering if it was because she was shivering so much or if he was walking too fast for her.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, of course. Just cold and wet. My sister-in-law will be having a fit, she hates thunderstorms.”

“At least she’s not out in it. Take my arm, it’s not far now, and only ten minutes once we’re outside the gates. I’d call a cab but we’d never find one, they’ll all be hiding out waiting for this to finish.”

“They have my sympathy, I’d welcome a nice dry stable right…”

The crash was enormous, shockingly loud amidst the steady beating of the rain, and very close. Gervase jumped violently, and his companion cried out. The dark sky was illuminated above them, then the thunder boomed. Something fell onto the path beside them and it took Gervase a moment to assimilate that it was a piece of burning wood. The brilliance of the lightning was gone, but there was still a fiery glow and an ominous cracking sound. Gervase spun around. The tree was ablaze, orange flames leaping up into the sky. It was also listing dangerously towards the path.

Gervase gave a yell of warning, grasped Heather’s arm and began to run. She kept pace for a few seconds before her legs became entangled in the heavy dragging skirts and she stumbled and fell heavily. Gervase bent to help her up, hearing the crackling of the flames and the creaking, rumbling sound of the tree. The strike had gone deep into its core and it was falling, the branches on fire and the entire trunk looking as though it was alight from within.

Heather made it to her feet, but as they began to run, the tree came down behind them, with a thunderous crash. They were out of reach of the trunk, but not of the blazing branches. Gervase felt one strike his arm, the flames terrifyingly close to his head, and he threw out his arm to bat it away. He thought they were clear, then Heather screamed and went down again, dragging on the hand he was holding. He turned and saw, in horror, that a blazing branch had hit the back of her legs, knocking her off her feet again.

Gervase released her hand and hooked his boot under the branch, kicking it away. Heather’s skirts were blackened to the knee at the back, but they were not alight, probably because they were too wet to catch. Gervase bent and scooped her up into his arms, thanking God that she was not heavy. He ran towards the gates, intent only on getting far enough away from the burning tree to be out of further danger.

When he was sure it was safe, he stopped. Carefully he lowered Heather to the ground. He thought she was unconscious, but as he bent over her, rain pouring off the brim of his hat, she opened her eyes.

“Are you all right, Gervase?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Your legs…”

“It hurts.”

“I need to get help.”

“No. Help me up, would you? I don’t want to lie here in the rain, I’ll freeze. It’s painful, but I think I can walk.”

Gervase complied reluctantly. As he stood, holding her arm, waiting for her to compose herself enough to begin the walk, he heard voices raised in a babble of consternation. Turning, he realised that the lightning strike had attracted attention out in the street and a dozen or more people were running towards them. Gervase felt a rush of relief.

“It’s the cavalry, ma’am. Late as usual and no clue what they’re doing, but when they see something bright and shiny, they can’t resist. Which on this occasion, is a good thing, because they can find me a carriage of some kind, and I can get you home. Just hold on, it won’t be long now.”

He realised that she was swaying on her feet, and he put his arm about her and lowered her once again to the soaked grass. She closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, I feel very dizzy. What an unexpectedly dramatic end to a walk.”

“It didn’t really end the way I’d hoped, ma’am.”

Heather opened her distinctive blue-grey eyes and fixed him with a look. “If you call me ‘ma’am’ once more, I will not be answerable for my actions,” she said, and closed her eyes again with an air of finality.

***

By the time the doctor had left, Heather was exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Dr Medway had dressed the burns on her calves, examined and commented on her very badly skinned and bruised knees from her fall, and bled her. Heather submitted although she privately thought that she might have been better without his treatment. The burns were superficial although sore, her knees hurt but would recover and the bleeding made her feel light-headed. She was not hungry but ate supper to please her brother and his wife who hovered anxiously around her until she feigned sleep to make them go away. Gervase Clevedon had left as soon as he had seen her safe. Heather was both sorry and glad. Their conversation had resolved nothing, and she knew she needed to give him a definite answer, but she had to have some time to herself.

She had expected to lie awake turning the matter over in her mind, but to her surprise she fell asleep quickly and did not wake until her sister-in-law appeared along with a maid carrying a breakfast tray. Fiona watched critically until she was sure that Heather was eating, then sat down.

“You seem surprisingly well for a woman who was almost burned to death in Hyde Park yesterday.”

“Yes, I take these things in my stride,” Heather said, sipping her tea. She put down her cup and met Fiona’s interested gaze. “It was utterly terrifying,” she admitted.

“I’m not surprised. What on earth possessed you to stay out so long? We could see that storm coming in. When Susan returned to the house alone, I was about to send the carriage out to find you.”

“We lost track of time, we were talking. I didn’t notice anything until it began to rain.”

“I see.”

Heather finished her tea and contemplated a baked egg. “Fiona, if you continue to beat around the bush, it will be dinner time before you have discovered what you wish to know, and you know how quickly I become bored.”

“Did he ask you to marry him?”

“Yes.”

“Did you give him an answer?”

“No. I asked for time to think about it. After that, events rather took over.”

“I can see that they would. Heather, I don’t wish to pry…”

“Yes you do.”

“All right. I have every intention of prying as much as I am able. My dear, I’ve known you since we were both children. I’ve been watching you for two months trying not to fall in love with Captain Clevedon, and you have made a very poor job of it. Why did you not say yes?”

“It isn’t that simple, Fiona. I do…like him. And he seems to like me as well. But…”

“From the moment you walk into a room, Heather, he cannot see anybody else.”

Heather felt her pulse quicken a little. She looked up from her plate. “Really?”

“Really. It is generally assumed, you know, that you will be engaged before he goes back to Portugal.”

“By whom?”

“By everybody who has seen you together. Nothing could be more suitable. He is charming, personable, not at all bad to look at…”

“Not bad?” Heather said indignantly. “I consider him very handsome.”

“He could be taller, but he has very fine eyes.”

“Well, he is quite tall enough for me, given that I am a midget. Besides, looks do not matter. Alex had a face rather like a friendly goat, and I was devoted to him.”

Fiona studied her sympathetically. “Is Alex the problem? It’s been three years, Heather.”

“It isn’t Alex. He would tell me to do whatever I wanted and be happy. I think he would approve of Gervase.”

“So do I.”

“But I never thought I would marry again, Fiona. I don’t need to. I have Comrie Castle and a comfortable income.”

“Don’t you want children?”

“I’ve no idea if I can have children. Fortunately, you and Charles seem willing to provide me with plenty of nephews and nieces. That’s not a reason for me to marry, Fiona.”

“But you love him.”

Heather lowered her eyes to the tray. She had lost interest in the food. “I don’t know. I thought I did. I think I do. But surely if I did, I wouldn’t have these doubts?”

“Were you going home early because you were running away from him, Heather?”

Heather looked up with a rueful smile. “Yes. And if it had not been for this wretched accident, I would be packing now.”

“Well you can’t leave yet, the doctor is adamant you should at least rest for a few days. And those burns look nasty.”

“They’re not that bad. But you’re right, I am not feeling equal to days of travelling. Besides, now that he has asked me, I cannot run away without giving him my answer.”

“I don’t think he’s going to let you, my love. He’s already called this morning and asked if he might come back this afternoon if you’ll be ready to receive callers.”

“Oh no,” Heather said, startled. “I cannot see him like this, I look like a scarecrow.”

Fiona stood up, laughing. “I’ll call Sally to take that tray and I’ll send up Susan to help you dress.”

“Fiona, are you by any chance trying to coerce me into this marriage?”

“I’m not, Heather, truly. But I don’t understand what is stopping you. Perhaps you can explain it to him.”

“I’ve already explained it to him,” Heather said in a rush. Suddenly she was close to tears. “He’s a soldier. Three weeks, that’s all I have. After that, I wave him off and sit waiting for the post to see if he is alive or dead. It could be years before he comes home, and we can be married. I don’t know if I can bear it, Fiona.”

Her sister-in-law stood looking at her for a long moment. Then she said quietly:

“Heather, do you think you will feel any better if you refuse him and read about his death in the Gazette? Or if he comes home and finds a pretty little debutante and it’s his marriage announcement you’re reading?”

“Don’t. You’re as bad as Charles.”

“Charles is a tactless oaf, but he is right. You’ve already fallen in love with Gervase Clevedon. What he does and where he goes is always going to matter to you, whether he’s betrothed to you or to somebody else. And he’s the son of an Earl, you can’t avoid hearing about him unless you never read another newspaper.”

“That would not be a hardship.”

“Utter rubbish, you’ll be scanning the army lists and the gossip columns for the rest of your life. I know how much losing Alex hurt you, Heather, I was there, remember? But you can’t shield yourself from pain without losing the chance of happiness. And I think this man might make you very happy.”

Heather realised she was crying. She scrubbed at her face fiercely and the china on the tray rattled dangerously. Fiona caught it before it slid onto the floor, lifted it onto Heather’s dressing table, then went to the bell pull.

“You have to see him,” she said.

***

Captain Clevedon arrived punctually at the afternoon calling hour and was shown into the ladies’ parlour. Heather was sure Fiona had instructed the butler to refuse all other callers. Fiona greeted him pleasantly, thanked him again for taking care of Heather on the previous day, then departed with no excuse at all. Heather glared after her retreating back, then turned to her visitor, quaking.

He was as immaculately turned out as ever, with no sign of their adventure apart from a long scratch on one cheek. As soon as the door had closed behind Fiona, he came forward and took Heather’s hand.

“How are you? Lady Crawleigh said that the burns weren’t serious, but I didn’t sleep last night worrying about you.”

Heather felt irrationally guilty. “I slept very well, I must have been exhausted.”

“I’m not surprised. I’ve never known a stroll in Hyde Park to be so exciting, I’m almost looking forward to a battlefield in Portugal for a rest. Seriously though…”

“Seriously, Gervase, I’m very well. What of you? I didn’t notice that scratch yesterday.”

“Nor did I, it must have been a branch. I’ve a burn on my upper arm and my jacket is beyond hope, but I’ve a spare and time to order a new one, thank goodness.”

“I’m afraid my hat did not survive,” Heather said apologetically. “I’m sorry, I know you were very attached to it.”

He started to laugh. “We’re about to start talking utter nonsense again. And I do enjoy it, Heather, really I do. But I’m too nervous to make the best of it today. Do you mind if we’re serious, just for a short time?”

Heather smiled back at him. “Of course. Shall we sit down, then? It’s far better to have serious conversations when seated, it checks the urge to pace about the room dramatically.”

“I’d never thought of that. I might suggest it to Major van Daan. From a safe distance, mind, just in case he punches me.”

When they were seated, Gervase cleared his throat. Heather recognised his nervousness and decided to speak first. They spoke at the same time and both stopped immediately.

“Gervase…”

“Look, Heather…”

There was a short awkward silence. Then Gervase said quickly:

“I know that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to allow you to go first, but may I?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday. Sorry that it descended into such a disaster, but sorry as well that I made such a mull of proposing to you. I’ve been trying to work myself up to it, but I was rather thrown when you told me you were going out of town so soon. I rushed it.”

Heather smiled. “Gervase, it didn’t matter how you said it, I was always going to panic.”

“Didn’t you realise I was going to ask you?”

“Oh…I don’t know. I knew how I felt of course, and I suspected that you…I don’t know, Gervase. I think I did know. I think that’s why I decided to leave. I was running away, which was very silly and a little unkind. I’ve been concentrating so hard on how I feel that I’ve not considered you at all. I’m not usually this selfish.”

“Are you still leaving town?”

Heather shook her head. “No. I can’t travel that far until I feel a little better. But I wouldn’t anyway, now. I’m so glad you spoke when you did, it has made me realise that I cannot flee back to Scotland and pretend this has not happened.”

“I’m glad too. I asked you to think about it, but I don’t suppose you’ve had the chance…”

“Oh for goodness sake, Gervase, do not speak like an idiot when you are clearly very intelligent. I’ve thought of nothing else all day.”

“Then tell me.”

“I am very confused,” Heather said, twisting her hands together in her lap. “When I try to imagine agreeing to a betrothal, it terrifies me. I will have three lovely weeks as your fiancée, and I know perfectly  well that by the end of them I will love you more than ever. And then I will wave you off and go home to wait for you, and dread every letter that is delivered in case it is bad news. I know how it feels to lose the man I love. I don’t know if I can bear it again. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Oh love, yes, of course I understand. No wonder you’re terrified. But I am too.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. I had no intention at all of falling in love this season, it is a ridiculous thing to have done. I meant to attend a few parties, meet some old friends and then go home to Ampthill and spend a week or two recovering before going back to barracks in Melton Mowbray. You turned everything upside down.”

Heather was astonished. “Are you telling me you have remained in London because of me?”

“Of course I have. My brother is here, Heather, which is always my cue to be somewhere else. It’s been torture seeing so much of him.”

“I must say, that is an impressive sign of your devotion.”

“Don’t start, or we shall get nowhere, and we’re running out of time. I want so much to tell you that I will leave the army and devote my life to making you happy. But…”

“I wouldn’t allow you to do that, Gervase. It would be like you asking me to sell Comrie.”

“One day I’ll be home, love, but I can’t tell you when that will be and I won’t lie to you. I love you. I want to marry you. I know I’m asking a lot. I know it might be too much. It’s all I have.”

Heather could feel tears beginning to fall. “Gervase, I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do.”

“Nor do I, but I’ve found that panic is a great motivator, so here’s what I’ve done. Yesterday, after I left you here, I made a number of calls, while still soaking wet, covered in mud and looking like a lunatic. I’m surprised nobody sent a message to either Bow Street or Bedlam, but I managed to obtain this.”

Heather regarded the folded paper he was holding out to her. After a moment, she reached out and took it. She unfolded it and stared at it for a long time. He waited in silence. Eventually she looked up.

“It’s a special licence.”

“It is. I also made a visit to the rector of St George’s, who is an old family friend. He clearly thought I was mad, but he examined his church calendar and, subject to your approval, he is able to marry us on Wednesday at eleven o’clock. You may invite whomever you choose, but I would be happy with just your brother and his wife.”

“Oh.” Heather knew she sounded utterly witless, but she felt the need to say something and could think of nothing better. “That is very organised of you, Captain Clevedon.”

“Thank you. If you agree to this piece of insanity, I propose to take you home to Bedfordshire to meet my mother and I will spend three weeks trying to convince you you’ve made the right choice. After that, I have to leave, and you’re free to remain for a while to get to know your new home, or to return to your old one and wait for me there. Or you can come back to London and cut a dash as the new Mrs Clevedon. As long as you’re happy and safe and well and will wait for me…Heather, I know this isn’t good enough for you. Nothing I can offer is good enough for you. But…”

“Yes, it is.” Suddenly, Heather found that she could both move and speak, and she followed her instinct and moved towards him. He put his arms about her without any hesitation and kissed her. For a while, she lost all sense of time and when they were finally interrupted by a polite cough from the doorway, Heather realised that she was lying across his lap in the most ridiculous position. It felt very comfortable and she sat up somewhat resentfully, noticing that her hair had come down.

“I am so sorry to interrupt,” Fiona said. “It’s just that Dr Medway has called. He wants to look at the dressing on your burns. And I was wondering if Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner. We don’t have any other guests today.”

Heather turned her head to look at him. He was smiling at her, waiting, and she knew with complete certainty that even now, if she sent him away, he would go without recrimination. She decided that life back at Comrie would be far better waiting for his letters and knowing that he would be coming home to her one day.

“Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner,” she said firmly. “And Fiona, I need your help. I’m getting married in two days’ time, and I don’t think I have anything suitable to wear.”

***

 It was the usual chaos at Southampton and it took Gervase half a day to find the correct transport for his company. He felt slightly guilty knowing that his subalterns had done all the work preparing the company for embarkation, but there was little for him to do, so he inspected his men, complimented his juniors and then went in search of his commanding officer.

Gervase found him in a comfortable inn not far from the quayside. Major Paul van Daan was writing a letter at a table in the tap room, but he rose as Gervase entered and came forward. Gervase saluted and Paul returned the salute and then pulled out a chair.

“Sit down and have a drink. It’s good to see you, Gervase. Are you fully recovered? You look so much better, I was delighted when you wrote that you were well enough. Not everybody has done as well, we’ve only six companies setting sail, but I’m hoping they can bring the others up to strength soon.”

“I’m very well, sir. Looking forward to getting back to work. Is Sir Arthur Wellesley sailing with us?”

“Yes, he’s aboard my transport. Along with my wife, she’s coming with me this time, at least as far as Lisbon. I’ve kept on the villa I rented last year.”

“I look forward to seeing her, sir.”

They talked for a while of army news and Gervase enjoyed the sense of being part of the regiment again. He had no particular desire to share his own news. It was too new and too precious and he would have liked to keep it to himself for a while longer, but he knew he could not. In the general conversation of regimental life, and the banter in the officers’ mess, he would either have to speak up or lie, and he would not lie. He waited until the first exchange of news was over. Eventually, Paul summoned the waiter with more drinks.

“Did you see your brother?”

“Briefly. I also saw your brother, sir, which was much more pleasant.”

“Did you? Joshua didn’t mention it, but he’s been busy. What about…”

“Sir, I imagine some of the others are going to be joining us for dinner, and there’s something I need to speak to you about first.”

Paul stopped and regarded him in surprise. “Of course. Go on. Unless it’s going to annoy me, in which case stop now.”

Gervase laughed. “I don’t think it will annoy you, sir, but I do have a confession. I’ve rather broken army rules, I’m afraid. A minor matter. I didn’t even think about it until afterwards.”

“Captain, in the five years I’ve known you, I swear to God you’ve not put a toe out of place. I’d be amazed if you could upset me. What have you done?”

Gervase took a very deep breath. “I got married, sir, without asking your permission.”

There was a very long silence. The waiter appeared with the wine and poured. Paul waited until he had gone.

“You did what?”

“I got married, sir.”

“And you didn’t think to write to me?”

“I’m sorry, sir. It was all rather sudden. It honestly didn’t occur to me.”

“Gervase, I do not give a damn about permission. You have it, retrospectively. But this great hurry…is everything all right?”

Gervase tried to suppress a grin and failed. “We married in a hurry because we wanted some time together before I left,” he said.

Paul’s expressive face cleared. “An excellent reason. I’m assuming this is the attractive Mrs MacLeod.”

“Yes,” Gervase said suspiciously. “How do you know she’s attractive?”

“I asked Wellesley if he knew her and he managed to point her out her when we were riding in the Row on the day before I left. You’ve excellent taste, Captain.”

“Sir…”

“I will behave, I swear it. Gervase, congratulations. I wish I’d known, I’d have posted down to meet her. Was there even a notice in the Times?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I missed it. I never read the thing anyway. This has been done very quietly. Is that how you want it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll tell my friends of course, but I don’t want a big announcement or a celebration. It was a very quiet affair, which is what we both wanted.”

“That’s your choice, Captain. Johnny and Carl and a few of the others are dining here today. Do you want to tell them, or shall I?”

“You can do it,” Gervase said gratefully.

“I’ll propose a toast to the bride and groom and after that, we’ll leave it alone. If I were you, I’d tell the men though. They’ll find out anyway and they’ll appreciate it coming from you especially with an extra grog ration to drink your health.”

“I’ll see to it, sir. Thank you.”

Paul sipped his wine and regarded him with amusement. “Of all the men I’d have expected to make a hasty marriage on furlough, Captain, you’d have been close to the bottom of the list. She must have made a big impression on you.”

Gervase suppressed a grin. He felt suddenly as though Heather was in the room with him and he managed not to snigger.

“Like a bolt of lightning, sir,” he said seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift

1st March, 1812

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

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

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

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arabella was dead.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know what happened?”

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

“Had she other family?”

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

“What of the child?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

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

“I would have done the same.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who told you?”

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

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

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

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

“Have you not done so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None at all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

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

“It isn’t very good.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And my wife?”

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

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

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

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

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

“We were separated.”

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

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

“Where is she buried?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard that she died, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Public institution?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Him?” David said quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s his name?”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

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

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

“Does he have any other clothing?”

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

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

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Major Cartwright.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ignored you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

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

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

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

“Thank you, Major. I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t.”

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

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

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about Danielle Apple…

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

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

 

 THE HISTORICAL WRITERS FORUM: who we are

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

We can be found on:

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

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HistWriters

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

An Unnecessary Affray

An Unnecessary Affray is my second short story for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop in 2020. It has been a bit of a marathon this year, since in a moment of madness I agreed to two short stories with a book publication date only a few days later, to say nothing of the Covid 19 lockdown. I’m quite proud of myself for getting it all done. As always, the story is free so please share as much as you like.

This tells the story that is not told in An Unconventional Officer, about the action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. I had to be selective about which episodes of Paul van Daan’s early years in the army I covered in that book, but I’ve always wanted to go back and write the stories I didn’t manage to tell, since I’ve always known what happened in my head. I managed it with the Copenhagen campaign in An Unwilling Alliance, and I’m delighted to have finally written about Paul and Craufurd’s spectacular falling out at the Coa.

There are several versions of the events of this day, and Craufurd had his supporters and his critics. Personally, I love Craufurd, you couldn’t make him up, but this wasn’t his finest hour, and I’ve tried to reflect that in my imagined version. As always, I’ve taken some historical liberties to give my fictional battalion something useful to do and I apologise to the gallant officers and men whose roles I have stolen.

A final warning in case you’ve not read the books; I usually try to keep my short stories free of bad language, but I was incapable of writing Paul van Daan’s reaction to this battle without the occasional lapse. His regular readers will understand this. Sorry.

An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa

It was hot on the long march from Viseu to Almeida, with the July sun beating down on the troops over a distance of some seventy miles. The pace was brisk, but not punishing, with the march beginning in the cool early dawn and stopping to rest and eat before the heat of the afternoon sun became unbearable. Ensign Evan Powell was surprised at how much progress they were able to make each day. He mentioned the steady but effective pace to his fellow ensign in the fourth company.

“The major won’t push them beyond endurance unless it’s an emergency, no matter what Wellington or Craufurd might say,” Donahue said. “Chances are we won’t see a battle. Craufurd is under orders to keep a watchful eye on the French but not to risk the light division. By the time we get there he might already be pulling out.”

“Why are we going then?”

Donahue shot him an amused glance. “The official version or my guess?”

“Both, I suppose,” Evan said. He was a little in awe of Donahue, who at nineteen was two years older than him and had almost three years experience on active service with the 110th and had fought at Rolica, Vimeiro and Talavera along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Evan had only recently arrived in Portugal to take up a vacant commission in the fourth company of the 110th and although he had done eight weeks training with the second battalion in Melton Mowbray, and had set sail full of confidence, he found his new messmates intimidating.

“All right then. Officially, Lord Wellington is sending the 110th to reinforce General Craufurd at Almeida in case of a surprise attack by the French. It’s not that strange, we’re not formally designated light infantry yet, but we’re all trained skirmishers and we’ve served with Craufurd’s division out on the border for months.”

“And unofficially?”

Donahue grinned. “Unofficially, old chap, you’ve arrived in the middle of the juiciest scandal this army has seen in a long time. Major van Daan is newly widowed, his wife recently died in childbirth, but it’s very well known that for at least a year he has been enjoying a very passionate affair with the wife of an assistant deputy quartermaster. Last week it all blew up when Captain Carlyon smacked his wife in public right outside headquarters and accused her of making a cuckold of him with the major. Major van Daan took exception to it and challenged him, and the whole battalion held its collective breath until Carlyon did the decent thing and ran like a rabbit taking a fat purse from the army pay chest with him.”

“He deserted?”

“Better that than dead, which he would have been if he’d got into a fight with our major. Anyway, Wellington took a hand. He doesn’t want to lose Major van Daan over a scandal with a light skirt, so he’s sent him up here to calm down, while I imagine he’ll do his best to get the girl sent home.”

Evan was shocked, although he tried not to show it. His family was Welsh, solid local gentry with low church leanings and the word adultery had never been heard in his mother’s drawing room. His arrival in camp right in the middle of the preparations to march meant that he had barely had time for an introduction to his new commanding officer, but he had felt an instinctive liking for the tall fair officer with the ready smile who had welcomed him, apologised for the chaos, and handed him over to his company captain for further instructions. He was disappointed but also very curious. They were sitting around the camp fires, as darkness fell over the scrub covered, rocky plains and low hills of central Portugal and this was proving to be one of Evan’s most interesting conversations in the midst of orders and marching and picket duty.

“Is she pretty?”

Donahue gave a faint smile. “She’s beautiful. Lucky bastard. I can’t say I blame him.”

“Awful for his wife, though.”

“Not sure she even knew, she was friendly with Mrs Carlyon, they were forever around the place together.”

“Awful for him, then,” Evan said, trying hard to imagine himself in such an appalling position. “He must feel so guilty.”

“Not him. He can’t have cared about her or he wouldn’t have…”

“Mr Donahue.”

The voice was quiet, and Donahue stopped mid-sentence and scrambled to his feet to salute. Evan did the same, quaking. His company captain was a completely unknown quantity and Evan’s impression of Johnny Wheeler was of a pleasant, even-tempered man in his thirties who seemed well-liked by both officers and men, but there was an edge to his voice now.

“Captain Wheeler. Sir. My apologies, didn’t see you…”

“I’d guessed that, Ensign, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth so freely on the subject of your battalion commander’s personal life to a new officer.”

It was impossible to see if Donahue was blushing in the firelight, but Evan knew that he was. “Sir, very sorry. I was repeating gossip, sir, should know better.”

“How the hell do you think he’d have felt if he’d heard you saying that?  She was his wife of six years, she gave him two children, and he’s barely holding himself together.”

“Sir, I didn’t think.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that you can think, Donahue. Get yourself out there, forward pickets, you can relieve Mr Renard. I hope it’s bloody cold.”

“Yes, sir.”

Donahue’s voice was subdued. He picked up his hat, saluted and set off into the darkness. Evan followed his example, but Wheeler stopped him.

“Not you, Mr Powell, you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I was part of the conversation, sir.”

“I know, I heard. I also heard what you said last. Empathy is a useful quality, I hope you manage to hold onto it after a few years in the army. Stand down, lad. As you’ve lost your messmate, why don’t you come and join us?”

Evan froze in surprise and glanced over to a group of men around an impressive fire in the centre of the camp. Donahue  mockingly called it ‘the golden circle’ where the commanding officer of the 110th and his particular friends congregated. Wheeler was beckoning, so Evan followed, feeling gauche and awkward and painfully aware of his youth and inexperience.

“Johnny, that was the longest piss in history, I was about to send out a search party. While you’re up, grab another bottle of wine, will you, there’s one in my tent. In fact bring two, since I can see you’ve brought a guest. Come and sit down, Mr Powell, there’s a spare camp chair next to Captain Swanson. Sergeant-Major, get him a drink, will you?”

Sergeant-Major O’Reilly unfolded his long limbs from a blanket on the grass and went to collect a pewter mess cup which he filled with wine. Evan accepted with mumbled thanks and sat down, trying to look inconspicuous.

“Why did Mr Donahue disappear into the darkness, Johnny?” Paul van Daan enquired.

“He was being an arsehole and I don’t much like him so I gave him extra picket duty.”

There was a general laugh. Major van Daan surveyed Wheeler thoughtfully. “Now that is something I might have said, but you, Johnny, are a model of rational behaviour. You’re also prevaricating. May I ask…?”

“No, because I’m not going to answer.”

The major turned blue eyes towards Evan. “Mr Powell…”

“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”

Evan could feel his knuckles clenching around the cup and was thankful that it was not a glass. After a long moment, the major’s expression softened into a smile.

“Ensign Donahue isn’t the only one being an arsehole this evening. I beg your pardon, Mr Powell, I’m not quite myself at the moment. Shift that chair over here closer to me, will you, I’m too lazy to yell, and I want to find out more about you. This must have been the worst moment to arrive, I’ve not had a moment to talk to you and I don’t suppose Captain Wheeler has either. It feels ridiculous to ask how you’re settling in, so I won’t. Tell me instead, where you’re from and what brought you into the army?”

The party broke up late, and Evan slept well in his shared tent and woke surprisingly refreshed. He thought about the evening as he mounted Cassie, his bay mare, and set off into the cool dawn light. It had been an evening of laughter and good conversation and for the first time since arriving, Evan had come away feeling a sense of belonging. He wondered if all regiments were like this and if other commanding officers had Paul van Daan’s effective blend of authority and friendliness.

Donahue was tired and miserable the following day, with little to say. He did not ask how Evan had spent the evening and no mention was made of their conversation of the previous day. Evan privately decided that if Donahue attempted to revive the subject, he would decline to take part. Gossiping about his commanding officer no longer felt comfortable after spending an evening in his company. Evan knew nothing about Paul van Daan’s private life but he had the sense that his friends were closing ranks protectively around him and Evan understood why. Bad enough to suffer such a loss in private, but unbearable to do so under the relentless glare of army gossips.

***

The River Coa was in full flood when the 110th reached the narrow stone bridge leading on to the fortress of Almeida. Captain Johnny Wheeler surveyed the raging torrent as he rode over the bridge and thought that whatever happened, neither French nor Anglo-Portuguese troops would be able to ford the Coa which meant that possession of the bridge would be crucial in any retreat or engagement. There were pickets along the river, outposts from Picton’s third division which was quartered at Pinhel and Major van Daan halted to speak to one of the officers. Johnny watched his friend talking to the young lieutenant and thought how tired Paul looked. In the brief time since his wife’s death, he had slept poorly, rising after only a few hours sleep to sit by the dying embers of the fire with Jenson, his orderly, or walking the perimeter of the camp to chat to the sentries. Johnny was one of the few men who knew something of Paul van Daan’s internal struggle between grief and guilt for his pretty wife, and longing for the dark eyed young woman who seemed to have turned his world upside down.

After about twenty minutes, Paul mounted up and joined Johnny and Carl Swanson who commanded his light company. “I’m not happy,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t sound as though Craufurd has made any attempt to withdraw across the river yet. This lad knows nothing of what’s going on, but he says a lot of the officers are worried that Craufurd is lingering too long. I’m going to speed it up a bit, I want him to read Wellington’s letter, it might get him moving.”

Johnny saluted, wheeled his horse and trotted back to his men with the order, and the 110th set off again at a much faster pace. The area between the Coa and the Agueda rivers was a rough plateau, with low hills and rocky outcrops studded with trees and criss crossed with low stone walls enclosing orchards, olive groves and vegetable gardens. Johnny assessed the ground and thought that it was good country for skirmishing, but given the huge numerical advantage that the French had in this region, he would not choose to pit his men against Ney’s tirailleurs, if it could be avoided.

The 110th met the first pickets of the light division a mile on, and after a brief conversation, Paul returned to Johnny. “I’m riding up to see Craufurd, he’s camped about half a mile west of here. Come with me, Johnny. Captain Swanson, get them bivouacked here until we know where he wants us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob, partly because of his dark colouring and complexion, and partly because of the violent mood swings and fierce temper which struck terror into the officers and men of his brigade and more recently his division. Paul and Johnny found him in his tent, studying what looked like a sketch map of a fortress spread out on a folding camp table. Paul saluted and Craufurd glared at him.

“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Lord Wellington’s orders, sir. I’ve a letter from him.”

Paul held it out and Craufurd took it. “Of course you bloody have. I received a letter from him yesterday, and two days before that as well. Does he spend his entire time writing letters?”

“Pretty much, sir,” Paul agreed pleasantly. Craufurd regarded him, black brows drawn together and Johnny tried not to hold his breath. Suddenly, Craufurd grinned.

“Somebody should put sand in his ink pot,” he said. “Well, whatever the reason, it’s bloody good to see you, boy. Sit down. You too…what’s your name again?”

“Wheeler, sir, Paul said, pulling up a camp chair. “Same as last time you asked.”

“Button your lip, Van Daan, and let me read this latest nonsense.”

There was silence in the tent as Craufurd read. The orderly disappeared then reappeared with a tray, and Johnny took a cup of wine with a smile of thanks and waited. Finally, Craufurd looked up.

“Nothing much new there. He wants me to stay on this side of the river as long as it’s safe to do so, but not take any risks. Protect Almeida, but not for too long. Use my initiative but follow orders. Listen to…”

“I get the point, sir. We all do. He’s worried and he’s feeling his way.”

“He isn’t here,” Craufurd said shortly.

“I am, sir.”

“And I’m supposed to consult a junior officer about my division?”

Paul said nothing and Johnny admired his silence for a while. Eventually Craufurd made and exasperated sound.

“I am about to blow up Fort Concepcion,” he said. “I’ve left it as long as possible, but if I leave it much longer, there’s a risk they’ll take it. Burgoyne and his engineers are in there, making the final preparations. The rest of the division has been pulled back a mile or so, leaving only the pickets and vedettes out there. We’ll withdraw when we need to.”

“When will that be, sir?”

“Is that why he’s sent you?” Craufurd demanded belligerently. “Has he had the bloody nerve to send a boy of your age to keep an eye on me because he can’t be here himself?”

“He sent me to provide support if it’s needed, sir.”

“And to write back immediately if you think I’m making a balls-up.”

“No, sir, if I think you’re making a balls-up, I’ll tell you myself. And I’m a bit worried that you might be.”

“Duly noted, Van Daan. Are you sure he didn’t actually send you to stop you doing something stupid in your private life?”

Johnny caught his breath and Paul went very still but did not immediately speak. After a moment, he said:

“You mean losing my wife to childbirth? Not much he can do about that really, sir.”

Craufurd’s expression changed. “Christ, Paul, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Wellington wrote to me to tell me what had happened, he thought I should know. Is the child all right?”

“She seems to be thriving, we’ve found a wet nurse and she’ll be travelling back to England as soon as an escort can be found.”

“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”

“I don’t know her plans, sir.”

“Liar,” Craufurd said, without heat. “Wellington’s worried you’ll persuade her into committing social suicide with you, he has a tendre for that girl.”

“So do you, sir.”

“Yes, I bloody do, so take care of her. And keep that husband of hers away from her. Did he really hit her in the town square in front of half the army?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about her, sir. She’s safe at the farm with the medical staff and Carlyon won’t come back, he’s too much of a coward. Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using my personal troubles to distract me. Where do you want us?”

“You can stay where you are for the moment, I’ll send word once Burgoyne is ready and we’re on the move. Write what you like to Wellington. I know this area and I know my men and what they can do. I’ll march when I’m ready.”

***

Tension mounted over the next few days. The 110th shared picket duty with several companies of the 95th and Evan listened to their grumbling and tried not to be afraid. He could see no sign of fear in either his fellow officers or his men, but this was not their first experience of war. More and more French troops seemed to be moving into position, and Evan could sense the unease of his seniors. Officers from the other battalions, the 52nd, 43rd, 95th and the Portuguese  caçadores came and went, spending time with Major van Daan, and Evan suspected that the conversation centred around when the light division might withdraw and whether Craufurd was holding on too long.

At dawn on the 21st of July, Evan woke to movement, and then the call of the bugle. During training, he had practised getting to arms at speed, and had been impressed with his men, but he was astonished at how much faster these veteran troops could manage it. Gunfire could be heard through the morning mist as Major van Daan was summoned to Craufurd’s command post and returned to brief his officers.

“There’s action around Concepcion. Ney’s sent in the fourth corps and they’re driving in our pickets and the cavalry vedettes. They’re going to blow the fort, and then, please God he’ll get us over that bridge and out of here.”

“We won’t fight then, sir?”

“Not unless we have to, Mr Barry, we’re hugely outnumbered here and this was never meant to be more than a watching brief. The 14th dragoons are holding them off until the fort is blown. Stand to arms, I want them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

The explosion was shattering, a huge boom followed by a series of lesser charges and Evan felt as though the ground was shaken beneath him. He wondered how it felt to be even closer. Around him, his men were restless, ready now for either action or retreat, and it was a relief when General Craufurd rode up to the edge of Vale de la Mula shortly afterwards and approached Major van Daan. The French were clearly visible in front of the village, three regiments of infantry and a battalion of light infantry. The major saluted.

“Orders, sir?”

“Stand to, Major.”

“We’ve been doing that since dawn, sir. Did the explosion do its job?”

“More or less. Some casualties, though, some of the cavalry were too close. A few dead and wounded from both sides. The 14th are holding them nicely, I doubt we’ll see action today.”

“Are we not retreating, sir?”

“Not yet. We can wait a while longer, I believe.”

Paul van Daan was frowning. “We probably can, but what’s the point, sir, if we have to go. Surely…”

“You forget yourself, Van Daan. Wait for orders.”

Evan watched him ride off then looked over at Major van Daan and Captain Wheeler. They were both frowning.

“You think he’s got this wrong?” Wheeler asked.

“I think it has the potential to be a bloody disaster,” the major said shortly. “Carl, Johnny, get the men round, I want to speak to them.”

The rain began during the early evening on the 23rd and continued ceaselessly through the night. Evan was on picket duty with Donahue and a dozen men of their company, and his companion grumbled through the sleepless and rain-sodden night. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay close by, and for several days, the light division had manoeuvred across the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, occasionally exchanging fire with French scouts.

A heavy mist hung over the ground as Evan watched his men lighting a fire to make tea. Sergeant Mackie brought a steaming cup and Evan smiled gratefully.

“Soon warm up, sir. Captain says we’ll be covering some of the wagons, bringing supplies out of Almeida. If we’re lucky, we can bugger off after that.”

As Evan drank his tea and ate two hard biscuits, bugles sounded as the main body of the army called reveille and began the morning muster, formed in companies. Men in red, green or the brown of the Portuguese units toured the pickets with dry cartridges to replace any that had got wet in the night. After only a short time, Evan had learned the morning routine of the army and it felt soothing, familiar, almost safe.

“Mist’s burning off a bit,” Donahue said. “Hope they relieve us soon, I’ve had enough of being out here with the bloody green jackets.”

Evan did not reply. Since the night Donahue had been sent out on extra picket duty, his relationship with his fellow subaltern had cooled a little. Now that he had begun to get to know some of the other officers in the battalion, he was less impressed by Donahue’s stories and found his incessant complaining irritating. Their current bivouac was wet, muddy and uncomfortable but it did not help to constantly moan about it. Evan was tired of his condescending manner and was beginning to loathe some of the tales he told of his conquests among the local women. He did not know if Donahue was really such a Lothario and was painfully aware of his own complete lack of experience, but Donahue’s gleeful descriptions of seduction made him cringe.

“There’s movement from the French lines,” Sergeant Mackie said abruptly, and something in his tone made all the men turn their heads. Suddenly they were alert, reaching for muskets and shouldering packs. Private Brown doused the fire, kicking the embers around to ensure that it could not flare up again. Evan stood staring into the mist until his eyes hurt. He could hear the sounds now, but there had been movement before and he did not know what Mackie had heard that was different although he suspected the men did. There was a sudden breeze which lifted the edge of Evan’s coat and caused a mad flapping as Private Crook finished rolling up his blanket. The mist shifted eerily, like some ghostly creature reaching out white fingers to touch the low stone wall behind which they had camped, and then suddenly sunlight pushed its way through and there was a clearing in the fog, and then another, and Evan felt his innards turn to water at the sight before him.

“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.

The broad plain was covered with French troops as far as the eye could see. They were close and fully armed and Evan knew with utter certainty that this was not another feint in the long dance of advance and retreat that Craufurd had been playing for days. These men were ready to fight, and today he might die.

Alarm calls were sounding up and down the line of pickets, and were picked up in the rear, as the men of the light division scrambled to pack up, abandoning roll-call to line the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept. Donahue drew his pistol and checked it methodically and Evan did the same, although his hands were shaking so much that he was not sure he would be able to aim and fire. As he thought it, there was a shot to his left and then another, and suddenly the air was filled with the crackling of musket and rifle fire as the front line of Ney’s voltigeurs and the first of the rifle pickets exchanged fire.

“They’re coming,” Donahue said, and his voice was suddenly very calm. “Don’t panic, Powell. Hear that noise?”

“Drums?”

“That’s right. They’re a way off yet, which means he’s not brought up his main columns, these are just the skirmishers. We’ll hold them off, but when I give the word, we fall back through those trees to the main force. Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting to give support.”

“What if they’re not?”

“They will be. Stick with your men, they know what they’re doing. Christ, these bastards are fast.”

The French skirmishers were moving forward over the rough terrain, ducking behind trees and rocks to let off a shot. They worked in pairs, covering each other skilfully, and Evan was terrified at how quickly they were approaching. He felt painfully isolated and certain that within minutes he would be dead, then the crash of a musket beside him made him jump. It was followed by another and then another and the voltigeurs began to fall. They were replaced immediately by others, and Donahue straightened, took aim with his pistol and fired.

“Fall back,” he called. “We’re too far out here.”

Relief mingled with fear in Evan’s breast, but at least he could move now. Copying Donahue, he drew his sword and ran with his men to the first line of a small copse of trees. The men disappeared behind trees, turning to fire again at the approaching French. Donahue reloaded his pistol and it reminded Evan that he had not yet fired his. He was a good shot, had practised for many hours with his father and brother and could bag a wood pigeon better than either, but these were not birds. Evan took aim, knowing that his shaking hands must be visible to his men, and he wondered if they thought him a coward. A blue jacket came into his sight and he steadied the pistol, feeling as though he would vomit. The Frenchman roared, a meaningless sound, designed to terrorise, and it galvanised Evan into action. He fired, coping well with the recoil, and the Frenchman fell. Evan was shocked, wondering for a moment if he had somehow stumbled, then he heard Crook’s voice behind him.

“Bloody hell, good shot, sir. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

They ran, dodging between trees as the voltigeurs came closer. Shots flew around them, most bouncing harmlessly off tree trunks. Evan did not bother to stop and reload, he could not aim in here and his men seemed intent only on escape now. There were too many Frenchmen, and sounds from the right suggested that the riflemen who had formed the next picket had been overrun. A shot to Evan’s left was followed by a cry of agony and he stopped, knowing that one of his own men had been hit. A hand grasped his elbow, dragging him forward.

“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”

Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.

The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.

“Come on.”

Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.

“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.

“Here.”

The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”

Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.

The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.

“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”

Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.

“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”

“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.

“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”

Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.

***

After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.

“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”

Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.

Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”

“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.

As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to the  farmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.

The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.  Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.

There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.

“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”

“We’ve no orders.”

“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”

“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.

“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”

The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.

“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”

“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”

“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”

Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.

“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”

“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”

“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”

“I know. He knows.”

“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”

“The 95th…”

“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”

Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.

***

They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.

Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.

As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.

“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”

“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”

“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”

“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”

“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”

Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.

“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.

“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”

They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.

“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”

“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”

“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”

“He’s not wounded, is he?”

“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”

“We can wait.”

“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”

“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”

“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”

“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”

The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.

***

Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.

There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.

“What is it, sir?”

“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”

“Should we move?”

“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”

“He’s desperate, sir.”

“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”

Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.

“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”

Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”

Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”

“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”

Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”

“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”

“He must have,” Napier said.

“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”

Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:

“It’s an order, Major.”

Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.

“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”

General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.

“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.

“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”

Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:

“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”

“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”

“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”

“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”

Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.

“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”

Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”

“It’s too risky.”

“It’s too risky not to.”

“I have given my orders, Major.”

There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.

“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”

“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.

“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”

They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.

There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.

There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Corporal Carter’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.

“Sir, here.”

Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”

Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.

There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.

Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.

“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”

“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”

“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”

“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”

Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.

“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”

The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.

The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.

“Colonel Beckwith.”

“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”

“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”

“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”

***

Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.

He was wrong.

As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.

It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.

“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”

“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”

“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”

“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,  that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.

At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.

It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.

“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”

Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”

Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.

General Robert Crauford

The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.

“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”

Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”

Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”

There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.

“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.

“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.

“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.

“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”

“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”

Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:

“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”

“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”

“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”

He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.

“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”

***

After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.

After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”

“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”

“Let’s both go.”

Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”

“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.

“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.

“Well, get back to them, then.”

“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”

After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”

“Do you think he meant it?”

“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”

“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”

“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”

“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”

“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”

“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”

“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”

“To Lisbon?”

“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”

“That will ruin her, Paul.”

“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”

His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”

“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”

“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.

“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”

“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”

“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.

“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.

“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”

“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.

***

Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.

Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.

That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.

“Powell. Got any rations left?”

Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”

“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”

It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.