The Quartermaster is my free short story in honour of Hop tu Naa, or as the English like to call it, Halloween. Traditionally, this was seen as a time when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld thinned making supernatural occurrences more likely, but it is not All Hallows Eve in a Spanish fortress town when two English officers encounter a terrifying force…
It’s free, so please share it as much as you like.
Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, 1812
There was a lizard on the wall, close to the ceiling. It was motionless and had been for the best part of an hour. The room was stifling with no breeze coming through the small windows or the open door and Captain James Harker, trying to stay awake over his work, found himself mesmerised by the creature. Every few minutes he looked up to see if it had shifted even a little, but the lizard looked like an ornament which had been nailed there.
“I wonder if that thing is actually dead?” he said finally.
He was still staring at the lizard when there was a sound and a boot flew through the air, past Harker’s ear, and hit the white painted wall just below the lizard. The creature spun around in a panic, froze for a moment and then scuttled in a blur of legs at incredible speed, disappearing into a hole in the wall just above the ground, his tail flicking furiously behind.
“Don’t think it’s dead, sir,” Ensign Dodd said, his harsh border accent grating on Harker’s ear.
Harker turned to look at his assistant. Dodd was seated at the smaller table in the room, a ledger open in front of him. He had pulled up a wooden crate from the store and his stockinged feet rested on it with magnificent unconcern about either protocol or elegance. There was a hole in the left stocking and a hairy toe poked through it.
“That missed me by about an inch,” Harker said.
“Sorry, sir. Still missed you though.”
Harker did not reply. He often did not when dealing with Dodd, mainly because he could think of nothing to say. He had served alongside a variety of officers during his eighteen years in the army but he had never before come across one like Ensign Andrew Dodd and he supposed he had been fortunate. Since his arrival at his new posting at the district stores in Ciudad Rodrigo, Harker had spent hours wishing that a number of things had been different in his life, but he tried to push those thoughts away.
His transfer from a regiment of the line, where he had commanded a company, had ostensibly been the result of the atrocious injuries he had received at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo at the beginning of the year. Harker, who had led one of the Forlorn Hopes during the battle, had no idea how he had survived the musket balls that had ripped into both his upper body and his leg, leaving him with a limp which looked likely to be permanent and a series of horrific scars. He remembered little of the agonising surgery to remove the balls or the painful weeks in the district hospital that followed. Of the men he had commanded, only fifteen had survived to go back to their regiment and when he was finally declared fit to return to duty, he had read the letter from his former commanding officer with miserable understanding.
His transfer to the district quartermaster’s department had nothing to do with his disability and Harker knew it. His career, from a young ensign through to a captain, had not been spectacular but it had been relatively successful and although he had not the money for expensive promotions, he had been quietly hopeful that his steady competence under fire was finally being noticed and in the savage attrition of Lord Wellington’s war in the Iberian Peninsula, a promotion to major without purchase was not impossible.
It had changed when on a brief spell of leave in Cintra during winter quarters, he had met Barbara. She was twenty-one, the fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of a colonel of cavalry and he had tumbled into love with her without hesitation. He had been honest from the beginning about his limited prospects and had felt optimistic when she held his hand and told him that she did not care; that she was a soldier’s daughter and would go with him to seek his fortune.
He wondered afterwards if she had said the same thing to the cavalry major with whom she had also been conducting a flirtation. Major Cunningham had been amused at the pretensions of his rival and had made no secret of his contempt for Harker. When it had become obvious that Barbara had chosen the wealthier and better connected man, Harker had withdrawn as gracefully as he could and tried to wish her happy. He had not lost his temper until the rumours began to spread, quickly as they always did in the close-knit society of the army and with no kindness or sympathy for their victim. Miss Barbara Harrington had been sent home, her father embarrassed and her reputation in tatters, bearing the bastard child of the officer who had seduced her and then rejected her, claiming that the child was not his.
There was an evening reception, during those long months on the lines of Torres Vedras; lanterns hung in trees by the river and Cunningham laughing with his friends at Harker’s frozen fury. James Harker had never fought a duel in his life, but the memory of Barbara’s gentle blue eyes along with too much Portuguese wine had resulted in a dawn meeting, a blur of smoke and blood and Cunningham dying in the red dust.
Harker’s career was over and he knew it. He had faced the court martial as calmly as he could and had been surprised when the verdict had been postponed, pending the result of the storming of the citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo. Harker’s commanding officer had called him in and offered him a way out.
“There are three Forlorn Hopes going in,” he said. “It’s an honour to be chosen, men are fighting for it. I’ve the gift of one of them and I’m offering it to you.”
“Shut up, Captain, and listen. Your career is over. I doubt they’ll convict you of murder, but you know how Lord Wellington feels about duelling. You can resign your commission and go home in disgrace. Or you can take this chance and lead the Forlorn Hope. If you live, you can stay. Maybe not in this regiment, but we’ll find you something.” The colonel studied him. “You’re a bloody good officer, Captain Harker, and I’m gutted to lose you, but you were an idiot. That girl was a light skirt and not worth the sacrifice you made for her. I can’t do anything more for you…”
“I’ll take the chance, sir.”
It had been a suicidal risk and Harker knew it. The Forlorn Hope consisted of volunteers chosen to lead the way during the storming of a town or citadel. The chances of surviving death or injury was small, but for those who did, there was glory and possible promotion. In Harker’s case it would mean clemency and the opportunity to continue in the army. It was a chance.
Harker had taken it and had survived, against all odds. His reward, if it could be considered such, was a transfer to the quartermaster’s department. Harker had accepted it with grim resignation. On a good day, he dreamed of one day being able to transfer back into a line regiment. On a bad day he considered selling out.
Dodd was part of his penance. He was around the same age as Harker, a lanky copper haired Scot in his thirties. Harker had thought from the start that he was old for an ensign and had quickly realised that Dodd, like himself, had been shunted here to keep him out of the way. Andrew Dodd was an officer but not a gentleman. A former thief and talented forger from Jedburgh, he had been raised from the ranks after an act of conspicuous heroism at Albuera the previous year. Harker knew that most officers did not like serving alongside men raised from the ranks, who were from a different social class and often found it hard to fit in at the mess. They also found it hard to command their former comrades, many of whom resented being expected to call them ‘sir’. The accepted solution was often a posting which involved no direct command over troops in battle and the quartermaster’s department and commissariat boasted a number of men like Ensign Dodd.
If Dodd resented it, he gave no sign. Harker found him a surprisingly efficient administrator, who ran the depot well and as far as Harker could see, honestly. His attitude to Harker was one of benign tolerance, which Harker found infuriating, although he could find nothing to complain of. Dodd was a former NCO and had mastered the art of silent insolence.
In addition to his assistant, Harker commanded a small group of soldiers which included a sergeant with one eye, a corporal with one arm and five privates with a variety of disabilities. There was also a contingent of a dozen Portuguese soldiers commanded by a very young lieutenant who did sentry duty, guarding the stores. There were a number of depots around the town and all were vulnerable to theft and peculation but this one primarily stored food, drink and fodder for horses and livestock. The barrels of rum, ale and wine made it an attractive target to thieves and Harker checked on his sentries regularly and did not make the mistake of assuming them all honest.
Harker studied his ensign. He wondered if he should call Dodd out for his scruffy appearance. If an officer of his company had appeared on parade so poorly turned out, Harker would have been furious but here it did not seem to matter, especially in the scorching heat of high summer. He supposed it was a symptom of his depression that he could not bring himself to care how his ensign dressed or whether he bothered to shave or comb his hair.
While he was still considering it, a man appeared in the open doorway and stopped, apparently unsure as to whether he should come inside. Dodd looked around.
“Come in, laddie, and share the good news, we’re falling off our chairs with excitement here.”
The young ensign, who looked to Harker’s jaded eyes to be no more than seventeen, came forward, saluting to Harker. “Letter for you, Captain,” he said.
Harker took the letter with a smile of thanks and glared ferociously at Dodd who looked back with innocent green eyes. Harker broke the seal and scanned the letter, his heart sinking at the sight of his commanding officer’s handwriting which was so appalling that he dreaded Colonel Muir’s personal orders.
Dodd was watching with considerable amusement. Eventually he swung his feet to the ground, shoved them into his disgracefully dirty boots and got up.
“Want me to have a look for you, sir? I’ve had a lot of practice with the colonel’s handwriting.”
Harker handed it over reluctantly and Dodd studied it for a while. “Difficult,” he said finally. “It concerns a house by the eastern wall. Or what’s left of the eastern wall. They need more space for something…winded…worsted…no, I think it’s wounded. More space for the wounded, and they’re taking over some poor bugger’s home in order to shove the grubby bastards in there. There’s a whole paragraph about supplies and transport and then there’s a bit at the end which I can’t make out. Somebody’s name…might be Penny? Penrod? Penis…no, can’t be that. Peron, that’s it. And a word that I think he just couldn’t be bothered with, it starts with a C and goes on for miles. Does that help?”
He handed the letter back to Harker who looked at again. Irritatingly, it did help. Now that Dodd had given him the gist of it, he was able to interpret his colonel’s orders without too much difficulty.
“The medical board is setting up another convalescent hospital for the wounded coming in from Salamanca,” he said. “They’ve identified a suitable house, it belongs to a Señor Peron, who will be compensated for allowing the army to use it.”
“Eventually,” Dodd put in.
Harker glared at him and finished reading. “Colonel Muir wants me to take charge of getting it supplied and set up,” he said. “There’s a doctor – Marshall, it looks like – travelling up from Lisbon, to take over shortly.”
“Lucky bastard,” Dodd said. “Bet he’ll wish he’d stayed at home. Any idea what state this place is in?”
“None,” Harker said. “I’d better get over there and have a look.”
“Want me to come with you, sir?” Dodd enquired.
Harker eyed him. He was tempted to refuse out of sheer perversity, but he knew that with a job to be done, Dodd was actually quite useful and he had no idea how much work would be involved.
“All right,” he said. “Thank you, Ensign, tell the colonel I’ll keep him updated with progress.”
Harker and Dodd made their way through the narrow streets of Ciudad Rodrigo. It had been more than six months since the bloody storming had left the town in the hands of the Anglo-Portuguese army and some normality was finally beginning to return. Lord Wellington had left the garrisoning of the city to the Spanish, under the governorship of General Vives, and it had not been wholly successful. There was a shortage of ready money in all three armies, but it was particularly serious in the Spanish army and neither officers or men had been paid for many months.
The situation had been made worse by a French blockade of the city which had been raised in April. Many of the inhabitants had left, fearing another siege, and the officers were obliged to subsist on what rations were available, without the comforts of being billeted in local houses. Discontent had exploded into open mutiny and Lord Wellington had been obliged to delay his summer campaign until the cities of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been properly provisioned. Supply depots had been established, managed by the British, and Wellington had finally felt confident enough to march further into Spain. The people of Ciudad Rodrigo had gradually returned, and work had been started on repairing some of the damage of the bombardment, although the site of the breaches was still mostly rubble and many houses were either in ruins or surrounded by scaffolding as repairs were effected.
In addition to managing the army’s supplies, Harker’s department had some responsibility to the medical services. The surgeon-general, Dr McGrigor, had recently made changes to the accommodation for the wounded which allowed for more of them to be treated at a series of regimental hospitals and convalescent hospitals throughout the region, instead of being sent to Lisbon, and Harker supposed these orders were part of this initiative.
The house was a big square edifice in soft grey stone which seemed surprisingly undamaged by the recent bombardment. It had a huge arched doorway and three storeys, with balconied windows and elaborate stonework featuring what looked like stylised birds. At the rear a crumbling stone wall was in the process of being repaired, but it was possible for Harker to see a small but elegant garden with orange trees and trailing plants climbing over stone pillars.
“Very nice,” Dodd said approvingly as they walked round to the front door. “I’ll just bet Señor Peron is as sick as a dog about having to give this up to the medical board.”
“I hope Señor Peron has been informed, I’d rather not do that job myself,” Harker said.
The door was opened by a manservant who bowed slightly and led the two officers through an immense hallway with black and white tiles and an impressive staircase, and into what appeared to be an office of some kind. Harker removed his hat and looked at Dodd, who grinned and did the same.
“Señor Peron,” Harker began and then stopped, feeling remarkably foolish, as a woman stood up from the desk, which was in shadow, and came forward. It was clear that Colonel Muir’s handwriting had let him down again. “My apologies, Señora, I was informed…”
“My husband was killed during the bombardment,” the woman said. She spoke excellent English. “I am Sofia Peron; this house is now mine. I was expecting you, Captain, although not quite so quickly.”
Harker bowed. “I am sorry, Señora. This is a distasteful duty for me and must be so for you; I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. Naturally, I will comply with the orders of General Vives.”
Señora Peron came forward. She was still a young woman by her movements, dressed in deep black with her head covered with a black lace mantilla. In profile Harker suddenly realised she was very pretty with rich dark brown hair worn in a low chignon. She did not look more than twenty five or six. Then she came forward into the light which flooded through the open doorway and turned to face them fully and Harker heard Dodd catch his breath. He hoped desperately that he had not done the same, but it would hardly matter. His shock must have been written across his face.
The scar was a livid horror across the left side of her face, a huge gash running from her temple down as far as her jaw and onto her neck. It had healed to some degree, the redness beginning to fade, but a wound that long and deep was going to be permanent. On a man it would have been shocking; on a young and attractive woman it must feel like a tragedy. Harker sought for words but none came.
“Oh Jesus, lass, how did that happen?” Dodd said. He moved forward, to Harker’s shocked surprise, and raised his hand to turn the girl’s face so that he could study the injury. “It looks fairly recent.”
“It was during the siege. A bayonet. I do not remember very much.”
“Was that when your man died?”
She nodded. Harker had his mouth open to reprimand his wayward ensign but closed it again as he realised that Dodd, with his unpracticed manners had inadvertently done the right thing. She was smiling a little, suddenly more relaxed.
“You will become accustomed to seeing it, Ensign. But thank you for not running away, most people do.”
“If I could get my hands on the man who did that to you, he’d be dead,” Dodd said. “I’m so sorry. And about this invasion; you don’t need the commissary-general to be shoving you out of your home at a time like this. Do you have somewhere to go, you’ll not be wanting to stay here, an army hospital is no place for a lady?”
The girl’s face had softened even more. “Yes, I have a cousin who has just returned to the city, I will stay with her once the patients are here. But with your leave, I would like to remain until then, I have packing to do. We lost much in the siege but some things remain. Will you be staying here? With much work to do…forgive me you may have billets already. But there is space and my cook is good.”
Dodd looked over at Harker and Harker kept his face neutral with an effort. He knew his ensign was thinking of the billets they shared in the cottage attached to the stores; baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter and at night when they stopped up the badly fitting windows with whatever they could find. Cooking was over an ancient fireplace which smoked so badly it almost choked them and water was from a well, five minutes away. Harker looked around the elegant room.
“With your permission, like you, we will stay until the hospital is set up and the wounded begin to arrive,” he said instantly. “It may be two weeks…”
“Of course. I will tell my servants to prepare rooms for you. You may eat separately if you wish or you may dine with me?”
“We should be honoured,” Dodd said with surprising formality. “Thank you, ma’am.”
The Casa Peron was the most luxurious billet that Sandy Dodd had ever stayed in and he settled in with the instinctive enjoyment of a stray cur with pedigree lurking in his veins. During his years as an enlisted man he had slept where he could, on open ground often enough and in all weathers. His unexpected elevation to a commissioned officer had entitled him to better accommodation when it was available, but he was very low in the pecking order with no prospect of promotion and a job of unrelieved boredom. He was resigned to his fate but the prospect of two or three weeks of comfort under the roof of the charming Señora Peron was a welcome interlude and Dodd had learned to take such opportunities as they arose.
He was amused at how quickly Captain Harker had jumped at the chance of a comfortable bed, good food and hot baths and he liked him the better for it. Dodd barely knew his captain although he had made it his business to know everything about the circumstances of his posting to this miserable job. He had thought Harker a fool to throw away his career in a pointless defence of the honour of a woman who had left him for a wealthier man, but a few weeks of working with him had caused Dodd to revise his opinion somewhat. Harker was by no means the idealistic, upper class half-wit he had expected; he was a down-to-earth career soldier with a good brain who coped surprisingly well with Dodd’s deliberately provocative behaviour. Another man would have given Dodd a formal warning by now. Dodd knew all the rules of being an officer and did not find them especially hard to follow, he had some education and a razor sharp intelligence which he deliberately masked under a slouched posture and an unshaven face, but boredom made him behave badly.
The task of organising and stocking the new hospital at Casa Peron did not really require the full-time attention of two officers, but nor did the mundane routine of managing the stores. Both Harker and Dodd walked down to the office to put in a few hours and to keep an eye on the men, but Lieutenant Santos was painfully conscientious and the system Dodd had set up, ran itself. Unless there was a sudden and unexpected emergency which required large amounts of supplies to be sent out, there was little to do.
The Spanish garrison, in between talking about mutiny and writing letters of complaint to Lord Wellington, enjoyed an active social life, organising balls, picnics and musical evenings several times a week. As a British officer Dodd was invited, but seldom attended. He had become very adept at managing himself when called upon to behave like an officer and a gentleman but he knew that most of the other English officers who were in Ciudad Rodrigo for one reason or another looked down their noses at his lowly origins and it was not enjoyable to spend the evening waiting to be snubbed. Harker, for all his reserve, did not behave as though he considered himself above his company and Dodd appreciated that.
Señora Perón did not go out and did not invite visitors. Dodd was not sure if that was because of her recent widowhood or because of her self-consciousness about her scar. She seemed, however, to enjoy entertaining her two military guests at dinner and Dodd thanked God for the effort he had made to learn the manners of his new status. During the day, he and Harker made lists and wrote orders and requisitions and letters about the numbers and condition of the wounded to be expected. They inspected the big, airy rooms of the house and Harker found a local carpenter who began constructing rough wooden bunks. After a week, wagonloads of supplies began to arrive and Harker summoned three of the men from the stores to unload and to set up wards and an operating room. In the past, army hospitals had generally been thrown together as the surgeons arrived at the scene of battle but McGrigor was changing that and Dodd thought more men would survive because of his foresight.
Sofia Peron kept to her rooms initially but after a few days began to join them, not only for dinner, but to look in on their work during the day. She appeared one afternoon as the two men were standing at the open door to a cellar, peering down into the darkness with an oil lantern.
“I would not go down there, Captain,” she said. “We never use it. There was some damage during the siege, part of the ceiling came down. It did not affect the house much, this cellar runs under the garden. It is very damp; we use the cellar under the kitchen for storage.”
“Yes, I’ve been down there, Señora,” Harker said. “I’d like to have a look though; once the hospital is open there’ll be a lot of supplies and you can’t leave stuff lying around or the men will pilfer it. Even if they just use this one for the wine and rum, it would be useful. Can you get to it from the outside?”
“No,” Sofia said. “Come and see.”
Outside in the afternoon heat of the garden, Harker and Dodd inspected the damage. It looked as though a small building, possibly a tool shed, had existed over the cellar but it was a heap of rubble now where a shell had hit. Already it was partly covered by a brilliantly coloured creeper, lending beauty to the ruins. Dodd bent to pick up a stone thoughtfully, then tossed it back onto the pile.
“Not much point in trying to rebuild this,” he said. “What was it?”
Sofia shrugged. “A store. We used it for fodder for the horses.”
Dodd was looking up at the walls of the house. “You were lucky this whole wall didn’t come down, that must have been very close,” he said.
“It was very frightening.”
“You’re probably right about the cellar,” Harker said. “I might get one of the engineering officers to come over and look at that wall though, just to check that it’s safe.”
“Aye, it’d be a shame if they put them here to recover and the house falls on their head on a windy night,” Dodd said. “Want me to walk up and speak to Page? He’s supervising the work on the breaches at present.”
“Rather him than me,” Harker said. “Yes, would you, Mr Dodd? I’m going to walk down to the stores, see if there’s anything that needs doing in the office.”
Captain Page of the engineers visited Casa Peron the following morning and made a thoughtful inspection of the damage. “It’s probably all right,” he said. “I can’t see signs of cracking or subsidence. All the same, if it’s going to be used as a hospital, we ought to be sure. Can you get some men to clear this rubble out of the cellar for me? Bit of a pain if you have to haul it up the stairs, but it’ll give me a chance to have a proper look at the base of that wall. I suppose you could just move it to the opposite side of the room. I think it’s just the ceiling that came down and that outside structure; it probably didn’t have proper foundations, but we should make sure.”
“I don’t suppose there’s much chance of getting some Spanish labourers in here?” Dodd asked hopefully and Page gave a short laugh.
“If you can tell me how to get Spanish labourers to turn up for the work they’re being paid to do on the walls here, I’d be grateful,” he said. “I understand why Wellington doesn’t want to leave an English or Portuguese garrison here, but I’d give a lot for half a battalion of the line, this work would be done in a month. Sorry.”
“It’s all right, sir, I get it. We’ll get some of the Portuguese lads over to do it,” Dodd said with a grin. “The captain will probably want them to clear the rubble right out so that the cellar can be used for storage. I’ll let you know when it’s clear.”
Dodd had expected the work to be done within a few days. He had worked with Lieutenant Santos for some time now and had found his men hard-working, and willing to lend a hand with anything. After three days, however, he was able to report only limited progress to his exasperated captain.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with them,” he said. “They’re in and out of there every five minutes. It’s too cold, the air is foul, there’s not enough light, it’s making them feel ill…”
“Jesus Christ, if they can’t empty a cellar of rubble what the hell are they going to be like on campaign?” Harker said in some irritation.
“I’m told they were very good on campaign, sir, this lot fought at Sabugal and Fuentes, they’re not green troops. I gave them a bollocking yesterday but it’s started up again this morning. It’s going to take months at this rate.”
“Well it bloody can’t; I’ve just had a letter from the colonel, they’re expecting the first wounded in about ten days. I need to be able to tell him this place is safe. I’ll go down there myself with them.”
Leaving his captain to it, Dodd walked down to the stores and worked for an hour on some clothing orders. Arriving back at the casa he found the Portuguese soldiers milling around outside. Dodd took a deep breath, counted to ten, and approached.
“Sergeant, what the bloody hell is it now?”
Sergeant Gomes turned. “We have worked,” he said indignantly. “We have worked much today. Look.”
He indicated the area of the garden wall where Harker had instructed them to pile the rubble removed from the cellar. The pile had grown significantly; clearly Harker’s personal supervision had helped. “So what’s the hold-up now?” Dodd asked.
“It is the captain, Mr Dodd. He is injured.”
“Injured? How? Where is he?”
“Inside the house. The lady is tending to him.”
Dodd went inside. He found Harker in the parlour, seated in a big wooden armchair while Sofia Peron bathed his head which sported a nasty looking cut. Dodd saluted and came forward.
“What happened, sir?”
“A rock, I suppose. Must have fallen from the ceiling although God knows how. I didn’t see, just woke up on the ground with half a dozen of Santos’ men shrieking at me. They claim I passed out, but that doesn’t explain how I got this.” Harker touched the wound and winced.
“I will put a bandage around it,” the girl said.
“I don’t need one, thank you.”
“Captain, it is a deep cut, I insist…”
“I said no!”
Dodd jumped at Harker’s tone and saw the girl flinch. She stepped back immediately. “I am sorry,” she said, and picked up the bowl of water, leaving the room. Harker reached for the wine glass at his elbow and drank.
“Sir, there was no need for that,” Dodd said mildly. “She’s just trying to help.”
“Well it’s none of her damned business,” Harker snapped. “She should spend her time tending her house not interfering in the business of men. I’m going to lie down for an hour. Get those lazy bastards back to work.”
Dodd stared after his retreating back in complete astonishment. He had never yet heard Harker display anything other than impeccable manners to Sofia Peron and his captain never spoke to him in that tone although Dodd acknowledged that he probably deserved it at times. He could only assume that the blow had given Harker a severe headache. Shrugging, Dodd went to harry his workers into action.
It was the beginning of a very strange few days. Despite Dodd’s suggestion that he might be better to rest for a day or two, Harker returned to the cellar the following morning, harrying his Portuguese troops before him. Dodd saw no more of the men lounging about in the street outside the house or in the garden; Harker was a man possessed. Dodd could hear him from the rooms above, haranguing them if they stopped. Twice he went down and was ordered out in peremptory tones. At the end of the day, the men left for their billets, exhausted and dusty and oddly subdued.
At dinner, Harker barely spoke. He ate quickly and in silence and left the table without explanation, leaving Dodd to offer an embarrassed apology to their hostess. Sofia was also unusually quiet.
“I’m wondering if he’s not well,” Dodd said, searching for an excuse and also something of a reason, since Harker’s behaviour was puzzling him. “He’s never like this.”
“He should not be working in that cellar, Mr Dodd.” The girl’s warm brown eyes were curiously earnest. “Truly, it is not a good place. None of the men like to be down there. Can you not persuade him?”
Dodd shook his head. “Doesn’t look that way, he yelled me out of the room when I tried. Don’t look so worried, ma’am, at the rate they’re working now, he’ll be done in a couple of days and I can get Captain Page down to confirm that the wall is sound. After that we’ll be back to the stores and he can get over his headache and leave this to the medical board.” Dodd gave her a smile. “I shall miss dining with you, though.”
He had wondered if she would be offended, but she smiled back. “I also,” she said. “But I shall not be so far away. Will you visit me at my cousin’s house, Mr Dodd? I would like to know that you are well.”
“I’d like that very much, ma’am.” Dodd was startled, and ridiculously pleased. They had talked idly over dinner during these past weeks and Dodd had been very frank about his humble origins and his rise from the ranks, so he was sure that Sofia’s invitation was one of pure friendship, but he admitted to himself that a large part of his pleasure in these few weeks of comfort had been sitting down with her to dine.
Dodd stayed out of the cellar the following day and away from Harker. Whatever was ailing the man, it was probably best to let him finish the job and get the house cleared for use. Dodd spent the day supervising his men unloading a wagon convoy which had just arrived and logging the stores. He walked over to the Casa Peron later than usual, wondering if he had missed dinner. He had not seen any of the Portuguese troops back at the stores and he was astonished to find them lined up in the street outside the house, having evidently only just finished their labour for the day.
Dodd went to speak to Sergeant Gomes who was at their head. Close up, he realised that the man had been injured; there was a cut on his cheek and one eye was beginning to swell. It looked as though he had been in a fight.
“At ease, Sergeant. What happened to your face, don’t tell me you got in the way of falling masonry as well?”
Gomes’ turned an expression of tight-lipped anger towards him. “No, Mr Dodd. The captain punched me.”
“Punched you?” Dodd said, shocked. “You’re not serious.”
“Indeed, I am serious. He punched me three times because I stopped him from beating Rezendes. And then he pointed a pistol at us and told us he would shoot the next man to stop work. My men are exhausted. They are also frightened. Me, I am reporting this matter to Lieutenant Santos and he will tell the English colonel. It is not permitted to beat my men because they are Portuguese.”
“He’s not allowed to hit the men no matter where they come from,” Dodd said furiously. “He’s not allowed to bloody hit anybody apart from the French if they turn up. But look Sergeant – get them back, get them fed and get them calmed down. Speak to Mr Santos, by all means, he should know. But this isn’t Captain Harker, you know that. He’s not that kind of man; there’s something wrong. It started when he got that head wound, I think he’s injured his brain. Can you ask Mr Santos to speak to me before he reports this? Please?”
There was an injured silence, then Gomes gave a dignified nod. “I will wait one day,” he said. “But I do not think I can make them come here tomorrow.”
“Don’t even try. Do your sentry duty tonight and give these men the day off tomorrow, they’ve done enough. I’m going to find a way to get Captain Harker to a doctor. This is not right.”
Dodd found Harker back in the cellar. He had his back to the door and was surveying the remaining rubble. Dodd was astonished at how much work had been done; it was not surprising that the Portuguese were exhausted. The outside wall was almost completely exposed on one side and Dodd could see chinks of late sunlight from the garden shining through, lighting the dark, damp space.
“I think that’ll do, don’t you?” Dodd said. He was aware that he was forcing himself to sound casual. Even the set of Harker’s back was different somehow, with a sense of brooding anger. “I’ll get Page down in the morning to have a look and then I think we should board up that door. The wall looks solid to me, but we could still get rocks falling in from that ruined shed.”
“We’re not done,” Harker said. “I want the rest of it cleared by the end of tomorrow.”
Dodd took a deep breath. “We don’t need to do that, sir,” he said as calmly as he could. “Page can see enough of the wall and even I can see it’s undamaged. And if you try to clear any more, I think you’ll just bring down the rest of that damaged building and end up having to get builders in to make this weatherproof. Best leave it.”
“How dare you question my orders, Ensign,” Harker said softly. “When I want the opinion of a low-born piece of scum who has no right to hold an officer’s commission, I’ll ask. And I am not asking. Get out of here.”
Dodd stood very still. Part of him wanted to tell Harker exactly where to go in language which was definitely unbecoming in an officer and a gentleman but he bit back his instinctive response. Instead, he said formally:
“On my way, sir. I’m going to walk up to find Major Dawlish, since the colonel has gone to Lisbon, because I need to speak to him before Mr Santos reports you for beating his men. I’m going to tell him that I think you’re unwell, probably due to that head injury, and that I think you should be temporarily relieved of you duties until a doctor has seen you. You might want to go and have a lie down in the meantime.”
He turned towards the door and Harker swung around. “Halt!”
Dodd halted instinctively and then wished he hadn’t. Harker was coming forward and Dodd turned to face him. In the dim light of the cellar he could see that Harker’s face was pale, with beads of perspiration on his forehead and Dodd felt an unwilling sympathy; the man was so clearly not well. Harker was coming close; closer than Dodd liked, given that his commanding officer was clearly unhinged. He waited, standing to attention but balanced, ready to move if he was attacked.
“You go anywhere near Major Dawlish, Ensign, and I will kill you with my bare hands,” Harker said very quietly and Dodd believed him. He had been staring at a chink of light over Harker’s shoulder but now he shifted his gaze to Harker’s face, meeting his eyes and felt his entire body go cold, chilled in a way he had never experienced before.
They were not Harker’s eyes.
Up in his room, Dodd took out a brandy bottle and poured a large measure with shaking hands. He could not exactly remember how he had got here although he was very sure he had not waited to be dismissed. Crossing the room he shot the bolt on the door. It was a small brass bolt, not particularly strong and it would not keep out a madman intent on murder but it would give Dodd some warning and at the moment he found any barrier between him and the thing he had seen in the cellar a comfort. He gulped down the brandy and poured another.
He had hoped, away from Harker, to be able to laugh at himself. In the dim cellar it was possible that he had mistaken the change in his captain’s eyes; a trick of the light changing brown to black. But it had been more than a change in the colour. Dodd could not explain to himself what he had seen but he knew that he had not imagined the sense of other, of wrongness that had made him turn tail and run from whatever had taken the place of his well-mannered, good-natured officer. No matter how hard he tried to tell himself that Harker’s behaviour was the result of his head injury, Dodd no longer believed it.
Dodd was not a superstitious man. He had been raised by his mother, a level-headed, hard-handed border housewife with no time to spin fairy tales or ghost stories to her small son, but he had absorbed his share of the local folklore and as a boy he had once spent a freezing night in the ruins of Crawleigh Abbey with three friends hoping to hear the chants of ghostly monks who had died violently in the depredations of the sixteenth century. As an adult he would have shrugged his shoulders when asked if he believed in ghosts; he had never seen one in all his years in the army, surrounded by violent death, but he had sometimes thought, marching through villages ransacked and slaughtered by the retreating French, that such places should never be occupied again but left to the spirits of those who had died. It was a fanciful notion and did not sit well with Dodd, who was by nature a survivor.
Whatever had happened in that dark, airless cellar, Dodd was beginning to think that his captain was not the only one to sense it. From the start, the men sent down there had rebelled at their task and it had puzzled Dodd, who knew how reliable Lieutenant Santos’ men usually were. For the first time he wondered what had really happened on the day Harker had been injured.
Dodd took out his pocket watch and realised, irritated, that it had stopped; he had forgotten to wind it. Looking at the light, he guessed that by now the men would be cooking and eating their evening meal and he wanted to catch them all together before they separated for guard duty. Getting up he set down his empty glass and went to open the door cautiously. The house was quiet although Dodd could smell food as he went down the stairs. He suspected that his captain had not even left the cellar; whatever was haunting him was down there and he seemed unable to leave it. In the hall he encountered Elisa, the housekeeper, and warned her that he might be late for the meal, suggesting that Señora Peron eat without him. He did not mention Harker; he thought it very unlikely his captain would be interested in food.
Dodd found Sergeant Gomes in the office with his lieutenant. Both looked grave and Dodd knew they had been talking about Harker. Santos eyed him enquiringly.
“Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it’s weird,” Dodd said without preamble. “I thought it might be a brain injury, they can take a man strangely, I’d a corporal got shot in the head at Talavera who thought he could fly and it didn’t end well. But there’s something even stranger about Captain Harker. What I do know is it’s not his fault, he’s not a man to abuse his position and he’s never spoken to me like this.”
“He is possessed by the devil,” Gomes said flatly.
Dodd was startled; it was so close to his own wild imaginings. He stared at Gomes and realised to his surprise that the man was completely serious. “What makes you say that?”
“I have seen it in his eyes. He is a different man. He walks differently, he speaks differently, he even stands differently. And his eyes are full of evil. I will not take my men back there tomorrow, I do not care if they arrest me for mutiny.”
“You shouldn’t. And you won’t get into trouble, I’m going to talk to Major Dawlish. I think the captain might be ill. What happened the day he hurt his head? You were there, weren’t you. He said a stone fell.”
“No stone fell,” the sergeant said. “It could not have, we were moving them carefully and besides, he was standing on the other side of the room, away from the damaged ceiling. He fainted. I heard him cry, I thought he may have suffered a stroke or his heart…he hit his head when he fell. But he was angry when we told him he fainted.”
“So something happened to him in that room which made him faint. The head injury came after.”
“Yes, sir. My men say the room is haunted. They hear noises even when they are silent. It is a bad room.”
“They should stay away from it,” Dodd said firmly. “No need to go back, the work is done. But will you leave it to me to speak to the major? The captain needs help, not arresting.”
“I will, Mr Dodd. But you should be careful too.”
Dodd thought of the madness in the black eyes. “I will,” he promised. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
Back at the house, Dodd was conscious of a curious reluctance to enter. His cold, damp room back at the store seemed oddly inviting. He was relieved when Elisa brought him the news that Harker would not be dining but that her mistress hoped that he would join her. Dodd washed quickly and changed his shirt. His sojourn at the Casa Peron had improved his personal habits considerably. He found Sofia already at the table and they ate initially in silence, which Dodd found oddly companionable.
Eventually, Sofia said:
“Mr Dodd, is something wrong?”
Dodd set down his fork. His usually good appetite seemed to have vanished this evening and he was aware that he was toying with his food. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m poor company this evening.”
“Are you worried about Captain Harker?”
Dodd nodded. “Yes. He isn’t well. I am going to speak to his commanding officer tomorrow which I am not looking forward to, since he disapproves of men raised from the ranks and practically holds his nose when he’s talking to me. But I have to do something. Have you seen the captain today?”
Sofia shook her head. “No. But Elisa told me there was a fight in the cellar. She was worried.”
“It’s so unlike him, ma’am.”
“I know, Mr Dodd, he has changed these past days. If you would like, I will come with you to speak to the major. His manners may be better if I am there.”
Dodd felt his heart lift at the gesture. He knew by now, how much Sofia hated being seen out of the house and he was infuriated that she was being forced from her home by the exigencies of the medical board. “Ma’am, I can’t ask you to do that, but it’s very kind of you,” he said. “I can ignore the major’s manners as long as he can get some help for the captain. Would you mind if I asked you a very personal question? What happened to your husband?”
Sofia was silent for a very long time. Dodd shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
“No, it is all right. Have you finished your meal? Will you come with me?”
Dodd followed her across the hall. She paused to pick up a lamp from the table and Dodd took it from her and lit their way into a room he had not entered before. It was full of boxes and as Sofia lit several candles from his lamp and set them in a candelabra on a table, he realised Sofia must be using this as a store room for the things that needed to be conveyed to her cousin’s house.
“I have a carter coming tomorrow to take these to Emilia’s house,” Sofia said. “Over here are some furniture and paintings I do not wish to keep; they are going to Señor Herata who will sell them for me. This, I do not know what to do with since I do not wish to take it with me but I cannot offer it for public sale; people will think ill of me and there are already whispers enough. This was my husband, Mr Dodd, it was painted just a year before his death.”
Dodd looked at the portrait which was leaning against the wall. Peron looked as though he had been in his late thirties when it was painted, a handsome man with black hair, dressed in dark clothing. The artist had been skilled and had captured an expression which made Dodd catch his breath slightly. He lifted the lantern and looked more closely and felt his stomach clench in horror.
“Mother of God, those eyes,” he breathed.
“I dream of them sometimes,” Sofia said in matter-of-fact tones. Dodd turned to look at her. He was not surprised; the eyes were likely to give him nightmares.
“Let’s get out of here, I’ve no wish to look at this, and I’m guessing you haven’t either,” he said. Sofia nodded and led him silently to the small parlour she used in the evenings. It was very bare now, stripped of all decoration, with just a sofa and two small tables left. Wooden bunks leaned against the wall awaiting their occupants. But a fire had been lit and wine and glasses set out and Dodd poured for them both and sat, watching her. The firelight played on the undamaged side of her face.
“I thought the English did that to your face and it’s kept me awake wondering what else they did to you,” Dodd said abruptly. Sofia shook her head.
“I allowed you to think it,” she said. “Easier than telling the truth. We were married for five years and he beat me regularly, but he did this just before the bombardment. We had French officers billeted on us, as you can imagine. My husband hated it, not because he hated the French; he made a good profit selling wine to the French officers. But he hated any man speaking to me and it was impossible not to. They were here for over a year and I liked them. I did not like that they invaded my country and I disliked what some of the men did to my city when General Herrasti had to surrender. But they were cultured men with good manners and I was starved of company. My husband was very jealous, he would not allow me to have friends or go out very much. But he could do nothing about our guests. I became friendly with one in particular, Captain Matthieu. Just friends, you understand. When the San Francisco convent was taken, it was looking very likely that the English would storm the town soon. He did not know if he would live or die or be taken prisoner and he came back to say goodbye to me. He kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for my kindness then he left.
“I did not know that Felipe was there and had been watching. He was furious; he accused me of betraying him, said I had been playing the whore with all the French officers. I tried to reason with him but I think he was mad. Then he took a weapon from under the bed; he had kept it there in case the troops ran wild. He slashed my face with the bayonet; he said he would make sure no man would want me again.”
“Oh bloody hell,” Dodd said. He reached for her hand instinctively and she did not draw back. “That spiteful bastard. No wonder you don’t want that portrait. Leave it where it is and I’ll burn it for you.”
Sofia smiled. “I will. Thank you. I have told nobody else the truth although the servants know. If they have gossiped, I am unaware of it. I was very ill, the pain was terrible. Elisa nursed me. I remember little of the end of the siege, but I know that some of the troops rioted. There was some damage to the rooms downstairs, but two British officers with some of their men came here. Elisa told them about me and they remained in the house with their pistols and swords and stopped anybody else from coming in or troubling me. Only Felipe…”
“How did he die?” Dodd asked.
“He was in the cellar. It was badly damaged in the bombardment. To this day I have no idea why he was down there; it makes no sense. Perhaps he was hiding. But they found him there in the first rush, before the officers came. Jorge – Elisa’s husband – said they beat him, trying to make him tell them where his money and valuables were hidden. He had removed everything of value before the first invasion including all my jewellery. I never found out where. He told them nothing although they tortured him. When the officers arrived and drove out the drunken soldiers, he was already dead. They did not allow me to see the body and to tell you the truth, I had no wish to.”
Dodd moved closer and put his arms about her, seeing the sparkle of tears in the brown eyes. He no longer cared about propriety or about the differences in their stations, he wanted only to comfort her in her distress. Sofia rested her head against him and they sat like it for a long time, watching the fire until it began to die a little.
“Go to bed, lass,” Dodd said finally, very gently. “Tomorrow, I’ll get some help, and we’ll get poor Harker out of here if I have to knock him unconscious to do it. And I am going to escort you personally to your cousin’s house. It’s time you were out of here, you’ve nothing to stay for. Let the medical board do what they want with it. Come on, up you go.”
Dodd escorted her to the door of her room, oddly shy with her after the intimacy of that hour in the parlour. In the hallway he debated briefly with himself about knocking on his captain’s door and decided against it. He could do nothing tonight and Harker might be better for some sleep. Back in his own room, preparing for bed, Dodd admitted to himself that a large part of his reasoning was sheer cowardice; he had no wish to face whatever lurked behind Harker’s eyes in the dead of night. Tomorrow, in daylight, he would regain his courage.
Dodd slept lightly and had not fully undressed for reasons that he had not cared to explore, so the sound of heavy footsteps outside his room on the wooden boards awoke him. He lay still for a moment, listening. He had assumed Harker to be in bed earlier and it might have been true, but somebody was up and moving about and he did not think it was Sofia. The tread did not sound like Harker, although Dodd could not have said why, but he remembered suddenly what Gomes had said about Harker walking differently and he sat up and swung his legs over, reaching for his boots. He would not have chosen to confront Harker in the early hours, but if Harker was walking about the house, Dodd needed to make sure he did not encounter Sofia or one of the servants. His logical brain told him that no ghost, if that was what was affecting Harker, could turn his captain into a murderer, but then he remembered the bruises on his sergeant’s face and was not as sure.
There was no sign of Harker or anybody else in the hall. Dodd stood still, in shirtsleeves, his elderly pistol in his hand, listening. He wondered if Harker had gone downstairs; it had been difficult to tell the direction of the footsteps. There had been no sound of the heavy front door opening; it creaked badly and was unmistakable, but Harker might have gone back to the cellar. Or he might only just have left it and have returned to his room. Dodd looked at the closed door, trying to decide whether to knock.
He was still undecided when he heard Sofia scream.
It was a shrill sound, cut off abruptly, but Dodd was running before it ended. He had never been into Sofia’s room at the far end of the corridor but he knew which it was. The door was not fully closed and Dodd threw it open. The room was very dark, but he could make out the shapes on the bed, Harker kneeling over Sofia, his hand clamped over her mouth. He was speaking to her very softly but with a vicious undertone that was unmistakable. The voice sounded nothing like Harker’s pleasant tones and he was speaking in Spanish.
Outside there was a breeze which lifted the long drapes at the open window a little. It must have driven a cloud in its path because suddenly there was light, spilling across the bed in melting silver, a half moon above the town. It glinted off the silver of a blade and Dodd felt light-headed with horror as he realised that Harker was holding it to the unmarked side of Sofia’s face. He could see her eyes, wide with terror, staring at his captain. Dodd hesitated for a long agonising moment; he could shoot but he was not a crack shot and the pistol was inclined to throw to the left, unimportant in battle but potentially lethal to the woman in the bed. Harker’s tirade went on. Dodd knew enough Spanish to shop for food and understand if he was being cheated but he had no idea what Harker was saying. The threat was obvious though and Dodd took a deep breath, shifted his aim, and fired above Harker’s head.
The sound was appallingly loud in the darkness of the bedroom, but it had the effect Dodd had hoped. Harker jumped and turned. Seeing Dodd in the doorway he got up from the bed and moved around it.
“It is good that you are here; I was coming to seek you next,” he said, and Dodd was chilled by the voice; it was heavily accented and it was not Harker’s. Dodd looked into his eyes and saw it again, the alien creature looking out of a familiar face. He felt the sudden cold again, not coming from his own fear as he had thought previously, but emanating from the man moving towards him, as though evil had brought an unnatural chill to the entire room. Harker’s features were twisted with hatred, his mouth a slash of fury, and he was holding a long bladed knife.
Dodd moved fast. Having come late to swordplay, he would have been no match for Harker in a fencing bout, but he had learned his fighting skills in the taverns and gutters of Jedburgh and Edinburgh and Harker was not the first man to pull a knife on him. He charged in towards his captain, ignoring the hand holding the knife and rammed him fully in the midriff with his lowered head. Harker gave a whoosh of surprise and collapsed to the ground, the breath knocked out of him. The knife hit the floor with a clatter and Dodd dived for it, snatching it up and throwing it out of the room, well out of Harker’s reach. Harker lay winded, his breath coming in whoops as he struggled to recover.
“Sofia, here,” Dodd yelled, and she moved, scrambling across the bed and to his side in a tangle of bedsheets and white linen. Dodd caught her and pushed her out of the room, then slammed the door shut. He had no way of locking it from the outside and could not spare the time searching for something to jam it. Catching Sofia’s hand he ran to the stairs and took them at breakneck speed, his brain trying to catch up with his body.
“The kitchen cellar – we’ve put a strong lock on it to deter thieves. Come on.”
The key, mercifully, was still in the door, and Dodd dragged Sofia inside, holding her firmly on the dark stairs while he fumbled to find the lock and turned the key. Carefully they made their way down. Dodd positioned her by a row of barrels and went in search of light. There was no natural light in the room and Harker had placed tinderbox and candles on a shelf near the stairs in case a lamp blew out unexpectedly while somebody was collecting supplies. Dodd’s hands were shaking so much it took a long time to manage a spark but finally he lit two candles and fixed them in melted wax on the shelf then went to Sofia and took her into his arms. She was sobbing and shivering and it was several minutes before he could make any sense of what she said.
“It was my husband,” she said finally, when she had calmed a little. “It was Felipe. His voice. His eyes. He said the words he said to me before, when he cut me. Then he called me an English whore who slept with scum. He saw us embracing, in the parlour, he must have been there. He was going to kill me.”
“Sofia, your husband is dead,” Dodd said, and knew it was a stupid thing to say given what had just happened.
“I know he is dead. But he is here. He was there. I know his voice. You heard him speak.”
“I know that what I just heard wasn’t my captain,” Dodd said. “Something happened in that cellar where he died, Sofia. Something of him was still there. That’s what felt so bad down there. That’s what our Portuguese men could sense. And somehow – Christ knows how or why – that’s what’s got into Harker’s head. And I don’t know what to do about it other than to kill him.”
“You cannot,” Sofia said. “They will hang you, for how could you tell them this? Who would believe you?”
“Even I don’t believe me; this sounds like a bad gothic novel. And I’ve no wish to hurt the captain; I like him.”
“I like him also. But if I must choose between his life and yours, I will choose yours.”
Dodd looked at her in complete astonishment. He had barely thought about the situation they found themselves in but he saw her suddenly, the thick hair loose around her shoulders, the brown eyes wide on his face. She was wearing a linen shift which fell loosely to just below her knees and he suspected nothing else, and she was close enough for him to catch a whiff of the perfume she wore. Dodd felt a completely inappropriate desire to take her into his arms and he had the strong impression that she would not push him away. He fought a brief battle with himself and was somewhat surprised when his recent, superficially imposed status as a gentleman won.
“Thank you,” he said gently, reaching out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “But if he threatens you again, I will kill him. Look – I need you to stay here. Lock the door behind you. I have to go and find him.”
“No. You cannot, Andrew. Because if that is truly my husband, he will kill you.”
“It isn’t. That’s a decent man called James Harker who’s had a really shitty year or two. Whatever’s happened to him, he doesn’t deserve it. Find something to keep you warm, there’s a pile of blankets around somewhere, this is an army hospital. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
There was no sign of Harker. Arming himself with an unloaded musket, which would be useful as a club and also had a bayonet, Dodd went back up to Sofia’s room, but Harker had gone. He checked his own room and then Harker’s. The bed had not been slept in. Dodd knew, with sick certainty, where he would find Harker. He went back downstairs, collected and lit a closed lantern and made his way through to the second cellar.
The door was wide open and he could hear sounds from within. Cautiously Dodd made his way down the wooden stairs, setting the lamp down on one of the steps. Harker did not turn. He was at the pile of rubble, lifting blocks of stone, one at a time and throwing them to one side. Dodd stood watching him for a long time. Suddenly he understood.
“It’s still there,” he said, conversationally. “They didn’t find it. A couple of our officers and some sober men turned up soon afterwards and stood guard, kept them away from your wife and the servants. Ironic to think that if you’d done what any decent man would have and put your lassie before your money, they’d have protected you too. I’d like to find out who they were, those lads. But you were down here trying to get to whatever you had stashed away, when those drunken bastards found you. Whatever they did to you, I hope it hurt as much as what you did to her.”
Harker picked up another stone and threw it aside. “She is my wife. She betrayed me. It was my right to chastise her.”
“We’ll you won’t be chastising anybody else,” Dodd said. “You’re dead. You’re not real, you’re not here and you’re not doing him any more harm.”
He felt a sense of unreality in talking to a man he knew to be dead, but something in his words finally seemed to reach Peron. The dusty figure straightened and turned and Dodd felt sick at the sight, once again, of the dead man’s features superimposed on the face he knew and liked.
“You can do nothing to stop me,” Harker said.
“Yes, I bloody can,” Dodd said, and swung the butt of the musket. It caught his captain squarely and Harker went down like a stone. Dodd waited for a moment then approached cautiously, ready to fight, but Harker was unconscious. Dropping the gun, Dodd bent and hauled him up, swearing fluently at his height and slung him over his shoulders. Harker was heavy and getting him upstairs was a difficult and painful but desperation lent Dodd a strength he had not known he had. He did not put his captain down until they were outside the house in the street.
It was beginning to get light, the first faint fingers of dawn stretching lazily across the midnight blue of the sky. Dodd dragged Harker into the shadow of some bushes and ran back into the house to find rope. He had no idea what effect being knocked out would have on Harker, but he did not trust that removing him from the house would get rid of Peron’s malignant presence; Harker had shown signs of the shadowing even back at the stores.
He secured Harker and then went to release Sofia and to rouse Elisa and her husband, who slept in a small annexe and appeared to have heard nothing of the drama. They emerged, bewildered and sleepy and Dodd ruthlessly silenced their questions and sent Elisa to help Sofia to dress and pack, instructing her to take her mistress to her cousin’s house and stay with her. Keeping a wary eye on Harker, who was showing signs of stirring, Dodd wrote a scribbled note to Lieutenant Santos and sent Jorge off at speed to bring a cart and a strong escort to get his captain back to his billet.
It was light by the time Dodd returned to the cellar, armed with a spade he had retrieved from the garden shed. There was little left of the pile of rubble in the corner and Dodd worked quickly to move it, aware all the time of a growing tension. The air in the room was thick and heavy in a way that made it hard to breathe, and he had a sense that speed was essential.
He saw it suddenly under his hands, a rough shape in the earthen floor. The cellar was not tiled or boarded but the earth was packed hard and smooth over the years, all except this one rectangular shape of looser earth, differently coloured as though it had been turned over. Dodd wiped his forehead on his sleeve, shoved back his damp hair, reached for the spade and dug it hard into the ground.
Something caught his eye immediately and at the same time the atmosphere in the room exploded, a sense of pure rage filling him up, causing him to drop the spade and spin around. He saw it, not exactly a man, but a sense of darkness that was somehow man shaped, swirling and moving in the dim light as if, horribly, it was struggling to find form. Dodd fell back against the cold stone wall feeling sick with fear, staring at the trembling mass which grew thicker and darker with every moment. He could almost feel its fury and with it, a sense of evil, gloating triumph. And then, petrified, he watched it gather itself and come towards him at a rush, engulfing him with icy cold. He knew what was happening as he began to fall, knew that this was what had happened to Harker that day in this place, knew that with no warning, his captain could have done nothing to resist.
Dodd was not sure that he could either, but he had to try. He dragged himself to his knees, seeing nothing in the swirling, oily darkness which surrounded him, reeking of decay. Coughing and retching, he got to his feet, bent over, fighting to remain conscious. When he heard the voice, he was terrified to realise that it was not in the room beside him but inside his head.
“You shall not have what is mine.”
“Yes, I will, you bastard!” Dodd yelled. “I’ll find the money and I’ll see that she gets it, since it’s hers by right. And within a year, she’ll have forgotten what you looked like.”
“You shall not have what is mine.”
It was filling him up, an inky blackness pouring into his mind and into his soul. He fought against it, scrabbling frantically for memories that were his and his alone, that held nothing of Peron. He could not think of Sofia nor of Harker; both were in Peron’s consciousness.
Suddenly it came, easily and clearly, a freezing cold day, stripped to the waist and shivering, his hands tied to a wooden frame and the voice of his first sergeant, a fierce highlander, close to his ear.
“Well boy, now’s the time we find out what you’re made of. We already know you’re bloody stupid, robbing an officer and getting caught. No wonder you got caught and sent to the army, you’re a bloody useless thief. What I want to know now, is are you enough of a man to take your punishment without squealing like a baby? Stand up straight and act like a soldier of the 48th, boy, and we might make something of you yet.”
It had steadied him and he had endured, gritting his teeth as the lash fell again and again until his back was bloody. He had stood when finally they cut him down and he had walked away without help although he wanted to cry. The expression on Sergeant Fraser’s face had made it worthwhile and he had thought afterwards that his real life as a soldier began that day.
Dodd drew on it now, feeling once again the combination of fear and pain and angry, stubborn pride. Physically he could not fight the presence but mentally he bore down with every inch of his native border obstinacy, pushing back against the encroaching darkness and finding, unexpectedly, that it yielded a little. Taking hope, he put his hand on the wall, forcing himself to straighten up, and thought about the bloody horror of Albuera, the misery of his weeks in the army hospital and the shock and pride at being told that he was being given an officer’s commission for his furious defence of his wounded captain on the battlefield. He remembered the first time he had put on the slightly shabby second hand uniform and strapped on the sword he had bought at auction and the moment his former sergeant had saluted him and called him sir.
Suddenly the darkness receded, not slowly but in a rush, like a wave on the beach, dragged out to sea again. Dodd stood, winded and shaking, still with the faint scent of death in his nostrils, but he was still himself.
Eventually Dodd moved, painfully. There was still one more thing to do and he was determined to do it now. If he left it, his courage would fail him and he would not come back into this room again. He could not risk another taking on the task, partly because he could not trust their honesty but mostly because he was not sure that Peron would not make the attempt with another man and succeed.
Dodd flinched as he began to dig again, waiting for a renewal of the onslaught, but there was nothing. The air was clear again and the earth moved fairly easily and he found it within minutes, a wooden chest. It was very heavy and locked. Dodd hoisted it onto his shoulder and went up the stairs into the tiled hallway. He took the chest through into the kitchen and set it down on the table, then went for tools and levered it open. He had expected it to contain money and Sofia’s jewellery and both were there, but there was more money that Dodd had expected or ever seen in his life. He tipped one bag of gold coins out onto the table and looked at it, his mind unable to grasp how much was there. It came to him, from force of habit, that Sofia would have no idea how much was here and that just one bag of this would secure his future. Then he put the coins back in the bag and put it back in the chest, closing the lid on temptation. It occurred to him as he picked up the box, that if the day of his flogging had been the real start of his army career, today might well be the first real day of his life as an officer and a gentleman. The thought both pleased and amused him, and he carried the chest through the streets to Sofia with surprising lightness of heart.
Harker was awake and sitting up in bed when Dodd returned. He watched as his ensign brought wine for them both and then examined the dark bruise coming up on his temple.
“Are you all right, sir? Sorry, I hit you a bit hard. I needed you to stay out.”
“I’m just grateful you didn’t put a bullet in my brain,” Harker said, taking the glass. “Santos wanted to call the doctor but I told him not to. I’m fine, just a bit battered. And more tired than I’ve ever been in my life.”
“How much do you remember?” Dodd asked, sitting down beside him.
“All of it, I think. I mean I was there. It was like watching a play, a horrible play, with myself as a character. Some of the things I said and did…Dodd, I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t you, sir.”
“I couldn’t stop him. But Señora Peron…is she all right?”
“She is, sir. I’ve just come from her. Shaken but well. She’s a brave girl.”
“She is,” Harker said. He was studying his ensign. “Sandy – he did that to her. I did that to her.”
“No, you didn’t, sir. They’re his memories, not yours. And I know, she told me.”
“Tell me what I don’t know,” Harker said. He knew that he would have to tell his own story but he was almost too tired to speak. He lay back, sipping an excellent red wine and listening as Dodd described his own part in the events of the past week. There was something cathartic about hearing the story told in Dodd’s dry Scottish accent. His description of the scene in Sofia’s bedroom made Harker feel slightly sick.
“If you’d not come in, I might have killed her,” he said, when it was over.
“Don’t think about it, sir, it had nothing to do with you.”
“It might have,” Harker said quietly. He had been thinking about it, lying with nothing to do. His mind, which had been full of horror for days, was unexpectedly clear now. “Not that I’d any wish to harm that girl. But perhaps there was a reason he chose me. Perhaps, somehow, I let him in.”
He told his story, as well as he could remember it. It was odd to recount, since he was telling it from two perspectives, but he found Dodd a surprisingly good listener. When the tale was told, Dodd said:
“None of it was your fault, sir.”
“No, it wasn’t. But I think I made a very good host.”
“No, it isn’t. Shut up and let me talk, Dodd, I need to. The worst part about this was…some of the time, I sort of understood. He was jealous. Madly, insanely jealous. And I knew how that felt. It’s been eating me up.”
“I’m very sure you know the full story of how I came to be here, Dodd. You’ll have made it your business to find out. I killed a man in a duel. It happens. It was bloody stupid. But what has bothered me ever since is why I did it. I know why I fought him.”
“So do I, sir. He was a shit who seduced the girl you loved and then laughed about it.”
“He did. But he shouldn’t have died for that. I could have winged him, I’m a damned good shot.”
“Are you, sir? I could do with some lessons, I’m bloody terrible.”
Harker was laughing. “Shut up, you Scottish bastard, I’m baring my soul here. For the first time, I’ve realised I killed him because I wanted to. In that moment. Because I wanted her so badly – and he had her. I was jealous and it sent me mad. And that’s what I felt from Peron. When I walked in on you two in the parlour, he wanted to kill you both. And I understood why.”
Harker saw, to his delight, a slight flush on Dodd’s fair skin. “I was just comforting her, sir. And I…”
“Oh bollocks, Dodd, I’ve been watching you for weeks, you adore her. I didn’t realise until that evening that she felt the same. It terrified me because I could feel his rage and I couldn’t warn you.”
“It’s all right, sir.”
“Yes,” Harker said, surprised. “It is. I can’t change what I did, but I don’t need to let it rule the rest of my life. Don’t you have to ask my permission to get married, by the way?”
Dodd laughed aloud. “How the bloody hell did you know?”
“Your face when you walked in here. You look stunned. Did she ask you?”
“Yes,” Dodd admitted. “She told me that she did not think I would. Because of her status and the money.”
“I hope you’ve said yes.”
“I could hardly say no, sir. And I didn’t want to.”
“Good. What are we going to do about the house? The hospital.”
“Nothing,” Dodd said positively. “I’ll get Page down to confirm that it’s safe. I won’t leave him in that room, I’ll drag him out the second it’s done. Then we’re going to nail that door shut and brick it up. I don’t know if Peron is still there or if removing the treasure got rid of him; it’s what he was obsessed with. But that room is where he died and that’s where this came from; we’d both been in the house for two weeks with no ill effects. I’m not worried about the medical board, they’ll be too busy for ghosts I’m going over shortly to supervise the carrier who is moving Sofia’s possessions out of there. She can stay with her cousin and we’ll look for a house in town; it shouldn’t be hard, they’re running like rats.”
“Is that what it was? A ghost?”
“It was something. Neither of us made that up; I don’t have the imagination. Something of that evil bugger she married was left in that room. I’m going to make sure it never gets out again.”
“Did she know about the money?”
“She’d no idea. At least, she was aware there must be some, but not that she’d inherited a fortune. God knows what he did to come by that much, I’ve a suspicion that I don’t want to know, he was a wicked bastard.”
“Are you going to sell out?” Harker asked.
“No,” Dodd said definitely, surprising Harker. “I’m a soldier. An officer, in fact. I didn’t buy this commission, but do you know what? I can afford to buy the next one. And the one after. Sofia wants me stay in and fight for her country, and I’m bloody going to.”
Harker felt a rush of pleasure. “Good,” he said. “Although, Dodd…”
“If you’re after promotion, you’re going to need to remember to clean your boots.”
His ensign grinned. “Och, don’t worry about it sir. I’ll be able to afford a servant to do that for me. I’ll get him to do yours too, if you like?”
“Piss off, Ensign,” Harker said, and Dodd laughed, saluted, and left Harker to sleep.
Book Five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due out on kindle on November 30th and in paperback at the end of the year.