A Provincial Nobody

Welcome to A Provincial Nobody, my Valentine’s Day story for 2024. As always, it’s freely available on my website and as a pdf so please share as much as you like.

I’m particularly pleased to have managed a Valentine’s story this year. As my regular readers will know, I’ve not been particularly well and work has been a struggle. Writing a light-hearted and thoroughly romantic tale has been the perfect way to ease myself back in to writing and I’m hoping that book nine of the Peninsular War Saga will move along at a good pace now.

My readers love my short stories to have links to the books and so far I’ve done very well with that. As we move into the final phase of the Peninsular War however, it’s becoming more complicated. There are a number of characters with interesting stories to tell, but I can’t tell them without giving away huge spoilers.

Instead, I’m trying to go back in time. My Christmas story, the Yule Log, told the story of Paul van Daan’s parents and proved very popular. In this one I’ve explored the back story of two recurring and well-liked characters from the Manxman series. The story takes place in 1808-09 between the events of An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers. In difficult times, I’m especially grateful for your support and enthusiasm for my books and my characters.

Thank you also to my editor, Heather Paisley from Dieudonne Editorial Services who reminded me in her edits for this story that I’d forgotten to mention how fabulous she is. Readers, she’s fabulous.

A Provincial Nobody pdf:    A Provincial Nobody

A Provincial Nobody

On the evening after Mr Benjamin Thurlow’s maiden speech in Parliament, he was invited to a ball. The gentleman who had enabled him to become MP for the town of Allingford advised him to go along and enjoy himself.

“If it goes well, you’ll have something to celebrate,” Sir Anthony Edwards said in matter-of-fact tones. “If it’s a disaster, don’t worry about it; go out and enjoy yourself. Far better to get the thing over with early. Then it don’t matter if you sit like a mute for a couple of years. At least you know you can do it at need.”

Benjamin was trying not to resent his patron’s insistence that he speak on the subject of the trade blockades currently being imposed by Bonaparte. It was a matter on which he was well informed, having recently taken over as chairman of the Thurlow Trading Company on the death of his father. He had also inherited his father’s seat in Parliament, thanks to the support of Sir Anthony, who held the controlling interest in the little market town of Allingford. Benjamin had never really given much thought to a political career but when Edwards made the offer he did not hesitate. He knew his father would have wanted him to say yes, and his personal political views naturally leaned towards the Whig interests supported by Sir Anthony.

Sir Anthony had promised him considerable freedom in his opinions and voting behaviour but his one, rather eccentric, demand was that Benjamin make his maiden speech as early as possible. He had found a credible topic and coached the younger man well. Benjamin complied reluctantly. He had so much to be grateful for and he suspected his late and much missed father would have approved of the decision. He was also terrified that he would make a fool of himself.

It went better than he had expected and he was gratified when a number of fellow MPs paused to  offer congratulations as he left the House. On his patron’s advice he had kept the speech simple and spoken only of what he knew. It was well received and as he settled to sleep in the early hours, Benjamin acknowledged that his wily old sponsor had been right. The next time he wanted to speak, possibly on a matter of more significance, it would not be as terrifying.

The ball was one of the earliest of the Season, hosted by the Earl of Rockcliffe, and the rooms were already crowded by the time Benjamin arrived. He greeted his host, an austere gentleman in his sixties and his hostess who was the Earl’s sister. His duty done, he went in search of his particular friends with a sense of relief. It had been a long week preparing for the speech and he was thankful to be free of it. Tonight he had nothing to do but enjoy himself and tomorrow he would go back to his desk and his business affairs.

His friends teased him a little about his successful debut and Benjamin smiled, drank champagne and let their raillery wash over him. At thirty-two he was very much at home in London society, though he was better known in Parliamentary and trade circles than in the privileged ranks of the aristocracy. All the same, his name appeared on the invitation list of every hostess during the London Season, not because of his pedigree but because he was a wealthy man and was neither married nor betrothed.

Benjamin knew that his unmarried status was the subject of much curiosity. It was generally accepted that a gentleman should not marry until his position in the world was financially secure, but Benjamin had inherited a prosperous merchant company, trading mainly in spices, silk and luxury goods and he could have married years ago if he chose. The loss of both parents within three years had provided a very good excuse but he was out of mourning now and he suspected that this Season he was likely find himself very popular.

His closest friends did not hesitate to inform him that the matchmaking ladies of the Ton had come up with a variety of imaginary reasons for his failure to take a wife. These ranged from a carefully hidden broken heart from a youthful love affair to the refusal of his stern father to allow him to set up his own household. Both of these reasons seemed utterly ridiculous to Benjamin. He had never come across a lady who had tempted him into a declaration and his father had been the most easy-going of parents and would have been delighted to welcome a daughter-in-law. It was one of Benjamin’s only regrets that he had delayed too long to present his parents with grandchildren, but William, his clergyman brother, had already obliged with two, so he did not feel as guilty as he might have.

William was not present tonight, but his youngest brother arrived after dining at his club. Benjamin watched his approach across the ballroom with a faint smile. As always, Edwin was at the centre of a noisy group of gentlemen in red coats. He was half a head taller than Benjamin and had inherited his mother’s gregarious nature along with her startling good looks. Female heads turned to follow Edwin’s progress across the room. Benjamin was used to it and had long stopped resenting it. He greeted his brother cheerfully and Edwin slapped him on the back enthusiastically.

“I’ve been hearing how splendidly you did yesterday, brother. Congratulations. The old man would have exploded with pride. Wish he could have seen it.”

“So do I,” Benjamin admitted. “Though of course if he’d been here I wouldn’t have been doing it in the first place. How are you, Ed? I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight. Didn’t you say you were on duty?”

“I was but I swapped with Spencer. He’s got some sort of dreary family dinner next week that he can’t get out of. We dined at the Shorncliffe before we came on here. It was Spence who told me how your speech went. His father was there of course.”

“Yes, he spoke to me afterwards. How is Spence doing these days?”

“Furious that he’s missed joining the show in Spain. He did his best to convince the surgeon that his arm was as good as new but you can’t bamboozle old Fletcher. He reckons another six weeks at least.”

Benjamin regarded his brother with a tolerant eye. “And what did old Fletcher say about you, little brother?”

Edwin attempted a glare and then laughed aloud. “You know me too well. He said the same. He tells me when I can dance all night without my ankle giving out, I’ll probably be fit to run across a battlefield again. I warn you I intend to do my best to prove him wrong tonight.”

“You’re an idiot, Ed. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for glory; this war isn’t going to end any time soon. Give yourself time.”

“I feel as though I have nothing but time,” Edwin said gloomily. “It seemed such an insignificant wound when it happened. I walked off the field for God’s sake.”

“According to Captain Mayhew you limped off the field and couldn’t mount your horse when it was brought up. You were lucky they didn’t have to amputate.”

“They probably would have if they hadn’t had so many worse injuries to deal with,” Edwin said. “Thank God for the eternal lack of surgeons on a battlefield. Anyway, it’s mended very well and I’m hoping I’ll be able to join Moore in the New Year. In the meantime, I intend to find myself a partner. Are you not dancing, Ben?”

“I will when I’m ready,” Benjamin said with a smile. His brother grinned broadly.

“Playing it close are you, brother? I don’t blame you at all. Nobody is going to expect a declaration from the feckless youngest son in a red coat. You, on the other hand are now the Chairman of the Board. I can see the matchmaking Mamas licking their lips. You take care.”

“If you don’t go away, you’ll get worse from me than the French gave you at Vimeiro. Who is your intended victim this evening? Don’t break her heart will you?”

“I am promised to Miss Middleton for the cotillion and one of the country dances. Have you met her? Seventeen and just out. She’s utterly charming and since we both know her father wouldn’t consider a younger son we can flirt as much as we like. I’m also very taken with Lady Clarissa Flood, though I suspect she’s a bit serious for my tastes. Still, the same applies. I’m perfectly safe, Ben. What about you?”

“I am also perfectly safe, Ed, providing I don’t absent-mindedly propose to somebody. Which I’m not likely to do, by the way.”

Edwin regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “Why don’t you, Ben? I mean I know why I don’t. But you? Father never really understood what was stopping you, you know.”

Benjamin felt a little pain around his heart. “I know. But Mother did. It’s not complicated, Ed. I just haven’t yet met a woman I want to marry and I’m very happy in my bachelor state. If it happens, all well and good. If not, I trust you and Will to provide me with plenty of heirs. Go on, get out of here and enjoy yourself.”

Edwin threw an impudent salute and retreated in search of his dance partner and Benjamin returned to his own party, smiling. The evening proceeded as he had expected. He danced with several of  his friends’ wives then stood up with a selection of younger girls, mostly daughters of his father’s friends. He had known most of them for years and had no fear that an invitation to dance would be misinterpreted. He suspected that he was being closely observed by a number of interested parents but he had become an expert in light, social chit chat without the slightest hint of flirtation.

He did not speak to his brother again until just before the supper dance; although he saw him frequently, dancing with a series of pretty girls. Benjamin stopped to watch him affectionately. Edwin seemed to be moving very easily with no sign of the limp which had dogged him since an unlucky shot from a spent ball had sent him home from Portugal two months ago.

Benjamin was discussing the composition of his supper table with several of his friends when his brother made him jump with a friendly slap on the shoulder. Benjamin rubbed the afflicted spot and turned to give him a look.

“Try to remember I’m a civilian, Ed. That might be the usual greeting in army circles but you nearly broke my shoulder.”

“Rubbish; you’re not that delicate. Look Ben, I need a favour. It’s an emergency. Will you join my party for supper? We’ve grabbed a table.”

Benjamin raised his eyebrows. “What’s the emergency? Are you dodging an enraged parent or trying to seduce somebody’s daughter?”

“Neither, you blighted puritan. At least, not exactly. I have met a girl.”

“Just one?”

To his surprise, Edwin flushed a little. “There’s no need for that. Her name is Miss Harcourt. We were introduced by Sir Joseph Garrow earlier. Her mother has given me permission to take her in to supper providing her cousin can accompany her. The cousin is staying with them for the Season. Her second Season.”

“Do I know this cousin?”

“No, I’m about to introduce you. Perhaps you could invite her to stand up for the supper dance if you’re not already engaged.”

“Who is she?”

“Her name is Miss Quayle and she is an absolute provincial nobody from some outlandish island off Scotland or somewhere. I don’t know anything more about her apart from the fact that she’s a dashed nuisance right now. I was hoping Barney Caldicott would help me out but he turned me down flat. Apparently he remembers the Quayle girl from last year and he says she’s terrifying. Come on, Ben, please. This girl…Miss Harcourt…she’s very nice.”

Benjamin thought of a number of things he would have liked to say about his brother’s earlier assertion that he was in no danger of developing a serious interest in any girl but he stopped himself. This sudden enthusiasm was unusual for Edwin and he was curious to see the girl who had caught his eye. He sighed.

“Wait there. I’ll have to give my apologies to the Wainwrights and then you may introduce me to this Gorgon. If she turns me to stone, you’ll be entirely responsible and I’ll haunt you.”

“I don’t know if you can haunt people if you’re a piece of sculpture.”

“Trust me, I’ll manage it. You owe me for this, little brother.”

“I’ll find a way to pay you back, I promise you. You’re a thoroughly good sort, Ben. After this I will find you a very nice partner for the next two dances who will not turn you to stone at all. Get on with it before she thinks I’ve changed my mind.”

Miss Felicity Harcourt proved to be a dainty girl of eighteen with rich brown curls and a shy smile. Benjamin inspected her as they approached. She was certainly pretty enough in flowing white muslin trimmed with tiny pink rosebuds, but there was nothing in her appearance to explain why his brother had formed such a sudden liking for her. Still, he bowed politely at Edwin’s introduction and turned to the lady beside her.

“Mr Thurlow, this is my cousin Miss Quayle. She is spending the Season with us but her home is on the Isle of Mann.”

With an effort, Benjamin refrained from a scathing comment on his brother’s appalling ignorance of geography. He wondered if it was ever a problem on campaign but supposed that Lieutenant Thurlow only had to follow the march and probably did not care what the next town was called as long as it had a dry billet. He took the woman’s outstretched hand and bowed.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Quayle. You’ve travelled a long way. Have you been in London long?”

“For a few weeks. My aunt insisted that I arrive in plenty of time for dress fittings. She doesn’t trust any dressmaker north of Harrow. Every time I visit she seems surprised that I don’t appear in rags.”

Miss Harcourt blushed. “Maria,” she said, in gentle reproof. Her cousin shot her a look of amused exasperation.

“I’m sorry, Felicity. You should remember that it can take weeks before I manage to adjust my manners to London standards. I’ll try not to embarrass you.”

Benjamin was struggling not to laugh aloud. “Please don’t guard your tongue on my account, Miss Quayle. I come from a family of plain speakers. I was wondering if you were engaged for the supper dance?”

Intelligent blue eyes surveyed him, then the young woman smiled.

“That is kind of you, Mr Thurlow. I should be delighted. Though possibly not as delighted as my cousin and your brother.”

Benjamin took her hand firmly and led her into the set before she could make Miss Harcourt blush any further. When they were in position and waiting for the music to start, he risked another look. She was watching him with detached amusement as though waiting for him to reprimand her. Benjamin decided that he would not have dared to do so. There was something about this girl which suggested that she would be quite capable of telling him exactly what she thought of him.

Maria Quayle was not at all what he had been expecting from Edwin’s naïve description. She was probably not much above twenty but she had the poise of a girl accustomed to moving freely in society even if it was not in London society. She was very attractive with a good complexion and well-shaped blue eyes. Her hair was the colour of ripe gold wheat and she wore it in a smooth braided arrangement instead of the usual fashionable curls. Benjamin thought it was lovely and made the girl stand out. The blue gown was more suited to a young married woman rather than a girl in her first or second Season, but she looked beautiful in it. He wondered if it had been her aunt’s choice and thought probably not. Miss Quayle did not give the impression of being a girl who would allow her relative to dictate her choice of clothing.

The orchestra played the opening bars of an energetic country dance involving frequent changes of partner.  It allowed brief snatches of conversation but no real chance to talk properly. Benjamin was pleased that Miss Quayle did not try, although she smiled pleasantly at him when the dance brought them together. He could see that Edwin and Miss Harcourt were far more enterprising in their attempts to converse, though from the girl’s frequent blushes, he suspected that most of their exchanges consisted of extravagant compliments. He wondered what Miss Harcourt’s situation was and whether her mother was watching with complaisant approval or making swift plans to separate the couple as soon as supper was over.

The dance ended and Benjamin smiled at his partner and offered his arm. “Thank you, Miss Quayle, I enjoyed that. You’re a very good dancer.”

“Thank you, sir. I own it is a lot easier when one doesn’t have to concentrate on talking, breathing and dancing the right steps all at once.”

He shot her a startled look, wondering if she was twitting him on his lack of conversation. She seemed to realise that she had blundered. The pale skin flushed a little.

“I’m sorry, that sounded rude. I didn’t mean it that way at all. It really is easier. I love to dance.”

Benjamin was unexpectedly charmed. He gave a broad smile. “It showed. I thought I was accustomed to plain speaking, ma’am, but I’m beginning to think I am a mere amateur. Do you always say just what you mean?”

She laughed. “Far more often than I should. I used to pride myself on my social graces but I realised when I came to London last year that I had a lot to learn. At home, I am constantly in company with people I’ve known since childhood. There isn’t the same need to guard my tongue. I forget sometimes.”

Benjamin ran his eyes around the room and spotted Edwin and Miss Harcourt at a small table near a long window. He guided his companion across the room, seated her on a blue velvet chair and joined his brother in search of food and champagne. As they surveyed the buffet table, Edwin said:

“What do you think of her?”

Benjamin selected cold chicken and some thinly sliced ham. “Which one?”

“Miss Harcourt of course.”

“She’s very pretty, Ed and she seems very sweet. A bit shy, but I’d expect that in a girl barely out of the schoolroom.” Benjamin looked around and located a waiter. He summoned him and requested champagne. After a moment’s thought he asked for lemonade as well. When he looked back, his brother was watching him, a full plate in each hand.

“Are you making a point about how young she is, Ben?”

“No, you ass. I’m giving you the opportunity to impress her mama with how well you’re taking care of her ewe lamb. Plying a girl with champagne in her first Season is a terrible idea.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. Well done, brother. Is the lemonade for Miss Quayle as well?”

“That will be entirely up to Miss Quayle. I shouldn’t have the nerve to tell her what to eat or drink. Come on or we’ll find our seats and our partners stolen by a couple of Hussars dripping gold braid. I shall take my life in my hands and converse with your Gorgon while you flirt with the pretty cousin.”

“She didn’t seem as much of a Gorgon when she was dancing with you,” Edwin said meditatively. “She actually looked as though she was enjoying herself.”

“I think she was,” Benjamin said. “Actually, so was I.”

Miss Quayle accepted champagne, with charming thanks. She ate a good selection of the delicacies on her plate, sipped the wine at a sensible pace and kept a discreet eye on her younger cousin with a tact that Benjamin thoroughly approved of. He decided that Miss Quayle had been much maligned. She was very direct but not rude and she appeared to have a ready sense of humour. Benjamin asked her about her home and she made him laugh with several stories about the parochial nature of island life.

In return, she asked him about his newly established Parliamentary career, which she had clearly heard about from Edwin. It led Benjamin to talk about his father’s death at the beginning of the year and his patron’s suggestion that he should step into the vacant seat. She listened and asked several intelligent questions. Benjamin realised he could not remember the exact political status of the distant Isle of Mann. Fortunately he was not obliged to expose his ignorance, but he made a mental note to inform himself before his next meeting with the likeable Miss Maria Quayle.

They danced together again after supper and she introduced Benjamin to her aunt. Mrs Harcourt was a stately widow in her fifties, dressed in half-mourning. She was gracious to both Benjamin and his brother, which suggested that his brother’s interest was cautiously welcomed. Benjamin wondered how serious Edwin was about the girl. It was impossible to be sure after a single meeting but he could not remember his light-hearted brother taking this much trouble over a girl before.

He made a point of finding Miss Quayle before taking his leave of his hostess. She was seated at the side of the room watching her cousin dance. Miss Harcourt had been engaged far more often than her cousin. Benjamin wondered about that but presumed it was simply that Miss Harcourt had more London acquaintances. He found himself regretting the rule which prohibited a debutante from standing up more than twice with the same gentleman.

“Are you leaving, Mr Thurlow? We are going ourselves presently, if we can ever get Felicity off the dance floor. This is only her second full ball and I think she has been a great success, don’t you?”

“Very much so. Yes, I’m making my departure. I have a full day of meetings tomorrow and a Parliamentary sitting tomorrow night. Good night, Miss Quayle. Thank you for two enjoyable dances and for sharing supper with me. Are you in Town for the whole Season?”

“Oh yes. I think my aunt is beginning to despair of me, but she acknowledges that I am a very useful companion for Felicity. This way she can safely disappear into the card room with her cronies and rely on me to scare off any suitors I don’t like the look of.”

Benjamin smiled. “If that’s your job, you were very kind to my brother, ma’am. Thank you for that. His courage in battle is undisputed but he is easily crushed by a harsh word.”

“It isn’t difficult to be kind to your brother, sir. Do not think I am unaware that I have developed something of a fierce reputation, but with Lieutenant Thurlow it would be like kicking a puppy.”

Benjamin gave a splutter of laughter. “How I wish I could tell him you said that. I can’t though; he’d be mortified.”

She was laughing with him. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t think I could trust you. You’re a good brother, sir. Thank you for this evening. I enjoyed it very much.”

“What is your next engagement, do you know?”

“Oh heavens. We are invited to the theatre tomorrow evening and then we are going on to a reception at the Grenvilles’. The following day we make our first appearance at Almack’s. I did not receive vouchers last year because nobody had heard of me, but thanks to Felicity’s debut I have the honour this year.”

“You’re going to hate it.”

“I already hate it and I haven’t been yet but Felicity should be seen there. Then on the following day there is some kind of military review and we are invited to dinner afterwards. It is hosted by one of the gentleman’s clubs though of course it is not taking place on those hallowed premises.”

“Of course not. Ladies are not permitted across the threshold of the Shorncliffe Club. Colonel Sir George Cavendish and his lady are hosting it. I’m not sure about my plans for the next few days but I’m invited to that on account of Edwin. I’ll look forward to seeing you there.”

He was absurdly flattered when her face brightened. “Oh yes – I’ll look forward to it as well. Good night, Mr Thurlow.”

“Good night, Miss Quayle.”

***

Breakfast in Wimpole Street was eaten late and Mrs Harcourt seldom made it to the table, preferring to take her first meal in her room. It was an informal meal and the two young ladies served themselves from covered dishes on the sideboard while a parlour maid served a choice of tea or chocolate.

The first part of the meal was entirely taken up by Miss Harcourt rhapsodising over her new acquaintance. Maria listened abstractedly while filling her plate with ham and eggs. She cut bread for herself and her cousin, having seen Felicity’s attempts with a bread knife before.

“Do you think he likes me, Maria?”

“Who, darling?” Maria settled down opposite her cousin, saw her face and relented. “The handsome Lieutenant Thurlow? I am sure he does, Felicity. And I don’t need to ask if you liked him.”

“Mama thinks he is very charming. And from a very respectable family. Mr Benjamin Thurlow controls the company of course but both the younger brothers inherited a share, so he has independent means. Other than his army pay of course, which is next to nothing. Mama says she would not disapprove of the match at some point in the future but that she will not allow an engagement when I am so young. I have told her that it is not at all unusual for a lady to be betrothed at eighteen or even younger. I can think of at least half a dozen cases in the very best families. Perhaps she will change her mind if she realises how very suitable he is.”

Maria accepted tea and dismissed the goggling parlour maid firmly. “Has Lieutenant Thurlow proposed, Felicity?”

Her cousin gave her a look. After a moment, she giggled. “Of course he hasn’t. We’ve only just met. I collect you are trying to tell me that I am getting ahead of myself.”

“Just a little, my sweet. Don’t think I disapprove. He’s a very charming young man, he has excellent manners and he’s very handsome. But you can’t be sure of his intentions or your own feelings after one evening’s acquaintance. I hate to say it, but your Mama is right to advise caution. Just enjoy your debut and try not to wear your heart on your sleeve. I’ve seen that done before and it can lead to a lot of heartache. Lieutenant Thurlow is only twenty-two and cannot be hanging out for a wife. If he forms an attachment to you, it’s because of who you are, not because he’s been told to get on with it by an overbearing parent. And you’re lucky that my aunt feels the same way. She won’t allow you to rush into anything and she is right.”

Felicity pulled a face. “I cannot imagine how you became so stuffy, Maria. You were not used to be so.”

Maria tried not to show that her cousin’s remark had stung her. “Experience,” she said lightly. “Just be thankful that I’m here. I’m a far more lenient chaperone than my aunt.”

“You aren’t supposed to be chaperoning me at all. You’re supposed to be finding a husband. Do you think you will do so this Season?”

“Goodness, I have no idea.”

“Mama says you will have to live down what happened last Season first.”

Maria felt her face flush a little and she was furious that her feelings showed. “You should not repeat what your Mama says about me, Felicity.”

“Don’t tell me she hasn’t said the same to your face, Maria.”

Maria acknowledged the hit with a faint smile. “Of course she has. I have been a great disappointment to her. My own Mama was quite surprised that she agreed to have me back for a second Season but we both suspect it was because she wanted me here for your debut.”

“I’m sure that you are right. Though I still think she has hopes of a good marriage for you, cousin. If only you would apply yourself to the business.”

It was an excellent impersonation of her aunt and Maria laughed and put her hand on Felicity’s. “She will be far too busy ensuring that you make the right impression this year, Felicity, to be worried about me.”

They ate in silence for a while. Maria thought that her cousin had returned to her own dreams of romance but then Felicity said:

“Do you regret it?”

“Regret what?”

“Refusing Lord Calverton’s offer earlier this year?”

Maria sighed and put down her knife. “Felicity, I’m not sure that I should talk about this. I don’t know that my aunt would like me to.”

“Mama has talked about it freely enough,” Felicity said pointedly. “I don’t see that she can object to my asking for your perspective. She was so excited when he approached her asking for permission to pay his addresses. It didn’t occur to her that you would refuse.”

“It didn’t occur to him either,” Maria said. “Really, I think they had already discussed the date and location of the wedding without any reference to me.”

“Did you not like him?”

“I did not dislike him.”

“Did he…did he say or do something you did not like?”

“No of course not.”

“Was he not wealthy enough? You would have been Lady Calverton.”

“I didn’t want to be Lady Calverton.”

Felicity looked down at her empty plate. “My mother says that some people think that you had higher expectations. That you were aiming for a better title. That you were aiming too high.”

“A Royal Duke or an Earl perhaps?” Maria said dryly. Her cousin looked up guiltily.

“No, of course not. I do not think it myself…only I cannot help but hear the gossip sometimes.”

“It’s not your fault, Felicity.”

“It makes me angry that I am not allowed to tell them what I think of them. I heard Lady Fawcett telling Mama that she was surprised that you had come back this year.”

“I am sure that what she actually said was that she was surprised that I had the audacity to show my face here again this year.”

“Yes.” Felicity met her gaze. Her cousin had very pretty eyes, a warm clear hazel colour. Maria was not at all surprised at how much time Lieutenant Thurlow had spent gazing into them the previous evening. “I told Mama afterwards that I thought you were very brave. Another girl would have stayed at home. Why did you come back, Maria?”

Maria squeezed her hand. “Because I wanted to be here for your debut, love. I knew you were bound to be a success and I wanted to see it.”

“But there’s another reason.”

“Yes. I wanted to prove that I had not run away. I don’t really care that much about the London gossips, Felicity. To be honest, most of them don’t care about me either. I’m not important enough. A few ladies and one or two gentlemen – mostly friends of his Lordship – seem to have decided that I was an ungrateful wretch to have turned down the best offer of marriage that a provincial little Manx girl could possibly have hoped for. I needed to show them – no, to show myself – that I had done nothing wrong and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Once I’ve done that I’ll go home with my head held high.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Felicity said in a small voice. “I wish you would stay. Mann is too far.”

Maria’s heart melted. “Felicity, don’t think about this again. I’m going nowhere until the end of this Season and if you want me back next year and my aunt allows it, I will come, I promise you. Perhaps you will marry your handsome Lieutenant and have very beautiful babies and I will be a doting aunt to them. Or rather cousin.”

“You still haven’t told me why you wouldn’t marry him,” Felicity pointed out.

Maria hesitated then decided that her cousin’s persistence deserved the truth.

“Because I didn’t love him,” she said. “And that is the only thing that matters to me. Please don’t tell your Mama I said that. She thinks I am being very foolish and will only scold me all over again. Have you finished your breakfast? Shall we walk in the park this morning? It’s such a fine day.”

***

It was a bright sunny day for the review. Maria knew nothing of military matters but she had attended a number of similar reviews during her previous Season in London. She had been astonished and vastly amused by the huge difference between the scarlet-coated troops parading outside Horse Guards or in Hyde Park and the rather lackadaisical manoeuvres of the Manx Regiment on the parade ground on the cliffs in the south of the island.

There was an added interest to this particular review because of the presence of Lieutenant Edwin Thurlow at the head of a scratch company of the 43rd. The rest of his battalion was in Spain with Sir John Moore but Thurlow had been given temporary command of eighty men. Some were new recruits and others were men ready to return from sick leave. Maria had heard Lieutenant Thurlow talking of being wounded at the Battle of Vimeiro. It was obvious that he was longing to re-join his regiment.

Maria wondered if her cousin had really considered what it might mean to be married to a soldier during wartime. One of her own friends had married a Royal Navy captain and had spent the early months of her marriage with him in Gibraltar. The birth of a son had obliged her to return home to Mann and Maria knew that she spent her time waiting for letters and praying for his safety. Maria could remember her own girlish yearnings after a red coat but she was not sure that she had the temperament to be an army wife.

Afterwards the carriages conveyed them to the elegant house in Harley Street which was the London residence of General Sir George and Lady Cavendish. The dinner guests gathered in the drawing room to drink sherry and madeira before the meal. It was a warm autumn afternoon and her Ladyship had opened the long windows onto the terrace, which overlooked a well-designed walled garden. Most of the guests were military men and their wives which made the sprinkling of gentlemen in civilian dress stand out. It was easy for Maria to spot Mr Benjamin Thurlow. He was talking to his brother and several other officers at the far end of the terrace as Lady Cavendish escorted Maria, her aunt and her cousin outside and summoned a servant with drinks. Mrs Harcourt took sherry but Maria was thirsty and chose the mild fruit punch that her cousin was drinking.

Lady Cavendish handed them over to General Thorne, who was an old friend of Mrs Harcourt and the reason they had been invited today. The General was an inveterate gossip but Maria did not know half of the people he was talking about and her attention quickly drifted. She was gazing out over the garden admiring the rich autumn colours when she became aware that a nearby group of young gentlemen were becoming very drunk on Lady Cavendish’s excellent madeira.

At their centre was a dark-haired, expensively-dressed young man of about Maria’s own age. His companions were all officers and Maria was becoming uncomfortably aware that she and her cousin were the subject of their conversation. There was a good deal of laughter and whispering and a lot of very open staring.

Maria glanced at her aunt. Mrs Harcourt seemed oblivious, but it was obvious that Felicity had noticed and was embarrassed. Her face was very flushed and she had turned her back on the group.

“Maria, may we not go back inside? I do not like…I am not enjoying it here.”

“Neither am I. Drunken idiots. Wait a moment, Felicity, I’ll speak to your Mama and we’ll go in.”

“Please don’t make a fuss. I know I’m too easily embarrassed.”

“It’s not you. I’m not enjoying it either.”

Maria turned towards her aunt. If she had been at home, in an environment she had felt sure of, she would have dealt with the arrogant young officers herself but she could hardly create a scene in the middle of a London party. She positioned herself where she could catch her aunt’s eye and waited. Her aunt did not seem to notice her at all and Maria was about to interrupt more forcibly when she heard a pleasant voice behind her.

“Miss Quayle. When did you arrive? I only just noticed you. Will you and your cousin join us? There are one or two people I’d like you to meet. Miss Harcourt, your servant. My brother has sent me with very specific instructions to collect you.”

Maria felt a rush of gratitude. She wondered if Thurlow had noticed their discomfort or if his intervention was pure coincidence. As he escorted her past the noisy group, she saw him give a considering glance in their direction and decided he had definitely noticed. She allowed herself to be introduced around his group of friends, watched Felicity shyly talking to Lieutenant Thurlow and two other young officers and turned to  Thurlow with a warm smile.

“Thank you so much. We were feeling a little awkward. Who is…do you happen to know the name of the gentleman in the dark suit?”

“Indeed I do, ma’am. It’s the young Lord Lowther, Lord Lonsdale’s heir. He has a penchant for military society. His younger brother is with the 7th Hussars in Spain at present and appears to have inherited whatever charm and good manners are available in that family. We don’t want a scene at Lady Cavendish’s dinner party which is why I removed you both before my brother lost his temper. He’s such a polite soul in civilian life but if he gets angry I am suddenly reminded that his job is to kill the enemy. He was becoming rapidly enraged at how Lowther was looking at you and your cousin. I’m sorry; the man is a boor.”

Maria was conscious of a warm feeling. “Thank you both so much. I was just about to ask my aunt to take us inside.”

“You’ll forgive me for plain speaking, ma’am, since I know you favour it yourself. It’s a good thing your cousin has you with her this year because your aunt is a poor chaperone. Was she that casual with you last year?”

Maria froze, picking up on his tone rather than his words. “Heavens. Has somebody been gossiping, sir?”

“No. I’ve been asking.”

“About my cousin’s suitability as a friend for your brother?”

“No, that’s entirely his own affair. It’s very early days but it’s clear that she’s charming. And very nice. That’s a compliment by the way. No, I was making enquiries about you.”

Maria was so shocked she could hardly speak. When she recovered her voice, she said in low tones:

“You are impertinent, sir.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t intending to be. I really enjoyed meeting you and at first I couldn’t understand how I’d missed you so entirely last Season but I realised it’s because I was in London very little due to my father’s last illness. Will you forgive my frankness, ma’am?”

“I can hardly stop you, Mr Thurlow, given how frank you have already been. I feel quite upstaged.”

He gave a choke of laughter. “That takes some doing, Miss Quayle. You’re awake on every point. You know there’s been gossip about you. When my brother first introduced you to me, he was under the impression that you were some kind of terrifying Amazon. Instead, we both very quickly realised that you were a very charming young woman. I was curious where that story came from.”

Maria could not help smiling. His forthright admission was utterly irresistible.

“I know where it came from.”

“Lord Calverton.”

“Or at least his friends.”

“Did you know he has recently married? A young widow I believe. It was all very fast. The gossips say that you broke his heart.”

“I wounded his pride. I wish he’d asked me first, before he told half of London he’d decided to honour me with his hand. I was sorry that he was so offended but if he had managed the matter more discreetly, nobody else need ever have known.”

Thurlow smiled. “I think you’re absolutely right, ma’am. A man should always be sure of a lady before involving anybody else.”

“Are you speaking from painful experience?”

“I’ve no experience at all. I’ve never been married or even betrothed.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated. Eventually he said:

“Natural caution. And…my parents had an unusually happy marriage, I’ve always thought. It was arranged in the usual manner but somehow they came together very well. I think it has given all three of us a reluctance to settle for anything less. My middle brother found it very easy. He married his childhood sweetheart. It has taken me rather longer, but I’m hopeful. And if I don’t find what I’m looking for, I’m perfectly happy on my own.”

Maria felt as though her heart had stopped in her breast. She looked up at him. He was possibly one of the least romantic figures she had ever met: squarely built in a well-cut but plain suit. His dark hair was tied back with a simple velvet ribbon and his only exceptional feature was a pair of warm brown eyes. She had never before met a man who had so openly declared his requirement for personal happiness in marriage without excuse or apology. It was a revelation.

“I feel the same way,” she said abruptly.

Thurlow said nothing for a moment. Then he said:

“Do you like to ride?”

“Very much. I’m Manx; it’s often the only way of getting around, given the state of our roads. But my aunt has no stabling in London.”

“That’s all right. My father always kept a good stable. I’ll call on your aunt later in the week if I may and we’ll see if we can find something suitable for you and your cousin. I’d like to take you riding in the Row.”

Maria could not help laughing. “That sounds extremely daunting for a provincial nobody from a distant island,” she said.

“I have a notion you will take to it very well,” Thurlow responded with one of his sudden smiles. “I had better take you back to your aunt. They are calling us in to dinner.”

***

It was likely that at any military dinner there would be more gentlemen than ladies, making the table arrangements uneven. Lady Cavendish had done her best and Benjamin suspected that the inclusion of Mrs Harcourt’s two young charges had been intended to even up the numbers a little. General Thorne was charged with escorting Mrs Harcourt into dinner and the rest of the company paired up under the gentle orders of Sir George and Lady Cavendish who circled the room ahead of the dinner gong.

Thurlow was partnered with the wife of Captain Jackson. They were still talking to their hostess when Lady Cavendish unexpectedly froze, staring across the drawing room.

“Oh my goodness, whatever is the General thinking? He has made a mistake. Where is Draper? Draper, come over here. What has happened with Lord Lowther?”

The butler gave a deep bow, with the air of a man disclaiming all responsibility.

“My apologies, my Lady. I apprised Sir George of the change in the table plan when I noticed it earlier. I hope that was correct?”

“What change in the table plan? I didn’t change anything.”

The butler frowned. “Well somebody did, ma’am. I noticed when I made a final check of the table earlier. Mrs Hetherington and Miss Quayle’s places have been swapped. Naturally I told Sir George and he asked Lord Lowther to take Miss Quayle into dinner.”

Benjamin felt his stomach lurch in discomfort. He looked over at Lord Lowther, whose rank placed him ahead of most of the other diners present. He was bowing over Maria Quayle’s hand with a decided smirk.

“Oh dear,” Lady Cavendish said. “There has been a mistake. I cannot think how it happened. Or what to do.”

“I do not see that you can do anything at present, my Lady.”

“I think somebody has played a practical joke, ma’am,” Benjamin said quietly. “Your man is right; there’s not much you can do now without causing embarrassment all round.”

Lady Cavendish lifted worried eyes to his face. “You are right of course. But I would not have chosen to seat his Lordship next to…well it is not…”

She broke off in some confusion. Benjamin decided to be frank.

“I would not have chosen to seat his Lordship beside any young unmarried female, ma’am, particularly when he has clearly been drinking. I’m sitting opposite. I’ll keep an eye on them and do my best to intervene if anything looks likely to become awkward.”

“Mr Thurlow you are such a comfort,” Lady Cavendish breathed. “You are right of course; it will be those young idiots. When my husband finds out who it is – and he will – I will have a good deal to say about it. Thank you, sir. By the way I should have asked you earlier…your brother made a very specific request to be seated next to Miss Harcourt and I could not see any harm. I hope you do not mind?”

“Not at all. I’m rather impressed. He’s a much better planner than I am. If I’d been as quick we wouldn’t be in this rather awkward situation right now.”

He saw by her startled expression that she had understood his meaning and felt a brief satisfaction as he led his dinner partner through into the long dining room in Lord Lowther’s wake. Benjamin was generally tolerant of his fellow man but he was feeling decidedly unsympathetic towards the gossipmongers of his native city this afternoon.

***

It was immediately obvious to Maria from the reactions of those around her that she had been the victim of a practical joke. She took her place beside Lord Lowther in silent protest, aware of a mixture of disapproval, apologetic embarrassment and subdued hilarity from around the table. Further along, beside General Thorne, her aunt looked as though she wanted to cry. Maria realised with miserable understanding, that Thurlow had been right. If Mrs Harcourt had been paying attention, she would have realised that something was wrong and drawn Lady Cavendish’s attention to it before Lord Lowther had time to claim his prize.

It was far too late to do anything about it. Maria decided to adopt an attitude of frozen politeness. His Lordship treated her with exaggerated courtesy under the delighted gaze of his acolytes. He placed her napkin upon her lap with far too much familiarity, directed the footman to pour wine when she asked for cordial and drew her attention to every proffered dish as though it was his personal provision.

“It’s dashed good to have a chance to get to know you better, Miss Quayle. I’ve admired you from a distance for a long time, don’t you know? Didn’t get near you last Season of course. Poor old Calverton and whatnot. But that’s all done and dusted now of course. The dear old fellow is leg shackled to a very pretty widow and we’ve not been able to get him up to Town at all this Season.” Lowther drained his wine glass and signalled for more. “Dash it, he’s probably hardly been out of bed. Got an heir to father after all, and she looks like an enthusiastic female.”

Maria felt herself colour to the roots of her hair and cursed her fair skin. She was not sure how much of Lowther’s appallingly inappropriate conversation could be heard around the table but she was sure that people were watching her reactions with interest. She did not trouble to reply but pretended to be enjoying her soup although she could taste nothing and she wondered if her churning stomach would betray her.

For a time, Lowther talked about hunting. It was boring but very straightforward. Maria spoke when she needed to but did not discourage the topic. If she could get through the various courses with tedious descriptions of every fox his Lordship had ever run to earth, she could escape with the ladies and tell her aunt that she felt unwell and needed to go home. Judging by the miserable expression on Mrs Harcourt’s face she would be only too glad to leave.

Maria shot a glance down the table at her cousin. Felicity was perfectly placed between Lieutenant Thurlow and one of his officer friends. Both were going out of their way to entertain her and Maria wished her cousin could relax and enjoy it but she was clearly concerned about Maria and could not prevent herself from looking along the table every few minutes.

Benjamin Thurlow was seated almost opposite her. Maria deliberately did not look at him. After the brief happiness of their conversation earlier she felt embarrassed and humiliated. She did not know if he realised how she had been manoeuvred into this position but she felt as though every person in the room was waiting for her to show herself up by making a deliberate attempt to attach Lord Lowther. Maria could think of nothing worse. He was an arrogant boy and the expression on his face as he leaned towards her in conversation made her feel rather sick.

The first course was removed and the presence of the servants obliged his Lordship to draw back a little. Maria risked raising her eyes and to her surprise she found Thurlow looking directly at her. She met his gaze defiantly. He did not look away. Instead he gave a little smile and silently mouthed the words:

“Are you all right?”

Maria felt herself flush a little. She managed an answering smile and he gave an approving nod.

“Good girl.”

Beside her, Lowther gave a snort of irritation and she realised he had observed the little byplay although she did not think he would have understood what Thurlow had said unless he was directly opposite as she was. She lowered her eyes to her plate, which Lowther was filling with food she did not want.

“You’re not drinking, Miss Quayle. Here, I insist.”

She took the wine glass because if she had not intercepted it she would have ended up wearing its contents. Lowther toasted her with mocking courtesy and she gave a brief polite nod and took a tiny sip, setting the glass down. There was roast duck on her plate and she managed to eat a small slice. Beside her, Lowther was eating greedily.

“You ain’t eating, Miss Quayle. You need to eat or you’ll get too thin. A man don’t want a skinny waif of a girl. We like something rounded to hang on to.”

Incredibly she felt his hand on her thigh under the table. She shot him a furious glance and he grinned back at her and squeezed, massaging her flesh through the fine silk of her gown. Maria looked around her in agonised embarrassment. As far as she could tell, nobody could see what he was doing but she could not find her voice or think of any way to tell him to stop.

“That’s very nice,” Lowther said in a husky undertone. “Shame there’s so many people about. Keep still, now. No reason to make a scene.”

Maria remained silent. Suddenly she realised that embarrassment had been replaced by sheer fury. It was not the first time she had been subjected to the lecherous behaviour of a drunken man but she had been at home on the previous occasion and known exactly how to deal with it. She realised that she had been drawn into a false sense of panic. She knew exactly how to deal with it here as well.

She speared another slice of duck with her fork, put it into her mouth and chewed, then casually dropped her fork. It fell to the floor in front of Lowther. Maria gave an exclamation of dismay, removed her napkin and pushed back her chair a little. Lowther hastily removed his hand.

“I’m so sorry, my Lord. How clumsy of me.”

She bent swiftly, deliberately giving him an excellent view down the front of her gown. She did not need to look at him to know that he was making the most of it. A man like Lowther would always make the most of it.

His gaze riveted on her breasts, he did not see her pick up the fork. The first he knew of it was when she drove it hard into his leg through his pantaloons and silk stocking. He gave an agonised squawk and jumped to his feet. Maria set the fork back upon the table and looked up at him in astonishment.

“Are you quite well, my Lord?”

“I…you…you…”

The entire table had fallen silent. Everybody was staring at Lowther. Maria did the same, assuming a puzzled expression. After a long silence, General Sir George Cavendish said politely:

“Are you feeling unwell, my Lord?”

“I…yes. Yes. Feeling a trifle unwell, as you say. Please excuse me, sir. Ladies.”

He left the room at speed. Maria drew in her chair properly and looked at her plate, deciding that she had eaten enough. She reached for her wine glass and took a fortifying drink, feeling that it was probably safe to do so now. Returning the glass to the table she took a surreptitious glance at the polished floor. Several spots of blood marked Lord Lowther’s path from the room. Maria suddenly felt much better.

Conversation had gradually resumed around the table, though it was far more subdued. Maria risked a look at Benjamin Thurlow. She found him looking directly back at her. His mouth was grave but his eyes were smiling at her in an expression of pure delight. After a moment, Maria allowed her lips to curve in a proper smile. He responded immediately. She sat in pleasant silence, with no obligation to speak to anybody at all, smiling back at the most interesting man she had ever met.

***

“You stabbed him in the leg?” Benjamin said in disbelief.

They were riding side by side in the row. Ahead of them, Felicity was mounted on a pretty bay mare. Maria’s own horse was a silvery grey gelding. He was a little large for her but very well-mannered and she felt relaxed and at home.

“I had to do something. He was being very objectionable.”

“I’d worked that out. I was trying to decide how to intervene without causing a scene. I was hoping you’d fake a swoon or some such thing.”

“I did consider it but then I realised that wouldn’t have caused him any pain at all. I wondered if I could manage to be sick on him, but that would have been horrible for everybody else and my reputation in Town would have been beyond repair. Really, this was much better. Have I shocked you?”

“You’ve rather impressed me to be honest. Are you in the habit of stabbing any gentleman who offends you? I’m wondering if it’s a Manx custom. I’d like to be on my guard.”

Maria gave a peal of laughter. She had been dreading a backlash after the dreadful dinner party in Harley Street but to her surprise nobody mentioned it at all. Mr Thurlow had called the following day to ask her aunt for permission to take the two young ladies riding and Maria had spent an afternoon getting her cousin’s second riding habit altered to fit her.

They had ridden out several times since then. They had also been to both the theatre and the opera as his guest and had joined a party at Vauxhall. She had danced with him, decorously, for the regulation two dances at more than a dozen balls. She had discovered that he liked music and reading and was utterly uninterested in art and interior decorating. Felicity and Lieutenant Thurlow spent every social occasion floating on a cloud of happiness. Maria felt that her own cloud was wholly invisible. She was not at all sure if it was even real, but she wanted it to be; so badly that it hurt.

Thurlow had not mentioned Lord Lowther at all until today, for which Maria was deeply grateful. She was not sure why he had done so now. Either his curiosity had got the better of him or he felt that their friendship had become comfortable enough for him to raise an awkward subject. She was surprised to realise that he was right. She did not feel embarrassed at all.

“It isn’t generally done in polite society, even on our provincial little island. But I’ll admit it isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with an over-familiar gentleman. I was once obliged to slap Mr Orry Gelling for trying to kiss me at a Christmas party and I once tipped lemonade over Robert Callister’s brand new yellow pantaloons because he made an offensive remark about the cut of my gown.”

“He insulted your fashion sense?”

“No, he expressed inappropriate enthusiasm for the height of my neckline. It was a valuable lesson for both of us. I realised that there was a reason my mother told me it was too low and he learned to drink less at St Catherine’s Fair. Rob was harmless enough. Just very young and stupid. Gelling was genuinely unpleasant but he never gave me much trouble.”

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. I hope you won’t be offended, ma’am, but I’ve spoken to Lowther about his behaviour that day.”

Maria looked at him in astonishment. “What on earth did you say? Was that appropriate, sir? He’s a lord and…”

“He’s a drunken young idiot. I’m ten years his senior and in no way dependent on his patronage or his goodwill. I don’t give a d… a hoot about his rank. I’ve informed him that the next time I see him annoying a respectable girl I’m going to take the trouble to speak to his father very specifically about it. That’s if he’s lucky. If he’s unlucky my brother will get to him first.”

Maria laughed. She felt warm and secure and very happy. “Your brother has a very good reason for wanting to remain in my good books, sir.”

He grinned. “That’s very true. But he likes you for yourself, ma’am. Look, I’ve something to ask you. I should really speak to your aunt first but a very sensible woman I once knew assured me that a gentleman should never assume anything. Don’t panic, I’m not about to propose. But I wondered what your aunt has planned for Christmas? People are already beginning to leave Town and within a week or so it will be deserted until Parliament resumes in January. Do you have plans?”

Maria shook her head. “No, we’ll spend it quietly at home. My aunt has a small country estate in Wiltshire but she rents it out. She doesn’t usually entertain much. She’ll probably invite one or two old friends for dinner.”

“It sounds very dull.”

“It will be very peaceful. I’m not sure I’ll mind, after the past two months. What of you, sir?”

“That’s why I’m asking. We usually go home to Comerby. It’s our country home in Kent, just north of Dover. My brother Will holds the living at the Parish Church in the village. It’ll be the first Christmas without my father and the last we’ll see of Ed for a while. He’s been told that he’ll be recalled to duty early next year.”

“Surely not with Sir John Moore? I read that his army is in retreat.”

“We don’t really know what’s happening with Moore yet, though the rumour in the House is that it’s nothing good. In the meantime they’re wasting time and energy with this inquiry into the Cintra treaty when we should be…” Thurlow stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m becoming distracted.”

“I’m interested.”

“I know you are, ma’am and I’d love to talk further with you about it. And about so many other things. I was wondering…we’ll probably spend two or three weeks at Comerby. It won’t be a big party though I believe Ed has invited Lieutenant Spencer and the Jacksons will be joining us. My brother is very well aware that he’s running out of time and it would make so much difference if your aunt would consider joining us this Christmas.”

Maria’s heart was beating unevenly. She raised her eyes to meet his. They were smiling hopefully at her.

“You should ask my aunt, Mr Thurlow. It will be her decision.”

“I’m hoping you’ll support it.”

“Of course I will. I have no idea if my aunt will agree to a formal betrothal. Felicity is still very young. But I know how much she likes your brother.”

“I agree with Mrs Harcourt, ma’am and I’ve told Ed so. They’re both far too young for anything formal. I think they’re very well-suited both in position and temperament but he has a career to build and she’s only been out of the schoolroom for five minutes. If Christmas goes well and they’re both of the same mind by the time he’s called back to the front, I’m going to suggest an informal agreement between the two families. That way, they can write to each other and get to know each other better.”

“That’s a very good idea.”

“I thought so,” he said rather smugly. “It’ll give him the chance to decide if he’s really ready to settle down and it’ll give her the chance to understand what it means to marry an army officer without committing to anything publicly. Much easier and kinder this way, if one of them wants to withdraw.”

“If only Lord Calverton had thought of that,” Maria said wistfully and enjoyed the gleam of amusement in his eyes.

“He clearly needed good advice from his friends, ma’am.”

“Or an ounce of common sense,” Maria said scathingly. “I approve of your idea, sir and I think my aunt will agree. I own it will be much nicer to spend Christmas in the country with friends instead of in Town. All the same, the gossips are going to assume this means you approve of your brother paying his addresses to Felicity and that you’ve invited us for that reason.”

Mr Thurlow gave one of his pleasantly neutral smiles but his eyes sparkled with amusement. “Let them assume what they like, ma’am. My motives are none of their business. Unfortunately I think we’re going to have to turn back. The wind is picking up and I suspect it’s going to rain. Also I have a mountain of paperwork awaiting me on my desk. Shall I see you at Almack’s tomorrow?”

“Almack’s?” Maria stared at him in astonishment. “Are you quite well, Mr Thurlow? You never attend Almack’s. You once told me it was the most insipid entertainment you’ve ever experienced in your life.”

“I wasn’t wrong either, was I?”

She gave a gurgle of laughter and shook her head reprovingly. “No. It is dreadful. But so very good for Felicity to be seen there.”

“Which is why my brother insists on going. I’ve told him I disapprove and I intend to go tomorrow to check that he isn’t getting into bad company there.”

“Bad company at Almack’s? I only wish it were possible.”

“It’s definitely possible ma’am, since I believe they’ll even admit Lord Lowther providing he’s wearing the regulation knee breeches.”

“Do you even possess a pair of knee breeches?”

“Just one. I save them for special occasions. Do you think the gossips are going to question my motives for making an appearance at Almack’s as well, ma’am?”

“Dear sir, I think they’re going to assume you have gone mad.”

His smile made her heart lift with simple happiness. “Perhaps I have,” he said. “But I’ve never enjoyed myself this much in my life. Come on, we’ll need to canter if we’re to avoid a soaking. Let me call my idiot brother. Honestly, when he’s with your cousin he wouldn’t notice an earthquake.”

***

They spent Christmas very happily, their pleasure marred only by the dreadful news coming in from Portugal. Sir John Moore’s army had been forced into an ignominious and dangerous retreat to Corunna across the mountains in winter. Benjamin allowed his brother to read the news aloud, including the ladies in the party. Observing Felicity Harcourt’s white face as she watched Edwin’s set, grim expression, he thought that this was the first time she had seriously had to imagine what her future husband might face on campaign. It might also give her an insight into the agony of a woman waiting at home for news.

Benjamin liked Felicity Harcourt very much and loved his brother. He did not want either of them hurt by finding themselves trapped in an unhappy marriage. After considerable discussion over the Christmas season, it had been agreed that the young couple would be permitted to enter into an informal engagement but that no announcement would be made until Felicity was twenty. Both had railed against such a lengthy period of time but Benjamin had privately pointed out to his brother that long engagements could easily be shortened if both parties agreed and proved the constancy of their affection. He understood Mrs Harcourt’s reluctance to agree to anything more binding while her daughter was so young and while Edwin was overseas. He also thought Edwin was too young to be sure of his feelings but he had more tact than to say so.

The party broke up in January and Mrs Harcourt and her charges travelled back to London to sift their way through a pile of invitations for the remainder of the Season. Benjamin caught up with his correspondence and a collection of business matters, dined with several friends and took his place in the House of Commons. Mr Wainwright in particular, made several pointed remarks about how distracted he was. Benjamin knew perfectly well that his old friend was fishing for information. He declined to give any.

Lieutenant Thurlow was shocked into silence at the news of the battle which had taken place on the shores of Corunna, where Sir John Moore gave his life to keep the French at bay. The ragged remains of the British army embarked for home leaving their stores and equipment, their pride and too many of their dead comrades behind. London whispered that the war was lost and that Bonaparte would surely turn his attention to England again once he had time to build up his navy.

Benjamin discounted any such rumours but the mood in both the House and the City was gloomy and newspapers wrote of Corunna as a defeat. Journalists were equally scathing when the inquiry into the Cintra peace treaty returned a favourable verdict for all three generals involved. Edwin ranted over the breakfast table at the corruption of politicians and Benjamin poured more coffee and pushed it towards him.

“Try not to sound like an idiot, Ed, when I know you’re not one. They could never have censured men with the rank and experience of Burrard and Dalrymple. It would be bad for morale, especially at the moment. As for Sir Arthur Wellesley, there are rumours he’s to be given the command in Portugal.”

“I’d heard rumours they were thinking of calling up the Earl of Chatham,” Edwin said glumly.

“Don’t listen to gossip. Chatham wouldn’t want it anyway. Apart from anything else, his wife is still far from well and he doesn’t want to be that far away from her. They’ll give it to Wellesley because everybody knows he was responsible for the victories at Vimeiro and Rolica and the government will want to concentrate public opinion on those and away from the Corunna debacle. Wellesley is perfect for their needs. He’s an experienced general, he’s still fairly young and he has excellent family connections. On the other hand, he’s not so well-connected that they can’t ditch him if it goes wrong. I wonder if he knows that?”

Edwin drained his cup. He looked suddenly more cheerful. “Have you met him, Ben?”

“Not personally, though I’ve seen him around of course. I think I was once introduced to his brother.”

“Well if you had, you’d realise he’s not an idiot either. I hope he gets it. We might be able to do something under Wellesley. Look Ben, I haven’t mentioned it to Felicity yet, but I’ve received my orders. I need to get my kit and uniform organised and report to barracks in four weeks.”

Benjamin felt a hollow sense of sickness. “Do you know where?”

“Not yet. They’re placing bets at the Shorncliffe Club. Odds are favouring a return to Portugal, which fits in with what you’ve been told about Wellesley. There are outside odds on South America, India, Cape Town and some kind of expedition to the Scheldt.”

Benjamin’s attention sharpened. “The Scheldt? Where the hell did you hear that?”

Edwin looked surprised, then his eyes narrowed and he leaned back in his chair. “Not from you, brother. What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything; it’s just an idea that seems to pop up from time to time. According to Sir Anthony it goes back to Pitt’s day. I occasionally hear it rumbling around and I was just curious.”

“Sorry, I know nothing. Do you need me for anything today? I’d like to call on Felicity. I want to speak to her alone about this before she hears it from somebody else.”

“Your time is your own. If you want to catch her alone I’d go this afternoon. I happen to know that Miss Quayle won’t be at home and I’m sure Mrs Harcourt won’t mind giving you a bit of time with your girl.”

As he had expected, his brother eyed him with amused interest. “You’re very well informed about the movements of Miss Quayle, brother. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. At least, there is but it’s of no interest to you. Miss Quayle expressed an interest in seeing the House of Commons so I’ve arranged to take her on a private tour.”

“Private?”

“I’m sure she’ll bring her maid with her.”

“It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t, she’ll be perfectly safe with you, Ben. Depressingly so.”

“What do you mean?” Benjamin said indignantly.

“I was so bloody sure you’d ask her over Christmas. Felicity certainly was. When you didn’t, I thought you’d changed your mind and decided you wouldn’t suit after all. Which would be a pity because I think you would suit very well. But here you are inviting her on tedious tours. What’s going on, Ben?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. Mind your own bloody business.”

Edwin raised his eyebrows. “Do you want to marry the girl or not?”

“Yes.” Benjamin said.

“Well why the hell didn’t you ask her? You had two weeks of perfect opportunities.”

“I couldn’t find the right moment.”

“What in God’s name do you mean, you couldn’t find the right moment? You had more than fourteen days. Twelve or more waking hours in each day. Sixty minutes in each of those hours. Sixty seconds in each of those minutes. How long do you need? Look, I’ll show you. I’ll time it.”

To Benjamin’s immense irritation he took out his pocket watch and laid it on the table then clasped his hand dramatically to his heart.

“Miss Quayle – dearest Maria. I love you. Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?” Edwin picked up the watch and waved it at him. “Ten seconds. Without the pause for effect, you could do it in five. Do you love her?”

“Of course I bloody love her.”

“Well why didn’t you ask her then? I thought that was the point of the whole house party and that Felicity and I were just a smoke screen.”

“You were.”

“And?”

“I lost my nerve,” Ben ground out.

His younger brother sat staring at him in complete astonishment. “You lost your nerve? What, for two weeks? How many times during that period did you try to propose to her, Ben?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen?” Edwin’s voice was hushed; almost awed. “You nearly proposed to her seventeen times in fourteen days?”

“Yes.”

“You counted?”

“Yes.”

“Christ, brother! Thank God you never joined the army. You’d have run like a rabbit at the first sight of a Frenchman.”

“I’m not normally this much of a coward. I’m worried that I’ve spoiled my chances, Ed. Since we got back I’ve not had a chance to speak to her alone. That’s why I thought this tour was a good idea. Do you think there’s any chance she realised that I was thinking of asking her over Christmas and then didn’t?”

Edwin looked like a man driven beyond reasonable endurance. “Seventeen times? Ben, I’m surprised she hasn’t hit you with a brick. The poor girl must have convinced herself that you’ve thought better of the whole thing. Either that or she’ll think you’ve got a nervous tic of some kind.”

“I thought if we do this tour first…”

“Stop right there. There will be no tour. She doesn’t want a bloody tour of the Houses of Parliament, Benjamin. Go and get changed. Wear something more interesting than those boring suits of yours. A decent cravat at the very least. Go over to Wimpole Street. Ask to speak to her alone and tell her you want to marry her.”

“What if she says no?”

“Then it will serve you bloody well right. She’s not going to say no, Ben. She watches you as if you’re a combination of Sir Lancelot and St George rolled into one, though God knows why. Ask the girl to marry you and put us all out of our misery.”

“What if I lose my nerve again?”

“You won’t. I know this because I’m coming with you and I’ll be waiting outside. If you walk out that door and you’re not betrothed to Miss Quayle I am going to throw you into the Serpentine.”

“That’s a bit of a walk.”

“I’ll make the bloody effort. Get moving.”

***

Maria was writing letters in the parlour when the housemaid announced Mr Thurlow. She rose and went forward to greet him, wondering if she had mistaken the time. He was two hours early.

“Mr Thurlow, how do you do? I was not expecting you so soon. Have I made a mistake, or are you about to tell me that we must postpone our visit?”

Thurlow looked back at her. He seemed temporarily bereft of speech. Maria waited for a moment and decided that he was trying to frame his excuses. She quashed her disappointment firmly and indicated a chair.

“Do sit down. My aunt is with my cousin at present; she has a dress fitting. I expect she will be down soon.”

Thurlow sat. Maria did the same. She was surprised when he immediately got to his feet again.

“Miss Quayle, do you remember when we first met? I had just given my maiden speech in the House.”

Maria smiled. “Of course I remember,” she said warmly. “I have been told many times how well you did.”

“It was extremely nerve-wracking but once it was done, I can remember telling myself that I would never again be that nervous about making a speech. It was a satisfying thought.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“It was also completely erroneous. I’m trying to make a speech now and I can’t get to the end of a simple sentence. I feel as though I’ve been trying to say this one sentence for weeks. Months. Forever.”

“Mr Thurlow, please sit down and don’t upset yourself. We’re friends. There’s nothing you can’t say to me.”

He paused, staring at her. Maria was becoming a little concerned about the slightly wild expression in the brown eyes. She wondered, not for the first time recently, if he was unwell.

“Yes,” he said finally, in heavy tones. “Yes there is. There is one thing that I absolutely can’t bring myself to say to you, ma’am.”

“Heavens, what on earth is it? Surely it cannot be that bad.”

“It is very bad. For me, at least. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, bring myself to the point of asking you to marry me. It’s been at least a month since my first attempt and I’m becoming exhausted.”

There was a long and painful silence in the room, broken only by the loud ticking of the carriage clock. Maria decided after a while that he was not going to speak again. She did not think he was capable of speech. At this moment neither was she. Her entire world was suddenly flooded with happiness. She looked at her love and understood that he did not yet realise that he had finally managed to say the words.

Maria decided that she was going to have to intervene. She got up, walked over, took his hand and led him to the padded window seat then pushed him down and sat beside him, not letting go of his hand.

“Mr Thurlow – did you really mean to say that?”

“Yes,” he said fervently. “Oh God yes. I really said it, didn’t I?”

Maria thought about it. “Actually, I think you told me that you could not say it.”

“But I did tell you what I’ve been unable to say?”

She was beginning to feel laughter bubbling up. He was studying her hopefully and he reminded her unaccountably of one of her father’s favourite spaniels.

“You did.”

“Now that I’ve said it…Maria, do you think you could?”

Happiness spilled over into laughter. She reached out and cupped his beloved face in one hand.

“Benjamin, let me reassure you that if you ever manage to get up the nerve to ask me to marry you, I am going to say yes. But you were so right to check with me first.”

He was beginning to laugh as well, the tension draining out of him. He covered her hand with his big square one and leaned forward to kiss her. Maria closed her eyes. For all the uncertainty of his words, there was nothing at all uncertain about his kiss. They remained locked together for a long time. When he finally drew back, he was smiling at her.

“Marry me, Maria Quayle. I need you to manage me; I’m utterly hopeless.”

“No you’re not. And I would love to marry you, Benjamin Thurlow. Did I ever tell you that I came to London specifically to fall in love?”

“You didn’t. I wish you’d mentioned it sooner, sweetheart. It would have made this so much easier. We should tell your aunt and your cousin. And I must write to your father for permission. First though, do you mind if I let Edwin in? He’s on the doorstep.”

Maria was bewildered. “Of course. But whatever is he doing out there?”

Benjamin kissed her again and got up. “Guard duty,” he said, and went to admit his brother.

The Yule Log

Welcome to the Yule Log, my Christmas short story for 2023. I hope you enjoy it. As always it’s free on my website so please share as much as you like.

Most of my short stories are set very firmly within the years of the Peninsular War but his one is slightly different. In terms of the chronology it’s the earliest story I’ve written so far. It’s an unashamed romance. I think in difficult times it’s good for all of us to enjoy a bit of escapism.

Those who aren’t familiar with the ever-changing map of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might be confused by the suggestion that Antwerp is part of the Netherlands. In fact the Kingdom of Belgium only came into being in 1830 and prior to that it would have been usual to refer to the citizens of Antwerp as Dutch.

The featured image is a nineteenth century  painting by Robert Alexander Hillingford (1825-1904)  of the Yule Log being brought in at Hever Castle and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

This story is dedicated to my editor and very good friend Heather Paisley of Dieudonne Editorial Services since she asked me to write it. I’m glad she did because I really enjoyed it. I hope you do too.

The Yule Log is available here as a pdf.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you.

The Yule Log

The ladies were in the small parlour working on their stitchery when Lord Tevington arrived home. It was late afternoon and already growing dark. There had been flurries of snow throughout the long day and Lady Tevington had fretted about the condition of the roads and the likelihood of his lordship completing the journey today.

The Honourable Georgiana Henthorne rang for the tea tray while her mother fussed over her husband, who was tired, cold and slightly damp. He had used his personal chaise for the journey which leaked rather badly in inclement weather. Georgiana thought that he might have been more comfortable on the mail coach and it would certainly have been quicker, but she knew that it would not have occurred to her father to use a public coach.

When he was finally seated among his family with a glass of brandy and a cold supper, his Lordship gave a contented sigh. The ladies drank tea and waited to hear the account of his visit to London.

Lord Tevington did not generally return to Town once he had retired to his Leicestershire estate after the Season. He was a man of fixed habits and though he conscientiously performed his Parliamentary duties each year, he much preferred to spend his time in the country. This year he had been summoned back to attend to a legal matter. An elderly female cousin had died, leaving her estate to Georgiana. It was a modest legacy, but worth having to a girl who, despite a very respectable marriage portion, had not yet managed to find herself a husband.

At the age of twenty-two, Georgiana was not especially anxious about her unmarried status. She was the only child of affectionate parents and had not felt pressured into making an early marriage, although she suspected that her mother was beginning to wish she would put a little more effort into it. She had spent three Seasons in London and had received several offers of marriage including one from her cousin Edward who would inherit the title and the entailed estates on her father’s death. Georgiana liked Edward and knew that her mother would have been delighted by such a neat solution but she could not bring herself to marry her cousin. They had been raised too closely for her to consider him as a husband and she suspected that he felt the same way and had only made the offer from a sense of duty.

Lord Tevington was not old and was in good health so there was no urgency about Georgiana’s marriage but she knew her mother would like to see her settled. The Leicestershire property would go to the next Viscount, along with a neat little estate in Suffolk and a sprawling property in Northumberland but the London properties, including her father’s elegant house on Curzon Street, were not entailed and would go to Georgiana along with a respectable income derived mostly from Government bonds and some East India Company shares. She was not a great heiress but she was a good prospect and did not fear being left on the shelf. The problem was that she was content in her position as a daughter at home and had not met any man she liked well enough to persuade her to change it.

Her father gave his account of his meeting with the lawyer and moved on to more general news. London was thin of company this close to Christmas but he had dined with several gentlemen who, like himself, were in Town on business and was thus able to give his wife and daughter an account of two betrothals and one surprisingly hasty marriage which Tevington personally thought might be an elopement.

“Caroline Maitland would never have eloped,” Georgiana said, much entertained. “Only think of the discomfort and inconvenience at this time of year. She will not even walk in the park if it looks likely to rain, and that is in the height of summer. All the same, she has been pining after Bennington this past year and I don’t think her father was enthusiastic. I wonder how she persuaded him.”

“Perhaps she threatened to go into a decline,” Lady Tevington said with interest. “It can be surprisingly effective. One of the girls I knew from my first season managed a shockingly bad marriage by convincing her Papa that she would waste away.”

Tevington snorted. “I doubt that would work with Sir James Maitland, my dear. He’s too busy nursing his own imaginary illnesses to care about his daughter’s. I wonder if…”

He stopped abruptly and Georgiana giggled. “Don’t be so stuffy, Papa. Do you think she managed to get herself into a compromising position?”

“Something of the kind,” her father admitted dryly. “That would certainly speed the wedding plans along nicely. Don’t consider it, Georgiana. Your mother wants her day in church and a new hat.”

“In our daughter’s case I shall be thankful if she can find a man who meets her extremely high standards,” Lady Tevington said, setting down her tea cup. “How was Sir William Marley? Was Lady Marley with him in Town?”

“No, they’re settled in Sussex for Christmas. He was only there to visit his dentist. Poor fellow had a tooth drawn and could only dine on soup and burgundy when we met. Not that it seemed to upset him after the second bottle. He tells me Lord Chatham is unwell again with the gout. The way Marley is drinking, I should think he’ll be the same way within a year or two.”

“At least the Earl will not have to manage the Government in such great pain this year. I hope his family are taking good care of him.”

The conversation moved on to the repercussions of the recent and dramatic resignation of the Earl of Chatham from the Government over the adoption of a more hardline policy towards the American colonies. Georgiana was interested in politics but had heard most of this before and she allowed her mind to drift. She was considering which gown to wear for the evening party being given at Dennington Hall the following Thursday when her father said:

“By the way, my dear, we have a social problem to solve. I ran into old Dixon and he tells me the new owner has taken possession of Southwinds for the Christmas season.”

“Has he?” Lady Tevington said. She sounded appalled. “Oh dear. I was hoping he would not arrive until next year and that you might meet him informally. We know so little about him. It is awkward to have to decide whether to invite him or not.”

“Well we know he’s a Nabob and he’s just left the East India service with a pile of money he’s unlikely to have come by honestly,” Tevington said grimly. “He’s not married, which makes it a little easier. I’ll have to call I suppose, but you don’t need to.”

“Is he a widower?” Georgiana asked idly.

“Very likely. Or maybe he never married at all. They often don’t. The climate isn’t suitable for ladies. He’s not English by the way. Dutch apparently. I believe he started out with the Dutch company as a clerk and took employment with the English one in Calcutta to improve his prospects. He’s done well by all accounts. Bought Southwinds off old Elworth and has hired a London house. Setting himself up as a merchant with a couple of ships and an office in the City. Dixon had dinner with him in Town. He seemed impressed.”

His wife made a noise of contempt. “How old is he? We all know that Sir John is desperate to find a husband for Amabel.”

“Even he cannot intend to marry the poor girl to a red-faced, middle-aged East India merchant with a shady past and a bulbous nose,” Georgiana said dispassionately. “At least, I presume he does not. I shall have to protect her.”

“I don’t think Amabel Dixon is in need of your protection, my love,” Lady Tevington said. “Give her one whiff of his fortune and I suspect she will fail to notice the bulbous nose and advancing years.”

They laughed together and Lord Tevington shook his head in mock reproof. “The poor man. You have annihilated his character and appearance and married him off to Dixon’s desperate daughter without ever setting eyes on him. I’ll call tomorrow and give you my verdict, and if he seems respectable enough perhaps we can invite him to dinner, my dear. It will be good to have Southwinds occupied again. It’s been closed up for far too long.”

“Well if you do wish to invite him, we will do it separately from the Dixons, my lord. Whatever he is like, I am not having that girl make a spectacle of herself trying to attach him around my dinner table. Ring for them to collect the tray please, Georgiana. I think your father will be ready for his bed early tonight.”

“I will. It’s been a long and tiring day but it improved substantially towards the end. Goodnight, Georgiana.”

***

Georgiana spent the following morning accompanying her mother on a series of errands about the estate, followed by a tedious hour addressing invitation cards for the Christmas Eve party. There were a number of well-born families who had returned to the country for the Christmas season and, over the years, they had developed their own customs and traditions which made the wheels of social interaction run smoothly. It was accepted that the Tevingtons hosted a party on Christmas Eve, the Carletons held a ball at New Year and various other families organised dinners, receptions and breakfasts to keep their neighbours entertained through the season. Georgiana enjoyed it, though she sometimes arrived at Twelfth Night feeling that she needed a month to recover from so much socialising and such enormous quantities of food.

She saw nothing of her father until shortly before the dinner hour when he joined his womenfolk in the parlour once again. He was dressed in riding clothes which was his usual daytime attire in the country. His wife gave him a pointed look and he grinned, taking off his tricorn hat.

“I know, I know. Plenty of time to change, my dear. How was your day?”

“Busy, as you can see. We have finished the invitations and I went to see poor Evans who is still laid up with that broken ankle.”

“Ha. Serves him right to be climbing ladders at his age. We have farmhands for that kind of thing. Is he all right? I’ll go over myself tomorrow; I want to talk to him about the west paddock.”

“He is much better although very bored. I think Mrs Evans would be very pleased if you would distract him a little. Have you had a good day, my lord?”

“Yes, very good. Went about the estate a bit, then gave Samuel the chance to stretch his legs out towards Quorndon. Nice bright day, I hope it holds out for the hunt. And I went to call on our new neighbour.”

“The Nabob? That was very diligent of you, my lord,” his wife said approvingly. “For that you shall have a glass of sherry and tell us your verdict. Is he presentable or not?”

Her husband took the sherry and shot her a rather guilty look. “I think so. I hope you’ll think so. The thing is, my dear, I got rather carried away and invited him to dine.”

His wife looked horrified. “Charles, you did not! Without asking me?”

“Oh nonsense, it’s nothing formal. I warned him he’ll be taking pot luck. We’ve no other guests today after all. He’s got old Stillington in from Melton Mowbray, installing a new kitchen range. I couldn’t leave the poor man to subsist off cold meat, bread and cheese in this weather. It wouldn’t be neighbourly. Anyway I rather liked the fellow.”

Georgiana was laughing. “Don’t look so worried, Mama. At least it will be a private dinner and if his table manners are dreadful you’ll be able to warn all the neighbours before Christmas.”

“I suppose so. Do you think we need to dress formally, my lord?”

“Definitely not, because I told him there was no need for him to do so. That way he can come on horseback. Got a neat-looking bay in his stables. Good hunter, I’d say. I told him I’d ride over one morning and introduce him to Meynell, if he has a mind to hunt.”

“And does he?” his wife said doubtfully. “You said he is Dutch but he must have spent much of his time in India. Is his English good?”

“Emily, you are being foolish now. He’s worked for the Company since he was fifteen. He speaks English as well as I do, though with an accent to be sure. He’s not at all what you thought, I give you my word.”

“No bulbous nose and red face?” Georgiana teased.

Her father turned amused grey eyes onto her. “Not that I could see,” he said. “As a matter of fact he’s not even middle-aged. Made his fortune young, he tells me, working for the company and trading for himself.”

“In slaves?”

“No, miss. In diamonds. And if I’m not mistaken, when Amabel Dixon claps eyes on him we’re going to have to set a guard around him.”

There was a stunned silence, then Lady Tevington said in commanding tones:

“My lord – you are not suggesting that a common merchant would make a suitable husband for our daughter are you?”

“Good God, no. When she deigns to make up her mind, I think we can manage something more suitable for Georgiana. But he’s a single man with good manners and a pile of money and if I’m any judge he’s about to make a lot more. Not a match for a Tevington, but some young female is going to do very well for herself.”

***

Franz van Daan rode the short distance to Tevington Hall composing mental lists of jobs still to be done. If Lord Tevington had not issued his impromptu invitation, he would have been perfectly happy sitting at the library table with a plate of bread and cheese and a bottle of wine, writing instructions to his newly employed office staff in London and the captains of his two merchantmen who were currently overseeing the refitting of his ships in Southampton.

It was not the best time to be away from his desk but London was deserted at present. Even the merchants and bankers of the City had retreated to the comfort of their newly-built mansions. Parliament was in recess and Franz reluctantly accepted that there was nothing that he could do from Town that could not be done from his new country estate. He decided that it would be cowardice to hide in London, to avoid the possible awkwardness of a solitary Christmas in the country where he knew nobody. Social acceptance would come in time, hopefully with the right marriage and the right friends.

Money was the key to that, whatever the aristocracy pretended. At thirty-one he had made a small fortune already, but he had not finished yet. The younger son of a respectable merchant from Antwerp, he had firmly rejected the offer to work in the family business with his brother and had taken himself off to India, initially as a clerk with the Dutch East India Company. He had quickly recognised that there was no future in that crumbling organisation and had found an opening in the English company instead. He had worked hard, learned fast and taken every chance he had been given. He had been ruthless and at times even unscrupulous in trade, though never in lives unlike some of his counterparts.

He had reached the limits of what the Company could offer him and had weighed up his options. Remaining in the East and trading outside the company was difficult and likely to make enemies of men he might need as friends in the future. Returning to Europe and setting up for himself was a better option. He chose London instead of Antwerp because he had good contacts in the City. He chose, right from the start, to spend money setting himself up as a gentleman. He did not yet have the lifestyle to go with it, but Southwinds and his London house were a statement of intent.

Franz knew that Tevington’s invitation had been issued on a whim after a friendly discussion about horses, reliable local tradesmen and the political turmoil in London. He wondered if the man had regretted it before he reached home and wondered if the wife and daughter would be tactfully absent for the meal, leaving the two men to enjoy a comfortable masculine dinner together. Franz would be perfectly happy with that. If his acquaintance with Tevington flourished, other invitations would follow.

He was a little surprised to be shown into an elegant drawing room where the ladies were present. None of the family had dressed formally and Franz did not feel particularly out of place in his well-cut dark suit. Tevington came forward to greet him with a slightly forced jollity which told Franz that he had probably been scolded by his wife for inviting a stranger who might not be a suitable acquaintance.

“Welcome, Mr van Daan. Come and be introduced. My dears, this is Mr Franz van Daan of Antwerp and more lately of Calcutta. He is of course the new owner of Southwinds. Sir, this is my wife, Lady Tevington and my daughter, Miss Georgiana Henthorne.”

Lady Tevington offered her hand graciously. “It is good to meet you, Mr van Daan. I understand you are currently without a kitchen at Southwinds.”

“I am, ma’am. What is worse however is that I am without a cook. The man I employed in London is currently on the road with my valet, two footmen and the rest of my luggage. They are evidently taking a circuitous route. I am very grateful for this.”

Lady Tevington laughed. She had a nice laugh and a pleasant manner. Despite the fact that she had clearly been pushed into this by her husband she was friendly and welcoming and by the time they sat down at the dining table, Franz was beginning to enjoy himself.

Lord Tevington asked him questions about his time in India and his wife made tactful enquiries about his family in Antwerp. Neither made it feel like an interrogation, although Franz was sure that the information would be conveyed to their friends and neighbours along with a recommendation about his suitability as a guest. He thought it was going well and felt a sense of gratitude to the Factor in charge of his district in Calcutta who had bullied the boys under his charge mercilessly into learning languages, perfect accounting practices and the manners of a gentleman. Franz had always been a quick learner.

The girl was quiet at first and Franz wondered if she was naturally shy or if she had been instructed not to engage too much with an unmarried gentleman who could not possibly be seen as a suitable husband for the daughter of a Viscount. Franz studied her without being too obvious and decided that a man on the lookout for a wife could find no fault with Georgiana Henthorne. She was of medium height for a woman and was probably in her early twenties. She was dressed in an elegant French-style robe in green and white with flounced sleeves, the skirts worn over modest hoops and she wore her dark brown hair swept up to display an attractive oval face with lovely grey eyes and good skin.

The food was excellent and Franz decided that this was definitely better than a cold supper with only work for company. He could sense his hostess relaxing as the meal progressed.

“What made you decide to settle in England, Mr van Daan, rather than returning to your family?”

“Ambition, ma’am. London is the trading centre of the world. I’ve worked for the East India Company for twelve years. I’ve made friends and good contacts and they’re all based in London. I was a boy when I left Antwerp. I’ve been back home to visit once or twice, but the business I want to build will be based in England.”

“An honest answer,” Tevington said. “What do your family make of it?”

“My mother died five years ago and father followed her two years later. His business is run by my older brother Andries. He trades largely with Africa and travels between Antwerp and Cape Town. He’s recently built a house there.”

“I am sure your parents would be very proud of you,” Lady Tevington said warmly. “Do you stay in Leicestershire for the Christmas season?”

“I do, ma’am. There’s a good deal to do at Southwinds. I’ve taken on Sir Jasper Elworth’s old estate manager and he’ll run the place when I’m away but I’d like to get the house in order.”

Her ladyship gave a little laugh. “In case of a future Mrs van Daan?”

“I hope so one day, ma’am. Not for a while. I see a lot of hard work and some more travelling in my immediate future.”

“You are a very ambitious young man. It is admirable. Still, I hope you will take some time off during this Christmas to meet your neighbours. We always give a party on Christmas Eve. Not a formal ball but there will be dancing and all the young people in the district will attend. I hope we can count on you.”

Unexpectedly, Georgiana Henthorne raised her eyes from her plate. “What my mother is trying to tell you, Mr van Daan, is that there are plenty of respectable unmarried girls in the area and it never hurts to plan ahead a little.”

Lady Tevington gave a splutter of indignant denial. The girl was studying Franz with dancing grey eyes, inviting him to share the joke. Franz was taken aback but her sheer effrontery made him laugh aloud.

“Thank you so much for the warning, Miss Henthorne. Do you have anybody in particular in mind for me, or do you require a longer acquaintance before you select my future wife?”

The girl gave a peal of laughter and Franz decided that there was not a particle of shyness in Lord Tevington’s apparently reserved daughter.

“I have a number of possibilities,” she said. “But if you are not currently hanging out for a wife, you may miss out on some of them. Still, I will introduce you to them all and you must ask for advice when you need it.”

“Georgiana, you will be putting poor Mr van Daan to the blush,” her mother said in mild reproof, though Franz could see that Tevington was laughing.

“Am I? I’m sorry, Mr van Daan, I am just teasing a little. And I do think it right to put you on your guard. We do not have respectable gentlemen of fortune moving into the district by the dozen. You are about to become terrifyingly popular.”

Franz raised his glass in an ironic salute. “I look forward to it, Miss Henthorne,” he said solemnly.

***

After dinner, Lord Tevington took his guest on a tour of the stables. The Dutchman declined an offer to drink tea with them afterwards, citing pressure of work and set off into a dark, frosty night back to Southwinds. His lordship saw him off then returned to the drawing room.

“Very interesting man. Shouldn’t be surprised to see him do very well in the City. He’s clearly intelligent, he’s not afraid of hard work and he has the manners of a gentleman.”

“Clearly he is from a respectable family. If we can save him from the clutches of Amabel Dixon, my lord, I can think of a number of girls who would do very well with him. Elizabeth Jackson comes to mind. She is possibly a little young for him, but he is in no hurry it seems. Or there is Jane Betteridge. A very sweet girl.”

“I knew it,” Georgiana said triumphantly. “Thank goodness I had the wit to put him upon his guard a little. Elizabeth Jackson is a vapid ninny and Jane Betteridge would bore him senseless in a week. If you are going to choose the man a wife, Mama, you had better spread your net a little wider. There are plenty of interesting girls in London.”

“It is unlikely that he will be moving in the same circles as us in London, Georgiana,” her mother said reprovingly.

“Do you think so? Well I have only spent three hours in the man’s company, but I predict he’ll be presented at court within three years. Services to trade. Possibly a knighthood in the future. A seat in Parliament even. I don’t think there are any limits to Mr Franz van Daan’s ambitions, Mama. I’m surprised you can’t see it.”

“I have a feeling your daughter is right, my dear,” Tevington said. He sounded amused. “He’d be a fool to throw himself away on a girl who might hold him back in the future. And I agree, Georgiana. If he attends our dance, he is going to be the object of half the matchmaking Mamas in Leicestershire. Perhaps instead of offering to find him a wife, you should be offering to protect him.”

“My lord, that is not at all suitable,” his wife said repressively. “I would not want to give the young man ideas.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll engage to make it clear to him that Georgiana is going to marry a Marquess at the very least.”

“A Duke. I insist upon a Duke.”

“I don’t think there are any Dukes available, my love,” her mother said regretfully.

“Well if there are, they’re all corpulent, related to royalty and engaged in wholly unsuitable relationships with women of a certain kind. Very well, no Dukes. But as long as Mr van Daan is very clear that he cannot possibly marry me, I don’t see why we cannot be friends, do you? He is a very interesting man.”

“Exactly,” her father said warmly. “I’m taking him over to meet Meynell in the morning. I’ll drop a tactful hint on the way, just to be sure, but I don’t think we’ve anything to worry about. That young man’s mind is focussed on increasing his fortune, not matrimony. I’m going to dine with him in London in the new year. He says he can introduce me to a fellow who can put me in the way of picking up some India stock that’s not generally available.”

“Useful and interesting,” Georgiana said with approval. “I see we are of one mind, dearest Papa. Make quite sure he knows that if he makes any attempt to propose, he will receive a severe set down. I am off to bed. All this civility has quite worn me out.”

It was very cold in her bedroom and Georgiana shivered as her maid helped her to undress, unpinned her hair and brushed it out. The girl slid the warming pan between the sheets but when she had gone, Georgiana did not blow out the candle. Instead she got out of bed and pulled on her warm robe then went to the long window which overlooked the south lawn. She opened the casement and leaned out.

It was a cold night with a bright half moon spilling silver across the lawn. The sky was an inky canvas dotted with stars and Georgiana looked up, trying to spot constellations that she recognised. A childhood governess had nurtured her unfeminine interest in astronomy and Georgiana had a book which had been published in France, beautifully illustrated with colourful charts. It had been a great incentive to improve her French.

Franz van Daan spoke French fluently. She had been curious and had dropped a phrase into the conversation and watched him pick it up and return a neat response. His eyes had sparkled with amusement at her surprise and he had informed her gravely that he also spoke and wrote Urdu, Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian. The education of ambitious junior East India Company writers was terrifyingly thorough and Georgiana had absolutely no doubt that Franz van Daan had been close to the top of every class. He was a man on his way up and he would neglect nothing that might help him on his way.

His eyes were a deep blue. He wore his fair hair in a plain style, neatly tied with a black ribbon. She wondered if he wore a wig on formal occasions. Both men and women often did although Lord Tevington restricted its use to his time in London, preferring to be comfortable at home. Georgiana decided that she would hate to see Franz van Daan bewigged and powdered. The candlelight had struck gold off his hair and she had felt an unsuitable longing to run her fingers through it, to see if it felt as clean and natural as it looked.

She was in trouble and she knew it. It was one thing to conceive a childhood passion for her French dancing master when she was fifteen. The man had been ten years older with a value for his job and Georgiana’s infatuation had died an easy and natural death. Since then she had grown up, had danced and talked and flirted with many men of her own social standing and had not felt the remotest interest in kissing any one of them. She had thought about kissing the Dutchman within fifteen minutes of sitting down at the table with him and for a while, the powerful tug of attraction was so strong that she had been too shy to speak to him at all.

He was not, of course, a suitable husband. Georgiana did not need her parents to tell her that. She had been raised within the rarefied limits of the upper ten thousand of English society where the rules of marriage and family were very clear and where there was no possibility of marrying to disoblige her family. It had never occurred to Georgiana to consider it until she had met those laughing blue eyes across the dinner table and wondered if he felt it too.

She was beginning to shiver, even in her warm robe. Reluctantly she drew back into her room and closed the window. The room was even colder than before. The sheets still retained a little of the warmth from the warming pan. Georgiana got into bed with her robe still on and waited until she began to warm up from the piled blankets and heavy quilt.

She had a decision to make. The correct thing to do was to set aside any unsuitable ideas about Franz van Daan as a potential husband and keep a safe distance. That would be easy enough once the busy Christmas period ended. He was not looking for a wife and she could flirt a little and tease him about his prospects and then allow him to go back to London assuming her indifferent. She would recover from this brief, fierce infatuation and one day she would meet him again in some elegant salon to which his wealth, charm and probably an intelligent marriage had gained him entrance. Georgiana had absolutely no doubt he would achieve his aim. She did not think he knew the meaning of self-doubt.

The alternative was to spend these next weeks getting to know the man. There would be ample opportunity. Her father had taken a liking to Franz van Daan and Viscount Tevington was generous with his hospitality and his time when he decided a man was worthy of it. It was possible that further acquaintance with the Dutchman would change her mind. It was possible that he would not like her in return, or that his resolve not to enter into a relationship at this time was fixed and could not be shifted by a reserved young woman he hardly knew.

Sleep eluded her. She fidgeted for a while longer then got up and paced around the room, trying to warm up and also trying to calm her restless mood. It was so unlike her to be this agitated that for a while she did not understand. Eventually, when she was finally tired enough to get back into bed and warm enough not to mind the cold sheets, Georgiana understood.

It was an opportunity for something different. She had accepted the serene, well-arranged course of her life so far without question. Her one small rebellion had been her refusal to contract a marriage of convenience but that had not really disturbed the smooth flow of her parents’ plans for her. There was plenty of time; she was still young. The right man would come along and would offer for her. She would marry and move into the new flow of his life and his family. Children would come. Nothing would change.

Franz van Daan was an aberration; a minor tributary turning unexpectedly into a waterfall, taking her off the edge of her well-ordered life into the unknown. She had spent precisely three hours in his company. No well-bred young woman would ever throw herself at a man in this way. It was unthinkable. She lay quietly on the edge of sleep, a thought drifting through her mind.

“Where do I start?”

***

Franz was not sure whether to be grateful or exasperated at his sudden adoption into local society. He would have been satisfied on this first visit to his new home to receive the odd dinner invitation. Instead he found himself being swept up into a whirlwind of social activities. As an observer, he was fascinated at how it all worked. As a participant, he could have done with an evening off.

While Mr Stillington of Melton Mowbray finished his work in the kitchen and updated the plumbing at Southwinds, Franz was invited to dine each day at Tevington Park. Sometimes the family dined alone and at other times there were guests invited. He was introduced to a bewildering collection of local families and was beginning to wonder if he was about to disgrace himself socially through his inability to remember the names, family connections and social position of his new acquaintances. He quickly realised however that Tevington had deputed his bright-eyed daughter to help the newcomer through this first difficult phase.

Every other day, he rode out with the hunt, accompanied by Mr Meynell and a collection of local gentlemen. No ladies joined the party and Franz was glad. He had ridden out several times with Lord Tevington and his daughter and admired her seat on the horse, her light hands on the reins and her delightful figure in the fitted riding habit. At the same time, he thought that the hard riding of the hunting field must be horrendously difficult for a woman riding side-saddle.

As a man stepping out of his social class, Franz had a finely tuned sense of when he was being tested and he could see the fine young gentlemen watching his performance on horseback. It did not bother him. He had hunted a variety of quarry on the hills and plains of India and had ridden for his life on a few occasions when caught out by enemy cavalry or simply local bandits. He was not a soldier, but he had learned how to defend himself at need and how to get himself out of trouble. He suspected that he could have outridden most of these gentlemen but he made no attempt to demonstrate it. He certainly had no particular need to be in at the kill. Foxes were attractive creatures and he was perfectly happy to remain silent as one slipped away from danger through the undergrowth while the hounds were distracted.

Hunting acquaintances led to other invitations. The newcomer had purchased a fine estate so could be presumed to have money. His manners seemed to be acceptable. His background was less certain, but a merchant in Antwerp and a spell with the Company was nothing to be ashamed of. He was young and unmarried and those gentlemen with daughters or nieces or sisters in need of a husband were quick to try to draw him in. As Miss Henthorne had predicted, Franz was suddenly very popular.

He would have become quickly bored with the experience if she had not been present at most of the receptions, dinners and parties. Franz looked forward to seeing her. She was an endless source of amusing gossip and useful information. She was also, he realised, unfailingly ready to step into any awkward moment. Her ready smile and serene manner were invaluable. She was a natural diplomat and she was going to make some lucky man an excellent wife.

Franz had tactfully questioned her father about the matter. They had quickly reached an understanding about his own position. He was not ready to marry yet and the Tevington heiress was beyond his reach. With that established, Tevington talked freely of his daughter.

“She’s a very good girl. Clever, witty and good company. She has excellent social skills. She has so much to offer a man, it’s hard to understand why she’s not married yet.”

“She’s still very young, surely?”

“Twenty-two. By no means old cattish yet, but it’s time she took the matter seriously. I think my wife worries more than I do. I’m hale and hearty yet, good for a few more years. But I admit I’d like to see her settled. It’s not that she didn’t take. She’s spent several seasons in Town and she was very popular. It’s just that she can’t seem to settle on anyone.”

“She probably needs more time, that’s all.”

“Or the right man,” Tevington said. “He’ll come along, I’ve no doubt.”

Franz had no doubt either. This was not the right time and she was not the right woman, but nevertheless he was aware of an uncomfortable pull of attraction to Viscount Tevington’s charming daughter. It was fortunate that their respective positions had been made so clear from the start. It made for an easy friendship and Franz did not feel any need to be careful about raising false hopes. Treading carefully in this surprisingly complex new world, the one thing he did not need to worry about was Georgiana Henthorne.

In between his social obligations he was frantically busy. Letters came in daily: from the captains of his new ships, from merchants whom he wished to cultivate as customers and colleagues, and from his man of business in London who had endless questions for his client. At home he rode about his new estate, getting to know the land and the people. Franz was city bred and had spent his adult life under the baking sun of India, in offices and warehouses and factories. He knew absolutely nothing about estate management and was not going to be able to learn over one freezing winter. However, he wanted to ensure that Mr Jack Grenville, who had run Southwinds under its former owner, realised that he intended to know as much as he could before returning to London and to learn a lot more in the future.

He was joined, a few days before Christmas, by Miss Henthorne. He saw her from a distance, riding towards Tevington Park from the direction of the village, her groom trotting decorously behind her. Franz had been trying to absorb far too much information about the lambing season from Mr Grenville and one of his shepherds. He lifted a hand in greeting to the girl and she turned her horse off the road and cantered over to join him.

“You’re out early, Miss Henthorne.”

“I had an errand at the haberdashery shop in Ingate. A matter of matching some ribbons for my ballgown. You are out early yourself, sir, as always. Do you never sleep?”

“Very well, when I finally get to my bed. I’m glad to have met you, I’m wondering if you would do me a favour. There’s a book I promised to lend to your father. Do you have time to wait while I fetch it and you can deliver it to him? I’m not expecting to see him now until Christmas Eve.”

“Of course I will. Though I think he would appreciate it if you delivered it yourself. Why don’t you ride over with me and give your horse a run out? He must be bored with trotting sedately around the estate. We could take the cross-country route beyond Widdrington Forest and give them a proper gallop.”

Franz felt a little lift of pleasure at the thought. “If you don’t mind waiting while I fetch the book?”

“I’ll come with you.” She seemed to catch his expression and laughed. “I will wait outside very properly with Collier, I promise you. You won’t be compromised by inviting a young unchaperoned female into your bachelor establishment.”

Franz laughed, turning his horse to walk beside her. “I’d be more worried about your reputation than mine. Although it occurs to me how ridiculous that is. The house is crawling with servants plus a crew of workmen repairing the south chimney. We would be hard put to manage even to hold hands without an audience.”

He was not sure if he had spoken inappropriately but she laughed. “They make up these rules without proper thought,” she said. “It is impossible to remember them all.”

“I’m still learning. You don’t seem to have any difficulty at all from what I can see, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you put a foot wrong.”

To his surprise, she looked a little sad. “No, it is true. I’m very boring.”

“Or very clever.”

“Sir?”

“One of the things a varied career has taught me, Miss Henthorne, is how pointless it is to rail against every petty regulation when most of them really don’t matter. Far better to appear agreeable and save your battles for the important ones.”

Her expression lightened. “I’m so glad to hear you say that because it’s what I’ve often thought. Though I’m surprised. You don’t strike me as a particularly compliant person.”

Franz grinned. “I’m not, naturally. I was a boy when I joined the Dutch company and the schoolmaster they assigned me to had a heavy hand with the cane. At school when I was younger, I was always in trouble for fighting or for getting involved in some stupid prank. Old Van Der Molen beat that out of me before I’d reached India. At least he thought he did.”

“He sounds horrible. I hope he had a miserable life.”

“He certainly behaved as though he did. I don’t know what happened to him after I left to take up a post with the English company. I’ve often wondered.”

“How did that come about?” the girl asked curiously. “It isn’t usual, is it?”

“Not at all. Writerships – that’s what they call the junior clerks in the Company – are usually a matter of patronage and are much sought after. I was simply in the right place at the right time. I’d been in India for almost two years by then and was beginning to think I’d made the wrong decision. The Dutch company is in decline, certainly in mainland India. It’s been reduced to a minor player. I was considering trying to arrange a transfer to Batavia where there’d be more opportunities for an ambitious young man. At that point I fell in with an Englishman, a senior factor who’d been sent to negotiate with a minor Indian prince on the borders of Dutch influence. It was a delicate situation and Van Der Molen handled it very badly. He got us kicked out of the trading franchise then and there but I ended up helping Mr Sanderson because his clerk had died of fever during the journey.”

“What did Mr van der Molen think of that?”

“It was his idea. I think he hoped that lending assistance to the English, who were clearly about to win the franchise, might give us a way back in at some later stage. It didn’t of course. The Company had that particular contract sewn up tightly within months. I stayed with Sanderson throughout the process, improved my English and did a lot of the ground work. He was apparently very impressed and asked if I’d stay on.”

“You must have done well.”

“I almost worked myself to death to win that position.”

“I admire your determination, Mr van Daan, but will you forgive me if I say that while it is an admirable trait to achieve a short-term goal, it is not wise or healthy as a long-term way of life. I meant what I said earlier. I’ve no idea when you sleep. You are up and out about your land as soon as it is light; you spend hours working late by lamplight, which will ruin your eyes if you are not careful. The only time you appear to relax is when you are socialising. But I do not think you are socialising at all. You are still working to build useful contacts and to establish your place in English society.”

Franz was so surprised that he could not speak for a while. They rode in silence with the groom at some distance behind them. As they rounded a copse of oak trees, the impressive façade of the manor house appeared before them. Franz shot her a quick glance.

“It feels wrong to leave you standing on the driveway,” he said, feeling unaccustomed awkwardness. “I know where the book is, I’ll be as quick as I can.”

“After my rude interference in your life, Mr van Daan, I shall not be surprised if you close the front door and fail to reappear.”

“No. Oh God, no, I would never do that. You weren’t rude at all. I just…look wait there. I will be ten minutes.”

He sped into the house to find the book, his thoughts a jumbled whirl. She had spoken so serenely but her words had cut through any subterfuge with surgical precision. He was appalled to think that his motives were so obvious.

He re-joined her in considerably less than ten minutes and they walked their horses back up the long drive. Franz knew he needed to say something. He could not remember the last time he had been this tongue-tied around anybody. It was embarrassing.

“I’m so sorry,” she said unexpectedly, with quiet sincerity. “I’ve genuinely upset you, haven’t I?”

“No, of course not. Or at least…not upset exactly. I’m ashamed. It’s as if you’ve held up a mirror before me and I’m not that keen on what I see.”

“That wasn’t my intention at all, Mr van Daan. I wasn’t trying to criticise you. I was trying to express concern for you.”

“Concern?” Franz said, surprised. “There’s nothing to be concerned about, ma’am. But if I’m going about the district looking as though I’m using your father to get me introductions to my neighbours so that I can use them as well, I’m deeply embarrassed.”

“Nobody thinks that, sir.”

“Clearly you do, ma’am. You just said so.”

“Oh dear, I’ve made such a mull of this.” She lifted worried grey eyes to his face. “I’m truly sorry. What I was trying to say is that you don’t need to try so hard at all, sir. Everybody likes you. Your social manners are impeccable and at least three young ladies are devastated at your reluctance to contemplate matrimony at this time. It’s just that to me, you never seem to just relax. And I don’t think that’s because you’re using people. I just think you don’t have any idea how to relax at all.”

She seemed so sincere that Franz felt a little of his discomfort recede. He managed a smile.

“I suppose that’s better than being seen as an unrepentant Machiavelli.”

She frowned a little. “I don’t know what that means.”

“And you probably shouldn’t. I’m not sure his writings would be considered suitable for a young lady. He was an Italian politician and writer a few hundred years ago with some interesting ideas on the pursuit of power. I read him a couple of years back on an interminable sea voyage to Cape Town and I found him interesting, though I really hope I have not accidentally taken on board his ideas. How do the young ladies know about my determination not to be married just yet?”

“I suspect my father dropped a hint to their parents. No girl wants to be seen to throw herself at a gentleman who has no intention of reciprocating.”

“I should find a way to thank him. Although it doesn’t seem to have deterred Miss Dixon.”

“Nothing short of a cavalry charge could deter Miss Dixon.”

“I wish I had a company of the Bengal lancers with me then. Do I seem bored in company at times, Miss Henthorne? Please be honest. This is rather new to me, though I’m doing my best to look as though I know what I’m doing. I thought I was getting it right.”

“You are. I’ve not heard a work of criticism, even from my mother, who is a very high stickler.”

“Apart from you. What is it that I’m doing to make you think I’m calculating in my choice of friendships?”

She seemed to consider the question seriously. “You’re not calculating exactly. It’s just that there are times when I feel you’re forcing yourself to go out, to be social. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“It is the right thing to do.”

“It’s not a duty, Mr van Daan. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.”

“It is. Most of the time. A lot of the time. It’s just…”

“Go on.”

“I have a list in my head that never ends. A list of tasks. Another list of ideas. Of plans for the future. I tick things off on those lists and all the time I add more to the end of them. I’m thirty-one years old and I’ve done well enough so far…”

“Well enough?” Georgiana threw out her arm in exasperation, indicating the spreading lawns of his property. “I have never in my life met a man who has achieved all this by the age of thirty-one by the work of his own hands. Not inherited – earned! That is extraordinary.”

He felt a flush of pleasure at the compliment and suspected it showed on his face. He decided he did not want to hide it from her.

“Thank you. But I want more.”

“How much more?”

“I don’t know yet. Perhaps I’ll recognise it when I get there.”

She looked at him steadily. “That sounds as though it may take a few years, Mr van Daan. I think what I was trying to say to you earlier is that you might want to think about how you spend your time along the way. There is no point in arriving at a destination alone and weary with no energy to enjoy your achievement.”

Franz smiled at her. “You’re an extraordinary young woman, Miss Henthorne. Thank you. I’m going to give that some serious thought. In the meantime, you promised we could gallop. Hans here is longing to stretch his legs.”

She returned his smile and touched her heel to her mare’s flank. “I think that is an excellent idea, before I manage to upset you all over again, sir.”

***

The cutting of the yule log was an ancient tradition which had died out in many households, but Lord Tevington had made it one of the rituals of Christmas Eve. Just before noon, a dozen estate workers set off to the tree previously selected. As many of the household staff who could find the time accompanied them down to the forest and the estate children ran shrieking ahead.

While her mother was supervising preparations for the evening party, Georgiana walked down to the forest to watch the yule log being cut. It was dry and very cold, with grey leaden skies which made her wonder if it might snow. She was wrapped in an old woollen cloak, too shabby to wear out and about but perfect for a muddy walk in the woods. The men sang as they set about their work and the spectators joined in. Georgiana loved the traditional carols, many of which were so old that their origin was long forgotten.

As the enormous log was being tied with ropes so that it could be dragged up to the house, a voice hailed her and she turned with a little skip of her heart to see Franz van Daan dismounting from his horse at the edge of the trees. She walked to meet him. He was dressed plainly as always in dark-blue riding clothes with good, leather boots and a modest hat. She saw his gaze flicker over her hooded cloak and felt herself flush a little.

“Mr van Daan, you have caught me wholly unprepared. I must look like a scarecrow.”

“You look as lovely as always. I was just thinking how pretty your hair looks like that. Much softer.”

“Not at all fashionable.”

“It should be. Fashion has a lot to answer for. I was on my way over to the house when I heard the singing and I was curious. What is going on?”

“They are cutting the yule log, sir. It’s a very old custom and not much observed any more, but our family still does it.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

He was watching with amused interest as some of the women and children came forward with ribbons and garlands to decorate the log.

“The log will be dragged up to the house. Helping to bring it home is supposed to ensure good luck for the coming year. We set it up in that enormous fireplace in the hall and pour brandy or wine over it to welcome it to the house. It is lit with a torch made from a piece of wood left over from last year’s Yule Log. It is then kept burning steadily for the twelve days of Christmas.”

“Good heavens. Does it never go out?”

“It never has. Our staff have long experience with banking the fire and keeping it burning slowly and the estate children take it in turns to sleep by the fire and tend it through the night. They love doing it. It’s warm and cosy and they are constantly fed treats. Much better than a cold bed in a cottage loft.”

Franz was laughing. “Well, given the tasks I’ve set myself for this year, I am in need of my share of the luck, Miss Henthorne. Give me a moment; I’ll get Clinton to take my horse up to the stables. Save me a space on the ropes.”

There was laughter and more singing as the huge log was dragged up the driveway to the main door of the house. Franz did not know any of the carols but seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the festive atmosphere. It was hot work and after a short time he took off his riding cloak and gave it to one of the younger children who ran alongside the procession.

Georgiana watched him and found herself silently laughing. She had seldom seen him so joyously unselfconscious. Her own participation in the ritual was purely symbolic and although she held onto the rope she allowed the men to do the work. Her companion, in contrast, threw himself into the task with enthusiasm. She could see the effort in his face and found herself admiring the muscles across his broad shoulders as he hauled on the rope. He had quickly taken charge of the gang, calling out to the children to race ahead and remove small obstacles from the path of the log.

Up at the house, more of the male servants came to help drag the log to the fireplace, where Lord Tevington and his wife stood ready for the welcome ritual. There was laughter and more singing but also a moment of quiet solemnity as the flickering fire caught and took hold. Cider was passed round to the whole party, with wine for the gentlefolk. Franz offered a toast to his host and his family and the estate workers drank with enthusiasm.

Afterwards they drifted away to their various duties. Georgiana sipped her wine.

“You are early, Mr van Daan. I was not expecting to see you until the dance.”

“I’ve invited Mr van Daan to dine before the festivities, my dear. In fact your mother and I have invited him to spend Christmas with us. Just a couple of nights. No reason for him to spend the season alone in that big house. I sent your man up to unpack for you, sir and when you’re ready I’ll show you to your room.”

“I’m very grateful, sir.”

Deep blue eyes, alight with amusement, settled upon Georgiana’s surprised face.

“Do not look so concerned, Miss Henthorne. I have left my note tablets and ledgers at home, I give you my word. I believe it is time to practice taking my leisure time more seriously. I hope you approve.”

Georgiana could not help laughing and was glad that the opportunity for banter concealed her joy at knowing he would be with them over the Christmas-tide.

“I am glad to hear it, Mr van Daan. Are you musical?”

“Not at all, but I can tell that you are. I could hear you singing even over that raucous bellowing from the log bearers.”

“My girl is very talented,” Tevington said warmly. “Tomorrow she shall play and sing for us. Come, sir, finish your wine. We’ll need time to change before dinner.”

***

Franz took his time over dressing. He had ordered a new suit for the occasion: dark-blue silk over a snowy linen shirt, with a sober black silk stock. The only wig he possessed was in his dressing room in London. He wore it when he knew it would be expected or when he wanted to look older and more serious. He loathed the feeling of a wig on his head and wished they had not become so essential in business circles. Tonight he might be stigmatised as a country bumpkin for his fair, unpowdered hair, but there was only one person he wanted to impress and he thought she would prefer him like this.

There were a dozen guests for dinner; friends and family invited to spend Christmas. Franz was introduced to the Honourable Edward Henthorne with considerable interest. The man was around his own age, slender and elegant with good bones and a rather long nose. He bowed elaborately over his cousin’s hand and seemed pleased to see her but showed no sign of flirting with her. Franz decided that the man could be tolerated after all.

Henthorne was the only younger gentleman present during dinner. Franz found himself seated between an elderly spinster cousin and Miss Henthorne. His host’s daughter was dazzling in another version of the robe à la française. This one was made of silver-grey silk which seemed to match her glorious eyes. It had a fitted bodice and wide open skirt over a green underskirt. She wore her hair up, with an arrangement of silk flowers artfully positioned in the centre, matching an identical arrangement on the bodice of the gown. It was the most elaborate outfit he had seen her wear and she carried it well. Franz divided his attention politely between the rather deaf cousin and Miss Henthorne and decided that she looked beautiful and that he was definitely in serious trouble.

His growing attraction to Lord Tevington’s serene daughter had crept up on him so gradually that it had taken him by surprise when she had expressed her frank concern about his working hours. He had been a little embarrassed at how easily she had seen through him but he had also been ridiculously happy that she had clearly spent so much time studying him.

It gave him hope that she was not indifferent to him, but hope was of no use at all, given his situation. His own declared decision not to marry yet was no barrier at all, since a man could change his mind at any time and a man who had spent more than a month getting to know Miss Georgiana Henthorne would be an idiot not to. The problem lay with her parents. Lord Tevington had made it pleasantly clear that his ambitions for his daughter placed her well out of the reach of a self-made Dutchman with a possibly murky past on the Indian sub-continent. Franz realised that it was Lord Tevington’s honesty that had brought about this situation in the first place. If he had thought for one moment that he might have been expected to declare for the girl he would have kept her firmly at arm’s length. Knowing that marriage was not a possibility had opened up the path to friendship for both of them.

He had not intended to fall in love with her, or with anybody else. Marriage and romance were by no means the same thing and Franz had a list of requirements for the woman he intended to make his wife one day. There was no hurry about it and he had quite enjoyed getting to know Georgiana and silently ticking each item off the list as he observed them in this calm, intelligent young woman. Metaphorically he had torn up the list weeks ago. She was perfect and he loved her and all he needed to work out was how to tell her so and persuade her to listen.

They danced together several times. He was a competent dancer; it had been part of his social education in his early days in India. He could remember, with some amusement, being obliged to partner the other young gentlemen during dancing lessons because there were no girls to practice with. Miss Henthorne was a graceful dancer but did not make him feel awkward for his lack of skill. He decided he would work to get better at it, so that she would enjoy dancing with him more.

There was no shortage of girls at this party. Chaperones stood or sat around the edge of the rooms or played cards in the small salon. Servants circulated with champagne, fruit punch and lemonade. Young bucks in dazzling silk evening suits preened themselves like gaudy peacocks. Franz watched them suspiciously as they solicited Georgiana for dances. He was reassured again. She was charming to all of them but clearly treated them as childhood friends rather than suitors. Franz was beginning to realise why her mother was getting concerned. He felt a sudden qualm in case that was exactly how she saw him.

He did not expect to get an opportunity to speak to her alone this evening and felt a little jolt of surprise when he returned from a necessary call of nature to find himself alone in the hall with her. She had paused beside the big fireplace and was looking down at the yule log, a wistful expression on her face. The log was temporarily unattended and he wondered why.

“Miss Henthorne, what are you doing out here alone?”

She looked up in surprise. “Mr van Daan. I am guarding the yule log, as you see. The Gatley twins are on duty for the night but they have been tempted away by honey cakes in the kitchen so I promised to keep watch for them. They will be back soon.”

Franz hoped briefly that the boys made themselves sick on honey cakes and did not return for half an hour. He shot a covert glance around the hall, which was newly draped with greenery cut from the forest and gardens that day.

“Are you enjoying yourself, sir, or have those lists in your head begun to intrude?”

He looked back at her in surprise. “Not at all; they couldn’t be further from my thoughts. I was reconnoitring the area trying to decide if we are about to be interrupted or if we can manage a rational conversation for a few minutes.”

She broke into laughter. “I think you will be safe until the end of this dance. It’s a very intricate measure and after several glasses of wine or punch a lot of people get it wrong. This makes it a popular spectator sport. It is also why I am out here, avoiding damage to my slippers or my gown. I shall return in time for something more dignified.”

“Will you dance that with me, ma’am?”

“If you would like me to, although I have a horrible feeling that I’ve monopolised you rather badly this evening and will be unpopular with the other girls.”

“Do you care?”

“Not very much.”

“Good.” Franz took a deep breath and a step closer. “Miss Henthorne, I’ve something to tell you and I’m not sure how you’re going to take it. I’m also conscious that I’m gabbling like an idiot in case we’re interrupted.”

“Slow down, sir. If we are interrupted there will be plenty of other opportunities to talk over the next few days.”

Her serene manner calmed him as it always did. He smiled at her. “So there will. I’ll be around until after twelfth night but then I have to go up to London and probably on to Southampton. I’ve so much to do there.”

“Those exasperating lists.”

“I’ve decided to start putting them on paper, to keep my head clear.”

“That’s a very good idea, sir. You’ll be missed in the district. I hope you’ll be back next summer, if business allows. Or perhaps we will meet in London. Not at balls and receptions necessarily, but I’m sure my parents will want you to dine with us.”

“I really hope they do.”

She was quick to pick up on his tone. “Why would they not?”

“Because I’m about to do something I’ve been specifically asked not to do. I’m about to ask their daughter to set aside her hopes of a grand alliance and to marry me instead.”

Georgiana stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment. She did not flinch or back away. He waited, trying to remember to breathe. It was a genuine effort.

“Do you mean now? Or in some distant future, when you have made your fortune three times over?”

“Now. As soon as we can manage it. I don’t want to wait. I realise I’ve been thinking of a wife as another item on one of those lists. She’s not. You’re not. I love you and I want to marry you. And I hope I’ve not imagined that you might say yes.”

She looked utterly shocked for a moment. Franz fought the urge to babble some more. Tentatively he held out a hand. After a long, agonising wait, she took it.

“Well, Georgiana?”

“Franz.”

The sound of his name in her gentle tones made him shiver a little. He was abruptly thankful for the likelihood of immediate interruption before he forgot himself and demonstrated all the ways in which he was not, and probably never would be, a gentleman. Instead he raised her gloved hand to his lips.

“Will you?”

“My father is never going to agree, love.”

“I hope he’ll come around. But if he refuses to do so, you don’t need his permission. I’ll arrange a special licence and we can be married very quietly.”

“I suppose you are about to tell me that my dowry and inheritance means nothing to you.”

“Yes. Not that I’d refuse it, mind. Business is business. But I’ll take you however you come to me, geliefde. If you’ll have me.”

“I’ll have you, Franz van Daan. At least…before you decide, there’s something you should know.”

Her expression made him want to laugh. “It cannot be that bad, my love.”

“It is very bad. I planned this.”

He stared at her in considerable surprise. “You planned what?”

“You and I. Falling in love. That first evening when you came to dinner…I’d never met a man like you before. I’d never met anybody I could feel this way about.”

Franz was beginning to understand. “Are you telling me, Miss Henthorne, that all those sedate walks with your maid; all those accidental meetings out riding…”

He stopped and looked around the hall. There was still no sign of the twins. “Did you arrange this?”

“Yes,” Georgiana said baldly. Her expression was so apprehensive that Franz wanted to laugh out loud. “I saw you leave so I bribed the boys to stay away until I called for them. I didn’t know that you’d propose of course. That was a surprise, I must say. I just wanted some time alone with you. I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry?” Finally he allowed himself to laugh properly. He also allowed himself to do what he had been longing to do. Stepping forward, he put his arms about her and bent to kiss her for a long time.

There was no interruption. No footsteps sounded on boards or stairs. The hall clock ticked loudly and steadily and the yule log crackled in the grate. When he raised his head he could see that there were tears in her eyes but she was no longer looking worried.

“You’ve deceived me, Miss Georgiana Henthorne,” he said lovingly. “I thought you a sweet, well-brought up young lady and you’ve turned out to be the most managing female I’ve ever met.”

She did not speak for a moment. Then she said thoughtfully:

“Perhaps I can take charge of one or two of your lists. The social ones at least, Franz dear.”

***

Georgiana had worried that his determination to approach her father would spoil Christmas but Franz was adamant.

“I’m not lying to a man who’s been so generous with his friendship, Georgiana. And getting through the next two days, pretending not to love you would be deceiving him. I know he won’t be pleased. I’ll be as tactful as I can, but if he throws me out, I’ll go ahead and make the arrangements and come back to collect you. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope I can make him understand.”

He asked to speak to Lord Tevington after breakfast and they disappeared into the study. The closed door was infuriating. Georgiana could not settle to her embroidery nor to the cosy, gentle gossiping of her female relatives. At the same time she did not dare to go out riding or walking in case she missed Franz before he left.

A maid appeared to summon her to the study before her agitation became too much to bear. Lady Tevington looked up in surprise but made no comment. Georgiana was trembling as she knocked on the door and entered, her stomach in knots.

She was relieved to see that Franz was still there. He stood before one of the long windows, looking out into the rainy garden but he turned as she entered and gave her a reassuring smile. Lord Tevington was sitting behind his big oak desk. Georgiana approached quaking.

“My lord?”

After a painful moment, her father gave a twisted smile. “What did you expect me to do, Georgiana? Challenge him to a duel?”

Relief flooded her body. “No, Papa. But I know you must be angry and disappointed.”

“Perhaps. Not so much angry. Your fine gentleman here assures me there’s been nothing done that’s improper and no thought of elopement or Gretna Green. He’s also pointed out, very politely, that you’ve no need of either. You’re of age. He tells me if necessary he’ll marry you without a penny.”

Georgiana looked over at her love. He looked grave but the smile in his eyes reassured her further.

“I don’t want to be estranged from you, Papa. I love you both too much for that.”

“But you will if I don’t consent.”

“It’s my life. You’ve said that to me many times, when I’ve turned down another suitor. You told me to take my time because it’s my life and I have to be sure. I’m sure, Father.”

“All right then. You can take yourself off, both of you. I’ll find your mother and tell her and get her calmed down. She’ll be all right with it in the end. It’s not as if he’s a stranger that we didn’t like. You’ll take care of her, sir. Your word on it.”

“Always, my lord.”

“Very well. Come back here in an hour. She’ll have had a good cry and be planning your wedding. And you’ll allow her to do so, if you please. Some things need to be done with a good grace.”

Georgiana broke into a broad smile. “She can dress me up like a cream puff if it makes her happy, sir. Thank you so much.”

She spent a joyous hour with her betrothed, walking through the damp tangled shrubbery and returned with a sparkle of moisture on the hood of her cloak and a fine sheen of raindrops on the good dark wool of his coat. She gave their outer clothes to a servant and moved towards the study but Franz caught her hand and drew her to stand before the gently burning yule log in the fireplace. A sleepy urchin was curled up on a cushion, watching the flames.

“Wait just a moment. I’ve something to give you. It’s not new. For a wedding ring, I’ve a very beautiful stone I bought in Madras. We’ll go up to London, there’s a goldsmith who does excellent work and you can choose your own setting. But this is the best I can do for a betrothal gift. I wasn’t expecting to need one.”

She took the small leather covered box in surprise and opened it. It was a delicate gold cross set with pearls on a fine chain. Georgiana lifted it from its velvet setting, enchanted.

“Franz, it’s beautiful. Where did you get it?”

“It was my mother’s. My father gave it to her when I was born. Their initials are engraved on the back. The pearls are real. When she died, he divided up her jewellery between my brother and I. I’m glad I got this. May I put it on you?”

She allowed him to fasten the dainty chain. There was a long mirror on the wall outside the study and she went to study herself.

“Thank you. I’ve never owned a piece of jewellery I love this much.”

He grinned. “It suits you, but I’m hoping you like the diamond as well, since that will be my personal contribution to your jewel case. Come on, let’s see how things are with your mother.

Lady Tevington had been crying. She cried again when Georgiana went to embrace her and then cried even more when her future son-in-law did the same. Georgiana noticed that she hugged him very tightly though and was satisfied. She suspected that for all her disappointment in this marriage for her daughter, Lady Tevington was already dreaming of wedding clothes and then possibly grandchildren.

His lordship was jovial. He poured wine for them all and toasted the happy couple and their future, then went on to make plans for a family announcement over the Christmas dinner and a more formal one to the district at large at a reception to be held in a few days time.

Lady Tevington, still rather dewy-eyed, held her daughter’s hand and talked about wedding plans and a trip to London to shop for bridal clothes and a trousseau. In the background, the gentlemen talked settlements then moved on to trade and politics. There was not the least hint of awkwardness or animosity between them.

Georgiana allowed her mother’s soothing chatter to wash over her and eavesdropped shamelessly. Several times she glanced over at her father. He was listening to Franz talking about his first trading voyages, nodding quickly and asking the occasional intelligent question.

She thought back to other conversations, with Cousin Edward and several other promising suitors. Her father had always remained determinedly detached from her mother’s efforts to find her a husband. He had been kindly and distant, never trying to befriend any one of them. He had never, with the obvious exception of Edward who came anyway, invited any one of them to spend Christmas or any other time at the house. He had always allowed Georgiana to make up her own mind.

Eventually her mother rose, smoothed out her morning gown and made noises about checking that all was well with the Christmas meal. She reminded her husband and future son-in-law of the time appointed for the guests to meet in the drawing room before dinner and departed.

Franz rose as well. “With your leave, sir, I’d like to write one or two letters. I should inform my man of business at least and I’ll write to my brother and his family. I’ll be down in plenty of time for dinner.”

“Of course, of course,” his lordship said cheerfully. “Take whatever time you need, my boy.”

Franz planted a chaste kiss on Georgiana’s cheek and left the room. His lordship gave her a jovial smile.

“Well well, I’m beginning to think this might turn out very well after all, my dear. He’s not quite what we intended, but he’s as shrewd as they come and if he doesn’t make his million before I’m in my grave I’ll be very surprised. Now then…”

Georgiana closed the door with a decided snap and advanced on the desk. “Do not speak to me of what you intended,” she said forcefully. “You are an unprincipled, untrustworthy conniving old rogue. You knew!”

“Knew what? And that is no way to speak to your father, young lady. If your…”

“No, it’s worse than that. It’s not just that you knew. You planned it. I thought I was being clever, but I have just realised that it was you all along. You threw us both off the scent with that very public declaration about his unsuitability as a husband and then you threw us together at every possible opportunity. Including this Christmas. You planned this whole thing. You arranged this marriage.”

Lord Tevington’s round face softened into a singularly sweet smile. “I did no such thing,” he said firmly. “I didn’t need to. You were smelling of April and May within two weeks and with a man like that I couldn’t possibly risk him getting away. What if your mother had managed to persuade you into marriage with some brainless idiot who would have bored you to death in a year and very likely me as well? All I did was give you both the chance to see how very well suited you are. As for the deceit, your mother would never have agreed if I’d told her straight out that I approved the match. This way is much better. She has had the opportunity to attempt to find the husband she thought you should have and I have managed to ensure that you have the husband you deserve. Really, it could not have gone any better. Drink another glass of wine with me, Georgiana, before we change for dinner. It’s Christmas, after all.”

The Sight

The author marching over the battlefield at Sorauren.

Welcome to The Sight, my Halloween short story for 2023. It’s freely available on my website so please share as much as you like and there’s a pdf at the end. The story has been released a little late this year, because it is so closely linked to my most recent book and works better if it is read afterwards.

 

 

 

 

 

An Unattainable Stronghold which is book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga, tells the story of the early battles of the Pyrenees. It was a confusing time, with both Wellington and Soult trying to manage their troops along a badly stretched line. Different parts of the line were defended by different divisions and it was not always easy for the commanders to know what was happening elsewhere.

Because of the way I construct my books, it wasn’t possible to cover every single battle of this part of the war. I now have British, Spanish and French heroes to follow which has given me far more scope, but my characters all belong to real life divisions and it would be unrealistic to send a major-general or chef-de-battalion racing around the countryside so that he can appear at every battle or skirmish.

History plus a bit of imagination enabled me to place characters at the storming of San Sebastian and even at the bridge at Vera but there was no way I could get any of the main protagonists to the Battle of Sorauren. I was sorry about this because I’ve been there and it’s an interesting battlefield. Running through a list of characters in my head afterwards, wondering if I could have done better, I suddenly realised that I had an excellent opportunity after all. Lord Wellington was at Sorauren with his staff members which meant I had just the man for the job.

This is not a traditional ghost story. There are probably many ghosts on a battlefield but my characters are far too busy to notice them. Instead I’ve delved into some of the history of the Basque region to find a tale that I could link to the present. I hope you enjoy it.

The story is dedicated to my friend Janet and her beautiful dog Bella, who are both eagerly waiting to hear more about Lord Wellington’s puppies.

The Sight

27th July 1813

It was an eventful ride from Almandoz to join the army on the slopes above Sorauren. They rode twenty miles through difficult country in appalling weather. The road was poor and Lord Wellington set a fast pace.

Captain Richard Graham was used to long rides in miserable conditions and had no difficulty keeping up. During a brief early morning stop, eating dark rye bread and salty bacon in a warm farmhouse kitchen, he reminisced with Lord Fitzroy Somerset about the misery they had endured during their ride to Cadiz at the end of the previous year. Both men kept a wary eye on Lord Wellington and talked in low tones. His Lordship was worried, as well as being tired and cold, which meant that his temper was uneven and he was likely to snap at them for chattering like idiots. There were several other staff members around the table, including Wellington’s quartermaster-general, Colonel George Murray. For the most part they ate in exhausted silence.

Wellington had been surprised in the middle of his plans for the current campaign by the news that the French, under Marshal Soult, had crossed the border and engaged Allied troops up in the high passes at Maya and Roncesvalles. Wellington had been focused on blockading Pamplona and besieging the coastal town of San Sebastian, but as news came in of the new threat he had shifted his attention with his usual speed and mobilised his staff members without a moment’s hesitation and without the least concern for comfort or safety.

Richard was accustomed to both danger and discomfort but, like all the headquarters staff, he preferred not to incur the wrath of Lord Wellington in one of his periodic bouts of temper. He and Somerset broke off their conversation the moment his Lordship turned a frosty glare in their direction. Just as they were finishing their hasty meal, a messenger arrived, soaked and splashed with mud, Wellington took the letters from him and stood in the middle of the kitchen reading them. The farmer’s wife moved around the men, glaring occasionally at the puddle forming on her flagged stone floor, as the messenger awaited his Lordship’s response.

Eventually Wellington looked up. “Bring writing materials immediately, Somerset. I need to send orders to Hill and to Alten. It seems that Picton has been forced to retreat further than I had expected, but this intelligence is so vague. I hope to rendezvous with General Long in person before we reach the lines. He must know more than he has written here.”

He slapped the letter irritably on the table and sat down to read a second missive while Somerset, who was his Lordship’s military secretary, brought the requested writing materials. Richard, feeling rather sorry for the farmer’s wife whose kitchen had been abruptly commandeered, shepherded the rest of the men outside. It had finally stopped raining and there was even a weak sun becoming visible between the clouds. Richard found a rickety bench for the tired cavalry trooper who had brought the letters and went to arrange food for him and to make sure Wellington’s two grooms had been given breakfast. It was not really his job to manage provisions for the journey but when Wellington was under pressure he tended to forget such trifling matters as food and rest. Richard firmly believed that both men and horses worked better if they were properly fed and chose to take responsibility for the party.

He was rubbing down his horse in the muddy farmyard when he was joined by Somerset, who was holding a letter.

“Sorry Richard, he wants this delivered to Pack as soon as possible. Are you all right to take it?”

Richard took the orders. “Of course. It’ll be a relief to get away from him to be honest. I’m surprised you didn’t volunteer yourself.”

“There were several volunteers, believe me. The risk of running into French cavalry patrols in the hills is nothing compared to another hour of listening to him snapping our heads off. He asked for you specifically. He said that he trusts you not only to deliver the orders without getting lost or distracted but also to get any reply back to him in a timely manner. He then made a complimentary remark about your horse, while not failing to remind us all that it had been looted at Vitoria.”

Richard broke into a laugh. He ran his hand affectionately down the smooth grey neck of his new gelding. “He knows perfectly well I didn’t steal this horse. I bought him from an officer of the 43rd.”

“And he bought it from two soldiers of the 112th who definitely stole it from King Joseph’s baggage train.”

“Undoubtedly. That’s why I’ve named him Joseph. But his Lordship cannot prove any of that.”

“He’s just jealous that he didn’t spot that auction before you did. We’re all a bit envious to be honest, he’s very handsome.”

“He really is. I was showing him off to General van Daan last week and he told me that if I ever want to sell, I’m to give him first refusal. I shan’t though. Any further orders?”

“Just get a reply from Pack, even if it’s no more than an acknowledgement that he’s read and absorbed every one of his Lordships dictates about the route he should take and the management of his baggage wagons. You know how he is if he doesn’t get an answer.”

“I’ll tell Sir Denis, don’t worry. If necessary I’ll write it myself and get him to sign it.”

“Good man. Take care, Richard. There actually are cavalry patrols out there and Lord Wellington is right. We really don’t have enough information yet. We’re heading towards Ostiz and then south towards Sorauren. I hope you make it back to us before nightfall.”

***

The weather remained unsettled. By the time Richard reached the Sixth Division he had ridden through a thunderstorm followed by a brief spell of bright sunlight. A sharp wind sent clouds scudding across a blue sky. Sir Denis Pack greeted him cheerfully and provided hot tea while he read Wellington’s letter. Richard saw the Irishman’s lips twitch into a smile.

“God love the man, did he think I’d try to haul the guns and the baggage wagons over the heights? How long does he think I’ve been doing this? Will he want a reply, do you think?”

“You know Lord Wellington, sir.”

Pack groaned and waved to an orderly to bring pen and ink. He perched on a folding stool, hunched over a battered leather lap desk, and grumbled under his breath as he penned a response. Richard wrapped his cold hands around the tin cup and hoped the rain would hold off for his return ride.

Pack read his short note then folded it, not bothering to search for a sealing wafer. Richard gave his empty cup to the orderly and went to take the letter.

“I’ve told him I’ll await his orders at Olague, Graham. I’ll keep them on the alert and ready to march at a moment’s notice. I won’t let the officers bring their fancy baggage and I won’t drop any guns over the mountain side. Is there anything else I need to say that will keep him happy?”

“You could try telling him Soult is on his way back to France, sir.”

“Soult will be soon enough, my boy. His Lordship is an exasperating meddler on campaign but I’d back him any day against whatever Soult has in mind. Somewhere near Sorauren, you think?”

“Based on the intelligence we have so far, sir, but that could change. He’s still waiting for further news of General Picton.”

“As far as I know, Picton’s scuttling all the way back to Pamplona but he’ll have to stop eventually. Don’t tell him I said that, by the way.”

Richard grinned. He liked Sir Denis Pack, who was a good battle commander with an irreverent sense of humour.

“I won’t, sir. Wouldn’t want to see pistols at dawn with General Picton.”

“Jesus Christ, I’m far too old for that nonsense these days and if Picton isn’t, he ought to be. Though I used to think he and Craufurd would have come to blows one day if Robert had survived long enough. Off you go, Captain Graham. Follow his Lordship’s advice yourself and keep an eye out for French patrols, though I must say we’ve seen nothing of them so far.”

Richard took his advice and kept a wary eye on the upper slopes, going carefully around any woodland which might have acted as cover for enemy troops. He saw no sign of them, though the condition of the road suggested that an army had marched this way very recently. Richard was suddenly very sure that a battle was coming and he badly wanted to reach Lord Wellington in time.

After surveying the area, he took a short cut across several sloping meadows, boggy after recent rain. The road here ran through a heavily wooded area for half a mile and Richard decided he would not take the chance. He could not be more than three miles from the village of Sorauren where he hoped to catch up with Wellington’s party and he wondered if that might also mean French pickets or stragglers in the vicinity.

The grass was muddy and hard-going and the horse slipped several times. Richard reined him in firmly. He and Joseph were still getting to know one another but the horse seemed very sure-footed so far. He was a beautiful animal, by far the best horse Richard had ever owned and he had no intention of risking a broken leg in an over-hasty descent to reach a battle which might not even happen today.

He reached a proper path with some relief and turned Joseph down towards the valley where he could re-join the main road. There was a stone cottage on the left, set back from the path. It had a weathered tiled roof, a walled garden plot for growing vegetables and herbs and a larger enclosure behind it where a cow and several goats grazed peacefully. Some chickens scratched about in a wooden fenced area outside a rickety shed.

As he passed the cottage, Richard saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A woman appeared, straightening up from behind the wall, a basket in her hand. She looked equally astonished to see him so close but Joseph was more startled than either of them by the sudden movement. He gave a squeal of alarm and reared up so abruptly that Richard was taken completely unawares. He felt himself falling and his only thought was that he had no wish to lose his new horse. Twisting the reins around his gloved hand, he landed heavily in a particularly muddy rut on the uneven road.

For a moment he could not move. The impact had driven all the breath out of him. He lay very still, trying to work out if he was hurt, but it was difficult to think straight when he could not take a proper breath. Richard tried desperately to draw air into his lungs but for a long agonising moment nothing seemed to work and he felt as though he was suffocating.

Unexpectedly he felt hot breath on his face and then a little snuffling sound. Joseph’s wet nose touched his cheek then his forehead and then the horse blew fully into his face. Richard flinched back instinctively and suddenly he could move again. He took in air in a great whoosh.

“Here, let me take him or he will step on you,” a voice said in Spanish. “Of course you will not understand me, so…”

“I understand you perfectly Señora,” Richard said in the same language. “I will hold him. He’s very strong and…”

She did not bother to reply, just removed the reins from his hand before he could stop her. He felt a jolt of pain in his wrist and up his arm as he sat up. She had led Joseph a few feet away and was holding his bridle, talking softly to him. The horse seemed calm again and Richard decided she knew what she was doing and took stock of his own injuries.

There was nothing too serious apart from his right wrist which was very swollen. His back ached badly and there was a lump on the back of his head where it had hit a broken piece of stone in the road. He was also covered in mud, which had soaked through his clothing. Richard bent to retrieve his hat, wincing a little. He brushed some of the mud off it and went to collect his horse.

“Thank you for your help, Señora.”

She turned to survey him from bright brown eyes in a weathered face. She was probably in her fifties, a thin woman in a black gown and shawl. Her dark hair was peppered with grey and worn in a neat chignon.

After a long, considering look, the woman turned towards the cottage. “Juan, come here. Take the officer’s horse and give him some water.”

A boy of about eleven raced around from the back of the cottage. He stopped abruptly at the sight of Richard, then looked at the woman.

“English?”

“Yes. But he speaks Spanish, so do not be cheeky. Come inside, sir. I will look at your wrist.”

“It’s very kind of you Señora, but I am in a hurry.”

“Your kind are always in a hurry. If you hurry with a broken wrist, you will fall off again and this time you will not hold him. My boy understands horses, he’ll take care of this one.”

Richard hesitated but she had already handed the bridle to the boy. He watched for a minute and decided that Joseph would be safe enough so he followed the woman into the cottage, looking around him curiously.

It was a typical Basque cottage although rather bigger than most. There was only one room on the ground floor, combining kitchen and living quarters. Above was a sleeping loft which was accessed by a fixed wooden ladder. A fire burned in the grate and there was something cooking in a pot suspended over the blaze.

One end of the room seemed to be set up as a still room, with a wooden bench bearing pots and jars and a big stone pestle and mortar. Bunches of herbs and strings of vegetables hung from the wooden beams giving the room a heady fragrance. There was a door on the opposite side which looked as though it led to a small lean-to. An animal, possibly a donkey, could be glimpsed through partially open door.

Richard inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent of the herbs. The woman smiled as if she understood then beckoned him to the fire. He sat on a stool and obediently held out his wrist for her inspection. She prodded and examined and told him to move his fingers. He did so, wincing.

“I do not think it is broken but it is a bad sprain. I will bind it up to give support while you ride. There is a salve I make with rosemary and hot peppers. It will ease the pain and help with the swelling. You should rest it, but you are a man. I know you will not.”

Richard could not help laughing. She reminded him of his long dead wife Sally and his recently acquired fiancée, Honoria, both of whom would have scolded him.

“I’m sorry. You’re being very kind, but I have to ride on as soon as possible. I’ve letters to deliver.”

He wondered immediately if he should have mentioned his mission but decided that he would be safe enough here. There was no sign that this neat cottage had ever been invaded by a French soldier and there was no reason for this woman to betray him. She gave no response to his explanation, but helped him to remove his muddy coat and hung it before the fire, then carefully rolled back his shirt sleeve.

The strong smelling salve felt warm on his skin. She was generous with the application and Richard wondered briefly what Lord Wellington would say when he arrived smelling like an East India spice chest but he decided he did not care. It felt wonderful and he watched appreciatively as she wound undyed linen strips firmly about his wrist.

As she did so, the boy Juan reappeared. The woman looked at him enquiringly.

“I have tied him up and given him hay and water. And I used old Fredo’s brush to get some of the mud off him. He is a lovely horse.”

“Thank you, lad,” Richard said warmly. “His name is Joseph and he’ll be very grateful. As am I, to both of you. You should be proud of your son, Señora.”

“Grandson,” the woman said with a sad little smile. “My daughter died of the birth and the menfolk were taken years ago by the army. We do well enough here alone. One day, no doubt, Juan will wish to leave, but not yet. There, how does that feel?”

Richard tested it. “Much better, thank you.”

“I’ll give you a small jar to take with you. Use it until the swelling goes.”

“Only if you’ll let me pay for it.”

She laughed again and spread her hands. “I’ve little use for coins, but if you insist, Señor. We live by barter here. Goods and services and people pay well.”

“It looks as though you’ve avoided the French army as well.”

“Oh they’ve been past. I’ve tended their sick from time to time, but they don’t trouble me much. Some of the villages haven’t been so lucky.”

“I know,” Richard said soberly. “I suppose you’re quite isolated here. Unless somebody told them or they happened to take this path, you’re easy to miss.”

“They are afraid,” Juan said scornfully. “The villagers told them Grandmama is a witch and they think she will curse them.”

Richard blinked in surprise. The woman rolled down his sleeve carefully over the bandages and got up. She fetched a bottle from a shelf above the herb bench, poured some liquid into a small iron pan and set in in a ring above the fire to heat.

“It is a tea made from ginger and a local tree bark. Very good for pain. Drink some before you go. Your coat will be dry soon. Juan, take it outside and brush the mud off.”

The boy obeyed and Richard took the pottery cup and sipped the steaming liquid.

“A witch?” he enquired with interest.

She looked amused. “A harmless local legend, Señor. My family have lived here for many generations. The knowledge is passed down from mother to daughter, though I shall be the last. Herbs and remedies and some skill with healing. I act as midwife and, when needed, I lay out the dead.”

“A wise woman.”

“Is that what you call it, back in your home?”

“I’ve heard the name used.” Richard did not mention that he had also heard superstitious villagers mutter other words and make signs against the evil eye as such women passed by. Folk stories could both protect and persecute, but in these modern times at least it went no further than some name calling and a level of social isolation. He had no sense of that here and he suspected that this woman was a valued member of her rural community.

“Well I’m grateful for your wisdom, Señora. And my manners are so poor, I’ve forgotten to ask your name.”

“It is Maria Xarra, Señor. My husband was Martinez, a shepherd, but once he died I chose to return to my family name.”

“Señora Xarra, thank you.” Richard finished the tea and handed her the cup as Juan returned with his coat. The boy had done a surprisingly good job of removing the worst of the mud and it was only slightly damp. Richard thanked him and accepted his grandmother’s help to ease the coat over his injured wrist. Despite his accident, the little interlude had been curiously restful and he was almost glad it had happened.

Taking out his purse, he counted several coins into her hand. She seemed genuinely reluctant to take them. Richard folded her work-roughened hand over them firmly.

“Please,” he said. “I want to.”

“We can spend them on schooling, Grandmama,” Juan said excitedly. Richard turned to look at him in surprise.

“You go to school?”

“The priest runs a small school in the church once a week. Juan is learning to read and write. I never did, so I’m no use to him, but a boy should learn. It’s expensive though and I don’t often get paid in coin. Thank you, Señor. It will go to good use.”

Richard bit back a rude remark about a man of God charging children for a few hours teaching, though from her clipped tone, he suspected Señora Xarra agreed with him. He had a sudden thought.

“Juan, before I go, will you bring me the cloth bag out of Joseph’s saddle bag? You can’t miss it.”

The boy sped away and came back with the knapsack. Richard rummaged through it and took out a battered wooden box. He set it on the table and opened it. Both the woman and the boy came to look.

“It’s a portable writing set. There are a couple of pens and an ink pot. This little knife is to trim the pen with. And these are my note tablets. I don’t need them, I can beg some more from Colonel Somerset. We all share such things out here because we’re always either losing our baggage or getting separated from it. Please take it Juan, as a gift. You need to practice.”

The child’s eyes were huge. He looked apprehensively at his grandmother as though asking for permission to accept. The woman nodded.

“It is a generous gift, Señor. Thank you. Juan, put it away carefully in the pantry so that the ink does not spill. With this money, I will be able to buy more when needed and you will learn faster.”

Juan carried the box away as if it was a fragile treasure and Richard smiled as he watched him.

“You’re raising a fine boy Señora. I wish I had more time, I’d help him myself.”

“You have given him something precious, Señor. Juan will bring the pot of salve for you. Have you children of your own?”

“Not yet. My first wife died, but I’m betrothed to a very lovely lady. I hope we’re fortunate. I want a family.”

“You should tell his fortune, Grandmamma,” Juan said, bouncing back with a small sealed jar. He wrapped it carefully in a scrap of cloth and placed it in Richard’s worn knapsack. Richard smiled at him and shot an amused glance at the woman.

“Do you also tell fortunes, Señora?”

“It is foolishness, nothing more. On festival days, the girls pay a trifle for me to tell them the name of their future husband. It is never hard to guess the name they wish to hear.”

Richard laughed aloud. “I’ve seen it done at county fairs at home as well.”

“But Grandmamma does have the Sight,” Juan argued. “All her family had it. A long time ago, Graciana Xarra was burned for being a witch in Logroño.”

Richard stopped laughing. He stared at Señora Xarra in considerable surprise. “Is that true, Señora?”

“It is ancient history,” the woman said lightly. “As you said, Señor, ignorant people believe in folk tales. Two hundred years ago they went a little mad in these lands and my ancestress had the misfortune to be one of six or seven who paid the price. It does not happen any more. The Inquisition – which is abolished anyway, since Bonaparte – prefers persecuting Jews and Conversos to witches. Nobody believes in such matters these days.”

“It’s still a tragic story, Señora.”

“It must have been terrible,” the woman said simply.

“But she does have the power,” Juan insisted. “Everybody knows. Not just the silly girls at festival time, but the others. Even the village elders come to her for advice.”

Richard found he could smile again. “That may well be because she is a very wise woman, Juan. No magic involved. I wish my fiancée could meet you both. I shall tell her about you in my next letter.”

“When you get some more paper and ink,” Señora Xarra said. She was smiling too.

Richard held out his left hand. “Goodbye and thank you both again. Juan, I don’t know the custom here, but in England we shake hands like this with our friends as a greeting and a farewell.”

The boy complied, looking pleased. Richard turned to the woman and after a moment’s hesitation she took his hand. She held it for much longer than he had expected and when she released it, she looked suddenly grave.

Outside, Juan brought forward a wooden stool to help Richard mount more easily without putting too much strain on his wrist. The woman carried the knapsack and put it into his saddlebag herself, fastening the strap carefully.

“It is nonsense as you say, Señor. The boy believes and so do some of the villagers. All the same…”

Richard stared at her puzzled. She gave a little self-deprecating smile. “Sometimes it comes to me. I do not look for it. It is just like a picture. A flash of something. Often it is of no use, since I do not understand it myself.”

“You saw something?” Richard asked. He felt foolish saying it, but her expression was so serious.

“When you took my hand just now. There was a man in a grey coat on a bridge. Writing something. He wore a hat – this kind of shape.” She sketched a bicorn hat with her hands.

Richard frowned. The picture she drew was surprisingly effective and he realised he was visualising Lord Wellington, bent over his writing tablets to issue a new set of orders. He wanted to ask more but before he could do so, she said:

“That is all. It will probably be nothing, but there is much danger. If you see him on the bridge, you must get him away very fast. He trusts you.”

Richard felt an odd little shiver which had nothing to do with the sharp breeze. She did not seem to expect a reply. She stepped back and lifted a hand in farewell. Richard gave a little bow and began to turn Joseph towards the path.

“And Señor…do not climb the hill of Spain. You may not survive it and I wish you to go back to that pretty girl of yours and have many children. Goodbye.”

He looked back once over his shoulder. They both stood at the garden gate, waving. Richard waved back. The little cottage looked very isolated against a spectacular backdrop of rolling hills and sharply defined ridges climbing up to the mountains beyond. Richard could not help smiling. If he tried to follow her advice and not ascend any Spanish hills in this country, he would go nowhere at all.

***

Richard found Colonel Murray in the village of Ostiz, with some of General Long’s cavalry. Murray greeted him with some relief and asked about his bandaged wrist. Richard explained briefly.

“You’ve only just missed him,” Murray said. “It’s confirmed that Picton had to abandon Zubiri last night and has taken up a position just to the north of Pamplona. The enemy is marching as we speak and there are a lot of the bastards. There’s going to be a battle, though I’ve not heard any firing yet. Did you reach Pack?”

“Yes. I need to get this letter to his Lordship in case he wants me to take orders back.”

“They’ll come through me if he does. He left me here to coordinate. Get yourself off then but don’t kill yourself trying to catch up, you’ll find him easily enough once he reaches the lines. He and Somerset were riding hell for leather, they’ve probably already left the others behind.”

Richard grinned and saluted. He turned Joseph back towards the road and set off at a gallop southwards down the narrow valley. The country opened out on the approach to Sorauren and for the first time, Richard could see Allied troops massing on the hills above the village. He slowed his horse and trotted down towards the river, running his eyes over the slopes. He could see red-coated British battalions, forming up alongside Spanish and Portuguese troops.

Through his frantic intelligence gathering of the past twenty-four hours, Richard had established that Sir Lowry Cole’s Fourth Division had retreated from a vulnerable position in the high pass at Roncesvalles and combined with General Picton’s Third Division en route. Picton had originally intended to make a stand on the heights of San Cristobel just before Pamplona but Cole had persuaded him instead to defend a higher ridge along the hill of Oricain. Richard had carried several of the letters between the various sections of the army and suspected that Picton’s vagueness about his decision and his precise location had been a major factor in Lord Wellington’s irritability. His Lordship preferred to control every aspect of a campaign and lack of information drove him mad.

Richard surveyed the troops as he rode down towards the river. Cole had take up a position on the northern slopes of the hill. A spur at the north-eastern corner was occupied by what looked like Spanish troops. Along the rise and fall of the ridge, he could see British and Portuguese brigades drawn up with their light companies and skirmishers at the front and the main troops just behind the crest of the hill. He thought Wellington would approve. He could not see Picton’s division, but according to Murray it was deployed to the rear of the main position.

Richard could see activity on the stone bridge over the river as he set Joseph to a steady trot down towards the village. There were several men at the far end of the bridge, most of whom seemed to be villagers. As he drew closer however, he could see two horses. An officer sat mounted on one of them, holding the bridle of the other. The second man wore a sober grey frock coat and a neat cocked hat and he was bending over the stone wall of the bridge. He appeared to be writing something.

Richard pulled hard on the reins, startling Joseph into a little whinny. The scene was so familiar that it took him a moment to realise that he had not in fact seen it before, merely heard it described by the Spanish woman. He turned Joseph quickly, scanning the surrounding hillside. Now he could see French troops for the first time; cavalry troopers upon the crest of a ridge opposite to that occupied by the Allied troops. He wondered if Wellington knew they were there. Richard was certain that Fitzroy Somerset had seen them; he could tell by the younger man’s agitated manner.

Some of the villagers seemed to be talking to Wellington, trying to warn him of the danger. The Commander-in-Chief did not look up and gave no sign of having heard them at all. Richard looked around again. The dragoons were still a long way off and posed no immediate danger but he felt an absolute certainty that danger existed.

He did not try to analyse his sudden illogical fear but simply dug in his heels, urging Joseph forward into a fast canter. They took the slope down to the bridge at speed and the sound of thudding hooves finally made Wellington look up.

“Graham!” Somerset said. It came out as a gasp of relief. “Thank God you’re here.”

“Have you letters for me, Captain?” Wellington demanded, bending over his task again.”

“Later. You need to get off this bridge, my Lord. The French are coming into the village.”

“They are not yet so close…”

“They bloody are. You need to move.”

Both men stared at him in astonishment. Wellington opened his mouth to ask a question, but Somerset interrupted him, something he would never normally have done.

“Let me have it, sir. If it’s not clear to Murray, I can explain the rest.”

Wellington’s eyes were scanning the village. There was still no sign of a Frenchman closer than the adjoining ridge. Richard opened his mouth to yell again, but abruptly, Wellington folded his orders and gave them to Somerset.

“Ride,” he said. “Fast. If you delay you’ll be cut off and I’ll have to send them the long way around which is an extra four leagues.”

Somerset shoved the letters into his satchel and wheeled his horse. “Richard, get him out of here,” he yelled, and was gone, galloping back up the road at full stretch.

Richard turned to look at Wellington who was already swinging himself into the saddle. He shot Richard a puzzled look then turned his horse into the village and cantered down the main street. Richard fell in behind him. About half-way along, he twisted in the saddle to look back and felt a little shock running through him at the sight of four French troopers trotting into the village.

“Sir, move!” he bellowed.

Wellington picked up the urgency in his voice and did not hesitate. He set spurs to Copenhagen’s flank and pushed him into a full gallop. Richard looked around once more to see the troopers beginning to pursue and kicked Joseph to follow. They raced out of the village, hearing shouts of encouragement from the Spanish villagers as they made their escape.

The steep track out of Sorauren led up to the tiny chapel of San Salvador at the top of the hill. It occurred to Richard suddenly that Cole’s men, deployed along the ridge, had not yet seen Wellington and would have no idea of the identity of the approaching riders. He risked another look behind him, but the French had stopped at the edge of the village. He could see other troops filing into the streets now and the villagers had disappeared within doors. There was no further attempt to follow Wellington, though Richard suspected that if they had known who it was on the stone bridge they would have moved a lot faster.

Once he was sure that there was no danger of pursuit, Richard slowed down to a decorous trot, allowing Wellington to pull ahead. Partly, it was because his wrist ached from his recent exertions but he also thought it would be good for the troops to see their chief riding in alone. He knew the moment some of the skirmishers recognised Wellington because they raised a cry, which swept on through the lines.

“Douro! Douro!”

The cry was picked up by the Fourth Division and the cheering grew louder as Wellington cantered up to Ross’s brigade. He reined in and took out his telescope, turning it onto the French troops which were beginning to deploy on the opposite ridge. Richard trotted up just as General Ross drew his horse up alongside Wellington’s.

“It’s good to see your Lordship. We have been discussing it all morning and we’re inclined to believe that Soult is considering an attack.”

Wellington did not lower his telescope. He gave an expressive shrug. “We shall see, Ross. It is just as likely that I shall attack him, but I need to speak to my officers and see how the troops are set up first. We need not concern ourselves about a surprise attack; they are not close to being ready. Captain Graham.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I believe I owe you my gratitude for your quick thinking on the bridge. It appears, General Ross, that Captain Graham is able to see approaching enemy dragoons when they remain invisible to everybody else. Do you have a letter for me, Graham? And what the devil have you done to your wrist? I forbid you to gallop like a madman again today or you will break your neck and I may have need of your mystical powers again before we kick Soult out of Spain.”

“They will be at your disposal, my Lord.”

Handing over the letter, Richard could not help smiling; though now that the danger was past he felt oddly unsettled by what had just happened. He had no belief in fortune telling and knew that Señora Xarra’s surprisingly accurate prediction was pure coincidence but he was grateful to her nevertheless. If she had not put that picture into his head he would never have thought to chase Wellington off the bridge so precipitately and the French might well have caught up with him.

***

There was no battle that day. Wellington, with Richard beside him, surveyed the ground and inspected the troops but made few changes to Cole’s arrangements. He moved O’Donnell’s Spanish troops off the knoll and replaced them with the 40th Foot from Anson’s brigade, along with two other Spanish battalions. He also sent out further orders to Pack, telling the messenger to take the long way round as the village, including the bridge, was now occupied by the French. Richard’s offer to take the messages had been firmly refused.

He was touched and a little surprised by his commander’s gruff concern for his injury. Wellington was not known for his sympathetic nature and nobody hearing his blunt observations on Richard’s carelessness would have imagined that he felt anything other than exasperation, but his actions told another story. He insisted that Richard be relieved of any further messenger duties and summoned his own surgeon to examine the injury. The doctor inspected  the swollen wrist. The swelling had reduced considerably since earlier in the day and Richard mentioned his curious encounter with the Spanish wise woman.

To his surprise, Dr Long grunted then asked to inspect the salve. He sniffed it suspiciously.

“Did it help?”

“Yes. Do you know why?”

“No earthly idea, but we’ll put some more on before I bind it up. They’re invaluable, some of these women with their herbal remedies. Ever met General van Daan’s wife?”

“Yes. They’re both friends of mine.”

“Extraordinary woman. Utterly terrifying. Some of her ideas are mad but she gets good results. She’d probably like your Spanish wise woman.”

“I thought that at the time,” Richard said.

“During winter quarters I came across her teaching young Mrs Smith how to set stitches in a sabre cut on a leg of pork. Poor Smith was hovering in the background looking absolutely appalled.”

Richard gave a splutter of laughter. “I wish I’d seen it.”

“There, that feel all right?”

Richard tested the wrist. “Yes. Thank you, Doctor.”

“Try and rest it. Which might be easier said than done if his Lordship decides we’ll fight today.”

“We’re not going to fight now,” Richard said, looking up at the rapidly darkening sky. “Visibility is too poor. I think it’s going to rain.”

He was proved right within the hour. Wellington shared a scratch meal with his staff while torrential rain battered against the canvas of his tent. He was still writing orders to the scattered commanders of his army and one by one his ADCs collected their allotted letters and went out into the storm to ride the long way round to Pack, Hill, Alten and Dalhousie. Richard watched them go sympathetically but also with relief.

***

Richard slept poorly on the hard ground, partly because of the thunderstorm and partly because his wrist ached so badly. By morning the weather had cleared and it was bright and sunny, giving Wellington excellent visibility from his chosen command post at the top of the Oricain heights. Richard sat on his horse beside him and wondered if the French had any idea how clearly their troops could be seen moving from one position to the other.

Pack brought the Sixth Division up by mid-morning and Wellington sent Richard with orders for their deployment. The arrival of additional troops seemed to be the signal for the French attack and the sound of gunfire could be heard from the direction of Madden’s brigade. It was desultory at first; the stuttering fire of tirailleurs fanning out in a skirmish line. Gradually it increased in volume and intensity and was followed by the crash of artillery. Neither side had many guns but the French had four howitzers trained on the knoll to the left of Wellington’s line, which was occupied by the 40th and two Spanish battalions.

The noise intensified and dark smoke began to roll across the battlefield. The main French assault came in columns, crossing the hollow at the foot of the slope and then beginning to climb steadily. Richard was back with Wellington and watched them come. They were making use of an unusual number of skirmishers, presumably to keep the Allied troops occupied while the columns made their way up the steep slope.

Initially it seemed to be working as the first French brigade to reach the top made a fierce attack on General Ross’s men. Richard glance sideways at Wellington. The Commander-in-Chief’s steady gaze was fixed on the combat. Already the cacophony was deafening but Wellington looked as though he was conducting an inspection on a parade ground. The howitzers boomed out, muskets crashed and the French surged up towards the crest of the hill.

“Now,” Wellington said very softly, and as if they had heard him, there was a rush of redcoats as Ross’s fusilier brigade charged into the French flank, yelling some kind of unintelligible battle cry. The ascending French seemed completely unprepared for the savagery of the attack and within minutes they were retreating, racing back down the hill leaving many dead and wounded behind them.

The pattern repeated itself across the whole of the ridge. On several occasions a determined French attack forced Wellington’s men back and even established a foothold on the crest but they were driven back by charging troops from the second line. Wellington remained in place, directing operations. Often in battle, he liked to take orders to his various commanders in person and Richard was used to chasing his chief as he rode around the battlefield, but he understood why Wellington was not doing that today. The clear weather and excellent vantage point made it unnecessary and the hilly countryside would make galloping a risky proposition.

Twice Richard was sent out with messages, sending the 27th and 48th infantry from Anson’s brigade crashing into the French flank in a surprise attack. He was then sent back to bring in Byng’s brigade which was in reserve at the rear. Riding over the rough ground mostly one-handed was difficult but these were all short journeys. Wellington had sent his other ADCs on longer missions and Richard did not mind. He preferred to have something useful to do.

When he re-joined his chief, he found him in conversation with a young Spanish soldier. Wellington’s Spanish was fairly good, though not as good as his French. Richard walked Joseph close enough to hear. His Lordship  dismissed the man with a wave and turned to Richard.

“Ammunition,” he said briefly. “It’s not being sent down fast enough, I don’t think the muleteers wish to get that close to the battle. One of the NCOs from the 7th has just managed to drag a couple of mules down to that section of the line, but there’s a problem up on the knoll with the 40th and the Spanish.”

“I’ll go,” Richard said. “I can reach it from the far side, they’re only attacking from the front, probably because of our gun battery to the south.”

“Very well, Captain, but ride over to the gunners first, if you please, to tell them to cease fire. It is bad enough that you will be at risk from the enemy howitzer, but you shall not be shot down by our own artillery.”

Richard set off, wishing briefly that he was not riding Joseph. The horse was fast and sure-footed but he had not yet ridden him into battle and would not have chosen today to test his mettle.

He quickly realised that he need not have worried. Joseph was clearly battle-hardened and did not hesitate amidst the noise and smoke and the shrieking of howitzer fire overhead. Richard thought that the horse seemed far calmer than he was. He galloped to where Captain Sympher commanded Cole’s divisional gun battery to give him Wellington’s message, then made his way up to the rear of the action to find a Spanish muleteer with enough courage to accompany him into the fray.

The man he chose was a stocky, bearded Spaniard who seemed inclined to argue against the mission until Richard drew his pistol and threatened to shoot him. The mule, laden with casks full of ball cartridge, was even less enthusiastic and did not respond to threats. Eventually several other muleteers came forward to shove the animal into motion. Once on the move, it went so quickly that it almost dragged its handler down the slope and along the back of the ridge towards the steep knoll. Richard rode behind to make sure that neither man nor beast turned and fled.

The 40th infantry and two Spanish battalions occupied a steep spur at the far left of Wellington’s line. It had come under heavy attack earlier in the afternoon and at one point the Spanish lines had given way, but the assault had been beaten back by well-organised and lethal volleys of musket fire from the 40th. Since then they had been holding their own very well, but ammunition was obviously in short supply. Richard passed a party of Spanish soldiers who were speedily and systematically going through the pouches of dead and wounded men to find more.

Another screech overhead was followed by an explosion on the far side of the ridge. Richard flinched but the shell landed a long way from the lines of battle and did no damage. As the muleteer halted his recalcitrant animal, a cry went up from an officer of the 40th and men came racing forward to help. Two Spanish infantrymen began working on the straps and the mule was relieved of its burden. The men used rocks and muskets to smash or lever the casks open and hands snatched at cartridges. A line was formed along the ridge to pass the ammunition faster and there was a renewed blaze of firing onto the advancing French.

Richard turned to the muleteer. “Well done. Now get yourself out of here, you’ve done your job.”

The Spaniard did not hesitate but scrambled inelegantly astride his mule and set off back the way he had come. Richard looked over at the fighting men. He felt an irrational urge to join them but knew that he would be far more useful as a messenger in case there was further need. He turned Joseph back towards the path.

They had only gone a few steps when there was a burst of firing much closer at hand. Richard twisted in the saddle to look and saw that a section of French infantry had managed to break through the Spanish line and gain the crest of the knoll. They were directly behind him and he knew that a mounted officer would present an excellent target.

A Spanish officer bellowed an order and men charged in from the right, slamming into the head of the French column. Muskets crashed from both sides as Richard kicked Joseph into a gallop. He would not usually have risked it on ground like this, but he had no choice.

Abruptly, he felt something hit him in the back, once and then again, as if he had been punched hard. It drove him forward over the horse’s neck. For several seconds he was bewildered as to what had struck him. Then the pain knifed into him and began to spread through his upper body in waves of agony and Richard realised he had been shot.

Along with the pain came immediate and terrifying weakness. He felt as though he was about to fall from the saddle and his muddled brain was sure that if he did so, he would be dead. He was weak and both hands felt strangely numb so he could not grasp the reins. All he could think of to do was to put both his arms about the horse’s neck He could feel the animal shaking with fear and with his face pressed against Joseph’s smooth neck and rough mane, he could smell sweat and leather tack. He could also smell blood and he knew it was his own.

Another horse would have been panicked into throwing his rider but Joseph made no attempt to shake him off. Instead, he set off at a fast canter down the slope. Richard could not hope to control him, so he let the horse take charge and prayed that wherever the terrified animal took him, it would not be into the centre of the battlefield.

***

12th August 1813

Richard awoke in darkness and lay very still, listening to his own breathing. It was not the first time he had regained consciousness but it was probably the first time that he had felt genuinely clear-headed. He savoured the feeling.

All of his recent memories were of pain and blood and fever and the filth of army field hospitals. A surgeon had dug out the bullets and dressed the wounds. He was an English surgeon and there was no mention of a prison camp which suggested that Wellington had been victorious on the ridge above Sorauren. That was about as much as Richard could comprehend.

He had been thrown around in a supposedly sprung hospital wagon until he had longed for death and as the two bullet wounds festered and his temperature soared he could remember begging for pen and paper so that he could write to Honoria. They were brought to him but he was too weak to write properly and he cried at the thought of her misery when they told her of his death. It was less than a year since she had lost her beloved father and he knew she was praying for the end of the war so that he could come home and they could be married. He could not bear to be the cause of breaking that gallant spirit all over again. The surgeon shook his head over Richard’s distress and bled him again.

Everything changed after Lord Wellington made an unexpected visit to the dingy little room in a farmhouse where Richard awaited death. There was another wagon which was considerably more comfortable though his wounds opened up again on the journey and he was barely conscious when he was carried into this room.

He had vague memories of his wounds being inspected, cleaned and dressed again and of a crisp female voice issuing orders for his care. For a moment he thought of the Spanish woman and felt his injured wrist. The swelling had gone down and it was no longer painful which suggested that he had been laid up with this wound for several weeks.

He was lying in a real bed, propped up slightly with pillows and the window was open a little. Silvery moonlight made patterns on wooden floor boards. He could make out the shape of a wooden trunk and a chair. A small table held a jug, a pottery cup and what looked like several medicine bottles.

Richard was thirsty. He tried to push himself further up into a sitting position but the pain was so bad that he cried out. As he lay back, sweating with agony, he heard quick footsteps and then the door opened.

“Lie still, Captain Graham. You’re doing very well but you’re not ready to ride into battle just yet and if my wife finds out you’ve been making the attempt you’ll regret it.”

“General van Daan. Where the hell am I? What happened?” Richard’s voice cracked a little. He felt suddenly panicky at how little he could remember.

“Calm down, Richard, you’re safe and she’s fairly sure you’re going to make it, though she wasn’t so convinced a week ago. Do you want some water? You can sit up a bit more. Let me help you.”

Richard allowed the other man to ease him into a sitting position and took the cup of water gratefully. Van Daan went to collect an oil lamp, lit two candles then lowered his tall form into the chair.

“Thank you, sir. I’m sorry. I’m a bit confused.”

“It’s not surprising. When they brought you here ten days ago our surgeon thought we were going to lose you. You were in a field hospital for a few days after they operated on you. They were going to send you down to one of the hospitals in Vitoria but Lord Wellington went to visit you and heard the surgeon say that he didn’t think you’d make it alive. He consulted my wife and they decided you’d be better off back at headquarters. You’re in Lesaca.”

“Are you billeted here?”

“No, we’re back over at Vera. I was invited to dine at headquarters and we stayed up late so they found me a bed. I was just about to settle down for the night. I’m glad I decided to stay, mind. I can give a report to Nan and I suspect she’ll be over to check on you personally tomorrow. She reluctantly deputised the nursing to your orderly and one of Wellington’s servants. It looks as though they’ve followed her instructions very well.”

“Did we beat Soult?”

“Very thoroughly. He’s back over the border and Wellington is making plans for another assault on San Sebastian. Do you remember the battle?”

Richard frowned, dragging up memories with an effort. “Sorauren?”

“That’s the one. I wasn’t there, but I’m told you were something of a hero. You’d been running errands for his Lordship all day and then you took off to haul an ammunition mule to the troops on Spanish Hill. You were successful too, but the French made a final rush and you were shot as you were riding out.”

“I remember. I tried to hold on, but I couldn’t control him. I’d injured my wrist the previous day.”

“You were also bleeding like a stuck pig from two bullet wounds. There’s some damage to your shoulder blade which you’ll feel for a while and the second one broke a rib.”

“Where did they find me?”

“Don’t you remember? That looted horse of yours took you back up to the top of the ridge, to Wellington’s command post. I don’t know what you paid for him, Richard, but it was money well spent.”

“Joseph?” Richard said in astonishment. “Do you mean he’s all right? He didn’t ride off?”

“He’s currently eating his own weight in hay in our horse lines. You won’t be riding for a while, but I’ve told Wellington I’ll arrange for both your horses and the rest of your baggage to be transported home. You’ll be travelling from Santander as soon as you’re well enough.”

“Home?” Richard felt a sudden rush of anxiety. “Home? Oh my God, Honoria? They didn’t write to her, did they? When I was…when they thought I was…?”

“Calm down, lad. That letter would be the responsibility of your commanding officer and you can’t think he’d have written anything to worry her until he was sure. He delegated the task to my wife and she sent off a very reassuring letter a few days ago when she was feeling a lot more confident. I’ll make sure they bring you writing materials tomorrow and you can write to her yourself.”

Richard relaxed. “Thank you, sir.”

“Right, you need to get some sleep. And so do I. I’ve been playing chess with Lord Wellington and it’s exhausting. I’ll call in tomorrow before I set off. It’s good to see you on the mend, Richard.”

Van Daan helped him to lie down again then extinguished the candles and picked up the lamp. He was on his way to the door and Richard was so tired that he was almost asleep when a thought occurred to him and jerked him wide awake again.

“Sir, wait. What was it called again?”

“What was what called?”

“The hill. That knoll out to our left where I was hit.”

“I’ve no idea if it has a name locally. The chap who told me the story called it Spanish Hill, but I assumed that was because during the battle it was defended mainly by the Spanish with a bit of help from the 40th. Or perhaps it was called that before. Does it matter?”

Richard stared at him through the darkness, his thoughts a jumbled whirl. “No,” he said finally. “I just thought I’d heard it before, that’s all. Goodnight, sir.”

***

October 31st 1813

The journey to the coast and the subsequent sea voyage tried Richard severely and he knew, as he waited to disembark, that he was in no fit state for an immediate coach ride to London. He was desperate to see Honoria but reluctantly decided that he needed to find a comfortable hotel in Southampton and rest for a few days.

His orderly had remained with the army, but Morrison, his groom, had travelled with him. His nursing care was rough and ready but Richard was glad of him. He arrived on the bustling quayside feeling weak and exhausted. Morrison hurried away to see to his baggage and search for a cab and Richard found a broken packing case and eased himself down on it with relief. It had been more than two years since he had left England to take up a post on Wellington’s staff and it seemed very strange to be back.

Lost in his thoughts, he was only vaguely aware of the elegant carriage which had pulled up at the edge of the road behind him. Morrison was approaching with his portmanteau while a sailor followed carrying his small trunk and a closed wicker basket. Richard watched them approach. He thought Morrison looked delighted with himself which probably meant he had located a cab and possibly an inn. The sailor lowered the trunk and Morrison handed him a coin.

“Sir, you’ll never believe it. I just met…”

“Richard.”

He rose and turned in astonishment. She had just stepped down from the carriage with the aid of a servant and was coming towards him, her hands held out in welcome. Richard took both of them and lifted one after the other to his lips. He could not take her into his arms so publicly but he could not take his eyes from her face.

“Honoria, I cannot believe you’re here. How in God’s name did you know?”

“Of course I knew, you ridiculous man. I received details of your transport from Mrs van Daan and I have been haunting the shipping office for days; they are heartily sick of me. Oh my dear, how are you? I’ve been so worried. You’re so thin and pale.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Never be sorry. You’re home and you’re whole and I am not letting you out of my sight for a long time. Get into the carriage while Morrison and my groom see to your luggage. Then you may kiss me properly.”

He obeyed, forgetting his weakness the moment he was in her arms. It did not occur to him even to ask where they were going until the carriage was underway and it dawned on him that they were unchaperoned and could not possibly be travelling all the way to London like this.

“Well I would not give a fig as you perfectly well know,” his fiancée told him firmly when he mentioned it. “But as it happens we are not going to London at all for a while. Mother and I have rented a house just outside Lyndhurst. It is no more than eight miles and the horses are well rested.”

“You’ve rented a house?”

“Yes. I’m sorry that I did it without consulting you, Richard. You may not know that I have exchanged several letters with Mrs van Daan. She did not tell me immediately how close you were to dying. I’m grateful for that, I would have fretted myself into a fit and not been able to do anything about it. But when it became clear that you would recover and must come home, she asked if there was anywhere quieter we could go. She thought that London might not be the best place for you to recover. We’d already talked about finding a country home. We’ll do that together, love, when you’re ready. But I decided that in the meantime, we would rent somewhere. I do hope you don’t mind.”

“I’ve never been more relieved in my life,” Richard said. “The thought of another long journey appals me. Honoria, it’s so wonderful to see you. You’re so beautiful. I think I’d forgotten how lovely you are. Kiss me again, would you?”

She moved into his arms. They kissed for a long time and then she settled comfortably against him, enquiring carefully to make sure she was not hurting him. Richard decided he did not care if she did. Holding her made him feel whole again.

They did not talk for a while, content just to be together. Richard dozed a little, exhausted after the voyage and woke with a start to find that she had settled him with a pillow and a woollen rug. He removed the rug, laughing.

“I feel like an elderly relative who always gets chilled in the carriage.”

“You are not at all elderly, Richard. Just not very well. You’re going to have to put up with me fussing over you a little, I’m afraid. I am still reeling at how close I came to losing you.”

Richard took her hand and kissed it. “Fuss as much as you like. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Can you tell me what happened, or is it too soon?”

“I can tell you everything I remember. There are a few weeks after I was wounded which are a bit of a blur.”

“I’d like to know.”

He described the events leading up to the battle. For a while during his illness, his memories even of that had been confused but they were clear again now. She listened attentively and asked intelligent questions. Richard realised that there had been times during the journey when he had worried that he and Honoria might feel awkward with each other, at least at first. They had corresponded very regularly but had not seen each other since their hasty betrothal seven months earlier. He need not have worried. Being with her was like coming home.

He had not intended to mention his odd experience with the Spanish wise woman but he found himself telling her the story of Señora Xarra’s extraordinary prophecies. He was relieved that she did not laugh openly at him or even ask questions. When his story was done she leaned forward and kissed him very gently.

“You’ve had such a terrible time, love. Thank God you’re home.”

“You probably think I sustained a blow to the head at the same time.”

“Your Spanish soothsayer?”

“It’s crazy. I don’t know why I told you.”

“Because you love me and can tell me anything. Richard, I neither know nor care what it was. Perhaps there really were two remarkable coincidences. Or perhaps there is something in that woman…in her family history…that defies our understanding. If that is the case, I’m glad you took it seriously enough to get Lord Wellington off that bridge.”

“I wish I’d taken it seriously enough not to ride up Spanish Hill. Though I’d no idea it was called that at the time.”

“Even if you had, and you’d believed her, you’d still have gone. Because he asked you to and because you will do anything for that man.”

Richard studied her lovely face. “Not any more,” he said. “I’ve watched so many officers struggle back from sick leave before they’re ready. I’m not doing that. I’m going to recover at my leisure, marry my beautiful fiancée and buy a house in the country. He’ll win this war perfectly well without me.”

“I’m happy to hear it,” Honoria said, snuggling comfortably against him again.

They were silent for a while then Honoria shifted and sat up. “What on earth is that noise?”

Richard listened and realised with a qualm that there was a piece of information he had not yet shared with his betrothed.

“Honoria, do you like dogs?”

Honoria stared at him in astonishment. “Of course I like dogs. Why?”

“Do you remember the basket that Morrison was carrying?”

“Is there a dog in it?”

“Yes. A puppy.”

His love did not hesitate.

“On the back, with the luggage?” she demanded indignantly. “Richard, what were you thinking? Stay there. At this moment, I think I can make more noise than you.”

There was a confused and very noisy interlude while an exuberant puppy was transferred from the luggage to the carriage. Richard watched, utterly enchanted, as his beloved cuddled, stroked and played with the puppy. Eventually the animal fell asleep on Honoria’s lap leaving hairs all over her pelisse. Honoria was smiling blissfully.

“What is her name?”

“Bella. Mrs van Daan named her. We can change it if you like.”

“No, it’s perfect. She is so beautiful. Richard, why have you brought a puppy home? Not that I have any objection but it is so unlikely.”

“It was something of an accident. Lord Wellington’s prized hunting greyhound had an unintended encounter with that hairy carpet belonging to the Van Daans. They were looking for homes for the puppies and while I was recovering in Lesaca, Mrs van Daan brought this lady to visit me. I’m not sure how it happened but she ended up travelling to Santander with me. And somehow, she really helped when I felt unwell during the journey. I’m sorry. I should have asked.”

“Don’t be silly, she is wonderful. And so are you, Captain Richard Graham. I love you so much.”

Richard held her close, leaned back against the comfortably padded seats and allowed himself to daydream of a future that did not include gunfire and marching in the rain and the bloody scenes of war. He fell asleep again contentedly, thinking only of Honoria.

The Sight    pdf of the story.

An Unquiet Dream

An Unquiet Dream is not, in fact, my new free short story for Halloween 2023. For those of you who have been waiting for that, it is coming I promise you. This year, it’s running slightly late.

When I wrote my Halloween story for this year, which is called The Sight, I chose to link it to the new book. An Unattainable Stronghold, for anybody who hasn’t realised, is out on November 1st. I intended to publish the story first but after reading it, my editor made a really good case as to why the story would work better if it was read after the book.

This left me with a dilemma, as I wanted to put out something for Halloween. My solution has been to delay The Sight until November 5th. Instead, I’m sharing An Unquiet Dream. Those of you who have read the Historical Writers Forum anthology Hauntings will already have read this. It’s been the only one of my short stories not to be freely available until now.

For those of you who haven’t read it, I hope you like it. It’s set during 1812 at an army hospital in Elvas and features one or two familiar characters. If you enjoy it, I really recommend you try Hauntings which has some excellent ghost stories from a variety of historical periods.

Watch out for the Sight on November 5th…

This story is also available as a pdf here.        An Unquiet Dream

An Unquiet Dream

Elvas, Portugal, 1812

The dreams were the worst.

They came relentlessly every night, so that after two months of waking trembling and bathed in sweat in the early hours of the morning, Sean O’Connor dreaded going to bed. He knew that he cried out in his sleep from the awkward enquiries of his room-mates, and Sean was embarrassed. He was immensely relieved when Dr Adam Norris, who was in charge of the general hospital, approached him as he was leaving the mess one afternoon and suggested a change of room.

“It’s very small, Captain, one of the attic rooms. I’ve had Colonel Stephens in it, but he left us on Thursday. There’s a convoy leaving for Lisbon, he’s going home.”

“Do I warrant a single room, Dr Norris? I thought you usually reserved those for more senior officers.”

“We don’t have any senior officers left, Captain O’Connor. And I thought you might prefer it.”

Sean felt himself flush. “I think my poor room-mates might prefer it. Have they been complaining?”

“They’re worried about you, Captain. As am I.”

“Thank you, Doctor. There’s no need, I’m doing very well.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m fine. The infection has gone and I’m getting stronger…”

“Captain O’Connor, you spent eighteen hours lying under a pile of dead bodies with your abdomen slashed open, it’s astonishing that you’re still alive.”

“Don’t,” Sean snarled, and Norris fell silent. After a long pause, he said:

“I’m sorry. I know you prefer not to talk about it, but…”

“I can’t talk about it,” Sean said. He could feel his muscles beginning to tense. There were beads of sweat on his brow and he longed to turn and run. It happened all the time. He could manage short, simple conversations about the weather or the quality of the food, but anything that touched on the long hours of his ordeal at Badajoz set off a collection of incomprehensible physical symptoms which terrified him.

“All right, Captain,” Norris said soothingly. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of the orderlies to move your kit to the new room…”

“I don’t need help,” Sean snapped. “I may not be capable of doing my job any more but I’m quite capable of shifting a few bags up a couple of flights of stairs. Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your concern.”

Sean had made it to the door of his current room before he remembered there would be no solitude there. Captain Hendy and Lieutenant Brooke were still downstairs in the mess room, but Captain Smith would probably be in their shared room as he could not yet make it downstairs without assistance. Sean changed direction and went down the back stairs and outside. He was sorry that he had snapped at Dr Norris because he liked the man and he knew that Norris was genuinely concerned for him, but it did not help Sean to talk any more than it helped him to be silent.

Sean had been moved from the general hospital on the edge of Badajoz to the attractive little town of Elvas. There was no accommodation for officers within any of the three hospitals there. It was one of the ironies of Wellington’s army that the privilege of holding an officer’s commission turned into a significant disadvantage when an officer was sick or wounded. It was considered unsuitable for them to be treated alongside the common soldiers, so they were billeted in individual houses and left to fend for themselves. Those officers with private servants, or who had the means to pay for help, might do well enough. Others, who had nobody to tend them, were left to the mercy of whichever householder they had been billeted on and Sean had heard of men dying alone and untended.  

Sean was surprised and relieved on his arrival in Elvas, to be offered space in a tall house in a narrow street behind the cathedral. It was under the supervision of Dr Adam Norris who ran one of the hospitals and was also responsible for the care of a dozen sick or wounded officers billeted in the Casa Mendes. The house was plainly furnished but scrupulously clean and food and basic nursing care was provided by Señora Avila the stout housekeeper who spoke little English but ran an efficient household. The officers combined their pay and rations, and Captain Hendy’s servant ran errands and assisted with the heavier nursing tasks. The arrangement was very effective.

“Better than being in one of those hospitals, old boy,” Hendy said to Sean at their first meal together. “They’re hellish.”

“I’ve never heard of an arrangement like this for officers.”

“It’s not common, although Norris and Guthrie and a few of the other surgeons have been writing to the medical board to ask for better provision for the officers. This was set up by the regimental surgeon from the 110th but most of their wounded have been moved out, so Dr Norris has taken it over.”

“Thank God for the 110th,” Sean said with real feeling.

For ten days after his arrival, Sean was confined to bed, still burning with fever. There was a small isolation room on the first floor and having established that Sean could pay, Norris found a skinny twelve year old to take care of him, ensuring that he was fed when he could eat and kept reasonably clean. Eventually he examined the appalling wound across Sean’s midriff and gave an approving nod.

“It’s doing well, Captain, and the fever has gone. I thought we might lose you, but it appears you’ll live to fight another day.”

Sean tried not to shudder at the thought. He could not explain to Norris or anybody else how that day haunted his dreams. Badajoz had not been his first battle and not even the first time he had been wounded but the long hours that he had lain trapped under dead and dying men in the breach had left him with wounds that could not be seen and could not be treated. Around him, his fellow officers moved on. Some were sent back to England to recuperate while others went back to join their regiments with real enthusiasm.

Sean could do neither. Physically he was becoming stronger every day and Norris continued to give positive reports on the healing of his horrific wound. Mentally, he was a broken man. He started at every sound, cried out in his sleep and awoke sweating and terrified after dreams of blood and death. He was morbidly anxious about his health, and that of his fellow officers, checking on them compulsively and asking Norris worried questions about anything that seemed unusual. Sean knew that his fellows regarded him with a mixture of compassion and embarrassment and had begun to avoid his company.

Outside in the narrow street, Sean walked quickly down to the cathedral. The doors were open, and he slipped inside and made his way to a pew. There were several other people around, all of them locals who were either praying or sitting in quiet contemplation. One or two shot Sean a curious glance but did not speak to him. The priest was at the lectern, flicking through a huge bound bible and he looked over and gave a faint smile. Sean nodded in response then sat back and closed his eyes. Father Nani had become accustomed to his daily visits during these past weeks. He spoke a little English, and had even discreetly heard Sean’s confession when the cathedral was empty and there was no danger of an unexpected visit from a red-coated tourist. The religious preferences of Irish officers were never discussed in the mess. Sean kept silent on the matter and practised his childhood Catholicism in secret when he could.

He found the church both a comfort and a refuge in his current misery although so far his impassioned prayers had brought no answer. Sean knew that his continued, steady recovery was putting Dr Norris in a difficult position. Within a few weeks, he was going to have to declare Sean fit for duty again and that would place the onus of making a decision squarely upon Sean’s shoulders. Sean knew that Norris was trying to avoid that for as long as possible. If Sean was physically fit, he needed either to return to his regiment, resign his commission and go home, or at the very least, request a spell on half-pay.

Sean could not decide. Theoretically, an officer could sell out at any time, but few did during wartime unless they were too sick or too badly wounded to carry on. Sean’s wound had healed well, and he suspected that at least some of his fellow officers would think that fear, rather than necessity, had made him leave the army and despise him for it. He rather despised himself.

There was no comfort today in religion. Arriving back at the Casa Mendes Sean was both relieved and irritated to find that Norris had ignored his wishes and that Private Coulson was already arranging his possessions in his new room. He saluted as Sean arrived and Sean found a coin and handed it to him.

“I can unpack for you if you like, sir.”

“No need. I’m not that helpless, Private. Go on, off you go.”

The room was small and clean with a narrow bed, a wooden table and chair and a small wash stand with a ceramic bowl and jug. Sean had few possessions, and it did not take him long to arrange them, using one of his boxes as a table beside his bed and the other as storage for his clothes. He set out writing materials on the table alongside a bottle of brandy and a pewter cup. It had been two weeks since his last letter to his wife and he knew she would be frantic for news, but somehow he could not bring himself to write until he had a decision to give her. Janey would want him to come home. Were it not for the children, she would have been on a transport to nurse him herself. Sean ached to see her but was glad she was not here. At some point she would have to know how badly his ordeal had affected him, but he was happy to delay it until he had made his choice. He sat staring at the blank page and had written nothing when the call came for dinner.

Meals, for those who were able to attend, were served in what must have been a parlour and which the officers had turned into an informal mess room. After dinner a few officers generally lingered on in the room playing cards, sharing wine and swapping battle stories. Sean rarely joined them. He desperately missed the camaraderie and banter of late nights playing whist for pennies and making bad jokes, but he could not risk making a fool of himself by flinching at a slammed door or getting a bout of the shakes at the mention of Badajoz. His mess mates were kind, but Sean did not expect them to understand.

Sean spoke little during dinner. He managed a conversation about the departure of Colonel Stephens and his new quarters and listened to a squabble between two subalterns about the best fishing spots on the Guadiana River. When the table was cleared and the cards were produced, Sean made his excuses and went up to his room. The others no longer tried to persuade him to linger.

Sean had recently received a parcel of books from Jane, and he sat on his bed under the sloping attic window and read until the light faded. He could hear the others going to bed, the opening and closing of doors and a muffled curse as Captain Gregg missed a step and stumbled, with his newly fitted wooden leg. Eventually it was quiet, and Sean got into bed and lay there, both longing for and dreading sleep.

It came eventually but when he awoke it was still dark. For a moment he was disoriented, expecting to see the shape of his room-mates on their narrow bunks and the litter of their possessions scattered around the room. Instead there were the few items of furniture and the closed ill-fitting door. Sean lay still for a few minutes with a sense of bewilderment, although he did not immediately know why. Finally it dawned on him that he was awake but perfectly calm. There was none of the usual panic and he could not recall dreaming.

The realisation almost sent him into panic and Sean unexpectedly wanted to laugh at how stupid that was. His usually lively sense of humour had been one of the first casualties of Badajoz and it was very good to see that it had not gone forever. Sean sat up, listening, and realised that he had been woken, not by his usual terrifying dreams, but by a sound.

Sean sat listening for a while. It sounded like footsteps, pacing backwards and forwards across a room. Occasionally it would stop, as though the person had paused in their restless movement, but then it would start up again.

Sean could not work out where the sounds were coming from. They could not be above him as his room was at the top of the house. There were other rooms on this floor, but as far as he knew they were not occupied by patients. Dr Norris definitely had the room next to his, and Sean had an idea that the other rooms belonged to the medical orderly and two or three officers’ servants’ as well as the Portuguese maid who was employed to clean the house and to help in the kitchen. Norris had not returned from the hospital by the time the other officers went to bed. Sean supposed it could be him, but somehow he could not reconcile this restless pacing with the doctor’s calm demeanour. When he had told Norris about his sleep problems, the doctor had replied that his long hours of work left him so exhausted that he slept the moment he got into bed.

Sean got up and padded to the door, listening. After a moment, he opened it cautiously and stepped out onto the landing. Out here, the sounds were quieter. Sean tiptoed to the door to the next room and listened again. He could still hear them but not as distinctly. For a moment, he hesitated, then shrugged and went back into his room, closing the door. He was curious but he could hardly knock on the doctor’s door in the early hours. Given the noise he frequently made in his own room during the night, he did not have the right to complain about anybody else. Sean got back into bed, closed his eyes, and resigned himself to a sleepless night, hearing the steady tramp of the footsteps.

It was light when he awoke, dawn coming early on these summer days, and he lay there for a while feeling very relaxed. The bed, although narrower than the wide bunk in his previous room, was very comfortable. It was covered by an old patchwork quilt which must have been part of the original furnishings of the house. It reminded Sean of home, where his mother and sisters had worked at quilting through the long winter evenings. This one was faded but very soft and Sean ran his fingers over it and wondered about the women who had made it and whether they had lived in this house.

Eventually there were signs of life below, and Sean got up. He had no servant with him so he had got into the habit of bringing up water each evening so that he could wash in the mornings. It was cold, but that hardly mattered at this time of year. Sean washed, shaved, and dressed. He was sitting down to pull on his boots before he realised what had brought on this unaccustomed sense of well-being.

He had not dreamed.

The realisation shocked him, and he remained seated on the wooden chair, gazing up at a blue sky through the high window without really seeing it. Sean could not remember the last night he had slept without the awful nightmares. Nothing had happened to bring about the startling change and Sean was almost afraid to hope that this was more than a temporary respite. All the same, it had cheered him up considerably and he arrived at the breakfast table and collected his portion of bread and spiced sausage in an excellent mood. The arrival of a supply convoy meant that there was sugar for his tea and Sean ate with a good appetite, listening to the usual conversations.

Letters had arrived from Wellington’s army, marching towards Salamanca and Madrid to engage the French, and there was a lively discussion about his Lordship’s probable plans which Sean found himself able to endure surprisingly well. There was also news of a convoy travelling to Lisbon within a fortnight to convey some of the sick and wounded either to convalescent hospitals in the capital or back to England. A hunting party had brought down several deer which promised a feast of venison that evening and Captain Hendy, who was almost fully recovered and expected to be able to re-join his regiment in a week or so, offered to supply the wine for a celebration.

As the other officers left, Dr Norris appeared in search of a belated breakfast. Sean sat down again and poured more tea into two cups. Norris thanked him and began to eat.

“You seem better this morning, Captain O’Connor.”

“I had a better night,” Sean admitted. “At least, I didn’t dream. I did wake up though. It was very odd, I thought I could hear somebody walking about in the early hours, but when I checked the corridor there was nobody there. Did you hear anything, Doctor?”

“I wasn’t there,” Norris said, around a mouthful of bread. “I was called out at about eleven and ended up having to perform an emergency operation on a German cavalry officer. I’ve only just come back. Once I’m at the hospital, there are always patients to see and I’m never back before morning. I was going to eat and go up to see if I can get a couple of hours sleep. God, I’d forgotten what tea with sugar in tasted like. Is there any more in the pot?”

“I’ll get some,” Sean said, getting up. He took the pot through into the kitchen, ignored Jenkins’ rolled eyes at the request and went back to the table to find Norris regarding him with some amusement.

“You really are a lot better, Captain. Who knew that a night without dreaming could bring about this effect?”

“It probably seems stupid,” Sean said. “It’s just that I think I’d convinced myself it was never going to happen. That I’d be like this forever.”

“The reassuring thing for me is that you’re talking about it,” Norris said. “You’ve been trying to hide from it.”

“We don’t discuss fear in the officer’s mess, Doctor.”

“No, because you’re all too frightened to,” Norris said without irony. “But that doesn’t mean men don’t talk about it at all, among friends. And it affects most soldiers at some point or another, even those who haven’t been through such a horrific ordeal as you. I’ve a friend, a fairly senior officer these days, who freely admits that in the early days he used to throw up after every battle and that his hands shook for half a year after Assaye. You’re not unique.”

“I bet he doesn’t talk about that in front of his junior officers, though.”

“I’ve no idea, although knowing him, I wouldn’t place a bet on it. But congratulations for taking the first step. Don’t panic when it comes back – because it will – and don’t run and hide again. Now that we’ve spoken, believe that I can be trusted. I’m not going to share your confidences with the rest of the army.”

“I know you won’t. Doctor – thank you. You’ve been the soul of patience and I know you’ve delayed signing off my sick leave for longer than you should.”

“I have, and I’m going to extend it for longer. You shouldn’t rush into a decision either way, just yet. In fact, I’ve a proposal for you. We’ve no commandant in charge since poor Major Clarke died of typhus. Eventually they’ll assign somebody, but how do you feel about helping me out with the running of the place until they do? I’ll write to Dr McGrigor, and he can speak to Lord Wellington and your commanding officer about it.”

Sean was taken aback. “I know nothing about medicine, Doctor.”

“That’s why I’m here. The medical staff are my responsibility, but there should be a regimental officer as commandant, in charge of the orderlies and ward-masters and to take care of general discipline. It won’t be a formal appointment, but it would be a big help, and it might give you more time to decide.”

“All right,” Sean said. “Doctor, I’m not sure I’ve ever said this, but I’d like…it was always my aim to get back into combat again.”

Norris smiled and poured tea from the replenished pot. “I know, Captain. If it hadn’t been, you’d have allowed me to send you home on those first transports. Let’s give it some time, shall we? Now what was this about footsteps in the night?”

“I thought it was you, at first,” Sean admitted. “They sounded so close, like a man pacing up and down the room.”

“Not me. By the time I get to my bed, I’ve no energy to pace the floor. I wonder if it could have been in the room below? Sounds can carry in an odd way in these old houses.”

“Who has the room under mine?”

“Ashby and Newton. It won’t be Newton, though, I’ve had to move him out, he’s down at the fever ward.”

“God, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that.”

“I must say I’ve never heard Ashby moving about in the night, but that doesn’t mean much, I sleep like the dead and besides, my room isn’t above his.”

“I wish I knew,” Sean said. “If it is him, then there’s a reason behind it. I don’t know Ashby well. I don’t know any of them that well, but perhaps something’s troubling him.”

“He never seems that troubled to me,” Norris said frankly. “But in any case, he’s got a clean bill of health and he’s off back to his regiment.”

“I’ll be the only one left soon,” Sean said.

“Not for long, Captain. There’ll be another battle and another wave of wounded men coming in by wagon and it will all start up again. That’s why I need your help.”

Sean was doubtful about his new role as temporary hospital commandant, but he quickly found that his new responsibilities kept him very busy and kept his mind occupied. Over the following week he met with the commandants of the other two hospitals in Elvas and began to familiarise himself with his new duties. There was a lot to learn but Norris was a patient and informative teacher.

There were no more dreams. Most nights, Sean slept through, tired out after a long and busy day. Twice he awoke in the night to the sound of pacing footsteps, and lay listening to them in growing bewilderment. He broached the matter with Lieutenant Ashby just before his departure and Ashby stared at him so blankly that it was clear that he knew nothing about the matter. It was a mystery, but Sean had no time to dwell on it.

The dream came after ten days and was so unexpected that it shook Sean, who had begun to think that his troubles were over. He awoke after hours of peaceful sleep into a room bathed in silvery moonlight. He had left the window slightly open against the stuffy heat of the summer night and a breeze had sprung up, wafting cool air into the room. At the foot of his bed, a woman stood immobile.

The moon made it possible to see her clearly. She was dressed in a shapeless white garment, her long dark hair loose around her shoulders. Sean thought that she looked very young but also very unwell. She was thin and gaunt, her arms almost skeletal and the bones of what should have been a very lovely face standing out in sharp relief. Her eyes were pools of darkness.

The shock make Sean yell. He closed his eyes tightly and pulled the quilt up over his head. There was no sound in the room. Sean lay curled up for some time, sweating in fear, with his heart pounding. Eventually, reluctantly, he forced himself to move. Peering over the top of the quilt, he saw the room, neat and unremarkable as it had been when he went to bed. The girl was not there, and Sean decided that she never had been.

Sean got up and went for the brandy. Pouring a generous measure, he went back to bed and sat sipping it, waiting for his heart to slow down. He realised it must have been another dream and that his first waking had been part of the illusion. It was disheartening, but Sean sternly forbade himself to overreact. He had gone for almost two weeks without dreaming and this dream, although terrifying, was nothing like the repetitive nightmares of Badajoz. At the very least, that cycle had been broken.

Sean mentioned it to Norris when they were going over some supply requisitions the following day. His instinct had been to keep quiet about his relapse, but he remembered what Norris had said and decided that talking about it might be a good idea. Norris heard him out without interruption.

“Well done for talking to me,” he said, when Sean had finished. “And it’s certainly different from your previous nightmares. I wonder why this woman? You didn’t recognise her, did you?”

“No. She looked ill…half-dead to be honest. I did wonder…”

“Go on.”

Sean took a deep breath. “I could hear them screaming,” he said abruptly. “When I was lying there all those hours, thinking I was about to die. I could hear the people screaming when the soldiers sacked the town. Especially the women. I heard afterwards what they did to them. How many of them were raped. And I felt guilty that I was lying there listening to it happening and I couldn’t get up to help.”

“Dear God, I didn’t realise that,” Norris said softly. “No wonder you have nightmares, Captain. Look, try not to worry about it too much. You’ve come so far in the past few weeks. Do you want me to give you a sleeping draught?”

“No. I tried that at the beginning, and it made me feel terrible. I’ll be all right.”

“Well let me know how it goes over the next few days,” Norris said. “Are you still hearing the footsteps?”

Sean laughed. “Yes. Although not last night, oddly enough. They don’t bother me, I think it’s just the house falling down around us. They don’t even keep me awake for long, although I always wake up. I do wonder what it is, though.”

“Rats scampering around and chewing on the plasterwork, probably. We’ll know when a section of the roof caves in,” Norris said philosophically. “I’m glad that you’re taking a more light-hearted attitude Captain, it’ll do you good.”

Sean agreed with him. While he was unable to deny his disappointment at the return of his nightmares, he was pleased that his mood remained optimistic. He was enjoying having a job to do and he realised it was improving his confidence. As many of the convalescents left and others arrived, he had no need to explain his continuing presence at the hospital. Norris merely introduced him as the temporary hospital commandant and his new mess mates did not hesitate to come to him with questions and complaints. While it was not the same as being in command of a company of the line, it made Sean feel useful and for the most part it kept the nightmares at bay.

He saw the woman again a few nights later. This time, the dream caught him just on the edge of wakefulness and he made himself lie still, his heart pounding with the shock, staring at the slender form. Without the panic he had felt at his first sight of her, he was able to observe details that he had not noticed before. She was definitely wearing some kind of nightgown, stained in places and with a ragged hem. Her hair looked dishevelled and the sunken misery of the dark eyes unexpectedly wrung Sean’s heart. His eyes hurt as he forced himself to stare at her, trying hard not to blink. He could not help himself, and in that flicker of an eyelid, she was gone.

Sean sat up. The dream puzzled him because he had no sense of when he had slipped between sleep and wakefulness. The first time he had seen her, it might have happened at any point when he was huddling under the bedclothes, but tonight he would have sworn that he had been awake the whole time. It was clear that he could not have been. If he had, then his illness had taken an unexpectedly sinister turn. Sean settled down, then lay awake for several hours worrying about brain injury.

He took his concerns to Norris the following day. Norris had asked Sean to join him on an expedition to inspect a building which might be suitable for a new fever hospital. Fever patients were currently lodged in one of the convent buildings, but it was not large enough. Sickness was rife in Wellington’s army and far more men died of fever or dysentery than in battle. Norris had been searching for a new location for his fever patients for some time and walking through the dusty sheds of an abandoned winery, Sean thought he might have found it.

They were at the site for several hours, making lists and notes and talking to the owner, an elderly farmer who had lost his son to war and clearly had very little interest in what became of the unused farm buildings. Repairs would be needed and a thorough cleaning before bunks could be installed, but Sean thought that there were probably enough walking wounded to do much of the work. His new position had quickly introduced him to the idlers and malingerers who haunted every army hospital and he suspected that giving them an honest day’s work would convince many of them that it was time to return to their regiments.

It was evening before they rode back towards the hospital, and Norris suggested that they stop at one of the taverns in the square for a meal and a drink. It was the first time since Badajoz that Sean had done anything like this, and he enjoyed it enormously. They sat outside on wooden benches after they had eaten, sharing a jug of wine and swapping stories.

“How are your nightmares?” Norris asked finally, as they poured the last of the wine.

“I’m not sure. Yesterday, I started to wonder if it’s a dream at all or if I’m going a bit mad. I saw that girl again, but it felt as though I was wide awake. Is it possible that I’m seeing things?”

“Hallucinations?”

“Are they real? I’ve heard of them, but I’ve no idea.”

“Oh yes. It’s not unusual with a brain injury, I’ve known men who have seen the oddest things. I suppose it’s possible, but if you hurt your head in that mess I’d have expected to see signs of it weeks ago. If you want my honest opinion, I think it’s another of your dreams and you just didn’t realise it. But this one doesn’t seem to be upsetting you as much, and you’re definitely less jumpy now.”

“That’s the wine,” Sean said, lifting his cup. Norris laughed and raised his in a toast.

Sean felt pleasantly mellow as they went back to the house and up the stairs to their rooms.

“If they need me in the middle of the night you’ll have to shake me awake, Captain, or I’ll never hear them,” Norris said. “I’d invite you in for a last brandy, but I’ve run out.”

“I’ve got some,” Sean said. “Come in. It’ll help you sleep.”

They laughed together as Sean poured the drink, slightly tipsy and shushing each other loudly. Sean sat on the bed, giving Norris the chair. It was a bright clear night, a sliver of moon and a canvas of brilliant stars shining through the window. Sean lit two candles and sat back, sipping the brandy and enjoying the companionable silence. He realised he was becoming sleepy and closed his eyes. Norris had fallen silent as well and Sean wondered suddenly if he had dozed off on the hard wooden chair and opened his eyes to look.

She was there, as on the previous occasion, wholly immobile, with the dark eyes staring sightlessly towards him. She was so close to where Norris sat that he could have reached out and touched her. The shock of it drew a squawk of alarm from Sean. He scuttled backwards on the bed into the corner by the wall, spilling the dregs of his brandy onto the quilt, and closed his eyes tight.

“Captain! Captain! Are you all right?”

“No,” Sean said, shaking his head violently. “No. Oh no, no, no, no, no. I can’t stand it. I’m going bloody mad. Bad enough with the dreams, but now I’m seeing things when I’m wide awake and I can’t take it.”

A hand grasped his arm. “Up,” Norris said in peremptory tones. “Come on, into my room. Don’t argue with me, move.”

He bundled Sean into the next room and pushed him into a folding camp chair. Sean realised Norris had brought the brandy with him and watched, silent and trembling, as the doctor poured two cups. He carefully put one into Sean’s shaking hand and made sure that he drank some before sitting in an identical chair opposite him and drinking a large gulp from his own cup.

“Better?”

Sean nodded and drank more. “I’m sorry. Look, I know you’ve tried, but I need to resign my commission. I’m never going to…”

“Sean, will you shut up for five minutes and let me speak. Don’t say anything at all.”

Sean was surprised into obedience. He suddenly realised that there were beads of sweat of Norris’s forehead and his hand holding the cup was not entirely steady either.

“You’re not going mad and you’re not seeing things,” Norris said quietly. “Or at least if you are, it’s contagious. I saw her too.”

Sean stared at him. It was at least a minute before he really understood the words and when he did, he could not say anything, frozen with shock and sudden terror. His voice when he finally spoke was a croak.

“You saw her. You mean…”

“No, don’t say anything,” Norris said quickly. He was on his feet, rummaging around on his desk. His room was considerably larger than Sean’s with a wide old fashioned bed and a collection of battered furniture. Norris came back to him with paper and a pencil. He handed Sean a large book to lean on.

“Write, he said briefly. “It doesn’t have to be neat. That’s why I wanted you to keep quiet. I want to compare what we saw. You’ve seen her several times, so yours should be a lot more detailed than mine. Get on with it.”

Sean put down his glass on the floor and took the pencil while Norris went to the desk. Having something to do helped to calm his fear and he found that after a moment he was able to write fluently. As he wrote, Sean reflected that it was an advantage to have a scientific mind. It would not have occurred to him to compare notes in this way.

Eventually, Sean ran out of things to write. He read what he had written and put down his pencil. He got up and handed Norris the paper and Norris scanned it, his lips quirking into a smile.

“Yours is a lot neater than mine. I suppose you’ve had time to get used to her.”

Sean looked over his shoulder. “Or it could be because you’re a doctor. I’ve never yet met one who could write legibly.”

Adam gave him a look. “Perhaps I should hand over more of my paperwork to you, Captain O’Connor, as you’re so proud of your penmanship. As I thought, yours is a lot more detailed. I didn’t notice the embroidery on the shift although I did see the stain, mainly because I thought it might be blood. I didn’t see as much of her face as you did, and I didn’t notice that her feet were bare. But I wrote a lot about her physical condition because she looked as though she was half starved.”

“That may also be because you’re a doctor. It makes sense that we noticed different things.”

“But generally, the accounts tally remarkably well. I’d say we saw the same thing.”

“I can’t believe it,” Sean said. “I thought I was going mad. But Doctor…”

“My name is Adam. I think we’ve gone beyond formality.”

Sean smiled faintly. He was beginning to feel a lot better. There was something very reassuring in Norris’s practical approach to the vision. “Adam, how did she appear? Every time I’ve seen her, I’ve had my eyes closed and I’ve just opened them and she’s there.”

“It’s difficult to say. I was looking at you, laughing to myself, thinking you were going to fall asleep in front of me. And then I saw something to my left, like a flutter of movement, so I turned my head, and she was right there. I nearly died of fright.”

Sean could not help laughing at his frank admission. “It probably sounds rude to say that I’m glad, but I bloody am. Look, Adam…have you ever come across anything like this before? I mean what is it? What is she? Is she…have we seen…?”

“A ghost? How the hell would I know? No, I’ve never seen anything like it before, although I’ve met men who say they have. To be honest I’ve generally put it down to too much drink and a dark night on sentry duty.”

“We’ve been drinking.”

“That’s why I wanted to write it down,” Norris said. “I think it’s entirely possible for two men in drink to egg each other on to the point that they’re convinced they’ve seen a ghost. But I don’t think they’d be capable of the kind of detail we just produced independently. Admittedly you did tell me previously that you’d seen a woman, but you gave me no details at all.”

Sean regarded him for a moment. He felt very sober, with the beginnings of a headache. “So who the hell is she? Or was she?”

“I’ve no idea. Look, why don’t you sleep in here tonight, Sean, I’ve…”

“No, it’s all right. I’m not afraid of her, Adam, it’s just a shock when I see her. But she never appears more than once a night. I wonder if it’s always the same time, I’ve never looked.”

“Well it was around midnight when she turned up this evening because I’d just taken out my watch. I was going to wake you up to say goodnight.”

“I’ll add that to the notes,” Sean said, and his companion grinned.

“We’ll make a scientist of you yet. Get some sleep, Sean. I need to do my early rounds tomorrow, but we’ll meet up during the afternoon and talk about it. If you want to.”

“I do. There must be some explanation for this.”

***

Adam Norris slept late the following morning and dragged himself through his rounds with an effort. He was usually a moderate drinker, and it was not until midday that his headache subsided, and he began to feel better. The evening was one of the strangest he had ever experienced, but Adam found himself thinking about the early part as much as its dramatic conclusion. He had enjoyed spending time with Sean O’Connor, and it reminded him how much he missed his friends who were up at the lines. It had been a promotion to be placed in charge of a general hospital, but there were some disadvantages of being away from the main army and isolation was one of them.

Sean’s ghost was entirely another matter. Adam considered himself a rational man and had made it a principle during his medical career to weigh the evidence as far as he could before making a decision about diagnosis or treatment. In the heat of battle, there was no time to do anything other than react to every emergency and Adam knew that he sometimes made mistakes, but it was part of the job to accept that many patients could not be saved and live with it. Generally, however, he took his job seriously, studied whenever he could to keep up to date and was willing to accept new ideas.

Adam had never expected his open-mindedness to be tested by the appearance of a ghost, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not come up with any rational explanation for the figure he had seen the previous evening. There was no possible way the girl could have entered the room without him seeing her do so, or indeed hearing her, as Sean’s door creaked horrendously. She had looked, for those few moments, as real and solid as Sean, but then she had vanished as Adam blinked and left no trace behind.

The apparition had alarmed Adam at the time, but there had been no sense of menace about the woman. She seemed sad and possibly desperate, but not threatening. Making his way through the hot, stinking wards of the hospital, Adam found himself wondering about her. Having never believed in ghosts, he knew nothing about them apart from stories around the fireside during his boyhood, but all the tales of hauntings he had ever come across involved a person once living.

He mentioned this to Sean when he joined him in the commandant’s office that afternoon before dinner. Sean looked surprisingly well and grinned when Adam said so.

“Ten years of army life will give you an awfully hard head for the drink, Adam. Sit down. I’ve a very nice madeira or I can send Private Edwards for some tea if you’d prefer.”

Adam laughed. “Let’s try the madeira, although if this goes on I’ll be dead of the drink before the end of this war. I’ve been thinking about your ghost all day.”

“My ghost, is it now? I did wonder about that, you know, because I’m assuming that Colonel Stephens never mentioned seeing anything. So is it the room she’s haunting, or is it me?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “To be fair, Stephens was in a lot of pain. He’d lost his right arm and I had him dosed on as much laudanum as I could. Which he later supplemented with wine. He’d have slept through an army of ghosts marching through that room, and this one was fairly silent.”

“Was she though? I admit she’s never made a sound when I’ve seen her, but I’ve heard those footsteps pacing many times.”

Adam was startled. “Good God, I’d forgotten about that. So you never found out who it was?”

“No. I’ve asked around, but they all looked at me as if I was mad. As you know, I put it down to rodents of some kind but I’m not so sure now. It didn’t sound much like rats or mice, it’s too regular and too loud. And honestly, it didn’t sound as if it came from below me. I’d have said either next door or above, but there’s nothing up there that I’m aware of.”

“Or in the same room,” Adam said quietly.

“Now isn’t that a delightful thought.”

“Well it’s one you don’t need to dwell upon. I’ve had them clearing out Major Clarke’s room for you, I wanted it well scrubbed because of his illness, but it’s ready now. It’s on the floor below mine and it’s a lot more comfortable than the room you’re in. You could move your kit before we go into dinner. I’ll help you if you like.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Sean said. “It’s not that it’s frightening exactly, but it’s a little unnerving now that I know she’s not just in my head, not knowing when she’ll make an appearance. And we can treat it as a piece of research. At least that way, we’ll find out if it’s me or the room.”

Adam laughed aloud. “Whatever the cause of this, Captain O’Connor, it’s been the making of you. You’re a changed man, between ghosts and your new responsibilities.”

“And a man I can call a friend,” Sean said, echoing closely what Adam had been thinking earlier.

“That as well.”

“About those dreams, though. I actually think she did help me out with that infernal pacing. It woke me up so many nights, that I think it interrupted the dreaming. By the time I went back to sleep, I was thinking of something else and once I stopped worrying about the dreams, they stopped coming so much. Although I still jump like a nervous colt if a door slams close by.”

“One thing at a time, Sean, you’re doing very well. Have you written to your poor wife yet?”

“I have, so. I told her I’m staying out here for the present, in a temporary posting and that I’ll make my decision when they find a replacement for me.”

“Good for you.” Adam paused. He had a question, but he was not entirely sure how to phrase it. “Look, Sean, we can leave it here if you like. If you move into another room and the whole thing stops. I’ll close that room down, use it for storage.”

He could see the Irishman considering it. “We could do that,” he said. “But I rather like the notion of a hospital for officers, I think we should have more of it not less. And besides, now that I’ve seen her, I want to know.”

“Know what?”

“Who she was. What happened to her. Why in God’s name she’s wandering the rooms of this house.”

“And how are you going to find that out?” Adam asked with genuine curiosity. Sean grinned and raised his glass.

“Research, laddie. I learned the value of it quite recently from a scientific mind that I very much respect. Your good health.”

***

Sean slept well and dreamlessly in his new room. He was kept busy for a few days because of a selection of disciplinary matters among the convalescing soldiers. It was well known that idle soldiers were the most troublesome to manage and Sean was finding that discipline was the biggest challenge of his new post. He had been trying to steer a course between firmness and compassion, but a report from the Portuguese authorities in Elvas about a raid on a local farmhouse pushed him beyond his limit. The owners of the house had been robbed and beaten, but what infuriated Sean was the tearful aspect and bruised face of the farmer’s daughter. No complaint of sexual assault was made, and Sean was not surprised, since the farmer would not wish to broadcast his daughter’s shame, but he was determined to make an example. Too many of the more active convalescents assumed that their status on the sick roll made them immune from punishment and Sean summoned a court martial, determined to prove them wrong. He could not flog them for rape, but their other crimes were well documented and although the punishment was relatively light, Sean could sense their shock that he had administered it at all, and in front of every man fit to witness it in the entire hospital.

When it was over, Sean informed Dr Norris that the men involved had effectively proved their fitness for duty and would be sent back to the lines with the next convoy, along with a letter to their commanding officer about their crimes. Adam made no attempt to argue, and with the matter concluded, Sean had time to turn his attention to the matter of spectres. He knew nothing about how the Casa Mendes came to be part of the general hospital and took his initial queries to Adam, who shook his head regretfully.

“I wish I could tell you, but I had nothing to do with it. We were struggling with the wounded after Badajoz and the officers were billeted all over the place and then Mrs van Daan informed me that she had found this place and that we could have the use of it. Señora Avila and her staff came with the house, but I know nothing of the owners.”

“Mrs van Daan?” Sean said blankly.

“The wife of Colonel van Daan of the 110th. He commands the third brigade of the Light Division. She helps out with the wounded, and…”

“I’ve heard of Mrs van Daan,” Sean said, and then saw the expression on Adam’s face and hastily revised a large amount of gossip he had been about to repeat. “I mean…isn’t she the lady who has worked with the surgeons and who does rather more than nursing?”

Adam Norris studied him for a long moment then gave a faint smile. “Anne van Daan and her husband are two of my closest friends, Sean. She came to work with me as a volunteer in Lisbon three years ago and I trained her, against enormous opposition from my fellow surgeons. She’s extraordinary. She’s also a very good organiser and she found this place. I’ll write to her to see what she knows. In the meantime, I’ve had another idea. We need an excellent source of local gossip and I know just the place to find it.”

“Where?”

Norris grinned. “At the local brothel, of course.”

Sean stared at him. He realised his mouth was hanging open like a callow boy who had never heard of a brothel and closed it quickly. “I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”

Norris laughed aloud. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. There’s a young woman by the name of Pereira who runs a very pleasant tavern on the edge of town. I have been there, but not as a customer. One of the girls was very unwell during the time we were here, and Senorita Pereira had no faith in the local apothecary so I was asked as a personal favour if I would attend.”

“A personal favour for whom?” Sean asked.

“A young officer who is a particular friend of the lovely lady. I’m not giving you his name, it wouldn’t be right. We can walk over tomorrow if you wish. It’s not far, just near the Santa Luzia Fort.”

“Convenient for the garrison, then. If my wife knew I was planning a visit to a brothel, she’d never speak to me again. I’m assuming you aren’t intending to tell yours either?”

“Oh, I’m not married. I can’t imagine how your wife would find out, but I promise to bear witness to your good behaviour if ever I’m asked. You’ll like Diana Pereira, she’s not at all what you’d expect.”

It was less than two miles to the tavern, and they walked through quiet streets as the people of Elvas generally took a siesta during hot summer afternoons. Sean wondered if they would be admitted but the tavern door was wide open. They went in and found the tap room almost empty apart from two elderly men seated on a bench with a jug of wine and a chess board between them. A stocky dark-haired man was seated on a high wooden stool behind the bar with what looked like an account book in front of him, but he stood up as they entered and gave a little bow.

“It’s Emilio, isn’t it?” Adam asked pleasantly. “Dr Norris. I was here last year, to tend Lotta; I’m not sure if you remember me?”

The man nodded but did not speak. Adam ordered wine. As he was paying, a door at the back opened and a woman came into the room. She was dressed in yellow muslin, and she wore her hair pulled back at the sides with decorated combs but otherwise loose down her back. Sean thought she was probably in her twenties and was very attractive and very self-assured.

“Welcome, gentlemen. A pleasant change to see a red coat, we don’t see so many of them these days. Have you just arrived…?”

She stopped, her eyes on Adam’s face, and then she smiled again and there was warmth in it. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I didn’t recognise you immediately. You’re even more welcome as an old friend. Please, put your purse away. You wouldn’t take a penny for your services to Lotta, the least you can do is allow me to buy you a drink.”

Adam took her outstretched hand and raised it to his lips. “Miss Pereira. May I introduce the acting Commandant of my hospital and my good friend, Captain Sean O’Connor.”

“My pleasure, ma’am.”

“Mine too, Captain. Are you just here for a drink, Doctor, because I’ll willingly leave you in peace?”

“I was hoping to speak to you, ma’am. We’re in search of some information about the Casa Mendes and the family who lived there before the army medical service took it over. An administrative matter.”

Bright brown eyes surveyed them with amusement. “Well I can’t help much with that, Doctor, because I understand the place is rented through an agent. Although I imagine you knew that.”

Adam grinned. “I do, ma’am, and you have caught me out. I’m in search of gossip.”

The woman gave a broad smile. “Ordinarily, I would tell you that you have come to the wrong place, Doctor. Discretion is, after all, my business. In this case, however, there is no need for discretion since none of the Mendes family have ever patronised my establishment. Come through to my sitting room and I will give you a rather better wine.”

The sitting room was a comfortably cluttered room at the back of the house. Diana offered chairs and wine then seated herself in a comfortable armchair. Sean tried hard not to stare. It was many years since he had last visited a brothel as a very young officer but he was sure that it had been nothing like this. He looked around the room curiously and looked back to see that his hostess had caught him staring. She smiled.

“It is my place of work, Captain, but it is also my home. And since you are probably wondering, my English is so good because my father was English.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I was being rude.”

“No, just curious. What do you want to know?”

“Did you ever meet the Mendes family, ma’am?”

“Heavens, no. Dom Alfonso was a gentleman in his fifties, a widower for several years. There is a son, who serves at court in some capacity or other, so he went to Brazil when the royal family fled Lisbon. I believe the house is rented out through an agent.”

“You said ‘was’, ma’am.”

“Yes. Dom Alfonso died several years ago which means the house belongs to his son. I must tell you that I was not in Elvas at the time of these events, by the way, so I am repeating gossip. But I have heard the story often enough from a variety of local gentlemen, and I think it is largely true.”

“Go on.”

“When the French invaded in 1808, the house was occupied by Dom Alfonso and his sixteen year old daughter Juana. She was convent educated and I am told she had only recently been brought home because a marriage was being arranged for her. Her mother was already dead.

“Dom Alfonso could have fled south to Lisbon and joined his son, but he did not wish to leave his various properties to the mercy of the French, so he remained. He was apparently furious when they took the town, and very quickly commandeered his house as billets for French officers. He loathed the invaders and made no secret of it.

“They were here for six months and when they marched out after Lord Wellington’s victory at Vimeiro and the peace treaty, Dom Alfonso was left in the house again, without the invading officers but also without his daughter.”

“You mean she left? Or did she die?”

“Well that, of course, is the question. Here, I am afraid, there are several different versions, and I cannot tell you which is true. Dom Alfonso gave out the story that his daughter had been abducted and murdered by a French officer. He behaved from that day on as though she was dead, and very soon made arrangements to leave for Brazil to join his son. He never arrived, however, but died of some illness aboard ship.”

“But was the murder never investigated?” Sean asked. He had forgotten his awkwardness in her presence in his interest in her story. “Surely if he reported this to the local French commander, there would have been a court martial?”

“One would think so, but the French had gone before he ever told the tale,” Diana said. “This of course, led to a number of different theories which quickly spread through the town and probably contributed to his sudden decision to go to Brazil. Some people suggested that Juana’s father found her dead and killed the officer then hid his body. Another story was that the girl fell in love with the officer and left with him, either married or in disgrace. Either way, Mendes would never have forgiven an alliance with the enemy, so he cut her off entirely. I would like to believe that one.”

“Any others?”

“Many people seem to think that Mendes found out about the affair and killed the girl himself. I do not think he could possibly have killed her lover, since the French would have arrested him and the whole story would have come out. But his daughter? From what I’ve heard of him, I think he might have done it.”

“Do you think anybody suspected?” Adam asked.

“As I said, I wasn’t here then, but Elvas is a small place and Mendes had boasted about the grand Court marriage he planned for the girl. I think he might have considered she had dishonoured him. He was a minor member of the nobility and he had high hopes for the alliance.”

“What of her brother?”

“Still in Brazil as far as I am aware. When Dom Alfonso packed up and left for Brazil to join the royal family he employed Señora Avila with a small staff to take care of the house until a tenant could be found. I believe it was briefly used to billet some of the Light Division officers last year and then Mrs van Daan took it over for the 110th regimental hospital.”

“That poor girl,” Sean said softly. The woman studied him thoughtfully for a long moment.

“Yes, I’ve always thought it a very tragic story. As I said, I would love to believe she managed to leave with her French lover, but I am rather afraid she did not. I am longing to know why two English officers have such an interest in a long-buried local scandal.”

Sean could think of no answer that would not leave Miss Pereira thinking them mad, but Adam was better prepared. “There is a question over the lease,” he said. “If we are to make further improvements to the hospital, we would like to know that the family are not about to return, demanding their house back. The agent was odd about it, but it sounds as though he was concealing a scandal rather than avoiding a business arrangement. Thank you, Miss Pereira, you’ve been very helpful.”

Sean drank deeply. He was vaguely aware that the wine was excellent, but he found it hard to think of anything other than the thin, tragic figure of the girl in his room. He endured the rest of the visit as best he could and waited until they were well away from the tavern before he said:

“It has to be her.”

Adam glanced at him. “Our ghost?”

“Yes. It must be Juana Mendes. He killed her.”

“Her father or her lover?”

“Either of them. Or both of them, one way or another. She was just a child, straight out of the convent. Whatever they did to her between them, somebody should have been there to look after her.”

“Well if they didn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it now, Sean. She’s dead. She died four years ago.”

“Is that what you think? You don’t think she went off with her French lover?”

Adam glanced at him. “We’re probably never going to know for sure,” he said gently. “Honestly, we’ve found out more than I thought we would. I still don’t really know what it was that I saw that night in your room, but it’s clear we saw the same thing and if you add that to the story we’ve just heard, then I think it was some kind of ghost or spirit – the spirit of Juana Mendes. I wish there were something more we could do, but there isn’t. Unless you feel like talking to the local priest about an exorcism, and I must say…”

“No. Oh God, no,” Sean said, revolted. “You’re right, I need to let it go. I’m glad we found out what we did, though. Adam, thank you for this. For all of it. Wherever I end up, I’ll always be glad I had this opportunity to get to know you.”

***

High summer brought news from the front, of a spectacular victory at Salamanca and a march further into Spain. Wagons full of wounded and convalescent men made their way back to the general hospitals in Portugal and Adam Norris was so busy that he had no time to ponder the sad little story of Juana Mendes. The usual autumn sickness arrived early that year and Adam was grateful for Sean O’Connor’s capable presence as the hospitals were overrun and new premises became essential.

In November, they received word that Lord Wellington’s glorious campaign had come to an abrupt halt against the implacable walls of the citadel of Burgos and his Lordship’s army was retreating through appalling weather back to the safety of the Portuguese border, with the French snapping at their heels. Adam was supervising the unloading of a convoy of medical supplies outside the hospital when Sean joined him.

“The post is in. Endless letters telling us to expect a flood of sick and wounded. It sounds as though they’ve had another Corunna, poor bastards.”

“I know, I had a couple of letters from friends. Something went badly wrong with the supply chain.” Adam noticed that Sean was holding a letter. “What’s that?”

“A job offer,” Sean said. “Did you know about this?”

“Yes,” Adam said. “They wrote to ask if I would recommend you for the job. I said I would.”

“It comes with a promotion to major.”

“I also told them that I thought you were fully recovered and ready to return to combat if you should wish to do so, Sean.”

“I know. It’s my choice.” Sean looked around him. “It didn’t occur to me that I’d end up doing this permanently.”

Adam eyed him hopefully. “That sounds promising.”

“I ought to make you sweat, you underhanded bastard, you’ve been working at this, haven’t you?”

“Sean, it’s my job to make sure this place is well run. The improvement since you took over is astonishing, I’d have been mad not to ask them to make you permanent. But you can go if you want to. We’ll still be friends.”

“I’m staying. There’s so much to do here. In addition to running this place, they’ve made me district superintendent, which means I can inspect and make recommendations about the other hospitals.”

“Thank God for that,” Adam said. “The large convent is a bloody disgrace, I wouldn’t send an animal to stay there.”

They dined together in celebration and Adam felt pleasantly mellow as he settled to sleep. It had rained for almost a week and many of the town streets had turned to quagmires, the mud churned up by wagons and carts bringing in supplies and the first sick men from the retreat. Adam fell asleep thinking of the men currently marching into Ciudad Rodrigo with empty stomachs, camp fever and unhealed battle wounds and felt very fortunate.

He woke in darkness to an unfamiliar sound and sat up in bed. For a moment, disoriented, his mind flew to the apparition of the young girl and he wondered if this was some new manifestation of the ghost, but a moment later, he realised that what he was hearing was very much of this world. The rain was still falling, a strong wind driving it against the wooden shutters but there were sounds in the corridor outside, loud voices and footsteps and an alarming crashing sound.

Adam scrambled out of bed and into his clothing, then opened the door. Every occupant of the top floor of the Casa Mendes was there, the housekeeper and maids with cloaks and shawls over their nightclothes, and the clamour of voices was deafening.

“Sean, is that you? What the bloody hell is going on?” Adam called, and a voice floated up the stairs.

“The roof has caved in. Must have been a leak and the plaster has rotted. Thank God it’s above the empty room. Don’t go in there, Adam, it’s not safe. The rooms below are flooded though. Can you get everyone downstairs? I’m helping Fellowes down, he can’t make it on his own. The ground floor is dry, they’ll have to camp out down there until the morning, then we can get somebody to take a look.”

Adam groaned inwardly and turned his attention to the staff. Fortunately, after her initial panic, Señora Avila had regained her usual calm and was shepherding them downstairs with armfuls of bedclothes to find refuge in the dry part of the house. Adam made his way to the next floor down, where eight sick or wounded officers had their quarters. Sean had managed to light two oil lamps and was guiding the men, wrapped in blankets, down the narrow stairs, their feet splashing through water on the bare boards.

It was dawn before they were finally settled. The kitchen was in the basement and thankfully unaffected and as a grey light began to filter between the shutters, Señora Avila roused her staff and chased them upstairs to dress properly then down to the kitchen to begin preparing hot drinks and food for the exhausted invalids. Adam drank coffee with Sean in the mess room then rose with a sigh.

“Shall we have a look?”

“Might as well get it over with. The rain seems to have stopped, so I’d like to get someone out as soon as possible to start clearing up this mess so that Da Costa can have a proper look at it. I don’t want to have to give this place up if I can help it, Adam, not now. We’ll be back to having sick and injured officers scattered all over the damned place and with so many men coming in from this bloody retreat, we don’t need that. I want that roof repaired. We can round up enough convalescent men to do the clear up and if that’s not enough, I’ll write to Lord Wellington asking for a work party. There must be some men still on their feet in his army.”

“If it comes to that, I’ll write to Colonel van Daan. It will avoid a lot of unnecessary argument, he’ll just march them down here and claim it’s a training exercise,” Adam said with a tired grin. “But let’s see what we’ve got first.”

They made their way up the stairs, inspecting the damage. The south facing wall of the house was drenched, but not damaged and Adam thought that it could be dried out, as could the floorboards. They sounded walls and moved furniture and tested floorboards.

“I think we’ll have to keep an eye on that corner of the ceiling, but this is not as bad as I thought,” Sean said. “I wonder why it came down in such a deluge?”

“At a guess, I’d say the water has been pooling somewhere, it’s been raining for weeks. We’d better have a look in that empty room. Are you all right about that?”

“I’m fine, Adam. Come on.”

It was the first time Adam had been in the corner room since he had helped Sean move his possessions to his new quarters. The room was empty apart from some crates of medical supplies, the meagre furniture having been put to good use elsewhere. Fortunately, the equipment had been piled against the internal wall because the ceiling against the outside wall had completely collapsed. A pile of soaking, unpleasant smelling rubble was piled beneath a gaping hole and the room was covered in sticky plaster dust.

“What a mess.”

“It is. We’ll need to get this room cleared out as soon as possible and get the builder over to have a look. The first priority is to fix the roof, since it’s clear that’s how the water has been coming in. I’d guess it’s been collecting in the roof space above this room and soaking the plaster until it just gave.”

“Yes, the roof comes first. We could just board this up since nobody is using the room.”

Sean walked over to the pile of rubble and peered upwards into the dark hole. “I can see daylight up there,” he said. “I think a couple of tiles are missing.”

He paused and stood staring. Adam waited but his friend said nothing. After a while, Adam said:

“Sean? Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Sean turned. “Adam, this doesn’t make sense.”

“What doesn’t?”

“This house. The roof of this house. Come with me.”

Adam followed him downstairs and out into the street. Although it was still early, there was a good deal of activity as the people of Elvas emerged after the storm. A few doors down, an elderly man stood on a ladder wielding a hammer, the nails held between yellow teeth as he repaired a broken shutter. Sean looked up at the house and Adam followed his gaze.

“Look at the slope of that roof. That’s the window of the small room. If you move this way a bit, you can see the missing tiles. That’s where the rain came in, it’s probably been collecting there for months.”

“Very likely, it will have rotted the boards through.”

“But what’s above there? It must be an enormous space.”

“You mean under the eaves? Attic space, I presume. There’s nothing odd in that, Sean, loads of houses have a decent amount of space under the eaves, most people use it for storage.”

“How do they get up there?”

“A loft hatch, usually. I’ve seen them with wooden pull down ladders in some old houses, or they just keep a ladder nearby to be used when they need it.”

“So why is there no hatch in this house?”

Adam stared at him blankly. “I don’t know. Isn’t there?”

“No. I’ve been in and out of all the rooms on the top floor since I took over as commandant and none of them has a hatch. In most of the houses I know, it’s above the corridor but there’s nothing there. Why wouldn’t there be? Everybody needs storage space. Even if the house was built without a hatch, it’s an old building. You’d think one of the owners at some point would have seen the need for it and put one in.”

Adam stared at him. Sean was right and for some reason the thought made him uneasy, although he was not sure why. “I can see your point,” he said slowly. “It is unusual. But why does it matter?”

Sean’s eyes were troubled. “Because I think there was a hatch,” he said softly. “Looking up where the ceiling came through, I can see the remains of a wooden square hanging down. I think there was a loft space and it’s been boarded up. That’s why the rain pooled so specifically in that area.”

“You mean…in that room?”

“Yes,” Sean said. “Is there a ladder about the place somewhere?”

“I think there’s one in the wood shed although I don’t know its condition. Sean are you sure?”

Sean turned back. “I have to,” he said, almost apologetically. “I have to know.”

***

They found the ladder attached to the wall in the wood shed. It looked in good condition and as they carried it up the stairs between them under the curious eyes of a number of the other occupants, Sean reflected that the last time he had climbed a ladder had been at Badajoz. He did not mention the fact to Adam, however, as he wanted to be the one to go up into the roof space and he did not want Adam fussing over his emotional state. Sean did feel emotional and a little shaky but that had nothing to do with his experience at Badajoz.

It took several minutes to work out the safest place to set the ladder. Adam looked at him, but Sean shook his head firmly. He could not have said why it was so important to him, but he needed to be the first to enter the roof space. Adam nodded and took firm hold of the ladder and Sean climbed up.

As his head and shoulders emerged above the ragged hole in the ceiling, he could see immediately that he had been right. Part of the wood had rotted away and been pulled down when the ceiling fell, but the remains of the square loft hatch were unmistakable. There had been no sign of it from below, Sean was sure. He had spent plenty of time looking up at that ceiling when he could not sleep, and he would have seen the outline. Somebody had not only boarded up the loft but plastered over it.

The space was enormous. It must stretch the full length of the top floor of the house and had clearly been used for storage at some point, since it was fully boarded with wooden planks laid over the rafters. A variety of objects were scattered about the room, all covered in a thick blanket of dust. The light was good, owing to the missing roof tiles, and Sean could see several chests, a pile of mouldy fabric which may have been curtains, a broken mirror and a battered table with miscellaneous objects piled on top of it. Further down the space were two stacked wooden chairs, a wicker basket and a sturdy box of the kind Sean had seen used to store letters and paperwork. At the far end was an old mattress with straw poking out from its torn cover. There was something lying on top of it which looked very much like another hand stitched quilt although this one was covered, like everything else, with a thick layer of dust.

Sean stepped off the ladder. The roof was steeply sloped and at its highest point down the middle of the attic, he could stand upright. He took two or three steps forward then stopped. After a moment he set off again. The sound of his steps was unmistakeable. Sean felt that it should have been obvious that the footsteps could have been from a room above his head, but then he had not known this space existed.

He stopped before he reached the mattress and stood looking down. Nothing could be seen other than the quilt, but Sean had absolutely no doubt that she was there. He waited for a moment, steeling himself, then bent and lifted the edge of the quilt very gently, coughing in the cloud of dust that arose.

Sean had been dreading some horror, some sign of the agony of her last days, but he supposed at the end, after long hours of pacing the room, probably of crying out for help, she had grown progressively weaker and had just lain down. The bones were white, resting within the tattered fabric of her shift. The most upsetting thing was her hair, which had not yet rotted away and lay dark against the white of her skull. Sean felt tears start to his eyes and he settled the quilt back over her as she had been before and turned away.

As he turned, he thought Adam had followed him up the ladder, but he quickly realised his mistake. The girl stood before him and in the bright daylight spilling through the broken roof, Sean saw her more clearly than ever before. Her eyes were a deep brown and must have been lovely before dehydration and starvation had hollowed out the sockets. There were the tragic remnants of beauty in the bone structure of her face.

Something was different though, and Sean felt a sudden chill as he realised what it was. For the first time, the girl was looking at him. Before, in the room below, she had been an image, like a portrait with eyes staring into nothing. Now the eyes were on his face and he was sure that she could see him. For a moment, he was terrified, and then the fear receded and instead he felt a deep and abiding sorrow.

“He left then, did he?” he said very softly. “Your lover? He probably had no idea what that evil bastard did to you. I don’t know what happened on that ship, but however he died I hope it was long and painful. I’m sorry, Juana. All I can do is see you properly buried, but that I’ll gladly do. Then you can rest, I hope.”

She said nothing, but Sean had an odd sense that she could hear him although he did not know if she would have understood since he had no idea if the living Juana understood any English. He could feel tears on his cheeks and as he blinked and then wiped them away, she was gone and there was no mark in the dust where she had stood.

***

The burial service was private, with only the priest, Sean, and Adam present. Sean used bribery, when persuasion had failed, to pay for a simple stone with Juana’s name and the dates of her birth and probable death. Adam listened in shocked silence to his friend’s account of his experience in the loft and did not question his insistence that Juana have a memorial. She was buried in an army coffin, wrapped in the dusty quilt from the attic and afterwards, Adam arranged for dinner to be served in his room and opened a bottle of wine.

“Are you ready to hear the rest?” he asked.

“The rest of what?”

“We’ve been clearing out the loft ready for the repairs. The carpenter is going to restore the hatch and put a proper ladder in so that it can be used for storage again.”

“Not while we’re here.”

“No, but in the future. The point is that they found some papers in a box and brought them to me as they’d no idea what else to do with them. They should go to the family agent but given how that girl was murdered by her own father, I felt no scruples about going through them, and I’m glad I did.”

“What did you find?”

“Letters. Her lover wrote several of them in the weeks after his immediate departure, asking her why she didn’t keep their appointment and begging her to join him. That bastard Mendes must have put them up there with her deliberately before he walled her up and left her to die. He probably thought it was fitting. I hope she found comfort in them.”

“Oh God, Adam. You mean there really was a French lover?”

“More like a French suitor, as far as I can see. He wanted to marry her and when the old man refused, they planned to elope. When the French marched out after Cintra she should have been with him as his wife.”

“I wonder if he’s still alive?”

“I don’t know, Sean, but I’m going to write to him to tell him that she died and where she’s buried. Not the details of how, he doesn’t need to know that. But if he’s still alive and still out there, I’d like him to know that she didn’t mean to let him down.”

“Can we do that?”

“Oh yes. There are regular channels of communication regarding prisoners and if we enclose a note explaining it’s about a family matter, they’ll see he gets it. It’s surprisingly reliable, I was a prisoner myself for eight months.”

“Do you mind if I do it?”

“Not at all. I have the letters here, you can read them. It gives his regiment four years ago, but if he’s moved on for promotion they’ll know how to find him.”

They finished dinner in companionable silence, then Adam produced the letters and finished his wine as Sean sat reading them. Afterwards, Adam was called to a patient in the main hospital. Sean walked part of the way with him then made his way through the town to the churchyard and stood in the gathering dusk before the fresh grave in the churchyard.

Sean could give no reason for his certainty that Juana Mendes was finally at peace. He thought about the young Frenchman who had fallen in love with her during those months at the Casa Mendes. The man’s letters had upset him with their increasing desperation at receiving no word from Juana. It was clear that he had loved her very much and Sean wondered if there were other letters, written after her death and destroyed by her vengeful father. Adam was right, the man deserved to know at least part of the truth.

It was full dark now, and Sean could barely see the grave. He bent his head and spoke a short prayer for Juana and for the young man she had loved, then he crossed himself and turned to walk back up to the hospital. He had paperwork to do, then he would open another bottle of wine in case Adam was back early enough to share a drink. While he was waiting, he would write a letter to his wife to remind her of how much he loved her, and another to a young French officer called Louis Bernard, to tell him that he too had been loved.

Author’s Note

The idea for this ghost story came from somebody I met locally who was reading my Peninsular War Saga and told me the story of his ancestor. Lieutenant Waldron Kelly, an Irish officer who served in Wellington’s army eloped with a well-born Portuguese girl and married her against furious opposition from her family. Mrs Kelly went back to Ireland, partly because her family threatened to kill her for disgracing them. The story is told in some detail in Charles Esdaile’s Women in the Peninsular War and is one of a number of tales of local women becoming involved with British soldiers. It occurred to me that this probably also happened during the French occupation, and that a Portuguese or Spanish family might have been even more angry if their daughter became involved with a hated invader.

While both Adam Norris and Sean O’Connor are fictional characters, there really were several general hospitals in Elvas and they would have been jointly run by a senior doctor and an officer commandant. Hospitals for officers were rare, although in 1813 the voluntary provision of a separate hospital for sick and wounded officers was finally included in regulations. It was hugely inconvenient for medical staff to have to travel to wherever a sick or wounded officer happened to be billeted, and there are several accounts of what appear to be informal hospitals for officers throughout the war. It seems madness to us today that considerations of rank were placed above good medical care, but Wellington’s army existed in a very different world.

 

 

An Unsuitable Arrangement

Welcome to an Unsuitable Arrangement, my Valentine’s Day short story for 2023. As always, it’s free so please share as much as you like.

The story is set in the city of Santander in 1813. Most of the ports in northern Spain were occupied by the French until 1812, when a Royal Navy squadron under the command of the inimitable Sir Home Popham was sent to co-operate with the Spanish irregular forces along the coast to distract the French while Lord Wellington advanced to Salamanca, Madrid and then on to Burgos. Popham managed to keep the French busy and liberated several of the coastal towns but he was recalled towards the end of 1812 as Wellington’s army made their miserable retreat from Burgos back to the Portuguese border. The story of that retreat is told in An Untrustworthy Army, book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga.

Santander was briefly reoccupied by the French, but as Wellington marched to victory at Vitoria in 1813, the garrison was withdrawn again, leaving the Spanish inhabitants to cope with the burden of being a major supply depot for the army. Managing these difficulties was a major headache for the officers of the quartermaster’s department and there is no evidence that Lord Wellington was sympathetic about it.

Some of the more eagle-eyed readers among you might recognise that I have borrowed from the true story of Lieutenant William Waldron Kelly who eloped with a high-born Portuguese girl and had to leave Portugal because of threats from her family. Regular readers will also recognise a number of characters from previous books or short stories.

For those of you who prefer not to read online I’ve attached a pdf of the story below.

An Unsuitable Arrangement

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody.

An Unsuitable Arrangement

Santander, July, 1813

It was past noon when the Lady Emma, an English merchantman out of Southampton, dropped anchor off the Spanish port of Santander. Captain O’Halloran, an Irishman who had learned his trade the hard way as a pressed man in the Royal Navy, invited his passengers to drink a glass of wine in his day cabin while arrangements were being made for the cargo and the passengers to be unloaded. Elinor Spencer suspected that he was keen for the passengers to go first. It had not been an easy voyage.

Elinor had no experience of travel by sea, but she had heard horrendous tales from her uncle about sea-sickness and the danger of French privateers. She was relieved to discover that she was a surprisingly good traveller and the French made no appearance; but the rest of the voyage was a nightmare from start to finish.

There were five passengers aboard the Lady Emma. The two British officers were returning to duty from sick leave while Elinor was accompanied by her younger sister Juliet and their maidservant. Juliet and Eliza had been sick for the entire voyage and Elinor had found herself nursing both of them. She had seen nothing of the two gentlemen, but had been told by Captain O’Halloran that they had been similarly affected. Elinor thought it was rather a shame that most of her first voyage had been spent below decks dealing with the unpleasant results of other people’s sea-sickness. The times she had managed to get away to dine with the Captain and take the air on deck had been very pleasant.

After a little persuasion Juliet had agreed to accompany her sister to the Captain’s impromptu gathering. Elinor was not surprised when she brightened considerably at the sight of the two young officers. Within five minutes they were vying for her attention, leaving Elinor to sip her wine and talk to the Captain. She had struck up a firm friendship with him during the voyage and was aware that he was concerned about two young ladies travelling so far without a male escort.

“Your sister seems much better, ma’am.”

“She will be fine once we are ashore although I imagine she’ll be dreading the voyage home. She shouldn’t have come. I would have managed perfectly well on my own and…”

“Neither of you should have made this journey, it’s a disgrace,” the Captain said. Elinor had not expected him to be quite so frank. She stared at him and he gave a little smile and bowed. “Your pardon, ma’am. I shouldn’t have said that, but I’m a blunt-spoken man. Having met you, I perfectly understand why your fiancé didn’t want to wait until the end of this war for the wedding. But he should have asked for leave and waited for it to be granted. I can make allowances for a man in love, but this is ridiculous. The towns along this coast have only recently been taken back from the French. The Spanish authorities are struggling to organise themselves and are sinking under the weight of demands for supplies and accommodation from both the British army and the Navy.”

“You don’t think there’s a risk that the French will attack the town, Captain?”

O’Halloran shook his head. “No, ma’am, I think you’re perfectly safe from that. Lord Wellington is very much in control now and I don’t think Bonaparte has the men. But this is a difficult situation and I think you and your sister would be better at home. However, it’s not my decision. We’ll get you ashore as soon as we can and I’ve asked Mr Beattie to escort you. I’m sure your fiancé has arrangements in place but if anything were to go wrong Beattie will know what to do. We’re picking up a contingent of wounded men going back to England. We’ll be here for at least a week and possibly longer given that we’ve a few repairs after that storm. Don’t hesitate to send a message, ma’am, if you need to.”

Elinor felt the prickle of tears at his kindness. “That’s very good of you, Captain, but we haven’t paid for passage home. And I’m sure Mr Beattie has other things to do. I understand he is acting as your clerk temporarily?”

“It’s not his job, ma’am, he works for the owner. But I’ll admit he’s been useful. As for the passage home, I don’t care. We’ve space and if you run into trouble, we can sort out the details later. I don’t like the idea of two English ladies going ashore without a man to protect them. It’s not right. But Beattie will look after you and hand you over to Major Welby, never fear.”

O’Halloran finished his wine, then excused himself and went back to his duties. Elinor glanced over at her sister and decided that she would be very well entertained, so she made her way up onto deck and took up a position at the rail. She watched the bustle of activity on shore and on the water, as small boats rowed out to the ships with supplies, passengers and messages. Santander was an attractive town from this distance; a jumble of tiled roofs and white painted houses interspersed with church towers and spires. Above it all rose the rocky slopes of the Peñacastillo mountain. The sky was a clear blue and the sun reflected diamond sparks off the water. There was a fresh breeze which made Elinor shiver a little in her warm pelisse.

She had come here to be married. The thought was still strange to her. She had been betrothed for such a long time – almost two years now – and she had not seen her fiancé since his hasty departure for Portugal only a month after the match was arranged. Elinor barely knew Major Welby, who was fifteen years her senior. He served in the 9th Dragoon Guards, which was her uncle’s old regiment, and the Colonel had arranged the match with very little reference to Elinor.

The ceremony was supposed to have taken place during the autumn of 1811 but the regiment was recalled to duty very suddenly and Elinor was faced with the daunting prospect of an immediate marriage. She had hoped for time to become accustomed to the idea and was immensely relieved when Major Welby wrote to inform her uncle that it would be impossible to delay his departure long enough to travel to Northamptonshire for the wedding and that, regrettably, the marriage must be postponed.

Life had gone on very much as before. There were times, living under Uncle Edward’s bullying rule, when Elinor longed to escape, even into marriage with a stranger. At other times she hoped that one of Major Welby’s infrequent letters would contain the news that he had thought better of the arranged marriage and wished to be released from his obligations. The more time that passed, the harder it was for Elinor to remember exactly what her fiancé even looked like.

She had been shocked during the previous winter when her Uncle informed her that Welby had written to suggest that Elinor might join him in Portugal to be married there. For a few weeks Elinor lived in a state of carefully concealed terror but a winter cold which had settled on Uncle Edward’s chest made travel impossible. Elinor breathed again and finally admitted to herself that her initial anxiety about the match had settled into cold dread. She did not wish to marry Major Welby and she needed to say so.

Uncle Edward was furious when she made the disclosure and as always, his anger took physical form. Elinor was locked in her room bruised and sore from six stripes from his riding whip, and Juliet joined her a day later after trying to speak up for her sister. The stripes healed and Juliet was released but Elinor remained there alone, forbidden to see or speak to either her aunt or her sister until she gave in. Whatever her doubts about marriage to a man she barely knew and did not particularly like, she realised that she could not continue to live under her uncle’s roof. Anything would be better than this and at least she would be able to offer a home to Juliet.

By the time travel arrangements were made, Uncle Edward was ill again. This time he refused to cancel.

“You don’t need me or your aunt to be there,” he wheezed when Elinor obeyed his summons to his bedside. “You need to be married before I’m dead. That way, he can arrange a suitable match for your sister as well. Can’t leave this to a pack of silly women. You’ll need a man to take care of you. Welby’s got a respectable fortune, he’ll see to it. At least he still wants you. I was beginning to wonder.”

“Sir, I don’t want this marriage,” Elinor said trying to keep her voice calm. “I don’t know him, it will be like marrying a stranger. And if you are ill, it should not be left to my aunt to manage. Let me write to him. He will easily find another lady. I…”

“Enough!” her uncle roared with surprising energy. “Get yourself out of here and get yourself packed. You’ll depart in that carriage when it arrives and you can take your sister along with the maid. Once you arrive in Spain he’s to meet you in Santander and the wedding will take place almost immediately. It’s settled, I want to hear no more of your whining.”

Elinor had complied because she could not think of anything else to do. She had no money and no other family that she could run to. She had often thought that it might be possible to find work as a governess or a companion but she had never found a way to apply for such a post. She could neither send nor receive letters without her uncle’s supervision and she had no friend who might help her do so. It occurred to her that in novels, the heroine always managed to find a way out of such difficulties. In real life, a respectable woman with a younger sister to take care of needed to set impractical schemes to one side and make the best of her situation. She had tried to find a way out and had failed. Her only other option was to go to her wedding as cheerfully as she could manage and to try not to think about what might happen next.

Now that she was here and ashore, Elinor was thankful for the calm presence of Mr Beattie. She was a little confused about his position aboard the merchant ship, but he seemed willing to act as their escort and determined not to leave Elinor until she was safely inside her hotel. She was passionately grateful to him, given that neither she or Juliet spoke a word of Spanish, while Eliza was so overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of a foreign sea port that she seemed to be struggling even to speak English. The quayside was crowded as several ships seemed to be either loading or unloading their goods. At least two of the ships at anchor in Santander Bay were Royal Navy and there was a collection of blue-coated officers going about their business on shore. There were also a large number of red coats in evidence. Elinor found that she was surreptitiously scanning faces for her betrothed and she felt a slight sense of panic in case she did not recognise him. It had been two years and all she could clearly remember was a bulky figure and a set of perfectly trimmed military whiskers. He had sent her a miniature during the first year of their engagement, but it was poorly executed and could have been anybody.

“I thought he was going to meet us,” Juliet said. She had been full of high spirits as they left the ship but had gone very quiet as Mr Beattie organised a hired cart and found a porter to load up their luggage. “Your…Major Welby. I thought he’d be here.”

“I’m sure he will meet us at the hotel. He may have been delayed by his military duties. Don’t worry, Juliet. It will be all right.”

She reached for her sister’s hand as the cart jolted forward. Juliet squeezed hard and gave a wan smile. Elinor returned it. She was not sure which of them was more terrified in this busy, noisy, alien place but she reflected that Juliet’s fear would be assuaged once Major Welby appeared to take charge. Elinor still had to get through her wedding night.

The hotel was reassuringly elegant, situated on a wide boulevard away from the noisy port district. Mr Beattie handed them down and ushered them into a tiled entrance where a portly Spanish gentleman came forward with an enquiring smile. Beattie appeared to speak fluent Spanish and Elinor stood back and watched him with awe. She did not think she would ever be able to speak that quickly in any language.

It was clear that the clerk was not happy with the hotelier’s response to his enquiries. The Spaniard spread his hands wide as if disclaiming any responsibility for the problem and Beattie rapped out a series of what sounded like questions. Eventually he turned to Elinor, who was beginning to feel very sick.

“Is there a problem, Mr Beattie?”

“A minor one, ma’am. I’ve asked this fool to order some refreshments and you can sit down while I sort this out. Let us go over to a table. Here, sit down. Your maid…I’m not sure…”

“Eliza, come and sit here,” Elinor said briskly. “This is not the time to worry about propriety. What has happened, sir? Is our room not reserved? And what of Major Welby?”

“I can discover nothing about the Major ma’am, but you can be sure I will do so. As to your accommodation, it probably was reserved, but the army has moved in and taken over this entire hotel. Transports arrived yesterday with a battalion of infantry along with two hundred cavalry reinforcements. They’ve billeted the men on a couple of local farms, poor souls and they’ve told Senor Talledo to cancel all reservations as they need the rooms for their officers for at least two weeks until they’re ready to march out to join Lord Wellington. The poor man is beside himself.”

“Can they do that?” Elinor asked, appalled.

“Oh yes, ma’am. They’ll have to recompense him of course, but given how the army manages its pay chest it could take him a year to get the money back and it won’t be the full amount. In the meantime, we’ll need to find accommodation for you.”

“But this is dreadful,” Juliet said. Elinor could hear the panic in her voice. She felt panicked as well but forced herself to speak calmly.

“Mr Beattie, this is so kind of you. I’m sorry you have been put to so much trouble. I’m sure when Major Welby arrives it can be straightened out. You must have a hundred things to do without having to trouble yourself with our difficulties.”

“Can’t be helped, ma’am. I’m just glad the Captain suggested that I escort you. A rare pickle you’d have been in without a word of Spanish between you. Don’t you worry. Look, here comes the maid with some tea for you. And it looks like some bread and cheese as well. You have something to eat. I’ve asked Senor Talledo to find the officer in charge here. It’s a problem through the whole district now. They’re being asked to find accommodation and provide supplies and transport since the army started using this place as its main transit port. The locals aren’t set up for it. They’re doing their best, but they were struggling when I was last here earlier this year and it’s got worse since then.”

The bread was hard and baked with olives and the butter was made without salt and rather tasteless, but Elinor was surprised at how much she liked the soft cheese. They drank strong tea with what she suspected was goat’s milk and ate some beautifully juicy grapes. The hotel lobby was spotlessly clean and if she had not been so worried, Elinor would have rather enjoyed their vantage point, watching the coming and going of officers in red coats. A number of them looked curiously at the three women. One or two stared rather more rudely and Elinor touched Juliet’s arm to remind her to look away. She felt very conspicuous and wished she knew what was going on.

After what seemed a long time, Mr Beattie reappeared. He was accompanied by an officer who was definitely not Major Welby. Elinor was both relieved and confused. Her only way out of this embarrassing situation would be the arrival of her betrothed, but she was dreading it. The situation had all the elements of a Drury Lane comedy but she was not finding it funny.

She rose as the two men approached. Beattie gave a little bow and threw a malicious glance at his companion.

“Miss Spencer, allow me to introduce you to Lieutenant-Colonel Galloway. As far as I can work out he’s the Assistant Quartermaster General for this district and is the man responsible for cancelling your rooms and leaving you to sleep on the streets tonight. He’s here to explain why that’s considered acceptable by His Majesty’s army.”

Galloway shot the clerk a look of utter loathing. “It’s very good to see the merchant service is employing clowns as administrators. That probably explains the chaos of the supply system here.”

“I thought everything was the fault of the Royal Navy according to your boys, sir. Still, it’s good to know you’re extending the blame to merchant shipping as well. You might want to throw in a bit of a complaint about Neptune and the mythical sea-serpent. I’m sure they’re both Bonapartists.”

Elinor was not sure, but she thought she heard Colonel Galloway grind his teeth. While she appreciated Beattie’s wit, she was not sure that he was the man who could get her a hotel room. With an effort, she summoned a smile and held out her hand.

“Colonel Galloway, thank you for seeing me. I’m sorry to be so much trouble.”

Galloway paused for a moment, looking uncertain. Then he took her hand and bowed over it.

“Miss Spencer. Forgive me, you have nothing to be sorry for. This must be very upsetting for you.”

Elinor studied him. He was probably around thirty or so with short dark brown hair and warm brown eyes, but he currently looked like a man driven to the limits of his patience. Elinor had been raised on stories of military glory but she had never thought for a moment about the men like Galloway who worked behind the scenes in difficult circumstances to make a campaign happen. Elinor was a woman accustomed to managing a household on a tight budget with difficult people and she felt unexpectedly sorry for him.

“Why don’t you sit down, Colonel Galloway and perhaps Mr Beattie could ask for some more tea? I’m afraid we are putting you to a great deal of trouble here.”

“Tea?” Galloway said hopefully. His eyes were suddenly riveted to the cups and plates on the table. Elinor looked at Beattie and saw that he was masking a grin. She wondered how often Colonel Galloway forgot to eat.

“And some more bread and cheese if you can manage it, Mr Beattie. I suspect Colonel Galloway missed breakfast. Sit down, Colonel and allow me to introduce you to my sister Juliet. Also our poor maid Eliza who has never been more confused in her life.”

Galloway bowed politely. “She has all my sympathy, ma’am,” he said.

***

Accommodation for the ladies was obtained by the simple expedient of bundling three junior officers into one room. They were cavalry officers which meant their complaints were loudly expressed, but Toby Galloway silenced them effectively by demanding to know which of them wished to explain to Major Welby when he returned that his fiancée had returned to England because no accommodation could be found for her.

With the two ladies established in a spacious room overlooking the square and the terrified maid wedged into a cubbyhole on the top floor which made her cry with relief, Galloway went in search of a senior cavalry officer who might have news of the missing Major Welby. On stating his errand he was shown into an untidy little parlour which was littered with paperwork and half-unpacked boxes, where a thin irritable captain of the 9th Dragoon Guards was glaring at the merchant shipping clerk. Galloway sympathised. Fifteen minutes of Mr Gareth Beattie’s sarcasm had made him want to shoot the man.

Captain Cahill saluted punctiliously. Galloway thought he looked relieved at the sight of a senior officer who might take Beattie off his hands.

“Colonel Galloway, come in. I’ve just been explaining to this gentleman that I am unable to give out information about our officers.”

Galloway eyed Beattie and decided that he might just qualify as a gentleman, though he suspected the honorific had been acquired along an interesting career path rather than having been his by birthright.

“Mr Beattie is trying to assist a lady, Captain. At least I think he is. He might just have been sent here to piss me off. Where can I find Major Welby?”

Captain Cahill did not actually clutch his head but he looked as though he wanted to do so. “Major Welby is not here, sir.”

“Clearly he isn’t, Captain, or I’d be able to see him. Where is he?”

“No, I mean he’s not in Santander. He has left.”

Galloway felt a cold sense of dread. He had been hoping to hand this problem over to the man who had caused it within the hour, but he could see that possibility slipping away from him.

“Where’s he gone?” Beattie asked. His tone was grim. Galloway looked at him with interest. He had been far too busy being irritated with the clerk to think much else about him but something in Beattie’s tone suggested that he was extremely unimpressed with Major Welby’s actions and was quite prepared to say so. This did not entirely fit with Beattie’s apparently humble position as captain’s clerk. Despite himself, Galloway was curious so he caught Cahill’s eye and nodded permission to answer.

“Several officers of the quartermaster’s department have ridden out towards Bilboa, sir. They’re trying to source supplies. We’re bringing as much as we can in from England, but…”

“Captain, I am an officer of the quartermaster’s department. I know the abysmal chaos that is military supplies in this place. These poor townspeople. I’ve only met the Mayor three times and I think he’s cried at two of the meetings. The town can’t possibly cope and it doesn’t help that some of your officers are already throwing their weight around demanding free provisions from whichever poor bastard they’re billeted on. And now I’ve got a young Englishwomen and her companions dumped in this town in search of a missing fiancé and you’re telling me the feckless bastard has gone off on escort duty?”

There was a long silence.

“Well, yes sir,” Cahill said apologetically. “I mean none of us knew she was coming. He didn’t say anything, sir.”

Galloway closed his eyes and counted very slowly to ten in his head. Eventually he opened them again and fixed Cahill with a glare.

“Who is his commanding officer, Captain?”

“That will be Colonel Fraser, sir,” Cahill said with palpable relief.

“Where will I find Colonel Fraser, Captain?”

“Well…he’s not here, sir.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Galloway bellowed. Cahill visibly jumped. Beside him, Galloway heard a strange spluttering sound which he was fairly sure was the clerk of a merchantman trying not to laugh out loud.

***

When he could manage to ask questions without swearing, Galloway obtained the address of Lieutenant-Colonel Stratton who was the most senior officer of the 9th Dragoon Guards actually currently in Santander. He left Cahill’s office with a list of duties running through his head. Dismally he thought of how much catching up he would need to do once the matter of the Englishwomen had been settled, but he could hardly abandon them. It was obvious after half an hour’s conversation that Elinor Spencer had never been out of England before, spoke no Spanish and could not be left to cope alone in a strange place.

“There’s something off about this,” a voice said in matter-of-fact tones. Galloway turned to find the clerk had caught up with him. Beattie was slightly shorter: sharp-featured with bright copper hair and intelligent blue-green eyes. Galloway was torn between curiosity at his remark and an overwhelming desire to tell the man to go back to his ship and mind his own business.

“Why do you care?” he asked finally, continuing his walk.

“Captain O’Halloran charged me with seeing the lady safely to her fiancé. I’ve been trying to do it.”

“Don’t you have duties at the ship? Supplies to unload, manifests to check? There must be something?”

“I’ve an assistant who’s perfectly capable. Anyway I’m curious, aren’t you?”

“No, just overworked.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Too long.”

“Seriously. You can’t have been here with Popham, he didn’t have the army did he? Though he managed to kick up enough of a dust with the Spanish and a few marines…”

Galloway stopped dead and turned to glare. “Beattie, who the hell are you? And don’t give me this nonsense about being the captain’s clerk aboard some merchant ship. You don’t sound like one, you don’t dress like one and you don’t look like one. Stop pissing me about, I don’t have time.”

Beattie held up his hands laughing. “Stop yelling at me. It’s not me you’re angry with and I’m trying to help. I’m acting clerk aboard the Lady Emma. She’s a merchantman under contract to the army. We sailed in with army supplies and a few passengers and we’ve a week or so to hang around to pick up a contingent of sick and wounded men going back to England.”

“Acting clerk? What’s your usual job?”

“Suspicious bastard. I am confidential secretary to a gentleman by the name of Van Daan. He owns the shipping company along with a lot of other business interests. Very big man in the City and married into the aristocracy. I started off as a ship’s boy at the age of ten and worked my way up through the company. I don’t go to sea much now, but Mr van Daan wanted me to assess the situation in Santander. If it’s to be the main supply port for Wellington’s army now, we’ll be in and out of here all the time.”

“I imagine there have been a fair few reports written on that subject,” Galloway said mildly. “I’ve read a few of them myself. Sir Home Popham tended to generate a lot of paperwork.”

“I read them too and could think of a practical use for some of them.”

Galloway could not repress a splutter of laughter. “To be fair, the man’s clever. But I know the Van Daans aren’t especially fond of Popham since he got involved with Paul van Daan’s court martial.”

Beattie’s eyes widened in surprise. “You know him then? Old army friend?”

“Old school friend before he got himself kicked out, but we’ve stayed in touch. I have had the privilege of listening to Paul van Daan on the subject of Sir Home Riggs Popham. It tends to go on a bit.”

“When that man has an opinion, it often tends to go on a bit. Punctuated with the worst language I’ve heard since I was a boy on an East Indiaman.”

“That’s probably where he learned it.” Galloway surveyed the other man with a more tolerant eye. “All right, I’m willing to accept you’re trying to help here rather than trying to dodge your duties aboard ship. You can come with me to see Colonel Stratton.”

“Are you going to shout at him as well?”

“That depends on whether he can tell me where the hell Major Welby has gone off to and whether they can get him back quickly.”

“I’d no idea that the officers of his Majesty’s Army had the freedom to wander off whenever they felt like it. I thought there was a war on,” Beattie said. “Let alone importing young women by the dozen. It makes joining up a lot more appealing, I can tell you.”

Galloway tried not to grind his teeth. “If you’re coming with me, Mr Beattie, I’d recommend you save your sense of humour for the voyage home. I’ve had a really long week.”

Beattie gave him an irritatingly understanding smile. “Yes, Colonel. Lead the way.”

***

A comfortable room and a good dinner made both Elinor and her sister feel much better. The evening was pleasantly mild after a short shower of rain and Elinor suggested a walk through the main part of the town. They attracted a good deal of attention from the British officers who strolled along the wide avenues and lounged outside taverns in the pretty squares but most of it was respectful. Elinor found herself wondering if her fiancé would object to her wandering about without a male escort but she decided that given his failure to arrive to meet her as agreed, she did not really care.

Arriving back at the hotel she found Colonel Galloway and Mr Beattie awaiting them with news, although there was still no sign of Major Welby. Beattie, who seemed very resourceful for a humble ship’s clerk, had reserved a table in the courtyard garden at the back of the hotel and ceremoniously handed Elinor and Juliet onto a wooden bench and poured wine for them. Colonel Galloway made polite enquiries about their accommodation and their dinner. It was all very civilised and Elinor was torn between a desire to scream at the two men to get on with it and an illogical wish to prolong the pleasant sense of a social occasion. She was wholly unused to socialising and had never in her life sat on the terrace outside an elegant hotel. Exotic flowering shrubs perfumed the warm air and there were lanterns strung between the trees which gave the scene a fairy tale appearance. It was beautiful and Elinor could not believe how much she was enjoying both the setting and the attentions of two gentlemen.

Fairy tales were not real though and Elinor sipped the chilled white wine, took her courage in her hands and asked:

“Have you discovered why Major Welby was unable to come to meet us, Colonel?”

Galloway looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Well, yes, ma’am. At least, I can tell you where he’s gone although not why he…I’m sure he must have mistaken the date. Ships can’t give the exact time of their arrival after all…”

“Messages are sent ahead. He’d have known roughly when we were expected to dock,” Beattie said. Elinor shot him a grateful glance. She had the sense that Galloway was trying to protect her feelings but at this point she just wanted information.

“Mr Beattie?”

“He’s gone off on escort duty, ma’am. A party from the quartermaster’s department wanted to do a bit of a tour of the countryside, working out where they might be able to buy supplies. Major Welby was placed in charge of the escort.”

“I see. I suppose he could not help that.”

“He could have written you a letter,” Juliet said. “Or arranged for somebody else to meet you. I wouldn’t expect that man to be attentive, but there’s such a thing as basic good manners.”

“Juliet, please.”

Beattie looked amused. “You don’t approve of your sister’s fiancé, Miss Juliet?”

“No,” Juliet said bluntly and Elinor blushed.

“Juliet, this is not appropriate.”

Juliet turned angelic blue eyes onto her. “I have been listening all my life to people telling me what is appropriate, dear sister, and I am tired of it. These gentlemen have wasted an entire day chasing around looking for Major Welby. It is very good of them, but I think they have a right to know that I am hardly shocked at all. You were bullied into this betrothal by our uncle and then bullied again into this badly organised journey, without even our aunt to support you, just because my uncle fancied himself ill again. Which he always does when there is something he does not wish to do. And Major Welby knows all this and does not care one whit about you or your comfort or safety. I do not think we should have come and I do not think you should go through with this marriage. He will not be a good husband.”

Elinor could feel her face burning and she was close to tears. “Juliet, stop it at once. You are embarrassing me and making these gentlemen feel uncomfortable. I do not…”

“I don’t feel in the least bit uncomfortable,” Beattie said briskly. He was looking at Juliet. “Thank you, Miss Juliet, that was extremely brave of you. You’re a good sister.”

Colonel Galloway was studying Elinor. “Is all of that true?” he asked quietly.

Elinor rose. “No, of course not. At least…it is much exaggerated. Will you please excuse me, I’m tired and I wish…”

The tears had forced their way through. She put her hands to her hot cheeks, thankful that the lantern light would probably hide the state of her face and turned towards the door of the hotel. Halfway there she realised she could not possibly leave her younger sister unchaperoned with two strangers and stopped, trying hard to compose herself. A hand took her by the arm.

“Walk with me,” Galloway said quietly. “There’s a path down to the river from here. It’s well lit and public enough but there won’t be many people about tonight. Don’t worry about your sister, Beattie will take care of her. Come on.”

Elinor obeyed because she could not think of anything else to do. He placed her hand on his arm and guided her down a narrow path which led out onto a broad gravelled promenade which overlooked the river. Lights twinkled on the opposite bank and there were several boats with lanterns making flickering patterns on the dark surface of the water. Elinor could hear music and laughter. Further along the bank she could hear the whispered voices of a man and a woman, their arms wrapped about each other. She wondered with immense sadness how it might feel to walk by the riverside with a man she loved and who loved her.

There was a small wooden jetty with lanterns hung on long poles to guide the boats back in. Galloway paused beside it and turned to look at her. Elinor looked down at the ground.

“Forgive me, I can see how upset you are,” the Colonel said gently. “Your sister was tactless, but Beattie is right. She clearly cares about you. How much truth was there in all of that?”

“I’m ashamed to tell you.”

“Why, for God’s sake? If that tale was true, there’s no fault to you in any of it. And it had already occurred to me that you should never have travelled all that way without a male relative to support you. I cannot believe your uncle allowed it and your fiancé acquiesced to it. Anything might have happened.”

Elinor looked up, slightly warmed by the indignation in his voice. “Well yes, I suppose so. Although as a matter of fact, these terrible things that they warn us about seldom do happen, you know. I am aware that your impression of me so far must be very poor, Colonel. I was rather bewildered on my arrival. But generally I am perfectly sensible and more than competent. I haven’t travelled abroad before, it’s true, and I don’t speak any Spanish but my French is quite good and I’ve taken care of my aunt and uncle’s household for years. I think that was why Major Welby allowed my uncle to make this match for him. He told me he wanted a sensible woman to look after his house and give him children and not enact him a Cheltenham tragedy because he was seldom there.”

“Was that his proposal?” Galloway asked. Elinor peered at him suspiciously. It was difficult to tell in the dim light but it almost sounded as if he was laughing at her.

“He said he wanted to be honest with me.”

“I can almost hear him saying it. That man has neither charm nor wit.”

“You know him?”

Galloway gave a faint smile. “Yes. I knew him at Eton though he was a few years older than me. And since we both ended up in the army we’ve run into each other occasionally over the years. I’ve not seen him for a long time though. I will be honest with you, ma’am. I don’t like him. All the same, I wouldn’t allow that to colour my opinion of this marriage. If you showed the least desire to see the man I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that after the first shock, you weren’t upset that he wasn’t here. In fact, you seemed rather relieved.”

Elinor turned away to hide her tears. “You cannot possibly know that, sir. You know nothing about me.”

“I know that you’re a brave young woman trying to make the best of an appalling situation,” Galloway said. He took Elinor’s hand and placed a neatly folded handkerchief in it. Elinor, who had only just realised she had left hers in her reticule on the table, took it gratefully and mopped her streaming eyes.

Neither of them spoke for a while. Elinor thought how peaceful it was, with just the faint sounds of merriment coming from the hotel terrace and from the boats on the river. She stirred reluctantly.

“I must go back. I shouldn’t have left Juliet.”

“I wouldn’t worry about her, ma’am. Beattie will take care of her.”

Elinor lifted her eyes to his face. “Does nobody out here have a sense of propriety? She’s nineteen and he’s…I’m not actually sure what he is, but he’s a man she doesn’t know and…”

“He’s thirty two, unmarried and works for an extremely wealthy London businessman as his confidential secretary. He’s out here on business for his employer and given that I know the family, I’d be astonished if they’d employ a man they weren’t very sure of. More to the point, he’s so angry about what’s happened here that if left to himself I think he’d take you both back to the ship and back to England on the next tide, leaving your fiancé to go to the devil. My apologies for my language.”

Elinor could not help smiling. “You seem to have done a very thorough job of investigating him, Colonel.”

“It wasn’t hard, ma’am; the man likes to talk and I checked his story with the Captain. I’ve complete faith in his good intentions. And if you want to go, I’ll happily convey the news to your fiancé when he takes the trouble to reappear.”

“It may be that he genuinely had no choice but to leave, Colonel.”

“Oh I accept that he had to do his duty. But as your sister said, he could have left a letter for you. And made perfectly sure that I’d not requisitioned your rooms. He must know how chaotic it is here at the moment. And also…”

Elinor studied him. Galloway had a nice face, not exactly handsome, but reassuringly kind. His eyes were his best feature, a mellow brown. Despite his harassed expression since he had first laid eyes on her, she thought it was a face used to smiling a lot. She wondered if he was married.

“Also?”

He hesitated and Elinor touched his arm. “Colonel, if you have anything to say I’d rather you said it to me in private. You’ve seen what Juliet is like. Until I know exactly where I stand I would rather not give her any more ammunition.”

Galloway laughed unexpectedly. “Yes, she does seem to have a tendency to go off like Congreve’s rocket when she’s annoyed. I’m glad she did though. You might not have spoken to me properly if she hadn’t blurted it out and I needed to know. Very well. It bothers me a little that neither of the officers I’ve spoken to about him seemed to know anything about a betrothal, let alone a prospective wedding. He probably was called away suddenly. And a letter could have gone astray. The postal service isn’t reliable here yet; I lose at least two letters a week. But I don’t understand why they didn’t all know you were coming. A man about to take a wife usually mentions it to his friends. And he’d have to make arrangements. I don’t even know if there is an English chaplain in Santander at the moment. There are usually one or two with Wellington’s army, but he’s about a hundred and fifty miles away and although you wouldn’t think it standing here listening to guitar music, there is a war on. Unless…I didn’t think to ask but you’re not Roman Catholic, are you?”

“Heavens no. My uncle is a stalwart of the most English kind of Anglicanism. I think he would die of shock if I married in a Catholic church. I’m not even sure if it’s possible.” Elinor studied him for a long time. “Colonel…are you saying that you believe Major Welby might have changed his mind? Or might not have ever intended to marry me?”

Galloway said nothing. He looked away from her, his eyes on the lights flickering across the water. It was growing colder with a sharp breeze picking up. Elinor was suddenly chilled and a little frightened.

“You haven’t answered me.”

“You don’t need to worry about it, ma’am. You’re not alone here, there are two of us looking out for you and between…”

“That is not good enough!” Elinor snapped. “I asked what you think. Treat me like an adult.”

Galloway visibly jumped. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I should tell you. It’s only a suspicion and you’re a young girl a long way from home. I don’t want to say something that…”

“What do you suspect, Colonel?”

The crisp tone of her voice seemed to reach him. He studied her face for a moment from worried brown eyes, then said abruptly:

“Ma’am, Cecil Welby doesn’t have the best reputation with women. There was a scandal a few years ago in Ireland and then when he first came out to Portugal there was a Portuguese lady. Very high born. Her family were furious and threatened to murder him. It’s the reason he was sent back to England; his father got him a post at Horse Guards until it all blew over. I didn’t even know he was back with the regiment until now.”

“How do you know all this?” Elinor whispered. She felt suddenly very sick and a little light-headed.

“Army gossip is ruthless and I’ve been out here from the start. I was with the guards for a while and fought at Rolica and Vimeiro. I came back out with Wellesley but I was badly wounded at Talavera. It took me a long time to recover. I took an administrative posting in the meantime and it turned out I was very good at it and quite enjoyed it. So I stayed. I also got promoted a lot faster. But I have a lot of friends in other regiments and they all share gossip about Welby because I knew him as a boy at school. He was universally disliked there as well. I’m sorry. I could be wrong about this. For all I know his intentions might be completely honourable.”

“But this is insane,” Elinor said. Her face was burning and she put her hands on her cheeks to try to cool them down. “My uncle is a retired colonel. My cousin is an officer in the Light Division although I’ve not heard from him for several years. I’m not some unprotected girl who…”

“Do you have the money to pay for a passage home, ma’am?”

Elinor did not speak immediately. “No,” she said finally. “I have very little money. It’s why I…Major Welby agreed to take me without a dowry. He also said Juliet could come to live with us. Of course I thought we would not marry until the end of the war.”

“Was it his idea or your uncle’s to bring the wedding forward and for you to travel out here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did Welby know your uncle and aunt couldn’t accompany you?”

“I think so. I’m not sure.”

“Did he know your sister would be with you or did he think you’d be alone with your maid?”

“I don’t know.” Elinor’s voice was a whisper. “He can’t have intended…his reputation would have been ruined.”

“Not as quickly as yours would,” Galloway said bluntly. “I’ve no idea why that bastard agreed to marry you in the first place, ma’am. We all thought he’d be after an heiress or at least a fashionable marriage to add a bit of a shine to his very tarnished character. It’s been well discussed in army circles. I don’t know what he intended. I’ll admit I tend to think the worst of Cecil Welby. For all I know there might be a letter winging its way back to Northamptonshire telling you that the wedding is off and to stay right there. He might have no idea you hadn’t received it. But I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Because he hadn’t cancelled your room at the hotel. I did that when I requisitioned it for the officers. I checked.”

Elinor closed her eyes. Unexpectedly his voice sounded a long way off. “I’m sorry,” she said and was surprised at the spinning blackness in her head.

“Oh bloody hell,” Galloway said and she felt his arms go about her. “It’s all right, I’ve got you. Take a few deep breaths. I’m so sorry, I’m an imbecile to blurt all that out without warning. Just breathe. I’d rather not have to carry you dramatically across the terrace unless I have to.”

Elinor obeyed and was relieved when after a few minutes the dizziness passed. She realised that he was still holding her and that her head was resting against his chest. It felt wonderfully comforting and she moved reluctantly.

“I’m sorry, Colonel. I’m not usually that missish. Please don’t say anything to Juliet about this.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. I might be wrong. But forgive me, I am going to talk to Beattie. I want to make very sure that ship doesn’t sail without you if it turns out you need to go home.”

“Home,” Elinor said. The word sounded hollow. “If I go home unmarried, Colonel, I don’t know if my uncle would take me back.”

“Isn’t that an interesting thought, ma’am? I wonder if Major Welby realises that.”

Elinor stared at him for a long time. “What am I going to do?” she whispered.

“You’re coming back to the terrace and you’re going to drink a glass of wine to put some colour back into your cheeks. You look like a ghost. A remarkably pretty ghost, but definitely spectral. After that you’re going to bed, you need to rest. Tell your sister as much or as little as you like. Don’t make any attempt to find out about Welby. If anybody asks, tell them your cousin’s name and make something up about visiting him. You’re a clever girl, you’ll come up with something.”

Elinor took his proffered arm. “I can’t even pay my shot,” she said.

“Well at present the army can take care of it. Officially, your room is being occupied by Lieutenants Swann and Betteridge. I kicked them out to make space for you. If we run into trouble later on, I’ll pay your bill myself.”

“I couldn’t allow that.”

“I can’t see how you can stop me. Stop worrying. You’re not alone and you’re not going to be.”

Elinor looked up at him. “I’m never going to be able to repay you for what you’re doing for us, Colonel. And I’m not talking about money.”

He smiled. “I’m just glad I was here.”

“What if…what if Major Welby turns up at the hotel? What should I say to him?”

“He’s unlikely to do so, ma’am. I’m going to speak to his senior officer. He’ll have to report in on his return. My intention is that unless you want to, you’ll never have to speak to him again.”

They were approaching the terrace. Elinor thought about his words and recognised the enormous sense of relief that had nothing to do with Galloway’s startling revelations of this evening.

“I must have been mad,” she said softly. “Even to consider this, when I disliked him so much. I should have remained locked in my room. After all, my uncle would have had to let me out eventually.”

Galloway stopped and looked at her. Then he continued walking. “I’d like to meet your uncle one day, ma’am,” he said. “Now that’s enough for tonight. I want to hear nothing apart from social chit chat, is that clear?”

“Yes, Colonel. Good gracious. Is that Mr Beattie playing chess with my sister?”

Galloway stared. “Yes. How odd. I wonder where he got the board.”

“I wonder who’s winning,” Elinor said. “She’s very good at chess.”

The Colonel chuckled. “Is she? Let’s join them then; I’ve a feeling Beattie doesn’t like to lose. I might enjoy this.”

***

After a restless night considering what to do, Galloway decided to be frank with Beattie. He had made enquiries from Captain O’Halloran on the previous day and had confirmed Beattie’s credentials. Galloway asked the Captain how long he would remain in port and whether he could find space for the ladies on the return if it became necessary and the Irishman shrugged.

“That’s up to Beattie, Colonel. I might captain this ship but Beattie has the trust of the man who owns it. If he says we wait, we wait.”

Reassured, Galloway spent the morning catching up on paperwork, then attended a painfully difficult meeting with members of the Council of Santander who had a list of questions about requisitioning which he could not really answer. After that he took himself off to the inn where Beattie had managed to find a room. It was a simple establishment, reminding Galloway of the little roadside posadas he had stayed in throughout Spain, but it looked surprisingly clean. He found Beattie writing letters in the single bar room, a tankard of ale beside him.

“Have you had dinner?” Beattie asked. “I was going to order something here. I think the choice is mutton stew or mutton stew.”

Galloway grinned. “I’ve bespoken dinner at the hotel with Miss Spencer and Miss Juliet. I was hoping you’d join us.”

“Willingly. I’ve demanded a return match. I’ve never been that humiliated by a slip of a girl in my life. Apparently her cousin is an army man and taught her to play chess. I wonder if his military strategy is as good?”

“I want to talk to you before we walk over there. I had a long conversation with Miss Spencer last night and I’ve had several conversations with Welby’s fellow officers. I’m not happy about the story of this betrothal.”

Beattie put down his pen and neatly capped the ink pot. He shuffled his papers together into a neat stack. Galloway thought it was the first time he had seen Beattie look even remotely like a clerk. He fixed his gaze onto Galloway with ominous concentration.

“Tell me. And don’t leave anything out. I told you yesterday I could smell something off about this and I always trust my nose.”

“I can’t prove any of it but I can tell you what I think.”

“Thoughts will do for now. Carry on.”

Galloway told his story. He had a strong suspicion that a good deal of it was not new to Beattie who had clearly made good use of his time alone with the younger Miss Spencer. He did not react at all when Galloway spoke of how Elinor had been bullied into accepting Welby’s proposal and then into making the journey to Spain unescorted.

“That’s the most unlikely thing about all of this,” he said when he had finished the story. “Why in God’s name did her aunt and uncle let those girls travel out here alone? No guardian who gave a damn would do that.”

“That’s not what’s puzzling me,” Beattie said. “The old man was desperate to get her married off. Clearly he didn’t care how. What I don’t understand is why Welby offered for her in the first place. If he’s all that you say he is…”

“I think I’ve solved that. I spent a tedious hour in the 9th Dragoon Guards’ mess room earlier. Thank God my father would never let me join the cavalry. He could have afforded it, he just said he was fond of me and didn’t want to lose me to sheer stupidity. I begin to understand now.”

“Stop talking nonsense and get on with it.”

“None of the young idiots know anything about Miss Spencer but they were happy to discuss Welby’s exploits with the ladies over a bottle or two. It seems that at the time of his engagement, Welby was in trouble over a young woman he’d taken up with in London. Her family were making noises about breach of promise and Welby paid them off with a hefty bribe and took himself off to the country. The timing is right. I think he provided himself with a respectable fiancée to dissuade them from taking it any further. No point in pushing a man to marry your daughter if he’s already wed.”

“But he didn’t marry her. Why didn’t he end the engagement?”

“God knows. Perhaps he just couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps her uncle threatened to spread the word that he’d jilted his niece. It’s not the done thing after all and Welby’s reputation didn’t need more of a battering.”

“I wasn’t raised in quite the same social circles as you, Colonel, but I’ll take your word for it. So why did he send for her?”

“I don’t think he did. I think the uncle was beginning to smell a rat with the engagement that never ended. Or perhaps Miss Spencer gathered her courage and told him she wanted none of the Honourable Cecil. Whatever the reason, he pushes Welby into naming the day. Welby responds by saying she’ll have to come out here. He probably thought that would stop it dead, but he reckoned without that old bastard Manson. Welby was probably on the verge of writing to tell him it was all off and be damned to the scandal. Now that he’s back with the army, he could just wait for it to die down, which it would eventually. At that point, he receives the interesting news that Colonel Manson isn’t well enough to travel and his wife is staying to take care of him. All of a sudden, the arrival of Miss Spencer, accompanied by a maid and with nobody to see to her interests takes on a whole new look to Welby.”

“He wouldn’t have.”

“I think he bloody would. What’s to stop him? Maybe she’d have worked out that he didn’t have marriage in mind fast enough to appeal to his senior officers. Maybe they’d have listened and helped her. Or maybe he’d have persuaded her into a carriage to visit an imaginary parson, dumped the maid at the first stop and found a nice isolated farmhouse. Whatever happened next is almost irrelevant. She’d be ruined and very publicly, in the middle of an army camp. She would need a protector. And Welby would be willing to volunteer until he got bored with her. After that, God knows what would have happened to her. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard a version of that story before, Beattie. It happens in London all the time.”

“You really don’t like him, do you?”

“I know him. He was a little shit at school. Most of them grow out of it. He never did. I’ve been hearing stories about Cecil Welby for years and all I ever wonder is why anybody is surprised.”

Beattie was silent for a long time. “What about Miss Juliet?” he said finally.

“She was a complication he didn’t expect. I checked the hotel records and he’d arranged a room for Miss Spencer and her maid. He knew Manson and his wife weren’t coming but he didn’t know they’d sent her sister as her companion instead. That might have stopped him, I don’t know. Or she might have been dumped at the first stop with the maid and God knows what would have happened to her then.”

“With my experience of one evening’s acquaintance with Miss Juliet Spencer, Galloway, I don’t think he’d have got either of them into that carriage if she’d been there. I think she’d have screamed the place down. That girl has literally no notion of how a delicate young lady should conduct herself. Or if she does, she doesn’t care.”

“How do you know?” Galloway said, appalled. His companion leaned back, laughing.

“Instinct,” he said. “Don’t look so furious, I’ve no intention of making a push to find out if I’m right. Though I am going to play chess with her again after dinner, so if you wish to take the delectable Miss Spencer for a riverside stroll again, don’t let me stop you.”

“You believe me, don’t you?”

“About Welby? Oh God, yes. Not that we’ll ever be able to prove a damned thing, but you’re not an idiot. If you say he’s a tick and an excrescence, I’m taking your word for it. How long do you think he’ll be away?”

“At least a week, possibly more according to Stratton. I don’t want him near those girls when he gets back, but I’m not worried about that. The minute he knows that I know, he’ll bluster himself purple in the face and then he’ll run a mile. He might have money and be heir to a minor title, but I can cap that very easily in terms of the army. I have very influential friends.”

“Do you? You don’t look as though you do, I must say. Who are they?”

Galloway laughed. “The same ones you do, Beattie. It’s just that in the context of this army, I’m better placed to use them. Right, let’s take the ladies to dinner. A shocking thing to do in a public dining room but nobody who matters is going to know and they can chaperone each other.”

Beattie got up. “Let me take these upstairs and change quickly and I’ll be with you. Are they going to be all right staying there?”

“Yes. I’m staying there myself, I can keep an eye on them.”

“If it’s a matter of money, my employer is generous with my expenses.”

“I’ll just bet he is. I’d love to know what you really do for him.”

“A surprising amount of it genuinely involves managing his diary and his correspondence. But you’re right, there are other duties occasionally. You know the Van Daans, Galloway. None of them would hesitate to step in and help these girls if they were here.”

“Thank God Paul isn’t here. He’s been looking for an opportunity to kick Welby into a dung heap for eighteen years. They’re fine at the hotel, but I’m hoping you can hold that ship for a while. I want to make very sure my letter to their bloody uncle reaches him before they get home.”

Beattie’s face lit up with laughter. “You’re going to write to Colonel Manson?”

“Yes. I’m going to make sure he knows what might have happened and I’m going to assure him that his nieces are no longer without friends to take an interest in their welfare. And then I’m going to list them, starting with my mother. I’d like to see her face if she heard he’d been locking those girls in a room and hitting them with a riding crop. She’d tear his head off.”

“Your mother?”

Galloway heard faint amusement behind the question and felt himself flush a little. “I wrote to her today,” he said defensively. “Told her about the girls and what’s happened. I’m going to make enquiries about this cousin of theirs as well. I’m not allowing them to go back to their blasted uncle without somebody they can turn to if he starts bullying them. I want them to know they’re not alone any more.”

Beattie picked up his tankard and drained it then set it down with unnecessary force. “Oh they won’t be, I promise you. Your mother sounds like a woman I would love to meet. Get yourself a drink, I won’t be long.”

***

Elinor spent the first few days in Santander constantly looking over her shoulder. Colonel Galloway’s speculation about Major Welby’s motives had shocked her to the core and once she had time to think about it, she was genuinely frightened. She lay awake at night listening to Juliet’s peaceful breathing, trying to imagine ways that she could have avoided walking into the trap, but she had a suspicion that she would have acceded to whatever Welby had suggested with regard to her wedding. She was appalled at her own naivety and angry to realise that she had become so cowed by her uncle’s relentless bullying that she had almost forgotten how to say no and genuinely mean it.

During the daytime though, it was becoming difficult to be unhappy when she was being so well looked-after. The weather was fine with only the occasional shower or cloudy day and Juliet’s bubbling high spirits were infectious. Her sister behaved as though this whole disastrous expedition was nothing more than a glorious holiday away from the dull routine of life in their uncle’s house and after a few days, Elinor realised she was beginning to feel the same way. It was hard to hold on to her anxiety when there was so much to see and do and all of it was completely new.

They had very little money, but sightseeing cost nothing. Beattie had found them a roughly drawn plan of the town and they explored the winding streets and visited the cathedral with its glorious nave and peaceful cloisters. For two happy weeks they wandered in and out of churches and even visited a convent with Galloway to listen to the most beautiful choir music Elinor had ever heard. They rummaged through small dark shops where she could not resist spending a little of their precious supply of money on a lace fan for each of them. It was the prettiest thing she had ever owned and she would treasure it as a souvenir of this unexpected adventure.

By the end of two weeks, Elinor’s fears had settled. She had stopped expecting to be challenged about payment of their bill and no longer imagined running into Welby around every corner. They dined each day at the hotel, usually with both gentlemen although occasionally Galloway’s duties called him to dine in the mess. On one occasion Captain O’Halloran invited them to dine aboard the Lady Emma. Elinor dreaded his enquiries about her missing fiancé but she quickly realised that Gareth Beattie must have given him some explanation because he asked no awkward questions. Colonel Galloway was also a guest.

After dinner they took wine up onto the deck and stood watching some of the men dancing hornpipes by the golden light of the ship’s lanterns. Juliet was laughing, teasing Mr Beattie to attempt the dance.

“You must have danced it at one time, Mr Beattie. You told me you were at sea when you were a boy.”

“If I did, I don’t remember it, Miss Juliet. I remember a lot of sea-sickness, some terrible food and a few whacks with the cane from the bosun’s mates. Not so much dancing.”

“I don’t believe a word of it. What if I agreed to dance it with you?”

Beattie was looking at her, shaking his head and laughing. “Oh no, you’re not catching me out like that.”

Juliet studied him for a moment then held out her hand. “Please?” she asked.

Elinor could feel herself stiffening. There was an unmistakable invitation in both Juliet’s tone and expression. She could sense Beattie struggling with his better self and then she saw his taut hesitation soften and he took her sister’s hand.

“Come on then. If we both slip over on this deck, I’m not taking the blame.”

“I rely upon you to hold me up,” Juliet teased and he laughed and drew her to stand alongside him. Around them, the crew roared their approval and O’Halloran began to clap along to the fiddler as Beattie demonstrated a simple step. He was surprisingly agile and light on his feet and Juliet watched in delight, then tried to copy the step. Her muslin skirts hampered her and she lifted them a little higher.

“It isn’t fair, you can’t dance this in skirts. Show me again.”

He did so and Juliet followed. Elinor could feel her heart beating faster. She knew that she should intervene. Her aunt and uncle would be appalled at the sight of their niece dancing before a crew of common seamen with a man she barely knew and whom Elinor suspected had not been born a gentleman, for all his good manners.

“Breathe,” Galloway said beside her. She looked up, realising that he had been watching her face rather than the dancing. Some of the men had joined in again and Juliet was moving among them, her face alight with happiness. Elinor thought she had never seen her sister look so carefree and so beautiful.

“I should stop her, this isn’t right,” she whispered.

“If you’re looking at a young woman enjoying a dance and thinking there’s something wrong in it, Miss Spencer, then you’re not the girl I thought you were.”

Elinor looked up at him, unexpectedly upset. “I’m not that much of a prude, sir. I know she’s been too much controlled and confined. We both have. No wonder she’s…but if people could see her like this…”

“The people who matter would smile. As you can, if you let yourself. None of your family are here and nobody is going home to tattle to them. She looks like a happy child. Take my hand. I can’t engage to manage a hornpipe, I don’t have Beattie’s early training, but we can achieve something.”

Elinor looked up at him wide-eyed. “I’ve never had a dancing lesson in my life,” she said. “I don’t know how.”

“Then you’ll learn. Try this, it’s a country dance; a simple step but it will fit to this music. Watch my feet.”

She was lost in minutes, her body caught up in the music and the joy of movement. The music changed to a faster beat and then to something slower and more stately. Elinor had no idea what she was dancing but it did not seem to matter. She was laughing and he laughed with her, catching her hand and passing it over to Beattie, then spinning Juliet around instead.

Elinor was silent as the small boat slipped through the water back to the jetty. Juliet was talking to the two men, teasing them about their dancing, asking Galloway questions about balls he had attended as though she had known him all her life. Elinor listened. Her disapproval had vanished and in its place she felt a dreamy content, as though some kind of weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The swish of the oars was soothing and Elinor leaned over and trailed her fingers through the water. It was very cold. She wondered how it would feel to be immersed in it and wished she could experience it one day.

“You’re shivering. Here.”

Galloway’s red coat was warm and rough about her shoulders. Elinor looked around at him, smiling her thanks.

“Will you not be cold?”

“No, I’m fine. Thank you for dancing with me, Miss Spencer. I enjoyed it very much.”

“So did I. I’m sorry I was such an idiot earlier. I think I’ve grown up with my uncle’s voice in my ear.”

“Ignore him. The man has nothing useful to say.”

She gave a little laugh. “You’ve not even met him.”

“I’ve been in the army since I was seventeen, Miss Spencer. I’ve met the likes of him more than once. The key is to recognise what you’re dealing with and don’t let it upset you.”

“I don’t think you’d get on with him.”

He gave her a smile which made her heart skip a beat. “Just now I’d like to kick him down a flight of stairs, ma’am, but I’d never do it. He’s an old man and your uncle. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have something to say to him.”

“It’s probably just as well you’ll never meet.”

He did not reply but to her surprise he reached out, took her hand and raised it to his lips. “You’re going to be all right, ma’am. I promise you. Just wait a little while longer.”

Elinor looked down at her hands. “I’m glad I don’t have a betrothal ring,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“If he’d given you a ring I’d have thrown it in the Bay of Santander by now. Here’s the quay. Wait until they’ve tied up and I’ll help you over, it’s a bit choppy.”

***

Galloway was changing for dinner when the note came for him. He read it twice then went to find Beattie, who was already waiting at what had become their usual table on the terrace.

“I’m going to be late tonight. Will you take the ladies in? I’ll join you later if I can.”

Beattie set down the book he had been reading. “What’s happened?”

“Welby is back. The party rode in about an hour ago.”

Beattie stood up. “Is he likely to make his way down here to visit his fiancée?”

Galloway smiled grimly at his tone. “No. Colonel Stratton is keeping him there until I’ve spoken to him. After that, I doubt he’ll want to come near her.”

Beattie’s reflected smile reminded Galloway of a particularly predatory wolf. “If he wants to, I’m happy to have a word myself.”

Galloway found Major Welby in an elegant room in one of the public buildings which the 9th Dragoon Guards had requisitioned as their battalion headquarters. There was a fire blazing in the grate which made Galloway blink in surprise as it was a warm afternoon. Colonel Stratton greeted him politely.

“Colonel Galloway, I have already spoken to Major Welby about this betrothal. He has admitted that he should not have invited the young woman out here without first speaking to me and asking my permission to marry. He has also confessed that he did so under pressure from her relations and that he has been having doubts about the connection for some time. It was a stupid and thoughtless thing to do, but no real harm has been done.”

Galloway did not speak. His eyes were on Welby’s face. There was the hint of a smirk on the good looking features which made Galloway think longingly about punching him.

“That’s very interesting,” he said politely. “As a matter of interest, what are Welby’s intentions now?”

“I have refused permission. The girl can’t stay out here, we’ve orders to join Lord Wellington as soon as possible. This is not the time for my officers to allow their personal lives to distract them; we are marching towards France. Under the circumstances, the Major is willing to pay for a passage home for her and I have suggested that he visits her to ask to be released from his obligation. No harm done.”

The smirk widened a little. Galloway fixed his eyes onto Welby. “There’s no need for any of that, Stratton. Miss Spencer has made it abundantly clear that she wouldn’t choose to be in a room with this reeking pile of dog shit for five minutes, let alone marry him. Her accommodation and passage home are being managed by Mr Gareth Beattie, who was fortunately aboard the merchant ship she arrived on. He’s confidential secretary to Mr Franz van Daan who owns the shipping line and has the full approval of his employer to provide every assistance to Miss Spencer and her sister until they are safely home, including an escort.”

“Her sister?” Welby blurted out. Galloway was pleased to see that the smirk had slipped.

“Yes, didn’t you know? She is fully chaperoned by her sister and their personal maid. No need to worry at all that you’ve damaged her reputation, Welby. I know that must be keeping you awake at night. I understand you gave her no betrothal ring or any other kind of token and she has assured me that she has already burned every one of your letters.”

“I find your attitude offensive, Galloway.”

“That will be Lieutenant-Colonel Galloway to you, Welby. Remember to salute me on the way out. I know you sometimes forget.”

Colonel Stratton shifted uncomfortably. “Well, well, it’s clear that tempers are a little frayed here. And I do agree Galloway that he’s not behaved well. I’ve spoken to him in the strongest terms about his conduct. Were it not for the impending campaign I might even be inclined to take it further, but this is war after all and I need all my officers.”

“That’s all right, Stratton,” Galloway said cordially. He was still looking at Welby who looked fuming rather than smug now. “If you tried to put together a charge for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman with this one, we’d be in France before they’d finished listing the evidence. As long as he makes no attempt to contact that girl he can go and get his head blown off in a cavalry charge with my blessing. And he’s going to. He’s too stupid to stay alive.”

Welby made a curious snorting sound. “You’re insulting, sir! You’ll meet me for that.”

“Welby, don’t be an idiot,” Stratton said sharply. Galloway gave a broad smile.

“Is that a challenge, Welby?”

“That depends on whether or not you apologise.”

“Well I’m not going to, but I’m happy to pretend I didn’t hear you. Just remember it’s my choice of weapons and I’ll choose swords. I enjoyed fencing at school and when I was growing up I used to practice a lot when I visited the Van Daans at Southwinds. He was a good swordsman even then, Major-General van Daan. I learned a lot from him.”

There was a long painful pause and then Welby shrugged. “Duelling is illegal.”

“So it is and with very good reason. Excellent decision, Welby. Thank you for your help, Colonel Stratton. May I trust you to keep him busy and out of my way until you leave?”

“Of course, Colonel. I’m grateful for your discretion in this matter. Is she…will she be all right? Miss Spencer?”

“Yes, she’ll do very well, Colonel. Good afternoon.”

He had reached the door when Welby said:

“Are you still hiding behind him?”

Galloway turned and surveyed him. “No. But if I were you, I’d give some thought to the fact that he’s with Wellington commanding a brigade of the Light Division and that’s where you’re going next, Cecil. I might mention that I ran into you here, but I’ve no need to give him a lengthy report on your antics. I’m sure his father will do that once he’s heard from Gareth Beattie, who you’ll remember is his secretary. And I’ll see that salute. I’m your senior officer now. Try to bear that in mind.”

***

The wind was brisk on the quayside and Elinor was wrapped in her cloak as she stood watching the barge rowing in from the Lady Emma. It was struggling a little in the white capped waves but it still seemed to her to be coming too quickly. Beattie had arranged for the removal of their luggage earlier in the day and had assured them that he would make sure their accommodation was ready for them before returning to escort them aboard. Elinor glanced at her sister. Juliet’s eyes were on the boat where Beattie’s bright copper head was clearly visible even through the spray. She could not help smiling but she was also very envious. Juliet had all the time in the world. Elinor felt that her time was coming to an end.

“Miss Spencer, may I have a word with you in private before you board? Eliza can stay with your sister.”

Galloway led her to a little shack which looked as though it was used for some kind of shipping office, with a smooth oak desk and wooden shelving containing dozens of ledgers. There was only one chair and Galloway did not suggest she take it. He looked tired and a little out of sorts.

“I wanted to speak to you about the arrangements for your journey. There’s no need to worry about anything. Beattie will be with you the entire way; he’s organised all the transport and any necessary halts. Place yourself in his hands, he’ll take good care of you.”

“I know he will. I’ll always be so grateful to him. And to you, sir, for your care of us. Thank you. I wish I could…”

“I wish I was coming with you. These weeks have felt very leisurely in places and now it feels rushed. I thought I’d have time to speak to you properly, but time has got away from me at the last minute and now you’re going.”

Elinor gave a painful smile. “I wish I could tell you I would write to you, sir, but my uncle won’t even allow us to receive letters from my cousin. I’ve found out all about him though, thanks to Mr Beattie, and he is going to try to arrange for letters to reach us. I wonder if…should you wish to write?”

Galloway smiled for the first time. “I am not going to give that smart-mouthed clerk control of my personal correspondence. God knows what would happen. He came to see me last night after dinner and gave me a huge talking to about my inability to get to the point. I couldn’t decide if it was for my benefit or for his, since he’s hoping if you’re not residing with your uncle the entire time it will make it easier for him to visit.”

Elinor stared at him, bewildered. “I don’t understand. Not reside with my uncle?”

“You’ll have to go back there at first of course. Don’t worry about him though. I’ve written to him in terms that I think will ensure there will be no more beatings or confinement. But you’re not happy there, either of you. I was wondering if you might like to make an extended visit to some friends.”

“Friends?” Elinor said, even more confused. “What friends?”

“My mother would like to meet you. I’ve written to her and told her all about you. You’d love it there. They’re good sorts, my family, and the place is full of horses and dogs. Do you like dogs?”

“Yes,” Elinor said. She was beginning to realise that this conversation had nothing to do with travel arrangements and her heart lifted. The Colonel was beginning to describe his favourite spaniel cross-breed and Elinor recognised nervousness. She allowed him to go on for a while because she was enjoying the sound of his voice and the opportunity to study his pleasant face and kind brown eyes. It might be a long time before she saw him again and she wanted to commit them to memory.

She would have been happy for the conversation to continue but the door opened and Beattie’s copper head poked around it, damp with spray.

“Well?” he asked.

“Well what?”

“Have you not done it yet?”

Galloway flushed slightly. “I was just telling Miss Spencer that…”

“Stop telling her things and try asking her something. The boat’s waiting and we can’t miss the tide. My employer has been remarkably patient about all this but he’ll be getting to the stage of pacing the room and remembering why he thought about dismissing me two years ago.”

“Why did he…?”

“Get on with it!” Beattie yelled and closed the door.

Elinor could feel laughter bubbling up, filling her with joy. Galloway looked down at her and seemed to catch both her happiness and her understanding. He reached out and took her hand.

“I always knew if I ever reached the moment of wanting to do this that I’d make an absolute mess of it.”

“You’re not, Tobias.”

“I am. But I don’t have time to tell you the history of every dog I ever owned. I’ll let my mother do that. She’s going to write to your uncle and I promise you he’ll make no objection to you going to stay with her. With Juliet as well, of course. And will you call me Toby? All my friends and family do.”

“Only if you will stop calling me Miss Spencer.”

“Elinor, I love you. Meeting you, despite the appalling circumstances, has been the best thing ever to happen to me. Will you marry me, sweetheart?”

“Of course I will, you silly man. Why on earth did you leave it so long? No wonder Gareth is shouting at you.”

He bent to kiss her. She could feel his quiver of laughter against her lips. “He told you to call him that, didn’t he?”

“Well he had to, because of course he wants Juliet to do so and it wouldn’t be proper. I mean it still isn’t proper, but so much has happened that I have decided to abandon my notions of propriety and just see what happens next.”

He kissed her again and there was a long and satisfying silence. It was broken as the door flew open again. Elinor jumped and turned. Galloway kept his arm firmly about her.

“Thank God for that. I thought I was going to have to do it for you. Thanks old man. This is going to make my situation so much easier.”

“That wasn’t my first consideration, Beattie. Get out of here.”

 “Of course. I’ll leave you to say goodbye, but I want a quick word with you before we board. Congratulations, ma’am. I’m glad that arsehole Welby didn’t put you off marrying into the army. You made a much better choice this time.”

He vanished and Elinor moved back into Galloway’s open arms.  He kissed her again. “I’ll write as often as possible. I’m going to try and get leave, although it won’t be possible immediately. But I’ve not been home since just after Talavera, I might be able to manage something. If not, I’m afraid you’re going to have another long engagement, my love.”

“Do not dare to compare the two,” Elinor scolded lightly. “I love you, Toby. Please keep safe.”

“I will. I’ve already written the letters to your uncle and to my mother. I’m glad you said yes or they’d have been wasted. I’ll send them off by the packet, they should get there well before you do. Goodbye, love. No, don’t cry or you’ll set me off. Come on, let’s get you into the boat. Then I can go back to my quarters and howl.”

***

Galloway watched his love being handed carefully into the boat then turned to Beattie who was waiting to speak to him. The other man was smiling.

“I’ll take care of her for you, I promise.”

“You’d better, if you want my support for your own future plans.”

“That’s going to take a bit longer. I’m not really in a position to marry just now and she’s not yet of age. But I was hoping I wasn’t wrong about your intentions towards Elinor. Partly because she’s a darling and will suit you very well and partly because it is going to ease our way considerably.”

“Have you actually spoken to Juliet?”

Beattie grinned. “I was going to,” he said. “She didn’t choose to wait, just in case I had an attack of nerves.”

“She’s a formidable young woman.”

“Yes, she is. I need to get going. But there’s something you should know. Welby’s departure with his regiment will be delayed. He’s had an accident. Stupid fool got drunk, celebrating his release from his unwanted engagement so I’m told. Went the wrong way down a dark alley in the port area of Santander and got himself beaten and robbed. Apparently they broke both his nose and his arm. He’ll have to convalesce for a couple of weeks before he can join his squadron.”

Galloway stared at him in complete silence. “Robbed?” he said finally.

Beattie grinned. “He hadn’t much on him. I had to make it look convincing. I gave it to Miss Spencer. Pin money for the journey home. She’d no idea where it came from, of course. I thought it was fitting.”

“And where was I when this sad accident occurred?”

“By a lucky coincidence it was the day you were invited to dine with the Mayor and the Council. About fifty people at that dinner, weren’t there?”

“I imagine that’s why nobody has questioned me about it.”

“I imagine so.”

Galloway could not decide how he felt about the admission and then realised it did not matter. Beattie would always make his own decisions and he suspected that some of those decisions would always be affected by where he began in life.

“Is that what your extra duties consist of, Beattie? When you’re not writing his letters and managing his diary?”

“No. Franz van Daan is well beyond needing any kind of hired muscle. I’m told he’s coming up for a knighthood. And I’m not that man, Galloway. Welby had it coming and you couldn’t do it, you’ve a career to think of. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Galloway felt himself smile. “Look after yourself. And them. I’ll write.”

“So will I. Come and wave to your girl, she’s trying not to cry.”

“So am I,” Galloway said. He made his way to the quay and watched as his friend jumped nimbly into the boat. Both girls waved until they were well out across the water. Galloway continued to do so until the boat was close to the merchantman and he could not make out the faces of the passengers. He could still see the movement of Elinor’s hand though and he thought she blew him a kiss. He blew one back just in case and remained there until the boat tied up and the passengers were aboard. Finally he wiped his eyes surreptitiously, squared his shoulders and turned back to the streets of Santander and an appointment with a furious grain merchant.

For those who haven’t read any of my previous stories, I suggest you start with Eton Mess which tells the story of Toby Galloway and Cecil Welby’s school days.

 

 

The Glassblower’s Daughter

The Cathedral in Palma

Welcome to the Glassblower’s Daughter, my Christmas story for 2022. As with all my short stories, it’s free and available to share as much as you like.

Just a minor warning with this story. Because it follows on directly from the events of my latest Manxman book, This Bloody Shore, my regular readers may want to finish the book before reading this. The story stands in its own right, but there will be one or two spoilers.

I wrote this story during a recent holiday to Mallorca. We stayed near the little town of Alcudia and my husband and our four friends spent the week cycling. I’m not a cyclist so I planned a few excursions then settled down to do some editing on This Bloody Shore while sitting outside the pool bar.

As far as I was aware, I wasn’t likely to find much Napoleonic history in Mallorca. The Royal Navy had a base on neighbouring Menorca and their presence in these waters kept the French away, so Mallorca was never invaded. However, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of digging around to see if they at least sent troops to the Spanish army.

The first thing I discovered was that Mallorca was indeed invaded in 1811, not by the French but by a small army of desperate refugees from the French storming of Tarragona. I was delighted to find such an immediate link to the end of my latest book and it gave me an opportunity to follow up on two characters from This Bloody Shore. 

I spent a lovely week in Mallorca. There was indeed a Mallorcan regiment which went on to fight at Vitoria. There’s a wonderful and historic glassmaking factory and I discovered the story of the Xueta, the descendants of a group of Jewish families persecuted by the inquisition who had still not had their rights restored at the time of this story. I’ve woven these elements into this tale. I hope you enjoy it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. It’s been a great year for me, with two books out and I feel as though I’m back on track again. I’m now researching book eight of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s called An Unattainable Stronghold and is set around the 1813 siege of San Sebastian.

The Glassblower’s Daughter

Mallorca, November 1811

It had rained all morning with typical Mallorcan ferocity. Drill and training were cancelled and the one hundred and fifty men of the 13th Mallorcan infantry currently on the island huddled within the leaky wooden farm building they were using as barracks: playing cards, smoking or watching the spectacular display of lightning over the mountains.

Captain Don Bruno Ángel Cortez was glad of the respite, although he would not have admitted it to his ill-assorted collection of non-commissioned officers and men. Since being appointed to the temporary command of two companies of new recruits, he had taken care never to allow them to see any kind of emotion in him other than anger. Ángel had been raised within the rigid structure of an aristocratic, although impoverished Spanish family and had been taught that emotion was a sign of weakness.

Ángel was sometimes envious of his junior officer who seemed to have no such qualms. Captain Don Óscar García, recently promoted after the bloody storming of Tarragona, was from the same social class as Ángel. He had even more reason to take pride in his lineage, as his father was a nobleman and a member of the Cortes of Cadiz, the council which governed Spain in the absence of the Royal family, who had fled the invading troops of Bonaparte. García might have had a comfortable and safe administrative posting in Cadiz but instead he had accepted a post as ADC to General Contreras during his command of Tarragona. Ángel, ten years his senior and a veteran of both Bonapartist and Spanish armies had initially been rather contemptuous of García’s youth and inexperience. The siege and its bloody aftermath had changed that. Óscar García was an intelligent and courageous soldier and the first real friend Ángel had ever had. He was trying hard to hide how much that meant to him.

Ángel was eating breakfast and staring out of the window at the rain when García joined him. News of his promotion had arrived with a consignment of supplies including new uniforms. Ángel liked the red facings of the Mallorcan regiment although he thought it suited García’s dark colouring better than his own fair hair. During their long convalescence recovering from wounds received at Tarragona, García had cut his curly hair short and it made him look older. He set his hat down on a side table, seated himself opposite Ángel  and reached for the coffee pot.

“It’s almost empty,” Ángel said.

García grinned. “Nothing else to do this morning, sir?”

“At least it’s not brandy. I’ll ring for some more.”

“No need, I’ll go…”

García was halfway to his feet when the door opened and a young woman entered the room with brisk steps. She bore a fresh jug of coffee in one hand and a basket of bread in the other. The jug was made from local pottery and looked heavy but the woman set it down on the table without effort. García remained on his feet, bowing to the woman. Ángel got up reluctantly to do the same. His junior tended to treat females with what Ángel considered exaggerated courtesy, regardless of their social position. He had even seen García helping the laundry maid when she was bowed down under a heavy load of wet sheets and towels.

The social status of Señorita Raquel Segura confused Ángel. She was the only daughter of his host who was a prosperous glassmaker. Señor Juan Segura was a master glassblower and the owner of a large factory on the edge of Palma which shipped luxury glassware all over the world, although trade these days was limited by the exigencies of war. He also ran a shop in the narrow streets of Palma and ten years ago had purchased a seventeenth century palace within the city walls.

The Casa Segura was the most comfortable billet Ángel had occupied in his fifteen years as a soldier. The entrance was modest, but the interior was a haven of cool rooms, sunny courtyards and terraces and polished wooden floors. Segura was a generous host and his wife, a stately woman of around fifty, treated the two officers as honoured guests. Ángel knew that his attitude to her daughter was churlish but there was something about Raquel Segura that made him deeply uncomfortable. For the first few weeks of their stay he had tried hard to convey without actually saying so how much he disapproved of her friendly manners and forthright speech. More than four months later he had given up because he did not think she had noticed.

García was holding out a chair. “Please, sit. You should not be waiting on us. Have some coffee.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Raquel sat down with a pleasant smile at Ángel. “Just for a short time, then. I have a busy day.”

García poured coffee into three pottery cups, laughing. “You always have a busy day, Señorita. You make me feel very idle, sitting here watching the rain fall. Captain Cortez is right though, we can do nothing with them in this weather. The field we use for training will be so muddy they will lose their shiny new shoes in it.”

“And you will spoil your shiny new boots, Captain.”

“That was my first consideration of course,” García said gravely. The girl laughed aloud.

“Considering the state of you both when you first arrived here, I think you deserve to be properly dressed again. I have never seen such a sight. Dressed in rags with the manners of a grandee. It was very funny.”

“Are you laughing at my vanity, Señorita?”

“Not at all. I was impressed with your dignity, Captain, given that you had lost your boots during the rescue and there were big holes in the toes of your stockings.”

“I will be honest, Señorita and tell you that I felt none of the embarrassment I should have. I was too ill.”

“You look a lot better now,” Raquel said. “Captain Cortez, have you any more news of your next posting? I know that you write five letters a week to anybody who might tell you when you can escape from us. Have you had a reply?”

Ángel flushed. “No news, only gossip, Señorita. The Mallorcan regiment is serving with the Spanish troops under Lord Wellington but I have received no orders to sail. I’m sorry that we continue to be such a charge upon you.”

“Oh do not be so silly, you are no charge at all. Two skinny officers in this big house with such a huge kitchen. You give our cook something to do.”

“Skinny?” García said indignantly and she laughed and surveyed him from well-shaped blue eyes.

“Well perhaps not as skinny as you were. I only ask because if you are likely to be with us at Christmas time we should inform our friends and neighbours as they will wish to include you in any invitations. Let us say that you will be here. Nobody will be offended if your plans must suddenly change.”

“We are not here to attend parties, Señorita,” Ángel  said harshly. He realised immediately that he had been rude and wondered why Raquel Segura had this effect on him. He then realised he had forgotten to apologise. His friend blushed slightly and gave him a look.

“What Captain Cortez was trying to say, Señorita, is that we cannot be certain of our plans yet, but are very grateful for you kindness and would love to be included in your Christmas arrangements if we are still here.”

Raquel Segura gave Ángel a long thoughtful look. Ángel looked back at her trying not to appear defiant. She was a tall graceful girl of twenty-two with delicious curves and a riot of dark honey-blonde curls which she wore in a loose knot on the top of her head. Ángel had always preferred slender delicate-looking women who did not trouble him too much with their opinions, but over the past weeks he had discovered that warmly tanned skin, a slightly aquiline nose and a laughing mouth could disturb his dreams much more effectively than any of the aristocratic beauties he had admired from a distance.

The girl rolled her eyes and returned her attention to García.

“You do understand, Captain, that was not what he was trying to say at all, don’t you?”

Ángel’s blush deepened but García began to laugh. “It was what he should have been trying to say, Señorita.”

“That at least is true. Well you shall be invited anyway, Captain Cortez, and if you choose to hold up your nose at our poor Mallorcan celebrations we will not miss you so very much. I must go. Some of the ladies of Palma have been making a collection of warm clothing and blankets for the refugees and I am helping to distribute them. Now that the weather is becoming worse, those without shelter are suffering dreadfully. I am going to talk to my father again about trying to find some abandoned buildings for them. Even half a roof is better than nothing in this weather.”

García stood up immediately. “May I escort you? Perhaps I can speak to some of the council members, I have got to know them a little. After all, if I were not in uniform I might have been on the streets myself.”

The girl smiled. She had a broad smile, with no hint of shyness. Ángel  had no idea how to make her do it and wished he did because it always made him feel happier. When she smiled at him it was generally because she was mocking his sour mood or cynical remarks. He wondered how it must feel to be on the receiving end of those smiles as often as García.

As he thought it, Raquel said:

“Captain García, you have been our guests for almost four months now. I would very much like it if you would call me by my name. I am exhausted with this formality.”

García’s face lit up. “I would…that is, would your father not mind?”

“Well I do not suggest that you start calling him Juan, but he will not care what you call me, I promise you. After all it is my name, so only I can choose who uses it.”

“It is such a pretty name. But if I am to do so, I would like you to call me Óscar.”

“Óscar. That is a very good name.”  Raquel turned her gaze to Ángel. “And you, Captain Cortez? Must we remain this formal?”

Ángel  flinched internally and bowed. “I am honoured, Señorita, but I cannot have you calling me by my first name in front of my men. It would be bad for discipline.”

Raquel gave him a long look and a weary sigh. “That is utterly ridiculous,” she said. “Very well, Captain. You may call me Raquel anyway and I shall continue to call you Captain, in the way of a young girl with a much older friend of her father. It will serve perfectly well.”

“Older?” Ángel said, forgetting his dignity. “I cannot be more than ten years your senior.”

“Really? It seems more. I cannot decide if it is your stuffy manners or your old-fashioned hairstyle. Come, Óscar, we should go.”

***

It was still strange to Raquel to see the refugees living on the streets of her city. Palma had always had its share of beggars but they were all familiar; in many cases their stories known to her. Her people, the Xuetes, made their own charitable collections separate from those of the church and Raquel had often accompanied her mother and aunt to distribute food, blankets and clothing to those without shelter during the wet winter months.

These beggars were different. More than a thousand men, women and children had fled to the island from the horrors of the French storming of Tarragona, most of them arriving in the British Royal Navy ships or in Spanish frigates. Some had planned their departure enough to bring baggage and money with them. These were the lucky ones, who filled every hotel, tavern and house to rent in Palma and the surrounding area. They were assimilated quickly into local society, bringing new life to the narrow cobbled streets of the city.

There had always been close trading links between Mallorca and Tarragona and some young men had even gone to fight at the siege, returning at its conclusion with stories of war and terror and, in one or two cases, with a Catalan bride. Raquel loved the changes wrought by the newcomers. Catalan food, Catalan manners and Catalan fashions began to appear amidst the staunchly conservative upper classes of Mallorcan society. Balls and dances were given and public dinners were held to welcome the newcomers and to celebrate their survival.

Raquel did not attend such events but the close-knit community of the Xuetes had their own way of welcoming the strangers. Many men of the middling classes had fought on the walls of Tarragona and had lost families and livelihoods when the French overran the town. They had been prosperous artisans and merchants and many had valuable skills; while others were willing to learn. Juan Segura had taken on three of them as apprentices in his glassworks and provided lodgings over one of the storage barns. Raquel knew others of her people who had done the same. The Catalans came without the historic prejudices of the Mallorcans against the Xuetes and were simply grateful for paid work and a place to sleep.

Too many refugees remained on the streets of the city and villages even five months later, surviving as best they could. They slept in the open along the sea front, begged for coins and took casual work where they could get it. These were the people who had lost everything and had no friends or connections who could help them find work or somewhere to live. Many were women with children, their men either dead in the siege or away with the army with no knowledge of what had happened to their families.

Their plight was bad enough during the hot summer months but as autumn brought cooler weather and regular heavy rain, they had nowhere to go. It distressed Raquel to see them sitting hopelessly under makeshift blanket shelters, shivering in ragged clothing. It was fever season and some died, their bodies quietly buried in unmarked graves.

The local Mallorcan authorities and churchmen held meetings to discuss relief and began to make plans for a soup kitchen to keep the refugees fed through the winter. Señora Segura rallied her own friends to donate and distribute whatever clothing they could spare.

“If we wait for those fools at the town hall, these poor people will all be dead by spring,” she told Raquel. “They need help now, not at Christmastide. And they need more than a few dry blankets which will be soaked and rotting within two weeks. They need places to stay. I am going to make some enquiries. There must be somewhere they can go.”

The boxes and bags of donations were being stored above the Segura glassware shop in the Carrer del Sol. Señora Segura had organised a small army of helpers to distribute the offerings and Raquel took her place in the storeroom making up bundles of essentials to be delivered. Óscar García remained beside her, taking instructions without comment and chatting easily to the women, girls and young boys as he handed out the bundles. Raquel shot him an occasional smile. She was enjoying having him working beside her and thought, not for the first time, what an easy companion García was.

Raquel had welcomed her family’s house guests with interest when they had arrived at the end of July. Both had been badly wounded during the siege and although they were beginning to recover, the journey had left García bedridden for two weeks before he was able to join the family at meals and take up some limited duties in barracks. Raquel enjoyed the presence of two attractive young men in the house, especially because neither was from the restricted society of the Xuetes nor from the wider society of Mallorca where she was forbidden to socialise and could not possibly marry. Raquel was not naïve enough to assume that the rest of Spain was free of either class or racial prejudice but it was obvious that neither García nor Cortez knew anything about the peculiar position of the Xuetes in Mallorca which made a pleasant change. She was sorry when, once both officers were up and about their duties again, her father felt obliged to explain to them.

The boxes of donations were almost empty and the volunteers had all left. Raquel rummaged through a basket and lifted out a knitted lacy shawl with a little sound of appreciation.

“This is very pretty, although I cannot believe it will be useful to keep anybody warm during the winter.”

García came to look. “It is for a baby, I think. The kind of thing my mother used to knit for the children of the estate workers. She spent hours on it. I can remember as a boy that I didn’t understand why she did not just buy them from the market and save herself the time, we had plenty of money. But she told me off when I suggested it. It seems that doing the work with her own hands was pleasing to God.”

Raquel laughed aloud. “I do not suppose that God – or the babies – cared at all. I loathe knitting. Or any kind of needlecraft other than embroidery. I like complicated designs with a lot of colour.”

“I know, I was admiring the tablecloth you are working on. I don’t know how you have the patience.”

Raquel shrugged. “I do not really. When I was growing up I loved to run over to the glassworks and watch the men. Sometimes they would allow me to help with the furnace when my father’s back was turned. I envied my brother so much because he was taught everything.”

“Your father told me that he was killed at Talavera.”

“At Medellin. He ran away when he was nineteen and joined the army as a common soldier. He had to do it that way because he could not apply to join the Mallorcan regiment as an officer.”

“Because he was a Xueta?”

“Yes. All form of public office is forbidden to us, including the army. Some of my people have been trying to fight back against it: they have petitioned the king. With the war, of course, nothing much has happened. Perhaps one day.”

Óscar García watched her as she repacked the few remaining items into a wooden box. Raquel was very conscious of his scrutiny. He had particularly fine eyes and an expressive face. For the first few weeks of their acquaintance, Raquel had thought Cortez the more handsome of the two, but she had decided that slate-grey-blue eyes, silver-blond hair and a chiselled profile were no substitute for laughter and warm admiration. She had developed something of a tendre for Óscar García and since his presence on the island was only temporary, she was making the most of his company.

“There. These things may remain until the Christmas collection. Then we may find somebody in need of them. By then I hope the Mayor and his friends will have managed to get their soup kitchen up and running. In any case, my mother has arranged to double the baking in our ovens each week for the Catalans and any food left over in our kitchen is to be distributed to them.”

“Your family is very good, Raquel. And your Xueta charity seems to work much better than the church here.”

“Oh some of the monks and nuns are doing a great deal. It is just that they cannot coordinate anything without two hundred meetings and personal leave from the Pope. It is infuriating.” Raquel realised that her tongue might have run away from her and shot him an anxious glance. García was a faithful churchgoer, unlike his friend and Raquel had begun to attend more often as an excuse to spend more time with him.

She was relieved when García laughed aloud. “They need you to take charge, it would work much better.”

Raquel preceded him down the stone stairs and looked into the shop. Her father’s shop manager was busy with a customer so she lifted her hand in greeting and turned to lock the wooden door to the store room. The rain had stopped though the slick cobbles were still very wet and slippery. It was an excellent excuse for García to offer his arm and Raquel took it with a sunny smile.

“I was wondering if you have time for a walk?” García asked. “There will be no training today and Captain Cortez will already have inspected the barracks six times and be on his third letter to Cadiz for orders, so I am not needed. We could walk down to the harbour.”

Raquel felt a little lift of happiness. “I should like to. There are always things to do, but I like to get some fresh air every day. My mother scolds me about my complexion and says I will never find a husband with a tanned face but I do not care. Someone will marry me. It is not as though the choice is so great.”

García did not answer and Raquel wished she had not said it. She found it difficult to hide her bitterness about the restrictions of her social position but she did not want it to spoil the little time she had with this charming young man from a different world.

They reached the harbour and García turned to look up at the impressive bulk of the cathedral and the Palace of La Almudaina on the clifftop above.

“So beautiful. I’ve seen many glorious churches during my travels but this has to be one of the most magnificent positions for a cathedral. Part way to God before they even started.”

“I wonder if they thought the same about the Royal Palace?” Raquel said. García grinned and took her arm again, beginning to stroll along the sea front.

“You’re very cynical for one so young, Raquel Segura.”

“I am sorry, is it annoying? I will try to stop.”

“I don’t want you to stop. What I would like to do is ask you a great many impertinent questions that I couldn’t ask your father when he was good enough to explain a little about your people. But I will understand if you don’t wish to answer.”

Raquel stared straight ahead at the jumble of masts of the various fishing boats and pleasure craft moored in the harbour. Further out she could see the graceful lines of a Royal Navy frigate. A boat was rowing out towards it, probably with supplies or a visitor. Raquel was used to the comings and goings of the Royal Navy. Their main base was on the neighbouring island of Menorca but they called regularly for supplies or for the officers to take brief shore leave and they were frequent customers in the shop. Raquel knew that the security of her island home, which had never been touched by the brutal French invasion was due to the presence of the Royal Navy.

“I will answer,” she said. “It feels strange to talk of it to a stranger. Everybody here just knows.”

“A stranger?” García said, and something in his tone made her look round in surprise.

“Oh. Oh no, I did not mean that. I don’t think of you as a stranger at all. That is why sometimes I forget myself and say things I should not say.”

There was a broken section of sea wall, low enough to provide a seat. García steered her towards it and to her amusement, took off his coat for her to sit on. Raquel shook her head, removed her dark shawl and spread it for both of them.

“You will get sea water on your lovely new jacket, Óscar, and then I should feel guilty. This is old and the stains will not show.”

García grinned and put his jacket back on. “I have never met a girl who teased me quite as relentlessly as you, Raquel Segura.”

“Does it annoy you?”

“No, I like it. Sit down, gather your thoughts then tell me what it means to be Xueta on this beautiful island of yours.”

Raquel settled herself. She was shorter than he was and her feet did not quite reach the ground. After a long pause, she said:

“You already know a little. My ancestors were Jewish. You are Spanish, Óscar, you must know what that means. For centuries the persecutions came and went. For a time we would be left in peace, then all would change again and we were hounded from our homes or arrested. Some fled abroad. Many were tried and chose to reconcile with the church and become Catholic. Others were burned to death by the Inquisition. This happened all through Spain.”

“I know,” García said soberly. “It’s shameful. One of the only benefits of Joseph Bonaparte’s rule over my country has been the abolition of the Inquisition.”

Raquel shot him a little smile. “Not everybody agrees with you, especially on Mallorca. The people here are very traditional. Anyway, some of the Jews of Mallorca fled. Others gave in and became true members of the church. And some complied outwardly but kept up their traditions secretly. Those were my people.”

“I’ve heard of that happening in both Spain and Portugal,” García said. Raquel thought that he sounded genuinely interested. She had gleaned enough information about their guests to know that both the Spanish officers were from aristocratic families but while Cortez’ long dead parents had lost both money and property many years ago, Óscar García’s father was a member of the government in Cadiz and connected by blood or marriage to many of the ruling families. Judaism had been publicly illegal and privately despised for centuries by his people and Raquel was surprised that he showed no shock whatsoever.

“Here in Mallorca they have their own traditions,” she said and this time did not attempt to hide her bitterness. “There is a book, published more than a hundred years ago during some of these trials. They call it Faith Triumphant and it details the trials and the verdicts and lists so many reasons why my people should not be allowed to take part in public life or even associate with decent Christians. Even now, they publish it again every few years, just in case it should be forgotten. There is also a public display in the St Domingo Monastery of the sambenets – the tunics they made our ancestors wear as punishment, declaring their crimes. The surnames of my people are listed in that book and in that display, to make sure that the people of Mallorca never forget what disgusting creatures we are.”

She could feel his shock and wished that she had not told it so forcefully although she was not sure that she could have found a way to sound light-hearted about it. Miserably, she thought she had probably ensured that this was the last time he invited her to take a walk with him. It was probably for the best, given that nothing more than casual friendship would ever be possible between them, but she had been enjoying that friendship so much.

García reached out and took her hand. Raquel looked at him in astonishment and then down at their linked hands, aware that she had blushed scarlet and felt suddenly shy which was unheard of for her. She could think of nothing to say.

“That’s appalling,” García said and there was no more laughter in his tone. “I cannot believe that is allowed to happen when we are supposed to be trying to drag our country into the nineteenth century. Can nothing be done, Raquel? And what does this mean to you and your family? I’m shocked. You live well, your father has a prosperous business and is a master craftsman. I’d no idea.”

“Oh the Xuetes have done very well in trade and business. It is the only thing we have been allowed to do, you see. Most will trade with us. Some of the more progressive families will even invite us to dinner privately. But we cannot marry their sons or daughters, only within our own kind. We cannot hold public office, nor enter the church or the army. It is as if they found a glassmaker to build a glass wall about us two hundred years ago. He must have been a master glassblower indeed, that man. The glass is so clear and so perfect. Our sons can see everything on the other side of it but when they reach out to touch they find…just glass.”

“And your daughters?” García said. He sounded angry but he was still holding Raquel’s hand so she decided that he was not angry with her at all. She looked up and met the warm brown eyes.

“Daughters are restricted everywhere, Óscar. You know this. Do you have a sister?”

“No, she died when I was very young. I’m an only child.”

“Then you may not be so aware that even were I not from the Xuetes I could not marry where I chose without the approval of my father and there is no profession I could enter because I am a girl. Although I suppose I could have become a nun. I have an older cousin who will manage the glass factory and the shop and my father hopes I will agree to marry him when I have grown up a little and stopped being so angry.”

“How old are you?”

“I am twenty-two.”

“The same age as me. I think if you were going to stop being angry, you would have done it by now.”

Raquel laughed and was surprised that she could do so, given how upset she was. “I am sorry. This is not a pleasant conversation for a walk along the harbour.”

“I wanted to know. And I’m glad you told me. But there is one thing I still don’t understand. You go to church. I have seen all of your family go to church.”

“Oh we are not really Jewish, Óscar. It’s been two hundred years, most pretence turned to reality years ago. There are some churches we feel comfortable in. St Eulalia is my favourite, it is in the middle of the Segell District…the old Xueta quarter of Palma. My family used to live there but we moved out as Father became more successful.”

“You said there have been attempts to petition the King.”

“The King gave us our rights more than thirty years ago by royal proclamation but then withdrew some of them again because of local protests. The arguments go back and forth. We are not always sure any more what our legal rights are, but what we do know is that the people of Mallorca will never allow us to enjoy them unless they are forced to do so. And while Spain fights against Bonaparte, there are other things to think about. Sometimes I used to wish that my father would pack up and move away. To Barcelona or somewhere our surname has no meaning. But seeing what happened in Tarragona, to these poor people and to you…this is not the time for a grand gesture.”

García was silent for a moment, then looked up and gave her a grin which melted her heart. “Perhaps not. But I may be in the mood for a smaller gesture. Come on, I should get you back. It is going to rain again.”

***

Drill and training resumed the following morning and as if to make up for the brief respite, Cortez pushed the men hard for the whole of the following week. Some of them were not really strong enough for the long hours of work and after a few days, Óscar decided it was time to intervene. He waited until the afternoon siesta when the men had gone to their bedrolls and Cortez returned to the Casa Segura to see if any mail had been delivered. Óscar gave him time to open his letters and set aside a letter from his own mother since he could guess the contents fairly accurately without bothering to read it.

“Captain, we need to talk about the men. Some of them are still not strong enough to train this hard.”

Ángel gave a contemptuous snort. “Well they had better get used to it, García, because they cannot be coddled on the march, or in battle.”

“Some of them only joined a few weeks ago and they came from the streets. From the refugees. They have not eaten properly for months, they need some time to grow strong again.”

“They may not have time,” Ángel said. He was still scanning a letter but now he held it out to Óscar. Óscar took it. He was torn between exasperation at his senior’s intransigence about the men and awareness of how far their relationship had shifted since he had first joined Ángel on Contreras’ staff in Cadiz a year ago. Back then, Ángel would have barked out orders but it would not have occurred to him to share the letter with his junior. Óscar took it and read it quickly then looked up.

“Ciudad Rodrigo? I’ve never been there, have you?”

“I passed through it once. Fortress town on the Portuguese border. We had three days respite after a forced march of four hundred miles and the only things I remember clearly are that it was as hot as Hades, the fish stew was rank and there was a girl at the Golden Bell who could do things with her tongue that…”

“Ángel, for God’s sake!”

Ángel was laughing and the sight warmed Óscar as it always did. It had taken eight months before he had seen the older man manage anything more than a contemptuous sneer. “I can’t believe I can still make you blush, García. Although I found it hard to believe you’d not had a woman at all until you arrived in Cadiz. I suppose you’ve got time to catch up.”

Óscar laughed and handed him back the letter. “I’ve no ambition to catch up to you, sir, I’d be too worried about what else I’d catch along the way.”

“Oh I’m very careful these days. Bored married women and starry-eyed tradesmen’s daughters are my preference. Which of the men are struggling?”

Óscar ignored his flicker of distaste at Ángel’s remark and gave him the names. Ángel shrugged.

“All right. You can move them over to your company, you’ve fewer than I have anyway. Work out what they can do and rest them more often. But talk to them as well. If they can’t improve, they’ll either die on the march or get killed during their first skirmish. We can’t sit down and wait for them halfway to Portugal. If they aren’t strong enough, we may have to let them go. Colonel Julian de Anaya currently commands the 13th Mallorcan regiment and he has written to me about you, García. On arrival, you’ll command a company of your own.”

Óscar looked up quickly, his exasperation forgotten. “Really? I’d expected to act as your lieutenant for a while at least. This is…”

Óscar stopped, a thought occurring to him. He sighed. “Not that I am going to turn it down, sir, but I presume my father arranged that for me? I’m newly promoted and very young. I don’t suppose for one moment…”

“No, he didn’t. The recommendation was mine, based on your performance at Tarragona. I’m not expecting to regret it.”

Óscar was silent for a long moment. He realised that this was the first preferment of any kind that he had won on his own merit and it felt very significant. As he thought it, a glass of wine appeared on the table before him. He looked up. Ángel was holding his own glass, waiting for the toast. Óscar picked up the glass.

“Thank you, sir. I promise you won’t.”

“Good. I’m surprised to see you here. Usually you have slipped away by now to dally with the delectable Señorita Segura who is far too robust to require an afternoon siesta like the rest of her sex. Has she deserted you for a local beau?”

Óscar bit back several acerbic replies. “No,” he said mildly. “As a matter of fact, we have been invited to tour the glass factory this afternoon, sir, if you are interested. There is a visiting merchant from London who is looking to establish regular trade with the island and who may well become a customer. They are putting on a demonstration which will be followed by a grand dinner. Señor Segura would welcome the officers of the regiment, if…”

“Señor Segura had nothing to do with that invitation, boy. Go by all means, I’ve letters to write. But be careful with that girl, she has her eye on you. Not that I blame you, she looks very enthusiastic. But she’s utterly unsuitable marriage material and you’re far too gentlemanly to…”

Óscar set down his glass with a sharp clink on the table. “Sir, please stop it.”

His senior regarded him with raised eyebrows. “Stop what? I’m not serious, boy, I know you’ve more sense than that. I just don’t want a scene with her father before we leave because you’ve unintentionally compromised his ewe lamb. Not that she’d object, mind…”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking you to stop, sir, and you might not be serious but I am. These people are our hosts and they’ve been very generous. I hate the way you speak about them as though they’re automatically inferior because they made their fortune in trade. It’s outdated, unnecessary and rude. I can’t help the way you think but I’m asking you not to share it with me. I don’t see it the same way.”

Ángel did not speak for a moment. He picked up his wine glass and drained it then went to pour another from the decanter on the polished sideboard.

“I am suitably chastised,” he said dryly. “Although I think you would find your father would be horrified at the way you’re running around with a tradesman’s daughter.”

“I’m sure you are right, sir, but I’ve already made it clear to my father that I’m a man, not a boy and I’ll live my life the way I want. Otherwise I’d be dancing attendance in the drawing rooms of Cadiz instead of fighting for my country. Like you, I’ve given blood in that cause and I think that gives me the right to choose my friends and to take exception to you insulting them for your entertainment. You don’t have to agree with me. You just have to respect my request and keep it to yourself.”

There was a brief silence then Ángel  reached out, picked up Óscar’s glass.

“That was a very long speech.”

“I know.”

“It was also pompous.”

“I don’t care. I meant it.”

To Óscar’s surprise, the older man gave a faint smile. “Whatever happened to that very respectful young officer who joined me in Cadiz and took on every unpleasant job I landed him with? You were like an enthusiastic but very well trained puppy. I rather miss that at times. But you’re a lot more use these days. I’m not going to change my opinion, García. But I’ll do my best to keep it to myself.”

“Thank you,” Óscar said in surprise. “Are you coming to the glassworks?”

“No, you can give my apologies. I need to reply to Anaya and I want to start listing what supplies we’ll need for the journey and plan our route.”

Óscar could not help laughing. “We’ve two months, sir. You could spare an afternoon.”

His commander smiled and shook his head. “You won’t enjoy it as much if I’m there,” he said. “Go and get changed or you’ll be late.”

Halfway through the afternoon, Óscar realised that Ángel had been right and that he was enjoying the day far more without his senior officer’s faintly disapproving presence. He had visited the factory once before with Segura but it was the first time he had seen a proper demonstration of glass blowing and he was fascinated.

Mr Henry Summers, the English merchant, was a stocky gentleman in a plain suit and a down-to-earth manner. Óscar had wondered what kind of man travelled abroad during wartime in search of new suppliers and new markets when most merchants remained safely at home but he quickly decided that Summers was a man who would always want to be personally involved in the running of his many enterprises. He spoke no Spanish but very good French and he and Señor Segura conversed easily in that language.

The tour took in every aspect of the glass works, from the stokers at the furnace, through the foundry, to the moment when the liquid glass first formed in the blowpipe. The glassmaker chosen to demonstrate the process was Raquel’s cousin Miguel, who had recently attained the title of master glassblower after his three year apprenticeship. He was around thirty, a tall willowy figure who managed the blowpipe with considerable grace. Óscar watched as he turned the pipe from side to side, manipulating it to create the effect he wanted. He seemed supremely confident, a man sure of his own ability and his place in the world. Óscar thought Raquel could do a lot worse for a husband. She remained beside Óscar, explaining every process as they followed the tour and Óscar wished he could hold her hand and tell her just how much he could not stand the thought of her marrying this perfectly good man when she should be with him.

Afterwards they went to watch the final stage of the process which was the engraving of the fine goblet, a task which Señor Segura chose to perform himself. He had designed an elegant motif involving the coat of arms of the city livery company to which Summers belonged, with the merchant’s initials on the other side. Óscar watched the Englishman’s face as he studied the goblet, firing questions at Segura in rapid French and thought that Raquel’s father had found himself a new customer.

It was the first time Óscar had really allowed himself admit his intentions towards Raquel and it was both painful and joyous. His brief quarrel with Ángel Cortez earlier had crystallised feelings that had existed for months. It occurred to him that Cortez, who was not generally perceptive about the feelings of others, had been ahead of him on this occasion.

Óscar did not share Ángel’s opinion of the unsuitability of Raquel Segura as a wife, although he was sure his parents would. His mother had a list of potential brides for her beloved only son and if Óscar had obeyed his father’s wishes and taken up an administrative post in Cadiz, he knew she would have attempted to force the issue by now. As it was, every letter she wrote reminded him that it was his duty as his father’s heir to marry a girl of his own class and provide heirs to the title and the considerable estates.

This was even more urgent given Óscar’s gallant if wholly unnecessary determination to remain in combat. He had almost died at Tarragona and if it had not been for the intervention of Ángel Cortez and the Royal Navy he would have spent the rest of the war as a French prisoner. Was it not possible, his mother wondered, to return to Cadiz even for a short time to do his duty by the family? She could select the bride and make the wedding arrangements for him and his family could take care of their pregnant daughter-in-law if Óscar insisted on returning to fight.

Óscar was revolted by the idea of such an arrangement and had told his parents so, in terms that they could not possibly misunderstand. His father did not mention the matter again but his mother brought it up in every letter, bemoaning his intransigence, until Óscar no longer bothered to read them. He knew perfectly well that Cortez was right. His family would be appalled if he presented them with the daughter of a tradesman as his bride, no matter how wealthy she might be. He was not sure that her Xueta heritage would matter as much because he suspected his mother would know nothing about it anyway.

It did not matter to Óscar. He disliked the idea of being estranged from his family because he loved them but the title meant nothing to him. He supposed that one day he had looked forward to settling down on his family estate in Andalusia but he had known for a long time that he had already moved beyond the traditional values of his parents and he thought that Spain would move with him. If he could not live the life he wanted with the woman he loved beside him, he would choose a different life. What he was not sure was whether Raquel Segura shared his views and would be willing to take that enormous step with him, especially if her family also disapproved.

She was seated beside him at dinner, a lengthy meal with enormous amounts of food and wine. Óscar drank moderately and spent much of the meal flirting with his companion. At the end of the day, Mr Summers needed to return to his ship in order to catch the tide the following morning and his host offered to escort him to his boat personally. Many of the guests chose to follow and it became an impromptu procession lit by torches through the darkened streets of Palma.

Óscar walked beside Raquel. One of the younger men was playing music on some kind of wooden flute and it turned the procession into a parade. Occasionally a shutter crashed open and there were furious shouts from respectable citizens trying to sleep but the Xuetes paid no heed. Summers walked beside his host looking slightly bewildered but thoroughly delighted at this send-off and at some point, Óscar reached out and took Raquel’s hand in the darkness. She did not attempt to draw away but moved closer to him. They walked in step together and in step with the procession, waving as the small boat pulled away from the quay and its lantern was no more than a flickering yellow light on the water.

The party broke up after that, saying goodnight and thanking their host before returning to their own homes. Óscar and Raquel followed the Segura party back through the narrow streets to the Casa Segura. It was a clear December night and very cold and Óscar paused to remove his coat, draping it around Raquel’s shoulders. The brief pause meant they had dropped behind the rest of the group and as Óscar went to take her hand again, she moved closer and drew his arm about her shoulders. They walked slowly and Óscar wondered what her father would say if he took it into his head to turn back to find out what delayed his daughter.

The door was still open when they reached it, the doorman sleepy and uninterested and waiting to lock up. The rest of the family seemed to have gone straight to their beds. Raquel removed Óscar’s coat and handed it to him with visible reluctance.

“I do not want this night to end,” she said.

Óscar took the coat and put it back around her. “Ten more minutes,” he said recklessly. “There will be nobody on the terrace overlooking the bay.”

The blue eyes widened and then she laughed softly and took his hand. “My mother will not be impressed.”

“Nor would mine, but she’s not here. Come along.”

It was very cold out on the wide, tiled balcony but the view of glittering lights along the shore and out on the ships and boats anchored in the bay was well worth it. Óscar stood with his arm about her with her head on his shoulder, the dark gold curls tickling his jaw. He had not thought to speak this soon but it occurred to him that perhaps he would never have such a good opportunity again and at least if they were about to be interrupted by a furious parent, he could honestly claim honourable intentions.

“Raquel – I don’t want this to end either.”

She turned towards him and into his arms. Óscar had no idea if it had been intentional or not and did not care. He bent his head to kiss her and she reached up and put her arms about his neck, drawing him closer.

They stood together for a long time and kissing her settled any lingering uncertainty. Eventually he drew back a little, still holding her hands. There was no light on the balcony and he could just make out her features in the dim light from the window above the terrace. Óscar wondered suddenly whose room that was but he decided he did not care. He took a deep breath.

“Raquel, I shouldn’t be here kissing you on the terrace when I’ve not spoken to your father and I’ve no idea what he’ll say. But given that I’m about to set off an explosion in my family that they’ll probably hear in Paris, I need to be sure of you first. You must know how I feel about you. Will you be my wife?”

He felt her hands tremble in his and for a panicked moment he thought she was going to pull away and flee, then her fingers tightened around his and she gave a little sigh.

“Oh Óscar,  I’m very glad you spoke to me first. I’ve no idea either. I don’t even know if we can do this at all. But if we can’t, it won’t be because I don’t love you.”

He drew her closer again. “If you love me, querida, we can do it. I’ll need to explain my circumstances in full to your father, but to you all I can say is that I’m either a very good marital prospect or utterly penniless apart from my officer’s pay which isn’t very much. But whatever happens, I’ll find a way to support you, I promise.”

She kissed him again and he heard her soft laugh in the darkness. “We won’t be penniless, Captain. I’ve no idea if my father will be disappointed that I don’t marry Miguel, but he’d never cut me off without a penny. I am more concerned about my status as a Xueta. I’m not even sure that I am allowed to marry outside my people.”

“They cannot stop you. Legally, that restriction ended years ago along with a number of others. It has been perpetrated by the Mallorcan authorities and upheld by their courts in direct contravention to the dictates of the Royal decree. If we can’t find a priest to marry us here, we’ll take a Royal Navy ship to Menorca and get married there, they don’t have any of these absurd restrictions.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I wrote to them. I’ve a friend in the Royal Navy, we met in Tarragona. He’s in England at present and when I began to think…anyway, I wrote asking his advice. His Captain sent a letter of recommendation to the British authorities there, they’ll give us any help we require. I’d rather marry you here with your family and friends in attendance, but…”

“Father Dominic would perform the service, I am sure of it,” Raquel said. She sounded breathless. “I know you must soon leave. I do not wish to wait, Óscar. Unless your family…”

“That may take a while. I will write to them, but I will not wait for their approval, providing I have yours. Do I?”

“Yes.”

Óscar bent to kiss her again, no longer feeling the cold. After a long, very happy moment, he drew back reluctantly.

“We should go inside. Tomorrow I will speak to your father, Raquel, and then…”

“That will be quite unnecessary,” a voice said from above and both Óscar and Raquel jumped. Óscar stepped back, still holding her hand and looked up at the illuminated window. It stood open and Raquel’s father was leaning on the window ledge in shirt sleeves.

“Sir. My apologies. I had no idea. I mean, I would not have…”

“Captain García, it is completely unnecessary to tell me that you would not be kissing my daughter on the terrace if you knew I could see you. I accept your word for it. Raquel, you are wearing the Captain’s coat. Give it back and go to bed, it is past midnight. Tomorrow we will have breakfast together and discuss how this will work. You will not go to Menorca, you will be married here from our home. Congratulations, my children, I think you will be very happy. Now let me sleep, I am tired.”

***

News of the betrothal reached Ángel through his servant. Manuel had been a refugee from Tarragona, an underfed fourteen-year-old orphan who had attached himself to Ángel aboard the Royal Navy ship and had somehow never left. Ángel had dined in a tavern in the city the previous evening and had watched the procession pass with a curious sense of regret. He wished that he had felt able to accept the invitation and envied García his easy ability to mix with whatever company he found himself in.

He stayed out late drinking and was trying to decide whether to join his hosts for breakfast or get something in town on his way to the training field, when Manuel appeared with a jug of hot water, a welcome cup of coffee and the news that the family was all at breakfast celebrating the betrothal of Captain García to Señorita Raquel. Ángel almost dropped his coffee and scathingly told Manuel not to listen to gossip, but when the boy had gone he sat sipping the scalding black liquid and quietly seethed.

He had been well aware of García’s infatuation with the Segura girl and even more aware that she was a woman who knew how to make the best of her opportunities. From time to time, Ángel had considered making an attempt on the girl’s well-guarded virtue himself. She pretended indifference but in the early weeks of their arrival she had been just as willing to flirt with him as with García. He had not responded and she had withdrawn, concentrating all her efforts on the younger man. Ángel had not expected them to succeed so spectacularly.

Unable to bear the festive atmosphere and the discussion of wedding plans, Ángel went to an inn for breakfast and then rode out to barracks. He was not surprised to receive a note from García on his arrival giving him the news and excusing himself from duty for the day. Ángel  badly wanted to scribble a scathing response and send it back with the Segura servant but he stopped himself. He had made his views clear to García and the boy had ignored him. He had no legal right to interfere in the marriage of his junior officer and if García’s letter were to be believed, he could not even complain that it would delay their return to duty. The earliest a transport could be provided to take them to Oporto ready for their march across to Ciudad Rodrigo was mid-January. García’s letter informed him that Señor Segura hoped to arrange the wedding before Christmas to give the young couple some time together.

Ángel read García’s letter again. He had apologised for not catching Ángel that morning to tell him in person and hoped to have his company that evening for a bachelor dinner at their favourite tavern to celebrate. Ángel was surprised at how furious he was. It was not really his business if García chose to ruin himself and it would make no difference to their working relationship; the boy was a professional. But there was something about the girl that bothered Ángel and he decided he needed to speak to Raquel Segura himself.

***

Raquel had just returned from the market when she met Ángel Cortez in the hallway and sensed that he had been waiting for her. She paused politely and he bowed.

“My apologies, Señorita, I can see that you are busy. I was hoping for a few moments of your time.”

Raquel felt her heart sink. She could guess his views on her betrothal and she had no particular wish to hear them but she knew that Óscar was dreading the conversation and it occurred to her that she might be able to blunt the worst of his senior’s wrath if she allowed him to take it out on her. With a sigh she handed her basket to the maid and led the way out onto the eastern terrace, a peaceful courtyard with a small fountain in the centre and several tiled tables and basketwork chairs.

“Won’t you sit down, Captain Cortez? Would you like some wine?”

“No, thank you. This will not take very long, Señorita.”

“I’m glad about that, since it is obvious you want to shout at me. Very well, let’s get it over with.”

Cortez fixed her with his cool blue-grey eyes. “I should not need to say this to you. Nothing could be more unsuitable than this marriage. You are not his equal in birth or fortune. Because of you his family will cut him off. You will ruin his life and his happiness and what can you bring him in return?”

“I bring him love, Captain Cortez. I understand that has no meaning for you, but in my family it has always been very important. And apparently Óscar agrees with me.”

“Love?” Cortez almost spat the word. “Is that what you think he feels for you? Oh, I’ve seen the way he looks at you and I’ve no doubt that he has feelings, but I promise you he will satisfy those after a week or two in bed with you and will be left with a lifetime of regret. Do you think that a woman like you will be able to hold a man like him?

Raquel had not intended to respond, but she could feel herself getting angry. “A woman like me? And just what kind of woman am I, Captain? I am curious: is it my face, my fortune or my character you object to?”

“It is everything. Your people, although good enough, are not even accepted here on Mallorca. You are outcasts. It is not your fault but that will not help García when he finds himself shunned. Your fortune is well enough for another tradesman, but it is nothing compared to his birth and lineage and everything he will inherit if he marries a woman of his own kind.”

“If, of course, there is anything left of his family fortune by the time the French have ravaged their way through Spain. But do go on, I’m charmed by what passes for your reasoning.”

“As for your character, I think you are a scheming young woman who has taken advantage of a naïve boy to catch herself a husband who might help her raise herself to a better position in life. I do not think you care for him at all. If you did, you would do the decent thing and withdraw from this.”

“Well if that is your hope, you are going to be very disappointed, because I have every intention of marrying him. What happens after that will be up to him. I will go where he goes, follow where he leads. I love him. A man like you cannot imagine what that means. I have heard enough, I am leaving.”

Cortez stepped between her and the door. “Not just yet, Señorita. There was one more item on your list. Your face – and the rest of you. Now that is the reason we are in this situation. On that score I have nothing at all to complain of, I have been admiring it myself for a while now. If I had known you would go this far, I would have taken you to bed two months ago when you were casting lures in my direction. I would have enjoyed you very much and García would have realised what you were like. I should have done it then but perhaps after all it is not too late.”

It had not occurred to Raquel that he would touch her, which made her slow to react. Before she had time to utter more than a squawk of protest she was in his arms, his mouth covering hers. There was none of Óscar’s gentle consideration in this man. His hands moved down her body with a familiarity that appalled her and his mouth bruised hers, forcing her lips apart, his tongue invading her mouth.

Frozen shock was followed by a wave of utter fury. Raquel could not easily scream with his mouth on hers but she managed to make a sound in the back of her throat which surprised even her and caused Cortez to step backwards in astonishment. He stood looking down at her, seeming almost bewildered by what he had just done.

Raquel gave him no time to speak. Stepping forward she lifted both hands and shoved him hard in the chest. He staggered backwards and Raquel began to hit him with both fists, pummelling him as hard as she could, not caring what part of him she connected with. Cortez put up both hands to protect his face and then yelled in pain as her fist struck his left hand. Raquel knew it had been badly injured at Tarragona and that for a time, he had thought he would lose the use of it. His cry made her pause for a moment and Cortez took the opportunity to dodge behind a table.

“Stop it, you’re going to cripple me, you little termagant. In fact I think you’ve already done so.”

“Come out from behind that table and I will castrate you!”

“Then I’m not coming out.” To Raquel’s fury, she could hear laughter in his voice. “Stop. Just stop and breathe, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

“I am going to hurt you!”

“Just listen to me. Listen for a moment. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve no idea why I did that, it was the most stupid…”

“I know why you did it,” Raquel spat. “It is because you are an animal, a creature who thinks it is your right to bully women, to intimidate those weaker than you, to hurt…”

“Raquel, please stop. That’s not it. I mean I am…perhaps I am some of those things. I am not a good man. I am not like García.”

“No, that you are not!”

Cortez was nursing his hand against his chest as if it genuinely hurt. His eyes were on hers again but his expression was different. “I will go. You will not want me in this house after this. I can find lodgings in town or near the barracks until we leave and I promise that I will not trouble you again. García will think I have left because I disapprove of his marriage. Raquel, you should let him think that. Don’t tell him…”

“Of course I am going to tell him, you imbecile. How else do I explain this?” Raquel touched her lip which was bleeding a little.

“You are a very intelligent woman, you will find a way. As I will find a way to explain why I cannot use my hand for a week. If you tell him I did this, he will challenge me and I must accept. We will fight and he will not be content with first blood, he will want to kill me.”

“I hope he does.”

“He isn’t going to kill me in a duel, Raquel, but I could very easily kill him. Don’t do it.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No, I am telling you that with a sword in my hand I am all the things you accuse me of being. I cannot always stop.”

Raquel felt a little chill and her anger seeped away into sudden fear. “You would kill him? Your friend?”

“He’s probably the only friend I’ve ever had. Possibly the only one I will have. And I have just realised that if I had the opportunity to kill him to prevent him from marrying you, I might well do it. Let me go, Raquel. Go and find him. Take care of him for me and when we leave for the war I’ll do my best to take care of him for you. It is the only thing I can do for you. Let me do it.”

Raquel stared at him. She was no longer afraid and no longer angry but she was utterly bewildered. “That makes no sense.”

Unexpectedly his expression softened into something like a smile. “None at all, but men often make fools of themselves when they…never mind. I do not want to hurt him, Raquel, but I cannot bear the thought of hurting you.”

Abruptly Raquel felt the beginning of shocked understanding. Her brain rejected it immediately.

“I do not believe you care what happens to me.”

“It is much better that you continue to believe that.”

Raquel did not respond. Memories were coming back to her, flashes of the past four months and she was horrified to realise that in fact she was having no trouble believing him at all. Wrapped up in her growing feelings for Óscar García, she had missed it entirely; but the signs had been there. She could see him watching her come to the realisation that she had been utterly blind.

“Oh. Oh no. Captain, are you telling me that you…”

“Don’t say it,” he said quickly. “I don’t ever want it to be said. You once gave me permission to use your name, Raquel and it seems I have accepted it. Can you not do the same for me? Just this once.”

Raquel realised that her throat was choked with tears. “Ángel…I had no idea…”

“My dear, I had no idea either until just now. But even if I had, you would still have chosen to marry Óscar. You are, as I said earlier, a very intelligent woman. I need to leave now. I need to be alone. Please.”

Raquel nodded, feeling the tears spill over onto her cheeks. He stepped forward, took her hand and bowed over it with an old fashioned courtesy he had never showed her before.

“Congratulations on your engagement, Raquel. Be happy. You both deserve it.”

***

They were married three days before Christmas and the twelve days of the season were to be an extended celebration before their inevitable separation. Óscar had written to his parents and received no reply; although there had been plenty of time for a letter. He chose not to dwell on it. The Segura family welcomed him as one of their own and a long session with Raquel’s father discussing finances and settlements made it clear that even if the García family chose to cast him off entirely, he could make a good life with these people. Privately, Óscar was wondering if he might make a career in the law. He had spent many hours studying the various legal documents pertaining to the status of the Xuetes of Mallorca and he found it unexpectedly fascinating.

The wedding took place in the church of St Eulalia. Nobody raised any public objection to it and one or two of Óscar’s acquaintances in the town outside of the Xueta community even went so far as to congratulate him. Others did not mention it at all but continued to treat Óscar with courtesy. As long as there were no repercussions for his wife and her family, Óscar did not really care what they thought.

His relationship with Ángel Cortez was still fragile but seemed to be improving again. Cortez had said little about the marriage other than to express concern about its effect on Óscar’s future inheritance. He had expressed his disapproval more tangibly by moving out of the Segura house and taking lodgings close to the barracks but he managed it with surprising tact, citing pressure of work as the cause and the Seguras pretended to believe him. He did not attend the wedding but sent an elegant gift of Castilian china which must have cost more than he could easily afford. Óscar recognised an olive branch and thanked him warmly.

The Segura family usually attended Mass at St Eulalia on Christmas Eve but the two Spanish officers had been invited weeks earlier to attend the traditional Mallorcan midnight service at the cathedral. Ángel, who had a profound dislike of all religion had sent a civil refusal but Óscar had been looking forward to the service. He had been told of the singing of El Cant de la Sibil-la which was a Gregorian melody introduced to the island in medieval times. It was sung virtually without instruments and the singing was led by a boy in medieval costume bearing a sword.

“A sword?” Óscar enquired, when his wife explained the tradition. “That doesn’t sound very much like the birth of the Christ child, Raquel.”

They were lying late in bed, listening to the sound of the household coming to life around them and Óscar had been wondering how he was going to be able to rise from this bed in a month’s time and leave her behind. He had never been this happy in his life.

“I believe the song is about the final judgement,” Raquel said cautiously. “Although I have not been personally of course. I am told that the service and the music is very beautiful. You should go, Óscar and then you can tell me all about it. I’ve often wished to hear it.”

She sounded wistful and Óscar felt a little pain about his heart. He leaned over and kissed her. “Just to remind you that until I have to step onto that ship, I am not going anywhere without you. Come with me.”

“Óscar, I cannot. No Xueta has attended Mass in the cathedral that I know of. We have our own churches.”

“Who say the same Mass to the same God. Come with me.”

Raquel smiled in the way that melted his heart every time she did it. “I love you but you have made your gesture, Óscar and we are married. It is enough.”

“I did not marry you as a gesture but because I love you. And it will never be enough until that book is burned to ashes and that display in St Domingo is torn down. When I come back from the war I shall attend to both personally. I won’t force you to come, Raquel, but I wish you would. I would like to show the world how proud I am of my wife.”

“What if they turn me away?”

“Then they turn us both away and I will make them regret it one day. It’s up to you, querida. I don’t want to spoil your Christmastide.”

“I have you, Óscar. Nothing can spoil this Christmastide.” Raquel sat up. “Very well, I will come. The worst that can happen is a little embarrassment and the best is that I will attend Mass in my own cathedral in my own city for the first time. If you can be brave in battle, Óscar, I can be brave in this small way.”

She was nervous all the same. Óscar could feel her hand shivering slightly in his as they walked through the well-lit streets, strung with lanterns for the season. His father-in-law had shaken his head at the idea but made no attempt to dissuade them.

“I do not think they will let you in, Raquel, but if you are determined, then go. It will be one more protest at the way we are treated and if they turn away an officer who has shed blood for his country and it becomes known, it can only help our cause.”

“I’ll make sure it is known,” Óscar said grimly.

Segura laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “My daughter married a warrior,” he said. “But then so did my son-in-law.”

Heads turned as they approached the brilliantly lit main doors to the immense gothic cathedral. Already the organ played inside and hundreds of candles lit up the space. Through the open door, Óscar could see the huge vaulted ceiling and the glorious colours of stained glass reflecting back the candlelight. By the door he could see a gaggle of robed priests in anxious conversation and several members of the island council in their finest clothing looking grave and unsure. Óscar thought they were plucking up the courage to step forward and tell him that he could not bring his wife into the Mass. He wished he could punch them but he knew that would upset Raquel more, so he steeled himself for the embarrassment and prepared to make a dignified retreat.

Before any of the men was brave enough to step forward, there was an approaching sound which was so familiar that for a minute or two Óscar did not even realise how incongruous it was in this holy place at such an hour. He could see other people stopping, turning to look and he knew suddenly what it was and spun around, putting his arm around Raquel. He could not believe that somehow they were sending out the city watch to make an arrest but the sound of marching feet was unmistakable and Óscar decided that if any man put a hand on his wife, he would kill them.

It was not the city watch. To Óscar’s complete astonishment, one hundred and fifty men of the 13th Mallorcan Infantry were marching in, wearing dress uniform. A familiar voice rapped out an order and the men halted by the door of the cathedral.

Óscar could not believe his eyes. He had never seen Ángel Cortez so neatly turned out. He had cut his silver blond hair short which robbed him of some of his piratical looks and made him look like a professional soldier.

Ángel stepped forward and saluted and Óscar responded automatically.

“Captain Cortez. Er…have you come to Mass?”

“We have all come to Mass, Captain García. In honour of your recent marriage, the men of the 13th Mallorcan Infantry are here to celebrate the birth of Christ and to pay tribute to their brave officer and his beautiful and very courageous wife.” Ángel  turned and raised his voice. “Sergeant! Salute to the Captain’s lady!”

There was a swish and clash of steel as swords were drawn and bayonets lifted in salute. Óscar responded, his throat tight. Around them was complete silence apart from the haunting beauty of the organ music floating on the still night air through the cathedral doors.

The Sergeant called the men to order and Ángel Cortez turned to Óscar and his stunned wife. “Shall we go in? The Mass will be starting soon and I’ve no wish to miss any part of it. Sergeant, march the men in and make sure they behave.”

“Their bayonets, sir?”

“Oh.” Ángel looked momentarily nonplussed and beside him, Oscar heard his wife give an undignified snort of laughter. Surprisingly, Ángel grinned instead of glaring at her. “I had forgotten it isn’t usual to take weapons into a cathedral.”

“I think Tarragona may have confused you,” Óscar said. “They can pile them beside the door, Sergeant. Carry on.”

A robed churchman stepped forward to escort them to a pew. Ángel seemed to hesitate for a moment when ushered to sit beside Raquel and Óscar wondered if he felt awkward give his open disbelief in God and everything the church represented, but Raquel smiled at him somewhat mistily and he came forward and sat beside her, while his men shuffled into pews further back.

Óscar stopped trying to make sense of it and gave himself up to the beauty of the cathedral, the glory of the music and the deep sense of spiritual connection he felt during the Mass. During the pure notes of El Cant de la Sibil-la he felt his wife take his hand and glancing at her he saw that her cheeks were wet with tears.

When it was over, Óscar took his wife’s hand and followed Ángel outside. They watched as the men set off back to barracks. When they were out of sight, Ángel offered his arm to Raquel. Wearing a particularly implacable expression he led her towards some of the departing worshippers. Óscar watched in awe as he proceeded to introduce Raquel to the entire council of Mallorca including the High Judge. Óscar thought he looked ready to draw his sword if any man dared to refuse the introduction. None of them did.

Walking back to the Casa Segura, Raquel said:

“Captain Cortez, how are you spending Christmastide?”

“Very comfortably, Doña Raquel, at the home of Señor Moreno and his family. Though I thought I might accompany you to Mass at the cathedral again on the festival of the Three Kings.”

Raquel laughed aloud. “Come to St Eulalia with us and dine with us afterwards. It will be less dramatic, I promise you.”

“Doña, I…”

“Please, Ángel. Just one evening before you have to leave. If you could do this, you can do that. It would mean a great deal to both of us.”

Ángel gave a slightly crooked smile. “Very well, Doña Raquel. Enjoy your Christmas. García, you have put on weight but I expect the march from Oporto to the Portuguese border will soon sweat that off you.”

Óscar stepped forward and drew him into a quick embrace. “You can yell at me all the way if you like. Thank you, Ángel. You’re a very good friend.”

Ángel looked startled but did not pull back. “Not always. Not that often. But it pleases me that you think so. Goodnight, Captain García. Doña …”

“Raquel.”

The crooked smile came again. “Raquel. Please know that the sight of you marching up to that cathedral daring those old fools to do their worst, will stay with me all my life.”

“Thank you. I once spoke of living behind a glass wall, Ángel. Tonight, you broke it. Only one pane of glass, perhaps, but for me it was a very important one. I will never forget that.” Raquel’s solemn expression vanished and the mischief was back. “And I am glad you took my advice about your hair. It suits you.”

Angel raised a hand to touch his hair involuntarily then stopped himself and gave her an unconvincing scowl.

“It is as well that we’re leaving soon, Doña Raquel or I shall have no dignity left. I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmastide. Goodnight.”

Óscar watched him go, his boots echoing on the old cobbled streets.

“I cannot believe he did that,” he said. “He loathes the church, I’ve never seen him set foot inside one unless he intended to use it as a fortress or a hospital.”

“I do not think he came for the Mass, Óscar.”

Óscar looked down at her. He thought she looked a little sad and wondered if she was upset at Ángel’s stubborn refusal to spend Christmas with them.

“He did it for both of us, Raquel. He has got over his objections to our marriage, I promise you. And it was never about you, it’s just his stupid, outdated notions of social class. In fact he likes you more than I realised.”

Raquel smiled. “As long as you like me, Óscar, I really do not mind.”

Óscar grinned, kissed her and drew her inside. The thought of his impending departure saddened him, but it was Christmas and she was with him and he intended to enjoy every moment he could.

Eton Mess

Eton Mess is in loving memory of a very gorgeous dog called India and is dedicated to her companion, my friend and enthusiastic reader Janet Watkinson.

Welcome to my free short story for Halloween 2022. Those of you who have read my previous Halloween stories will know that they are generally traditional ghost stories, designed to cause a bit of a chill.

For some reason, I couldn’t come up with my usual ghost story this year. Maybe I just wore out my ideas last year, or maybe it’s because I really wanted something a bit more light hearted during these times of doom and gloom. Whatever the reason, I’ve written something different this year, though it’s very much based in the season.

When I was a child I used to adore school stories. Nothing could have been further from my East End schooling than the tennis and cricket matches of boarding schools but I loved them. The Chalet School were my favourites, closely followed by the Jennings books but I read every one of the genre I could get my hands on.

I even managed to wade through Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I adored George MacDonald Fraser’s follow-up books about the dastardly bully, Flashman, and his spectacular army career and there’s a good reason why the bully in this story is going into the cavalry. One of these days, if he’s made it this far through the war, I’d quite like to introduce him to Major-General van Daan who has a long memory and a really large dog.

My research into the customs of Eton College during this period made it clear that a lot of the traditions we associate with the school came in rather later. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of uniformity about how the school, including the Boarding Houses, was run at this point, though it does seem to be clear that some of them were still being run solely by women. House masters did exist, but did not become fully established until slightly later in the nineteenth century. It suited my purpose for the young Van Daan to live under a more relaxed regime so I’ve placed him in Dame Lovelace’s Boarding House.

I hope you enjoy this latest adventure in Paul van Daan’s early life. I loved writing it and was surprised at the end to realise that, with one exception, Paul’s appalling language really hadn’t developed at this point. You could almost let your children read this one. It was definitely written for fun. Enjoy.

Eton Mess

Eton College, October 1795

Mr Julian Holland was correcting Latin grammar in the Masters’ common-room when the sounds of battle reached him. He tried to ignore it. Five years living in the midst of three hundred active boys had taught him the madness of intervening in every minor squabble. Often the combats proved to be nothing more than the kind of noisy play fight you might expect from a litter of growing puppies.

After a few minutes, Julian put down his pen and listened harder. The noise had grown louder and he decided that this was more than general high spirits. There was a savage chanting which suggested a fight of more than usual interest or even worse, a severe beating.

Julian stood up with a sigh, shaking out his gown. He occupied a relatively junior position among the teaching staff at Eton College and it was not really his job to maintain discipline among the boys, unless it  was in his own classes. He was sure that the Headmaster or some of the Assistant Masters were within earshot, but he knew that none of them would make a move to find out what was going on unless somebody made a formal report. Mr Heath had only taken over as Headmaster the previous year and was so far showing every sign of continuing the indifference of his predecessor to the safety and welfare of the boys under his care.

Julian made his way at a gentle run down through the Long Walk. The noise seemed to be coming from the churchyard beyond the chapel which was further away than he had expected. Sound carried well on the chill autumn air and, as Julian rounded the end of the chapel, he could see them: a group of boys in a wide semi-circle close to the red brick wall and the old well on the far side of the churchyard. Their cheers and yells of encouragement drowned out any sound of his approach across the damp, leaf strewn grass between the gravestones.

As he drew close, Julian could see that his instinct had not betrayed him. Boxing was a popular sport at Eton and many parents paid extra for their sons to be taught properly, though many of the masters considered it a vulgar activity and preferred to encourage the young gentlemen to study the art of fencing. Some of the boys excelled at both.

Coming up to the edge of the group, Julian could see that the current match was uneven. Two boys were at the centre of the ring, one on the ground sporting a bloody face while the other was still on his feet, although he did not look in much better condition. Three older boys surrounded them, aiming kicks and blows where they could, with no consideration for the traditions of boxing or for any kind of gentlemanly conduct.

Julian knew all the boys under his tuition and was aware that these older boys were all approaching the end of their time at Eton. In the case of the Honourable Cecil Welby, who was eighteen and undoubtedly the ringleader in this systematic battering of younger boys, Julian could not wait for him to go. Welby was destined for a commission in a regiment of Hussars and Julian hoped passionately that the young officer would be ruthlessly bullied by his new messmates to give him a taste of his own medicine.

Welby and his friends had clearly not had it all their own way on this occasion. Ned Carrington’s nose was almost as bloody as his younger opponent’s and he was clearly distracted by his need to mop it occasionally on the sleeve of his coat. Barney Fletcher, the third combatant had what looked like the beginnings of a black eye and Welby himself sported a badly split lip. He was moving in on the younger boy now, his expression murderous.

“Carrington, Fletcher, get hold of his arms. Hold him still, he’s like a bloody gnat.”

As if to prove a point, the boy dodged back as the two converged on him, twisting sideways to avoid Fletcher’s grasping hands. Carrington managed to get a hold on his other side but let go with a yell as the boy turned into him and lifted a knee towards his groin. The blow missed however and the boy was off balance, giving Welby the opportunity to charge into him, knocking him flat.

All three of the older boys moved in, using their feet. Julian gave a shout of anger as all three connected with different parts of the boy’s body. He elbowed his way through the crowd which parted immediately. The atavistic roars of encouragement had died away. Partly Julian thought it was due to the arrival of a master but he also thought they had sensed the moment when an uneven mill turned into something savage and more dangerous.

“Welby, Carrington, Fletcher, get away from him,” Julian bellowed. “This is not the first time I’ve had to speak to you about bullying the younger boys, but you’ve gone too far this time. I’ll be speaking to the Headmaster and I also intend to write to your fathers personally.”

Welby did not speak but Carrington lifted his voice in immediate protest.

“That’s not fair, sir, he started it. We weren’t doing anything wrong. Just giving young Galloway a bit of a reminder of his duties. He’s Welby’s fag you know and he’s been altogether too choosy about what he will and won’t do. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

Julian, who could remember the sheer misery of his own school days fagging for a bullying senior, wanted to point out that there was a lot wrong with it but he knew he would lose the argument. Fagging, the practice of a younger boy acting as servant to a senior boy in return for his protection was encouraged at most schools. In the hands of a kindly older boy it was harmless enough but in the hands of a bully like Welby it could be intolerable.

“He’s twelve,” Julian said coldly. “It shouldn’t take three of you to explain the rules.”

“It would have been all right if Van Daan hadn’t weighed in,” Welby said. “None of his damned business and I told him so. I hope he’s learned his lesson by it, sir. He needs reminding, the snotty little brat.”

Julian looked down at the leggy, fair-haired fourteen year old on the grass. He had uncurled himself cautiously and was beginning to sit up, wincing a little. Julian waited. He had no idea what was coming but he knew something was and he was poised to intervene. Van Daan rubbed blood from his face and felt around one eye which was beginning to swell. He looked up, giving Julian a glimpse of clear blue eyes, then shifted his gaze to Welby and gave a singularly charming smile.

“Every time you get close enough, Welby, I’m reminded of the smell of dog shit on a hot day. It’s the strangest thing; I always stop to check my shoe and then I realise it’s just you wandering past.”

Welby made an inarticulate sound and moved forward. Julian stepped in front of him, trying to look authoritative and Van Daan scrambled to his feet and stood ready to continue the fight. Julian looked over his shoulder.

“Van Daan, get Galloway up then get him over to the house and cleaned up. I will meet you in the Dame’s kitchen in one hour and if you open your mouth again, I’ll be reporting you. Get moving.”

The boy hesitated, then turned to where Galloway had dragged himself into a sitting position. The sight of the younger boy seemed to remind him of why he had become involved in the first place and he abandoned his fighting stance and went to help the other boy up.

“Come on Galloway, up you get. Dame Lovelace is going to have a fit when she sees the state of you. Make sure you tell her straight away that I didn’t do it or I’ll get my ears boxed on top of everything else.”

Julian watched them limp away. Galloway was leaning heavily on his companion although Julian was not sure which of the two was more seriously injured. He had seen Van Daan flinch as he moved, putting a hand to his ribs. He hoped that Mrs Lovelace, the Dame who ran the Boarding House to which both Van Daan and Galloway belonged, would be able to see through Van Daan’s bravado and get a doctor to have a look at him if necessary.

When the boys had disappeared through the gate Julian turned to look at Welby. The boy wore an expression of studied insolence.

“I don’t think the Headmaster will want to get involved, sir,” he said. “My uncle by marriage is on the Board, you know and none of them will want to interfere with me disciplining my fag. And Van Daan attacked me.”

Julian allowed his eyes to dwell on Welby’s battered face. “I can see he did,” he said. “If I were you, Welby, I wouldn’t want the rest of the school to know that the three of you were bested by a fourteen-year-old. All I can say it that it’s a good thing you didn’t get involved in a fencing bout with him.”

Welby’s face flushed scarlet and Julian gave a sympathetic smile. “Oh I’m sorry. I forgot that you did, last term. Lost half a year’s allowance betting on yourself, didn’t you?”

“If we all had the money he has to waste on fencing and boxing lessons, sir…”

“Enough. I’m not interested. I suggest for your sake that you keep this quiet. Leave Van Daan alone. You’ve only got a couple of months left here, Welby – you go at Christmas don’t you?”

“Yes, sir. To take up my commission.”

“Good. I won’t bother to write to your father, I’m well aware he doesn’t give a damn how you conduct yourself. But if I have to speak to you again about beating the younger boys, I’m going to write to your future commanding officer suggesting he keep an eye on you and explaining why. In the army you’ll be expected to behave like a gentleman. It won’t be a good start if your Colonel knows you’ve a history of not knowing how.”

Julian did not bother to say any more. He knew that Welby was perfectly right. Discipline at Eton was left largely in the hands of the older boys and unless something went badly wrong, it was unlikely that either the Headmaster or the Provost would intervene. He hoped that his threat might make Welby think twice before attempting to exact further revenge on either of the younger boys.

Julian went back to collect his marking then made his way along South Meadow Lane to the big house where Mrs Eleanor Lovelace presided over Whitchurch House, home to twenty boys ranging from the age of ten to eighteen. Julian’s own lodgings were in a narrow lane nearby and although it was not part of his formal duties to oversee the Whitchurch boys, he was on good terms with Dame Lovelace who frequently invited him to supper and often consulted him about the welfare of the boys under her care.

He found the Dame in the big square kitchen, tending to Tobias Galloway’s battered face. Washed clean of blood, it did not look too bad although there was a bruise on his temple and another darkening the fair skin of his jawline. The blood seemed to have come from a split lip. Julian came forward to inspect him and nodded.

“You’ll do, Galloway. You’ve done a good job, ma’am. All the same, I was wondering if you thought it might be an idea to write to Mrs Galloway to suggest that young Tobias goes home for a month or two for Christmas. It might do him some good.”

“He’s due to go home anyway, sir, his father has furlough from the army. I agree it might be wise to bring that forward a little, I’ll write to them this evening to suggest it. By the time he comes back after Christmas the problem should have solved itself.”

“You mean Welby will have gone.”

“Yes, and I won’t miss him. Horrible boy, he’s the worst senior I’ve ever had in the house.”

“Oh I don’t know, ma’am. Whitchurch House won’t be the same without the Honourable Cecil,” a voice said from the doorway. “He should be an asset if he gets to fight the French though. One look at that ugly face and they’ll run a mile. Thank you for intervening, Mr Holland. I know it’s not really your job.”

Julian turned to survey Paul van Daan. He had taken the time to clean himself up and change his muddy clothing but his face, as Julian had suspected, was more battered than Galloway’s. One eye was swollen and bruised, there was a nasty cut on his left cheek and another on his lip. A swelling lump and a gash on his temple made Julian wonder if that was where one of the kicks had connected.

“Look at the state of you,” Mrs Lovelace scolded. “Come and sit down and let me look at those cuts. You look like a low prize fighter. Your poor mother would turn in her grave if she could see you now, Master van Daan.”

“I don’t suppose she would, ma’am. She was used to me.”

Dame Lovelace shooed him into a wooden chair and went for a cold compress and some sticking plaster.

“Well you’ve lived under this roof for two years and I’m still not used to you,” she said. “You should know better, you know what a spiteful beast that boy is.”

“I know that once he starts hitting people he can’t stop,” Van Daan said, his eyes straying to Galloway’s white face. “It’s a pity he always has his friends with him. I wouldn’t bet on his chances if I could get him on his own for ten minutes.”

Julian watched as Dame Lovelace applied a plaster to the cut on the boy’s temple. “He’s four years older and a head taller, Van Daan,” he said gently. “This is not the first time this has happened. When are you going to learn not to get into fights with the seniors?”

“When the seniors stop picking on my friends.”

Julian opened his mouth to remonstrate and then closed it again. It was not the first time he had tried to have this conversation with Paul van Daan. Generally speaking, after the first few rounds with an older boy establishing his superior position in the school hierarchy, most younger boys either fell into line and waited for their own turn at the top, or persuaded their parents to continue their education at home. Van Daan, on the other hand, seemed to be making a single-handed attempt to change the entire system. It had not gone well for him today.

The Van Daan boy had not stood out when he arrived at Eton two years earlier. The gossip in the masters common-room was that he was the younger son of a wealthy Dutch businessman who had married into the English aristocracy. The boy’s mother and sister had died of smallpox and Julian remembered him on arrival as a tall slender twelve year old who looked faintly lost in the echoing halls of the old college.

The first weeks after Van Daan’s arrival had been marked with the usual scuffles and jockeying for position within his peer group, but Julian thought the boy settled well. He seemed well-liked by the other boys and tolerated by most of the masters. His father was wealthy enough to pay handsomely for his sports and social education and Van Daan quickly developed a reputation for being a talented boxer, a brilliant fencer and a good but unenthusiastic cricketer. He was also much in demand for football games where his height and fearlessness made him a favourite pick of the team captains.

His academic studies were less remarkable but Julian, who taught him Latin and geometry, quickly decided that it had nothing to do with his intelligence which was razor sharp. Van Daan’s studies were erratic. If something caught his interest he would devote hours of concentration to mastering it. He went through various enthusiasms for astronomy, Roman military history and learning to play the violin and he proved very able to stick to a subject. When he was bored however, he was an appallingly disruptive pupil with the ability to reduce a class to giggling inattention within minutes.

Julian, who enjoyed teaching and rather liked his pupils, found his ingenuity stretched to keep Van Daan busy and interested and thanked God he was not obliged to teach him Greek. The boy had been taught the basics at home by his previous tutor but showed no interest in taking it further and quickly declared silent war against Mr Archibald Thornton, the thin faced, irritable Greek master. Thornton was quick to lose his temper and enthusiastic in the use of the cane. By the end of his first year, Van Daan had developed a grim tolerance for physical punishment but never managed to look particularly repentant.

Dame Lovelace was pouring hot milk into a cup and adding a dash of brandy. “Off to bed with you, Master Galloway. We’ll see how you are in the morning, but I don’t think you should attend the classroom tomorrow. You look all in, you’ll be better for a good sleep.”

She shepherded the younger boy out of the kitchen. Julian sat down on the bench opposite Van Daan. “What happened?” he asked.

“I wish I knew, sir. Galloway made some kind of dust up about something Welby wanted him to do. I wasn’t there at the start, but when I came upon them, that arsehole and his tame monkeys were threatening to throw him down the old well. He was terrified.” Van Daan’s remarkable blue eyes met Julian’s gaze. “I’m sorry. I know I promised last time, but I couldn’t walk away.”

“I told you to come to me.”

“There wasn’t time, sir. What if they’d really done it? I couldn’t be sure.”

“And what if I’d not come along, Van Daan, and they’d thrown you down that well?”

“I suppose I’d be dead.

Julian sighed. “You can’t leave things alone, can you boy?”

“No, sir.”

“And you don’t know what set them off? It’s not like Galloway to argue with his seniors.”

“No, it’s got me in a puzzle as well. I’ll find out though. Or at least, I’ll get Will Cathcart to do it for me. Galloway will tell him.”

Julian could not help smiling. Cathcart had been an early victim of Welby’s bullying when he had arrived at the school. How Van Daan had managed to get the younger boy’s fagging duties switched to his own good natured senior, Julian had never found out but the two boys had been inseparable ever since. Cathcart was due to leave school very soon to take up a berth in the Royal Navy and Julian wondered if Van Daan’s sudden championship of Galloway had anything to do with him looking for a replacement. He rather hoped so. Galloway had struggled ever since his arrival and Van Daan’s bracing  cheerfulness would do him a great deal of good.

Julian sighed. “All right. I’ll leave him to you, Van Daan. Come and speak to me if it’s anything I should know about. I’ve done my best to warn off Welby, so try not to antagonise him for a few weeks, will you? He’s not here for much longer.”

“And then he’ll be off to bully his men in the cavalry, I suppose.”

“That is not going to be your problem, Van Daan.”

The boy gave him a look which informed Julian that he disagreed. Julian lifted his brows and glared back. After a long moment, Van Daan said grudgingly:

“All right, sir.”

Julian considered asking for his word and decided against it. He got up.

“I have marking to finish, you exasperating young whelp. Try and keep out of trouble until class tomorrow, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perhaps it might be best if you take a day off as well…”

“No, sir. This isn’t bad. I’ll be there. Have you marked my work?”

Julian studied him. “Not yet. Why, will I need to borrow some of Dame Lovelace’s brandy first?”

“You might, sir. I think,” Van Daan said modestly, “that I did quite a good job of it.”

Julian could not prevent a laugh. “Eat your supper and get to bed early, Van Daan. You’re going to have the worst headache tomorrow.”

“It’s already started, sir.”

“Well listen to Dame Lovelace. She’s a good woman and she adores you. She’ll know what to do. Good night.”

***

 There were two shared dormitories in Dame Lovelace’s boarding house plus three separate rooms for the senior boys. Two of them belonged to Cecil Welby and Ned Carrington, although neither appeared to have come home yet tonight. The other was occupied by Dominic Netherton, the third son of an Earl, an elegant youth rather incongruously destined for Cambridge and then the church and a family living in Hertfordshire. Paul van Daan shared nominal fagging duties for Netherton with his friend Cathcart. Netherton was a good natured and undemanding boy of eighteen whose only real requirement was money. He had discovered early on Paul’s talent for both fencing and boxing and had reaped a rich reward in organising competitions and running betting services on the outcome. In return he exercised a casual protection over the two younger boys and troubled them very little.

Paul had just finished his supper and was drinking brandy and milk under the eagle eye of Dame Lovelace when Netherton appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, casting a disapproving eye over the scene.

“I’ve just been hearing about your set-to with Welby, Van Daan.”

“Sorry, Netherton.”

“You’re a damned nuisance. He’s been complaining to me and saying you should be flogged.”

“It would be superfluous,” Paul said, indicating his battered face. Netherton studied him and sighed.

“All right. Keep out of his way until your match against Beeston on Thursday. I’ve got this month’s allowance on it: I can’t afford to lose. Are we clear?”

“Of course. I’ll be fine, it’s nothing serious.”

“Good. Is Galloway all right?”

“I think so. I’m going up to check on him now.” Paul hesitated. “Look, Netherton. I was wondering…you’re going to lose Cathcart next term, he’s off to the Navy. While you’re still here, maybe you could take over Galloway after Welby leaves? He’s a good lad and he’ll be grateful.”

Netherton glared at him. “Welby will want one of his friends to take him over.”

“You’ve no reason to worry about those two, they’re nothing without him. They won’t make a murmur.”

Netherton studied him for a while then sighed. “All right. I’ll speak to Galloway after Christmas. You’re such a pain in the backside, Van Daan.”

“I know I am. Sorry.”

“No you’re bloody not. Get up there and find out if he’s all right, poor little runt. If he’s worried, let me know and I’ll see if I can warn off Welby.”

“Thank you, Netherton. You’re a good sort.”

“I am a bloody pushover and you know it, you little bastard.”

Paul grinned and removed himself to the dormitory. There were eight beds but only five were occupied. Admissions to Eton had been low for several years, although they were currently slightly improved, possibly due to the change in Headmaster.

It was early for the boys to be in bed and Galloway was the only one tucked up in his narrow cot. On the bed next to him was the slim figure of William Cathcart, Paul’s closest friend at school. Cathcart was thirteen, almost a year younger than Paul and the eldest son of Lord Cathcart, a Scottish Peer. Cathcart had suffered at the hands of Welby and his cronies during his first term at school but had made a remarkably good recovery. He was due to leave in the summer to join the Royal Navy as a volunteer aboard HMS Melpomene with the Channel fleet and Paul knew he was going to miss him.

Paul closed the badly fitting door and joined Cathcart on his bunk. Galloway was sitting up, finishing the milk and brandy. He was very pale and looked completely exhausted. Paul studied him for a moment.

“Are you going to tell us what happened, Galloway?”

“I don’t much want to talk about it.”

“I understand that,” Cathcart said. “But we’re your friends, you know, we want to help. And it’s not like you to get into trouble with Welby. Normally you just…”

He stopped abruptly and Paul managed not to laugh. “Normally you’ve got more sense than me and just go with the tide,” he said tactfully.

“Normally I just do what he tells me to do.”

“Well, yes,” Cathcart said. “And it’s the intelligent thing to do, we all know it.” He shot a glance at Paul. “Well, most of us do. What went wrong this time?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“It can’t be that bad.” Cathcart frowned suddenly. “Or at least, I suppose it could be, but I didn’t think Welby was like that. I mean I’ve never heard…”

He broke off, studying the younger boy with concern. Galloway flushed scarlet as he appeared to catch his meaning and shook his head, setting down the cup on the wooden floor.

“No! Nothing like that.”

“Are you sure?” Paul said. He had heard vague stories of one or two of the older boys requiring more than domestic services from their fags, although as far as he knew it had not happened during his time at the school. Gossip travelled quickly at Eton and Paul thought he would have known if Cecil Welby had abused any of the younger boys in that particular way.

“No, I swear it. Just the usual stuff, running errands, cleaning his room and suchlike. He’s beastly and he’ll give his boys a box around the ear if we’re not quick enough, but nothing worse until today.”

“So what did he want from you today, Galloway? Is he after money? He spent a couple of months trying to extort what he could from me once he realised my brother sends me a guinea under the seal of every letter. Come on, spill it. We can’t help you if we don’t understand.”

“It’s a secret.”

“We won’t tell,” Cathcart promised. “I’ll give you my oath.”

Galloway was silent for a moment and Paul could see that he was torn between wanting to share and his ability to trust.

“I promise, Toby,” he said gently. “What does that bastard want?”

Galloway took a deep breath. “He wants my dog,” he said.

***

 The bitch was part-spaniel, five months old and very playful. She was housed in the stable attached to the George Inn under the care of a skinny stable-hand who was being paid to look after her.

Paul sat in a pile of straw with the puppy on his lap licking his face while Galloway told the story. He had heard about the puppies from one of the grooms in the college stables and had been longing for a dog since losing his elderly hound the previous year. Unusually wealthy due to a generous birthday gift from his uncle, he had bought her and found a temporary foster home in one of the staff cottages with a gardener.

“It’s only until Christmas. My father is coming to collect me to take me home. He’s on furlough for three months before going off to India and he wants to spend the time with me. He and my mother have already agreed to me getting another dog, so he’ll be happy to take her. I thought it was an excellent idea all round. I’ve been spending all my free time with her, training her.”

“What’s her name?” Paul asked. The puppy was lying on her back as he scratched her tummy and he was already in love. His mother had adored both dogs and horses and in the horrible weeks after her death Paul could remember going to sleep each night with her favourite spaniel curled up in his arms for comfort. The memory hurt but also made him smile.

“India. I called her that because I’d just heard about Papa’s posting. It was all going so well until Welby found out. He told me I wasn’t allowed a dog in college and that if I didn’t give her to him, he’d tell the Headmaster and she’d be taken away. When I told him to get lost, he threatened to drown her. He’d found out that old Jones was looking after her for me and I knew if he went after the poor old fellow he’d have to hand her over.”

“Where did you come up with this place?”

“My parents always put up at the George if they come up to visit for any reason. I’ve known some of the lads here for years. It’s expensive, it’s costing me every penny of my allowance, but it’s only for another few weeks. As long as I can keep her hidden from Welby, we’ll be fine. But he worked out that I’d moved her and was trying to get me to tell him where. I didn’t tell him.”

Paul was twisting some straw into a makeshift ball. He tossed it across the stall and laughed as the puppy bounded after it. “She’s gorgeous. I can’t believe you didn’t tell us about her, Galloway, you little idiot. Far easier to look after her with three of us and if you run out of money I can help.”

Galloway gave a slightly tremulous smile. “I should have told you. I can’t take your money though, Van Daan.”

“Yes, you can. I’ve nothing useful to spend it on and I’ll take puppy cuddles in payment. I miss the dogs at home. My mother used to have a spaniel who looked rather like this. India, come here. You’re supposed to fetch the ball not eat it, you’ll be sick.”

“Are you sure Welby doesn’t know about this place?” Cathcart asked.

“As sure as I can be, but I’m terrified he’ll find out.”

“We need to get rid of Welby,” Paul said, stroking the spaniel’s ears. “He’s going anyway at Christmas, if we could just find a way to get him sent down sooner you’d have nothing to worry about. I can’t believe he’s not managed to get himself expelled before now.”

Galloway snorted. “The Headmaster doesn’t see thrashing the junior boys as a problem.”

“No. What would he see as a problem?”

“Theft? Murder? Seducing the Provost’s daughter?” Cathcart said.

“I’m not sure we can set him up for any of those,” Paul said regretfully. “Not without causing serious harm to somebody else.”

“I was joking, Van Daan.”

“So was I. At least…I think I was.” Paul stopped stroking India’s silky ears. He was staring into the distance as an idea began to form in his brain. After a moment the puppy grew bored and began to nibble at his jacket. Paul took no notice. The idea was taking shape, forming into something like a plan. It was possible. It could work. It could…

Paul caught sight of the faces of his two friends. They wore identical expressions of sheer horror and he laughed aloud.

“Your faces.”

“No,” Cathcart said firmly. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it. I’ve come to know that expression. I have approximately six months left at this school and I’ve no wish to be kicked out before then because I followed you in some mad scheme to get back at Welby.”

“You’re going to love it.”

“I’m going to hate it.”

“You’re not. It’s not illegal and it won’t hurt anybody. At the very least he’ll end up looking like a complete idiot and if we’re really lucky they’ll send him down early for being out after curfew and for causing a dust-up with the townspeople. Don’t be such a boring toad, Cathcart. Don’t you trust me?”

“No.”

Paul looked at Galloway. “I don’t trust you either, Van Daan,” the younger boy said earnestly. “But…will it keep him away from India?”

“He is going to be far too busy to even think about India. Though if he does come anywhere near her, I’m going to drown the ugly bastard in the Thames, I promise you.”

Galloway gave a broad smile. “I think you would, too.”

“I definitely would. But I’m not going to need to. What’s the date?”

“The date?” Galloway looked baffled. “It’s the twenty-sixth of October.”

“Exactly,” Paul said rather smugly. “Which gives us five days to plan this.”

Cathcart gave a puzzled frown. “You’re not thinking of doing something on Mischief Night are you? The Head said only the other day that he’d expel any boy caught playing tricks on the townies this year. I don’t think even Welby would be stupid enough.”

Paul shook his head regretfully. “No, we’d never get away with it. After Grantham set fire to that barn last year and nearly burned down Selby Street they’re going to have us firmly locked up on the thirtieth. I’m thinking of All Hallows Eve.”

Both his friends stared at him blankly. Eventually, Cathcart said:

“What in God’s name is going to happen to Welby on All Hallows Eve, Van Daan? Apart from a ducking if he’s bobbing for apples, that is?”

Paul gave a broad smile. “We’re going to persuade him to go ghost hunting,” he said happily.

***

The telling of ghost stories was a time-honoured tradition at Eton and Julian rather imagined at most other boys’ schools. He remembered from his own time, both at Eton and Cambridge, cold winter evenings toasting bread by the fireside and competing to tell the most ghoulish tales.

There were currently fourteen boys in residence at Dame Lovelace’s boarding house and all but the two youngest were scattered around the boys’ parlour when Julian arrived to supervise the residents during Mischief Night. The practice of playing tricks and pranks on the neighbourhood on the evening of the thirtieth of October varied greatly around the country and Julian had never heard of it in his own county of Surrey, but he had discovered it was very well established in the town of Windsor.

Until recently the Headmaster had mostly ignored the escapades of some of the wilder elements in College. They tended to consist of racing through the darkened streets banging on doors or taking buckets of dung from the stable heap to leave on the doorsteps of unwary citizens. It was exasperating but harmless and the town boys were just as enthusiastic as the College boys.

Over the past few years however, the pranks had been escalating. Competition between the town youths and the boys from College had raised the stakes to the point where the pranks were becoming either expensive or dangerous. One year some of the Thames boatmen were furious to discover most of their barges had been sunk during the night, while a farmer on the outskirts of the town had lost two cows to drowning when every gate on his farm had been opened. There were angry local meetings where the townspeople blamed the college and the College pointed to the town.

On the previous year, the most imaginative prank and Julian’s personal favourite, was when Mr Calverley, a local solicitor who had been particularly vocal on the subject of the College boys and had even gone so far as to take his walking cane to two of the juniors he suspected of stealing eggs from his poultry yard, arose to find his hen house completely enmeshed in a cage of string. Julian had been tasked with enquiring into the matter and he had been baffled at how difficult it was to release the squawking hens until he realised that once the string was in place it had been thickly painted with glue, which had set very well during the cold night. It took the lawyer and his servant almost an hour to chip and cut the string away and when the indignant hens sallied forth, every one of them was painted a bright shade of green.

Green hens were outrageous but more or less harmless, however somebody had gone further and set fire to a partly derelict barn at the end of Selby Street. The fire had looked likely to spread and though the residents had managed to put it out, helped by a fortuitous shower of rain, two College boys had apparently been seen in the vicinity and the Headmaster declared that Mischief Night was over for the scholars of Eton College. Orders had been given and threats made, but on the night itself, the Headmaster allocated each one of the Assistant Masters to a Boarding House where they were to check if any of the students were missing and keep an eye out for anybody trying to abscond.

Julian had been ready for a sulky response from the three senior boys who were used to a good deal of freedom in their spare time. To his surprise he found Netherton, Welby and Carrington happily consuming buttered toast and hot chocolate with their juniors while the Honourable Martin Wynne-Jones told a gruesome tale about a headless horseman. Julian bowed politely to Dame Lovelace, who was settled in an armchair with some knitting, and took a chair in the corner.

There was silence as Wynne-Jones finished his story. After a moment, Paul van Daan gave an exaggerated shudder.

“That was excellent, Jonesy. It’s a good thing I can’t imagine your horseman making it up those stairs or I’d struggle to sleep tonight.”

“Your turn, Van Daan,” Netherton said lazily. “Don’t you have any grisly tales for us?”

“I’m sure there’s one my brother told me about a ghostly hunt, but I can’t for the life of me remember it,” Van Daan said regretfully. “It’s a shame because he scared the life out of me for a month afterwards, I used to lie awake listening for the phantom hunting horn. My mother was furious with him. What about you, Welby? Anything from Dorset?”

It was said casually but Julian thought he recognised an olive branch and was surprised and a little touched. He half expected Welby to reject it scornfully but the older boy could not resist the opportunity to take the stage. His story involved a ghostly sea captain and was not as well told as Wynne-Jones’ but the boys seemed to enjoy it and it rather pleased Julian to see what appeared to be a cautious truce.

He looked again at Van Daan who was sprawled on a shabby rag rug on the floor and wondered if the boy was yet aware of what a gift he had for leadership. The casual charm seemed effortless even at fourteen and Julian hoped he would find the right outlet for his undoubted talents as he grew older. He had told Julian that his father wanted him to go into the law but Julian could not imagine that restless energy confined behind a desk and certainly did not see Paul van Daan as a clergyman. The army and the navy were both traditional careers for a younger son and might well suit him better.

Several more stories were told and Julian, called upon to contribute, told them about the ghost of Anne Boleyn who was supposed to haunt the Tower of London. He could see that the younger boys were getting sleepy. Dame Lovelace had observed it too and was folding her knitting in preparation to sending them up to bed. Paul van Daan looked over at her and gave her a winning smile.

“One more, ma’am. We’ve been on a ghostly tour around Britain tonight, but we’ve had nothing local. Aren’t there any gruesome tales about the College? Or even the town? You must know, surely.”

The Dame sniffed. “I’ve better things to do than listen to ghost stories, Master van Daan. Not that my father didn’t tell me about some strange noises in the college library when he was caretaker here forty years ago, but he told me he never actually saw anything…”

“What did he hear, ma’am?”

Dame Lovelace settled herself back in her chair and Julian watched, hiding a smile. At this rate it would be midnight before the boys were in bed but he was enjoying the unusually mellow atmosphere. Dame Lovelace told a surprisingly effective story of her father.

“That gave me the chills,” Cathcart said appreciatively when she had finished. “It’s almost worse imagining what he might have seen than actually seeing the ghost. Reminds me of that story about the boathouse.”

“What story?” Van Daan asked.

“You know, the one the boatman told us when we took shelter there from the rain. At least…weren’t you there, Van Daan? Maybe it was just me and Galloway.”

“I don’t remember it,” Van Daan said, sitting up from his prone position. “Tell us immediately. And after that, I’m going to bed. It’s been a good Mischief Night and the town can sleep safely, though I’m not sure I will after this. What’s the story of the boathouse?”

“Apparently it’s haunted. Old Peterson reckons he’s seen her.”

“Seen who?” Netherton said, intrigued. The sleepy boys seemed to have woken up at the mention of the boathouse, which was regularly used by the College boys. “Tell us about it, Cathcart. That’s very close to home; I’m in and out of there all the time. I can’t believe you’ve left this to the very end.”

“And that will have to be the end,” Dame Lovelace said firmly. “You’ll all be sleeping through lessons tomorrow.”

“It was this time of year, according to Peterson,” Cathcart said. “She was quite young, the daughter of some local tradesman and she got involved with someone at the College. Peterson couldn’t say if it was a senior boy or a master…”

“This does not sound like a suitable story for young ears,” Dame Lovelace said in repressive tones.

“No, no ma’am, of course. Like I say, I don’t know the details but whatever happened it went wrong for her. I daresay he dropped her or left College or some such thing but she couldn’t get over it. People used to see her wandering along the river bank where they used to meet, crying. One day she didn’t come home at all and it was pouring with rain. Her father went out to look for her but there was no sign along the river pathway. He was beginning to worry she’d missed her footing and slipped into the river so he made his way to the boathouse to see if any of the boat men were there and had seen her. The place was in darkness but the door was unlocked, so he pushed it open and saw her there. She was hanging from the rafters, swaying gently.”

“That’s an appalling story,” Julian said, watching the faces of some of the younger boys. “And quite enough for tonight.”

“It’s not a ghost story though,” Van Daan argued. “Or is it, Cathcart?”

“According to Peterson she’s still seen along that path just as dusk is falling. People have heard her crying as well – inside the boathouse, though when they open the door there’s nothing there. Although one night – perhaps it was the anniversary, we don’t know – one of the boat men saw her in the shed: just her outline hanging there.”

“Oh that is definitely enough,” Van Daan said, getting up. “If anybody in our dorm wakes up yelling in the night, Cathcart, it’s your fault. And it might well be me. I’m off to bed. Goodnight, ma’am. Thank you for a very good Mischief Night, I think I enjoyed it more than last year. And you too, Mr Holland. You can report back that we were all present and correct and behaved ourselves very well. We’ll be staying home tomorrow as well, I swear it. After that little performance, I’d happily stake two guineas that even Netherton and Welby wouldn’t have the nerve to be wandering along the river on All Hallows Eve. Goodnight all.”

Julian watched him go, followed by his friends, their feet clattering on the bare wooden stairs. He agreed that the evening had been a success and that the boys appeared to have behaved impeccably, so he could not understand why he had the wholly irrational feeling that Paul van Daan had in fact just behaved very badly indeed.

***

Paul fell asleep quickly and was awoken by Cathcart bouncing on the end of his bed. He managed to stifle a squawk, sat up and smacked his friend across the ear.

“What was that for?” the younger boy whispered indignantly.

“For scaring the shit out of me in the middle of the night after three hours of ghost stories,” Paul hissed. “Outside before we wake up the whole house.”

Cathcart followed him onto the dark landing. It was very cold and Paul shivered.

“Make it quick, my teeth are chattering. Did he bite?”

“He bit,” Cathcart said with great satisfaction. “The bet stands at two guineas that he’ll parade along the river path alone at dusk on All Hallows Eve, then stay in the boatshed until midnight. Carrington volunteered to stand as guarantor that he goes through with it but I pointed out that he wouldn’t be alone then so the bet wouldn’t hold good. I’ve told him you’re giving a shilling to Peterson to watch from that cottage of his to make sure he doesn’t try to sneak out of there.”

“Very good idea. Am I in fact giving a shilling to Peterson?”

“Yes. Which he’ll be spending at the King’s Head, happily not looking in the direction of the boat shed.”

“Better and better. I’ll get down there directly after my Greek class to set everything up. I hope I can manage to stay awake through the deathly boredom of old Thornton droning on. He’s not caned me for months, he must be getting a bit twitchy by now. Come on, let’s get back to bed before the Dame catches us. Or before we freeze to death and start haunting the place ourselves.”

Despite his disturbed night, Paul managed to get through both Greek and Latin without incident the following day and was even faintly smug when Mr Holland praised his recent translation. He regretfully turned down an invitation to play football during the afternoon and slipped away about his own affairs, although he made sure that he was back in plenty of time for dinner and joined in with the conversation about the football match as though he had been present.

Welby was quiet during dinner and Paul wondered if he was regretting his rash acceptance of the bet. When the table was cleared, the boys collected their books for the study period and for an hour and a half the big schoolroom at the back of the house was silent, broken only by the rustling of paper, the scratching of pens and an occasional deep sigh.

Dame Lovelace rang the bell which signalled the end of formal study and the boys broke up into informal groupings. In some Houses there was still a great deal of supervision during the evening but Dame Lovelace was known to be lenient, particularly with the older boys. It was not uncommon for the seniors to slip out to meet friends from other Houses in one of the local taverns and providing they returned by eleven o’clock and did not wake the house up because they were drunk, she would turn a blind eye.

During the summer months she would also allow some of the older juniors to go down to the river to swim or to row, or to the field to play games. Tonight it was already growing dark and Paul was pleased to see that Welby had vanished, although Netherton was still there, setting out a draughts board. Paul joined him.

“Netherton, can you cover for me? I want to go up to the hall to practice for an hour, I’ve got two fights next week and I’m feeling sluggish after my skirmish with Welby. I need to get myself moving again.”

Netherton shot him a glance. “Do so,” he said firmly. “I thought Beeston had you beaten, I’ve never seen you so slow. Welby has gone off somewhere, something to do with a wager. I hope he bloody loses, whatever it is. I’ll tell the Dame I sent you on an errand. Take a lantern though, it’ll be pitch black coming over the field in the dark and I don’t want you spraining your ankle. I’ve got a huge bet on you against Wolverton and there’s a big take up on the betting book as well. I need you to win.”

Paul grinned. “I can beat Wolverton with one hand,” he said. “Thank you. I won’t be more than an hour or so.”

“She won’t check the dorms, she never does. If you’re late back I’ll tell her you’ve gone to bed and I’ll make sure the side door is unlocked. See you later.”

Paul collected a closed lantern from the kitchen and slipped out through the side door. He was halfway across the field when he heard footsteps and stopped, waiting.

“Van Daan, is that you?”

“Yes. What the bloody hell are you doing here, Cathcart? If we get caught it will be six of the best at the very least. And you should never have brought Galloway. It’s all right for me…”

“Shut up and get moving or we’ll miss the fun. I’m reliably informed by Carrington that Welby went first to the Queen’s Head for refreshment. If we cut across by Peterson’s Cottage we should get there in plenty of time. I had a look earlier and there’s a place behind those three oaks which gives an excellent view of the boathouse door.”

Paul held up the lantern and began to walk faster. “I wish I could see his face when he opens that door,” he said wistfully. “But watching him run will be a lot of fun. I was trying to think of a way of getting him into trouble for being out after hours, but it won’t wash. Firstly because we’re all out as well. But also, it will come home to Dame Lovelace and she’s a good sort. I’d hate for her to lose her post because she doesn’t sit on us all the time. Still, it will scare the life out of Welby and as long as we see him run, Peterson is happy to confirm that he did too.”

“And how much did that cost you?” Cathcart said cynically. Paul laughed.

“Whatever it cost me, it was worth it. Did you hear back from your father, Galloway?”

“Yes, I got a letter this morning. He’s coming down to collect me himself; he’s probably on the road by now. And he’s very pleased about India. I knew he would be.”

“Lucky little bastard. I wish I was going home early for Christmas,” Paul said dispassionately. “Or maybe I don’t. My father is never especially pleased to see me. I miss Joshua though, and my dogs and horses. And Carl.”

“The parson’s son?”

“Yes. We’ve been friends since…oh forever. I wish you could meet him, you’d like him. Look, it’s grown misty over the river. Gives a nice atmosphere. This way, we can cut through the trees.”

They were barely in position when Paul heard footsteps approaching along the footpath. They seemed erratic and at first Paul did not think it was Welby at all, but as a lantern similar to the one he had recently doused came into wavering view through the swirling mist, he could see the older boy’s face. Welby looked satisfyingly nervous, glancing around frequently as though expecting to see a ghostly form emerging from the mist.

The weather was a bonus for Paul’s plan, since it virtually guaranteed that nobody else would be taking a night time stroll along the river. He watched Welby approach the big wooden structure of the boathouse and wondered suddenly if he was slightly drunk.

At the door, Welby hesitated, lifting his lantern. Paul hoped that Peterson had followed instructions and left the shed unlocked. Welby looked around him again and Paul could almost see him wondering if he could get away with sneaking off after his evening walk and not spending the next few hours in the dark boathouse. Paul could have reassured him that he was not likely to be there for long.

After several minutes, Welby stepped forward and took hold of the latch. Paul could see his figure outlined against the mist. The wooden door creaked slightly as Welby opened it cautiously, adding to the atmosphere. Paul realised he was holding his breath.

Welby screamed.

It was a high-pitched sound of sheer terror and it told Paul all he wanted to know about how well his plan had worked. Welby must have bolstered his failing courage in the tavern but the drink would only have made the shock worse. There was a scrabbling and a clatter and then the light from the lantern was abruptly extinguished, presumably because Welby had dropped it.

Paul waited, listening. He could hear the older boy crashing about down at the path, sobbing in terror. Remembering how frightened Galloway had been the previous week when Paul came across him close to the old well, Paul felt a sense of savage satisfaction. He hoped that Welby remembered this the next time he bullied a terrified boy six years his junior. He also hoped that Welby sprained his ankle racing back up to Dame Lovelace’s House.

There was another scream, then a yell of terror and then an enormous splash. After that, there was only splashing, with an occasional cry. Paul listened for a moment.

“He’s gone into the river,” Galloway said.

Paul waited. The next cry was more of a gurgle. “Of course he’s gone into the river,” he said. “He’s a bloody idiot.”

The three boys remained frozen between the oak trees. The noise continued for a while. Eventually a terrified wail floated up from the darkness.

“Help! Somebody help me!”

“He can’t swim.” Cathcart said.

Paul listened for another moment and realised that his friend was right. The enormity of how badly their plan had gone wrong made him furious.

“Of course he can’t bloody swim!” he roared. “You would just know it. Of all the useless good for nothing dog turds I’ve been unfortunate enough to meet in my short life, the Honourable Cecil Welby is top of the list. His inability to swim is…oh never mind. Galloway, take my tinder box. See if you can get the lantern lit again. Come on, Cathcart, we need to get him out of there.”

He was halfway across the grass towards the river when he heard his friend’s voice. Cathcart sounded apologetic.

“I’m afraid I can’t swim either.”

Paul froze. He realised he had no time to say any of the things he wanted to say and probably did not know enough swear words to express his feelings anyway. He said the first thing that came into his head.

“Oh for God’s sake! You’re about to join the bloody Navy!”

The river was high because of recent rain and freezing cold. Paul stripped off coat and boots and waded in, following the faint sounds of Welby’s voice. It sounded as though the older boy had managed to keep himself afloat but was clearly struggling. Paul struck out strongly in the direction of the sounds and reached Welby just as he went under again.

For several long minutes he struggled with the older boy in the water. Welby was beyond terror and in his panic he fought rescue. He was bigger and stronger than Paul and for a while it felt as though the only course would be to let him go under. Paul hung on grimly, trying to dodge his flailing arms. Eventually sheer exhaustion slowed down Welby’s frantic struggles and he allowed Paul to grasp him around his chest and tow him to the river bank.

Cathcart and Galloway were there with the lantern lit and Paul staggered out and sat down suddenly on the bank. Only now, with Welby safe and vomiting river water onto the grass, did he realise how exhausted he was. He lay back, letting his friends fuss around him and wondered how close he had come to dying in the cold waters of the Thames.

***

It was drizzling steadily over the courtyards and college buildings. Julian had deliberately found reasons to be present as the Headmaster and Mr Thornton presided over the inquiry into the events of All Hallows Eve. As the informal Housemaster of Whitchurch House he felt justified in pushing his way into the process.

Welby had recovered from his near drowning but was curiously subdued through the questioning. He told the story of the bet and his subsequent terror but seemed too embarrassed to dwell on how badly he had been frightened by a white muslin gown hung by ropes from the beams of the boat house. It had been decided, given his unauthorised absence from his Boarding House and the evidence that he had been drinking that evening, that he would leave College immediately and spend the remaining months before he took up his commission at home.

Paul van Daan was alarmingly composed as he related the story of his practical joke on Welby and how he had managed it without assistance. Julian was deeply appreciative of how well he was able to explain every aspect of the plan, even to the fact that he had been given the idea by Cathcart’s innocent retelling of a local ghost story. Julian knew it could not possibly work, since both Galloway and Cathcart had been caught out of their rooms after hours, but he approved of Van Daan’s efforts to excuse his friends.

The Headmaster was quietly furious. Mr Thornton, Julian thought, was slightly triumphant. Sentence was passed for the following morning before the entire school. Julian thought the matter was finished, but it seemed that Van Daan had more to say. As the Headmaster gathered his gown about him, the boy said clearly:

“Headmaster, I’m sorry. You’re right, I deserve the caning. But not these two. Cathcart came out to find out what I was doing and Galloway followed him. Neither of them knew. This isn’t fair.”

The Headmaster paused. “They were both outside beyond curfew, boy. That in itself…”

“Maybe. Two or three strokes. But not ten, that’s too much. This was my fault. I was angry with Welby and I planned the whole thing. They’d nothing to do with it.”

The Headmaster hesitated and Julian held his breath. He wondered if Van Daan might have reached him. Before he could speak however, Thornton cleared his throat loudly.

“Utter nonsense. Cathcart made up the story which led to this whole thing, there was a room full of witnesses. As for the Galloway boy, he is guilty of keeping a dog without permission, Headmaster. I have instructed my senior boys to make enquiries about where the animal is being kept and to arrange for it to be destroyed.”

Van Daan swung around and the expression on his face unexpectedly broke Julian’s heart. He rose and stepped forward.

“I was present on Mischief Night when the boys told their ghost stories, Headmaster, and for what it is worth, I think Van Daan may be telling the truth about the fact that they knew nothing of his plan. Cathcart heard the story from some local boatman and I think that gave Van Daan the idea. With regard to the dog…”

“It is utterly forbidden to keep an animal on school premises,” Thornton said sternly.

“The dog is not being kept on school premises, Headmaster, and I have made my own enquiries,” Julian said easily. “It appears that the animal actually belongs to Colonel Sir Edward Galloway who will be arriving within a day or two to collect it, along with his son. I would not personally wish to explain to him when he arrives that you have beaten his son and had his dog destroyed. It is, of course, up to you.”

There was a long, difficult silence. Eventually the Headmaster said:

“I have no interest in the Colonel’s dog of course. However, his son has clearly broken school rules and endangered another student. The punishment will stand.”

The procedure for corporal punishment at Eton was agonising to watch. Julian had only once been flogged during his time at school and had mostly managed to forget about it. He loathed being reminded.

The boys were led up one by one and bent over a wooden barrel. The cane was applied to their bared backside and the swish and the smack made Julian flinch. He knew how much it hurt and he also knew how humiliating it was.

Both Galloway and Cathcart were crying by the end of their flogging. Van Daan did not. It was not the first time he had endured the process and he remained silent, with no sign of tears in those surprising blue eyes. Dame Lovelace stood outside the hall in the courtyard ready to lead them back to their dormitory and, Julian suspected, ready to give them sympathy and treats after their ordeal.

Mr Thornton stood waiting in the courtyard. As Julian shepherded the boys past him, he cleared his throat. Julian paused and turned to look at him. Thornton’s pale blue eyes were on Van Daan’s white face.

“You think you have got away with this,” he said. His eyes shifted to Galloway who was quietly crying. “I know where that filthy dog is being kept and I have spoken to my senior boys. Long before your father can arrive, Galloway, it will be drowned in the Thames as you richly deserve.”

Galloway gave a cry of distress and Julian stepped forward to put his arm about the child. “It won’t,” he said firmly. “I’ll take it in charge myself and…”

He got no further. Paul van Daan stepped forward, his eyes on the Greek master. Before Julian could either move or speak he was reaching for Thornton. Julian watched in horror as he bundled the master forward towards the fountain, easily fending off the older man’s thrashing arms. Van Daan lifted him up and hurled him bodily into the slimy stagnant water which was full of soggy autumn leaves. There was a huge splash and a yell and then nothing apart from the sloshing sound of an enraged Greek master in a gown struggling out of a seventeenth century fountain.

***

Paul was confined to his dormitory while awaiting the arrival of a carriage to take him home. He was not surprised that he had been expelled and he realised, during the long boring hours of his imprisonment, that he was not particularly upset. Whatever his father decided to do with him next, he was thoroughly tired of Eton.

He would miss his friends. Galloway came to visit him before he left, his arms full of exuberant puppy. Paul spent their hour together playing with India and was pleased when Galloway informed him that he would not be returning to Eton. Sir Edward Galloway had held a brief conversation with both the Headmaster and Mr Thornton and Paul thought that his friend would be much happier studying under a tutor at home. He watched Galloway leave with India in his arms and decided that whatever happened next, he had done the right thing.

Cathcart had decided to stay until the summer when he was to take up his post in the Navy. He sat cross legged on Paul’s bed and surveyed his friend serenely.

“You were an idiot, Van Daan. You’d have got away with it if not for Thornton.”

“I know. It was worth it though.”

“Did you know they’d kick you out?”

“Oh yes.”

“Did you want them to?”

Paul thought about it. “I didn’t do it deliberately,” he said. “I mean I’d have been all right staying. Certainly until you left in the summer.”

“So why in God’s name…”

“Because he deserved it,” Paul said. He had had time to think about it. “I understand why they flogged us. I was angry they flogged both of you, especially Galloway. But all right. I could have lived with that. But when that bastard Thornton threatened Galloway’s dog…”

“Paul, he was never going to get to her. Mr Holland was halfway through a sentence, explaining that he’d got that under control. I doubt the old fool even knew where she was. He was just being spiteful, trying to upset Galloway.”

“I know he was,” Paul said. “That’s why I threw him into the fountain.”

 Cathcart was laughing. “You’re hopeless,” he said. “What in God’s name is your father going to say to this?”

“I’ve no idea but it won’t be anything good. Look don’t worry about it. You’ll join the navy and rise up the ranks and be a hero. Write to me and tell me how you’re getting on. I’ll let you know where I am and what I’m doing.”

“Make sure you do, Van Daan. I’m never going to forget what you did for me those first weeks when I was here.”

“You’d have done fine without me, Cathcart. You’re all right. Just do me a favour. This summer, before you board that ship…”

“What?”

“Fucking learn to swim,” Paul said with feeling. “You’re going to sea. It’s going to be useful.”

They laughed together and Paul felt both a sense of camaraderie and a sense of loss that he and Cathcart were about to go their separate ways. After a moment, Cathcart said:

“I’m sorry you got kicked out but I’m not sorry we did it. It was a bloody good laugh.”

“It really was. Poor Welby, we pulled him in very thoroughly. That story you told was brilliant, Cathcart, I don’t know how you came up with it.”

“Oh, I didn’t make that up,” Cathcart said cheerfully. “I mean I might have embroidered it a bit, but that was true.”

“What do you mean, it was true?”

“Peterson really did tell me that story about the girl and what happened to her, though obviously I don’t know if he made it up.”

“I didn’t realise that. I thought you had hidden literary talent. Did you speak to Welby before he left? I didn’t get a chance, they’ve got me locked up.”

“Yes, He’s all right. A bit embarrassed about being duped. I think he must have been really drunk that night.”

“I did wonder,” Paul said.

“He saw the gown we hung up the minute he opened that door. Scared the life out of him.”

“It would.”

“But he kept saying that he couldn’t understand how we faked the crying. When he was walking along the river bank he said he could hear a woman crying all the way.”

“I’d blame that on an over-active imagination and the brandy,” Paul said.

“He must have been thoroughly foxed then, because he also said he couldn’t work out how we managed the girl’s face. He went on and on about how terrible it was, with bulging eyes and a horrible colour. He claims he’d never have been convinced if it hadn’t been for that awful face hanging there.”

Paul thought about that for a moment. “He must really have drunk a lot of brandy,” he said finally. “He should cut back.”

“That’s what I thought. Good luck, Van Daan.”

“You too, Cathcart. Keep in touch.

***

Julian went to visit Van Daan on the day before his departure for London. His father had sent a brief letter regarding outstanding fees and travel arrangements but the boy was to travel alone in the post chaise. If he had written separately to his son Julian knew nothing of it. He found the boy with his trunk half packed reading a letter.

“It’s from Galloway, sir. He’s safely home and the dog is doing nicely.”

Julian smiled. “I’m glad to hear it, Van Daan, because from your point of view that dog was very expensive.”

“Not at all, sir. My father is about to save a fortune in school fees.”

Julian gave the joke the perfunctory smile that it deserved. “Are you  all right boy?”

“Yes, sir, I’ll be fine.”

“Your father must be furious.”

“My father is always furious with me, sir. I’m used to it. Look, I won’t be here but Cathcart will. Now that Welby has gone I doubt anybody will go after him. But I’d feel better knowing you were keeping an eye out for him.”

“I give you my word,” Julian said. He was rather impressed with the boy’s loyalty to his friends. “I’m sorry Van Daan. You were an idiot but you deserved better than this.”

The boy smiled reservedly. “I think I got what I deserved, sir. What I did wasn’t that bad, but I made rather a mess of it.”

Julian studied him and decided to tell the truth. “Yes, you did,” he admitted. “Not because you got caught or because your scheme failed. Welby got what he deserved, after all.”

Van Daan said nothing. After a moment, Julian said:

“Good. I’m glad you didn’t agree with me. Because he nearly drowned because you needed to show how clever you were. He was an idiot but he didn’t deserve that.”

“Yes he did. You’re forgetting – sir – that I came across him threatening to throw a frightened twelve year old down a well. I’m glad I got him out of the river that night, because I’d have hated to have his death on my conscience. But if I regret anything, it’s not scaring the shit out of Cecil Welby, it’s that two of my friends got beaten because they stepped up to help me against their better judgement. And that was my fault.”

Julian had come with the intention of saying something of the kind but it was clear that the boy was ahead of him. He had not realised before that Van Daan had an over-developed sense of responsibility but it might possibly explain that final act of madness. Julian sighed and shook his head.

“I understand everything else,” he said. “But why in God’s name did you throw Mr Thornton into that fountain?”

Paul van Daan was looking down at his linked hands but he looked up at that, meeting Julian’s gaze without hesitation.

“That? Oh, that wasn’t really part of the plan, sir. I’m afraid I just lost  my temper. I do that sometimes.”

Julian studied him and realised he was telling the simple truth. He could think of nothing else useful to say so he held out his hand and Van Daan shook it.

“Goodbye, Van Daan. There’s a little speech I make when my pupils leave and I always tell them I’ll be watching their future careers with great interest. I can honestly say that in your case, that will be true. I can’t imagine what you’ll do next, but I’m sure I’ll hear about it. Good luck.”

If you’ve enjoyed this story and haven’t tried the books, you can read about the beginning of Paul’s army career in An Unconventional Officer.

The Recruit

The Three Bullet Gate at New Ross

Welcome to the Recruit, my St Patrick’s Day short story. As always, it’s free, so please share as much as you like. It’s the first time I’ve done a story for St Patrick’s Day, so I hope you enjoy it.

The Recruit is something of a departure from my usual haunts, on the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula or the decks of a man o’war. I first got the idea of writing about the 1798 rebellion in Ireland when I was asked for further information about one of my characters by someone who was writing an article about my books. He asked a lot of very interesting questions, which sent me back to my research, and I ended up with a very rough idea for a future book, set during the rebellion.

The Recruit makes no attempt to tell the full story of 1798, it’s just a snapshot of one part of the campaign, and the effect it had on one idealistic young Irishman. It can be enjoyed as a standalone story, but it also provides a brief glimpse of one or two characters from the Peninsular War Saga in their younger days. The recruiting poster I have used is very closely based on a real one from the period. 

The character of Ciaran Donnelly is fictional, but his companions in arms are not. Matthew Furlong, Bagenal Harvey and Thomas Cloney all existed, and their actions as described in this story are as real as I could make them. I’ve every intention of turning this short story into a full book. Now that I’ve done so much reading about it, the story is too good not to tell, and I predict a visit to Ireland in the very near future.

There are numerous books about the rebellion, but for this short story I have relied heavily on the entertaining The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. I also found an excellent website covering Ireland’s military history which gave a lot of detail about the battle itself. The website is called Never Felt Better and has a series of posts called Ireland’s Wars. I really recommend it. Last but by no means least, I was able to read the account of the uprising written by Thomas Cloney himself, which was completely fascinating. Cloney makes an excellent partner-in-crime for my fictional character and I’m looking forward to getting to know them both better when I write the book.

The Recruit

 

Ten Guineas Bounty

And a Crown to drink His Majesty’s Health

Wanted, to complete the Companies of His Majesty’s

One Hundred- and Tenth-Line Infantry

Commanded by Colonel Charles Dixon

A few high-spirited, handsome Young Men who wish to enter into high pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages to be found in serving His Majesty, should make themselves known to Lieutenant Longford or Lieutenant Wheeler at the Castle and Falcon on Watergate Row North, in Chester

Where they will meet with every attention and encouragement a soldier can require

N.B. The bringer of a good handsome recruit shall be liberally rewarded.

God Save the King

 

 

Ireland, June 1798

It was barely mid-morning, but the sun was already hot and a shimmering haze lay over the rebel camp at Carrigburn. The men took their ease, recovering from the fighting and marching of the past week. In many cases they were also nursing hangovers from wine, ale and cider either looted or freely given by enthusiastic supporters.

Ciaran Donnelly had not been drunk on the previous evening, although after a restless night under the stars he wished he had. He was finding sleep difficult, and not just because he was not accustomed to resting on the hard ground with nothing but his cloak to cover him. When it was dark and the camp settled to sleep around him, Ciaran found himself wakeful with the events of the day, and the week, and the month, running riot through his exhausted brain. During the day the need for action stilled his racing mind, but when he was quiet, the memories flooded back, robbing him of much needed rest. Around him, his fellow rebels slept peacefully. Ciaran envied them and wondered what was wrong with him.

He had no duties that morning. On the previous day, the new commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in Wexford had arrived in camp and was presumably taking time to get to know his officers and plan his next move. Ciaran did not know Bagenal Harvey personally, although he knew him by reputation. Harvey had been imprisoned in Wexford Gaol before the armed rebellion by the United Irishmen had even begun and had only been released when the rebels triumphantly took Wexford Town. Ciaran, listening to the men around him, heard that Harvey was a barrister, educated, like Ciaran, at Trinity College. He had a good reputation as an honest, compassionate man, but had no military experience. Ciaran wondered how far honesty and compassion could take a man in this bloody conflict.

“Donnelly, are you sleeping or dead over there?”

Ciaran sat up, looking around him, and located the speaker mounted on a bay mare. He was a stocky, square-featured man in his early twenties, his appearance unremarkable apart from his eyes which were long-lashed and luminous blue. He was grinning.

“Get your horse. There’s been an attack over at Old Ross, a troop of yeoman cavalry. One man dead, the other just rode into camp to bring the news. I’m away to speak to General Harvey about it. Come with me, you should meet him.”

Ciaran got up and made his way between the lounging men to where his horse was tied up along with several others. Denis was a black gelding, a gift from Ciaran’s parents when he had left home, eighteen months earlier, to study at Trinity in Dublin. Taking the horse with him had been a ridiculous thing to do, given the cost of stabling in the city and Ciaran often thought he had spent more on feeding the horse than on feeding himself, but he had never regretted it.

It had been the name of the horse which had brought him to the attention of Colonel Thomas Cloney. When Ciaran first joined the Wexford insurgents, Cloney had heard him speaking to his horse and hooted with laughter.

“Denis? Is that what you call him? Jesus, I was looking round for my old man there, it’s his name as well.” Cloney had come forward, running an experienced hand down the horse’s smooth coat. “Not that my father is as good-looking as this beauty. Is he yours? How old? Does he ride as well as he looks?”

Cloney’s shared passion for horses had proved a blessing for Ciaran, who knew nobody in camp. He had ridden from Dublin in the wake of a flurry of arrests, as the government at Dublin Castle decided it was time to deal with the rebellion in their midst. Informed of the names of the chief members of the United Irishmen in the capital, they had swept down in a series of raids, beginning with most of the leaders who were gathering for a meeting at the house of Oliver Bond. From there, they moved through the city, collecting lesser individuals who were significant enough to make it onto the lists compiled by government informers.

Ciaran knew he was going to be on one of those lists. Raised a good Catholic, the son of a respectable schoolmaster, he had set his faith to one side at the suggestion of his patron, a Protestant landowner who had offered him a scholarship to study at Trinity. Ciaran had been dazzled by the prospect and tried to ignore his parents’ sadness at his choice. He had reasoned that religion was something to be considered when he was older and that if he could obtain a degree and good connections in Dublin, he would be in a far better position to help his family and his people, than if he took some low-paid position in Sligo.

Ciaran had not realised how much the necessary compromise would rankle. It made him an ideal recruit for a political movement which sought to free Catholics from the necessity of leaving their religion behind in order to make their way in the world. It also sought to set aside the differences between the two religions, numbering both eminent Protestants and Catholics among its leaders. Ciaran was easily drawn in and quickly found himself much in demand as a courier to take messages beyond Dublin. He spent weekends in muddy fields outside the city, drilling and training with muskets and pikes under the tuition of disaffected militia officers, and found to his surprise that he was very good at it. Weapons were in short supply, and so were qualified officers. Ciaran was quickly promoted to lead a company of men and enjoyed both the responsibility and the distant dream of overthrowing the restrictions of English rule and living under an Irish republic, even if that must be achieved with the help of a French invasion.

The movement in Dublin came crashing down with the first arrests in March, and Ciaran knew his time was running out fast. Several of his fellow students, known for their sympathy with the movement, slipped away quietly and went back to their families, hoping they would be seen as too insignificant to pursue. Ciaran had no such hopes. There would be letters and documents with his name on and, at some point, the authorities would get round to him. He had no intention of waiting for the knock on the door and even less intention leading the authorities back to his family home in Sligo. His parents and his younger sister had no inkling of his involvement with the rebellion and Ciaran intended it to stay that way.

He left Dublin under cover of darkness, and rode through a land under martial law, where districts refusing to give up their arms were given over to the reprisals of the troops. Ciaran knew that the severity of these reprisals would depend very much on the temper of the officer in charge of the district. Men like Sir Charles Asgill in Queen’s County and Sir John Moore in the south, were able to restrain their troops from the worst excesses. Others would not try.

Ciaran found shelter with a rebel family in North Wexford and held his patience as best he could, hearing news of murder and torture and the burning of houses and farms on both sides. The arrests of Harvey and the other Wexford leaders and the massacre of captured rebels in the neighbouring county finally pushed the people of Wexford into open rebellion. Ciaran joined the swelling ranks of the rebel army as it swept through the north of the county, attacking military and loyalist targets to steal arms. They lost ground at Ballyminaun Hill but gained victories at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy, and finally Wexford Town. Ciaran was slightly shocked at their success, and he had the sense that he was not the only one.

Mounting up, Ciaran walked his horse over to join Cloney. “What happened with the yeomanry?” he asked, falling in beside the older man.

“Murdering bastards. I’m not sure if they were trying to reconnoitre our camp or if they’re just on a looting spree, but they came across two unarmed locals on the road. They killed the man with the slower horse, the other rode straight here to warn us. Here, it’s up this way.”

“I didn’t see you yesterday.”

“No, I was away to see my father and my sisters. It’s not far, and I thought I should see them, in case…”

Cloney broke off and Ciaran felt rush of guilt and misery at the thought of his own family. “I wish I could do the same.”

“I’m sorry, Donnelly. Have you heard at all?”

“No, and I don’t want to. As far as I know, it’s peaceful there. They’ve a good relationship with their landlord, he’ll take care of them if he can. As long as I’m a long way off, they should be safe.”

Cloney did not answer, and they rode in silence for a few minutes. A farmhouse came into view, with two men apparently doing sentry duty outside. Cloney dismounted, motioning for Ciaran to join him. There was an iron ring set into the side of the house and they looped the reins around it then entered the house.

Bagenal Harvey was seated at the head of a long table in the farmhouse kitchen. The room was crowded with men, most of whom Ciaran recognised from his weeks with the rebel army. Several of them nodded to him. At a big fireplace on the outside wall, a woman, possibly the farmer’s wife, was stirring something savoury in a pot over the fire. The room was far too hot.

Harvey was a pleasantly spoken man in his thirties with a worried expression. Cloney had confided that he was not convinced that Harvey had really wanted this command, but he had accepted it when offered and seemed to be doing his best to bring the wilder elements under control and to extend at least some protection to local loyalist families who lived in terror of rebel reprisals. He listened to Cloney’s story without interruption, then looked around the room at his officers.

“I think we’re in agreement that we must take action, gentlemen.”

“Of course, sir. It’s shocking.”

There was a murmur of indignant assent. Ciaran, with only an observer’s part to play, thought there was also a sense of discomfort. As he thought it, Ciaran saw Cloney look over at him. To his surprise, Cloney gave an unmistakeable wink.

“Who will you send, sir?” Cloney asked.

“We will need a strong party of horse. They can intercept these scoundrels on their way back. Captain Keogh, will you take command? Or perhaps you, Mr Donoghue? You both have experience of…”

“I’d rather not, sir,” Donoghue said quickly. “We’ve no information as to the numbers of these yeomanry and our horsemen are not yet reliably trained. It’s one thing to command as part of an army, but to go out alone without proper intelligence…”

“Well, I’m not going,” Keogh said decidedly. “I’d not trust that rebel rabble not to take off and plunder the neighbourhood. Best keep them here, and busy with the drink while we finish reorganising, and decide…”

“It’s going to be difficult to reorganise any of them if they’re half-sprung all the time,” Cloney said, echoing Ciaran’s thought. “General Harvey, if you’ll trust me…”

“I was just going to suggest it,” Harvey said, apparently completely ignoring the outrageous disregard for military discipline displayed by two of his officers. “Select fifty of the best horsemen, Colonel Cloney. And perhaps another officer.”

“With your leave, General, I’d like to take my good friend Mr Donnelly. May I introduce him? He’s from Sligo but was a student in Dublin and had to make himself scarce when the arrests began. He fought beside me on the advance to Wexford and is an excellent horseman and a brave man in a fight.”

Harvey gave his sweet, slightly abstracted smile. “I am happy to meet you, Mr Donnelly, and thankful for your courage and dedication. I hope you will continue to act as Colonel Cloney’s lieutenant.”

“Have I been promoted?” Ciaran enquired of his friend, as they left the farmhouse.

“I’m thinking you might have, if you want the job. I’ve become used to a reliable man beside me, but it’s good to make it official. Come on, I want to catch these bastards before they get back to Ross.”

It proved an exhilarating, but ultimately pointless, expedition. They rode fast, intent on their prey, but the yeomanry, returning with whatever plunder they had acquired, could easily see the fifty horsemen descending from Carrigburn Hill. Cloney spotted them at the same time and stood up in his saddle with a triumphant yell, which Ciaran suspected did not feature in any army training manual. He touched his heels to Denis’ flanks and set him to a gallop, pulling up beside Cloney who was careering down the hill like a madman. Behind them, Ciaran could hear the thundering of fifty sets of hooves, the jangling of harness and the occasional whoop of excitement as the rebels began to pull closer to their quarry.

The yeomanry galloped ahead, racing over the crossroads of Old Ross towards the town of New Ross, and sanctuary. Ciaran found himself caught up in the thrill of the chase, but as the town walls came into view, common sense reasserted itself. He had never been to New Ross and did not know anything about the strength of its defences, but he could see several towers joined by an imposing wall. He glanced over towards Cloney, who had pulled a little ahead of him. Cloney’s eyes were fixed on the retreating cavalry and his expression told Ciaran that he had no intention of pulling back. Ciaran looked at the walls and found himself mentally placing musket men along the ramparts. There was room for a good few. He had no idea if they had artillery. He took a deep breath and yelled.

“Colonel Cloney, we need to pull back. We can’t get within musket range of the town.”

Cloney did not pull up or look around. Ciaran could not decide if the man had not heard him or was ignoring him. They were getting closer, and the yeomanry had almost reached one of the town gates. Ciaran glanced behind him. Not one of the horsemen appeared to have realised that they were charging into potential disaster and Ciaran felt suddenly cold with fear. He had only moments to make his decision.

Ciaran tightened his hands on the reins and Denis pulled up immediately, without rearing up. Two of the following horsemen had to veer sharply to one side to avoid crashing into him. Ciaran stood up in the saddle, snatched off his hat and waved it in huge circles in the air, yelling like a madman.

“Halt! Pull back. Cavalry halt and turn about!”

He thought for a long agonising minute that nobody was hearing him, then he realised that the men behind him were slowing and stopping, dragging back their sweating horses into a rough line. Those few who had passed him continued their headlong rush towards the town, and Ciaran said something vulgar, took a deep breath and yelled again.

“Thomas! For the love of Christ, get yourself back here!”

Cloney looked around, realising for the first time that most of his men had pulled up. He looked over his shoulder then bellowed an order, turned his horse in a wide arc, and began to gallop back towards Ciaran. The rest of his men followed, thundering out of range of the town walls. As they drew closer to Ciaran, a musket crashed from the defenders, the shot falling harmlessly short. Cloney pulled up in front of Ciaran, the blue eyes steady on his. Ciaran took a deep breath and waited.

“Mother of God, Donnelly, I’m glad I’d the wit to bring you with me. I got bit carried away there, don’t you think?”

Ciaran let out his breath. “I think so, sir,” he said.

Cloney studied him for a long moment. “We’re both fairly new at this,” he said in conversational tones. “Myself, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re going to be better at it than I am. Come on, let’s get them back. General Harvey is holding a meeting to discuss our next move and I’m hoping to be there.”

***

Ciaran had a hangover on the morning of the attack on New Ross. Given that Harvey planned a dawn start, it had probably been unwise to stay up so late eating and drinking, but the food was good, the wine plentiful and Ciaran was flattered to be included in the feasting as Cloney’s lieutenant. Eighteen months as a student in Dublin had given him a good head for drinking, but as he attempted to rouse his men in the pre-dawn darkness and get them into some kind of order, Ciaran had a thumping headache and a dry mouth. He had a useful water bottle on a strap which he had looted from the army stores at Enniscorthy, and he drank it dry and refilled it several times over before the army was ready to march.

Ciaran wondered if the garrison lined up to defend New Ross had been able to hear the laughter and the music, and to smell the roasted meat from the camp on Carrigburn Hill. If they had, would they have been intimidated by the sheer numbers they must face the following day? Or would they be contemptuous of an army so ill-disciplined that it spent the night before battle in an orgy of feasting, drinking and dancing? Ciaran had a suspicion it might be the latter.

He spent much of the evening with a young gentleman farmer by the name of Matthew Furlong, who acted as one of General Harvey’s aides. Ciaran had not met Furlong properly before and found the man very likeable. Furlong was from much the same background as Ciaran and they talked of crops and horses, alongside philosophy and the revolution in France. They also spoke, more candidly than Ciaran had managed with anybody else, about their experience so far of war.

“I’d never fought before this. I’d certainly never killed. Never really thought I would. All those meetings in Dublin, where they spoke of rising up and crushing the government troops, and I was thumping the table with the best of them. It’s different somehow when you’re at the safer end of a pike or a musket and the man you’ve just killed looks no older than you are.”

Furlong gave a little smile. “How old are you, Donnelly?”

“Nineteen. Almost twenty. You?”

“Twenty-three. It’s the same for most of us. We weren’t soldiers before this. Some had joined the militia or the yeomanry, but the rest are just farmers or farriers or over-educated students of classics…”

Ciaran aimed a mock punch at him, and Furlong ducked, laughing. “Sorry. I’m not laughing at what you feel, Donnelly. It’s good that you feel it. I do myself. It’s men like us – and like Cloney and Harvey – who can make something out of this mess if we win. The rest of them would just slaughter the Protestants – or the Catholics – and get drunk to celebrate.”

“That’s something else I’m struggling with,” Ciaran admitted. “The reprisals. Christ aid me, I know what they’ve done to our people over the years. But I watched them shoot twenty unarmed loyalist prisoners last month, with the bodies thrown into the river. It sickened me.”

“And the unarmed United Irishmen they slaughtered at Dunlavin Green and Carnew?”

“That sickened me too.”

“It sickens me as well,” Furlong said. “There are some of us that will have none of it, Donnelly.”

“Are there enough of us to stop these men going mad if they get into New Ross tomorrow morning? It’s well known what they did in Wexford.”

“I hope so, lad. Though from what I’ve been told, you’d be hard put to know if it’s Protestants or Catholics you’re more worried about.”

“I’m Catholic,” Ciaran said. He realised it was a long time since he had said the words. “And if they’re saying I’m a man who abandoned his religion for gain, and the chance of a scholarship to Trinity, they’d be right. Though it wasn’t just for that.”

There was a long silence, then Furlong said:

“What’s her name?”

Ciaran looked up sharply, but he could see only sympathy in the other man’s eyes. “Her name is Sinead, and it’s over. It should never have begun. Stupid to think I could turn myself into something I’m not. Her parents would never have agreed, no matter how well I did and what I made of myself.”

“That’s hard. Is she back in Sligo?”

“It’s where her home is, but the last I saw her she was in Dublin, staying with her uncle’s family while they look for a good Protestant gentleman for her to marry. I went to see her before I left. She hates me.”

“She probably doesn’t, Donnelly.”

“Oh, I think she does. Her father was my patron. He’d no son of his own, and he’s known me since childhood. He offered to pay for my education and help me find a position afterwards. He’s a generous man. A good man.”

“But your religion was the price?”

“He didn’t insist on it, but it made no sense to go unless I started attending Anglican services. They’ll let us study there now, but we can’t be elected Scholars or Fellows or be made a professor. More to the point, most of the positions I could apply for afterwards are open only to Anglicans. I was ambitious. And I thought if I did what he clearly wanted, if I pleased him enough, he might consider a marriage with Sinead in a few years. She wanted it too, we talked it through many times. She said she’d wait for me, refuse any other offers. She argued that one church was much the same as another and that God didn’t care. But it turned out that I cared. I hated myself for it. I disappointed my parents by turning away from the church in search of personal gain and now I’ve betrayed my patron in turning my coat again. I’m ashamed of it.”

“No wonder you were ripe for rebellion, boy. Here, have another drink. General Harvey is coming this way.”

Harvey appeared to be completely sober. “Furlong, Donnelly. I’m looking for a volunteer for the morning. I’ve written a note to General Johnson asking for an early surrender to avoid the town being sacked.”

“Do you think he’ll listen, sir?” Furlong asked, in surprise.

“I have no idea, Matthew. But I feel that I should try. I need a reliable man to ride in under a flag of truce tomorrow, before we attack.”

“I’ll do it,” Ciaran said quickly, then realised Furlong had spoken at the same time. He looked at the other man and Furlong laughed.

“It’ll only take one of us. Do you have a coin on you? I’ll toss you for it.”

***

As the first pale light of dawn showed over the waiting walls of New Ross, Ciaran heard a rustle of sound behind him, and then a hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Good morning to you, Donnelly. How’s your head?”

Ciaran grinned. “Sore. How’s yours, Furlong?”

“Hammering like the gods of thunder. No hard feelings, I hope?”

“None at all,” Ciaran said cheerfully. “Last night, with the drink in me, it felt like a good idea to be riding out under a flag of truce to ask General Johnson to surrender. This morning, I have to tell you, it feels an awful lot safer to be hiding here amongst my men.”

Matthew Furlong chuckled. “I can’t tell if you’re speaking the truth or just a gracious loser, Donnelly, but whichever it is, you’re a good lad. Keep an eye on Cloney in the battle today, will you? He told me about the charge on the town yesterday, and how well you kept your head. We need a few men of sense among us today.”

Ciaran watched him ride downhill towards the gates of New Ross. The flag was made from a white handkerchief tied to a sturdy stick, and it was reassuringly visible in the rapidly improving light. At the same time, Ciaran wished his new friend had not chosen to approach the town at a gallop. The past few weeks trying to train and lead inexperienced men had taught Ciaran the value of allowing them time to react, and he supposed it was true for regular units as well. In Furlong’s place, Ciaran would have walked his horse forward, giving the men of the garrison a chance to see him properly and plenty of time to wait for orders.

It was still only half light as Furlong approached the gate. Ciaran could see the white flag very clearly and there was no possibility that the guards on the gate could miss it. He found that he was holding his breath, waiting for the sound of a shouted challenge which would cause Furlong to slow down or stop, but none came, or if it did Ciaran did not hear it. What he heard, shockingly loud, was gunfire, not just one shot but the thundering of half a dozen muskets.

The horse reared up in terror and Furlong’s body hit the ground. Ciaran was surprised that the horse was not injured too, but if it was it was not serious, because the animal wheeled around and came galloping back up Corbet’s Hill to the rebel lines, where half a dozen men ran forward to catch it. Ciaran did not move. His eyes were on Furlong’s body, as two redcoats ran out from their post by the gate, bending over him. After a moment they straightened and walked away, back to their line. From here, Ciaran could not see the blood on Furlong’s dark coat, but he knew it must be there. It had been minutes only since Furlong had put his hand on Ciaran’s shoulder, and Ciaran could almost still feel it there, warm and steady with the promise of future friendship. He wanted very badly to be sick.

“The murdering bastards,” Cloney breathed beside him. “Under a flag of truce. Poor Matthew.”

“That could have been me,” Ciaran said. He could hear the tremor in his voice. “I volunteered. We threw a coin for it, and he won. On the toss of a coin, I could be lying there dead.”

Around him, he was suddenly aware of a rising sound, and he looked about him. The shocked silence which had followed Furlong’s brutal death was rapidly turning into a clamour of angry voices. Ciaran glanced at Cloney.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“We fight, laddie. They’re not bloody surrendering, are they? But I’m not sure the General’s plan is going to count for much now. This lot are going in whether we like it or not. We can choose to go with them or stay behind.”

Ciaran knew he was right. Already the men were moving forward, the angry clamour rising to a roar of fury and no order was going to pull them back. Ciaran took a deep breath and tightened his grip on his looted musket, instinctively checking that the bayonet was properly fixed.

“Best lead from the front then, sir,” he said, hoping that his voice was steady. Cloney gave a small, tight smile and clapped him on the shoulder, very much as Furlong had recently done.

“Good lad. Let’s get moving.”

***

Superficially New Ross seemed well defended, with high walls, nine towers and several strong gates, but local intelligence pointed to weaknesses. Some of the fortifications had been taken apart during the previous century and the walls were old and not built to withstand modern artillery. The gates had been widened to improve the flow of traffic, and the town was overshadowed by the high ground of Corbet’s Hill. A modern, well-equipped army could probably have stormed New Ross relatively quickly, but Harvey did not command such an army.

What his army did have was reckless courage, fuelled by anger, and they swept down from the heights of Corbet’s Hill roaring like wild animals and firing muskets and ancient blunderbusses towards the line of redcoats guarding the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey’s original plan had been to attack the town from three sides at once. Eight hundred men under Captain John Kelly were ordered to concentrate on capturing Johnson’s scattered outposts rather than attack the town itself.

Either Kelly had forgotten his orders or he was unable to control his men, because Ciaran could see him at the front of the attack on the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey had attempted to send a herd of panicking cattle ahead of the main advance, a tactic which had worked brilliantly at Enniscorthy. Here, the cows swerved away long before they reached the gate and took off into the countryside leaving the rebels, headed by Kelly and his men, to make a desperate assault on the gate.

 It was terrifying. The attackers were under fire on both sides from flanking companies placed there for the purpose. Ahead, artillery fire raked the disordered ranks, cutting down men in swathes. Ciaran, who was in the second rank along with Cloney and his men, had never experienced an assault like this. Around him, those men who had accompanied Kelly in the first rush were seriously depleted, and Ciaran found himself scrambling over dead and dying men to reach the redcoats in the defensive trenches.

Ciaran wanted to run, but it was impossible, and he would probably have been cut down as he fled. Most of his men had discharged their firearms, if they had them, and it was too close for the defenders to use either muskets or artillery without risking their own men. He fought with a bayonet, while around him most of his men used pikes. There was no organisation and no plan, only the desperate cut and thrust at each man ahead of him, dodging their bayonets, stabbing down ruthlessly, killing and maiming in order to avoid being killed or maimed. It was exhausting. Ciaran’s arms and shoulders ached, there was blood on his clothing and the sickly metallic smell of it in his nostrils. He could almost taste it.

Close to the gate the smoke of musket and artillery fire still lingered in the air, choking him and making his eyes water. Ciaran stood during a brief respite in the action, blinking and trying to catch his breath. Around him his men were pushing forward, driving on despite cruel losses. Unexpectedly, Ciaran was proud of them. They had everything to lose, these men, and he knew very well that it was blind rage over a lifetime of oppression that was driving them, but they were brave, and they endured, and their courage revived him.

The rebels did not break. They pressed on, foot by agonising foot. The two flanking companies fell back, shocked at their inability to hold this disorganised rabble. Cloney’s men captured the trenches and then drove forward right up to the gate. The fighting was bloody, and nearby some of the buildings were already on fire, the air thick with eye-watering smoke.

Kelly’s men were the first into the town. Kelly himself had been shot in the thigh and had to be carried to the rear while his men stormed the barracks near the gate. The building was poorly defended and, as Cloney and Ciaran led their men into the barrack yard, the last of the guards fled before them. Cloney made no attempt to give chase.  

“We need arms. Muskets and ammunition. Spread out and start breaking down doors, there’ll be a storeroom somewhere. Donnelly, take that side.”

Ciaran obeyed. As he led his men along a row of doors, kicking or battering them down, he was aware that the yard was rapidly filling with smoke. Houses on both sides had been set alight, the thatched roofs burning fiercely. Ciaran shouted at the men to move faster. He had no wish to be caught anywhere near the barracks if the fire spread to a gunpowder store.

“Here. Over here,” Cloney yelled. The men raced to the open stores, and four men stripped the shelves, handing out muskets and ammunition. Once armed, the men were off, running back out into the streets. Ciaran turned to follow them.

“Donnelly, take this.”

Ciaran turned to see Cloney holding out a pistol. He took it and turned it over in his hands.

“Do you know what you’re doing with it?”

“Yes,” Ciaran said, taking the ammunition. He had learned to shoot as a boy on the estate, following Sir James Howarth through the coverts for long hours. They were some of the happiest times of his childhood, along with the time spent in Howarth’s excellent stables. Ciaran could remember wishing with a passion that he had been born the son of this kindly, intelligent man and then had immediately felt disloyal to his own parents.

He loaded the pistol quickly, putting the spare ammunition into his pocket, then shoved the weapon into his belt and took up his bayonet again. Outside, he and Cloney separated, searching through the smoky streets to find their men. Ciaran caught up with them on the approach to the town gaol. They were following Kelly’s leaderless men who were making an attack on the building. Ciaran ran to join them, then stopped, wondering if this might be a trap. There were several side streets where loyalist troops could be waiting. Leaving his men to continue their advance, Ciaran ran back cautiously, peering into each of the narrow streets to make sure they were not about to be hit from behind by a well-placed ambush.

There was an enormous crash from the gaol which made Ciaran jump violently. He spun around to find the building half-hidden in clouds of smoke. Somewhere a man was screaming, a high-pitched cry of agony, over and over. Those of Ciaran’s troops still visible were backing away from the gaol, then turning to run. Another crash brought several of them down and startled the rest into precipitate retreat. Ciaran made no attempt to stop their flight. He was under no illusion about how much control he had over these men today, and he was not prepared to stand firm against the enemy with nobody beside him. He reached the end of the street and turned to look back at further blasts. One of his men paused beside him.

“What happened, O’Leary?”

“Grapeshot, sir. We lost half a dozen men in the first blast, but Kelly’s men were ahead of us, they’ve been cut to pieces. What a bloody mess.”

Ciaran could see the survivors emerging from the smoke, some of them limping, being helped by their companions. They were pitifully few and as they reached the stragglers from his own men, they pushed through without stopping, desperate to reach the gate and the relative safety of Corbet’s Hill. Some of Ciaran’s men followed them, and Ciaran retraced his steps, yelling at them to halt, wondering if the attack was about to disintegrate into a full rout.

The abrupt retreat through the gate set off a panic in those still storming down from the hill. Looking back up to the remainder of the army who had waited for orders, Ciaran could see some of them beginning to flee. He felt a sense of despair. They had already lost so many men. He looked around him, wondering if it was time to cut their losses and call a general retreat, and wondering also if any one of the rebel leaders had enough control over their men to do so. He could not see Harvey, but Cloney was there, trying to direct a chaotic group of musket men into a firing line. Ciaran thought, with sudden anger, that if they had been given proper weapons and training, these men had enough courage to defeat a whole army of redcoats. Then, unexpectedly through the noise of battle, he heard horses, the clink of bridles and the clattering of hooves over the cobbled road out of town.

Ciaran spun around and stared in horror. He could not be sure of numbers but there looked to be between thirty and forty cavalrymen riding out through the Three Bullet Gate and forming up in the open space as if preparing for a charge. Around Ciaran was a confused melée as some men continued their flight back up the hill, while others tried to find their companies and their leaders amidst the chaos. He could no longer see Cloney anywhere and wondered in sudden panic if he had been hit.

Ciaran had trained on the fields outside Dublin with three former militia officers who had joined the United Irishmen. They drilled with broom handles and tree branches, and at times Ciaran had thought it a waste of time. Instead, he had talked to the men, asking questions about battles and tactics and weapons. They had spoken of cavalry, and the best way to stop them, and Ciaran knew that in this conflict so far, pikes had proved remarkably successful. If his men fled, they were going to be cut to pieces as the cavalry rode them down.

“To me!” he roared. “Pikemen, to me, they’ve cavalry. We can take them if we stand!”

To Ciaran’s immense surprise, the men around him turned. Ciaran looked around him, then dropped his bayonet and stooped, snatching up a pike from a fallen man. He whirled to face the approaching horsemen, and felt a solid wall of men around him, pikes pointing upwards ready to impale the cavalry.

“Come on, you bastards!” he yelled. “Let’s see how you do against Irish pikemen!”

The first horseman died with a high-pitched scream, and the sound echoed round and round in Ciaran’s head. The line of cavalry crashed into the pikemen and Ciaran thrust upwards and was astonished at how easy it was, with this weapon, to unseat a horseman. Some of the horses were wounded, though none fatally, and with no rider to urge them on, they turned and galloped back through the gate, or out into the countryside, causing further chaos among the rest of the charging cavalry. Ciaran’s men were yelling in triumph and several of them broke ranks, ran forward and finished off those dragoons still alive on the ground. One of them was the commanding officer, and his loss broke the nerve of the remaining troopers. They wheeled and galloped back through the gate, and with an inhuman roar, Ciaran’s men raced after them, all thought of retreat forgotten.

Ciaran paused to catch his breath. He looked around him at the fallen horsemen, and realised he was counting them in his head. There were twenty-eight. He was crying, tears pouring down his face. He tried to wipe them away with his sleeve and felt his eyes sting as black dirt from the smoke and powder mingled with salt tears.

“Donnelly. Ciaran. Jesus Christ, are you all right?”

Ciaran looked around to find Thomas Cloney staring at him in concern. He nodded, because he could not speak. Cloney put his hand on Ciaran’s filthy sleeve.

“I thought you were about to get yourself killed there, you stupid bastard,” he said. “That was unbelievable. I could never have rallied them like that.”

“I think you could, sir. They’re brave men.” The words steadied Ciaran. He took another deep breath. “They’ve gone back to the attack. We need to join them. Where’s General Harvey?”

“He’s over there, I’m not sure he’s made it into the town yet. It’s down to us, Donnelly. Can you do it?”

“Yes,” Ciaran said. Suddenly he felt very calm and very sure. “Yes, I can do this.”

Within the town walls it was chaos as, for the second time that day, the garrison were pushed back through the streets in a confused melée of cavalry, infantry and artillery. After them fled the townspeople, terrified of reprisals from the enraged rebels. They ran towards the quay and the bridge with Harvey’s musketeers and pikemen chasing them down. Ciaran pushed himself to run faster, overtaking his men, shouting to them to leave the civilians alone. He was not sure whether they heard, understood or even cared.

Many of the houses in the streets around had been set on fire, and it spread quickly, sending billows of black smoke through the narrow lanes. Ciaran prayed that the houses were empty. In most of the town, the garrison had fled leaving only a stubborn group of officers and men with artillery which protected the crossroads leading to the bridge.

Ciaran found himself abruptly with nobody to fight. He took the opportunity to rest for a moment, drinking from his water bottle. It was almost empty. Around him, the rebel soldiers seemed confused, as though they had no idea what to do next. The crash of guns suggested that General Johnson’s men were continuing to guard their retreat, but there seemed to be no fighting at all within the town. Ciaran found a water pump and drank gratefully, tipping cold water over his head, then refilling his bottle.

“Donnelly? Jesus, I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

Ciaran turned in relief at the sound of Cloney’s voice. His friend was making his way across the small square. He was filthy and there was blood on his coat. Ciaran held out the water bottle and Cloney gulped it down.

“You too, sir. I’m not sure what’s happening though. Have they retreated?”

 “Most of them are across the river, and our lads don’t seem so keen to charge those guns. I’m going back to find Harvey, we need orders. The men are exhausted, and a lot of them are breaking into the houses and looking for food and wine.”

“If they don’t get orders soon, they’ll get drunk and fall asleep,” Ciaran said.

“If I don’t get orders soon, I’ll be doing the same thing. Look, stay here. Find some food if you can and see if you can keep an eye on our men. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Ciaran waited. Eventually, he made his way to the stone steps leading up to what looked like a public building and sat down. Around him, small groups of men wandered aimlessly, some of them with bottles in their hands. One of them, a man Ciaran knew from his own company, approached him and held out a piece of bread. Ciaran took it and thanked him. It seemed ridiculous to be sitting alone on the steps in the middle of a battle eating rye bread, but he was very hungry.

Somewhere nearby, he could hear men singing. Ciaran wondered if they were drunk, and if it was really the right time to celebrate their victory, with no information about whether the garrison had wholly abandoned the town or if they were regrouping for another attack. He finished the bread, drank more water and was just getting to his feet with the intention of going to find Cloney, when he heard his name called, and the tone chilled him.

“Donnelly! Get moving, we need to get the men together. They’re attacking. They’re coming back over the bridge. We need to fight, man!”

Ciaran snatched up his bayonet and began to run in the direction of the singing. Around him, men were beginning to appear from houses and cottages, many of them unsteady on their feet though whether it was from exhaustion or drink Ciaran had no idea. He was chasing them, trying desperately to pull them together into a defensive line, yelling himself hoarse, but he could already hear the approaching troops, the hooves of the cavalry and the disciplined marching of infantry, as General Johnson mobilised his tired troops and drove them back into the town.

The rebels had nothing left to give. Cloney and Ciaran held those they could, and through the streets of New Ross other leaders did the same, but it was impossible. Some attempts were made to use the captured guns against Johnson’s men, but there were no trained artillerymen among the rebels, and attempts to force prisoners to operate the guns proved a failure. Ciaran’s pikemen fought on, making repeated charges back through the streets, but there were too few of them and they were exhausted. Ciaran continued to exhort them, to urge them to stand, and then realised that he must either call a retreat or watch them die in front of him. He called it and stood watching as they poured back through the Three Bullet Gate. Some of them could barely stand, but they staggered on, back up the slope towards the camp on Corbet’s Hill. Ciaran prayed that Johnson would not order an immediate attack, but he doubted the garrison had either the men or the ammunition to do so.

Well away from any stray musket ball fired from the walls, Ciaran retrieved his horse, thankful that the makeshift stable nearby had survived the fires, and watched the last of the rebels stagger away from New Ross. Beyond the last ditch, General Harvey, Thomas Cloney and a few other officers sat mounted, watching the flames which were beginning to die down now. Ciaran walked his horse to join them.

“General Harvey. I’m glad you’re safe, sir.”

“You too, Donnelly.” Harvey’s voice was muffled, and Ciaran suspected he had been crying. “A terrible day. A terrible loss.”

They rode in silence back towards the camp, the gentle light of early evening settling over the town and the hill. Part of the way, Cloney’s horse stumbled then stopped and began to graze. Ciaran reined in, momentarily worried that his friend had a concealed injury, then realised to his surprise that Cloney had fallen asleep in the saddle. As Harvey and the others plodded on, Ciaran reached for the bridle and gently shook Cloney awake.

“Come on, Thomas. Just a bit further and you can sleep.”

“Not for long,” Cloney said. “We’ll need to get out of here early, before they have time to regroup, or get reinforced.”

“Where to?”

“Back to Carrigburn to start with. After that, I don’t know.”

Cloney sounded depressed as well as exhausted and Ciaran knew how he felt. “Is it over, Thomas?”

“The day or the struggle?”

“I think the day is over,” Ciaran said.

“Not for me, it isn’t,” Cloney said, and suddenly Ciaran realised that something was badly wrong, something more than the slaughter of the battle.

“What’s happened?”

“I have to speak to General Harvey. To tell him what’s been done. I took the message, just before the final assault, and I couldn’t tell him then. There wasn’t the time, and I hadn’t the stomach for it.”

Ciaran felt an icy chill settling around his already bruised heart. “What’s happened?” he asked again.

Cloney picked up his reins and began to walk his horse towards the camp and Ciaran drew Denis alongside.

“There’s been murder done,” Cloney said flatly. “Murder of innocents and done in our name. In Harvey’s name. You know him, Ciaran. You’ve seen what he’s like. This news, on top of what he’s been through today…it’s going to break him.”

“Tell me.” Ciaran felt sick but he needed to know. “You need to speak of it, Thomas.”

Cloney said nothing for a moment. Ahead, there were flickering lights, which suggested that some of the exhausted men had managed to get fires lit around the camp. Ciaran waited, his heart beating fast.

“You’ll know that before the battle, there were prisoners taken. Loyalists from the surrounding countryside. Protestants mostly, people who might have taken information to the garrison. A few Catholics as well, those loyal to the government. Around two hundred people, mostly men but some women. And children. They were being held in a barn at Scullabogue. Harvey…General Harvey told me yesterday he’d hold them only until the day was won, then would send a message for their release.”

“Go on.”

“At some point during the day, messengers arrived from the battle. I’ve no idea who they were, they might even have been deserters, for God knows we had enough of those today. They claimed that the garrison were butchering our wounded men and that the prisoners in the barn should be killed in retaliation. The captain in charge said no at first, but eventually they convinced him it was an order. They took out thirty-five men and shot them on a lawn. The rest of them – the families – were locked in and the barn was set alight. They’re all dead.”

Ciaran pulled up and slid from Denis’ back. He dropped the reins, not caring if the horse ran, and fell to his knees, vomiting by the side of the track. He was shivering violently, as if with cold, though the evening air was mild. There was little food in him, but he continued to retch distressingly for some time.

Eventually it stopped. Ciaran got to his feet, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He turned and realised that Cloney had dismounted and was standing looking at him. His face was streaked with tears.

Ciaran stepped forward and Cloney hugged him hard. They remained together for a long time, finding friendship a comfort, in the midst of death and injustice and misery. Eventually, Cloney stirred and stepped back. He looked around. Both horses were grazing peacefully beside the ditch.

“They’re too knackered to run away,” Ciaran said.

“Are you joking me? The idle bastards have done nothing but eat looted hay in a cosy barn all day. Jesus, I wish I’d had the wit to stay with them.”

“So do I, Thomas.”

Cloney managed a smile. “My friends call me Tom, Ciaran, and I’d think by now you qualify.”

They mounted up and continued up the path to the camp. “I’ll come with you,” Ciaran offered. “When you tell him.”

“Thank you, I’d be glad of it. I don’t think he’ll continue in command, Ciaran, he never wanted it in the first place.”

“Good.”

Cloney shot him a surprised glance. “I thought you liked him.”

“I do like him. But he shouldn’t be doing this. He hasn’t the stomach for it.”

“Do you?”

“I think my stomach made its point very well just now, Tom. But I’m in it now. I’ll stick with it, until it’s over. Which might not be very long, unless Wolfe Tone really has managed to convince the French to lend a hand. King George has an awful lot more men than we do, and they’ve trained for this. So far, we’re fighting the militia and whatever troops they’ve got to hand, but a battalion of experienced soldiers is going to slaughter us where we stand. They’re good at this.”

“So are you.”

Ciaran gave a tired smile. “I was lucky today.”

Cloney shook his head. “That wasn’t luck, boy, I know the difference. When it comes to organising the resistance and writing political speeches, I reckon I’ve got you beat. But when you stood out there, pulling those men together today…didn’t you realise I was leaving it to you?”

Ciaran had not, and the idea shook him a little. “I’m not old enough,” he said. “And I think the responsibility would scare the shit out of me.”

“It might do thinking of it now, lad, but once you’re in a fight, it’s a different matter. I’m telling you, if you need to run and have nowhere to hide, you should join the army. You’d look all right in a red coat.”

“That’s not funny, Tom.”

“It’s the best I can manage today. Come on, let’s pick up the pace. I want to get up to headquarters and break the news, get it over with. And there might be food. My heart is broken into twenty pieces right now, but I’m still bloody hungry.”

***

Chester, September 1798

The magistrate was late to arrive in the private parlour at the back of the Castle and Falcon, but made an impressive entrance. Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler, who had rushed his breakfast, decided it was easy for a man of Sir Thomas Woodbridge’s girth to look impressive. Woodbridge was almost as wide as he was high, and Johnny managed not to laugh as he surveyed the chair which had been set out for him, which had wooden arms. Woodbridge said nothing, merely looked, and there was a further awkward delay as Sergeant Stewart sent a man out into the tap room to find a chair wide enough for the magistrate. That done, Woodbridge seated himself, looked over at Sergeant Stewart and nodded to indicate that he was ready to begin.

The swearing in of new recruits was not a lengthy process, but Johnny had seen it often enough during the past month to be heartily bored with it. The 110th infantry had been under orders to embark for India when it was discovered to be significantly under strength. Johnny had no idea why this had come as a surprise to Colonel Dixon, since most of the company officers had been grumbling about it for a year or more, but the matter was rapidly turning into a crisis as the date of departure approached.

Johnny had not wanted to join the recruiting party, and there was an enthusiastic volunteer in the person of Lieutenant Vincent Longford of the seventh company. Johnny thought that his enthusiasm had probably aroused the suspicions of his seniors. Longford was a lazy officer, notorious for finding ways to avoid hard work. Touring the local area staying in inns and public houses accompanied by a sergeant, a drummer and four enlisted men was far easier than the long hours of training and drilling in barracks which were being supervised by Major Johnstone, but Johnny was in no doubt which he would have preferred.

Captain Mason called Johnny into the mess room to inform him that he was to join Longford’s party. He grinned sympathetically at Johnny’s expression and placed a glass of wine in front of him.

“Cheer up, Mr Wheeler. It will only be for a few weeks.”

“Yes, sir. But may I ask why? It isn’t usual to send two officers. And even if they wanted to, can’t Longford take one of his ensigns? Two lieutenants seems excessive.”

“One of his ensigns can hardly be expected to keep an eye on him. Longford loves doing this, but some of his recruitment practices are a little unscrupulous and we’ve no wish to find half our new recruits released from their oaths because it can be proved that Longford tricked them into it.”

Johnny thought privately that the wording of the recruitment poster could be considered a piece of trickery in itself, given what he knew of the pay and conditions of the men under his command, but he decided not to mention it. He sipped the wine and asked gloomily:

“Why me?”

“Major Johnstone asked for you specifically,” Mason said. “I was annoyed, to be honest, I could do with you on the training ground this week. But it’s a compliment, Wheeler. He trusts you to see it’s done right. If we leave it up to Longford, he’ll find himself a comfortable inn and stay there an extra week at the army’s expense.”

Johnny thought that Mason probably had a point. “Then why send Longford at all?”

“Longford can be unscrupulous. You, on the other hand, are at risk of being over-scrupulous, you’d never recruit anybody. Between the two of you, I think we’ll reach our quota before we have to sail.”

Johnny was not sure if he had just been complimented or reprimanded. “Thank you, sir. Where are we…?”

“You’re going to Chester.”

“Chester?” Johnny said in surprise. “Isn’t that rather out of the way for us? We could try Leicester and possibly Nottingham, with the towns and villages in between. I’m sure…”

“You’re going to Chester on the Colonel’s orders, Mr Wheeler, because he wants to speed up the process, and as it happens, he has a friend in Chester who is a magistrate,” Mason said grimly. Johnny’s heart sank.

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes.”

“Do we know how many, sir?”

“About twenty, I believe.”

“Oh sir, that’s too many. Even if we split them between the companies, they’re going to cause trouble. It’s one thing to take one or two at a time from the courts, but that sounds as though they’re emptying out their gaol into our ranks.”

“I suspect they are. There is nothing we can do about it, however. I’m sorry, Wheeler, I know you’d rather be doing anything other than this. You have my sympathy, I loathe the process. Longford is rather good at it though. He enjoys the spectacle of parading through town with a drummer. Let him have his way and only intervene if he’s doing something obviously illegal, or if he’s spending the army’s money on himself. Oh, and don’t let him snaffle all the best men for the seventh company. They’re only about ten men short, we need at least fifteen or so. If you two are doing the work, you’ll get first pick. You know what we’re looking for in the light company. Fast, agile and with a modicum of intelligence. And try not to allow half the pickpockets and highwaymen of Cheshire into my company, will you?”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

The journey was not as bad as Johnny had feared. Despite his reservations, Johnny had to admit that Captain Mason was right about Vincent Longford. The man would do almost anything to avoid drill or training with his men, but given the opportunity to strut through a market town or a country fair to the sound of a beating drum, Longford was in his element. He could be surprisingly gracious to even the humblest of the potential recruits although once they joined, Johnny knew he was more likely to order a flogging than a offer a kind word. Longford was a harsh and unpredictable disciplinarian.

They had picked up eighteen men by the time they reached Chester, and Johnny only needed to intervene once, to remind Sergeant Stewart that while some magistrates would turn a blind eye to the common practice of making a man so drunk that he would swear to anything, others would call a halt to proceedings if the recruit appeared to be inebriated and wait for him to sober up before taking the oath. Longford did not attempt to intervene or contradict him, although Johnny was sure that if he had not been present, Longford would have happily signed up two men who could barely stand and taken a chance with the magistrate.

The weather remained fair into early October, with some days as hot as midsummer. Despite his reservations, Johnny realised he was quite enjoying the break from routine. Longford was happy to take on the job of advertising their presence in the towns and villages, leaving it to Johnny to organise the paperwork, arrange the necessary medical examination that each recruit must pass and approach the local magistrate to oversee the taking of the oath. They stayed at inns and taverns along the way and although Johnny did not particularly like Longford, they got on well enough to enjoy a meal and a drink together. They were the same age and having managed to raise or borrow the funds for promotion to lieutenant, both found themselves looking at the faintly depressing prospect of not being able to progress further without money or a great deal of luck.

Johnny understood Longford’s feelings, but after a week in his company was bored with his litany of complaints. Though he could not imagine how or when he would be able to obtain his captaincy, he preferred not to dwell on it. The army had been his life since he was seventeen and, at twenty-five, he had no desire to pursue any other profession. While Longford dreamed of finding a wealthy or influential patron to smooth his path, Johnny preferred to work hard and hope that at some point, somebody would recognise that intelligence and steady competence had as much value as noble connections.

Longford and Johnny called on Sir Thomas Woodbridge and accepted an invitation to dine. Woodbridge was clearly delighted with the prospect of a solution to the overcrowded city gaol and proudly informed his guests that he had no less than twenty-five men from Chester and the surrounding area, who had declared themselves willing to don a red coat rather than face prison or transportation. Longford was at his most obsequious and Johnny cringed inwardly and hoped that at least some of the men would be pronounced unfit to serve by Dr Howland when he examined them. The custom of encouraging convicted felons to join the army was considerably less popular with serving officers than with serving magistrates.

Johnny studied the men who assembled in the parlour the following day, as Longford administered the oath which bound them to serve at his Majesty’s pleasure. They ranged between a thin-faced cutpurse in his forties to a terrified boy who did not look older than fifteen, though he gave his age as seventeen. Only one of the prison recruits had been refused by the doctor on the grounds of a marked curvature of the spine. Most of these men looked skinny and underfed, but that was probably due to poor food in gaol and in many cases, the grinding poverty that had pushed them into criminality in the first place. Johnny had quizzed Dr Howland to ensure there were no signs of gaol fever. He had no wish to march back to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his new recruits dropping by the roadside.

With the swearing in completed, Johnny joined Longford and Dr Howland in the dining room, leaving Stewart and his men to get the new men settled in their temporary barracks. Over dinner, they discussed the time of their departure on the following day and the route to be taken on the way back. Longford suggested a slightly longer route, taking in the towns of Derby and Nottingham and Johnny agreed. It was unusual for a recruiting party to fill its intended quota but if they were as successful as they had been in Leicester on the way out, Johnny thought they might do very well.

Johnny was awake early the following morning and, since they were not marching until noon and breakfast would not be for an hour or more, he dressed quietly so as not to wake Longford or Howland and went out into a world painted rosy by the first light of dawn. Strolling through quiet streets, he made his way down to the River Dee and stood watching the sun come up over the water. It was chilly this early, but with the promise of another lovely day, and Johnny lingered for a while. He knew he would miss days like this in the heat and dust of campaigning in India.

The inn had come to life by the time he returned, with a bustle of early departures in the stable yard and the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen at the back of the building. Johnny stood for a moment watching a family party climbing into an elegant travelling carriage, piled high with luggage.

“Lieutenant Wheeler?”

Johnny turned to find the landlord calling him, framed in the open doorway of the kitchen.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, it’s just there’s a man arrived asking about the recruiting officers. Mr Longford and the doctor aren’t down yet, so I was going to direct him to the barn where the men are, but as you’re here…”

“Another volunteer?”

“He didn’t say, sir, but what else?”

Johnny sighed. “I’ll speak to him. Where is he, Turner?”

“In the tap room, sir.”

Johnny walked into the wood-panelled tap room. The man was seated at the bar with a tankard before him. Seen in profile, it was a face of considerable distinction. He was young, probably not much above twenty, with dark curly hair tied back neatly with a black ribbon. His clothing was dusty and travel stained, as though he had spent some time on the road, but Johnny observed that it was of far better quality than any of the other recruits. As Johnny studied him, the young man seemed to sense his regard and turned his head, revealing deep-set dark eyes. After a moment, he got up and bowed politely as Johnny approached.

“Lieutenant Wheeler of the 110th light company. I understand you’re wishing to join the army.”

“Aye, sir, I am. I’m hoping I’m not too late. The landlord said you’re moving on today.”

The voice was pleasant, with a musical lilt which was wholly and unmistakeably Irish. Johnny did not reply immediately. He looked again at the stained clothing, the stubble on the man’s face and the dark, serious eyes and a warning bell clanged loudly in his head. Ireland was in turmoil, with the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen only just defeated. The army had its share of Irishmen, both officers and enlisted men, but Johnny was instinctively suspicious. This man was young, well-spoken and looked as though he had been sleeping rough on the road for days. Most of the Irish recruits in the 110th came either from the cities, where unemployment was high or from recruiting in Ireland itself, when a poor crop and a round of evictions made serving King George seem the only alternative to starvation. This man was cut from a different cloth.

“You’ve missed the swearing in, and we’re marching out later today.”

“I could go with you and be sworn in when it’s possible.”

Johnny studied him, troubled. It was his job to accept every willing recruit and he knew Longford would not hesitate. Johnny was already concerned about the collection of thieves, drunkards and vagrants they had signed up on the previous day and was trying to work out how best to divide them between the ten companies of the first battalion so that they could not easily influence each other. He had no particular desire to throw an Irish rebel fleeing for his life into such a dangerous mix.

“I’ll ask the landlord to bring you breakfast,” he said finally. “It’s the least we can do, given that you’ve travelled to find us.”

Unexpectedly the younger man smiled. “I didn’t travel to find you, sir. I was travelling to find work, and I stumbled across you on the way. It seemed a good solution.”

He reached into his pocket and drew out a crumpled sheet, which Johnny recognised as one of the posters or handbills they had distributed around taverns and ale houses in the district. It explained at least where the man had found out about the recruiting party.

“The army is a very hard life for a young man. Especially if you’re not accustomed to hardship. You should give it some thought before taking that oath.”

The Irishman laughed aloud and indicated the paper. “High pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages. Are you telling me that’s not true?”

Despite himself, Johnny smiled. “It might be to a starving peasant, but I’m not convinced that’s you.”

The Irishman smoothed out the paper. “High-spirited, handsome young men. Don’t I qualify, Lieutenant?”

Johnny did not speak for a long moment. Eventually, he said:

“Get yourself over and speak to Sergeant Stewart, he’ll arrange breakfast for you. If you still want to, you can march with us until the next signing on. It may be a few days. You can change your mind at any time between now and then but if you’re staying, you’ll need to improve your attitude. If you speak to the other officers like this, you’re going to end up at the wrong end of a flogging before the end of the month.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll learn to do better.”

“Good.” Johnny studied him for a long moment. “Have you any experience of training or drilling? Or fighting?”

For the first time, the dark eyes did not meet his. The Irishman looked down at the paper which he still held. He crumpled it up again and put it back in his pocket, and Johnny was suddenly sure.

“Not really, sir. Apart from a few weeks when I thought I might join the militia. But I’m a quick learner.”

“I’ll just bet you are,” Johnny said softly. “What’s your name?”

The younger man looked up. There was just enough hesitation to convince Johnny that the name he was about to be given was not this man’s real name and was possibly one he had thought up at a moment’s notice.

“It’s O’Reilly, sir. Michael O’Reilly.”

“Is it now?” Johnny said, making no attempt to conceal his scepticism. “Welcome to the 110th, O’Reilly. I’m sure you’ll be an asset in no time at all.”

The Irishman said nothing for a moment. He withdrew the paper from his pocket and studied it in silence. Johnny wondered if his disbelief had put the man off. Eventually O’Reilly looked up again.

“If you’ll take me on, sir, I’ll do my best to see you don’t regret it.”

There was unexpected emotion behind the words and suddenly Johnny was very aware of the travel stained clothing, the unshaven face and the haunted expression in the dark eyes.  He wondered what this boy had seen or done during this past year to make the army seem a refuge. He also wondered how long it would be before the independent spirit he was trying so hard to conceal got him into trouble. Johnny sighed.

“I’m already regretting it,” he said resignedly.

The door opened and Sergeant Stewart came in. He saluted, looking curiously at the Irishman.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Captain Longford’s not down yet. The farrier is here to replace that shoe.”

“That’s all right, Sergeant. This is O’Reilly, he’ll be marching with us and if he still wants to, he’ll be sworn in at our next halt. Get him fed and take his details, will you?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll add him to Captain Longford’s company, they…”

“No.” Johnny was still studying the young Irishman who waited with wholly unconvincing meekness to learn his fate. “I don’t think Captain Longford is the right officer for O’Reilly. Put him in the light company, Stewart.”

Johnny watched them cross the yard to the barn, O’Reilly half a head taller than his companion. Briefly he wondered exactly how much trouble the young Irish rebel was likely to cause and if he had done the right thing. Then the smell of bacon wafting out of the kitchen reminded him of his growling stomach and he abandoned all thoughts of O’Reilly and went in search of breakfast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unassuming Gentleman

Welcome to An Unassuming Gentleman, my free short story for Valentine’s Day 2022. For this story, I’ve gone back to the first weeks of 1809 when Sir John Moore died on the field of Corunna and his army returned to England suffering from sickness, exhaustion and starvation after an appalling retreat over the mountains in winter.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, this story is not about that retreat, it’s about one of the officers who took part in it. Gervase Clevedon has been part of the Peninsular War Saga from the first, one of Paul van Daan’s inner circle, moving in and out of the action regularly. Yet very little has been said about his personal life. We know he is the younger son of an Earl, with a difficult relationship with his elder brother but the books have been silent on the subject of his marital status.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyTo set this story in context of the books, it would slot in part way through An Unconventional Officer. Paul van Daan has returned from his memorable time in Yorkshire and sailed with Wellesley to fight at the battles of Rolica and Vimeiro. After the unpopular convention of Cintra, the three commanders were summoned back to London to face an inquiry and the army marched into Spain under Sir John Moore. The exception was a few companies left behind in Lisbon under Major Paul van Daan, many of whom were suffering, like Paul’s wife, from camp fever. After Moore’s disastrous campaign, which ended with his death at Corunna, the army returned to England for a few months to recover before going back to Portugal under Wellesley. Captain Gervase Clevedon was with them.

I wanted to make a brief mention of my heroine’s name. I’m very fond of the name Heather, and I’ve been dying to use it, in honour of my editor but I wasn’t sure if it was used as a girls’ name during this era. A check of the incredibly useful Ancestry.com told me there was no problem with it.

As I know my readers love to work out links to characters in other books, I’ve managed to work in links to both my standalone early novels in this story. Readers of A Respectable Woman may like to know that Gervase Clevedon is the uncle of Kit Clevedon who is the hero of that book. Meanwhile Heather MacLeod’s brother is Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish title going back to the sixteenth century where the second Baron Crawleigh defended his lands against the invasion of the Earl of Hertford in A Marcher Lord. 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers. This one is unashamedly romantic. I hope you enjoy it, and it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

An Unassuming Gentleman.

 

It rained on the evening of Lady Sefton’s ball and a canopy had been set up across the street, to shelter the revellers during the short walk from the carriage steps to the house. Mrs Heather MacLeod, who had not particularly wanted to attend the ball, found herself wondering how much it had cost to effectively close off part of the square, so that her Ladyship’s guests might keep their feet dry.

Heather had been on a routine visit to London when she found herself ambushed by her sister-in-law. Lady Crawleigh had invited her down from her home in Scotland for a few weeks, with the promise of the theatre, the opera, some concerts and a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. Taking part in the balls and receptions of the London Season was not part of the plan and Heather was infuriated when Lady Crawleigh presented her with a pile of invitations on which her name was included.

“You may take those away, Fiona, for I shall not be attending any of them. I didn’t come here to go to parties, I cannot think what possessed you.”

“I have already replied on your behalf, Heather, so it will seem very rag-mannered if you don’t turn up,” Fiona said cheerfully. “You could of course write to the hostesses excusing yourself. I’ll leave them on the mantlepiece in case you wish to do so.”

“I? It was not I who accepted in the first place.”

“They don’t know that.”

“Fiona, how dare you? You know how much I dislike this kind of thing. I shall be bored witless. Besides, I don’t have anything suitable to wear since I never go to balls or receptions since Alex died and you promised me culture.”

“You shall have all the culture you desire, my love, providing you come out of your self-imposed seclusion and join the rest of the world for a few months. It won’t hurt you at all. I’ve made an appointment with my dressmaker. You are quite right, your gowns are looking dated. And…”

“I don’t want this.”

“You need this,” Fiona said with sudden quiet ferocity. “You’ve been hiding away in Comrie Castle for three years now and it is enough. Charles and I both agree on this. It isn’t good for you.”

“Charles is a traitor and I disown him as my brother.”

“Charles loves you. Alex was his friend he knows how much you miss him. But you’re only twenty-eight, Heather, you’re too young to wear widows’ weeds for the rest of your life.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Fiona, I stopped wearing mourning two years ago.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. And how would I know what you’ve been wearing? I never see you.”

“Nonsense, I’ve stayed with you every summer.”

“And refuse to see anybody else. It’s not good for you, Heather.”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“Well this year you will have to put up with it. I mean it, Heather. Not one single concert or play will I attend with you unless you agree to accompany me to these parties. Your word on it.”

Heather glared at her. “This is blackmail and you will regret it. You may force me to attend, but you cannot make me enjoy it.”

“You sound like a five-year-old, dearest sister-in-law. Well, we shall see.”

Heather’s new gowns had not arrived by the date of Lady Sefton’s ball. Fiona had offered to lend her something, but Heather refused. Partly it was from sheer perversity, and partly it was because Fiona was six inches taller than her, with a fuller figure, and Heather suspected that even when altered, the gown would look cobbled together. She selected the best of her ballgowns, a charming green silk which she had not worn since her husband had died of a summer fever three years earlier. Heather supposed that the eagle-eyed ladies of fashion would be able to detect that the gown was out of date but she decided she did not care. She allowed Fiona’s maid to arrange her hair in the latest style, purchased new slippers and gloves and accepted a very pretty painted fan as a gift from her brother with a grim smile. The fan would be useful since Lady Sefton’s rooms were insufferably hot.

Heather was not new to London society and recognised enough people to make her feel at ease despite her long absence. Lord Crawleigh and his wife kept a house in town which they used during the Parliamentary season and were very much at home in government and diplomatic circles. Several women who had made their debut at the same time as Heather, and were now married, stopped to speak to her. She made polite conversation, accepted their congratulations at her re-emergence into society and tried not to grit her teeth too obviously.

Heather met with nothing but kindness and within an hour, she realised she was beginning to thaw. She was not ready to admit it to her interfering relatives, but she was quite enjoying renewing old acquaintances and catching up on the gossip. The music was infectious, and Heather stood beside her brother watching a cotillion and realised her feet were tapping. She remembered a little sadly how much she had enjoyed dancing with Alex during the first heady days of their courtship. She watched this year’s debutantes, their faces bright and eager and full of hope for the future and wondered if any of them was experiencing the breathless happiness of falling in love that she remembered so well.

Heather’s drifting thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. She glanced around and saw that it came from a group of men who, like her, were watching the dancing. At their centre was a tall, well-built individual who was probably in his thirties. He was expensively dressed, with his hair carefully styled and he had an over-loud voice which made everything he said easily audible to those around him.

“What do you say then, Alverstone? Who is to be this Season’s Incomparable? Miss Hibbert? Lady Caroline Forster?”

“Not at all,” the big man said. “The Hibbert is too tall and the Forster has crooked teeth. The Middleton girl is pretty, but her father’s got money troubles, or so I’ve heard. No, the girl for me is the little Flood heiress. Going to speak to her father as a matter of fact. It’s time I got my house in order now that I’ve come into the title. Nice little thing, good manners, very good Ton and a lovely figure. No reason to kick her out of bed on a cold night.”

There was more laughter. “You’d better watch it, old man, she’s over there dancing with Evesham, and he looks very pleased about it.”

“I don’t need to dance with her, Sheldon. I’ve got the title and the fortune. All I need is for her father to agree, and he will, believe me.”

Heather could feel her lip curling in distaste. She began to turn away but realised that the unpleasant Lord Alverstone had noticed her scrutiny and possibly her expression. He was staring at her, running his eyes over her in a way that made Heather’s skin crawl. Deliberately she turned towards her brother, presenting the other man with a view of her back.

“Who’s that with Crawleigh, Sheldon?” Alverstone asked loudly.

“I believe it’s his sister, Mrs MacLeod. I vaguely remember her from her debut, it was years ago. I think she’s widowed now.”

“Ha! Well her late husband did himself a favour if you ask me. Fancy being leg-shackled to a nondescript dwarf wearing last season’s gown. Couldn’t she be bothered to tidy herself up to enter polite society again?”

The words were loud enough to be heard by everybody in the vicinity. Heather was furious to feel herself blushing scarlet. She felt her brother stiffen in anger beside her and heard a murmur of comment, and one or two hastily suppressed sniggers.

“Heather, do you want me to…”

“No, Charles, please don’t. It will only encourage him.”

Heather took a deep breath and turned to look fully at Lord Alverstone. He was looking back at her mockingly, daring her to make a scene. Heather very much wanted to slap him, but she knew that for her brother’s sake she must not.

She turned away, furious to realise that she was shaking a little, with a combination of anger and embarrassment. She should not have agreed to attend such a fashionable ball in her outmoded gown, but she had been enjoying herself and nobody else had shown any sign of caring until Alverstone had drawn it to everybody’s attention.

“Are you all right, Heather?”

“Yes. No. I need to get out of here, Charles, but I don’t want him to think that I’m running away…”

“Lord Crawleigh.”

Heather turned in surprise. The voice was very different to Alverstone’s. It was a quiet baritone which held unconscious authority. She had noticed him standing on the edge of Alverstone’s group of cronies, a man of medium height, in military dress with mid-brown hair and attractive hazel eyes. Heather had no idea who he was and wondered if he had come to apologise for his friend’s rudeness. She hoped not.

“Clevedon,” her brother said delightedly. “I didn’t realise you were here tonight. Or even that you were back in England. How are you, old boy? Were you at…I mean, I’m assuming you must have been…”

Captain Clevedon smiled slightly. “Corunna? Yes, I was there. I’ve not been all that well as you can imagine, this is my first proper attempt at being social.”

“Well, I should think so. Dreadful business. Very sorry to hear about Sir John Moore, he’ll be much missed.”

“He will.” Captain Clevedon transferred his attention to Heather. He bowed. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, ma’am.”

“No, of course,” Charles said quickly. “This is my sister, Clevedon, Mrs MacLeod. She married Alex MacLeod, you’ll remember him. Died three years ago, some ghastly fever epidemic. Heather, this is Captain the Honourable Gervase Clevedon, a friend from my army days. He started off in the 71st with me then transferred to the 110th.”

Heather recognised the name and was furiously aware that Captain Clevedon had indeed approached her to apologise, not for his friend but for his brother. She glared at Charles, since she could hardly glare at the hapless Clevedon, and wished he would get this over with so that she could leave with dignity and have a good cry in the carriage home.

“It is very good to meet you, Mrs MacLeod. I was wondering if you would consider dancing with me? I’ve been away from London for so long. I am hopelessly out of practice, but if you’d take pity on me I would be very grateful.”

It was worse than she had expected. Heather shot her brother an indignant look, and Charles looked back with eyes which entreated her not to make a scene. He was right, she knew. There was no way to withdraw without making it look as though she was storming out. She gave a rigid smile and placed her gloved hand in Clevedon’s.

The dancers were forming up for a country dance. Heather took her place opposite Clevedon. He shot her a reassuring smile and she forced herself to respond, wishing this were over. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and Clevedon held out his hand.

“If I forget the steps, just push me,” he whispered. “I’m very good at taking orders, I promise you. Good luck.”

The remark was so unexpected that Heather let out a giggle. Her partner grinned back at her as he stepped back and then forward into the opening figure of the dance. Heather took a deep breath and let him turn her neatly before passing her hand onto the opposite gentleman in the set.

It was immediately clear that if Gervase Clevedon had not danced in London for a while, he had definitely danced somewhere. Heather had not and she had to concentrate to remember the steps. The music was lively and within a minute, Heather stopped thinking about her gown or her wounded pride and was caught up in the sheer joy of dancing again after so long.

When the music ended, Captain Clevedon bowed and raised her hand to his lips. “Thank you, I enjoyed that so much. I was worried I’d run out of energy halfway through, but we carried the day.”

Heather smiled. “I almost refused to dance with you.”

“I know you did, ma’am, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. You must have been furious.”

“I thought you were going to apologise to me.”

Clevedon led her from the dance floor and neatly removed two champagne glasses from the tray of a passing waiter. “For Alverstone? I make a point of never apologising for him, or I’d never do anything else.”

Heather laughed aloud as she took the champagne. “Then why did you ask me to dance?”

“Mostly to annoy him. But also, I’d noticed you earlier because of that green silk gown. Several years ago, when I was last in London, I solicited a lady for a dance, who was wearing just that particular shade. She was a considerable heiress and a noted beauty and she turned me down very haughtily. I was hoping I might do better this time. I’m delighted to say that I did.”

Heather could not stop laughing. “I have no idea if any of that is true,” she said.

“I promise you that it is.”

“I collect you don’t get on with your brother.”

“I dislike him excessively. I hope that doesn’t shock you? Your own brother is a very good fellow. I’m deeply envious of you.”

“Doesn’t that make it difficult living with him?”

“Oh, I’m not staying at Alverstone House, ma’am, I wouldn’t dream of it when he is in residence. I have a house of my own near Ampthill in Bedfordshire. I inherited the estate from my mother’s family. And when I’m in London, I have a standing invitation to stay with the family of my commanding officer in Curzon Street. They’re very good hosts, especially just now, because none of them are there. Are you staying with Crawleigh?”

“Yes, for a few weeks. I live in Scotland, I inherited my husband’s estate and I seldom come to London. My sister-in-law has been bullying me, saying I should make more effort to be social.”

“Well I’m very glad you did,” Clevedon said. “May I take you into supper?”

“I…yes, if you wish it.”

“Will you dance with me again?”

Heather was laughing again. “Isn’t there some kind of rule which says we may only dance together twice?”

“Oh no, surely that rule only applies to debutantes.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well can we pretend that neither of us knows any better? They won’t be surprised. You’ve been hiding in a Scottish castle for three years and I’ve been in the army, they don’t expect any better from us.”

Heather felt as though her head was spinning slightly. “Are you always like this? How did you know it was a castle?”

“No, is it? I just made that up. I must have the second sight. Dance with me again, Mrs MacLeod. I’ve just survived the worst retreat…you honestly can’t imagine. Please?”

Heather sipped the champagne. “Was it really that bad? The retreat to Corunna?”

Unexpectedly the laughing eyes were serious. “Yes,” he said. “So bad, in fact, that I’m trying not to think about it too much at the moment. I’m supposed to be convalescing.”

“By dancing.”

“It is good for both the body and the soul. Especially dancing with you. You have the prettiest eyes.”

“Captain Clevedon, are you trying to flirt with me?” Heather said in what she hoped was a repressive voice.

Clevedon looked at her for a long moment. “Do you know, I think I am,” he said cordially. “Do you think that’s a sign of recovery? Come along, they’re about to start the quadrille and I think I can remember that one.”

***

The rain had stopped when Gervase Clevedon stepped out into the cool winter air. London was not particularly sweet smelling most of the time, but the rain had washed down the streets and given them a fresh damp scent. Gervase stood for a moment, his head swimming pleasantly, and decided he was sober enough to walk home. A queue of carriages stood waiting to collect their occupants. Gervase’s hosts had informed him that he was to make use of their town carriage without hesitation, but Gervase preferred to walk although he knew perfectly well that his brother would never dream of walking the ten minutes to his home in Berkeley Square. More than ten years in the army had given Gervase considerable hardiness and he would have been embarrassed to call for the carriage for such a short distance.

Gervase had stood up with Heather MacLeod for more than the regulation two dances. If anybody had cast disapproving glances their way, he had not noticed and did not care. When he had limped off the transport from Corunna to begin his convalescence, Gervase had been so weak from starvation, exhaustion and a minor wound to his shoulder that he could not have contemplated even a short walk, let alone an evening dancing. Physically he had recovered very quickly but the emotional effects of the long agonising retreat followed by a battle he was not fit to fight were taking longer to shake off.

The retreat to Corunna had been a disaster for the British army. Only two thirds of Gervase’s battalion had marched into Spain with Sir John Moore. The rest of them remained in Lisbon, struck down by the worst epidemic of camp fever Gervase had ever seen. At the time, Gervase had thought himself lucky to have avoided it. Colonel Johnstone rallied those men fit enough to fight and joined the main army, and Gervase felt sorry for Major Paul van Daan who was both his commanding officer and his friend. Paul’s friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley had given him a significant part to play in the victories at Rolica and Vimeiro the previous year, but this time he was left in Lisbon in command of the sick troops while Johnstone marched to potential glory. To make it worse, Paul’s wife succumbed to the sickness and Gervase knew he had spent a miserable six weeks in Lisbon fretting over her before returning to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his much-depleted companies, to receive the news of Moore’s death.

Moore’s campaign had gone wrong from the start. He had taken over command of the army when the three previous commanders had been summoned back to London to face an inquiry over the convention of Cintra, which had caused public outrage because of the lenient terms granted to the defeated French. Gervase wondered if Sir Arthur Wellesley would have done any better than Moore, given the impossible circumstances. Moore could not be asked to account for the failure of his campaign. He had been killed during the desperate battle fought on the shore at Corunna where his sickly, starving and exhausted army managed to beat back the French long enough to board the transports waiting to take them home.

Gervase had lost both his horses during the long retreat, and too many of his men. They fell beside the road, dying of sickness and hunger and cold and he could do nothing for them. He also lost control of them, unable to prevent episodes of looting and drunkenness whenever they happened upon a village or a farm where food was available. Spanish farmers and their families were murdered and women were raped. Gervase did not know if any of his men were responsible for the worst of the depredations but even the fact that they might have been left him depressed and ashamed.

Flirting with Heather MacLeod on the dance floor and across the supper table had made him happier than he had been for months and Gervase was enormously grateful. He was also intrigued. She was an attractive woman who seemed entirely without vanity. In place of it, she had ideas, and interests and laughter. She laughed more than any woman he had ever met. She also talked a lot. Gervase thought of himself as a quiet man, but Heather MacLeod was amazingly easy to talk to. He discovered, with some surprise, that they shared a lively sense of the ridiculous and her conversation was peppered with observations about their fellow revellers that kept him in a ripple of laughter all evening. He realised, as he turned into Curzon Street, that he could not wait to see her again.

It was past two o’clock as Gervase mounted the steps to Tevington House. He did not knock, unwilling to wake up the neighbours, knowing that the butler or one of the footmen would be on the watch for his return. Sure enough, the door opened after only a few moments and Gervase stepped into the hallway, which was dimly lit by a branch of candles set on a polished table. He took off his hat.

“If you think I’m taking your damned hat as well as waiting up to let you in, you’re much mistaken, Captain Clevedon.”

Gervase turned in astonishment, his face lighting up at the sight of a tall fair man in uniform who was smiling at him.

“Paul! What on earth are you doing here, acting as butler at this hour?”

“Are you drunk, Gervase? This is my house. At least it’s my father’s house.”

Gervase set his hat down on the side table, carefully avoiding the candles, and remembered to salute. Major Paul van Daan regarded him critically. “Not much more than half-sprung, I suspect. I got here very late after the journey from hell, so I had supper and thought I’d wait up for you. They said you were at Lady Sefton’s.”

“I was. It’s the first time I’ve ventured out to anything more strenuous than a supper party at White’s, but unexpectedly I enjoyed myself. I’m surprised to see you, sir, I thought you fixed in Leicestershire.”

“I am. In fact, I’m completely invisible and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from advertising my presence in town. Wellesley wrote to me asking me to come up for a few days. I’m dining with him tomorrow. It seems we’ll be going back to Portugal with him.”

“They’ve given him the command?”

“Yes, although I don’t know how official it is yet. Are you too tired for another drink? I’ve kept the fire going in the library.”

“As long as it isn’t champagne. I have drunk enough champagne this evening. Why are you travelling incognito?”

Paul picked up the candles and led the way into the library. He set them down and went to pour wine. “Because I don’t want to see anybody,” he said frankly. “Apart from Wellesley, and of course you. I’m enjoying the life of a country layabout for a month or two, with nothing more strenuous than the ride into barracks, and I promised Rowena I wouldn’t stay long.”

“How is she, sir?”

“She seems fully recovered, but it’s going to take me a while to get over the fright she gave me.”

“And how are the men?”

“Improving. We’ve lost some, Gervase, I can’t lie to you. I can’t decide if I feel guilty or relieved that I wasn’t there.”

“Feel relieved,” Gervase said sombrely, drinking the wine. “It was pure hell, appallingly organised with a complete breakdown of discipline. We lost control of our men, Paul, and I’ve never had to say that before. It’s a miracle we got as many of them out of there as we did. You missed nothing.”

“That’s never going to happen again.”

Gervase grinned at the ferocious certainty of the other man’s tone. “Yes, sir. Now let’s talk of other things, it depresses me. I saw Wellesley tonight. He was dancing with a number of pretty women, none of whom were his wife.”

“That is no surprise at all. He has reason to celebrate. Wholly exonerated by the inquiry, a vote of thanks from Parliament, and the promise of a new command.”

Gervase gave a faint smile. “And did he deserve all of those?”

Paul grinned. “Two out of three,” he said honestly. “He signed that bloody thing along with the other two. I doubt he agreed with it, but I’m also damned sure he didn’t realise the furore it was going to cause, or he’d never have done it. Needless to say, he didn’t ask my opinion. I’m glad he got away with it though because he deserves the command and the approbation. Now let’s see what he can do with nobody holding him back. Was your brother at Lady Sefton’s tonight?”

“To my sorrow. He’s the reason I was planning to post up to Bedfordshire at the end of the week. Just being in the same room as him makes me want to punch him, I cannot think how we came to be related. He tells me he is about to make an offer of marriage to some unfortunate girl. I wish I could put a spoke in the works because he’ll treat her appallingly, but there’s nothing I can do. He’s an Earl, her parents cannot wait to hand her over.”

“Who is it?”

“Lady Clarissa Flood. She’s nineteen.”

“Dear God.”

“I know. He can’t even be bothered to woo the girl. He’ll just sign the marriage contract and start giving her orders. Thank God I’ll be back in Portugal with you and won’t have to watch it.”

“Ambitious parents create a lot of misery. When are you going to Ampthill? It’s not that far, you should come up to Southwinds for a few days. I promise not to make you run drill or skirmish training.”

Gervase laughed. “You would break that promise in two days, sir, you can’t help yourself. I’m not sure actually. I was going to go, but I may decide to stay in town for a week or two. I ran into an old friend this evening. Do you know Crawleigh? We were in the 71st together, but he sold out when he inherited the title. His wife has invited me to dine on Tuesday, and I’m joining them at the theatre on Friday.”

Paul van Daan studied him for a long silent moment, sipping his wine. Gervase drank his, saying nothing. Eventually, Paul set his glass down and got up to bring the bottle to the low table before the fire. He refilled both glasses, sat back and studied Gervase thoughtfully.

“What’s her name?” he asked.

***

It was the first time in many years that Gervase had spent any time in London during the season and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. As the younger son of the Earl of Alverstone, his place in society was assured but his loathing for his elder brother meant that he tended to avoid town when the new Earl was in residence.

Gervase could tell that Alverstone was baffled by his extended stay. They spoke occasionally when meeting at social events and his brother was probing, trying to discover what was keeping Gervase in London. His curiosity amused Gervase since it was clear that Alverstone had absolutely no idea of his real motives. He questioned Gervase about possible financial problems, difficulties with his Bedfordshire estate, health problems after the brutal retreat to Corunna and even asked if Gervase was considering selling his commission and returning to civilian life. Gervase gave him little information and enjoyed watching his brother’s puzzlement.

Gervase could not believe Alverstone had not noticed the object of his real interest. Lord Crawleigh and his wife were definitely aware, and they encouraged him shamelessly. Gervase wondered if they had bullied Heather into coming to London in the hope of finding her another husband, but he did not think so. Lady Crawleigh was clearly devoted to her and he suspected that Heather’s self-imposed solitude since the death of her husband had been a source of concern for some time.

It puzzled Gervase, because it was quickly clear that Heather MacLeod was not a naturally solitary person. She was awkward at times, but he thought that was lack of practice rather than a native dislike of company. Over the following weeks he spent increasing amounts of time with her, and he found her completely charming.

Heather quickly admitted to him that Lady Crawleigh had tricked her into coming to London with the promise of cultural activities. It proved an excellent opportunity for Gervase to spend time with her in settings more conducive to conversation than a ballroom. He accompanied her to the theatre and the opera, escorted her to the Royal Academy and attended several concerts, both private and public. She laughed at his willingness to accede to any of her suggestions.

“Captain Clevedon, you are far too amenable. I am tempted to see how far I can push this. There are several public lectures coming up on the subject of anatomy and the structure of the brain. I’m sure they will be interesting. Would you be willing, should I require an escort?”

Gervase surveyed her with interest. “How fascinating, ma’am. You may not know it but I have always wanted to know more about human anatomy. Should we ask Lady Crawleigh if she wishes to attend with us?”

Heather gave him a long look. “I’m not sure if I should call your bluff. Would you really endure such a trial just to prove me wrong?”

“The difficulty you have, ma’am, is that if you call my bluff and I don’t fold, you’ll have to attend the lectures yourself. Is it really worth that just to watch me squirm?”

Heather gave a peal of laughter. “You are the most exasperating man, Captain. It’s impossible to put you out of temper.”

“It can definitely be done, ma’am. You should talk to my brother.”

“Goodness, why ever would I do that?”

“I’ve no idea. Silly notion, forget I mentioned it. Will you ride with me tomorrow? Major van Daan has offered me the pick of their stable. I’m sure I can find suitable horses.”

“I would love to, but I will provide my own horse. Fiona always brings several to town during the season, because she knows she looks good on horseback and likes to show off. I can borrow one of hers.”

“Excellent. I hope the weather holds.”

They rode together through the cold weeks of February and into early March, danced at every ball and took long walks through the London parks, trailed by Heather’s uninterested maid. She told him about her husband, about the sixteenth century castle she had inherited near the village of Comrie and about the lands and people who had become her responsibility through her marriage. Gervase talked of his parents, his career in the army and of the extensive estate in Bedfordshire that he intended one day to make his home.

“Most of the family estates are entailed, of course, and went to my brother. I didn’t mind, it’s the way things are done. It’s why I joined the army when I was younger. I wanted a career of my own, to make my way in the world. I didn’t want to depend on him. My mother always understood that. She inherited the estate from a childless uncle and made it over to me as soon as I came of age. She lives there now and keeps house for me. She doesn’t get on particularly well with Alverstone either.”

“It must be a great joy to him, to be so universally loved.”

Gervase spluttered with laughter. “I think he strives to deserve it,” he said, when he could speak again. “You were able to inherit Comrie Castle unentailed, I gather.”

“Yes. There’s no title to inherit, just the lands. If we’d had a son they’d have gone to him, with me to manage them until he was older, but we never had children. I wish we had.” Heather smiled unselfconsciously. “Alex had several male cousins who were most put out when he left everything to me, but he was perfectly entitled to do so.”

“I think you had a very happy marriage, ma’am.”

“I did. I was the most fortunate of women.”

The sadness in her voice pierced Gervase’s heart. It was unworthy he knew, to envy a dead man, but sometimes he could not help it. As the weeks passed, it was becoming more and more clear to him that his feelings for Heather MacLeod went well beyond friendship, but he was by no means sure that she felt the same way. Clearly, she enjoyed his company, and Gervase suspected that to the outside world their uncomplicated friendship looked very much like courtship, but he worried that to Heather it was nothing than a pleasant way to pass her time in London. He was beginning to understand why she had locked herself away in her grey stone tower at the edge of the Highlands for so long. Heather MacLeod had been passionately devoted to her husband and Gervase was not sure she would ever be ready for another man to take his place.

It grieved Gervase, because he wanted more, and he was becoming conscious that he had very little time. He received regular letters from his regiment, informing him of arrangements for travelling to Portugal and he was torn between the usual sense of anticipation at the beginning of a new campaign and a feeling of misery that if he sailed away from Heather without at least making a push to tell her of his feelings, he would lose any chance with her. It could be several years before he returned to England, and by then she would probably have met somebody else.

His commanding officer had returned to Leicestershire, offering several wholly unsolicited pieces of advice about Gervase’s courtship before he left. Gervase was glad to see him go. His friendship with Paul van Daan was of long-standing and he generally enjoyed his commander’s lively sense of humour, but his relationship with Heather was too new and too precious to be the subject of even the most well-meaning banter. Gervase fretted pointlessly at the problem. He knew that the only possible solution was to pluck up the courage to speak to her before he had to leave, but he was discovering that it was far easier to display courage in the face of a French cavalry charge than when faced with making an offer of marriage to a young woman who might well say no. The weeks flew past, and Gervase was beginning to dread the arrival of orders to return to duty immediately, which would rob him of any chance of speaking to Heather. He needed to gather his courage in both hands and take the risk, and he needed to do it soon.

They rode out on a bright Spring morning towards Barnet, where the horse fair sprawled out over several fields. Gervase was under no illusion that he would find a suitable opportunity to propose on this day, but he was in dire need of new horses. He had several excellent hunters in his stables in Bedfordshire but none of them were suitable for the long hours and difficult conditions of campaign life.

It was many years since he had been to Barnet Fair, and he discovered that Heather had never been. She was openly delighted with the eclectic mix of market stalls, sideshows, food and drink booths and huge pens where cattle and horses were displayed for sale. The buying and selling of livestock was the real purpose of the fair and farmers and landowners rubbed shoulders with private customers looking to buy a riding hack or a pair of carriage horses.

It was crowded and noisy. Gervase had attended such fairs in several countries and entertained Heather with stories of India as they stabled their borrowed horses in a temporary horse pen and left them under the watchful eye of one of the Van Daan’s grooms. They made their way through the throng to the horse pens, accompanied by Southworth, Gervase’s own groom. Southworth had accompanied Gervase on campaign for ten years and knew exactly what he was looking for in an officer’s mount.

Gervase had wondered if Heather would be bored by the laborious process of selecting and purchasing horses, but she seemed to enjoy herself. She was a good horsewoman and was knowledgeable enough to make intelligent comments about the various animals. They wandered through the pens, stopping every now and then to examine a promising mount and Gervase had to force himself to pay attention to the horses, since he actually needed to buy some, instead of watching Heather.

It was afternoon by the time he had made his selection and agreed the arrangements for delivering the horses. They spent the rest of the day at the fair, wandering through the market stalls, eating hot pasties in a crowded food tent and drinking cider at a rickety table overlooking the huge field where a racetrack had been laid out. In addition to its commercial purposes, Barnet Fair was famous for its sports, and both horse racing and boxing matches attracted visitors, not only from London, but also from the surrounding counties.

Heather disclaimed any interest in watching the races and the entirely masculine crowd of sportsmen surrounding the boxing ring was clearly unsuitable for a lady. The groom who had looked after their horses told them that the Prince of Wales had arrived with a party of friends for the boxing and was expected to remain for the races. It seemed like an excellent time to leave before the light began to fade and the fair grew even more rowdy.

Heather was unusually quiet on the ride back into town, but it was a comfortable silence. Gervase rode beside her, pleasantly tired after a very productive day, and decided that he was going to speak to her as soon as possible. If he had completely misread her feelings, it was better to know it. Today had clarified his own feelings and he no longer had any doubts.

Gervase was at the breakfast table two days later when the note was delivered. He did not recognise the hand, and he opened it and began to read, his teacup halfway to his mouth. After the first few lines he put the cup down and pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. It was from Heather MacLeod, a pleasant note informing him that she had made the decision to return home to Scotland almost immediately.

Gervase read the letter again. There was no mistaking the warm, friendly tone of her farewell. She thanked him for his friendship and for the many occasions when he had escorted her and expressed her hope that they would meet again at some future date. Gervase, depressed, tried to imagine how that might come about and could not. When they had parted after their day at the fair, she had given no hint of any intention to go home so soon. He found himself running over their conversations in his head, wondering if he had said or done something to upset her. He did not think he had. Foolish to think this was about him. It was looking increasingly likely that Heather MacLeod had not considered him at all when making her decision.

The thought hurt, but at the same time it was a call to action. Gervase realised that he could not allow her to leave without at least trying to tell her how he felt about her. It would be awkward for her and painfully embarrassing for him if she rejected his proposal, but it would be far worse if he just let her walk out of his life. He was in love with her and had begun to believe that she might feel the same way about him. If he was wrong, then he needed to know it and he could not put this off any longer or he might miss his opportunity.

***

Heather had been prepared for her family to object to her sudden decision to go home, but she had not been prepared for the ferocity of the storm.

She made the announcement at breakfast, dropping it casually into a conversation about Lord Crawleigh’s lame horse and the likelihood of rain that day. Neither topic served as an effective screen. Both Crawleigh and Fiona stopped their conversation and turned to stare at Heather.

“Going home? When?”

“On Friday, I think,” Heather said lightly. “I’ll make the arrangements today. I’ll travel post.”

“Heather, you cannot. We are promised to Lord and Lady Jersey on Saturday and there is the Mortimer’s ball on Monday. You have so many engagements.”

“I have made a list,” Heather said, keeping her voice steady. “I will write to all of them with my apologies, Fiona, I am not so rag-mannered as to leave that to you.”

“It seems fairly rag-mannered to walk out on your family halfway through a visit without so much as a conversation,” Crawleigh said bluntly. Heather shot him a look.

“May I remind you, dear brother, that this is not the visit I had planned? You took control of my time without so much as a by-your-leave, as though I were a silly girl of eighteen, and I think I’ve been very patient about it. I’ve had enough now and I want to go home and get on with my life.”

“What life? Mooning about the castle and discussing cattle feed and crop rotation with the farmhands? Don’t pretend you’ve not enjoyed yourself, Heather, I’m neither blind nor stupid. Three days ago you were talking about ordering new gowns for the warmer weather. What’s got into you?”

“I have enjoyed myself and I am very grateful,” Heather said between gritted teeth. “But it is enough. I don’t belong in London. I miss home. I want to go home.”

She was horrified at the little break in her voice. Fiona heard it and motioned for the servants to leave the room, then gave Crawleigh a look.

“Don’t bully her, Charles. Heather, what has happened to upset you? Do not spin me some tale, if you please, I’ve known you for too long. You had no intention of leaving early, this is a sudden decision.”

Heather got up and walked over to the long windows which overlooked the square. “That does not mean it is the wrong decision.”

“Is this about Clevedon?” her brother demanded. “Does he know you’re about to head for the Scottish hills, dear sister? Or were you just going to leave him without a word?”

Heather felt a rush of sheer fury. She spun around. “And now we have reached the truth of it, have we not, Charles? You do not give a rush about me or my feelings or how difficult this is for me. You just want me respectably married again so that the likes of Lord Alverstone do not whisper behind their hands that your sister is a little odd.”

Crawleigh got to his feet, almost upsetting the chair in his anger. “How dare you say that to me? I’ve offered you nothing but sympathy since Alex died, he was my friend. But you…”

“And now you’ve found another one of your friends to marry me off to…”

“That’s enough!” Fiona broke in angrily. “Sit down immediately, both of you. I do not care how upset you are, you will not yell at each other across the breakfast table and make a gift of our family business to the servants. Sit down.”

Heather stood irresolute. She wanted to run to her room, probably slamming several doors on the way, but the expression on Fiona’s face made her pause. Her sister-in-law was generally very placid, but she looked furious now. After a moment, Crawleigh seated himself again. Heather stalked back to her chair and did the same.

“Have you written to Captain Clevedon, Heather?” Fiona asked.

“Yes. I sent a note to him this morning.”

“I hope it was civil,” Crawleigh growled.

“It was more than civil,” Heather snapped. “I expressed my warmest friendship and appreciation for all his kindness and hoped we should meet again one day.”

“You’ll be glad you said that, sister, if you get the news he’s been blown apart by French cannon before the end of the year,” Crawleigh said unforgivably.

Heather burst into tears. She got to her feet and ran to the door of the breakfast parlour just as the butler opened it.

“Captain Clevedon, my Lord,” Campbell said, sounding surprised. “I believe he is engaged to go for a walk with Mrs MacLeod.”

Heather had completely forgotten the arrangement. She froze for a long moment, staring into Clevedon’s astonished eyes. Clevedon looked back steadily, and Heather wondered how much of the altercation he had heard. Nobody moved or spoke.

Captain Clevedon was the first to recover. He stepped to one side, his eyes not leaving hers. “It’s all right,” he said gently. “Go on. But if you can bear to come back down, I would like to speak to you.”

Heather ran past him. She was crying too much to answer, but she was grateful for his quick understanding. It made her feel rather worse. She paused at the bottom of the wide, sweeping staircase and looked back. The Captain had just entered the parlour. Before the door closed, she heard his voice, using a tone she had never heard from him before.

“I heard every word of that, Crawleigh, and you can thank God there’s a lady present or I’d punch you so hard you’d still be unconscious at dinner. Lady Crawleigh, your servant, ma’am. Sorry to arrive so early.”

***

After ten minutes of painfully stilted conversation, Lady Crawleigh excused herself to see how her sister-in-law did. When she had gone, Gervase looked at Crawleigh. The Earl groaned.

“That expression is the reason I sold out, Clevedon. I couldn’t bear you looking at me for another week like a weevil in a tack biscuit.”

“You sold out when you inherited the title, Crawleigh. It had nothing to do with me. And just at the moment, I’d say the weevil is ahead of you for brains.”

“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. I lost my temper.”

“It isn’t me you should be apologising to, you bloody idiot. Of all the things to say to the poor girl, given what she’s been through.”

“Clevedon, I love my sister dearly, but you have no idea how infuriating she can be. I’m assuming you had her note.”

“Yes, it’s why I came so early. I read it twice and decided she’d forgotten that she’d promised to go for a walk with me today. I wanted to get over here before she remembered and sent me another note to cry off.”

“That’s the reason you’re a captain and I’m a member of the idle classes. You always were a planner. I’m surprised you’re not angry with her yourself. She’s been leading you a fine dance for more than two months. It was unforgiveable to turn you off with a note because she has a whim to go home all of a sudden. I’ve no idea what’s got into her. I would have sworn…”

He broke off realising what he had been about to say. Gervase grinned. “I would have sworn as well. She’s not been leading me a dance. Your sister doesn’t have it in her to behave that way. Whatever has happened to upset her, she’s not being deliberately difficult.”

“Really? I do hope you manage to marry her, Clevedon, you’re far nicer to her than I am.”

“After today’s effort, I will not argue with you.”

“Look, I’ll ring for more tea for you and then I’ll go up and tell her…”

“If you go anywhere near her, Crawleigh, I will beat you senseless, I swear it. I’ll have the tea and you can pass me the Times. I’m going to wait.”

Thirty minutes passed. Gervase read the newspaper, which contained nothing of interest at all. Crawleigh worked his way through a pile of letters. Eventually he looked up.

“How long are you going to wait?”

“Until she comes downstairs.”

“What if she stays upstairs?”

“Then I’m staying for dinner.”

Crawleigh rolled his eyes. “Is it too early for brandy, do you think?”

“Yes.” Gervase took out his watch. “Give it another hour.”

“Do I have to sit here with you?”

“You can go to the devil for all I care.”

There was a sound in the hallway and then the door opened and Heather appeared. She was dressed in a stylish full-length blue pelisse, complete with military-style epaulettes and frogging. Only the hem and lace collar of her white gown were visible, and she wore neat black half boots and a cream-coloured bonnet trimmed with feathers. Gervase had not seen the pelisse before and, as he rose and bowed, he thought how well the colour suited her fair hair and skin. He moved forward and took her hand, raising it to his lips.

“Mrs MacLeod, I’m so glad you came down. As you are dressed for walking, I’m hoping you haven’t come to tell me you’re crying off. I’m sorry I arrived so early. I wanted to speak to Crawleigh, but it was thoughtless of me.”

“Not at all, Captain. You weren’t responsible for my dramatic exit, my brother has the tact of a bear.”

Crawleigh got up. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” he said morosely. “Good day, Clevedon. Feel free to drown her in the Serpentine if the mood takes you.”

When he had gone, Gervase looked at his love. She had been crying, but had done a good job of disguising it with a little powder and seemed perfectly calm. He took her arm and they made their way through the grey early afternoon towards the gates of Hyde Park, with Heather’s maid following at a respectable distance. Gervase realised he was dry mouthed with nerves. His strategy to speak to her alone had succeeded very well, but he was not sure that he could carry the next line of her defences.

“Are you really going back to Scotland?” Gervase asked, once they were in the park and walking along a tree lined avenue. He realised that the usual easy flow of their conversation had dried up and he was struggling to know how to raise the subject.

“Yes, I think so. I’ve done as I promised and spent a season in London. I’ve ridden in the Row and attended the balls and the receptions and the routs. I’ve been entertained by the Prince of Wales and eaten the worst supper I’ve ever been offered in my life, and I’ve seen the very latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. I’ve even been to Horse Guards and seen some very pretty soldiers on parade. I’m exhausted with all the frivolity.”

“You haven’t danced at Almack’s yet,” Gervase pointed out.

Heather laughed aloud. “The underworld will freeze over before they allow me through those hallowed doors, Captain, and you know it. Besides, I’ve no wish to go.”

“The suppers are even worse than Prinny’s, and they make the gentlemen wear knee breeches.”

“Then it’s no place for a – what did the Earl call me? A nondescript dwarf in last Season’s gowns, wasn’t it?”

“My brother’s manners are as appalling as his arrogance. I am ashamed to be related to him.”

“I would be too. I like Lady Clarissa Flood, though, it will be a pity if her parents shuffle her into it. He’ll lead her a dog’s life.”

“I cannot allow myself to think about it, ma’am, since I can do nothing to prevent it.”

Heather gave him one of her grave looks, as though she was assessing his sincerity, then she gave a rather sad smile.

“I feel the same way. But it’s another good reason to be home in Scotland, so that I don’t have to watch it. I’ll miss our talks though. When do you leave for Portugal?”

“I had a letter this morning. I’ll need to leave for Southampton in about three weeks. Major van Daan has given me leave to go straight there with no need to travel up to Melton first.”

“That’s good, as you’ll have time to say goodbye to your friends in London.”

“I thought I might go back to Ampthill, to spend a week or two there and to see my mother. I think I’ve been social enough for a while.”

“Won’t you find that hard back with your regiment?”

“The regiment…oh, you mean my fellow officers? That’s different, they’re my friends.”

Heather’s smile broadened. “The way you say that makes me wish I’d had the opportunity to meet them.”

“Oh, I wish you had too. Meeting me in London like this, during the Season, will have given you very little idea of me really. This is not…these are not really my friends.”

Another awkward silence fell. Behind them, Gervase could hear the maid sniffing noisily as though she intended it to be heard. He turned to look at her and his companion giggled.

“She doesn’t like walking,” she said softly. “I wish they’d stop this nonsense about having me chaperoned every time I walk outside the house, it’s ridiculous. I’ve been married and widowed and I’ve no reputation to worry about.”

“That’s not true and you know it, ma’am. London is very censorious.”

“It can be as censorious as it likes, I’m unlikely to hear it from my crumbling pile of stone in Scotland.”

Gervase laughed. “Is that another one of my brother’s remarks?”

“No, that one was Lady Commyngton. Though to be fair, I thi