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 Sergeant Grogan’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.

“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.

Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story

Groudle Beach

This year’s Christmas story is part of the Historical Fiction Writers’ December Blog Hop and I’ve chosen to return to the Isle of Man, my adopted homeland. Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story takes place in the winter of 1809-10. For regular readers of both the Peninsular War Saga and the Manxman series, Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell have just arrived back in England after the Walcheren campaign and Paul van Daan is in Portugal, rebuilding his battalion after the bloody Talavera campaign.

When we moved to the island in 2002, I fell in love with Manx culture and loved learning about some of the traditional customs and I’m glad to be able to share them with you. As with all my short stories, it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story

It was frosty on the morning of Colby Fair, an icy wind blowing in from the Irish sea. Lieutenant Thomas Young of  His Majesty’s Revenue Service was without a ship or any useful occupation and agreed to accompany the officers from the Castletown garrison to the fair on a whim. He quickly regretted it, shivering on his hired horse, wrapped in his worn blue cloak which had seen better days.

Thomas knew the officers had invited him out of kindness and was trying to be grateful. He was billeted with two of them in a cosy inn on the edge of Castletown, while the revenue cutter he commanded underwent essential repairs and Thomas recovered from a shot through the arm received in a deserted bay near Santon when he had been chasing down a fast brig bringing in contraband. His ship, the Bluebird, had hit a rock and his crew had manhandled him ashore and protected him, letting the smugglers get on with their business. Thomas remembered little of the night. His wound was trivial compared to previous hurts and as he recovered he had appreciated the hospitality of the commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart, who found him accommodation and included him in the officers’ mess of the four companies of the Royal Manx Fencibles remaining on the island.

“You won’t get much done on your ship until after Twelfth Night, Lieutenant. On Mann we take our celebrations seriously, only essential work will be done.”

“Does that include the smugglers, sir?” 

Steuart gave a wry smile. “I wouldn’t know. There isn’t much you can do about it either way, so why not take some time to recover and enjoy our hospitality? We’ve seen very little of you since you were stationed here.”

Thomas agreed, since he had little choice. He had arrived off the coast of the Isle of Mann three months earlier and found it an odd posting. Fresh from the Sussex coast, where the lives of every riding officer and revenue man were constantly at risk, he had been told that the island was a hotbed of smuggling and had come prepared for battle. In three months he had seen his fair share of action and had known some successes, but there had been remarkably little violence. The shot fired on that November evening had seemed random, and there was no attempt to follow it up.

“A warning shot, most like, sir,” his pilot had said reassuringly, as he helped lift Thomas into the borrowed gig to take him to the surgeon. “Unlucky, like.”

Thomas, used to attempted murder on the south coast, had been slightly bewildered. His reception in Castletown confused him still more. The officers of the garrison, about half of whom were Manx, were very friendly and spent a lot of time trying to get him drunk. The inhabitants of the town were distant but civil. No small boys cried insults at him or threw stones from behind walls. For the most part, the people of Mann seemed to see an injured revenue officer as none of their business. It was curious but very peaceful.

Colby Village was some three miles from Castletown and the annual fair was held in a field close to the whitewashed church with its square tower. Already, despite the early hour, stalls and booths were set up and the ground was alive with people. Thomas followed his companions along the village street to a solidly built inn.

“They’ll stable our horses here, and we can order dinner, the food’s good,” Captain Tobin said. He was Manx and spoke with the authority of a local.

“Why are we here so early?” Thomas asked. “They’ve barely set up.”

“To see the procession,” Lieutenant Taylor said. “I came last year, it’s the quaintest thing. I swear half these people are savages, you wouldn’t believe their customs.”

“Thank you, Mr Taylor.”

Taylor flushed. “I didn’t mean you, sir. Or, you know, the better sort. But honestly, it’s a funny place, Young. Not like England.”

“Not so much like Scotland either, although we’ve some odd customs of our own,” Captain Maclay said with a grin. “Come on, the procession will come this way.”

Standing at the edge of the field, Thomas watched them come, around thirty men, the youth of Colby and its environs. The women and children of the village lined the main street, and visitors from around the island stood with them, cheering as the parade approached, two by two, bearing something on a raised bier made of entwined sticks between them. They were singing.

“What in God’s name is that?”

“A dead hen,” Tobin said. “The song is about Catherine’s hen being dead. They’ll parade it around the field, take it to the inn to be cooked and they’ll all get drunk. Tomorrow they’ll bury its head and feet in the fair field.”

“Why?” Thomas asked. He wondered if it was a stupid question.

“God knows. There are various stories, probably dating back centuries. Something about burying their disputes for the new year. Utter rubbish, of course, it’s an excuse to get drunk. But it’s traditional. St Catherine’s Day.”

“I thought this was St Nicholas’ Day.”

“It’s the same day. Welcome to the Isle of Mann, Lieutenant Young.”

As the parade dispersed, the crowd drifted onto the field. Thomas had seen many country fairs as a boy, growing up in the green prosperity of his parents’ Hampshire estate, and this was no different, although it was smaller than he was used to. The main purpose of the fair was to buy and sell livestock and farm and dairy produce, and on the eastern edge of the field, farmers paraded their stock and bartering was already underway.

There were stalls selling hams and cheeses and all kinds of preserves, and thrifty Manx housewives studied the wares, questioned the prices in scornful tones and ignored their children who chased each other between stalls and booths, shrieking loudly. It seemed as though every tradesman in Mann had set up shop in St Catherine’s field. There were stalls selling saddles and clothing and lengths of good, locally woven cloth. One stall displayed lace goods and Thomas paused, studying a pretty lace collar and cuffs.

“For your sweetheart, Young?”

“For my mother. I’ve sent her nothing for the season and I should.” Thomas took out his purse then tucked the small parcel into his pocket. They passed stalls selling gingerbread and sweets, a rope maker and a knife grinder and a carpenter mending broken chairs. In one corner were several herbalists and travelling doctors, shouting out miracle cures for warts, fevers and nervous disorders.

Finally there were the side shows; casting dice for prizes, climbing a slippery pole to ring a bell and a fortune teller draped in gaudy scarves reading palms for pennies. Tobin, Maclay and Taylor crowded around the striped tent, laughing, and the woman, who was young and attractive, predicted glory in battle, promotion to general and marriage to wealthy and beautiful wives.

“If only,” Maclay said, still laughing as they crossed the field to an area where several tents had been set up selling food and drink. “By the time I can afford to marry, I’ll be too old to care.”

Tobin, who was already married with a young son and another on the way, looked over at Thomas. “No wish to hear your fortune, Young?”

“Not really,” Thomas said, trying to sound lighthearted. “I wonder what she said to Mr Taylor, he went very red. Was that a prediction or a promise?”

They laughed, surprised, Thomas thought, at a joke from a man considered very serious. Thomas knew that he was so, although he had not always been, but the kindness of the colonel and the cheerful friendliness of these young men, none of whom had ever seen a battle, made him determined to make an effort to seem grateful.

An ox and a pig were roasting on spits, the smell making Thomas hungry although he had broken his fast early with fresh bread and Manx honey. The meat was not ready but they bought pies and pasties at a booth, warming their hands on crumbling pastry and hot spiced meat, while joining the crowd surrounding a group of mummers. All were men, dressed in a variety of white draperies, with their faces painted. The play was bewildering, and it must have showed on Thomas’ face, because Tobin laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The plot is very simple. St Denis fights St George and kills him, and he is then killed by St Patrick. That crazy looking fella in the hat is the doctor who brings them all back to life. In a moment he is going to ask for his fee for this miracle, and the audience will drop their contributions in the hat, and then there will be a sword dance, during which it’s surprising they all aren’t killed over again. It’s a traditional mummers play, they’re called the White Boys. This is more of a rehearsal for them, the real day for mumming is the Saturday before Christmas day, there are several troupes of them and they’ll perform all around Douglas, Peel and Castletown. The Governor always invites them into Castle Rushen for a show and provides them with food and ale afterwards.”

Thomas was grateful for the explanation, although he was not sure how much it helped, but the sword fight was genuinely funny. The mummers wielded their wooden weapons in a choreographed dance for approximately a minute and then quickly degenerated into a fierce mock battle. The young men leaped around each other, hacking at their friends and there was the occasional yell when a wooden blade bruised an arm or cracked a knuckle while the fiddler accompanying the dance played faster and faster. A crack on the head of one of the combatants brought the battle to an abrupt halt and the mummers led their battered member away to the comfort of the ale tent followed by the cheers and whoops of the crowd.

“I need a drink after that,” Tobin said. “My hands are freezing, standing around. Come on, I see old Crellin has set up his tent by the churchyard again.”

“Crellin?” Thomas enquired.

“Josiah Crellin, MHK. Owns the Top House over at Malew, we passed it on the way.”

“MHK?”

“Member of the House of Keys. Tynwald, our Parliament.”

“Oh. Oh, yes.” Thomas felt rather foolish. He had temporarily forgotten that this was anything other than a winter fair in a typical English country district, but he knew better than to say so. “Why does Mr Crellin have a tent?”

“Hospitality. He does it every year, his servants provide spiced wine and fruit punch for the gentry who attend the fair. You were here last year, weren’t you Taylor?”

“Yes, sir. Very pleasant afternoon.”

The tent was large and surprisingly warm, with several small braziers providing both heat and a means of warming the big vats of wine and hot punch. Wooden trestles were set up and a dozen servants distributed drinks, while their master stood with his family to greet his guests. Crellin  gave the impression of being an intelligent active man in his sixties, accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law, who was heavily pregnant. Colonel Smelt, the lieutenant-governor and Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart had joined his party and Thomas was amused to see a manservant stationed at both entrances to the tent to ensure that only the better class of people were admitted. 

“Lieutenant Young, I’m glad you could join us,” Steuart said. “Have you met our kind host? Mr Crellin, this is Lieutenant Young of the Revenue cutter Bluebird. You’ll have heard of the incident, I’m sure.”

Crellin offered his hand. Thomas took it, aware that he was holding his breath. He saw the older man’s brown eyes widen in shock and then look away. Thomas tried not to flinch. In the five years since Trafalgar, he had tried to get used to that first shocked reaction when strangers saw the ruin of his face, but it still hurt. 

Crellin recovered quickly and shook his hand warmly. “Welcome, Lieutenant Young. A cold day, aye, and you’ll be in need of a drink. Spiced wine or hot fruit punch, sir?”

Equipped with wine, Thomas made awkward conversation for a while then moved to join the other officers. Tobin was talking to some friends, while Taylor and Maclay surveyed the room. 

“I didn’t expect so many people,” Thomas said.

“Aye, it’s always the way over here, there’s not much to do. The same people, at the same receptions and dinners. It gets tedious, and since society is so narrow, everybody knows all the gossip. The advantage, though, is that we’re very popular with the young ladies. They like a man in a red coat, and a new face as well.”

Taylor broke off, blushing scarlet as he realised what he had said. Thomas felt sorry for him and at the same time exasperated at having to rescue him. “Well my coat’s the wrong colour and my face is likely to scare them off,” he said, as lightly as he could.

“Sorry, old man. So sorry.”

“It’s all right, I’m used to it. Tell me about some of the people.”

Thomas listened for a while, smiling at some of the more scurrilous stories and trying to ignore covert looks and some open stares. The scar had faded from a scarlet horror to white, but it could not be ignored. The splinter of wood, blown apart by French cannon, had driven into his jaw and travelled upwards to his temple, breaking his cheekbone on the way. It had remained lodged there as he lay in agony waiting for his turn on the surgeon’s bloody table, and when it was gone, his face was bisected, cobbled together with rough stitches. Infection came and went, but the wound touched neither his eye or his mouth. From the right side, Thomas was the same as he had always been, a face of distinction and even some beauty, crowned with bright chestnut hair and well-shaped green eyes with lashes a woman might have envied. From the left, he was a monster and when possible he avoided society so that he did not have to see its reaction.

“That’s old Quayle. Two sons, one’s gone into the law, the other’s learning the business. The daughter went off to London to seek her fortune and did very nicely for herself, some East India merchant, I fancy. She was back here last Christmas showing off the London gowns and diamonds. I danced with her a couple of times. Very pretty.”

Tobin had joined them. “Did you know Crellin has a daughter?”

“No. Where, I’ve never seen her?” Taylor said.

Tobin grinned. “Now that really was a scandal,” he said. “She was a wild one, Roseen Crellin. Set tongues wagging all over the island and then ran away to sea and married a Manx navy captain. He wasn’t from the gentry, but they’ll forgive him because he’s made a fortune in prize money.”

“Who’s that?” Taylor asked, looking across the tent.

Thomas had noticed the girl earlier. She stood beside an older couple, probably her grandparents, and she had been staring very openly at Thomas, making no attempt to hide the fact. Thomas had been trying to ignore it, but now he looked back, hoping she would be embarrassed and look away. To his surprise, she gave him a warm smile instead.

She was probably around twenty, very tall and well-proportioned with shining brown hair curled around a vivid face with well-defined cheekbones and beautiful green eyes. She was dressed very stylishly in a dark green velvet gown, topped with a black cape trimmed with white fur.  Thomas looked at Tobin enquiringly.

“Aalin Kennaugh,” the captain said obligingly. “Those are her grandparents, they raised her after her parents died. Very wealthy, he was an  East India merchant, retired now. They’ve property in Liverpool and Bristol and a fortune in stocks, I’m told. There was a proposed match with some wealthy plantation owner, Mrs Kennaugh spent some time in London trying to bring it off, but the lady is having none of it. She’s turned down a few local gentlemen in the past few years. She’ll inherit a fortune when the old man dies, so she can afford to be choosy. She’s also the worst flirt on the island.” Tobin smiled at Thomas. “Our young ladies aren’t raised quite as strictly as you’ll be used to, Lieutenant. There are rules, of course, but on a small island, the chances are that the lass you’re dancing with was a childhood playmate so it’s hard to be formal.”

“It seems the young lady agrees,” Taylor said, smirking. Miss Kennaugh was making her way around the tent towards them. Tobin bowed slightly and accepted the hand she held out to him.

“Miss Kennaugh, how are you?”

“Very well, Captain Tobin. How are you? Is your brother well?”

“Yes, I had a letter from him a few days ago, he is with the Mediterranean fleet.”

“I hope he is warmer than I am, then. Why do we do this every year, I wonder, when we have houses with walls, ceilings and fires? Next year, I shall refuse. I have seen St Catherine’s hen massacred all my life, it is enough. Does it not seem barbaric to you, Lieutenant Young?”

Thomas was startled. She was regarding him steadily from eyes which were close in colour to his own. There was no sign of discomfort as her gaze rested on his marred face, but he supposed her open stares had given her plenty of opportunity to get used to it.

“I see no introductions are necessary,” Tobin said dryly. “Nevertheless, I shall make them. Miss Kennaugh, this is Captain Maclay and Lieutenant Taylor from the Royal Manx Fencibles, and Lieutenant Young from the Revenue service. Gentlemen, Miss Kennaugh.”

Thomas bowed. Taylor said enthusiastically:

“Capital to meet you, Miss Kennaugh. I’ve been here a while but I’ve not had the pleasure.”

“No, I’ve been away,” the girl said. “My grandmother took me to London to see the sights. At least that was her stated intention, but truthfully, it was to try to persuade me to accept a marriage I did not want. I have no idea why she thought the location would make a difference, but I think she knows my mind now. I heard about your cutter being wrecked, Lieutenant. Were you not shot, as well?”

Her tone was faintly mocking. Thomas looked back without smiling. One of the advantages of having no expectation of attracting a pretty girl was that he felt no need to impress. “Yes,” he said evenly. “A minor wound only, I think it was probably a warning shot gone astray. I have had far worse, as you have observed.”

Thomas sensed the shock of his companions and he supposed he had been rude, but then so had she, and he had no reason to care. The girl did not seem to react at all, but he saw a slight flush mount to her pale cheeks. Nobody spoke for an agonising moment and Thomas wondered if he should apologise for the sake of his companions. He saw her lift her chin and stand a little more upright. 

“I’m surprised they hit you, Lieutenant, it’s clear you’re not afraid to return fire. My grandfather has expressed a wish to meet you. Should you object?”

Thomas felt his face redden. “I…no. No, of course not.”

She nodded and bowed to the other three men, all of whom seemed stunned into silence. Thomas stepped forward and she did not move but looked at him pointedly. Thomas flushed again and offered his arm. The girl accepted as regally as a duchess.

Halfway around the tent, she said:

“At least you can blush.”

“Only on one half of my face.”

Aalin Kennaugh raised furious eyes to meet his. “Generally, Englishmen have better manners than the Manx. You are an exception, sir.”

“I’m sorry. I thought, by the way you were staring at me earlier, and your reference to my recent misfortunes, that we had decided to dispense with the pleasantries.”

They had reached the elderly couple. Thomas had not been sure that the request for an introduction was genuine, but as he bowed, the old man’s face lit up into a particularly sweet smile.

“It is Lieutenant Young, is it not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lieutenant, allow me to introduce you to my wife. My dear, this is the young man that Colonel Smelt spoke of at dinner last week.”

Mrs Kennaugh was pink cheeked and round faced and made Thomas ache suddenly for his home and his family. He bowed over her hand and wished he could take back everything he had said to her granddaughter. “Lieutenant Young, I am delighted,” she said. “The lieutenant-governor was telling us of your misfortunes. And – forgive me for referring to it – your previous fine service. You may not know that we lost both our son and our grandson at Trafalgar. He was captain of the Tulip and his son served as midshipman.”

Shock froze Thomas for a moment. He knew that he needed to say something, but all he could think about was his appalling rudeness to a girl who had lost so much. He turned and looked at her. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, no, that’s awful. I’m so sorry, ma’am. Sir. And Miss Kennaugh, you must think me the world’s worst boor. I’m over-sensitive, sometimes, but there was no excuse…”

“No, you were right,” the girl said unexpectedly. “I was staring. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. I have no idea exactly how my father and brother died, it was pure vulgar curiosity.”

Thomas felt rather as though he had been punched in the stomach. “I’m sorry,” he said again, helplessly.

Mrs Kennaugh came to his rescue. “A misunderstanding, I’m sure. You could not have known and Aalin has a very unruly tongue and speaks her mind. Forgive me, sir, you may have made other arrangements, but we were wondering if you would care to spend Christmas with us at our house just outside Douglas. I know the officers will take care of  you, but you will be so much more comfortable in a home and we would like to offer hospitality to a navy man.”

Something about the warmth of her tone drew a smile from Thomas. He did not smile very often, it twisted the scar on the side of his face into a bizarre crescent. “I’m not really a navy man any more, ma’am. With such a long convalescence I was put on half-pay, and have remained there ever since. It was the revenue service or the impress service and I didn’t like the idea of that.”

“I imagine not. My son used to tell me that impressment was essential to keep the navy functioning and ready to defend our shores, but it’s very hard on families whose sons and husbands and fathers are snatched away. I do not blame you for preferring to chase smugglers, Lieutenant. Do join us.”

Thomas was smiling, he could not stop himself. “I am so grateful for your kindness, but you cannot wish for a stranger in the house, especially one making himself unpopular on the island by interfering in the smuggling trade.”

“That is exactly what we wish for, Lieutenant,” Kennaugh said breezily. “You’ve no duties at present, I’m told the Bluebird won’t be fit to sail until January. Pack up your things and I’ll send the carriage for you tomorrow. It’ll be good for Aalin to have a young person around the house for a while.”

Thomas glanced nervously at the girl. She was looking at him with clinical interest. “How old are you, Lieutenant?” she enquired.

“None of your business, Miss,” her grandfather growled affectionately. Thomas was beginning to realise that Miss Kennaugh’s elderly relatives indulged her beyond permission but he understood why. Having lost so much must have drawn the three closer.

“I will attempt to make up for my horrible rudeness by answering frankly, Miss Kennaugh. I’m twenty five.”

Unexpectedly the pert line of Aalin Kennaugh’s mouth softened into a genuine smile. “Oh no, I thought you must be older,” she said. “You’ve done so much. I’m twenty. I was fifteen that year. It was horrible, and must have been so for you too. Please accept. I cannot promise to behave all the time, because I don’t know how, but I will promise not to be beastly to you again. You don’t deserve it.”

Thomas melted. “Then I’ll accept with pleasure,” he said gravely. “Thank you.”

***

Aalin Kennaugh spent the twenty-four hours before the arrival of Lieutenant Thomas Young in a flutter of nervous anticipation which infuriated her. A young woman of decided opinions and independent spirit, she had reached the age of twenty without ever feeling the slightest interest in the various young men that her grandparents threw in her way. Most of them were boys she had grown up with, and Aalin already knew that she wanted more than a steady Manx businessman or landowner as her partner in life. She was young for marriage, but along with her grandmother, whom she adored, Aalin accepted her limitations and realised that it would not hurt to plan ahead.

It was not that she was unattractive. Aalin approved the natural curl of her dark brown hair and the wide, well spaced green eyes. Her skin, which had struggled with hideous spots for several years had miraculously cleared about a week after her nineteenth birthday, with no explanation, and she had excellent posture and was a graceful dancer. In terms of accomplishments, she was very well-read, could sing better than any of her contemporaries and was a talented artist. She had a good seat on a horse and light hands and knew how to sew although she seldom bothered, since she could think of nothing more boring. She had all the essential attributes that a gentleman might require in a wife. It was simply that she was so tall and built on far more generous lines than any of the other girls.

When she was younger, Aalin had shed tears over it. Her older cousin, a waif-like creature now married to a Douglas advocate, was three years older than her, and her aunt had sent bundles of clothing over to Aalin regularly through childhood. Aalin had opened the parcels and tried to struggle into the tiny garments until she wept, and eventually her grandmother had put a stop to the process, telling her aunt firmly to stop sending them. Aalin was a head taller than Emma, with curved hips and an impressive bosom, even at the age of fourteen. Dressmakers, arriving to measure for the garments necessary for Aalin’s introduction into society would pause, and study her, and then sigh.

“The young lady is so tall. And so…so womanly.”

Aalin had heard the word ‘fat’ behind the remarks and had cried herself to sleep. The floating muslins of girlhood had made her feel enormous, the white and pale blue and pinks of the debutante had never suited her and none of her grandmother’s soothing words had helped.

London had changed that. One evening spent in the company of Mr David Claybourne had convinced her that she would never wish to marry him, but the city itself had intrigued her. On the one hand, she had hated the crowds and the noise and the sense of never being able to find a moment of solitude. On the other hand, she realised that among so many people, she could become invisible and the experience had been amazingly liberating.

Accompanied by the companion hired by her grandmother, she had explored the city, wandered through the parks and visited libraries and art galleries and museums. She had sat for a portrait, and been gratified at the artist’s blatant admiration. She had been attended by dressmakers, far more experienced and sophisticated than her island could produce and had begun to realise that there was far more to beauty and fashion than a slender figure and an air of innocence. And she had realised, with passionate gratitude, that the proposed marriage had simply been her shrewd and kindly grandmother’s excuse to show her a different world.

Returning home after months away was confusing. Aalin loved being back among her own people and relished silent walks over the hills with her dogs and long fire lit evenings with her grandparents. On the other hand, she found local society parochial and often boring. She was stifled by the small concerns of the Manx gentry and wanted to scream as they picked over every scandal and item of gossip repeatedly. She had grown up and had no idea what to do about it.

Lieutenant Thomas Young was a very welcome distraction. Flirtation was a skill Aalin had learned during her time away and she had been surprised to find that she was good at it and enjoyed it. She no longer felt at a disadvantage among her more dainty fellow debutantes, and she found that the definite colours and well cut clothing she had learned to wear in London made her stand out. Marriage was a different prospect to flirting but Aalin had taken a long look at Thomas Young’s perfect profile across the tent and wanted to know more about him. The scar had been a shock, but his defensive rudeness had not upset her. She understood, better than Mr Young could know, how easy it was for self-consciousness to spill over into bad manners.

On the day of his arrival, Aalin found herself hanging back. They dined that afternoon, and she was content, for once, to listen, as her grandparents gently questioned him and drew out the story she was dying to know. He was, as Aalin had supposed, of good family, a third son, with the estate and lands going to his eldest brother. The second brother had chosen the army and had died on the brutal field of Talavera. Thomas had chosen the navy over the church and had passed his lieutenant’s exam before the bloody battle at Trafalgar had brought glory to England, robbed them of Nelson and left Thomas Young scarred, angry and defensive, trapped in a posting he hated with no prospect of returning to the navy. Without influence or patronage, a young and newly qualified lieutenant might wait a long time once he was placed on half-pay. He had chosen not to return home to rely on the support of his parents and his brother and Aalin strongly approved of his quiet independence.

December proved bright and sunny, although cold, and as her grandparents’ activities were limited, it was left to Aalin to entertain their guest through the daytime. The revenue man had hired a horse from the Castletown inn, but Aalin cast it a scornful glance and produced her own second mount, a tall grey gelding with a sweet temperament. She enjoyed watching Thomas make friends with Diamond and as they clattered out of the yard, she silently approved his seat on the horse. Thomas was several inches taller than Aalin and a good fit for the horse, and she could see he was enjoying himself. 

“You approve, Lieutenant?”

Thomas glanced over at her. “Yes, thank you. He’s beautiful.”

“My father bought him in Ireland the year before he died, he was intended for my brother. He’s tall for me, Ruby here is a better fit, but I could never get rid of him and he’s so well-mannered. Far more so than I am.”

“Your manners have been impeccable since I arrived, Miss Kennaugh.”

“So have yours. We got off to a poor start, but I’m proud of us since.”

To her delight, he laughed aloud. “It would be impossible to be rude to your grandparents,” he said. “Where are we going?”

“To Douglas. I’m sure you’ve been there already, but I thought we could ride up to Douglas Head and along the coastal path, the weather is so fine. It’s a beautiful view from up there.”

“It’s a beautiful island. I realise I’ve only seen it from the perspective of the best beaches to land run goods so far. I’ve been surprised at how welcoming the people have been. Not just your grandparents, but generally. In Sussex, I’m a pariah, they hate the revenue and excisemen. I can’t even get served in some of the inns. Which is probably just as well, since I’d be drinking run brandy.”

It was a long sentence, for this reserved young man, and a way in, and Aalin seized it. “Would you tell me more about your work? I know a little about the trade of course, since I live in the middle of it, but only from the Manx perspective. I’m interested.”

Thomas shot her a surprised look, but complied readily. Once he began to talk, he was a good storyteller, and she was fascinated by his tales of the smuggling trade in Sussex, of dark nights and sudden conflict, of intimidation and violence and even murder. It bore no resemblance to the casual acceptance of the trade in Mann and she told him so, although she was careful only to refer to stories thirty years in the past that her grandfather had told her, and she knew by his quiet amusement that he realised it. It set the tone for the following week, and by St Thomas’ Eve, as they rode out to watch the men cutting the huge peat turf which would burn through Christmas and bring good luck into the house, Aalin was on very comfortable terms with their guest and she knew that her grandmother was watching with great interest.

“I am told that you intend to take our guest to church on Christmas Eve for the carval singing,” she said to Aalin, as they sat together writing letters one morning. “I hope he doesn’t find it too tedious.”

“He will find it enormously tedious after the third song,” Aalin said composedly. “But I was telling him about the custom and he was interested. I have told him he should remain close to the back door and leave when he wants to. I’ll be able to see him from the gallery and will slip out to join him.”

“Or you could throw a dried pea at him to attract his attention,” Mrs Kennaugh said placidly.

Aalin blushed scarlet and kept her head bent over the letter she was failing to write. The Christmas Eve service ended with local maidens throwing dried peas down from the gallery at their bachelor acquaintances, and it was an accepted way for a girl to express her interest in a man. The scene usually degenerated quickly into chaos and the parish clerk, whose job it was to oversee the carval singing, would clear the church with the congregation, their religious duty done, making their way to the local public house to continue the festivities.

“I shall do nothing of the kind,” Aalin said firmly. “We shall leave before it becomes disorderly. Anyway, I don’t suppose he knows what that is supposed to mean.”

“He may have found somebody to tell him,” Mrs Kennaugh said.

Aalin looked up. “Grandmother, are you trying to tell me something?”

“I think I am trying to ask you something, child. You are spending a great deal of time with this young man.”

“You told me that you wanted me to entertain him. I am never alone with him. If we ride, my groom follows us. If we walk or drive, I take my maid. It is perfectly…”

“Aalin, I am not scolding you, you have done nothing wrong. It is just that I am beginning to wonder if there is more to this than taking care of a guest. You like him, don’t you?”

Aalin could feel herself blushing. “Do you not like him?”

Mrs Kennaugh smiled. “I like him very much. We invited him, as you know, in memory of your father and your brother. At this time of year, it seemed right to offer hospitality to a Trafalgar veteran, especially one who has suffered so much. Since then, I have got to know him a little, and I find him a most estimable young man. It is a shame he is so very conscious of his scar, since I think it stops him smiling as much as he ought.”

“One can hardly blame him when you see the way people stare. It infuriates me. Did you see Mrs Quayle at dinner last night? She stared at him, as though he was some kind of side show at St Catherine’s Fair, I wanted to slap her. To make it worse, she did not listen properly to his conversation, she was so busy staring at his scar. It was so obvious. No wonder he dislikes going into society if it is full of such ill-mannered fools.”

“I see he has a champion in you.”

Aalin sighed. “Don’t matchmake, Grandmama, it’s a repulsive habit.”

“I have certainly proved a failure at it so far,” Mrs Kennaugh agreed. 

“Lieutenant Young is not going to propose marriage to me,” Aalin said firmly. She realised that it would be better to have this conversation and dispose of any false hopes. “He dreams of returning to the navy some day. Besides, he is ridiculously scrupulous and does not believe that a man should offer marriage when he cannot support a wife.”

“Has he told you that?”

“Yes. We have talked of marriage in general, as people do. I wish there was a way he could return to the navy, he misses it desperately, although he tries very hard to make the best of his current work. I think he must have made a very good and conscientious officer.”

“I’m sure he did,” her grandmother said gently. “But you would not wish to be married to a navy officer, would you, Aalin?”

Aalin realised that she was close to tears, and she knew that her grandmother would see it. She looked up, blinking hard, and managed a smile. “Ma’am, if it was a man I cared about, I would not refuse because of his profession,” she said. “But it can not be. He is not…he does not…will you excuse me?”

She did not hear her grandmother’s response as she sought the safety of her bedchamber. Lying full length on her bed, Aalin fought against her tears, knowing that she was being silly. It was not sensible to pine over a man who clearly saw her in the light of a cousin or a sister, and not wise to spend too much time dwelling on the joy of every crooked smile or the flutter she felt every time he took her arm, or lifted her from her horse. She was determined just to enjoy this Christmas then let him go with the memory of friendship and no embarrassment. It had been a mistake to let Grandmama see how she felt, but it was more important to ensure that Thomas had no idea. He would be kind, but it would be painfully awkward, and Aalin had no intention of giving him a moment’s discomfort. It was not his fault that she had developed these feelings and she would manage them herself.

Christmas Eve dawned crisp and dry, but by the afternoon a sharp wind was rising and dark clouds obscured the sun. No rain had fallen by the time they set out for church, but Aalin was fairly sure it would fall before Christmas day. The church was barely half full, mostly with people of the more respectable sort. There were few of the local gentry present, they would go to church the following morning while their servants prepared Christmas dinner, but Mr and Mrs Kennaugh had elected to come. The service was short, dwelling on the story of the nativity and the celebration of Christ’s birth.

When the final prayer was said, the parson gathered together his sermon and prepared to leave. He was followed out by the gentry. Aalin joined them, flashing a reassuring smile to Thomas, who was stationed by the back door of the church, looking nervous. She mounted the stairs to the wooden gallery as sounds of laughter and chatter suddenly filled the church, and the aisle was filled with young men and women. The girls climbed to the gallery and the men filled the pews. There were a number of older men, regular singers at the Oiel Verree service. Mr Corlett, the parish clerk, took up his station just inside the communion rail. Aalin had attended this service many times and wondered what her English guest made of it. Most of the congregation carried a lighted candle. The girls decorated their candles with red ribbons and rosettes. Aalin lit her own candle from one of the others and stood by the door, enjoying the brilliance of the lighted church and the feeling of community. 

The carvels began. Most were written in Manx and one or two in English. There were one or two traditional carols but most were written by previous parishioners. Few of them were about the nativity and the themes were usually grim and dark, dwelling more on sin and the prospect of eternal damnation than the hope of Christ’s birth. Sometimes men sang together, sometimes alone. They carried lighted tapers, and could sing until the taper burned down, when they made way for the next singer.

Halfway through the fourth carvel, some of the girls were becoming restless, and one or two had begun to throw the hard, dried peas down into the men below. Voices hushed them. The song being sung was an old one, known locally as Bad Women, and spoke of the sinful nature of some of womankind, with Biblical references. It was never popular with the girls, and Aalin thought dispassionately that the clerk might have done better to leave that one to the end.

Peering over into the body of the church, Aalin almost laughed aloud. The singer of Bad Women, the blacksmith from Lonan, had chosen to sing the carvel in English, and it was the first that Thomas would have understood. The revenue man was staring at the singer as though he could not believe his ears. Aalin leaned on the wooden balcony and watched appreciatively.

“Here, missus, throw this at him.”

Aalin turned, startled, and a thin faced elf of a girl was laughing back at her, holding out several dried peas. The temptation was irresistible. Aalin took aim. The first pea missed, bouncing off the wood of the back pew but the second struck Thomas squarely on the top of his head. He looked up, startled, and caught her eye. Aalin jerked her head towards the door and saw, to her secret delight, a broad smile in response. It happened so seldom. Aalin smiled at the elf girl and returned the remainder of the peas then slipped down the stairs and joined Thomas outside in the cold dark night.

As Aalin had suspected, it was raining. The wind was gusting fiercely, threatening Aalin’s riding hat. They stood in the church porch, listening to the growing hilarity within.

“What on earth was he singing about?”

“Sinful women,” Aalin said. “It’s traditional.”

“At Christmas?”

“Come to church tomorrow, you’ll hear pretty carols about the birth of Jesus. Carval singing concentrates on the darker side of God.”

“I would never have guessed it.”

“Mind, the clerk is going to wish he’d not permitted that one so early in the evening, it’s stirred up some of the sinful women in the gallery, he’s going to get a dried pea in the eye if he’s not careful. This is not pleasant. I knew it was going to rain, we should have asked my grandparents to send the carriage back for us.” Aalin glanced at her companion. “We could take refuge at the parsonage and send Orry back to get it.”

“I’ll be guided by you, Miss Kennaugh. If I was alone, I’d make the ride, it’s not that far, but for a lady…”

“I’m Manx, Lieutenant, we’re used to a bit of rain and wind.” Aalin surveyed the weather thoughtfully. “We could ride back along the coastal path, which would save us ten minutes or more. I’d rather avoid the parsonage, it will be full of very worthy people clicking their tongues over the shocking conduct of the young people at the carvel singing. Shall we?”

“By all means. What are you doing?”

“Saving my hat,” Aalin said. As the groom led the horses forward, she removed her riding hat and tied it by its strings to her saddle. “It will be wet but will probably dry out. If I try to ride with it, it’ll end up in the Irish Sea.”

“You’ll get soaked.”

“That hat is not going to keep me dry,” Aalin said as they set their horses into the wind. Glancing sideways she saw that he was smiling, the second time in one evening. It felt like an achievement.

“You are the most practical-minded female I have ever encountered, Miss Kennaugh.”

“Thank you,” Aalin said, somewhat miserably.

To her surprise, he picked up her tone. “I’m sorry, that was meant as a compliment. I’ve spent little time in society these past years and almost none in the company of a pretty girl, but I like your common sense. It is reassuring to know that the possession of a lovely face doesn’t automatically make a girl an idiot. I had wondered until I met you.”

Aalin did not reply. She could not, and was glad of a sudden huge gust of wind which made it necessary to pay attention to her horse. Thomas had said it in such matter-of-fact tones, there was no hint of flirtation or flattery and he could have no idea how much it meant to her. She had been complimented before, on her graceful dancing and excellent sense of style. She had been called, by various hopeful gentlemen with an eye on her fortune, such epithets as magnificent, queenly and glorious and had been referred to as an Amazon. She had never once been called either pretty or lovely and she had told herself that it did not matter. She discovered that it did.

“Have I offended you?” Thomas said, sounding anxious.

“No, of course not. Thank you. I was just surprised.”

“I can understand that, I’m not very good at giving compliments where they’re due. Or at all, really. My older brother Kit inherited all the charm in the family, Edward and I were always rather envious.”

“Was it Kit who died?”

“Yes. Earlier this year.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise it was so recent.”

“He’s buried in Spain, which is hard for my mother, I think. They held a memorial service in the parish church, but…what was that?”

Aalin had heard it too. Thomas reined in, listening. The path ran fairly close to the cliff edge, and they could hear the sound of the sea, waves crashing onto the rocks below. At first, Aalin thought that she had imagined the noise, that it had just been the howling of the wind between the rocks, but then it came again and this time it was unmistakably human voices, not coming back from the direction of the church, but from below the cliff edge.

“Is there a beach down there?” Thomas demanded.

“No. There’s a small cove about half a mile on, you can reach it through a little glen. Down from here, there’s only rocks.”

It was hard to see his face through the dark and rain, but Aalin could sense him thinking quickly. “You, what’s your name? Orry, isn’t it? Come and take my horse. Move them back from the cliff edge, along with Miss Kennaugh, I don’t want them spooked.”

He dismounted and Orry took the horses. Aalin watched as Thomas moved forward. She longed to join him but knew that in this weather, she should not leave the groom to manage three nervous animals alone. She watched, her heart beating faster, as Thomas reached the edge and then lowered himself to the wet grass. He lay full length peering down into the darkness for no more than a minute, then he scrambled to his feet and ran back to them, squinting through the rain, which was little more than a drizzle now.

“It’s a boat, it’s hit the rocks.”

“Oh no.”

“It’s still afloat, I think they’re trying to row to the beach, but I doubt they’ll make it the state of her, she’s lost the mast and she’s listing badly. Orry, you’ll need to ride for help. Back to the church, it’s closest. I hope to God they’re still singing Manx dirges and haven’t got to the public house yet or they’ll be of no use. Take Miss Kennaugh with you and leave her at the parsonage.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Where are you going?” Aalin said.

“Down the glen to the beach. The wind will push them that way. If they can stay afloat long enough to round the rocks, they might make it ashore. If they’re in the water, they’ll need help.”

“You can’t go alone.”

“You’re not coming.”

“I’ll go back to get help. Orry can…”

“No, I’m not having you ride alone along this path in this weather. If your horse stumbles…”

“You don’t know where you’re going,” Aalin said furiously. “Use some of the common sense you claim to value so highly and stop being a hero. Two people should go to the beach.”

Thomas hesitated, then nodded. “Come with me, then,” he said. “Get going, Orry.”

They watched the groom ride off, then Thomas mounted his horse. “Show me,” he said, and Aalin, appreciating his brisk acceptance of the situation, led the way towards Caly Glen.

***

The glen was short and steep, not ideal for horses in the darkness, although the advantage was that it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. There were a few trees clinging to the steep sides, but mostly the hills were covered with tangled undergrowth, a narrow slippery track winding its way down to a stony beach. The rain had eased, which made visibility a little better, and Thomas concentrated on getting Diamond safely to the bottom, following Aalin. Ruby, her tall mare, was sure-footed in the darkness and they paused on the rocky shore. The sea was a dark boiling mass, capped with white foam, and huge waves crashed onto the beach, sending up spray which could make them no wetter. At some point during the speedy descent, Thomas realised he had lost his hat.

“There’s somebody on the beach,” Aalin said. 

Thomas saw it too, dark figures outlined against the waves, speaking in urgent tones. They had two closed lanterns which bobbed furiously in the wind as they held them up, peering out into the waves. Thomas urged his horse forward and the strangers turned to face him. Both were men, wrapped up in dark coats with woollen fishermen’s hats pulled low over their heads and he could see little of them apart from their faces, one young, one old and lined.

“Any sign of them?” Thomas asked, dismounting.

“Out there.” The younger man’s voice was anguished. “They were rounding the head and hit a rock. She’s broken up, sir.”

Thomas could hear them now, the cries of men in the water, and he felt sick with horror. It was the fear of every seagoing man, to find himself clinging to a flimsy piece of wreckage in a dark, angry sea with no hope of rescue. He guessed all these Manxmen were strong swimmers but it would not matter out there tonight.

“Where’ve you come from?”

“Cottage up on the cliff there,” the older man said. “On our way back from church and heard the noise. Sent my lad running for rope, but we’ve no way to use it, they’re too far to throw it.”

Thomas heard the lie and understood. He was not sure if the two men had been on the beach waiting to guide the boat in with the lights or if they had run down as the storm worsened, but he was certain they had been expecting the craft and knew who manned her and what she carried. Christmas Eve in a rising storm was no time to put to sea, but a good time to evade detection with all law-abiding folk either in church or at home, celebrating the season with family and friends. Thomas guessed they knew who he was. Even without his uniform, the island was too small for any smuggler not to know about the red-headed, scarred revenue officer currently on shore leave. But he had not noticed the rope and it galvanised him into sudden action.

“How many aboard?”

“Don’t know, sir,” the older man said. “Like I said…”

“What’s your name?”

“Kinvig, sir. Illiam Kinvig, that’s my boy Jemmy.”

“Right, Mr Kinvig, I don’t give a single damn what cargo that boat carries or what you know about it, I’m here to save lives tonight. You give me a straight answer or you’ll be going head first into that water, and it looks bloody cold. How many?”

“Six, sir,” Jemmy said instantly. “It’s Colin Shimmin’s boat, two of his lads, Adam Joughin, Juan Kermode and my brother Eedin.”

“Good lad. Give me that rope.”

Thomas turned to Aalin. The wind had torn her hair loose from its pins and it blew in wild curls around her face, the big green eyes looking steadily at him. He wondered if she knew what he was about to ask her.

“Miss Kennaugh, it’s your decision. I can ride out with Diamond, and I can probably reach them. If we tie the rope to him, Kinvig and his boy can help pull us back in. He’s a strong horse, I think he’ll make it. But he might not.”

Aalin’s face was white in the lantern light and her expression pulled at his heartstrings, but she did not hesitate. “You might not make it either, Thomas, and I find that worries me far more. Do it.”

There was no time for more and Thomas could not, in any case, say any of the things he badly wanted to say to this girl, who had walked  into his life and made him painfully aware of all the things he did not have. Even in this desperate moment, he felt simple happiness that she had used his first name. Thomas reached for her hand, encased in soaked riding gloves, and kissed it.

“I will buy you the finest pair of gloves this island can produce as a New Year’s gift,” he said, and she smiled through tears.

“See that you are here to keep that promise, Mr Young.”

Diamond reared up as Thomas urged him into the raging sea. Waves thundered around them, pushing the horse back, and Thomas held on with an iron grip, forcing his mount forward. He had developed a good relationship with the horse these past weeks and now, when it mattered, Diamond steadied and held and then began to make his way forward into the sea. Thomas felt the moment that the horse was out of his depth, but he kept moving forward, swimming strongly. Thomas reached behind to check that the rope was secure although he had tied it himself.

Then they were among the wreckage and he heard a cry close by. There were two men, clinging to a wooden board, and he could see that they were both quite young. Thomas manoeuvred Diamond around then reached out a hand.

“Let go,” he yelled, his voice a scream to be heard over the sound of the storm. “One at a time. Hold on to the saddle. One each side.”

It took some time to move the two terrified boys over to the horse. One of them struggled to let go of the plank, his face a mask of fear in the darkness, but it was done finally, and Thomas urged Diamond back to shore. It was harder going, the tide pulling seawards, but Diamond was very strong and knew he was heading for safety, and Kinvig and Jemmy hauled on the rope, helping the horse. His hooves found sand and he trudged through the turbulent waves. In the shallows, Kinvig and Jem splashed towards them, lifting the survivors away from Diamond and up onto the shore.

“Where’s the lantern, I can’t see,” Thomas yelled.

“Here.” Aalin was beside him on Ruby, the oil lamp swinging in the wind, the faint light picking up shapes in the swirling gunmetal waves. Several pieces of wood floated quite close to the shore, and what looked like a barrel was bouncing further out. 

“Shine it over towards the rocks, Aalin, I can’t see…”

“Fella coming in. Swimming. He’s caught in the tide.”

Aalin lifted the lantern and Thomas saw immediately, the desperate strokes that were making no progress. The tide was not impossible to surmount, but this man was exhausted. He was not that far out, and Thomas urged Diamond forward into the waves. He could feel the pull of the water as the horse struck out strongly, but they reached the swimmer quickly, a burly young man and quick-witted for all his exhaustion. He clung to Thomas’ stirrup and Thomas turned the horse and towed him in. The man kept his feet in the shallows and staggered up the beach into the waiting embrace of Kinvig and Jemmy.

“Eedin. Ah, lad, thank God.”

“Any sign of the others?” Thomas asked.

Eedin Kinvig turned, his startled eyes, taking in Thomas’ uniform and clearly understanding. “We lost Joughin when we hit the rocks,” he said. “He went under, we tried to find him. He’s gone sir. Colin is hanging on for his life to the mast. You might see him.”

Thomas took the lantern and raised it. He could feel Diamond beginning to tremble under him and he was shivering himself. He scanned the waves and then saw it, a faint movement, which might have been a waving arm. For a moment, Thomas knew a sense of sheer misery at the thought of going back into the freezing grey water. He leaned forward and patted Diamond’s neck. 

“Reckon we can do it once more, boy?”

The horse baulked as he felt the cold water churning around his legs and for a moment, Thomas thought he had asked too much. Then Diamond steadied and moved forward, striking out strongly towards the faint shape in the distance. The light of one of the lanterns glimmered over the water and Thomas knew that Aalin was holding it high, guiding him towards Colin Shimmin. Diamond swam slowly and Thomas could feel his exhaustion. Whatever happened now, he could not push the horse to do this again.

Shimmin was there, barely conscious, half lying across the broken wooden mast. Thomas tried hard to get him to cling to the saddle, but the older man was too exhausted, and Thomas suspected that if he managed it, he would let go halfway and go under. Desperation lent him strength, and Thomas hauled him up until he was face down over the saddle bow. He concentrated, on the way back, on keeping Shimmin’s head out of the water and thanked God for the rope and the strong arms pulling him in, since he could feel that the horse was spent. As they splashed through the shallows, Thomas could feel Diamond’s legs wobbling and as hands reached up to take Shimmin, he slid from the saddle and put both arms around the horse’s wet, smooth neck.

“All right. It’s all right, boy. No more. You’ve done enough.”

“Thomas.”

Thomas turned. He realised they were no longer alone on the shore. Other men were coming down the beach, some with blankets and flasks, and the survivors were being wrapped up warmly and given brandy. Thomas recognised the parson, Mr Gawne. 

“Lieutenant Young, well done, sir. Four lives saved, thanks to your bravery.”

“Two lost,” Thomas said, bitterly. He was scanning the dark sea, but he could see no sign of life, only a few dark shapes as the wreckage of the boat and her cargo were tossed about on the stormy sea. The wind was beginning to die down finally and it had stopped raining, but Thomas was soaked to his underclothes and shivering. A man he did not know came forward with a rough blanket and draped it awkwardly around Thomas’ shoulders and Thomas nodded his thanks, almost too tired to speak. He looked over at Aalin. She was standing with Diamond, whispering to him, kissing his nose. Somebody had provided a blanket for her as well. She looked as wet as he was, her soaked hair falling in mad curls down her back. Thomas stood watching her and then she looked around and saw him, and smiled.

“You did it,” she said. “You were so brave. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“You know my name,” Thomas said. “You cannot go back now.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you had noticed.”

“It was my favourite part of the evening,” Thomas said gravely, and loved the splutter of laughter she gave.

“Then you should call me Aalin. Although I don’t know what my grandmother will say about it.”

“We’ll ask her, shall we?” Thomas said. Aalin looked at him uncertainly, and Thomas smiled, not caring what it did to his scar. “We should get this lad back, he’s exhausted.”

“Orry has gone for the carriage, it will be here at any moment. He’ll walk Diamond back. Here, have some of the parson’s brandy. I have told him I don’t think he’ll see us in church tomorrow, but I think he will forgive us.”

“Christmas,” Thomas said. “I’d totally forgotten.”

Aalin was looking around the beach. “These people won’t forget, Thomas,” she said. “And neither shall I.”

***

Aalin slept late, exhausted, and on waking, went first to the stables. She was surprised to find Thomas already there, fussing Diamond in his stall. Aalin stood watching him for a moment. He was neat and trim again, the red hair tied back. At some point during the previous night he had acquired a cut across his temple and both his hands were covered in scratches and tears, the nails broken and black. Thomas turned and saw her and smiled broadly and Aalin’s heart melted, remembering when he had not smiled at all.

“I thought you’d sleep later,” he said.

“I thought the same of you. He seems well.”

“He’ll be fine, no lasting damage, although he should be rested for a few days. I was just about to go in to breakfast, but there’s something I wanted to show you first.”

He took her hand and led her through the stables, past the stalls and out into the yard. Two of the men were carrying a small barrel and a box towards the kitchen door. One of them grinned at their approach.

“Morning, miss. Unexpected delivery, this morning.”

“What is it?”

“Tea, miss. And good French brandy. There was a note nailed to the box. Seems it’s a gift for the lieutenant from an unknown admirer.”

“Oh.” Aalin glanced at Thomas in some trepidation and saw that he was laughing. 

“That’s the first time I’ve knowingly been in receipt of smuggled goods. I am gifting it to your grandparents in gratitude for their hospitality. The parson was here earlier, and brought news that was a better gift to me than illicit brandy. It seems we only lost one man.”

“How?”

“For reasons I shall not examine, half the village was on the beach at dawn to see what had washed up on the incoming tide. They heard cries and scrambled down the tail of rocks to find Juan Kermode lying across a boulder with a cracked head and a broken leg. I don’t know how he didn’t freeze to death in the night but he’s alive and he’s home.”

“Oh that’s such good news,” Aalin said. “Thank heavens for the greed of the smuggling trade or he might never have been found.”

The house was decorated for Christmas with boughs of greenery from around the estate. Holly, ivy and other evergreens were interspersed with ribbons and candles. Guests had been invited for Christmas dinner. After all, Aalin and Thomas accompanied her grandparents to church and Aalin was pleased by the unmistakable warmth of the welcome given to Thomas, who seemed to have made the step from outsider to valued neighbour overnight. They returned to dinner and ate goose and duck and Twelfth Cake until Aalin was not sure that she could move. After the meal, they played blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and charades and Aalin spent the day in a daze of happiness that she could not explain. Outwardly little had changed, but every time Thomas said her name, he smiled at her and Aalin’s heart beat faster. In the dark of the evening, carol singers came and they stood in the big square hallway joining in with the old carols. Aalin could feel Thomas’ shoulder against hers. She felt him stir, and then to her astonishment, his fingers curled around hers. Aalin did not speak. All her hard won London sophistication had deserted her and she felt girlish and vulnerable and very much out of her depth.

On St Stephen’s Day, the wren boys toured the villages, parading the dead wren at the end of a decorated pole, beating a drum and singing the Hunting of the Wren song outside the great houses in return for food and small gifts. Thomas stood on the front steps of the house beside Aalin watching the proceedings, as the servants cheered the group of young men and joined in the song. 

“I would hate to be any kind of bird during your Manx Christmas celebrations,” he said in Aalin’s ear, and she looked up at him, surprised into bubbling laughter. “Am I to expect any other kind of dead bird before Twelfth Night?”

“Only from the kitchens, Thomas, and I notice you’ve no objection to those.”

“Not in the least, I’ve not been fed this well for years. Which reminds me, since I collect there are guests again for dinner. Do you have time to walk with me before we need to change?”

Aalin felt her heart beat faster. “Of course. Where do you wish to go? I’ll ring for my maid.”

“Do you think it would be very shocking to ask you to dispense with her today? I thought we could walk up to the old church, it’s not far.”

“St Adamnan’s? Yes, of course. I’ll get my cloak and change my shoes.”

It was not far up to the partially ruined church, but the walk was fairly steep. The weather had changed again and St Stephen’s Day brought brilliant blue skies and a light breeze. It was cold, but the exercise warmed Aalin and by the time Thomas opened the gate into the small, tangled churchyard with its broken stones and Celtic crosses, she could feel her cheeks flushed with exertion. 

“How long has this been unused?” Thomas asked, as they explored the churchyard and peered into the musty interior of the remaining part of the church.

“As long as I can remember. They’re building a new church although it’s taking them forever, which is why we travel back to Douglas for most services. This one isn’t really used. I hope they don’t allow it to fall wholly into ruin, though, it’s so pretty, especially in summer.”

“It’s cold today,” Thomas said. She heard laughter in his voice, and turned to find him studying her, smiling. “I was just thinking that I would very much like to spend some time with you when we’re not at risk of freezing to death.”

“I don’t feel cold after that walk,” Aalin said. “Are you warm enough in that light jacket, though? Your uniform…”

“Every stitch I had on me that night is ruined beyond repair,” Thomas said. “I am reduced to civilian clothing.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I can buy new clothing. In fact, I probably should, I look like a pauper. Which I’m not, entirely, although as a younger son, I’m not wealthy. The estate goes to my brother, of course, but there are some bonds and investments left to me by my grandfather which bring in a small income. There will also be a little family money from my mother.”

Aalin knew that she was blushing bright red and she hoped he would think it was from the walk in the cold air. “What…why are you telling me this, Thomas?”

Thomas walked forward, taking her hand in his. “Aalin, you must know what I want to say. I spent Christmas Day wrestling with the knotty problem of whether I should speak to your grandfather first. I probably should have, but to tell you the truth I am not sure what your answer is going to be, so I thought I would find out first.”

Aalin’s eyes opened very wide. “Thomas, are you proposing to me?”

“I’m trying to. I don’t seem to have quite reached the sticking point yet. You look astonished. Didn’t you realise?”

“No. I had no idea,” Aalin said honestly.

“I must be even worse at this than I thought,” Thomas said. He raised her hand to his lips and suddenly seemed to notice that she wore no gloves. “Where are your gloves? Do not tell me you ruined your only pair?”

“No. Only I could not find them and I was hurrying.”

Thomas made an exasperated sound, released her hand and began to strip off his own gloves. “Your hands are freezing. Here, put these on. Honestly, Aalin…”

“Thomas!” Aalin said furiously. “You cannot stop halfway through a proposal to scold me about my gloves, it is too bad.”

Thomas stopped, staring at her. Unexpectedly, he dropped the gloves, reached out and took her into his arms. Aalin froze in a moment of appalled awkwardness. She felt his lips brush hers very gently and she could feel that he was smiling.

“I love you, Aalin Kennaugh. Don’t look so panicked, I’m not going to carry you into the undergrowth, it’s far too cold. I would like to kiss you though. May I?”

Aalin looked up. Suddenly she felt very sure. Reaching up, she touched her lips very gently to the line of his scar and felt him shiver a little in her arms. “Yes,” she said. 

“Was that to the kiss or my proposal?”

“You haven’t asked me, Thomas.”

“Oh. No. The gloves.”

“Yes, the gloves. Which neither of us are now wearing. Should you object if I called you Tommy? I rather like it.”

“Marry me, love, and you can call me anything.”

“Then, yes, Tommy Young. To both.”

***

Twelfth Night was a celebration both of the season and of the engagement, and Thomas realised he had not danced, or laughed like this, since that moment of agony below decks four years earlier had changed his life. He and Aalin drifted through the remainder of the season wrapped up in their own happiness. They spent Oie Houney, or New Year’s Eve, dancing at a neighbour’s house. It was the beginning of the season of Sauin, marking the formal start of winter and for the Manx farming community, rents were due, new leases began and the livestock was brought in for the winter. Thomas listened to Aalin explaining the various customs of the season, his eyes on her vivid, laughing face.

“You are not listening to me, Tommy.”

“I am. Is there an examination at the end of it?”

“If there is, you will fail.”

“I have never failed an examination. I did very well in the lieutenants’ examination.”

“What was I saying?”

“It involved ashes in the fireplace and something about a cake. Some kind of divination, I think? But no dead birds this time, which is a relief. Have I passed?”

“No. But you may kiss me anyway.”

Thomas wrote to his family, and waited without impatience for their reply. He had no doubt of their approval. His mother had cried many tears over her youngest son’s withdrawal from the world and would welcome the girl who had helped him to find his way back. In the meantime, after lengthy discussions with Aalin, he wrote his resignation from the revenue service. He would remain on half-pay, and accepted without resentment that he brought far less to the marriage than his wife. Thomas did not expect their happiness to depend on how wealthy either of them might be, and it was clear that Aalin and her grandparents cared nothing at all.

They had been discussing spring wedding plans over breakfast when the maid brought in the post. There were two letters for Thomas, one the expected happy response from his mother and the other, to his surprise, bearing an Admiralty seal. Thomas broke it open and read the rather long letter in growing astonishment. Getting to the end, he sat thinking about it for a moment then read it again, to be sure that he had not misunderstood. When he had done, he looked up into the wide green eyes of his betrothed. They were fixed on him anxiously and Thomas realised that she knew exactly what the letter contained.

“Tommy?”

“It’s an offer of a posting,” Thomas said. “It appears that I have been recommended for the position of second lieutenant aboard HMS Iris, a 74 gun third rater currently under refit in Chatham.” He met Aalin’s worried gaze. “But this isn’t news to you, is it, love of my life?”

Mrs Kennaugh rose stiffly. “You will want to discuss this privately, my children, so I will leave you.”

“No,” Thomas said quickly. “No, ma’am, please stay. Since I know very well that it must have been you and Mr Kennaugh who arranged this for me.”

“We arranged nothing,” Mrs Kennaugh said firmly. “I was asked by an old friend, what your situation was with the navy. You have met Mr Crellin many times. I explained to him, and I believe he wrote to his son-in-law.”

“Captain Hugh Kelly is married to his daughter?”

“Yes. They returned to England at the end of last year after that dreadful Walcheren business. I met Captain Kelly several times when he was last home, and of course I’ve known Roseen since she was a child. A dreadful tomboy, but a very good girl.”

“Are you angry, Tommy?” 

Thomas could hear the anxiety in Aalin’s voice and he thought about it and decided that he was not angry at all. “No,” he said. “Although I wish you had asked me first.”

“I thought you might refuse because of me,” Aalin said, and she sounded close to tears. Thomas wanted to laugh and stopped himself. Then he changed his mind and gave a broad smile. When he had first begun to smile again, it had felt strange, as though his facial muscles had forgotten how, but he was getting used to it.

“I am going to refuse because of you,” he said. “In a month’s time, I am going to get up in that church and swear before God that I’ll take care of you. It’s a vow I intend to take very seriously. I don’t think leaving you to wait for letters and dread bad news is the best way of doing that.”

“I’m so afraid you’ll come to regret it, love. If you feel that your duty…”

“Hang my duty. Sorry, ma’am. But honestly, my duty took half my face away and Kit’s duty cost him his life. I think my country has had good value out of my family’s sense of duty.” Thomas looked over at Mr Kennaugh who had not spoken. “When we’re married, I’ll be your heir. I should be here, getting to know the land and your people. I should be learning from you what I need to know, not wasting my life on a man o’war doing a job that a dozen other men could do as well. I’ve resigned from the revenue service, sir, and I intend to resign my commission in the navy.”

Aalin was crying. Thomas got up and took her into his arms. “I thought you wanted it so badly,” she said.

“I had nothing else. I have now.”

“I think my granddaughter has made a very good choice,” Mr Kennaugh said. “I’ll speak to Mr Crellin…”

“No, sir. With your permission, I’d like to write to him myself. I’ll send in my papers and I’ll write to Captain Kelly, to thank him for offering me the chance. It was a good opportunity, I’ve heard of Kelly, he’s very well thought of. And I’ve a friend who is in a similar situation to me. Captain Kelly will have a lot of officers interested in this posting, but Alex is a good man, he deserves a chance. It’s worth a shot.”

Mr and Mrs Kennaugh removed themselves tactfully and Thomas was left alone with Aalin. She had stopped crying and they sat quietly for a while, his arms about her. Eventually, she stirred. 

“I should go and wash my face, I am supposed to have a fitting at the dressmaker and she’ll think I’m regretting my choice if I turn up like this.”

Thomas kissed her soundly and when she had gone, he took Diamond from the stables and rode out, as he did most days, taking the coast road towards Kion Droghead. He reined in at the narrow path down through the glen and then on impulse, turned Diamond down towards the shore. Today the beach was quiet and the sea still and calm, reflecting bright sparks from the spring sunlight. Thomas dismounted and led the horse down to the edge of the surf.

“Bit calmer today, sir.”

Thomas turned, startled. “Mr Kinvig. Yes, I was just thinking that.”

The old fisherman strolled down to join him, puffing on a strong smelling pipe. “I hear you won’t be putting on that revenue coat again, then, sir.”

“No.”

“Didn’t suit you anyway, that. How ’bout the navy?”

Thomas wanted to laugh aloud. He was trying to imagine having this conversation on an English beach with a chance met fisherman. “I’m resigning my commission. Plenty to do on the land here.”

“That’s good, then, no call for a nice lad like you to be running around wi’ them excise fellas. She’s a good lass and you’ll fit in here.”

“And you’ll have no need to shoot me again,” Thomas said placidly. The old man gave a cackle of laughter.

“Oh bless you, sir, that weren’t me, I got no call to be firing off shots at a revenue man.”

“No, but you know who did.”

“Accident, sir, plain and simple.”

“I hope my new neighbours won’t hold it against me that I took up a few cargoes last year.”

Kinvig grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “Got a fair few past you as well, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

“I’ll just bet you did, you unprincipled old rogue. Best take care, the next man they send might not be so casual about his duties.”

“We’ll be careful, sir. It’s not that much these days, not like the old days, before the revocation. Just a few local lads trying to make a bit extra to put food on the table. Nothing to worry about. Should mention, though, keep an eye out in the barn, there’ll be a couple of barrels wi’ your name on, and a bale of silk. Just in time for your wedding.”

“You paid your debt, Mr Kinvig.”

The fisherman puffed on his pipe and withdrew it again. “No, sir. Three lads, I had. Lost one a few years back, impress service picked him up out fishing and he died of some shipboard fever. Thought I was about to lose another. That debt stands.”

Thomas made no reply and Kinvig seemed to need none. They stood watching the tiny waves running in on the sand for a few minutes and then Kinvig turned and lifted his cap with an awkward bobbing bow. Thomas watched him head up the glen towards his cottage and then mounted Diamond, patted his smooth neck, and turned the horse back up the path towards the main road and home. 

Author’s Note

I’ve very much enjoyed returning to the Isle of Man for this year’s Christmas story and it was fun to research some of the old Manx traditions. I’d like to express my appreciation to Culture Vannin’s excellent online resources for helping with this and suggest you have a look at their site if you’d like to know more. I find Hall Caine’s nineteenth century novels set in the Isle of Man very hard to read, but his account of carvel singing in She’s all the World to Me is genuinely worth it and I have him to thank for the idea of interrupting the service with a shipwreck.

Some of the locations in the story are real such as St Adamnan’s Church and the village of Kion Droghead, which was the old name for Onchan. To make my story work, I’ve taken a few liberties with the exact location of the parish church and the fictional Caly Glen and beach, although I had Groudle Beach in mind for the wreck.

As always, I’ve dropped in the odd reference to my regular characters from the books. For readers of my latest, This Blighted Expedition, I had every intention of allowing my scarred revenue man to join Captain Hugh Kelly and First Lieutenant Alfred Durrell aboard the Iris in the next book, but he surprised me at the end and flatly refused to go. I was quite pleased, so many of my heroes have an unbending sense of duty it was quite refreshing to find one who was prepared to put his girl first. As for his elder brother, it was indeed Captain Kit Young who served under Major Paul van Daan in the 110th and died at Talavera in An Unconventional Officer.

I’d like to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors. Thank you so much for your support. To keep in touch, you can subscribe to the website and follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Medium, I’d love to hear from you.

There are some great posts in the December Blog Hop and I really recommend you keep an eye out for more. This is the full list. Tomorrow’s post will be from the fabulous Samantha Wilcoxson    

 

An Impossible Attachment – a Peninsular War Love Story

With Valentine’s Day coming up next week, I thought I’d post an extra freebie.  An Impossible Attachment is a short story about a French prisoner-of-war in Portugal in 1812.  It’s a story in its own right although those of you who have read the Peninsular War Saga and in particular A Redoubtable Citadel, will recognise at least one of the characters and some of the background.  Please feel free to share it.

Happy Valentine’s Day Everybody…  

River Tagus, near Santarem, Portugal

British Prison Camp, Near Santarem, Portugal, 1812

He first became aware of the smell.

Second-Lieutenant Damien Cavel had served now for fourteen years since his conscription at eighteen and he was entirely accustomed to the filthy conditions of living in an army camp.  Raised in a comfortable farmhouse close to Cambrai he had loathed the army at the start but had become accustomed and then attached and had finally embraced his profession with the enthusiasm of a boy who had never wanted the legal career set out for him by his parents.  He had learned to adjust to his circumstances in whatever billet was available and living in close proximity with the men of his various companies he had ceased to notice the everyday smell of sweat and unwashed clothing.  But the stench of the British army prison camp on the edge of the Tagus surpassed everything.

He had been taken, along with most of his company, on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca, a battle which had happened for many of the French so quickly that they were bewildered.  A bitter disappointment to Damien Cavel, newly promoted after years as a sergeant.  It was the second time in a year that he had been a prisoner of the British but the experience was very different.  The first occasion had ended in him being sent back to his army with a letter of warm recommendation from the English colonel whose wife he had saved and another from Lord Wellington.  It had led to his promotion and Damien was only just beginning to savour his new responsibilities in a company of the line before Salamanca left him wounded and then captured for a second time.  This time there was no hope of repatriation and he was sent, thrown around in a wagon because of his injuries, to this holding camp north of Lisbon, waiting for transportation to England.

He remembered nothing of the ensuing weeks, tossing and turning with pain, burning with fever and lying in cramped, damp conditions in a disused grain store.  Around him men died and were removed and replaced by others.  Damien lived although he suspected, when he was finally conscious, that there had been moments when he wished he had not.  Around him men groaned in pain or muttered with fever and there was an overpowering stench of excrement and stale urine and decaying flesh.  It made him want to gag.

“This one’s awake over here, sir,” a voice said, a harsh English voice belonging to an orderly in shabby uniform with blood staining the front of his shirt.  Footsteps sounded and then a man knelt beside Damien.

“Welcome back,” the man said.  “I thought we’d lost you.”

Damien tried to speak and nothing came out.  His mouth was dry and tasted foul.  The doctor, a tired looking man with thinning hair and red-rimmed blue eyes reached out and felt his forehead.

“Fever’s gone,” he said.  “Shelby, bring him some water.”

The orderly approached with a cup and the doctor held it while Damien drank, draining the cup.  The blue eyes were studying him.

“Do you speak any English?” the doctor asked.

“Yes,” Damien said.  English had been compulsory at the good school his father had sent him to before the war, when his parents had hoped for a career in the law, possibly leading to government service.  He had practised when he was able through the years of the war, speaking to English prisoners and occasionally to other soldiers during days of informal truce.  He remembered such a moment at Talavera when he had talked across the stream to men filling their water bottles.  But the biggest improvement had come when his company, escorting a supply column up towards Badajoz, had captured the young wife of an English colonel and he had walked beside her for more than two weeks.  There were aspects of that time that Damien could not bear to remember, but the girl herself would never leave him.  Her French needed no practice, she was fluent, but she had taken it upon herself to improve his English.  It had been a distraction from the horror of her ordeal.

“Good,” the English doctor said.  “My French is terrible.  I’ll leave you here for now…is it Lieutenant?”

“Lieutenant Cavel,” Damien said.  “My coat?”

“If you had one, it’s gone,” the doctor said.  “Let me have a look at that wound.  It was infected but we used maggots and it seems to have done the job.”

Damien lay back and the doctor drew back the thin army blanket and carefully peeled the dressing from a long wound across his midriff.  The doctor pressed gently and Damien winced and looked down.  He was slightly shocked at the length of the gash, red raw and untidily stitched but there was no smell of decay although Damien wondered if he would have been able to smell it anyway in this foul atmosphere.

“My arm?” he asked, aware of the pain.

“Shoulder wound.  Very deep, you’ll have a weakness there for a while.  Perhaps always.  You use your right or left hand?”

“Right.”

“You’re lucky then.  Cavalry sabre, I’d guess, cut you down and then slashed you across the stomach.  Ought to have killed you but he didn’t bend low enough.  I think you’ll mend.  I’ll get them to give you some food and plenty of water, you need rest.”

“What then?”

“Prison transport,” the doctor said in matter-of-fact tones.  “Back to England and then if you’ll give your parole you’ll be treated as an officer and a gentleman.  Better than most of these lads.”

“Thank you,” Damien said.  “Do you know how long?”

“Couple of weeks, maybe.  Once the transports have arrived they’ll probably take you by barge down river.  You’ll be well enough by then.  Eat and get some rest.”

“Thank you,” Damien said again.  “May I know your name?”

“Dr Bishop.  I’ll send someone up with some food.”

Two weeks was long in the prison hospital.  More men died.  Others were moved, once they were deemed well enough, to the two barns which housed the bulk of the prisoners.  Damien had no idea how much time had passed while he had been ill and was astonished to find that two months had passed since he had fallen at Salamanca and autumn had arrived.  Already the days were cooler and once he was well enough to step outside and take the air he could see that the land was turning greener after the heat of the summer months.  Vineyards were ripe and heavy with the new harvest, the peasants were busy in the olive groves and the prisoners’ bland and boring diet was supplemented a little with local chestnuts, almonds and walnuts along with oranges and apples. 

He was moved away from the fetid hospital into a small house, set aside for the officers, and given a new coat, presumably taken from a dead man and a shabby cloak against the colder evenings.  His fellow officers, all bearing the same faint sense of depression, played cards and drank wine when it was available and speculated on their chance of exchange, on conditions in England and on when, if ever, they might see their wives and families again. 

Transports arrived and the transport board sent an escort of Portuguese militia to take the prisoners by river on wide, flat bottomed barges to join the ships.  Damien went to find Dr Bishop to thank him again and the Englishman saluted and then offered his hand.

“Good luck, Lieutenant Cavel, I hope it’s a smooth voyage and an easy imprisonment.”

“You have been very kind, Doctor.  Thank you.”  Damien looked out the door at the weather.  “I do not think it will be a pleasant trip on the river.”

“No, I’m afraid not.  Probably fast though with the rain we’ve had for the past few days, the river is very high.”

It took time to load the prisoners into the boats and standing shivering on the banks watching the laborious process, Damien wondered how many of them would be ill again before they reached the transports.  He had no hat, it had been lost on the battlefield, probably looted with his coat and he pulled the thin cloak around him and waited his turn.  There were five hundred officers and men, some from Salamanca and others brought in from smaller skirmishes or just picked up in small parties.  The Portuguese militia watched them carefully.  There was none of the laughter or banter or small kindnesses that the British medical staff had shown and Damien understood why.  These men had lived under French occupation, had watched their homes burn, their food stolen and far too often their women raped.  They had no sense of kinship with the French troops and he wondered if the small contingent of British infantrymen were there to guard the prisoners or to protect them.

Huddled finally in the barge, Damien looked back as the current swirled them out with the crew steering a course to follow those already gone.  The rain was so heavy it was difficult to see the shore or indeed the other boats and he peered through the curtain of water.

“Bloody country,” Captain Bisset said beside him.  “Either it rains or it’s baking, there’s no halfway.  Perhaps England will be better.”

“Have you ever been?” Damien asked.

“I have,” an older man said.  “Spent some time there as a boy.  I liked it but the food was terrible.”

“It can’t be any worse than here,” Bisset said and there was laughter.  A Portuguese oarsman turned to glare at them and then looked back quickly at a shout from the pilot.  Damien understood no Portuguese and had never troubled to learn although he could make himself understood in Spanish.

They were moving quickly on the current, the shore no longer visible, and Damien hoped that there would be a chance to dry out before they were herded aboard the prison transports.  Ahead of him he could hear Lieutenant Giroux coughing and he wondered if the man would make it to England alive. 

The crash happened without any warning, the barge spinning in a sudden surge of water and hitting an object at great speed.  Damien had no idea what it was but there was an ominous crack of splitting wood, and a yell and then water rushed up towards him.  The barge had broken across the centre with both sides tilting crazily into the water and he could hear the cries of terror and pain of the men around him as they were pulled in to the grey torrent of the water.

Damien struggled out of the cloak, stood up on the edge of the wooden plank seat, peered through the water and then dived.  Something struck his arm hard as he hit the cold water, sending a jolt of pain through the already injured limb but he made himself ignore it and struck out strongly.  If he did not get away from the smashed wreckage of the barge quickly he was at risk of being pulled under either by the huge chunks of wood being tossed around in the water or by one of the men, struggling for their lives in the midst.  He saw, as he struggled past, what looked like the shape of an enormous tree trunk in the centre of the chaos and he supposed it had come down in the storm and been carried along in the fast current.

They were screaming some of them, helpless in the maelstrom of swirling grey water, broken barge and thrashing arms and legs.  Damien did not look back; he could do nothing to help them.  Some of them might survive if they could swim or were lucky enough to be able to catch hold of a makeshift float.  Already he could hear shouts from the barge behind following up, it’s crew trying desperately to avoid either striking the wreck and being wrecked themselves or hitting the men floundering in the water.  Above them the rain continued to fall and Damien swam, following the current at an angle towards the shore.

He had learned to swim as a boy, through long summers with his grandparents on their farm.  A river had wound its way across their land and every year one or two venturesome children were lost to drowning.  His grandfather had been determined it should not happen to him and by the time he joined the army he was a powerful swimmer.  It was not easy in this torrent, weighed down by his clothing, but if he stopped to try to remove his jacket or his boots he was afraid it would be too late.  So he relied on the strength lent to him by sheer desperation to keep himself afloat and fought his way towards the shore.

He was thrown, finally, in a muddy swirl onto a stony bank.  Steep sides rose above him and Damien, who could never remember feeling more exhausted in his life, dragged himself up and crawled on hands and knees up the bank.  Finally, the rain seemed to be easing a little and was more of a fine mist although visibility was terrible.  More than anything he wanted to lie down and give in but he knew that if the water rose again he was at risk of drowning while he was unconscious.  He used bushes, trees and rocks to scramble up the bank, feeling his way, his hands cut and bleeding on sharp edges and thorns.  And then he was there, muddy grass under him but solid ground, and he collapsed and lay still.

Damien awoke some time later.  The rain had stopped but the land was covered by a thick fog.  There was no sound now but the quiet rush of the river below.  He was soaked and shivering so much he could hardly stand, and he pushed himself up, conscious of a terrifying weakness.  Whatever had happened to the men in the water had long passed, the sky was darkening through the mist and it was evening.  If he lay where he was he would probably be dead of cold by morning.

Stumbling like a drunken man he began to make his way inland.  He had no idea where he was or how far from the British army camp but he was unlikely to be able to find his way back there in this weather.  He needed shelter; warmth was unlikely in this appalling weather but even a dry barn would be better than this.  Food would help but he could not go to some farmhouse and beg for help.  The French were so hated here that he was more likely to get his throat cut than a place by the fire. 

Damien thought that he must have been staggering for about twenty minutes although it was impossible to be sure, he had lost all sense of time, when he saw the light.  It was dim, glowing yellow through the haze.  He paused, trying to clear his head which was throbbing.  Approaching the farm was a huge risk, but if he could remain undetected he might be able to steal some food and find shelter in an outbuilding.  With rest he would be able to think more clearly and decide what to do next.

Close up, he could see a small house, whitewashed with a slate roof, crouching in the midst of a muddy farmyard.  There were several buildings nearby, a barn and what looked like a henhouse.  Damien moved forward very cautiously.  No sensible householder would be out in this weather and night was falling rapidly, but he was suspicious of every sound.

He was almost at the door of the dark barn when disaster struck.  Unsteady on his feet and in the darkness he had failed to see the long wooden shape of a broken hoe until he stepped on it.  His feet shot from under him and he uttered a cry, quickly cut off but too loud in the darkness.

It could have been heard in the house and with a lamp lit there was clearly someone at home.  Damien scrambled to his feet and made for the nearest building, a brick built structure which proved to be a tool shed.  He ducked inside and stood very still, peering out through the broken door as the door to the house opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light.

“Cristiano, is that you?” a voice called and a shock ran through him as he realised that the voice was that of a woman and that bizarrely it was speaking English.  “Cristiano? Maria?”

There was silence in the enveloping fog and Damien’s brain, numbed by cold and pain, sprang suddenly into life.  The voice was tremulous and afraid and he knew suddenly, with complete certainty that this woman was alone here.  He stood very still, listening.  Nobody replied.  She was calling for people she knew but they were not coming and the silence made her afraid.

It changed everything.  Inside the cottage was light and probably warmth and food.  It was still a risk.  The unknown Cristiano and Maria might be close at hand, but once he was inside with this lone female it would be easier to deal with attack.  Damien closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his shaking limbs and find some strength.  Then he stepped out of the shed and ran to the door of the house.

She had seen his movement and she was very quick, closing the door with a faint sound of alarm.  But desperation lent him strength and speed and he had his foot in the door before she managed it.  She wrestled with it briefly and Damien shoved hard.  The woman fell back with a cry of pain and he was inside, slamming the door behind him.  There was a wooden bar which would not hold off an army but might well keep Cristiano and Maria out for a while and Damien pushed it into place and turned, leaning his back against the door to keep himself upright and surveyed the candlelit room and his prisoner who was scrambling to her feet, her eyes on his face.

It was a shock to find that she was younger than he had expected, probably in her twenties, dressed in black.  Her hair was loose around her shoulders, long and straight and a bright red gold.  Her eyes were cat green with flecks of gold in them, wide with terror, and her skin was pale with a dusting of freckles. 

“Who are you?” she asked, but he could see her eyes on the soaked blue of his jacket and she knew the answer.  “What are you doing here?”

“Seeking shelter,” Damien said.  “Are you alone?”

She shook her head quickly.  “No.  No.  My husband is upstairs asleep but he has a pistol.  And my servants are close by…”

It was a brave try and he applauded her but the expression in her eyes showed it a lie and Damien pushed himself off the door.

“You lie to me and I will cut your throat,” he said quietly.  “I am a French prisoner – escaped, I suppose – and I am in need of food and warmth.  Do as you are told and I will not touch you.  Try to get help and I will and you will not enjoy it.  Which is it to be, Mademoiselle?”

She did not seem to be able to speak for a moment but she nodded.  Damien gave a faint smile, trying to hide his relief.  He was reasonably sure if he had tried to attack her she could have fought him off with ease and probably killed him.

“Are you alone?” he asked again.

“Yes.”  She had found her voice.

“No husband or servants?”

She shook her head.  “No.  The farmer and his wife went to Lisbon, to market.  They were going to stay with her sister.  I thought when I heard you…”

“And the husband?”

“Is dead,” she said, and this time he knew she spoke the truth.  The black velvet of her gown, trimmed at the hem and neckline with silver grey embroidery made it obvious.  It might also explain the mystery of a young Englishwoman alone in Portugal. 

“Anybody else?” he asked.

“No.  Truthfully.”  The girl’s eyes were studying him.  Suddenly she said:

“You are ill.”

Damien nodded.  “Yes.  I have been wounded and then tonight in the river…”

He broke off and stood regarding her for a moment.  Then she moved.

“Sit down, I will build up the fire.”

She moved to the fireplace, reaching for a stack of wood on the hearth and Damien moved to a wooden bench and sat down closing his eyes.  He realised he was shaking violently with reaction; partly relief at being inside in the warmth and the dry and partly a sense of shame at having threatened a frightened woman.  He knew that many of his countrymen would have seen it as a gift to find a young and attractive female alone in the cottage. Damien wished he could reassure her that she was safe.

The new heat from the fire reached him.  He heard her move across the room and opened his eyes, turning.  “Where are you going?”

She regarded him.  “There is wine in the kitchen.  And some food.”

“I will come with you.”

“You do not look as though you will make it that far…is it Captain?”

“Lieutenant Damien Cavel, Madame.”

She nodded then indicated the room with a sweep of her hand.  “You were right, I’m alone,” she said.  “In the dark and in this weather – where would I go?  May I trust you?”

“Yes,” Damien said.  “Madame, I am sorry.  I am desperate…”

She nodded.  “Wait there.”

He sat quietly, his eyes closed, savouring the warmth of the fire.  She seemed to take a long time and he wondered if, after all, she had fled.  He had no idea if there was a horse on the premises but suddenly he found it hard to care.

“Here.”

He opened his eyes, startled, and realised that he had fallen asleep.  She stood before him, holding out not, as he had expected, a plate of food but instead a bundle of clothing.

“Madame…”

“My husband’s.  You will make yourself ill if you sit around in those clothes.  I will be in the kitchen.  It is warm there, there is food.”

“Madame…”  Damien was appalled.  “I cannot use these…”

“He has no use for them now.”

She left and Damien shook out the clothing.  He stripped off his soaked clothes, dropping them in a heap on the floor and pulled on the shirt and trousers feeling almost childish pleasure in the sense of clean dry clothing.  His boots were still soaked and after a moment’s consideration he set them before the fire and draped his wet clothing over the chair then ran his hands through his dark hair and padded through to the back of the house in bare feet.

It was a typical farm kitchen, wooden beams with bundles of herbs drying, a huge fireplace with spit and a brace holding an iron pot over the flames and a long wooden table with benches either side.  Damien paused and the woman turned and indicated the table. 

“Sit,” she said.

He obeyed and she spooned stew into a bowl and brought it to him.  There was bread and a crock of butter and it smelled good; better than anything he had eaten since he had been captured at Salamanca.  He tried not to snatch at the food but he was too hungry to be delicate.  The woman watched him eat and then brought a bottle to the table and poured wine into a glass.

When the edge was taken off his hunger, Damien looked up.  “Will you sit?” he asked.  “I feel like a boor eating and drinking while you stand.”

She moved forward and collected a second glass, poured wine and sat.  “I thought you were going to cut my throat,” she said, and Damien found a smile, to his surprise.

“I was not very convincing,” he said apologetically and was astonished when she laughed.

“You were.  I was very frightened for a while.  I may be wrong, Lieutenant, but you do not look like a man who is going to hurt me.  But I do not understand how you are here.”

Damien studied the distinctive face.  “I also, Madame,” he said.  “Because you are English, are you not?”

The woman sipped the wine, watching him finish his meal.  “I am.  My name is Wentworth.  Elizabeth Wentworth.  I came out to see my husband.  He was an officer, a Captain.  Wounded at Badajoz.  He died four weeks ago of his wounds.  It took a long time.”

Damien was filled with immense sadness.  “I am so sorry, Madame.  To come so far.  But forgive me, surely you did not travel alone?”

“I had nobody to come with me,” the girl said.  “His commanding officer wrote to me.  He was very ill, too badly hurt to be moved far.  They do not usually keep officers in the hospital you know, alongside the men.  He was billeted at this farm and Maria – the farmer’s wife – had been caring for him.  I came to nurse him but it was only a few weeks…”

Damien set down his spoon and pushed the bowl away.  “Thank you,” he said quietly.  “That was so good.”

The green eyes studied him.  “I have told you why I am here.  You said you are an escaped prisoner?”

Damien smiled tiredly.  “By accident,” he said.  “It is not a very exciting story.”

“Tell me anyway,” Elizabeth Wentworth said.

Damien did so, beginning briefly with his wounding and capture at Salamanca.  She listened quietly, the green-gold eyes on his face as he told it.

When it was done he sat silent and exhausted, sipping his wine.  Eventually she said:

“What will you do now?”

“I do not know,” Damien admitted.  “I could find my way back to the prison camp.  Some of the men must have survived the river, they were probably taken there.  Another wait for transports to England.  Or I could try to make my way north to find the French army again.  Hundreds of miles through country where my army is hated and the partisans wish to kill me – probably very slowly.  And I have no news – I do not even know where we are.  The British won at Arapiles – they may have taken Madrid by now.”

“A fool’s errand,” the woman said.

“The farmer and his wife…?”

“They will want you gone,” Mrs Wentworth said.  “They hate the French.  But they took their harvest to market.  I am not expecting them back for a week at least.”

Damien was silent, studying her.  “You should not be here alone, Madame,” he said finally, quietly.  “It is too far from the town.  While your husband lived, I understand.  But now, you should find accommodation in Lisbon until you can…”

“I have no money for accommodation in Lisbon, Lieutenant,” the woman said, and suddenly she looked very young and very tired.  “What I had, I spent on the journey and caring for Charles.  The army will arrange my passage home when there are transports – they will send an escort, they have said.  This is cheaper than a room in Lisbon.”

“And when you reach England?”

“I have an aunt I can stay with for a while.  I have been living with her while Charles was out here.  Eventually, I am told there will be a small pension.  I thought I might seek a position as a governess or companion.”

“Your parents?  Or his?  Can they not…”

“My parents died some years ago.  Charles married me against his parents’ wishes, they have never accepted me.  It sounds far worse than it is, Lieutenant Cavel, I shall not starve.  But when Maria said I might remain here until I have passage home it seemed to make sense.”

“Until this evening when you might have been raped and murdered by an escaped French prisoner!” Damien said.  He felt angry that she should have been placed in that position.  “One might think this commanding officer of whom you speak would have…”

“He knows nothing of it, sir.  The regiment is in the field with Lord Wellington, I have not written of my small troubles and I shall not; I’m not a beggar.  He has written to Horse Guards about my pension and has assured me he will see that it is paid.  Beyond that, I am not his concern.”  The surprising green eyes softened slightly.  “But don’t think that I do not realise I have been lucky this evening.  Are you all right, you are shivering again?”

He had been aware of it for a while, reached for the wine and drank more.  “A fever.  I was ill for some weeks, have been better, but I think the soaking….”

Cautiously he tried to move his left arm and realised that it was agony to do so.  Elizabeth Wentworth got up.

“You are in pain,” she said.  “Come, I’ll show you where you may sleep.”

“Madame, I can sleep here.”

She did not reply, merely picked up a candle and waited.  Damien rose and followed her.  The stairs of the small farmhouse were narrow and dark and he had to stoop his tall frame to avoid hitting his head.  She did not have the same problem, she was small and slight and he thought suddenly of that other delicate-looking Englishwoman who had proved to have the strength of a lioness and found himself smiling.

There were two rooms above and she pushed open one of the doors.  “This is where Maria and Cristiano sleep.  They will know nothing about this.  Go.”

It was a bedframe, roughly made from local oak, with straps supporting a straw filled mattress and blankets and pillows neatly folded so that the bed could air.  Damien stared at it, trying to remember the last time he had slept in a bed.  He turned to see her setting the candle on a wooden chest.

“I know the French are taught to live off the land and these people – and I – are your enemies,” she said.  “Please don’t steal from them.  There is enough food and when you are ready to go you may take what you like from my husband’s clothing, he has no need of it now and he was much of a height with you.  Rest and if you need me I am sleeping in the next room.”

Damien was studying the pale face in the candlelight.  “You are not my enemy and I do not know anything of these people.  Thank you, Madame.  I hope I will be better tomorrow.  You have probably saved my life tonight.”

She gave a very slight smile.  “You have definitely spared mine, sir.”

She turned to go and Damien moved to the bed.  A blanket in his hand, he turned. 

“Do you miss him very much?”

Elizabeth Wentworth stood framed in the crooked doorframe.  “No,” she said, surprising him.  “Although I could only admit that to a complete stranger such as yourself.  How can I miss a man I barely knew?  I was seventeen when we eloped and I had known him for two months then.  He was handsome and dashing and I thought I loved him.  He was also about to join his regiment to sail to Portugal with Sir John Moore.  I was settled in lodgings and I waved him off proudly.  That was four years ago.  I have not seen him since.  He wrote me a total of ten letters during that time.  He sent me money occasionally but not enough, I have survived teaching music and drawing and running errands for wealthy widows.  And on the occasional gift from my poor aunt who can ill afford it herself.  His family do not receive me and would not even lend me money to travel here when I had word that he was so badly wounded.  And when I arrived to nurse him, he was delirious and barely recognised me.  He was also riddled with the pox, so I imagine that he had not missed me either.”

“Oh no,” Damien said softly, his own misery forgotten.  “Oh cherie, I am so sorry.  To come so far and for that.  He did not deserve you.”

His compassion seemed to startle her.  “You don’t know me, Lieutenant.  How do you know what I deserve?”

“No woman deserves that, Madame Wentworth.  Thank you.  Goodnight.”

Farm of Cristiano and Maria Guedes, Portugal, 1812

The bedrooms were cold compared to the heat of the rooms below. Elizabeth went down to bank the kitchen fire and extinguish lamps and candles, taking one up to the tiny box room which she had occupied since coming to Santarem.  She removed the black mourning gown and took off her stays then wrapped a thick robe around her and got into the narrow bed.  Four weeks ago Charles had breathed his last in this bed and she had stripped and washed the linen herself, not wanting to make more work for Maria who had been kind enough already.  She sensed that they wanted her gone once her husband had been buried but they were too good to say so.  Their trip to Lisbon had been a regular necessity to sell the produce of the small farm but she suspected they would remain with their family for as long as they could.  She had been told that a passage would be available for her within the month and the Lisbon quartermaster would send one of his men with a cart to escort her to the ship with her small trunk. 

Elizabeth had not liked being left alone at the farm, but it had also been a relief.  She had grown up in the country and had willingly agreed to feed the few animals and take care of the house.  It was the least she could do to repay their kindness since their last farmhand had left to join the Portuguese army eight months ago and there was no other help locally.  Feeding the goats and milk cow and chickens occupied little of her time.  She wrote letters, one to her aunt accepting her generous offer of a bed in her own small house until she might make other arrangements and another to Charles Wentworth’s family, telling them of his death and his burial.  They would probably not respond but Elizabeth would have known she had done the right thing.

There was a small sum of money, raised through auctioning Captain Wentworth’s personal possessions, and a one-armed Major of the cavalry had ridden out to give her the money.  She had seen his eyes brighten at finding the widow young and personable and she suspected that if she had given him the slightest encouragement he would have ridden out again but she did not.  Four years of marriage to a soldier had convinced Elizabeth that if she did ever marry again it would not be to a man in a red coat.

She wondered if the French officer was married.  Once the initial terror had eased, she had found nothing threatening in the tall, slender dark haired man with steady grey eyes.  Any fear of him harming her had vanished very quickly.  Four years alone had accustomed Elizabeth to all manner of impertinences from men who very clearly believed that a woman whose husband had been away for so long must welcome their attentions and she had grown very good at sensing danger.  She sensed no threat from the exhausted Frenchman with the surprisingly good grasp of English and in practical terms his presence here for a few days might keep her safe.  It was improper for her to be staying in a deserted cottage unchaperoned with him sleeping in the next room but since nobody would ever know of it, it could hardly hurt her reputation.

She slept finally, waking as the dawn filtered through the badly fitting shutters at the small window and rose to dress.  The black velvet gown was the only mourning she possessed, saved from the death of her mother several years earlier and she would not wear it about the farm.  Instead she donned the practical green wool and the sturdy boots and bundled her hair up into a knot then went down to build up the fire in the kitchen before going outside into a fresh dry dawn with the promise of a sunny day to begin the chores of the farm.

When she came back inside later, hungry and ready for breakfast she was faintly surprised not to see the French officer already down.  She had moved his jacket and boots into the kitchen to dry properly and bundled up the soaked, filthy linen to be laundered.  Now she took off her cloak and went up to her room.  There was a box under the bed which contained the remains of her husband’s clothing and she unpacked it, piling it up neatly folded.  She had not given the clothing to be sold with the rest of Charles’ effects.  It had little value and she had thought she might give it to Cristiano when she left as thanks for his hospitality.  Now she carried the small pile, a couple of shirts, some underclothing, woollen stockings and a spare pair of serviceable grey trousers to the other door and knocked. 

There was no reply.  Elizabeth knocked again and then pushed the door open very cautiously.

“Lieutenant Cavel?  Are you awake?  I have brought…”

The sight of him on the bed froze the words.  He had thrown off the blankets in the night and lay uncovered still dressed in the shirt and trousers she had given him.  They were soaked with sweat and his face was flushed and burning.  He did not appear conscious and Elizabeth dropped the clothing onto the chest and ran forward.

“Oh lord,” she said, feeling the burning damp of his forehead.  “Lieutenant?  Mr Cavel, can you hear me?”

The eyes opened, staring at her in confusion and he spoke in French.  Elizabeth spoke enough of the language to be able to teach children the basics but his rapid words made no sense to her.  It did not matter.  He was ill and it was clear that after four weeks of exhausting nursing, she was going to have to go through the process again.  She felt a stab of resentment at the thought and then she sighed and turned to find the discarded bedclothes.  She could hardly leave him like this.

The routine was familiar by now and resigned, she fell quickly into the pattern of caring for a fever patient; washing him, changing the bed sheets, changing his clothing and patiently spooning water and other liquids between his dry cracked lips.  The fever burned fiercely for three days and Elizabeth wondered if, like Charles, he had already been weakened too much by his wounds and his previous illness to survive.  But unlike Charles he was clearly a fit and healthy man in all other ways and on the fourth day he slept more easily, his body no longer racked by violent shivering and his brow cool and dry. 

Elizabeth sat beside the bed, watching him.  Like this he appeared younger than she had first thought, probably no more than thirty or so although his contained manner had made him seem older.  She was twenty-two herself and had been told often that she seemed older than her years, which was less flattering to a woman than a man.  Once again she wondered if he had a wife waiting for him back in France.  She suspected that the answer was yes, there had been a name he had mentioned more than once in his fevered ramblings and she hoped that Anne, whoever she was, appreciated this unassuming man.

He awoke properly late into the evening.  Elizabeth had brought the lamp from the kitchen into his room and settled herself to mend one of the shirts she had washed.  She was wrapped in her shawl; the heat from the kitchen barely filtered up to the bedrooms.  Seeing him stir she looked up and into bewildered grey eyes.

“Madame Wentworth.  What in God’s name are you doing here?”

Elizabeth smiled and got up, putting down her sewing.  “You’re awake.  That’s good.  And you have also remembered your English which is even better because you have made me realise how rusty my French has become these past days.  Wait there, I will bring you a warm drink now that you can taste it properly.”

She left him and when she returned he had managed to pull himself into a sitting position.  Elizabeth handed him the cup of milk with honey and a little brandy and watched him sip it.

“This is very good, thank you.  My throat is so dry.  How long have I been ill?”

“This is the fourth day.”

His eyes widened in surprise.  “I’ve been here four days?  I need to leave tomorrow, the farmer and his wife are going to be back…”

“No, they are not,” Elizabeth said calmly.  “I received a message from Maria yesterday to tell me they will be at least another week.  Her sister has just given birth and they are staying to help and for the baptism.  Senor Dias, who has a farm eight miles further up river stopped by on his way back from Lisbon to tell me.”

“Leaving you here alone?”

“I think they are making the most of a holiday.  They farm this place alone, you know, they must seldom have the opportunity to leave it because of the animals.  All their farmhands left to join the army or the militia.  I suppose that with the harvest brought in and taken to market there is little to do here.  And I am happy to help them, they were very good to me when Charles was dying.  In a few weeks I shall be gone but I will always remember how kind to me the people of Portugal were.  Do you feel able to eat some broth?”

“Thank you.  I am not sure they would be so kind if they knew you were harbouring an escaped French prisoner.”

“They have no need to know.  And you have no need to leave until you are a little stronger.  I’ll bring the broth.”

She returned with it and found him holding the half mended shirt.  “You are mending my clothes.”

“It was badly torn.”

“And you have also changed them.  I was not wearing this nightshirt when I got into bed that night.”

Elizabeth flushed slightly and dropped her eyes.  “I could not leave you as you were, you were shivering.  I am sorry…”

“Do not apologise, Madame, you have probably saved my life.  Again.  I am sorry to have been such a charge on you.  I will leave as soon as I am able.”

“You have been less trouble than my husband, sir.  Are you…do you have a wife at home?”

He smiled.  “No.  I was young when I joined, have been in the army all my adult life.  No time to marry.”

“I wondered.  There was a name you mentioned when you were ill.  Who is Anne?”

She saw his eyes flicker in surprise.  “Anne?  Oh.  I must have been dreaming, I suppose.”

“An old love or a current sweetheart?” Elizabeth said lightly, teasing, but he did not smile, shook his head as if trying to clear it.

“Neither.  A woman I liked very much.”

“I am sorry, I have no right to pry.”

“No, it is not that.  I am ashamed to tell you the story; it reflects so badly on some of my countrymen.  But then you must know, I am sure, if you have talked to your hosts, that the French are hated for a reason.”

Elizabeth nodded, studying him.  She wondered if she wanted to know.  After a moment he said:

“I was still a sergeant, posted to a troop escorting supplies.  Dull and often dangerous but essential.  We had a new commander – a colonel of cavalry, Colonel Dupres.  It was odd for a man of his rank to be given such a lowly posting and we all assumed it was a punishment of some kind.”

“And was it?”

“Yes.  He had behaved very rashly, more than once, putting his men at risk without need because he felt some sense of rivalry with an English colonel of light infantry.  They had clashed several times on the field and Dupres had lost and men had died.  During the months I served under him I came to loathe him.  He was a thief, looting houses and churches.  He was a brute to local people in Portugal and Spain.  Not just taking food and supplies; we all do that.  But he would kill for sport and torture for fun.  And he was a rapist.  Any local girl he came across.”

“Oh no,” Elizabeth said softly.

“He was in command and many of the men followed him willingly.  War makes beasts of so many, Madame.  But there was a skirmish with a group of Spanish partisans and a small English escort, taking supplies up from Lisbon.  We captured the English and killed many of the Spanish.  The others fled.  There was a woman with them – a young Englishwoman.  She gave him her name, thinking she would be released as an officer’s wife.  She was married to the colonel he hated.”

Elizabeth watched the shuttered expression on his face and wished she had not asked.  “You don’t have to tell me any more.”

Damien gave a tight smile.  “You will have guessed, I imagine.  He slaughtered the remains of her escort in front of her and he took her with us on the march.  For two weeks I watched him brutalise her.  You do not want the details.  Some of us tried to help her as much as we could and tried desperately to think of a way to get her free.”

“Did he kill her?” Elizabeth whispered.  She was cold with horror, her own vulnerability out here suddenly real all over again.  He shook his head.

“No, although eventually I think he would have.  He was…he became obsessed with her.  Would not release her.  But the partisans had taken word back to the Allied lines and we were attacked one night by half a battalion of light infantry.  They went through our men as if we were raw recruits.  Dupres survived the battle but her husband challenged him when he realised what had been done to her and killed him.”

“Is that how you were taken prisoner?”

“No.  She spoke for us, my captain and I, to Lord Wellington.  The rest were sent to be transported but we were released to go back to the French lines with a letter of thanks and recommendation for what we had done for her.  I was promoted and so was he.  Then I fought at a battle just outside Salamanca and was wounded and taken again.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant.  Was she all right?”

He gave a little smile.  “I think so.  Hard for any woman to endure what she did, but she was unusual.  And so was he.  I have seen many men in love before but I do not think I have ever seen a man so enamoured as he.  I hope they did well.  I have seen death and horror.  And rape, since many of our troops see nothing wrong with it.  But that stayed with me.  I got to know her and I don’t think I could ever close my eyes to it again after that.”

He had finished the broth almost without noticing it and she took the bowl from him gently.  “I think you are a good man, Lieutenant.  Try to sleep again now.  No need to dream horrors about her, she sounds very well taken care of.  But you have reminded me of how lucky I have been.  Goodnight.”

Elizabeth was surprised at how quickly the Frenchman seemed to recover from his fever.  He was up within two days, moving slowly around the house, washing himself and dressing and doing what he could to help her.  After four days he was outside with her in the crisp autumn air, carrying the feed bucket and hunting for eggs.  She found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed the company.  He did not talk a great deal but his silences were restful and she felt comfortable with them.

During the evenings they would sit in the kitchen to save lighting two fires and she finished mending his clothing and watched, with some surprise, as he expertly patched the soles of his boots.  She quickly realised that life on a farm was as familiar to him as it was to her, and he began, without asking, to effect small repairs about the place as if he, like her, felt a sense of obligation to the absent farmer and his wife whose hospitality was keeping him warm and fed.

He did not speak again of leaving and at the end of another week, Elizabeth felt the need to raise it.  Autumn would soon move into winter and the farmer and his wife would return.  She was daily expecting a message about her own passage home and was somewhat shocked to realise how little she wanted to go. 

They had finished their evening meal and he got up to wash the pottery bowls and stack them to dry.  Elizabeth was amused at the action.  She suspected that Charles would never have thought to do it; he had remained a gentleman by instinct, waiting for a servant to clear up after him.  His occasional letters had been full of grumbles about the lack of good orderlies and servants.  Her own years of near poverty had taught her to manage most things alone, with a local woman coming in daily to do the heavy cleaning and she was an excellent cook.

“You cook very well, Madame, I am being ruined for army fare,” the Frenchman said, echoing her thoughts.  Elizabeth smiled.

“I enjoy cooking.  Lieutenant Cavel, have you decided yet what you are going to do?  I do not mean to hurry you, but…”

Damien collected a bottle of wine and seated himself again.  He poured for both of them.  “I am telling myself that my work around the farm will make up for my free use of my unwilling host’s wine cellar,” he said.  “It is very good; does he make it himself?”

“It is made in the village.  They all contribute the grapes and share out the wine.  Is this not what you call living off the land, Lieutenant?”

“It is too comfortable for that,” Damien said, laughing.  “And in answer to your question, Madame, yes, I have decided.  I am going to make my way back over the river and east towards Cadiz.  I have no idea where I’ll find Marshal Soult’s army – or if I will – but I think it is the best choice.”

“Or you could surrender and go to England,” Elizabeth said suddenly.  She had not meant to say it, but his words conjured up the reality; hundreds of miles of lonely marching without a weapon or an ally, through hostile countryside with no sure knowledge of where he might find his compatriots.  “If the partisans catch you, they’ll kill you.  And even the British might shoot you as a spy.  It is a mad idea, Lieutenant, and I do not want you to do it!”

He smiled then, one of his rare broad smiles which made his face that of a boy again.  “Madame, I am sorry.  But I am a French soldier – I have been for fourteen years – and it is my duty to get myself back and fight for my emperor.  As your husband would have done if he could.  But thank you for your concern.”

Elizabeth got up.  She was fighting back tears.  “You will get yourself killed!” she said furiously, walking over to the fire.  “And I do not want to know about it!  Go if you must.  I will remain here until Cristiano and Maria return and then…”

She heard him move and did not look around.  Unexpectedly she felt his hands on her shoulders.  “Stop it,” he said firmly.  “I am not leaving until I am sure they are back.  Or until a man in a red coat arrives to take you to the ship.  I am not leaving you alone here.”

“It is not your problem, Lieutenant.”

“My name is Damien, cherie.  We probably only have another few days here and nobody will hear you use it.  Please.”

Elizabeth turned into his arms.  “Did she teach you your English?” she asked, fighting the completely irrational sense of jealousy.

Damien laughed.  “I already knew some, but she taught me a lot more.  I think it helped to take the mind off the pain.  Do not look so cross, Elizabeth Wentworth.  She would be very happy to see me practising it on you.  May I kiss you?”

Elizabeth’s cheeks were wet with tears.  She reached up to cup his face with one hand and found that it too was damp.  “I do wish you would,” she said.

They spoke little afterwards, having said all that they could.  There was no way that she could persuade him and she understood it.  If he were a man to take the safe and easy way, he would not be the man he was.

***

Damien had not meant it to end this way although he quickly realised, with rueful tenderness that on this occasion it was not going to be his decision alone.  She moved around the room as she always did at the end of the evening, blowing out candles with housewifely care as he banked the fire and checked the door and shutters.  It was a still, cold night and he followed her up the stairs and was startled as she turned not left into her own little room but right into the main bedroom where he had been sleeping.  She set the candle down on the chest and turned to him, the green-gold of her eyes bright on his.

“We have so little time left,” she said.  “And this may be all we ever have.  I am not wasting it on propriety and morality.”

Damien looked at her for a long time.  “And if you bear a child?” he asked.

“Then I will tell them it was my husband’s.  A last and joyous gift.  Nobody but I need know that he could not have done so.”

It quashed the last of his scruples although he was amused, as he moved to take her into his arms, to realise that she had thought of that well before this moment.  He had been neatly ambushed by an English force and not for the first time.  On this occasion there was no thought of fighting back and he let her draw him to the bed, into her arms and into joy without a moment of regret.

They lived the next three days in each other’s arms, leaving the bedroom only to eat and to perform the necessary chores of living.  If this was to be all they had, he understood her need to savour it, simply to hold him.  They talked, when they were not making love, telling details of their lives and families, of their history.  He whispered endearments to her in French and taught her their meaning and she made him laugh when she used them back to him.  They slept little, waking wrapped together in the big bed, not feeling the cold of approaching winter in each other’s arms.  It was as though they had known each other for many years; as though these past weeks had been just the culmination of a growing attachment instead of the madness it really was.  He had not wanted to fall in love with her and he had prayed that she would not fall in love with him; it could bring only pain to both of them, but it was far too late for such careful common sense.

Halfway through the third day he awoke to an unfamiliar sound and realised suddenly that it was the approach of a horse.  He was abruptly alert again after days of simple happiness but she was quicker even than he, scrambling out of bed, wrapping a blanket about her and running to the window.

“Is it the farmer back?”

“No, it is Major Callen.  I imagine with news of the transport.  Stay here.”

She scrambled into her black dress, frantically combing out her hair and then went down to open the door with the red gold mass loose about her shoulders.  Damien dressed quickly and quietly, hoping that the major was not a perceptive man.  His love looked very different to the thin, sad widow he had encountered three weeks ago on a foggy evening.

When he was dressed he moved quietly to the door.  Both voices were clearly audible in the tiny cottage.

“We’ll send a gig, ma’am, can borrow it from the commissariat, easier to bring your boxes that way.”

“I don’t have much, Major, but thank you, it is kind.”

“Won’t be until the day after tomorrow but it’ll give you plenty of time to make the transport.  It’s a fast boat, sailing into Portsmouth, and there will be two other ladies on board, wives going home, so you’ll have female company.  Once you’re there, I understand a carriage has been arranged to take you to your family.”

“My aunt lives in Winchester, sir, it’s not that far.  Did you arrange this?”

“No, ma’am.  Although I would have.  I understand it was your husband’s brigade commander.  He has also been on about your pension, hurrying them along.”

“In the middle of a campaign that is so good of him, Major.”

“He’ll have had some time, ma’am.  Light division have been in Madrid for a couple of months, I understand.  And he’s got a good reputation for taking care of his officers and men.”

“I am grateful.  I’ll write to him when I am home to thank him.  Major, thank you.  I am a little worried about the farm – I’ve been taking care of the animals while the farmer is in Lisbon.”

“No need, ma’am.  I’ll leave one of my lads here until they get back.  Don’t worry, he’ll behave himself.”

“Thank you.  I’ll make sure I’m ready.”

Damien was amused, through his sadness, at the major’s evident reluctance to leave.  He did so finally and when the horse was out of sight, Damien put on his boots and went downstairs.  She turned to look at him and he saw that she was crying.

“Oh ma mie.  Come here.”

She flew into his arms and he held her close, murmuring endearments as she cried.  There was little that either of them could say that had not already been said.

He moved through the next day like a ghost, helping her to pack and making sure the farm was secure and the animals in good condition.  She had his clothing neatly washed and mended and had fashioned a bag out of old flour sacks for him to carry spares and food, slung across his back like a satchel.  It was surprisingly effective and probably more comfortable than the worn out pack he had been used to.

They spent the night wakeful in each other’s arms and he thought, holding her close after making love, that if he never saw her again this moment would stay with him forever; the moment he knew without the slightest doubt that he loved her.

“Elizabeth?”

“Yes, love?”

“Your aunt lives in Winchester, does she not?”

“Yes.  I will probably look for lodgings nearby.  She is the only family I have.”

“What is her direction?”

She twisted her head to look at him.  “Her direction?  She lives close to the Cathedral; my uncle was a cleric there.  I can give you details…but why, Damien?”

Damien kissed her very gently.  “I may not survive this war,” he said.  “I may not even survive the next month.  But if I do…one day I would like to come back to you, cherie.  If you think…?”

Her mouth stopped his, the kiss leaving him breathless.  “Yes,” she said.  “I know it will probably never happen.  But Damien – I won’t stop hoping.  If I have a child…what were your parents’ names?”

“My father was Damien also.  My mother was Colette.”

“Thank you.  Both very good names.”

He wondered if this much heartache had ever killed a man and then laughed at his own melodrama.  It was not like him and no man had ever died of a broken heart.  But he had never realised before how much it hurt.  “I love you,” he said, very softly.

“I love you too, Damien Cavel.  Never forget it, will you?”

“Never.  Take care of yourself, Elizabeth Wentworth.  And our child, if there is one.  If I live, I will see you again one day.”

He left early, not wanting to risk being caught by the arrival of her military escort.  She remained upstairs, watching him from the bedroom window.  At the edge of the big barn, on his way down towards the river and the ford, he turned and saw her standing there, already dressed in her mourning black.  She looked beautiful in it, the warm colour of her hair framing her pale face.  This far away he could not see her tears but he knew they were there, reached up to touch his own wet cheeks.  Then he turned and walked on into the bright sunlit morning.

Freneida, Portugal, January 1813

“Letters, sir.”

Colonel Paul van Daan gave a theatrical groan as his orderly limped into the room and deposited a large pile of mail onto the table.  “Take them away!” he ordered.  “I spend half my bloody time either reading or replying to letters, none of which is helping us win this war.  I need a secretary!”

His wife looked up from the small table on the far side of the room where she was running through a list of medical supplies and fixed him with an arctic glare.  “I beg your pardon?”

Paul grinned.  “Sorry, love, I know you’re better than any clerk.  But honestly, look at this lot.”

Anne van Daan got up, stepped around the basket where her newest child dozed in a patch of winter sunlight like a well-fed cat, and went to sort through the pile.  “Major Breakspear can deal with half of these,” she said.  “This is from your father, hopefully giving us a date for his arrival.  Those are for some of the other officers – Jenson, can you drop them over please.  And this…I’ve no idea.”

Her blank tone made him look up again.  “For me?”

“For me,” Anne said.  He watched as she opened the somewhat grubby folded sheet.  There was another letter enclosed, folded and sealed.  Anne scanned the missive and the expression on her face made him smile.

“Well clearly that’s not just another delay in the uniform order,” he said.  “What is it, love?”

Anne looked up.  “It is from Damien Cavel,” she said blankly.

Paul raised his eyebrows.  “Cavel?  Sergeant Cavel?”

“Captain Cavel apparently.  Currently serving in Marshal Soult’s army although he doesn’t say where.”

“Well he wouldn’t, would he?” Paul said.  “May I see?  Is it personal?”

“Not to me,” Anne said.  She handed him the letter, looking down at the other one in her hand.  “He is asking me to convey this letter to an Englishwoman living in Winchester.”

Paul read the letter twice and then looked at Anne.  “He says he wants her to know that he is safe.  A love affair?”

“I’m guessing so although don’t ask me how!  Paul, what in God’s name are we going to do?”

Paul met her eyes and shook his head regretfully.  “We can’t, bonny lass, although I’d like to.  You know how grateful I am for what he and his captain did for you last year.  But we’ve no idea what this contains.  I’m sorry, but it’s for the intelligence service.”

Anne studied him for a long time.  “All right,” she said finally.  “Give it to George Scovell.  He can do what he likes with any information in it, but we can trust him to be discreet about it; we can’t have this poor woman’s name shared with half the army.”

“If Cavel has been as careful in her letter as he is in this one there won’t be anything useful anyway.  But this could be some kind of cipher, George will have to see it.”

“Will you take it up to him or shall I?”

“I’ll do it; I need to ride over to see Lord Wellington later anyway.  Where’s Manson?”

“Practicing dry firing with the light company I think.”

“He can come with me.”

Paul made to tuck the letter into his pocket and his wife said:

“Will you do something for me, Paul?”

Paul studied her with some misgiving.  “What?”

“Leave that on the desk and go and find Leo yourself, will you?”

“Nan.  You can’t…”

“I’m not going to copy it directly.  I’m going to see what it says and write to her myself.”

“You think this is genuine?”

“Yes,” Anne said.  “I know Damien Cavel, Paul.  He’s not an intelligencer, he doesn’t have the temperament any more than you do.  If he’s managed to get a letter to me about this girl it’s because it means everything to him.  And I owe him my life.”

After a moment, Paul nodded.  “You’ve got half an hour.  Seal it again properly, will you?”

His wife smiled sweetly.  “Do you think I would not?”

“No.  You do have the temperament to be an intelligencer.  Oh – what’s the girl’s name, it doesn’t say it here?”

“Wentworth.  Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth, a Winchester address.”

Paul blinked in surprise.  “Wentworth.  I know who that is.  She’s the widow of Captain Charles Wentworth – he used to be with the 43rd but transferred over to the 112th just before Fuentes d’Onoro.  He was badly wounded at Badajoz, sent back to Lisbon but died of his wounds.  I didn’t know him that well but I’d heard his widow came out to nurse him.  I wrote a few letters, chased up her pension and helped with transport home.”

“Pretty?” Anne asked.  Paul laughed.

“No idea, bonny lass, I’ve never set eyes on her.  It rather sounds as though Cavel has, though.  She’s a real person and she was definitely out here which makes this unlikely romance a bit more plausible.  Get it done and I know nothing about it.”

He left the room and stood outside for a moment, then looked back in.  She had unsealed the second letter and was reading it.  He saw her lips curve in a smile and he found himself smiling as well.  After a moment she sat down, reached for her pen and drew a sheet of paper towards her to send the good tidings to a woman she did not know.