The Gift

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift

1st March, 1812

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

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

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

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arabella was dead.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know what happened?”

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

“Had she other family?”

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

“What of the child?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

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

“I would have done the same.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who told you?”

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

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

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

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

“Have you not done so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None at all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

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

“It isn’t very good.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And my wife?”

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

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

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

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

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

“We were separated.”

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

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

“Where is she buried?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard that she died, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Public institution?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Him?” David said quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s his name?”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

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

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

“Does he have any other clothing?”

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

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

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Major Cartwright.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ignored you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

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

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

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

“Thank you, Major. I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t.”

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

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

A Winter in Cadiz

https://www.carmenthyssenmalaga.org/en/obra/vista-de-cadiz

A Winter in Cadiz is my Valentine’s Day short story for 2021. It takes place during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz and Lisbon during winter quarters 1812-13 which is mentioned during An Unmerciful Incursion. As always, the story is free so please share it as much as you like. 

 

The glorious painting above was borrowed from here.

I had intended to do something with more of a Spanish theme for this story, but Captain Graham has been in my head for a while, prodding me from time to time and reminding me that I introduced him at the beginning of An Uncommon Campaign and have barely given him a job to do since, let along a chance of romance.  I hope he’ll be happy now.

Thanks so much to all my fabulous readers for continuing to read the books, love the characters and constantly nag me to write more. I’m on the job, I promise you.

A Winter in Cadiz

“I have been three days longer on my journey than I intended, owing to the the fall of rain, which has swelled all the torrents, and I am now detained here by the swelling of the Gevora. I hope, however, to get to Badajoz this evening.” (Wellington to Beresford, 18 Dec 1812)

“The weather is foul and the roads are impassable, we are held up every day by floods and even Lord Fitzroy Somerset is low in spirits. His Lordship’s temper is so bad that the men of our escort invent excuses to scout the area to avoid him and Lord Fitzroy and I are counting the days until we reach Cadiz so that he will at least have somebody else to shout at. I wish he had chosen someone other for the honour of accompanying him so that I could have joined you for Christmas. (Captain Richard Graham to Major-General Paul van Daan, 18 Dec 1812)

Cadiz, Spain, 1812

Captain Richard Graham had almost forgotten about Christmas. During his army career he had spent the season in a variety of places, some of them extremely uncomfortable. During their long, wet, miserable journey from Freineda to Cadiz he had fully expected to spend the day huddled in a draughty farmhouse listening to Lord Wellington complaining. They arrived in Cadiz at midday on the 24th and Richard was swept from drenched, muddy misery into surprising luxury in a matter of minutes. Lord Wellington and his two aides were conducted to an elegant house in a side-street just off the Plaza San Antonio and Richard found himself in a comfortable bedchamber with a maid bringing hot water and wine and the information that a light meal would be served before his Lordship joined the parade through the city.

Wellington was in the salon and Richard drank wine and listened to his commander being charming to his host and hostess as though the irritability of the past weeks had not existed. Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s young military secretary, appeared at Richard’s side eating a chicken leg.

“Grab some food, Captain, while you can. We’ll be off shortly and I’ve attended these things before, it could be hours before we see food again.”

Richard headed for the silver platters laid out on a sideboard. Filling a plate, he said:
“Should I take some to his Lordship?”

“I just tried,” Fitzroy said. “He looked at me as though I’d offered him a dead rat then waved me away like the under-kitchen maid. Feel free to see if you do any better.”

“Does he even need food?” Richard said, spearing a slice of cheese.

“Yes. He just doesn’t remember that he does. I’m not too worried, there’ll be some kind of ball or banquet this evening, he’ll be hungry enough to eat by then.”

“Well if he’s not, I definitely will be,” Richard said philosophically and Fitzroy laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“I’m very glad he chose you for this journey, Captain, you are so blissfully even-tempered. Most of the others would have been worn down on the way but it doesn’t matter what he says, you don’t flinch.”

Richard felt absurdly flattered. “I’ve no idea why he chose me, sir. I’m by no means his favourite ADC.”

Fitzroy gave a little smile. “You’re mine,” he said. “The others are all very good fellows, but when I need something done without a discussion about whose job it is, you are my absolute favourite, Captain Graham. And although he hasn’t the least notion how to express his appreciation, I suspect he feels the same way.”

The thought cheered Richard. He had arrived in Portugal eighteen months earlier with a position on Lord Wellington’s staff after a miserable few years in the Indies. His appointment had been the result of a good deal of hard work by a cousin at Horse Guards and Richard had arrived with the strong sense that he was here on sufferance. His discomfort had initially increased when he realised that Lord Wellington’s staff consisted  almost entirely of young sprigs of the English aristocracy plus the twenty-one year old Dutch Prince of Orange. Richard’s fellow ADCs had been polite but puzzled and Wellington had been coolly civil. Richard, who was not particularly sensitive and knew how fortunate he was in this appointment, gritted his teeth and smiled a good deal.

His breakthrough into acceptance had not come from within the commander-in-chief’s household, but from an early meeting with a young colonel, recently promoted to command a brigade of the light division. Richard had instinctively liked Paul van Daan, who came from a very wealthy Anglo-Dutch trade family. Paul was not of the aristocratic background of Wellington’s inner circle although his mother had been a viscount’s daughter, but he seemed to have the ability to effortlessly bridge the gap. Wellington was rigidly wedded to the existing social order and enjoyed the company of his young ADCs, but he was at his most relaxed and informal in the company of Colonel van Daan and his attractive, intelligent wife.

Richard quickly became friends with Paul van Daan. Such friendships happened in the erratic shifts of army life. Sometimes they proved as fleeting as a short posting and at other times they stood the test of sudden parting and long absences. Richard suspected that Paul’s early friendship with Wellington had been the subject of some jealousy and backbiting at headquarters although by now he was recognised as a valuable asset in managing the commander-in-chief. Certainly he appeared to understand why Richard felt like an outsider, and he invited him frequently to dine and to socialise with the officers of the 110th. Richard was grateful initially for the company, then unexpectedly for the opportunity it gave him to see his difficult, irritable commander in a completely different light. All of his first real conversations with Lord Wellington had occurred at Anne van Daan’s table and it had enabled Richard to see past Wellington’s defensive and often sarcastic manner to a man whom he actually quite liked.

Richard was not sure that Wellington reciprocated the feeling and he was genuinely surprised when he was informed that as the rest of the army settled into winter quarters to recover from the appalling hardships of the retreat from Burgos and Madrid, Wellington required his company on a visit to Cadiz and Lisbon to meet with the Spanish and Portuguese governments. He suspected his surprise had shown on his face because Wellington looked amused.

“I will not be taking my household staff, Captain Graham, just one or two servants, a cavalry escort and Lord Fitzroy Somerset. We will be riding as fast as possible as this cannot be a long trip. I have observed that you are an excellent horseman, you do not complain about difficult conditions and your Spanish and Portuguese are both very good. Please be ready to leave in two days.”

The citizens of Cadiz greeted Wellington with joyous enthusiasm, which may have been an expression of gratitude for all that he had done so far in helping to drive the French out of Spain, but might also have been a useful excuse for parades and parties. The streets were illuminated at night in a way that reminded Richard of their arrival in Madrid earlier in the year. Wellington’s every public appearance was greeted with cannon salutes, cheering crowds and women throwing flowers from balconies or running to lay their shawls and scarves before his horse’s hooves. Wellington accepted the adulation with dignified restraint. He had chosen to wear a Spanish uniform in his capacity as Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, probably to reinforce his new position as commander-in-chief of the Spanish army.

One of the reasons Wellington was here was to address the Cortes and to negotiate the terms of his new command with the Spanish government. It was also a family reunion as his younger brother, Sir Henry Wellesley, had served as ambassador to Spain for several years, negotiating the stormy waters of Spanish politics through the years of the French siege and beyond. Richard had never met Sir Henry who had followed a diplomatic career alongside Wellington’s military success. He decided, on introduction, that there was a strong family resemblance but that Sir Henry seemed easier in his manners. There was obvious rapport between the two brothers and Richard wondered if it was a relief to his generally reticent commander to have a trusted member of his family beside him. 

It relieved Richard of many of his duties. Lord Fitzroy Somerset was called upon to take notes at a number of meetings, and there was the usual enormous amount of correspondence to manage, but most of Richard’s time seemed taken up with dinners and receptions and balls as the Spanish government and their ladies vied with each other to provide the most lavish entertainment. There was a formal dinner on the day of their arrival followed by an evening reception in one of the gleaming white mansions which overlooked the bay. The English community in Cadiz consisted of the officers commanding those troops remaining in the city, diplomats and a few hardy merchants who had not fled during the long siege. Richard made small talk with a collection of Spanish politicians, paid compliments to their wives and daughters and smiled until his cheeks ached. Across the room he could see Somerset performing the same duty. There were several pretty girls clustered around him and Richard grinned. There was to be a full ball the following evening and he suspected that his fellow ADC was being importuned for dances. Somerset’s excellent manners and sunny disposition made him popular with the ladies.

“Captain Graham.”

Richard turned quickly, saluting. Wellington was accompanied by a young woman dressed exquisitely in a dull yellow gown with gold embroidery which looked as though it must have cost a fortune. She was small and delicately made with mid-brown hair curling around an appealing heart-shaped face. Richard was not at all surprised to find a girl this pretty on Wellington’s arm. He also recognised with some puzzlement that Wellington was desperate to get rid of her.

“Captain, allow me to present Miss Honoria Grainger. Miss Grainger was here with her Mama who has most unfortunately been taken ill and had to leave. I promised her we would take care of her daughter and see her safely home when she is ready to depart. I need to have a word with Sir Henry and one or two gentlemen before our meeting tomorrow, may I ask if you would be my deputy?”

“Of course, my Lord.”

Wellington bowed and departed at speed and Richard dug into his memory for a time when conversing with young ladies at elegant receptions had been part of his normal life. It must have been ten years ago and since then he had married and been widowed and killed men on a battlefield, but he thought he could still remember how it was done.

“It is very good to meet you, Miss Grainger. What brings you to Cadiz, is your father an officer or a diplomat?”

Miss Grainger turned a pair of frosty blue eyes onto him. “What makes you think that I am here with my father at all, Captain Graham? Do you suppose that a young female is incapable of travelling of her own accord and must remain entirely at the beck and call of her father or husband?”

Richard stared at her in astonishment. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said stiffly. “I made an assumption based on Lord Wellington’s introduction and also, I confess, on my own experience so far. I would be delighted if you would tell me how you do come to be in Cadiz since it is probably a far more interesting story.”

The girl looked at him for a long moment. “I believe I was just very rude,” she announced finally. “I apologise, Captain. I am not quite myself this evening.”

“Has that to do with your Mama’s sudden illness or is that another assumption?” Richard asked.

To his surprise she bestowed an approving look on him. “How very astute you are, Captain Graham. My Mama is not at all unwell, she was simply unbearably embarrassed by her daughter and fled the field in confusion. If she had been ill, I would have gone with her.”

Richard stared at her. He was completely bewildered. “Miss Grainger, it is a very long time since I regularly attended occasions such as this, but I am sure that this is not the conversation that normally follows an introduction. Perhaps the rules have changed.”

Honoria Grainger regarded him thoughtfully and then suddenly gave a broad smile. It lit up her face and gave a sparkle to her eyes. It also displayed a wide gap between her front teeth. Richard was utterly charmed. “The rules are exactly the same and I am breaking all of them,” she said. “My mother is appalled and my father would give me a stern look if he was here. The trouble is that he is not here. And he is supposed to be.”

Richard had begun to wonder if Miss Grainger was a little mad but her last statement caught his interest. “Are you saying your father is missing?”

“Yes, I think he is. I have been trying to have this conversation with Lord Wellington but he was either disinterested or unwilling to share information with me. It is very frustrating.”

“Given that this is Lord Wellington, it could be either or both. But to do him justice, he has a great deal to do here in a very limited time. Is there not somebody else who could assist? There are a number of diplomats present, Miss Grainger…” Richard broke off at the expression on her face. “And I am treating you like an idiot, which you are very clearly not, I’m sorry. You’ve already spoken to them, haven’t you?”

Miss Grainger let out a long breath. “Many, many times,” she said. “We have been in Cadiz for four weeks, Captain. We received a letter from my father from Toulouse, suggesting that we meet him here…”

“Toulouse?” Richard said, bewildered. “What in God’s name was he doing in France?”

“He was on a diplomatic mission,” Miss Grainger said in exasperated tones. “Did I not tell you that he is a diplomat?”

“No.”

“Oh. I thought I had.” The girl was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I am being very ill-mannered. None of this has anything to do with you, and you are probably wishing me to the devil. And I am sorry for my language as well. I think I should probably go home, my mother was right, there is no purpose to this.”

Her tone was flat and Richard saw suddenly that she was close to tears and trying very hard not to shed them. He had no idea at all what was going on but he felt a sudden need to comfort this odd, likeable girl which overrode his strong sense that he should take her home and forget about this.

“Miss Grainger, I have no idea at all what is happening here, but I can see that you are genuinely upset and more than a little angry. I can probably do nothing to help you, since I am with Lord Wellington and we shall very likely not be here much above a week. But if you wish to tell me the whole story, I’m very willing to listen and to give any advice that I can. A room full of people isn’t the best place for this. May I have permission to call on you tomorrow morning and you may tell me whatever you wish?”

Miss Grainger lifted grateful eyes to his face. “Truly? Captain Graham, thank you, that is so kind of you. I cannot remember the last time anybody actually listened to me, it is driving me mad.”

“If it helps, you’ll have my undivided attention,” Richard promised gravely. “Let’s get you home. Have you a carriage or a maid…?”

“My maid escorted my mother home, but she will have returned by now. And I am afraid we walked here, we are staying with Sir John Marlow and his wife and their house is only a few doors away. I refuse the ridiculous notion of calling for a carriage to drive a few feet.”

“Then I shall walk you home. Let me send one of the servants to find your maid.”

***

Richard presented himself promptly at Sir John’s house the following morning. He had wondered if he might be expected to run a gauntlet of concerned chaperones, but the girl was alone in the small salon when the servant announced him. Richard bowed and she came forward to shake his hand.

“I’m very grateful you came, Captain. You must have thought me a madwoman last night, I made no sense at all. I think, very foolishly, I had convinced myself that if I could just speak to Lord Wellington he would take my concerns seriously and I was very disappointed. Please, sit down.”

Richard sat opposite her on a brocade sofa. “Tell me about your father, Miss Grainger.”

“My father is Sir Horace Grainger. He is a diplomat and has served the foreign office in various capacities all his life. Often, my mother and I travelled with him. I have lived all over the world.”
Richard thought that probably explained her surprisingly self-assured manner for such a young woman. “Why did he go to France?”
“He was to visit several towns and cities where English prisoners of war are being held, particularly those civilian prisoners who were caught in France when the war resumed in 1803. He went as far as Verdun and held discussions about possible prisoner exchanges in the cases of several high-profile prisoners. He told us that the French were being asked to send a similar mission later this year.”

Richard frowned. “That surprises me. I know that the French are seldom willing to exchange prisoners and there have been repeated attempts to get the civilians released, always unsuccessful.”

“Yes,” Honoria said neutrally. “Anyway, my father travelled as usual with his valet and his groom, both of whom have been with him for years, plus a French escort. He visited the prisoners and attended a number of meetings, it was a lot of travelling. During that time, he sent regular letters home, both to the Foreign Office and to us. He told us a great deal about the countryside and the food and very little about his work but that was not unusual. His last letter was from Toulouse. He told us that his mission was over and that he would be travelling into Spain to board a Royal Navy ship from Bilbao which would take him to Cadiz. He was expecting to be detained here for some time on business so suggested we sail to meet him here.”

“And he did not come? Have you had word?”

“Nothing. It is very unlike him, Captain, he is a very affectionate husband and father. He and I are especially close. He always writes. But what is even more worrying is that the foreign office have heard nothing either. He did not board the ship as expected.”

Richard did not speak for a moment. He realised that he had been hoping he could allay her concerns, but instead he shared them. The situation on the northern coast of Spain had been volatile for months and in many places the partisans had seized control of entire areas of the countryside from the French. Richard had seen letters describing guerrilla raids and skirmishes and he could offer this girl no real reassurance. He wondered if he should lie, but discarded the idea immediately. She was far too intelligent to believe him.

“Do you think he might have been detained in France?”

“I don’t know. I have spoken to Sir Henry and he assures me that the foreign office are making enquiries, but he will not tell me any more. Letters can take many weeks and are frequently lost, especially given that it is the stated aim of the Spanish forces to disrupt French lines of communication.”

“What does he suggest that you do?”

“He suggests we go home and wait.” Honoria’s voice was bitter. “After all, that is what women are supposed to do, is it not?”

“I suppose so. It isn’t easy though.”

She studied him for a moment. “Is that what you expect your wife to do, Captain?”

Richard hoped that he had not flinched. “My wife died, Miss Grainger, along with our child. Six years ago now. I wasn’t there, I often wonder if I had been…but I’ll never know.”

Honoria Grainger went very still and Richard was horrified to see her eyes fill with sudden tears. He was annoyed at himself for blurting out so much information to a virtual stranger and one with troubles of her own. After six years it hurt less but he still hated having to explain about Sally and he felt that he had done it clumsily.

“Oh, I’m sorry. That is so very dreadful, and I’ve made you think about it. I am the worst person, I always ask the wrong questions and I never know when to stop. I’m so wrapped up with my own worries, I didn’t think.”

Richard got up and moved to sit beside her on the other sofa, reaching for her hand. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “This is not your fault, and I’m perfectly fine. I will miss her until the day I die, but I can talk of it now. In fact, I’m glad that you know, because when people don’t, there is always that uncertainty…is he married, is he a bachelor, should I ask about his family? I’m glad that you know. And probably because of Sally, I understand a little of what you feel. She hated waiting at home.”

“Sally? What a pretty name. What was she like..no, I’m sorry.”

“She was lovely,” Richard said, to his considerable surprise. “She was witty and kind and gentle and very loving. She wanted a home and children and all the things I wanted too. I felt very cheated.”

The girl’s hand squeezed his. It startled him because he had forgotten he was holding her hand. “I’m very envious, Captain. Firstly because I could never be all of those things and secondly because I suspect I want all of those things too. I’m sorry you lost her, but you must be so happy to have had her.”

Richard could feel himself smiling. “Miss Grainger, do you always say everything that comes into your head?”

“Far more often than I want to,” Honoria said fervently. “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all. Talking to you is a genuine pleasure, I don’t feel as though I need to be on my guard at all. Look, I don’t honestly know if there is any way that I can help you, but I would like to try. May I share your story with Lord Fitzroy Somerset?”

“That charming young man who asked me to reserve a dance this evening? I suppose so, but why?”

Richard was surprised to realise that he was thinking uncharitable thoughts about Somerset. “He is a senior officer, and very close to Lord Wellington. He may have an idea of how best to approach him.”

“He is your senior officer?”

“He is a lieutenant-colonel and his Lordship’s military secretary, ma’am.”

“I expect that is because he is a lord,” Honoria said sagely. “My father has often commented on some of the odd choices for promotion within the army.”

Richard laughed. “Your father is right, but not in this case. Lord Fitzroy is both an excellent officer and an excellent fellow. Also, he is my friend and will take the matter seriously. Between us, we cannot solve your problem, but we may be able to ensure you are given full information.”

“That is all I can ask, Captain.”

“Do you think you will go home?”

“I barely know my home,” Honoria said sounding suddenly lost. “We have a house in London but I have never lived there for more than a year at a time. My mother is talking of returning there while we wait for news, but I don’t want to leave without knowing.”

Richard felt an irrational lift of his heart. “We are probably going to return via Lisbon but we are here for at least another week. I am really hoping you hear good news soon, Miss Grainger. It may be nothing more than an illness on the road.”

Steady blue eyes regarded him. “I hope so too. But it may be very much worse.”

***

Honoria was not sure why her conversation with Captain Graham made her feel so much better, since he had promised nothing and she knew that realistically he might not be able to help at all. At the age of twenty-one, she had moved in diplomatic and military circles all her life and understood very well that Captain Graham’s position was relatively lowly. What he did have, however, was the advantage of access to Lord Wellington, and temporarily to his brother, the Ambassador. Honoria was not naïve enough to assume that either of the Wellesleys would be able to produce her missing father out of thin air, but she did think that between them they possessed enough influence to push the foreign office into pursuing more rigorous enquiries.

Lady Grainger shook her head when Honoria told her of her conversations with Captain Graham. “It was not well done of you, Honoria. Captain Graham is not in a position to make demands of Lord Wellington and should not be pressured into doing so out of kindness.”

“Captain Graham is not obliged to do anything at all, Mama. But somebody should be doing something. Father has given his entire life to the service of his country, they cannot just shrug their shoulders and pretend he did not exist.”

“I am sure they are not doing so, my child. It is just they have not yet informed us…”

“It is just that we are two silly females who cannot be trusted not to swoon at the implication that something may have happened to him,” Honoria said furiously. “I wish I had been a man, they would not have fobbed me off like this then.”

“Of course, if you had married Mr Derbyshire last year, he would have had the right to enquire on our behalf,” her mother said archly. Honoria set down her tea cup with an unnecessary clink.

“If I had married Mr Derbyshire last year, Mama, I would have died of boredom by now, so it would be of no concern to me.”

Lady Grainger laughed. “He was not that bad, Honoria. I thought him very charming, and he has a very promising Parliamentary career ahead of him. I think you would do very well as a politician’s wife.”

“I think I would do very well as a politician, but we know that is not possible.” Honoria sighed. “I am not set against marriage as you seem to think, Mama. I would like all the things that go with it – a home of my own, children, a position in the world. But I cannot marry I man I neither like or respect. Marriage lasts too long.”

“I know. And neither your father or I would try to force you. It is just that you have led such an unusual life for a young girl, following your father around the world. And he has always shared so much with you, as if you were the son we did not have. I wonder sometimes if that makes it harder for you to find a man you like.”

“If I did meet a man I liked, the chances are we would have moved on before I could form an attachment,” Honoria said. She was surprised to realise that she was thinking about Richard Graham. Whatever help he might be able to give her in her search for her father, he would be gone before she really got to know him, and Honoria was faintly depressed at the thought.

“Honoria, will you at least attend the ball this evening? There is nothing more you can do now, and while we are here, I would like to see you enjoy yourself a little.”

“I must attend, since I have promised several gentlemen that I will dance with them. Mama, how long must we stay in Cadiz?”

“I was hoping to remain until your father arrived, but I wonder now if we should return to London,” Lady Grainger said. Her voice shook a little on the words and Honoria took her hand. She knew that her mother was trying to maintain a hopeful manner for her sake, but Honoria was not deceived. Her mother was as worried as she was.

“I think we should remain here a little longer. Why don’t you write to the housekeeper giving her a date for our arrival, she’ll need time to prepare. We can always change our plans if Father suddenly turns up with the news that we are all off to Cape Town.”

“I rather liked Cape Town,” her mother said wistfully. The memory made Honoria laugh.

“Apart from Sir Home Popham.”

“Oh that terrible man. He talked to me – no at me – about some kind of nautical chart for an hour or more without taking a breath. I was never more relieved than when he sailed off to South America and got himself court-martialled.”

“Father said it was the closest he’d ever seen you to failing as a diplomat’s wife.”

“Your father was no help at all, he just laughed.” Suddenly there were tears in Lady Grainger’s eyes. “Oh Honoria, where is he? What if he doesn’t come back at all?”

Honoria put her arms about her mother and held her close, trying hard not to cry with her. “We’ll be all right, Mama. I just hope he will too.”

The ball was hosted at the embassy and the rooms were crowded with both British and Spanish dignitaries. It was very warm, despite the season, and there was a smell of cigar smoke which made Honoria wrinkle her nose. Both Lord Wellington and Sir Henry greeted her pleasantly in the receiving line with no indication that they had held any conversation about her that day, but Honoria supposed that Captain Graham had not had time to speak of the matter.

A British regimental band played and Honoria danced with several gentlemen she already knew, including a dark eyed young Portuguese officer who had been assiduously pursuing her since the day she arrived. Honoria quite liked Lieutenant Souza but had no interest in any form of dalliance and she was relieved when Lord Fitzroy appeared to claim the promised waltz.

“You are a capital dancer, Miss Grainger, I am very happy you decided to attend. I was a little concerned after Captain Graham spoke to me of your father.”

“He spoke to you?” Honoria said quickly. “Oh. I had not thought…that was very quick.”

Somerset grinned. It was different to the social smile she had seen so far and it made her like him suddenly. “One of the reasons I begged Lord Wellington to bring Captain Graham on this visit, ma’am, is that he is a man who gets things done. Generally, I am very over-worked, but when I need help, he is the man I call on. Have you met him before?”

“No,” Honoria said, surprised. “Lord Wellington introduced us yesterday. I do not…I have no idea why I told him about my father. He is very easy to talk to.”

“He is a thoroughly good fellow. I asked because he approached Lord Wellington and Sir Henry this afternoon about the matter and I was a little concerned. He was very plain spoken, which Lord Wellington does not always appreciate.”

Honoria was appalled. “Oh my goodness, no. I had no intention of him doing any such thing. I hope he has not got himself into trouble.”

“I think it will be fine. Lord Wellington was very irritated and I tried to intervene, but as it happened, Sir Henry was there before me. It seems he has been very concerned about the fact that nobody is talking to you about your father. But I do not intend to say more, I will let Captain Graham tell you himself.”

Honoria danced with her mind on anything other than her partners. Her dance with Captain Graham was a country dance with frequent changes of partner and no possibility of rational conversation. She enjoyed the dance, and the few words she exchanged with him, and tried not to make it obvious that she was desperate to question him. She was not sure she was successful, because as the dance ended he bowed over her hand and said quietly:

“Thank you, Miss Grainger, that was a very enjoyable dance. May I hope for another? A waltz, if you have one free?”

“I should be delighted, Captain.”

“May I also ask if we might speak alone for a moment. Or with your Mama present, if you prefer. We could step out onto the terrace if it is not too cold for you?”

“I am not engaged for this next dance, Captain.”

Graham placed her hand on his arm, leading her through the long doors at the end of the room. The terrace was well lit and not entirely deserted, with several couples admiring the view over the lights of the lower town and out towards the lighthouse. A man stood alone at the stone balustrade. He turned as they approached and Honoria was surprised, and a little alarmed, to realise that it was Lord Wellington. Captain Graham saluted and Wellington returned it, then bowed to Honoria.

“Miss Grainger. I hope it is not too cold for you out here?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Excellent. We should keep this brief, however. Miss Grainger, I took part in a very acrimonious meeting earlier with Captain Graham, Lord Fitzroy Somerset and the Ambassador. I have to tell you that during the course of that meeting, I dismissed the captain from his post as my ADC.”

Honoria was appalled. She shot a look at Graham, who appeared completely unmoved by this statement.

“Twice, I believe, my Lord.”

“It would have been three times if I had not been outrageously bullied by my brother and my military secretary,” Wellington said crisply. “I have, however, been brought to believe that the captain may have a point. Despite the urgent requests by the foreign office in London for complete secrecy about your father’s disappearance, it is not acceptable to keep his family so much in the dark. Your distress and that of your poor mother is understandable and your determination to discover what has happened is both commendable and extremely irritating.”

“I had no wish to annoy your Lordship. I was just frantic to know, even if the news is bad. My father has never before failed to write to us for so long. I know something is wrong.”

“Very well,” Wellington said. Honoria had the impression that he wished nothing more than to get this interview over with. “You are correct in your assumption, Miss Grainger. Your father has gone missing and we have no idea where he is. I will tell you as much as I know. Like you, Sir Horace’s employers at the foreign office have not heard from him for more than a month. There has been an exchange of letters between diplomats in Paris and London. The French authorities are being extremely cooperative and appear to be as keen to discover the truth as we are. On his arrival in France, Sir Horace was met by a small escort of French cavalry. Over a period of two months, he travelled widely, visiting various prison facilities. His reports arrived frequently and were factual and very much as expected. I presume during that time he was also writing to you?”

“Very regularly, my Lord.”

“Sir Horace concluded his visit in Toulouse and his last report was written from there. He set off for the Spanish border, where a Royal Navy frigate under a flag of truce was waiting off Bilbao, to take him home. Nobody has heard from him since. Naturally, when Sir Horace failed to appear at the ship, enquiries were made, in case he had met with some accident that had delayed him. What is worrying, is that according to our French sources, his entire escort has also disappeared along with his servants and his Spanish guide.”

Honoria felt a hollow sickness settle into her stomach. She could not speak for a moment. Somebody took her hand and held it and she realised it must be Captain Graham.

“I’m very sorry, Miss Grainger. I realise this is not good news.”

“At least it is news,” Honoria said. “Is anything being done to search for him, my Lord, or is that not possible? I know that the northern provinces are in open revolt.”

“They are, and it is essential to my campaign that they continue to be so. Given the circumstances, we cannot send a battalion of troops into the region and I am not sure what good they would do anyway. I am going to write to the various Spanish leaders in the area to ask if they have any information about your father. I am also authorised by the foreign office, to send somebody else.”

Honoria studied him and realised that Wellington was uncomfortable sharing this piece of information. She watched him struggle for a moment, then said:

“My Lord, I understand that there are aspects of this matter that you cannot discuss with a civilian and that you are probably unwilling to discuss with a female. I just need to know that something is being done.”

For the first time, Wellington’s face softened into an expression that was not quite a smile. “It is not because you are a female, Miss Grainger, I have an enormous respect for intelligent women. Indeed, on occasion I regret that I cannot employ them, I am sure they would outstrip some of the men. Why do I suddenly begin to wonder if your father shared more of his work with you than he should have done?”

“He did not,” Honoria said quickly. “That is exactly why I know there is more. My father and I were very close. He never had a son and in some ways, he treated me as if I had been a boy. We talked of everything and my mother and I travelled the world with him for many years, but there were always moments when he would say nothing at all and I learned not to ask. I don’t know what my father was really doing in France, but I know it may have been far more dangerous than inspecting prison camps, which is why I am so worried.”

Graham squeezed her fingers sympathetically and Honoria returned the pressure gratefully. After a pause, Wellington said:

“Very well. I am instructed to send two of my intelligence officers along with a guide into northern Spain to try to find information about your father. I have written the letter, it will go off in the morning. Nobody here knows anything of this, other than my immediate party and Sir Henry. I am trusting you not to discuss it with anybody other than your mother.”

“I shall not, my Lord, I give you my word. Mother is not a gossip, she has been a diplomat’s wife for too many years and she will not ask any questions if I just tell her that a search is being made. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for telling me all this. I’m very well aware that there may be no good news, or even that we may never find out at all. But just knowing that an attempt is being made is very helpful.”

Wellington bowed. “You may thank Captain Graham, ma’am. My instinct was to share no information at all, but he argued your cause with great passion and won over Sir Henry who in turn convinced me. You may be pleased to know that Lord Fitzroy has also persuaded me not to dismiss him. You should go inside now, you are becoming cold. It may be weeks, possibly months before we have news. I do not know what your mother’s plans are, but if you will allow me to give you some advice, I believe you should return home to England where you will have the support of your many friends.”

Honoria dropped a small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord, I imagine that is what we will do. Will you…that is to say, how will we be notified if there is news?”

“The reports will come directly to me, ma’am, and I will keep you informed with any progress.” Wellington shot a slightly malicious glance at Graham. “I believe I will make Captain Graham my deputy in this matter, since he has interested himself to such purpose. Will you excuse me, ma’am, I must return to my social duties. Captain.”

When he had gone, Graham touched her arm. “He’s right, you’re shivering. Come inside and I’ll find you a glass of wine.”

Honoria allowed him to lead her back into the house and through the hallway into a dim room which seemed to be a library. He seated her on a leather sofa and went to summon a servant, requesting a fire, candles and wine in fluent Spanish. Honoria felt numb with misery but it occurred to her that there was something very pleasant about Richard Graham’s enormous competence. She could not imagine him paying a girl flowery compliments or promising to worship at her feet, but within five minutes she was seated before a small fire with a glass of wine on the table beside her, studying her companion in the light of several oil lamps.

“You are very free with embassy hospitality, Captain.”

“Sir Henry will not mind, ma’am, he is very concerned about you. Without his help and that of Lord Fitzroy, I am not sure that I would have been able to persuade Lord Wellington.”

“I’m very grateful to all of you, Captain, but I know I owe the greatest debt to you. Nobody was listening to me. I cannot believe you have managed this so quickly.”

“I wish it had been better news.”

“It is the news I expected,” Honoria said honestly. “Since we are quite alone, and very unsuitably so, by the way, I need to tell you that I have known for a number of years that my father’s diplomatic career is often a cover for something less respectable. He is a spy, and probably a very useful one.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“No, but I’m not stupid, Captain. Sometimes one can learn a lot by a man’s silence.”

“This must be incredibly hard for you, Miss Grainger. I wondered about the wisdom of doing this in the middle of a ball, but I knew how desperate you were for news. Would you like me to find your mother to be with you?”

“In a moment. I’ll need to tell her and I imagine she will wish to go home immediately. I do myself. But if you do not mind very much, I would just like a few minutes to recover myself, before I have to…” Honoria broke off. She was horrified to realise suddenly that she was about to cry. She put down the wine glass hastily, fumbling in her reticule for a handkerchief. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Graham took the bag from her hands, retrieved the handkerchief and gave it to her. He sat beside her on the sofa, and Honoria gave up and began to cry in earnest. After a moment she felt his arm go about her shoulders and she forgot about propriety and leaned into him, sobbing. Graham held her, stroking her back soothingly, murmuring comforting nonsense as if she was a small child.

Eventually Honoria’s sobs died away. She knew that she should move, but she remained still in his arms. She needed to dry her tears and tidy her hair and be ready to face her mother’s grief when she told her the news but she was unexpectedly enjoying the sense of being taken care of, even if it was by a man she had known little more than a day. That thought made her blush and she shifted reluctantly away from him. He did not move away, but studied her with concerned dark eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Honoria said again.

“I’m not sorry at all, I’m very glad that I’m here. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. Give yourself a moment while I find your Mama. I’ll leave you alone with her and make sure you’re not disturbed and I’ll call for your carriage.”

“We don’t keep our own carriage here, Captain, we came with Sir John and Lady Marlow. I don’t wish to disturb them…”

“Don’t give it another thought, I’ll arrange something. I’ll wait in the hallway for you and I’ll escort you both home. Call me when you’re ready.”

***

Richard slept badly and rose early, taking himself down to the shore to watch the dawn spreading its rose gold light over the choppy waters of the Atlantic. He could not stop thinking about Honoria Grainger. Her dignified reception of Lord Wellington’s news had touched his heart, but the sobbing misery which followed had broken it. Richard could remember how much he had cried in the months following the loss of his wife and child and he would have done anything to ease Honoria’s suffering, but he knew that there was nothing that he could do. He wandered aimlessly as the streets of Cadiz stirred into morning life around him and returned to the house on the Calle Veedor to find Somerset eating breakfast. Richard joined him at the table and Somerset regarded him thoughtfully.

“You look terrible, didn’t you sleep?”

“Not much.” Richard accepted coffee with a murmur of thanks to the maid and reached for the bread. “I’m sorry, sir, I went for an early stroll and went further than I intended. I hope I wasn’t needed?”

“No, he doesn’t need us this morning apart from to sort through his correspondence, the packet came in. But I can do that. Are you going to call on Miss Grainger?”

“I’d like to,” Richard admitted. “I don’t want to shirk my duty, sir, but they were both in a terrible state when I took them home. Do you think he’ll mind?”

“He’s left specific instructions that you’re to make yourself available to them and help them in any way possible, Captain. I think he’s feeling guilty. We have this gala dinner with members of the Cortes this evening. You should be there for that, but why don’t you finish your breakfast and go and see if they need anything?” Somerset studied him with sympathetic eyes. “Those poor women. I’m guessing they’re not holding out much hope?”

“No, and they shouldn’t. I’m not sure how much Lady Grainger knows, but Miss Grainger is very well aware that her father is a government agent and she knows that if he isn’t dead, he may have been imprisoned by the French. They shoot spies, sir.”

“He could have been taken ill somewhere.”

“Along with his servants, his guide and his entire French escort?” Richard shook his head. “If there was a simple explanation we’d have heard it. Do you know who has drawn the short straw for this very unpleasant assignment, sir?”

“Giles Fenwick. I think his Lordship has asked Colonel Scovell to find another man to go with him in case one of them is killed but I don’t know who that will be.”

“They really want to find him, don’t they? I wonder what he was carrying?”

“I don’t think even Lord Wellington knows that at present. Give the ladies my compliments when you see them, Captain, and if there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”

Richard sent in his card and was surprised when the servant returned immediately to escort him to the same small salon where he found Honoria Grainger alone. She looked calm although rather heavy-eyed and she shook his hand and asked him to sit down.

“I’m so glad you called, Captain. I wanted the opportunity to thank you for your kindness last night. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You’re very welcome, Miss Grainger. How is your Mama this morning?”

“She has remained in bed. I don’t think either of us slept very much.”

“I hope you did not come down just to see me.”

“No, I promise you. Although I would have done. I am far better to be up and around. Mama will be the same in a few days. I think it is more of a shock to her, since she had been convincing herself that it was all a mishap and that he was going to turn up as though nothing had happened. But she is a sensible woman and she just needs time to come to terms with this.”

“What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. Eventually we will go back to England, but at present Mama is very reluctant to leave, since it is obvious that news will reach here first. I will talk to her when she is a little calmer and we will decide. It may be that we look for a small house to rent in Cadiz or even Lisbon for a month or two, if that will make her happier.”

“Have you no male relative who might be able to support you through this?”

“Do you think the presence of a man would make this any easier, Captain?” Honoria said frostily.

“No, not at all. But forgive me, your Mama is obviously very distressed and in matters of business and finance, your father must have had someone in mind who could assist her should anything ever happen to him. It is usual.”

Unexpectedly there was a gleam of amusement in the girl’s eyes. “Oh yes, he did,” she said smoothly. “He was very farsighted about such matters since he always knew, I suppose, that he could die suddenly and a long way from home. He was very frank about it, we talked everything through.”

“Is it somebody you could write to? Perhaps we could arrange…”

“It is me, Captain Graham. I am of full age and my father taught me to understand business some years ago. He always knew that my Mama is not of a practical bent, so he arranged that she should be paid a very generous jointure and the expenses of her household are to come out of the estate, but everything else is in my charge.”

Richard stared at her and she looked back defiantly. “Have I shocked you, Captain?”

“You have certainly surprised me,” Richard said. “Your father clearly had immense faith in you, Miss Grainger, and since he knew you far better than I do, I am sure he was right. But I think this is a lot for any one person to manage alone, especially when you are still reeling with the shock of this news.”

Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears again. “It is,” she said. “I have no wish to shirk my duty, Captain. Until we know for sure that he is dead, I will continue to manage things as I always have in his absence. But it feels very difficult today.”

“May I help?”

Honoria eyed him uncertainly. “I do not see…”

“Not to do it for you, ma’am. But just to think through what might need to be done, who needs to be notified, how to manage finances if you intend to remain in Spain for a while. I have worked for Lord Wellington for more than a year, if there is one thing I am very good at, it is managing lists and correspondence and administration. Just while I am here, of course.”

“Of course. Captain – could you?”

“Yes,” Richard promised rashly. “Give me time to speak to his Lordship, and I’ll join you. He will not object, I know, since he is keen to be of service to you and your mother, but I should ask as a matter of courtesy. After that, you shall make a list and we shall decide what needs to be done immediately and what can safely be left until later.”

It was the beginning of a very strange and curiously satisfying week. Relieved of all duties by a rather amused Lord Wellington, Richard presented himself at the house each morning where he found Honoria Grainger ready with her note tablets, paper and pens. They made a list of what needed to be done immediately and another, rather more painfully, of what would need to be done if news came of Sir Horace Grainger’s death. Honoria wrote letters to Grainger’s lawyer and man of business, his banker, the land agent who managed his estate in Hertfordshire and the housekeeper of his London home. She also penned more personal and more difficult notes to several relatives.

“You had better read these, Captain, to ensure that I have not said anything indiscreet. I cannot hide the fact that he is missing, since people will soon be asking questions, but I have simply said that we fear some mishap and that enquiries are being made. Will that do?”

“It will indeed, ma’am. Very well-worded and very discreet. You are your father’s daughter.”

Honoria smiled as though he had paid her a compliment. “Thank you. I’m proud to be so.”

After lengthy discussions with Mrs Grainger, and some hasty research on Richard’s part among the English community in Cadiz, Honoria inspected a small house on the edge of the old town, which had previously been occupied by a Scottish major and his wife. It was conveniently situated although in need of a good clean. Richard asked the embassy housekeeper to help him find servants and watched admiringly as Honoria ruthlessly supervised operations. He thought it was rather a shame that she had not been a boy, since she set about every task with a military precision that Lord Wellington would have loved.

Neither Honoria nor her mother felt able to attend the many parties and dinners being held in honour of Lord Wellington, but Richard insisted that she leave the house each day to take the air. He asked her to show him the town and after a little hesitation, she did so willingly. They were fortunate with the weather, which was unusually dry for early January, with several warm afternoons. Followed at a considerable distance by a bored Spanish maid, they walked through the narrow streets and explored the castle, various churches and the old lighthouse which was situated on the long, dangerous reef known as Porpoise Rocks.

The town overlooked a bay which was around twelve miles long. They walked up to Fort Catalina, its cannon pointing solid defiance at the French or anybody else who might try to take this Spanish island city. There were spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, dotted with villages and criss-crossed with vineyards, orange groves and grazing cattle. Honoria pointed out the distant spires of the town of Medina Sidonia.

“You are a very knowledgeable guide, Miss Grainger,” Richard said, leaning on the stone parapet. “How do you know so much about this place, when you only arrived a few weeks before I did?”

“Lieutenant Sousa,” Honoria said, pulling a face. “He was here during the siege and is now stationed here. He is a most estimable and very romantic young man, who believes it is important to learn as much as possible about every place he visits.”

Richard gave a choke of laughter. “Which he then conveys to you?”

“With inexhaustible detail. I have heard things about the stonework of the cathedral they are building that I hope never to hear again. Have you seen enough, Captain? The wind is growing cold up here.”

“Of course. It’s beautiful though. Would you like to go home?”

“Not yet. I thought we could walk down the Alameda.”

She took his arm as they turned onto the broad avenue, lined with ornamental trees and plants and blessed with wide views of the open sea. The Alameda was the main promenade of the city and the wealthier citizens of Cadiz could be found strolling there on any dry afternoon. Honoria asked him questions about his home and his family and Richard told her about Sally and his hopes for their future which had been cruelly snatched away. He wondered if it was wrong of him to speak so freely of loss to a girl who was experiencing it herself, but Honoria seemed genuinely interested. In his turn, he asked her about her father, and she made him laugh with stories of Sir Horace’s illicit passion for Spanish cigars.

“My mother loathed the custom and would never allow him to smoke them, so he used to sneak out to the garden in all weathers and with the most flimsy excuses. I used to cover for him from a very young age.”

“It sounds as though you were very good friends.”

“We were. Are. I don’t know, of course. I think he is probably dead, but there is a part of me that dreams of him arriving unexpectedly with some horrendous tale of danger and narrow escapes. He is a very good storyteller.”

“I think you’ve inherited that from him. I’m afraid we must go back. We are to attend a concert after dinner and I should not take too much advantage of his Lordship’s goodwill.”

“Does he enjoy music?”

“Very much, as it happens. I believe he used to play the violin in his youth, although I find it hard to imagine.”

“Do you like him?”

Richard thought about it. “He is a difficult man to like,” he said after a moment. “He’s a very private person. He can be irritable and sharp-tongued and when something has displeased him, he is appallingly sarcastic. I’ve seen him reduce an officer to tears. He’s hard to know. But…”

“Go on.”

“But he can be very kind and thoughtful at unexpected moments. He has very few close friends and I don’t count myself among them, but when I see him with those people, he is like a different man. And he’s funny. Even on his worst days, there are times when he makes me laugh aloud.”

Honoria was studying him with a little smile. “I think you do like him, Captain Graham. What is more, I think he likes you too.”

Richard grinned. “Honestly? I have no idea, ma’am.”

“We were supposed to be attending the concert,” Honoria said, and Richard caught the wistfulness in her voice.

“Are you musical, ma’am?”

“Very much so, it is my greatest love.”

“Then come. It is not the same as a ball or a reception, you will not be obliged to speak to many people, and it will do you good.”

“My Mama is not well enough.”

“Come anyway. Join our party, I’ll speak to his Lordship, I know he’ll agree.”

“I feel guilty for wanting to go out when my father is…when I do not know if he is alive or dead.”

“What would your father say?” Richard asked impulsively.

She looked up at him and he could see that he had said the right thing. “He would tell me that it was stuff and nonsense and that I should do as I liked.”

“Your father is a very wise man. I will call for you at seven o’clock.”

***

Two weeks was not enough.

Lord Wellington’s departure for Lisbon was delayed once again by appalling weather and reports of a flooded road, and Honoria and her mother were unexpectedly invited to dine at the embassy. Lady Grainger had barely left the house during the previous week but she studied the invitation then looked up at her daughter.

“Would you like to attend, Honoria?”

“Yes,” Honoria said honestly. She was trying not to think about Richard Graham’s departure. He had spent the previous day with her, going through the rooms of their new temporary home and confirming when the carters would arrive to convey their belongings to the house. He had been kind and funny and helpful and the thought of the next weeks, miserable about her father and trying to comfort her mother, without his steady presence at her side, was unbearable.

“I think we should. Lord Wellington has been so kind in our trouble, I would not wish…”

“Lord Wellington?” Honoria exploded. “Allow me to tell you, Mama, that if we had left the matter to Lord Wellington we would know nothing about what happened to my father. Lord Wellington was perfectly happy to treat us like two empty-headed females who cannot be trusted…it was Captain Graham who intervened on our behalf and it is to him that we owe all the help and comfort we have received this past fortnight. I must say…”

“No, dearest, do not say it again, I think I have understood,” Lady Grainger said. She sounded amused. “I presume if we are to dine with Sir Henry and Lord Wellington that Captain Graham will also be present. It will give me an opportunity to thank him again and to say goodbye.”

The meal went very well. Lord Wellington was unexpectedly entertaining and put himself out to be kind to Lady Grainger. As the group finally broke up, a servant went to call for the carriage and the ladies’ cloaks and Sir Henry drew Lady Grainger to one side with a question about her new residence. Honoria found herself face to face with Richard Graham.

“Will you be all right?”

Honoria nodded. “Sir Henry has been very kind and has said we may call on him for any assistance.”

“How long do you think you will remain here?”

“I am not sure, Captain. I think perhaps until we have news. Or until we are told that there is no news. You promised that you would write to me…”

“Everything that I know, you will know, I give you my word. Should I address my letters to your Mama or to you?”

“To me,” Honoria said. “If there is distressing news, it’s better that she hears it from me.”

“I understand. You are, after all, the head of the household.”

“You are teasing me, Captain Graham.”

“No, I’m not. You’re the most extraordinary young woman…may I write to you about other matters?”

“Other matters. What kind of other matters?”

“I don’t know. Anything. What the weather is doing and where we are marching and what kind of mood Lord Wellington is in that day. And you shall tell me if your new harp has been delivered and if the stove in the kitchen is working properly and whether you think of me at all as you are shopping in the Calle Ancha with your maid.”

“I will think of you and your kindness in every street in Cadiz, and I would very much like to write to you, Captain, if you will promise to reply.”

He smiled, reached for her hand, and raised it to his lips. “You’ll get sick of reading them,” he said.

***

Freneida, May 1813

With the preparations to march complete, Richard rode out through the dusty little village which had housed Lord Wellington’s headquarters for two winters and wondered if they would come back. Wellington seemed convinced that they would not. He had spoken to his staff on the previous day, giving orders and explaining his plans in more detail than Richard was used to. There was an energy about the commander-in-chief which made Richard believe that this time, Wellington did not expect to have to retreat again.

There was little to see in Freineda, so Richard rode further afield, through small villages and stone walled towns where people had begun to return after long months of exile. Farmers were planting again and houses battered by shot and shell were being gradually rebuilt. Richard absorbed the sense of hope and renewal and prayed that it would last and that the war had finally moved beyond these people so that they could resume their lives.

Much of the army had already moved out, and Lord Wellington’s staff were packed and ready to go the following morning. Riding back into the village, Richard dismounted, handing his horse to a groom, and went into the long low house which Wellington had occupied through winter quarters. His chief was in his combined sitting room and study with Somerset, Colonel Murray, his quartermaster-general and the tall fair figure of Major-General Paul van Daan of the light division. Wellington turned as Richard entered.

“There you are,” he said irritably, as if he had sent a summons which Richard had failed to answer. “I have been waiting to question you about that blasted female.”

Richard was completely at sea. “Blasted female, sir?”

“Yes. She has just arrived, completely unannounced, apparently on her way back to Lisbon to join her unfortunate mother. What can have possessed her to make such a journey without any warning, I cannot imagine, but I did not know what to do with her, since I cannot delay my departure for her.”

“Who, sir?”

“Miss Honoria Grainger, Captain,” Somerset said. He was grinning broadly. “It appears that she journeyed by ship to Oporto to visit her father’s grave.”

“Oh my God,” Richard said appalled. “Is her mother with her? What on earth is she doing here?”

“That is a question to which we would all like an answer,” Wellington snapped. “I presume you wrote to her telling her how he died?”

“You know I did, sir, I told you. She replied, thanking me. I’ve not heard a word since, I thought they’d be on their way back to London.”

“Which is what any normal female would have done.”

“Where is she?” Richard said. His voice sounded very strange in his own ears and he wondered if the others could tell. “I mean, where is she going to stay? There’s nowhere here…”

“Evidently not,” Wellington said. He sounded slightly calmer. “I see that you are as surprised as I am, Captain, which is most reassuring. Fortunately, I have found a solution. Or rather, General van Daan has. Mrs van Daan and her household have not yet left the Quinta de Santo Antonio as there was some delay in transporting the final patients from the hospital. They will follow the army in a day or two, with an escort of the King’s German Legion under Captain Kuhn. Miss Grainger has gone to join her, she can rest her horses for a few days before resuming her journey to Lisbon and then on to London.”

“Why is she here, my Lord?” Richard said.

“I think it’s something of a pilgrimage, Richard,” Paul van Daan said quietly. “She went to Oporto to see where Sir Horace was buried and then she travelled here overland, because she wanted to speak to Captain Fenwick and Captain O’Reilly about her father’s last days. She’d hoped to be here days ago but she was delayed on the road, a broken carriage wheel, I believe. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve told her that I’ll ask them both to write to her.”

“Did she receive his effects?” Richard asked. There was a hollow pain in his stomach. He knew that on the night before the march he could not possibly ask for leave to visit her. He had no formal relationship with Honoria Grainger, and a dozen or more letters, stored carefully in his baggage, would not be considered reason enough. Richard had thought himself resigned to not seeing her again and found himself praying that she would remember him and that he had not imagined the connection between them. It might be several years before he could return to England and during that time she would emerge from her mourning and into the world and there would be many men, younger and more handsome and wealthier than he, who would find Sir Horace Grainger’s outspoken daughter to their liking. His chances were very slim but he allowed himself his dreams anyway.

“Yes,” Paul said. He was regarding Richard sympathetically. Richard wondered if he was that obvious. “She was very surprised to discover that he’d written two letters during his last days, one to her and one to his wife. It seems he was too weak to write properly but he dictated them to Brat, Michael O’Reilly’s servant. He managed to sign them himself. I’ve no idea what they said, but it seemed to affect her very strongly. I only met her briefly, but she’s a fine young woman, her father would be very proud.”

“Yes,” Richard said numbly.

“Very well,” Wellington said. “General van Daan, my compliments to your wife, please thank her for her assistance. We will be ready to move out at dawn towards Ciudad Rodrigo, you will join us then, and you may ride on to your brigade from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Richard turned miserable eyes to the general. “Please give my respects to Miss Grainger, General, and tell her how sorry I am to have missed her.”

“I will, Captain. Goodnight.”

It was barely light when the headquarters party, including Major-General van Daan, assembled in the square outside the church. Richard checked the baggage wagons and spoke to the muleteers and grooms while Wellington and Murray gave a pile of letters and some instructions to a courier. It was already warm, with the promise of a hot day. Richard looked around with an odd feeling of finality, then went to his horse and swung himself into the saddle. Vaguely, he was aware of the sound of horses’ hooves and he turned to look. Two riders were approaching at a canter. All the men in Wellington’s party turned to watch and the swirl of dust resolved itself into a woman mounted on a pretty black mare, dressed in a striking wine coloured riding dress and followed by a dark haired groom. The woman slowed her horse and trotted into the square. Nobody spoke for a moment, then Major-General van Daan said pleasantly:

“It is very good to see you, bonny lass, but I thought we’d said our farewells for the time being.”

The woman flashed him a dazzling smile. “We had. You are safe, General, I am not here for you. Lord Wellington, good morning. I’m so sorry to interrupt your departure, it will take just a moment. I need a word with Captain Graham.”

Richard jumped at the sound of his name. He stared at Anne van Daan in some surprise. “Ma’am?”

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, Captain. Did I, or did I not tell you that I wanted to see you in the clinic before you rode out?”

Richard searched his memory and drew a blank. “Erm…I do not perfectly recall…”

“Ha!” Anne said triumphantly. “I knew you would say that. Men! You are all the same. You will not admit to the least discomfort, but if you attempt to ride out without treatment, you are going to be completely incapable of continuing beyond Ciudad Rodrigo. It is utterly ridiculous that you refuse to submit to a small operation that will make you much more comfortable. And I can see by his Lordship’s face that you have not even told him.”

Wellington stared at her then turned an arctic glare onto Richard. “What has he not told me, ma’am?”

“Boils, sir,” Anne said, triumphantly. “Given the size and position of them, I am surprised he can sit that horse at all. Let me tell you that of all the boils I have treated these are…”

“No, indeed, ma’am, do not tell me anything about them at all,” Wellington said, sounding revolted. “General van Daan, are you aware that your wife has been treating this gentleman for…oh dear God, could anything be more unsuitable?”

“Probably, sir,” Paul said. Richard thought that his voice sounded rather muffled as though he might be trying hard not to laugh. “My dear, do you need to see Captain Graham before he leaves?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but if he tries to ride like that, he’s at risk of serious infection. He’s just trying to hide it because he doesn’t wish to miss the start of the campaign.”

“Utterly ridiculous,” Wellington snapped. “Captain Graham, not another word. Go with Mrs van Daan and get this problem dealt with. Preferably by a male doctor, if one is available. Join me as soon as you are able, I need you.”

Richard met Anne van Daan’s lovely dark eyes gratefully. “A day or two, no more, sir. I’m sorry, it was stupid. I didn’t want to let you down.”

“You never let me down, Captain. I value you, your health is important to me. I will see you as soon as you are fit.”

Anne van Daan said nothing until they were out of earshot of the departing headquarters party then she shot Richard a sidelong look. “I’m sorry it had to be boils, Captain, it is just that I needed something that Lord Wellington would not wish to discuss in detail. I was right too, did you see the look on his face?”

The study at the Quinta de Santo Antonio looked oddly bare without the litter of ledgers and correspondence of brigade headquarters. Honoria Grainger was seated in a wooden armchair reading a book. She looked up as Richard entered, then rose, setting the book down. The mourning black made her look older and rather more lovely than Richard had remembered.

“I cannot believe you are here. I thought I’d missed you.”

“I thought I’d missed you too,” Richard said.

“How did…”

“Why did…”

They both stopped, smiling. Then Richard said:

“Miss Grainger, I’m so sorry you had a wasted journey, but I promise you I’ll speak to Captain Fenwick and…”

“I didn’t have a wasted journey. I didn’t travel all this way to speak to Captain Fenwick. I wanted to see you before I returned to London. If that seems too forward or too…”

“No, it doesn’t. Oh God, it doesn’t. Honoria, please tell me I’ve not got this wrong?”

Honoria smiled and Richard felt his heart turn over. It was ridiculous. “No,” she said. “Although I’ve been terrified all this way in case I had. I just needed to see you. To say…to ask…”

Richard stepped forward and took her into his arms. He kissed her for a long time, and she clung to him, convincing him beyond all doubt that he had not made a mistake. When he finally raised his head there were tears in her eyes.

“I went to his grave,” she said. “I sat there for a while, talking to him in my head.”

Richard’s heart melted. “Oh, love, I’m so sorry. It’s so awful for you and I can’t even be here to take you home and look after you. And we’ve so little time.”

“Mrs van Daan said she thinks we can have two days.”

“Two days?” Richard thought about such bounty and found himself smiling again. “I thought I’d have to wait two years. I’ve a lot to say to you in two days, Honoria. Will you marry me?”

She was laughing and crying at the same time. “Yes. Yes, of course I will.”

“Thank God. I’ve read every one of your letters a hundred times, trying to decide if I was being a fool or if you might feel the same way. I even thought of trying to say it in a letter, but I couldn’t find the words. Besides, it didn’t seem fair when I’ve no idea when I’ll get back to England. And even now…it’s so long to wait, love.”

Her smile was luminous. “Richard, do try not to be an ass, it is very unlike you. Do you seriously think I would have made this mad journey in the worst conditions if I was not very sure?”

Richard kissed her again, deciding that she was right. For a time, it was enough just to hold her, revelling in the sense of her in his arms, but Honoria had an inquisitive nature and he was not surprised when she finally stepped back and asked the question.

“Richard, how did you manage this? I asked to see you but Lord Wellington said it was impossible, that you were about to march out and that you would not have time. I truly thought I had missed my opportunity.”

“What did you say to Mrs van Daan?” Richard enquired.

“I couldn’t say much at all. I was so disappointed, I’m afraid I cried a lot, and then I told her the truth. Did she do this? But how?”

“Boils,” Richard said. “Let us sit down. It is rather a painful story.”

An Unnecessary Affray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are we going then?”

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

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

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

“And unofficially?”

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

“He deserted?”

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

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

“Is she pretty?”

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

“Awful for his wife, though.”

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

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

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

“Mr Donahue.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, I didn’t think.”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

“I was part of the conversation, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am, sir.”

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

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

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

“When will that be, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”

“I don’t know her plans, sir.”

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

“So do you, sir.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“We won’t fight then, sir?”

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

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

“Orders, sir?”

“Stand to, Major.”

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

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

“Are we not retreating, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.

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

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

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

“Drums?”

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

“What if they’re not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”

Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.

The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.

“Come on.”

Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.

“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.

“Here.”

The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”

Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.

The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.

“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”

Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.

“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”

“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.

“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”

Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.

***

After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.

“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”

Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.

Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”

“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.

As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to the  farmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.

The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.  Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.

There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.

“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”

“We’ve no orders.”

“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”

“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.

“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”

The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.

“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”

“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”

“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”

Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.

“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”

“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”

“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”

“I know. He knows.”

“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”

“The 95th…”

“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”

Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.

***

They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.

Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.

As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.

“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”

“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”

“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”

“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”

“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”

Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.

“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.

“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”

They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.

“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”

“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”

“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”

“He’s not wounded, is he?”

“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”

“We can wait.”

“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”

“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”

“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”

“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”

The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.

***

Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.

There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.

“What is it, sir?”

“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”

“Should we move?”

“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”

“He’s desperate, sir.”

“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”

Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.

“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”

Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”

Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”

“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”

Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”

“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”

“He must have,” Napier said.

“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”

Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:

“It’s an order, Major.”

Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.

“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”

General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.

“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.

“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”

Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:

“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”

“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”

“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”

“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”

Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.

“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”

Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”

“It’s too risky.”

“It’s too risky not to.”

“I have given my orders, Major.”

There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.

“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”

“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.

“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”

They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.

There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.

There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Corporal Carter’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.

“Sir, here.”

Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”

Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.

There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.

Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.

“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”

“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”

“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”

“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”

Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.

“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”

The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.

The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.

“Colonel Beckwith.”

“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”

“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”

“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”

***

Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.

He was wrong.

As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.

It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.

“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”

“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”

“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”

“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,  that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.

At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.

It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.

“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”

Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”

Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.

General Robert Crauford

The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.

“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”

Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”

Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”

There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.

“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.

“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.

“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.

“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”

“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”

Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:

“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”

“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”

“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”

He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.

“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”

***

After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.

After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”

“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”

“Let’s both go.”

Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”

“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.

“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.

“Well, get back to them, then.”

“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”

After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”

“Do you think he meant it?”

“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”

“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”

“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”

“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”

“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”

“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”

“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”

“To Lisbon?”

“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”

“That will ruin her, Paul.”

“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”

His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”

“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”

“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.

“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”

“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”

“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.

“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.

“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”

“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.

***

Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.

Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.

That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.

“Powell. Got any rations left?”

Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”

“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”

It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.

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.