A family reunion, 1812 is an excerpt from A Redoubtable Citadel, book four of the Peninsular War Saga. I was asked as part of #HistFicXmas 2023 to describe my happiest family scene in the books. There a few lovely scenes between Paul and his family but this one is probably my favourite. It’s the first time Anne has met her older step-children and her in-laws and I think it gives an interesting picture of what kind of relationship they’re all going to have. It is also a lovely moment between Paul and his father.
Lisbon, February 1812
They arrived at the villa shortly after noon. They had travelled at an easy pace, giving Paul’s wound a chance to heal and were greeted at the door by Mario who ran the household and who emerged shouting orders in Portuguese about luggage and horses.
“Mario, it’s good to see you. It’s been a while.”
“Too long, Colonel. You look well and your lady is as beautiful as ever. And a new little one.”
“This is William, Mario, and be thankful he’s asleep because he is very noisy.”
“He looks like his father, Señora.”
“Is my family here, Mario?” Paul asked.
“They are, Colonel. Señor van Daan is in the courtyard.”
“We’ll go straight through and then Nan can take Will up and get him settled with his nurse.”
“Yes, Colonel. I will make sure they are unpacking.”
Paul walked through into the courtyard with Anne beside him. There was a man sitting at the table reading. He looked up and then rose and Paul stopped very suddenly.
“Father. Oh Christ, I’d no idea you were coming.”
Anne shot a glance at her husband and saw that there was an unexpected shine to his eyes. She looked across at her father-in-law and realised that he was equally affected. It was not surprising. They must have been angry with each other for so much of their lives, these two towering personalities. But since they had last met, Paul had almost died at Talavera, had lost a wife and married another and had risen to the rank of brigade commander at a very young age. His communication with his father had been limited to writing letters during that time and Anne wondered suddenly how much Franz van Daan worried. She stepped forward.
“You two need some time alone,” she said quietly. “Let’s do the introductions later. I’m going to take Will up and get him settled with Gwen and I’ll change into something that doesn’t look as though I’ve been on the road for a week.” She looked over at her father-in-law, who tore his eyes away from his son to return her regard. “It is good to meet you, sir, although we’ve not properly met yet. But we’ll do that later.”
She touched Paul’s arm and made to go, but he caught her about the waist and drew her back. “Just a moment, girl of my heart. Father, have a quick look at my latest.”
His father came forward and Anne held out the sleeping child for inspection. “I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you meant your latest offspring,” she said and Paul gave a choke of laughter and kissed her.
“I did. Go on then, go and get him fed and settled.”
When Anne had left Paul looked at his father. Franz stepped forward and embraced him.
“Christ, Paul, I know it’s not possible, but I’d swear you’ve grown. Perhaps I’m shrinking.”
Paul laughed and released him, blinking back the tears. “You’re not, I promise you. It’s the uniform, it makes us all look bigger. I wonder if that’s why they chose it? Something about scaring off the enemy. I’m sorry about this, you caught me by surprise.”
“I’m sorry, I should have written to tell you. It was a sudden decision. I thought about it and realised it had been too long, and there isn’t much chance you’re coming home any time soon, is there?”
“No. I’m so glad you came. Where are Josh and Patience?”
“Out sightseeing. And that was your wife.”
“Yes. Now that you’ve seen her…”
“Now that I’ve seen her, boy, it’s very clear to me how you came to marry her so damned quickly. You could hardly let her sit and wait; I presume there was a queue?”
Paul laughed, going to pour wine. “There would have been, but I was very fast,” he said, handing a glass to his father. “Sir, thank you for coming, I’m so glad I made it down with Nan, now.”
He held out a chair for Franz and sat down opposite. “So were you hoping to see me and or were you curious to meet Nan?”
Franz laughed. “Both. Brigade commander, Paul – how old are you now?”
“You’re my father, you’re supposed to know that. I’m thirty one.”
“Christ, you really took this seriously, didn’t you?”
“Very. Although I’m well aware you never expected me to.”
Franz gave a wry smile. “No. I thought you were doing it to snap your fingers at me because I suggested the law. I gave it a couple of years and thought you’d be back at home and ready to fall into line.”
“When did you stop thinking that Father?”
“After Assaye. I was privileged to watch you those first weeks at Melton and I spoke to Colonel Dixon. It was obvious you’d found where you wanted to be.” Franz glanced at him and smiled slightly. “And I’m guessing you found something else as well.”
“My lady? Yes. I’m still getting used to it, I suppose. Although I’m not sure I’m ever going to learn to take her for granted.”
“I was sorry about Rowena, Paul.”
“It still hurts,” Paul admitted. “She was so much a part of my life, it was as if there was a hole left that nothing else could fill. I have Nan, and had from the first, and I love her in a way I never did Rowena. But I don’t think I ever knew what Rowena meant to me until she’d gone. She stood by me through so much. It’s been hard at times, so much has happened in the past couple of years.”
“It is difficult to keep up by letter,” his father said dryly.
Paul accepted the implied reproof with a rueful smile. “It’s impossible, and I’m not a very reliable correspondent, I know. Once you’ve got to know Nan properly you’ll do better, she’s very good. And you can read her handwriting which is more than you can say for mine.”
“I’m looking forward to getting to know her. How long can you stay?”
“Probably not long. Wellington treats requests for leave like being bled by an over-enthusiastic junior surgeon. And he’s especially bad with me, God knows why. Bloody Craufurd got three months in England last year and I couldn’t manage a week to get married. I’m here and I’m hoping for a couple of weeks but if one of my ensigns walks through that door in a week’s time telling me that Wellington is screaming for me, I won’t be a bit surprised. If that does happen, I may leave Nan for a bit longer if you’re happy with that. There are always supply columns coming north, she can get an escort back when she’s ready. And the way the commissariat feel about her, they’ll move a lot faster with our rations if she’s with them.”
“What on earth does the commissariat have to do with your wife, Paul?”
“More than they’d like, she’s my unofficial quartermaster. As well as my unofficial regimental surgeon. You ought to hear the medical board on the subject.”
Franz was laughing. “I am more and more glad I came. She’s got you somewhere I never thought you’d be, Paul, you can’t keep the smile off your face when you talk about her, can you? How long have you been married?”
“About a year and a half. It doesn’t seem that long, and yet it’s hard to remember life without her.”
“How old is she?”
“She’s twenty-two. She married for the first time very young, he was killed just before Bussaco and we married soon after that.”
“And how long had you known her, Paul?”
Paul could hear the suspicion in his father’s voice. He considered for a moment then decided to tell the truth. “I met her in ’08 in Yorkshire.”
“I see. You’ve been surprisingly constant then.”
Paul looked down at the wrought iron table for a moment, then up into his father’s eyes. “You mean given that I was unfaithful to Rowena? Yes, sir. If I could go back, I’d change what I did back then, but I can’t. I intend to keep my marriage vows this time around.”
Franz gave a faint smile. “This wife of yours seems to have thoroughly tamed you, my boy.”
“I don’t see that as an insult, sir.”
“It was not intended as one. Is there anything she can’t do?”
“Well I’ve yet to see her cook a meal, and if you hand her a shirt that needs mending she’s likely to tear it up for bandages. She isn’t much like other women, sir. Although she has proved surprisingly adept at motherhood which is a bit of a surprise to both of us. I missed the birth completely but she seemed to sail through it without a hitch, and she’s proved astonishingly competent with Will. It’s going to be hard for her, he’s very young.”
“Is he weaned?”
“We’ve brought a wet nurse. She’s an Englishwoman who lost her man at Fuentes de Oñoro and she has a young daughter. She’s from London and wants to go home. Once Will is properly weaned, which won’t be long, it’s up to you if she stays on as his nurse or goes home – just make sure she gets there if that’s what she wants. Her name’s Gwen and she’s a good girl, you’ll have no trouble with her.”
“We still have Mary who came home with Rowena,” Franz said with a smile. “She’s proved herself very useful and she married a few months ago, one of our grooms. Paul, there’s something I’ve not told you yet.”
“When we decided to come out to collect William and meet your wife, we…”
There were sounds of arrival in the hallway and Paul heard his sister-in-law’s gentle tones admonishing. The door to the courtyard burst open and a child entered. He was wearing a white shirt and breeches with a loose jacket, open and with two buttons missing. He looked at least nine or ten from his height and manner, but Paul knew it was deceptive, knew he was not quite eight.
“Francis.” Paul moved forward uncertainly and then the child ran. Paul caught him up into his arms and held him tight, the boy’s arms wrapped around his neck in a stranglehold. Paul buried his face in his son’s hair, fairer than his, almost white like Rowena’s and inhaled the scent of him. Beyond him he saw his brother coming forward, smiling, and then his sister-in-law holding the hand of a girl of around ten, dainty and fair in a pink dress with a white pinafore over it. Paul dropped to his knees, still holding his son with one arm and held out his other arm to his daughter.
“Grace. Oh lass, come here. You’re as pretty as your mother.”
Grace ran forward and joined the embrace and Paul knelt holding them and kissing them. Finally he looked up at Patience.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “You’ve no idea. I’m revising my plans, if Wellington wants me out of here before two weeks, he can either come and get me himself or cashier me. I can take the loss.”
“Oh, Good Heavens.”
Paul looked up. His wife was coming into the courtyard from the inner door, laughing. She had changed out of her travelling clothes into a sprigged muslin gown trimmed with blue and she looked very young and very beautiful. “You kept this very quiet, Paul.”
“Love, I didn’t know.”
Anne smiled at her sister-in-law and Joshua, both of whom were staring at her in considerable astonishment. “But there’s one missing, and she’s the only one I’ve met before.”
“She’s here, but she’s a little shy,” Patience said, lifting the smallest child from her skirts. She was not yet two, as fair as the others. Anne came forward.
“My poor Will is going to look like a changeling in this family if he keeps that dark hair. Although he’s got the eyes and the attitude already.”
“And what makes you think that attitude comes from me?” her husband said, laughing up at her. Anne thought, her heart unexpectedly full, that she had never seen him look quite so carefree. Reaching out she took Rowena from Patience and settled her on one hip.
“You were very tiny the last time I held you,” she said, studying the child. Blue Van Daan eyes looked back at her. Anne kissed the soft cheek. “When he’s stopped feeding, which might be a while, you shall all come up and meet your new brother.”
“Half-brother,” Grace said. She was staring at Anne as if she could not tear her eyes away.
“Grace!” Patience said, horrified. Anne laughed.
“No, she’s completely right. There are a lot of half relationships in this family, aren’t there? I’m going to sit over here with Rowena because she’s heavy, come and sit by me, Grace, you need to help me work all this out. You’re the eldest, aren’t you, which makes you how old?”
“I’m nine. My mother is dead.”
“I know, Grace, and I’m sorry. She died of fever in India, didn’t she? Your father has told me about her.”
Paul was watching the two of them, fascinated at seeing them together for the first time. His daughter went slowly to the chair beside Anne. Rowena was fidgeting, and without hesitation, Anne took the two combs out of her hair and gave them to the toddler, showing her how to lock them together and slide them apart again. Enchanted, Rowena began to play with the combs.
“Anne, let me take her up for you,” Patience said, and Anne looked up with a quick smile.
“Oh not yet, please? I’ve waited so long to meet them all.”
“Father told you about my mother?” Grace said, sounding incredulous, and Paul felt guilt twist like a knife.
“Of course he did,” Anne said without a moment’s hesitation. “He didn’t need to tell me about Rowena because she was my best friend. I never met Nell but your father told me she was very pretty. And looking at you, Grace, I can believe it.”
Francis was watching Anne as well. Paul set him down and got up, his eyes on the children. Francis went to stand on the other side of Anne.
“My mother was pretty as well. I’ve seen a portrait.”
“I don’t know what my mother looked like, I’ve never seen a portrait of her,” Grace said wistfully.
“No there wasn’t much opportunity going to India,” Paul said lightly. “But if you want a fairly good idea, Grace, find a mirror. Your eyes are my colour but the shape of your face is Nell’s and no mistake.”
“Did you really know my mother?” Francis asked, and the wistful tone of his voice made Paul want to cry. He had not expected to see his children this week and he realised he had given no thought to how he would explain Rowena’s death, his marriage to Anne and their complicated relationship. He realised abruptly that Anne had already thought about this and knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“I knew her very well, Francis,” she said. “She was the best friend I ever had.”
“And was she really pretty?”
“She was lovely.”
“I look like my father,” Francis said, and Anne studied him and laughed.
“You really do,” she said. “But you have one little thing that reminds me so much of Rowena that I want to cry.”
“What’s that?” Francis said eagerly.
Anne reached out and ran her finger lightly over the bridge of his nose. “You have her freckles,” she said softly. “Each one of them stamps her name all over you, Francis van Daan. And there are other things about her I’m hoping you have too.”
“Her goodness. Her kindness. Her sense of right and wrong. If you keep hold of those as well as your father’s stubbornness you could be prime minister one day.”
“I want to be a soldier one day,” Francis said.
“Do you? Wherever did you get that idea from? Anyway, you can be a soldier and a politician, Lord Wellington has done both. Perhaps he’ll be prime minister one day, who knows?”
Grace had reached out and was touching the silky strands of Anne’s hair, which was coming loose without the tortoiseshell combs.
“Your hair is so beautiful.”
“Thank you, Grace. Although I admit I always used to want fair hair like yours. I was envious of Rowena for that.”
“I think you’re prettier than my mother,” Francis said quietly, and Anne reached out and caressed his face gently.
“No, you’ve just forgotten how lovely she was. You can’t see it in a portrait. In the story books they gave me as a child, the prettiest princesses were always fair haired and blue eyed, like both of your mothers. What your father was thinking when he chose me as number three, we’ll never know.”
“I know,” Francis said firmly. “I think you’re beautiful. I think you’re the most beautiful lady I have ever seen.”
Anne was smiling. “There are an awful lot of beautiful ladies out there, Francis. But thank you.”
“Number three?” Grace said, and there was an odd tone to her voice as though it had never occurred to her to place her long dead mother on the same footing as her two stepmothers. Paul felt guilt again and opened his mouth to speak then stopped as his wife reached out and put her arm around his daughter.
“Number three,” she said firmly. “Your mother was the first, Grace, then Rowena and now me. I know I can’t replace either of them with you, how could I? But I hope you’ll get used to me. I’ve heard so much about you all. Now who is going to come up and see Will? He can’t still be eating or he’ll explode like a shell.”
“And that one is going to haunt nursery teas for a while,” Paul said, beginning to laugh. Anne smiled up at him.
“What is the point of nursery teas if you can’t have unsuitable conversations? You should have heard some of the things my brothers used to say around the table, Nurse used to cover her ears.”
“If your brothers were the most badly behaved at your nursery tea table, I would be very surprised, girl of my heart. Hand over my youngest daughter, you’ve had her long enough.”
“Is that what he calls you?” Grace said, wide-eyed.
“He calls me a lot worse than that. Get those combs off her before she eats one of them, Paul, she can’t be hungry it’s not close to tea time.”
Francis began to laugh. “Combs for tea!”
“Only if you don’t behave, Master van Daan. Patience, I am so sorry, I’ve not even said how-do-you-do yet. And you as well, Joshua. Let me go and introduce Will, and when we’ve all driven him mad and he’s howling through over-excitement I’ll give him back to Gwen and come down for sherry and civilised conversation, I promise you. And I’ll dump this lot off in the nursery on the way to wash themselves, Francis looks as though he’s been through a battle on a wet day his face is so dirty.”
“It is not! I do not!”
“You absolutely do, and don’t argue with me, I’ve seen a lot of battles.”
“Have you? I didn’t know girls went near battles.”
Paul was laughing so hard he could not stop. “They’re not supposed to, Francis, but try telling your stepmother that, she hasn’t the least sense of propriety.”
His wife regarded him severely. “You’re becoming as over-excited as the children, Colonel. Give me Rowena and put those combs on the table before you break them, I’m serving them to Francis for tea later. Don’t come up, stay and be civil to your brother and Patience, I’m not sure you’ve even had a chance to speak to them yet. I’ll see you later.”
She left, and they could hear her progress with Francis and Grace suggesting a collection of bizarre items which could be served for tea.