The Christmas After, is set during the week leading up to Christmas 1815, when eight people from different backgrounds meet on a mail coach from Portsmouth to Winchester. It turns out to be significant for each one of them as the Christmas after the Battle of Waterloo.
Readers of the Peninsular War Saga will recognise one or two of the characters. This story follows on from An Impossible Attachment, a previous short story which I wrote for Valentine’s Day. Both stories are free, so please enjoy and share them as much as you like.
I’d like to wish all my readers and followers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks to you all for your support and encouragement through the past year.
The Christmas After
It was less than twenty five miles from Portsmouth to Winchester, an easy enough journey on a good day, with the mail coach scheduled to reach town at a little after noon. It was not a good day; weeks of rain had left the road rutted and churned up, causing the stage to bounce about violently. Its six occupants clung grimly on to the leather straps, trying to avoid being hurled into the laps of their neighbours. The rain had stopped the previous day, but the temperature had dropped dramatically, and ice was adding to the risk of being overturned. Through the window, the sky was ominously heavy, and Damien Cavel thought that it threatened snow.
He had boarded early, after an uncomfortable night in a noisy coaching inn, disturbed by arrivals and departures at all hours. Dinner had been expensive and mediocre and he had not bothered with breakfast. He wished now that he had bought some food to bring with him, since the journey looked likely to take longer than expected. It was very cold, with the passengers huddled in coats and cloaks.
“I hope it doesn’t break down,” the man next to Damien said. “God knows how long it’d take them to send a replacement coach in this weather, we’ll all freeze.”
There was a rumble of protest through the other passengers, as though even talking about the possibility might bring bad luck. Damien thought privately that the coach was more likely to be overturned than break down, given the speed with which it was being driven. He felt very sorry for the two hardy souls sitting on the outside seats, who must be hanging on for their lives in addition to being freezing.
The coach reached the first staging inn without incident and there was the usual scramble as the horses were changed. There was no time for passengers to leave the coach for anything other than the most basic necessities, but Damien was grateful to see a collection of food vendors hovering around the yard, and he bought a hot pasty which served the dual purpose of filling his grumbling stomach and warming his frozen hands. He felt considerably better as the coach set off again, and even the sight of the first swirling flakes of snow half an hour later did not dampen his improved spirits.
Drawing closer to his destination, Damien admitted to himself how nervous he was. Throughout the long journey on horseback from his family home near Cambrai and the voyage from Le Havre, he had wondered a thousand times if he was mad to make this journey. He had not seen this woman for three years although he had written to her when he could, sending letters to the address she had given him without ever knowing if she had received them. He had received no reply, which made his decision to travel several hundred miles to find her all the more crazy, but it had never occurred to Damien not to do it.
He had carried the image of Elizabeth Wentworth in his heart through the final two years of war, and when his Emperor abdicated, he had been back in a prison hospital, wounded for the second time, but full of hope that it was finally over and he could keep his promise and go to England to find her. Logically he knew that she might have long regretted the impulsive promises they had made in an isolated farm in Portugal when they had fallen in love, and have married another man, but in his heart, Damien did not believe it. Afterwards, he had bitterly regretted that he had made the decision to delay his departure for England in order to return to his family farm near Cambrai. He had been driven by the need to ensure that it existed still, the rambling farmhouse and fertile acres of his boyhood, as a place he could bring a wife and raise a family.
He had been shocked by the neglected state of house and land, but his mother was alone now, his father having died several years earlier, and labour was short after the long, destructive wars. But it was good land still, and Damien knew that his love had no expectation of luxury. He had been making preparations for his journey when the news had come, sweeping through the countryside like wildfire, a call to arms for Bonaparte’s army to rally for one last, desperate adventure.
There had been a sense of unreality for Damien, during those weeks marching with the hastily assembled remains of Bonaparte’s army. He had felt the camaraderie and the fierce loyalty that he had always felt for the man whose military genius had made him master of Europe for so many years, but he had also felt as if he were at the centre of a bubble, delicate and insecure, liable to pop at any moment.
The bubble had exploded on the bloody field of Waterloo, an explosion of violence and bloodshed which had put the long years of Damien’s career in the shade. Back in hospital again after the battle, albeit briefly, he had thought bitterly of the years he had given to Bonaparte and to France, and of the chance of happiness that he had once again thrown away to follow a madman’s last dream.
When he was released, Damien had waited no longer. He briefly considered writing again to Elizabeth, and then realised that he could not bear any further doubt. If he reached her and she sent him away, it would be final and it would be definite and he would live with the pain and recover. What he could not live with any longer, was not knowing.
The coach gave a sudden violent lurch and Damien was thrown heavily into the passengers opposite him. There was a cacophony of neighing horses and shouting men, and Damien disentangled himself from the man opposite him, a slim man of a similar age to Damien, who struggled to regain his seat and his balance. Watching him, Damien understood suddenly that it was because he was trying to do so with the use of only one arm. The other was tucked inconspicuously into his coat.
Damien’s neighbour, a florid man in his fifties with the look of a prosperous squire, put his head out of the window and shouted for information. He relayed it back in miserable tones.
“Broken wheel. He’s sending one of the post boys on to Winchester, there’s a replacement coach there. Should be a couple of hours.”
Damien moved and opened the coach door, jumping down. The boy was already mounted and ready to ride. Damien surveyed the wheel, which had shattered on a section of paved road which had broken up into huge uneven stones.
“Bloody disgrace, these roads,” the coachman said, coming to stand beside him. “Someone needs to do something about them.”
Damien could not argue with him, although he had no idea who the someone should be, knowing nothing about the funding of highway maintenance in England. He did not reply, as his attention had been caught by a couple by the roadside, a woman sitting on the grass, which was rapidly being covered in a blanket of white, and a man bending over her. Damien had forgotten about the outside passengers and was slightly shocked to realise that one of them was a woman.
The coachman followed his gaze. “Aye, she came off,” he said indifferently. “Shouldn’t let women travel outside in my opinion, they don’t have the sense to hang on.”
“She probably did not have the strength to hold on,” Damien said shortly. He saw the coachman stare at his accent but he ignored him and went over to where the woman sat.
“Are you hurt?”
She looked up at him, and he was shocked at how young she was, a pair of tear drenched blue eyes looking huge in a thin, white face, pinched with cold.
“My shoulder hurts,” she whispered. “And my head.”
Damien could see it now, a darkening lump on the side of her head which was partly hidden by the soaked hood of her cloak. She was shaking violently, either with cold or with shock and pain. Damien looked at the man who was broadly built, made wider by his big greatcoat. Damien thought it looked like an army regulation garment. “Your…your wife?” he asked cautiously, unsure of the relationship between them.
“I don’t know the lass,” the man responded shortly. “There’s not much chance for conversation in a howling gale.”
The man was surprisingly well-spoken given his shabby appearance. “Just back from France?” Damien asked.
“Aye. You too, by the sound of your accent. Prisoner of war?”
There was no malice in the man’s tone, and Damien was not surprised. He had found, through the years of war, very little acrimony between the two armies, except on the battlefield. Theirs was a common experience, which transcended loyalty or nationality.
“Not any more,” he said. “She should not be out here for two hours.”
“None of us should,” the man said, and raised his voice. “Coachman! Stop swigging at that flask; I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the reason we’re in this mess.”
“No, sir,” the coachman said indignantly. “Not a drop did I touch until this very minute, being as how I’m not driving anywhere for a time, and in need of something for the shock. And if your Honour…”
“No, do not tell us any more,” Damien said hastily, sensing a lengthy and indignant speech. “Instead, will you tell me where the nearest village may be found? We cannot keep this young woman here in the snow, she will catch her death.”
The coachman wrinkled his brow. “Nearest coaching inn is Winchester,” he said. “Be a good old walk though, and the coach will be back here…”
“Well there’s the Swan in Hanbury, but that’s not much more than an alehouse,” the coachman said doubtfully. “About half a mile south of here, we just passed the turnoff.”
“I do not care as long as it is dry and warm,” Damien said firmly. “You will remain with the coach?”
“I got no blooming choice, if I want to keep my job,” the coachman said gloomily. “Me and Jem will wait, we’ll need to walk the horses in this weather.”
Damien reached into his pocket and took out a coin. “If the boy comes with us to show the way, I will send him back with a bottle to keep you warmer,” he said. “And if you send him to tell us when the new coach arrives, there will be a larger vail for you.”
The coachman took the coin, his expression lightening considerably. “Well that sounds like a good notion,” he admitted. “And I admit a drink wouldn’t go amiss in this cold. Jem, go with the gentlemen.”
Damien turned to the other passenger. “Your pardon, sir, I should introduce myself. Captain Damien Cavel, 32nd ligne.”
The other man gave a broad grin. “Aye, it wasn’t hard to work that out,” he said, and offered his hand. “Captain Owen Hughes, 30th foot. Let’s get moving, it’s like the march to Corunna out here. Why don’t you see if the lass can walk and I’ll find out if the rest of the passengers want to join us?”
Damien shook the other man’s hand warmly. There was something reassuring about finding himself with a fellow veteran, even if they had fought on opposite sides. He watched as Hughes went to speak to the rest of the passengers and then turned to the young woman.
“Come, we need to get you to shelter, ma’am. Do you think you are able to stand, with my help?”
The girl nodded, and Damien lifted her very gently to her feet. She staggered a little in the biting wind but he held her firmly and after a moment she resolutely put one foot forward and started the walk.
The Swan was rather better than Damien had expected, definitely a cut above an alehouse although nothing like the busy coaching inns in Portsmouth. The landlord was thoroughly surprised to find his establishment invaded by eight soaked and frozen coach passengers, but he rallied quickly, ushering them into a back parlour which was furnished with a big oak table and benches. Running his eye over the company, Mr Pooler summoned his man to light a fire and to bring tankards of ale. Damien sent the post boy off with a flagon for the coachman along with a hot pie wrapped up in muslin, and then sat down with a sigh of relief, as feeling began slowly to return to his numbed feet and hands.
Around him, the company began to talk, warmed by the ale and fortified by bread and cheese which was the best Mrs Pooler could manage for such a large party on short notice. Their conversation was largely about the coach accident, the appalling state of the roads and the possibility of the coachman setting off for Winchester without them. Damien said little, but gave his attention to the young woman who had fallen so badly from the coach roof. She had not ordered food or drink, probably for the same reason that she had bought the cheapest seat on the coach. Damien spoke quietly to the landlady, who brought a glass of burgundy.
“May I ask your name?” Damien said gently, setting the glass before her. “Mine is Cavel, I am French, visiting a friend in Winchester.”
“It’s Jackson, sir. Susan Jackson. You’re kind, but I don’t need anything.”
“You do,” Damien said firmly. “Please, as my guest.When the replacement coach arrives, you will take my seat inside.”
“I can’t, sir, I’ve not paid for it.”
“Well I have, and it is up to me if I choose to give it to you. You cannot travel outside when you are hurt, you will fall again. Drink the wine.”
She sipped it, looking up nervously at him. “It’s good of you, sir. But…”
“You want to be careful, dear,” the woman who had been travelling inside the coach said clearly. “He’s trying to give you a slip on the shoulder, he is. You can’t trust a Frenchman.”
“She’ll be lucky if he bothers to ask at all,” one of the other men said. “Mostly during the war, they just took what they wanted and then cut the poor girl’s throat afterwards.”
Damien said nothing. He could sense the hostility of the room; it was the reason he had tried hard not to speak in the coach. He had no fear that his fellow soldier would display any resentment, but it was a different matter with civilians.
“I think he is being, kind, ma’am,” the girl said, unexpectedly. She set the wine glass on the table.
“Well spoken, lass,” Hughes said. He pushed a plate towards her. “I’m not going to eat this, I had a huge breakfast. Eat up.”
Susan reached for the bread, with a murmur of thanks. Damien looked over at Hughes.
“Were you there?” he asked.
“I was,” another voice said, and Damien turned to look at the speaker, recognising the slim man who had fallen so badly during the accident. Damien looked at his arm and the other man grimaced and withdrew it from his coat. The sleeve was neatly pinned; the amputation must have taken place just below the elbow. Damien looked up.
“I am sorry, sir.”
“That’s all right, old chap, I don’t suppose you carried that lance personally.”
“Which regiment?” Hughes asked.
“Major Henry Crane, Scots Greys. Cavalry.”
“I see,” Hughes said soberly. “Your losses were heavy, sir.”
“We were slaughtered,” Crane said bluntly. “It began well, we swept them all before us. Took an eagle..Sergeant Ewart, that was. I can remember the sound of sabres, clashing like a blacksmith’s hammer, over and over again. We went through their infantry like a knife through butter, it was so easy. But we’d gone too fast and too far. The horses were blown and we were trying to rein them in and pull back, but they’d completely lost all order. No real combat experience, many of them.
“I remember thinking that we’d taken some casualties, but that we could get them into order and it would be all right. I was still full of confidence, still cocksure. There’s something about a successful cavalry charge that feels so satisfying, it makes you feel as though you can conquer the world. But then we realised that we’d run right into the front of the main French lines.”
Damien could see beads of sweat on Crane’s face. The memories were clearly vivid and painful. There was total silence in the room, with all attention concentrated on Crane.
“I was waiting for orders, but none came. I’m not sure that any of us knew what we were supposed to do next, but then the cry went out to charge the guns. We did. We couldn’t disable them; had no way of doing so. But we did put a lot of them out of action, the gun crews either fled or we killed them. I can remember thinking was it a good idea? Shouldn’t we have pulled back, while we were still in fairly good order?
“We were still at the bottom of the valley between Hougoumont and La Belle Alliance when we heard them coming, a thundering of hooves like the devil’s own cavalry. Cuirassiers first. We fought them off, but then the lancers came. It was muddy, the horses were mired down, and General Ponsonby had gone too far out, too close to their lines.” Crane gave a shiver, and Damien could see that for a moment, he was back there, watching disaster strike. “The lancers attacked and he was cut off. Afterwards, I realise they were trying to get him to surrender, but he didn’t understand. Then a group of our lads went thundering forward to try to rescue him, and the French cut him down and turned on us. We were disorganised and it turned into a bloody rout, my men were slaughtered. They took me off my horse and stabbed down. God knows how long I lay there in the mud. It was agony and I lost track of time…”
Crane’s voice had faltered. Nobody spoke into the deathly silence, until suddenly, the florid man, who was clearly the husband of the plump middle aged woman, said:
“It was eighteen hours before they found our boy.”
Damien turned to look at him in horror and saw the emotion reflected on the faces of all the others. There were tears in the slightly protrudent blue eyes, and his wife had taken refuge behind a handkerchief and was sobbing.
“He was twenty, a lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards. He was that proud, and so handsome in his uniform. He’d missed the war, he was excited, happy to be going to fight Bonaparte for the last time. We had his portrait done just before he joined his regiment, wanted him to remember the moment, to tell his children. He’ll never have children and we’ll never be grandparents, he was our only one.”
“Oh no,” Hughes said softly.
“They said he stood with his men, as wave after wave of French hit the farm that day. So many died, but they managed to close the gates and keep them closed. In the end it was the shelling, that did for him. They killed all the French that broke through, fierce hand to hand fighting, we were told. They were running low on ammunition until some brave fellow drove a wagon through with new supplies. One of his friends – Lieutenant Graham – came to see us afterwards, to tell us what happened.
“The French didn’t give up, and nor did they. Attack after attack, and they fought them off. Eventually, they say that Bonaparte himself gave the orders for the house to be shelled, trying to burn them out. Lord Wellington told them to hold, and hold they did, English and Germans, all through that day, although the place was almost destroyed. He was hit by a shell, both legs blown off. Eighteen hours later, they found him. God knows how long it took him to die.”
Damien was weighed down with sorrow and with rage, directed at whoever had told these people that much information about their son’s death. He supposed the man who carried the news was suffering himself, with that compulsion often felt by soldiers who had been through hell to repeat their stories of horror to civilians, over and over, as though to punish, or perhaps educate, people who had never experienced the blood and agony and misery of war.
“That’s awful; I’m sorry,” Captain Hughes said simply. “What was his name?”
“Alfred. Alfred Holland. He’d have been my heir, a good little estate three miles out of Winchester. He’d joined the militia, but I never expected him to go to war. Never thought we’d lose him.”
“We lost too many of them,” one of the other men said. Damien glanced at him. He had barely noticed the man in the coach earlier, a nondescript man in his late twenties, wrapped up in a dark cloak, looking tired and unwell. He had coughed a lot, Damien remembered, causing Mr and Mrs Holland, who had been close to him, to turn away.
The man seemed to sense Damien’s scrutiny and gave a thin smile. “Yes, I was there. Not on the field, mind. I was manning a field hospital in a small village nearby. Army surgeon. Joined the army back in Portugal, after Talavera. Regimental surgeon to the 110th infantry. Came back at the end of the war, and set up practice in Kent, but they asked me to go back and I went.”
“The 110th?” Damien said quickly.
“You know of them?”
“I met your colonel once. A long time ago. And his wife.”
The doctor’s face lit up with a smile that Damien fully understood. “You met Anne van Daan?”
“She worked with me through the war. And at Waterloo.”
“Are they both well?”
“They are. Still in France; I’ve just come from there.”
“I am glad,” Damien said, feeling a warmth towards the young doctor for news he had wanted to hear. “I imagine it was horrible in those field hospitals.”
“It was a slaughterhouse. So many men. A lot of them died on the operating table, they’d been left for too long. Others made it, but they were maimed. Shot, burned, arms or legs blown off. I lost count of the amputations I did. In the end, I was amputating with a blunt saw and knife. Those poor bastards…”
Daniels fell silent, and nobody corrected his language. Mrs Holland was crying again, and her husband put his arm about her shoulders in a gesture which Damien found oddly touching. He looked over at Hughes.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“In the centre, Alten’s division. We spent the day getting shot, charged at and shelled by your army. Stood in square for more hours than I can begin to remember, and I watched men cut down around me until I lost count. General Alten was badly wounded, we thought we might have lost him. We stood and we stood and I thought at times we were all going to die there. All I can really remember now is the smell. Blood and sweat and horses, thundering down at us. The smell of smoke and musket fire and the man next to me; God knows where he ate the day before, but it was the worst smell of garlic I’ve ever known.”
Damien smiled; he knew how strange and irrelevant details sometimes intruded into the heat of battle, as if recognising them could keep a man sane.
“Eventually, there were so few men left, we had to combine squares with another regiment, just to form a viable square. All our senior officers were down, dead or wounded; I was in command of my square with another young captain. There seemed no end to it. And then we heard them coming. Heard them before we saw them. Napoleon’s Imperial guard was marching against us. It was getting dark, but you could hardly tell with the smoke over the field. But we knew they were coming, and we loaded up and filled in gaps in the square, and we stood, waiting for them.” Hughes took a deep breath and summoned a smile. “We won, so they tell me. The only good thing about that, is that I hope never to have to do it again. He’s gone, I don’t think he’ll be back.”
“I was in London that day – the day the news came.” The speaker was a solid man, probably in his fifties, with the look of a man of business, possibly a lawyer. “Jonathan Limm, I work for a London merchant, I’ve been his agent fifteen years now. Rich as Croesus, and a big man in the City. The news we’d had wasn’t good, there were rumours of a defeat. Mr Summers was at his club, dined with some friends and then sat drinking wine and talking about the next step in the war. It was clear it wasn’t over. I’d gone there with some important papers for him to sign. Some of the men had sold government stocks, to avoid losing money in a crash caused by the defeat. One or two, ex-military men mostly, or those in the know, had bought them, hoping the news was false. It was all gloom, they were talking about the Duke when I got there, wondering if he was dead or a prisoner. And then we heard a shout, outside in the street.
“It was taken up by others. We went outside, people were pouring out into the street, embracing each other, crying with joy. They said the news was brought by one of the Duke’s officers in a carriage. With French eagles. Mr Summers wanted to see it, so we followed the crowd, caught up with it just as it was leaving Grosvenor Square. The eagles were sticking out of the carriage windows, it was a splendid sight.
“Afterwards, we went back to the club, Mr Summers kindly invited me to drink a glass in celebration, as his guest. The talk was different, by then. Wondering about the victory, about the dead and wounded. One or two of the members had sons or nephews with the army. And speculation too about what it would mean for business. Victory is all very well, but money is money, and a country at war is a different place to one at peace.”
“Aye, that’s true enough.” The final man spoke in gloomy tones. “I know, to my cost. Arthur Dawlish. Twelve years, I’ve worked for a cloth manufacturer, started out on the floor and worked my way up to overlooker. Never thought to make a change, but it’s all different now the war’s over. Uniforms, you see, and linen for the army, sheets and blankets and good shirts…won’t be the need for it now. We had a big order right after Toulouse, when Bonaparte abdicated, and the troops came home. There were parades and celebrations and the crowned heads of Europe travelling to London to be feted. They wanted the men looking smart again, so there were uniforms to be made, as bright and clean as you like. They all got new kit; can’t have the Czar looking at rips and burns and bloodstains as the troops march up the Mall.”
Hughes gave a snort of disgust, and summoned the waiter for a bottle of burgundy and some glasses. “I remember,” he said. “They laughed about it, the men. Said it was a shame they couldn’t have got the clothing out to them when they were marching back from Burgos in bare feet or shivering in the Pyrenees without coats or stockings. It was a disgrace, the profits some of them made out of our men’s misery, and now it’s over, they’ll be cutting back and grumbling about reduced times, and sacking good men to keep their pockets well lined.”
“Well they sacked me, and a dozen or more like me. Turned off without a thanks for all those years. Not so bad for me, I’m a single man and have none to support but myself. But the men with families…it’s heartbreaking. There’ll be no Christmas celebrated in those homes this year. If they still have homes – eviction comes next, if they can’t pay the rent.
“There’s not much work about down in Portsmouth. Everyone’s feeling the pinch; the dockyards and shipbuilders. We used to worry about dodging the press gang but now there’s sailors hanging around hoping for a ship. I’ve a relative, a cousin of my father’s, moved up to Manchester a few years ago. I wrote to him and he’s written back to say he thinks he can find me a place in one of the new factories. Might need to start at the bottom again, but with my experience I can work my way up. And I’m fairly young, don’t need much to live on to start with, I can bed down with him and his family. A new beginning.”
“There’s discontent in the cities,” Limm said. “Men are beginning to ask why it’s always the poorest who bear the brunt. The corn laws will keep the price of bread high, but that only benefits the landed classes. Men like my employer prefer cheaper food and a happier work force.”
“It won’t be helped by the returning veterans,” Crane said. “They’ll be reducing the army now, and that will get even worse once there is no need for an army of occupation in France. Two or three years down the line, they’ll be flooded with men needing work, and maybe not the easiest men to employ. War changes a man.”
Cavel was studying the girl. She had sat silently throughout the conversation, eating and drinking, with the concentration of a woman who had been hungry for too long. As she finished the bread and cheese, a bowl of soup was set down in front of her, and Cavel saw Major Crane pick up the spoon and put it into her hand indicating that she should eat. She did so, the hot food and wine bringing some colour into the white cheeks. With her hood put back, Cavel could see that her hair was very fair, almost white, wisps of it beginning to curl as it dried. He could not guess her age but she was clearly too young to be in this situation alone.
“You’re in pain, aren’t you?” Dr Daniels said suddenly. “Is it your shoulder? You’re sitting awkwardly.”
The girl nodded. Daniels got up. “Come with me,” he said briefly. “This may not take long.”
They disappeared into the bar area, which was deserted on this foul December afternoon. Conversation lapsed for a while. One or two of the men took out pocket watches to check the time. Damien felt very sleepy. He was dreading the next part of the journey, up on the roof in thick snow, but he was determined not to allow Susan Jackson to attempt it.
There was a scream of pain from the next room and everybody jumped. Damien looked at Hughes, who had half risen, and shook his head. Hughes sat down. After a few minutes, Daniels returned with the girl, steering her into her seat. He poured more wine for her.
“Drink this, Miss Jackson, it will help with the pain. I’m sorry, I know that hurts, but I promise you that you will be much more comfortable now.”
“Dislocated?” Crane asked.
“Yes. It went back fairly easily though. I’m pleased with myself, it’s a knack, I generally used to hand those over to my colonel’s wife. She had a feel for it, never had to make a second attempt.”
“She helped with the nursing?” Hughes asked.
Daniels looked over and met Cavel’s eyes, in a moment of shared amusement. “In a manner of speaking,” Daniels said gravely. “Where are you bound, Miss Jackson? Have you somebody waiting for you who can take care of you?”
The girl did not immediately respond. Eventually she lifted her head. “Like Mr Dawlish, sir, I’m in search of work. I’ve been employed by a dressmaker and milliner in Southampton these past three years, but she turned me off when she discovered I was increasing. It’s not Miss Jackson, it’s Mrs. Married four years to a corporal of the 95th. I didn’t win the draw to go with him, and there’s no money. He sent a little when he could, prize money. He wrote to me often, not like some of the other men, they forget they ever had a wife. After the war ended, he came home. It was like a dream. We rented a couple of rooms above a shop in Drake Street. He was a hero, people gave us presents, asked us to dine with them…we were so happy.
“When the call came that Bonaparte was back, he had to go with his regiment. I’d kept up my job, we knew it made no sense to lose it until we were sure he could come out of the army and find work. He was sure he’d be discharged, said they wouldn’t need this many soldiers in peacetime and that they’d let men go who wanted to first. We’d already started asking around about work. We’re both from farming families, and he was strong and healthy, and a good clean record.
“He was killed. I got the letter, by then I already knew I was with child. I spoke to my employer, told her I’d work as long as I could, asked if I could come back after the child was born if I could find someone to mind it. But she told me to go. Said it didn’t matter that I was married, a pregnant woman would set a bad example to the other girls. Said that any hussy could claim an absent husband. She treated me like I’d done something wrong.”
She was crying, scrabbling for a non-existent handkerchief. Major Crane supplied one and she buried her face in it for a moment. “I’m sorry. So sorry. I shouldn’t be talking like this.”
“Why not, ma’am, your story has as much value as ours,” Crane said quietly. “The child?”
“Born dead. I went to the charity ward to have it, but I couldn’t stay there. I’d kept a little money, just enough for the fare. As soon as I felt strong enough…”
“When did you have the baby?” Daniels put in, clearly appalled.
“Just over a week ago. But I’m well enough, sir.”
“You’re not well enough at all. Where are you bound?”
“I’m trying to make my way to Derbyshire, sir, it’s where I’m from. My parents are still there, tenants on a big estate. They’ll take me in until I can find work, I’m luckier than many women. I just need to get there.”
“Do you have the fare for the whole journey?” Daniels asked quietly.
“Yes, sir. It’s just food and somewhere to stay. But it won’t be so bad, a lot of the time people are good and will let you sleep in the barn.”
“In this weather, you’re going to freeze or starve before you make it,” Daniels said. “Believe me, I’ve spent enough time in the army to know.”
“She will not,” Mrs Holland said, furiously. “It’s a disgrace, that the man died for his country and his wife is treated that way. I’d like to give that dressmaker a piece of my mind. It’s going to take you days to get that far, and the good doctor is right, you’ll never make it in your state. We’re bound for home, we’ve been visiting my sister, her daughter’s just had her first. And right glad I’ll be to get there, in this weather. We’ll make it though, even with this accident, with plenty of time to be ready for Christmas. Now the house isn’t grand, and we won’t be entertaining this year, with losing Alfie. I couldn’t think of it. But you’ll spend it with us, child, and get yourself well again. In a week or two, we’ll get you on the stage again with a proper inside seat.”
Mrs Jackson’s eyes were round with surprise. “No. Oh no, ma’am, I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right, a lady like yourself.”
“Well it’s kind of you to say so, dear, but there’s ladies and there’s ladies,” Mrs Holland said, somewhat obscurely, Damien thought. “What I do know, is I’ve a dozen letters from Alfie, and he talks about his men and his NCOs with the greatest affection, called them jolly good fellows. I know your man didn’t serve under him, but I’d like to think that if he were here, he’d be happy that we could help the family of a good man. He was buried out there, you know, so there’s no grave, although we’ve paid for a memorial stone in the village church. When it’s ready, and it will be soon, we’ll have a service for him. But I’d like to do a bit more, we thought we’d subscribe to one of the charities set up to help the wounded. Somehow I like this better. It isn’t charity, it’s for Alfie – a memorial just for him. And to tell you the truth, it will be good to have a young person about the house for a week or two.”
“Aye, it would,” Holland said. His voice was slightly gruff, and Damien could hear tears hidden behind it. “We miss him. Come and spend Christmas with us, Mrs Jackson. We’ll tell you all about Alfie over the goose and the pudding and you can tell us about your lad. And there’ll be more laughter than crying, because Alfie was one for a laugh, there was nothing gloomy about him.”
“Tommy was the same,” Mrs Jackson said. She was smiling through her tears, a luminous smile which brought unexpected beauty to her thin, exhausted face. “He could find a joke in a mudhole, he could. I’ve got his letters with me, some of them told the funniest stories. I’ll read them to you, if you like?”
“I’d like that very much. It’s settled then.” Holland sounded relieved. He looked over at Daniels. “If there’s a charge for treating her…?”
“Good God, of course there isn’t. I’m happy to have been useful.” The doctor looked around. “And not at all sorry that we met like this. It’s been a good hour, although I’m wondering if I ought to walk up the lane to see if there’s any news of another coach.”
“No need for that, sir, I’ll send the boy,” the landlord said. He advanced into the room, his wife at his heels, gathering plates. “Won’t be more than half an hour or so, but if you’ll settle the bills now, it would be convenient, and this last bottle’s on the house.”
He set the wine down, and there was a scrabble for purses. Damien paid, and the landlord turned to Crane, who handed him the money with a grin which made him look much younger.
“When did you come out, Pooler?”
“Back in ’11, sir. Albuera did for me. Polish lancer well nigh gutted me. Don’t know to this day how I’m still alive.”
“I was there myself,” the major said soberly. “Colborne’s brigade?”
“That’s right, sir. Blinded by a sudden hailstorm, didn’t see them coming and was caught in line. Bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I was also there,” Cavel said.
They turned to him, startled. “Were you, sir?”
Cavel shook his head. “The two worst battles I have ever seen. Albuera and Waterloo. Both times I thought we would win and then I thought we had won. And then nothing. A solid red wall and the faces of men who would not give, would not yield and would not move. It was like fighting a mountain; you can break bits off of it, but you cannot knock it down.”
“I still don’t know who won at Albuera,” Crane said conversationally, and the landlord, Cavel and Hughes all started to laugh.
“Nor do I,” Cavel admitted. “But I am very sure who won at Waterloo.”
“Is that where you got that scar?” Hughes asked gently, and Cavel raised his hand to his head. They had shaved it, to treat the deep wound which stretched from the top of his head down past the front of his ear, ending at his jaw. The wound had healed surprisingly well, and Cavel’s hair was growing back, beginning to disguise the top part of the scar, but his face would always be marred.
“Yes. Cavalry sabre. I woke in the dark and the mud and found myself without coat or pack or weapons. They had left me shirt and trousers, for which I was very grateful, but every other thing I owned was gone, including my boots. All around me were bodies, dead men or dying, whimpering in the night. I could walk, although I could see very little. For a while, it affected my balance, I could not walk easily for a month. That night I staggered like a drunken man to the road. All along it, men walked or stumbled, heading towards Brussels. It was too far, I knew I would not make it. But there was a village a couple of miles in the opposite direction. I thought I might try there for help.
“I would not have made it, if I had not met another man – a young German, a captain in the King’s German Legion. He was badly wounded in his leg, although he could walk, just about. I went to help him. He leaned on me and he guided me. Together we made it. There was a field station there, with doctors.”
There was a long silence. Into it, Mrs Holland said:
“I’m glad you did, sir. It’s been good to meet you.”
“It is good of you to say so, ma’am. I am also glad.” Damien looked around the room. He was conscious of a sense of camaraderie among the eight ill-assorted people, born out of adversity and a surprising shared experience. “I know that you are going home for Christmas, and that Mr Dawlish is going to his family in search of work. Also Mrs Jackson. What of you, Captain Hughes?”
Hughes gave a grin. “Still with the regiment, Captain. Got some leave over Christmas, so I’m going to my sister’s, near Andover. They keep a good Christmas, I was there last year. She married a local squire, three children and very social. I am going to drink punch, eat far too much rich food, and I am hoping to renew my acquaintance with a young lady by the name of Miss Finney. I last saw her just before I was called back to duty, and there was very little time for a conversation and no time for promises I might not be able to keep. But I am reliably informed that the darling girl has seen off two very determined suitors these past months and is constantly asking Felicity for news of her gallant brother, so…”
There was a shout of laughter, and Major Crane slapped him on the back. “Good luck with it, Hughes. I hope she says yes.”
“What about you, sir?”
“Home to my wife. I’ve been in France with the regiment, but I’ve sent in my papers. They’ve no need of me now. We have a neat little house in Kings Worthy, and I have a position awaiting me in my father’s law firm, I trained before I joined up. I intend to live a very happy and very boring life.”
“It sounds idyllic, sir,” Hughes said. “And yourself, Mr Limm?”
“I’ve business in London, and then I’m invited to spend Christmas in Leicestershire with my employer. He’s a widower, but his young daughter keeps house for him, and it will be something of a house party, he’s invited several friends from London. I am very much looking forward to it.”
“He sounds like a very good employer,” Holland said.
“He is the very best of men, sir, I’m fortunate.”
Major Crane turned to look at Damien. He had known it was coming and had not been sure, at the start, what to tell them. Warm in the firelight, which gave an added glow to the final glass of wine in his hand, Damien smiled. Whatever the outcome of his journey, he was suddenly glad that he had come, because meeting these ordinary people from an enemy land had made it worthwhile.
“I’ve been curious about you, Captain Cavel, since the moment I heard you speak,” Crane said. “If you were a prisoner of war, how is it that you’ve travelled from France to England and not the other way around.”
“Like Captain Hughes, I have come in search of a lady,” Damien said. “I was not taken prisoner after Waterloo. I was in an army hospital, and then I was free, to do what I promised three years ago. I should have done it sooner and I would not have been at Waterloo at all.”
They were all looking at him. “An English lady?” Hughes asked.
“Yes. As to whether she will still have me, I have no idea. I was an enemy soldier, we have not been able to correspond; although I have sent several letters, I have no idea if she received them.
“We met in Portugal, three years ago. I was wounded at Salamanca and taken prisoner. I’d been very ill. We were in a holding camp at Santerem, due to travel down the river on barges to prison transports for England. It was a stormy day, high winds and rain. The barge I was on struck a fallen tree in the river and we capsized. It was horrible, men struggling in the water – I’ve often wondered how many of them made it out alive.”
“But you did,” Hughes said.
“I did. I’m a very strong swimmer. It was dark when I awoke, soaked and shivering on the river bank. No sign of the barges. I didn’t know where to go, but I knew I’d freeze if I stayed there, so I made my way inland a little and came across a farmhouse. Just a cottage, a smallholding running sheep and pigs and a few fields of crops. The old couple who owned it were away at market in Lisbon. Instead, I found a young Englishwoman alone there.
“She was a widow, she’d come out to Portugal to nurse her husband. He was an officer, badly wounded at Badajoz, it took him a while to die. She’d little money, just an aunt living in Winchester, and her husband’s family had disowned him, they thought he’d married beneath him, they gave her no help. She’d heard little from her husband for years, but she came out to nurse him and to bury him.”
“Poor woman,” Crane said softly.
“We spent just over three weeks together. She nursed me back to health, I’d taken a bad chill in the river and my wound hadn’t fully healed. We talked, we tended the farm together. We fell in love.” Damien smiled. Even talking about those weeks brought back the sense of dazed happiness that just the touch of her hand could give him.
“It could not last. They had arranged transport to take her home. And I – I was a soldier, loyal to my emperor. I needed to find my way back to my army. When it came to leaving her, I left my heart behind. We made promises that I had no right to ask.”
“And yet, you are keeping them,” Mrs Holland said gently. “Does she even know?”
“I wrote to her, when I knew that I must go back to fight again. But it is difficult to send letters, I wrote to the transport board, hoping they would send it on, but she may never have got one of them. For all I know, she is married with a family and will be appalled at the sight of me. I will be very discreet, I do not want to embarrass her. But I must at least try. My own feelings have not changed.”
There was a short silence, and then Holland said:
“Well, I hope she’s a young woman of sense, and knows you were worth waiting for, Captain. But if you don’t find her or she don’t want you, you’ll take my direction, if you please. Here’s my card. You’ll not get a passage home now until after Christmas, I’m guessing, and I’m not having you spending the season in some dockside inn, not after all you’ve been through. It’s peacetime, and it should start with us. I’ll expect to hear good news of you, or I’ll expect you on my doorstep to eat your Christmas dinner with us and stay a few days before you go home. Your word on it, sir.”
Damien could not speak for a moment; his heart was full. He nodded, trying to find his voice, and Holland got up and clapped him on the shoulder. “Write to me, mind,” he ordered. “I want to know you’re settled.”
“I will,” Damien managed. “Thank you, sir.”
“Coach here,” the boy called, from the taproom. “They’re just transferring the luggage over. Mr Simpson, the wheelwright will be up to look at the other one in the morning. Snow’s stopped, but the road is covered so it might be slow going.”
The coach arrived in Winchester at almost four o’clock, with darkness rapidly descending and snow just starting to fall again. Damien collected his small bag and stopped to say goodbye to his fellow passengers. There had been little conversation with Hughes during that past hour; both men had concentrated on holding on as the coach slithered through thick snow. Damien was cold through, and went into the tap room of the coaching in to refresh himself with some hot punch and to dry out a little. He obtained directions from the landlord and also confirmed that should he need it, a room was available for him.
It was less than a ten minute walk to the row of terraced cottages on the south side of the minster. Generally, Damien would have taken some time to approve of the soaring lines of the building, outlined against the darkening sky, with white flakes dancing around it, but he was too tense. He barely felt the cold now, feeling his whole body taut with nerves as he turned the corner and walked along the little row, stopping at the fourth cottage. It was neat and trim, the small front garden enclosed with a low wooden fence, beds and lawn white and pure. There were lights burning through the curtained windows, and Damien stood looking at it for a long time, absorbing the sense of warmth and comfort and homeliness. He was almost afraid to knock at the door, to spoil the picture. Then he smiled inwardly at his cowardice, and opened the gate.
His knock was answered quickly, which was a relief, since by now he was so nervous, a delay might have caused him to flee the field. The maid was young and trim in a dark gown and white apron and cap.
“Your pardon, I am looking for Mrs Wentworth,” Damien said. “Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth. Is this…am I?”
“Oh – yes, sir. At least…I’m not sure she’s at home.”
“Would you ask, for me? My name is Cavel, I have travelled a long way…”
“Who is it, Mary?”
The voice cut through Damien’s self-possession like a cleaver, and suddenly he felt himself shaking with nerves. The maid seemed to sense the change in him, and she stepped back.
“Wait in the passage, sir, I’ll ask.”
Damien stepped in to the dim hallway and closed the door. As he did so, a door at the back opened, and light spilled through into the hall. He could see her silhouette, but not her face.
“Elizabeth, it is I.”
The figure in the doorway seemed to still, as though shock had frozen her. Damien put down his bag. The maid moved uncertainly towards her mistress.
“Ma’am, should I?”
“Mary, would you go into the kitchen, please, or the dog will eat the pastry and you know it makes him sick.”
The girl scuttled past her, and Elizabeth moved forward. She opened a door to the right, and went inside. “This way,” she said, and Damien followed her, into a parlour with lamps already lit and a fire blazing in the grate. It was warm and inviting and he saw nothing of it, his eyes being fixed on the woman.
She turned towards him, her eyes huge in her face, scanning him as if not sure if he were real. Damien said:
“I do not know if you had any of my letters, Elizabeth. I have not…”
“I had a letter three years ago, Damien, from a lady, who told me that you had made it back to the army alive. I have heard nothing since.”
Her voice was exactly as he had remembered it. Damien studied her face, which seemed not to have changed at all during these years. “I wish I could have come sooner,” he said. “I wish I had never left you. Elizabeth, I have no right to arrive here out of nowhere, expecting you to…”
“You came,” Elizabeth said. “Somehow, through all that silence, I always knew that you would come.”
Damien stopped speaking and they stared at each other for a long time. Eventually, he said:
“May I kiss you?”
“I do wish you would,” Elizabeth said, and he saw laughter creeping into her eyes along with tears of sheer happiness. He took two steps forward and she moved into his arms, fitting against him as perfectly as she had the first time he had held her in a farm kitchen in Portugal.
They did not speak again for a long time. It was enough to hold her and to kiss her, and all he could do was to murmur her name. Eventually, there was a sound, which made her draw back.
“Love, we have all the time in the world for this. And I intend to make the most of it. But I believe that is my aunt returning home, and there is something I must tell you. You’ll have asked Mary for Mrs Wentworth, I collect?”
“I did,” Damien said warily. “Ma mie, please tell me you have not had cause to change that name? If you are married?”
“I have not married,” Elizabeth said. “But my aunt – indeed, all of our friends – believe that I am. I do not go by the name of Wentworth here. I am known as Mrs Cavel. I hope you don’t mind.”
Damien’s heart stopped as he understood her words, and understood too, the probable meaning behind them. “You told them we married?”
“Nobody knew how long I knew you in Portugal, love, or what passed between us. I know we talked of what might happen if…if I proved to be carrying your child. But by the time I arrived home here, I was fairly sure that I was, and I found, after all, that I could not bear to raise her to believe that Charles was her father. I wanted her to know your name.”
The door opened and a middle aged woman, dressed in a sensible grey cloak and bonnet entered the room. She stopped at the sight of Damien.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh, my goodness. Eliza, is this…? Could this be…?”
“It is,” Elizabeth said. There were happy tears in her eyes, and she held out her hand to the small girl, dark as a woodland elf with her mother’s pointed face and a pair of fine grey eyes which made Cavel feel, for an unreal moment, as though he was looking in a mirror. “Collette, come here, there is somebody very important for you to meet. This is your Papa. The war is finally over, and he’s home at last.”