A Regimental Christmas is a short story based in Lisbon during the winter of 1810-11 while Wellington’s army occupied the Lines of Torres Vedras against Massena’s French army and the Portuguese civilians who had fled behind the lines suffered and starved in the cause of scorching the land and driving the French out. For readers of the Peninsular War Saga, this fits into book two, An Irregular Regiment, while Paul and Anne are based in Lisbon for the winter.
A Regimental Christmas
After two weeks of miserably damp weather, two days before Christmas dawned exceptionally bright, with wispy clouds decorating a brilliant blue sky. It was cold, not with the freezing weather of England but certainly much colder than was usual for Portugal, and as Colonel Paul van Daan watched his wife emerge from the officers’ block to watch early drill, he could see her breath in the chill air.
There were twelve companies on the parade ground. To the fore, neatly turned out and moving through the drill with immaculate timing was the light company of the 110th infantry under the temporary command of Lieutenant Michael O’Reilly. At the sight of Anne, the Irishman saluted but did not pause in his work. Anne stood watching, shivering slightly, and Paul looked around and saw one of her maids just coming out of the block.
“Captain Corrigan, take over, please,” he said. “Keren, do me a favour and get my wife’s cloak, would you? She’s going to freeze out here like this.”
“Yes, sir.” Anne’s maid disappeared into the block and Paul took his wife’s hands between his.
“Gloves?” he enquired and Anne laughed.
“I do own some.”
“In order to work, they need to be on your hands. You’re hopeless, Nan.”
“I am.” Anne was watching the drill. “They’re looking better,” she commented.
Colonel van Daan turned, running an experienced eye over the companies. In addition to his light company there was a company of new recruits, recently arrived from the second battalion, eight companies of the 112th infantry which had been in complete disarray when they arrived in Lisbon and the seventh and eighth company of the 110th who were serving directly under him for the first time.
“Better,” he admitted. “They still need some work.”
Anne laughed, accepting her cloak from her maid with a smile of thanks. “Paul, they are never going to be good enough for you.”
“They will when they look as good as my light company, girl of my heart. What are your plans for the day?”
“Breakfast. Then I’m riding into Lisbon with Caroline, I’ve some last minute shopping to do. After that…”
“Take an escort.”
“Keren and Teresa are coming with us, Paul. I…”
“Take an escort. Don’t look at me like that, Nan. I know Lisbon is usually very safe. But just at the moment there are refugees dying in the streets. It’s not a good place to be.”
Anne looked at him soberly. “I know,” she said. “I hate it, Paul. Those poor people.”
Paul nodded, without speaking. Retreating south after his victory at Bussaco, Lord Wellington had instructed the Portuguese population to go with him, leaving the land scorched so that Marshal Massena’s French army would have nothing to live on. The success of this had been very mixed. Some people had refused to go, believing they would be able to hide from the advancing French troops. Others had fled as instructed, crowding behind Wellington’s defensive Lines of Torres Vedras, but too many of them had left food hidden, hoping to be able to find it when they were finally able to return to their farms and villages. The French had become experts in discovering caches and it had enabled them to remain outside the lines for far longer than Wellington had thought possible.
Paul had expected to remain with his battalion up at the lines or possibly outside them patrolling the border along with General Robert Craufurd’s light division. His battalion was still there under the temporary and very competent command of Captain Johnny Wheeler and Captain Carl Swanson but in the aftermath of Bussaco, Lord Wellington had given Paul the glad news of his promotion to colonel in charge of the 110th, a command that Paul had wanted, but not expected to achieve so young.
He had also given him a temporary posting for winter quarters which had been less welcome. In preparation for the next campaigning season, Wellington wanted to ensure that his army was properly supplied with sufficient transport and instead of protecting the border with Craufurd, Paul found himself in Lisbon struggling with requisitions and orders and the knotty problem of the 112th infantry, a battalion which had been sent out under two very young and inexperienced officers. The 112th had proved a bigger headache than the commissariat and the quartermaster’s department combined. Many of them were ill with fever after their time in the Indies, discipline and training were appalling and there were only two officers to staff eight companies. At times during the past few months, buried in paperwork and working insane hours to try to prepare the 112th for combat, Paul had contemplated shooting his chief.
Paul looked over at his wife, who was watching drill. They had been married now for less than six months although he had known her for two years before that, but this would be their first Christmas as a married couple. He was aware of a sense of guilt about his dead wife along with a sense of pure joy at spending the season with Anne. Christmas on campaign often passed without more than a passing acknowledgement but this year was different. They were away from the war zone and there was time to enjoy the season. And he was with Anne.
“Is there anything I need to do, bonny lass? I’ve a feeling this is the easiest Christmas since I joined the army.”
Anne turned, smiling. “You’re all right, Colonel. Get on with training. Just remember we have this ball at Dom Alfonso’s tonight.”
“I’m trying to forget,” Paul said and she laughed and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
Paul moved back towards his men, aware of covert smiles from some of them. There were men of his light company who had been with him since he had first joined eight years ago and they had followed the difficult progress of his love affair with the lovely young wife of Captain Robert Carlyon with considerable sympathy. Anne was not the only officer’s wife to have accompanied her husband to war, and not the only one to have found herself stranded in the middle of a difficult retreat, but in Paul’s experience she was the only one to have made herself quite so beloved by the enlisted men. She had marched with his wounded and his light company through the difficult weeks of the retreat from Talavera and by the time she had been returned to her undeserving spouse in Lisbon, the 110th had adopted her as their own.
A voice from the far side of the training ground interrupted his thoughts. “Sergeant Williams! Get them back into line, we’ll do that again, I’ve seen a flock of sheep with more precision! Move it, you slovenly bastards, unless you want to spend the rest of Christmas practicing short order drills out here with me!”
Paul grinned and moved to stand beside Lieutenant O’Reilly of the light company. “Mr Manson’s in good voice this morning,” he said softly.
“Mr Manson isn’t giving that lot an inch,” O’Reilly said, equally quietly. “It’s working, too, they’re looking bloody good. In fact, I might give them an outside chance against our seventh and eighth companies just now.”
Paul glanced over at the seventh. “Where’s Longford?” he asked.
“No idea, sir. Still in bed?”
“Even he’s not that stupid.” Paul raised his voice. “Mr Fenwick, where’s Captain Longford?”
“He’s in Lisbon, sir. Was invited to dinner with the captain of the Berwick. He sent a message just now with apologies, he was taken ill but will be back later.”
“Just in time to accompany his wife to this ball and with no time to do any bloody work!” Paul snapped. “All right, Mr Fenwick, carry on. See if you can run that again a bit faster, will you? The French are surprisingly quick you’ll find.”
“Yes, sir,” Fenwick said woodenly. He moved back to his company, yelling an order and Paul went back to O’Reilly who was grinning.
“He does not like to be told,” he said.
“No, he doesn’t. But he’s getting better. He’s a very good officer, it’s not his fault he’s been stuck with Longford all these years. He knows they’re not as good as they should be and it pisses him off, but he’s a worker.”
“Unlike his captain. You should leave him in charge of barracks tonight, serve him right.”
“It would. It wouldn’t be fair on Caroline, though and she can hardly attend without him. I’m leaving Sergeant Carter in charge of barracks. I know officially there ought to be a duty officer, but sod it, it’s Christmas and the French aren’t going to invade. If there’s a crisis, Carter knows where to find us.”
Paul had hired a carriage for his wife’s use while they were in Lisbon, although she seldom used it other than to attend evening parties. The local Portuguese grandees were very hospitable to the English officers in Lisbon. There were not many of them; most of Wellington’s troops were up at the lines, but there were a number of officers of the quartermaster’s department based in Lisbon along with a collection who were recovering from illness or injury. In addition, there was a battalion of one of the Borders regiments who had recently arrived to replace their existing battalion, and a dozen or more officers who had been granted leave during winter quarters.
Dom Alfonso’s house was in the upper part of Lisbon, not far from the villa which Paul rented, an elegant white building with graceful arched windows and a red tiled roof. Dona Juana had opened up the whole of the ground floor, with an orchestra playing in the largest salon for dancing and drinks and refreshments set out in several other rooms. For Anne’s sake, Paul had invited Captain Vincent Longford and his wife to accompany them in the carriage. His dislike of Longford did not extend to the man’s wife. Although she had only been with them for a few weeks, Paul liked what he had seen of Caroline Longford and he knew that his wife was enjoying her company. Anne did not make friends easily among the officers’ wives, many of whom tended to look down their noses at her unconventionality and to whisper behind their hands about past scandals, but if Caroline Longford had heard any of the gossip she gave no sign of it.
Paul glanced at his wife as they entered the brilliantly lit rooms to be greeted by their hostess. Anne was dressed in white, trimmed with black embroidery and a black sash. The gown was not new but the trimming was and he wondered whose idea it had been and who had done the embroidery, which was very effective. It was definitely not Anne, who regarded household sewing and fine embroidery with equal disdain. She wore her dark hair in smooth coils on her head pinned with one white silk rose and Paul was aware of male heads turning as they made their way into the room.
He led her first onto the dance floor, enjoying dancing with her, remembering the first time he had done so at her coming out ball in Yorkshire more than three years ago. She had been seventeen and he had been on temporary secondment to the 115th Yorkshire, a man already married with two young children, who should not have been flirting with the lovely daughter of Sir Matthew Howard. He met her eyes and she smiled at him.
“You’re a good dancer, Colonel.”
“So are you, Mrs van Daan. I can feel them watching me here. Once I let you go, I am not going to get anywhere near you for the rest of the evening.”
“Better make the most of me now then, Colonel.”
He grinned and raised her hand to his lips. “You look very lovely, lass, I can’t say I blame them.”
The music ended and he surrendered her to his officers and went to join Captain Corrigan, watching as she danced her way through the evening. He danced with Caroline Longford and with several Portuguese ladies and reclaimed his wife finally as the supper bell rang, neatly removing her from three disappointed ensigns of the Royal Marines.
“They’ll be crying into their wine,” he said, leading her to a table. “Wait there, I’ll get you some food. And if I find anybody else sitting there when I get back I’m going to challenge him.”
“You’re so dramatic, Paul,” his wife said, arranging her skirts elegantly. Paul collected food and champagne and seated himself opposite her.
“Caroline is proving very popular,” Anne said, watching her friend who was seated at a table surrounded by a collection of young officers who were falling over themselves to provide her with supper.
“She is. I don’t see her husband fighting them off, mind. It’ll serve him right if she finds herself some pretty young officer of the line who will treat her properly.”
“I quite agree,” Anne said serenely, tucking in to cold chicken. “After all, I did.”
Paul choked on his wine. “Are you calling me pretty?” he demanded.
Anne put her head on one side and surveyed him thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I’d go that far,” she said. “But you’re definitely easy on the eye, Colonel, especially in dress uniform.”
Paul was laughing. “Make the most of it, girl of my heart, in a few weeks’ time you’ll have forgotten I was ever this clean.”
“Clean,” Anne said thoughtfully. “Now that reminds me of something.”
“What?” Paul asked, faintly suspicious and his wife gave him a smile sweet enough to chill him.
“Nothing you need to worry about, love. Do you still have that meeting in the morning with the Lisbon Council?”
“I do. I’m trying to get them to set up a more organised system for supplying the refugees. There is food coming in from England but it’s not getting to where it’s needed.”
She was smiling, sipping her champagne. “It’s not really your problem, Colonel.”
“No. And in a few weeks’ time I’ll have to leave it alone. But at the moment…”
He broke off, slightly sheepishly and she laughed. “Well I’m busy tomorrow. But if you want me to come to a meeting with you after Christmas, Paul, let me know.”
“I wonder what they would say?” he asked.
“Oh they’d be appalled. A woman applying herself to men’s business? Shocking. But that won’t stop me if you’d let me.”
Paul studied her for a moment. He was thinking of his gentle sister-in-law, Patience, who was rearing his children and taking care of his father and brother and who had probably never once stepped out of her domestic sphere. Anne’s willingness to become involved had surprised him when she had first arrived in Portugal with her first husband but he had become accustomed to it by now.
“Yes, why not?” he said. “You’ll shock the hell out of them, but that might do them some good. Come and dance with me, if you’re finished. I’ve just remembered how much I love you.”
They left under a soft new moon. Paul handed both women into the carriage and climbed in. The streets were very dark and quiet under a midnight hush, and he reached for his wife’s hand in the folds of her cape and held it, feeling very content. There had been times when he had railed against Lord Wellington for sending him on this posting, so far from what action there was, but tonight he felt a sense of gratitude to his commander for giving him this first Christmas with Anne beside him. He knew that the idea would not have occurred to his chief, who had thought only of the job he wanted done, but it had given Paul a brief spell of normality with his new wife before the war overtook them again.
There was a squeal of carriage brakes, and the vehicle lurched suddenly as one of the two horses reared up, whinnying in fright. Paul caught Caroline Longford who had been thrown forward and would have ended up on the floor. His own wife had managed to steady herself without aid.
“What the bloody hell was that?” Captain Longford demanded. “Sorry, ma’am, forgot myself.”
“Don’t worry about it, Captain. Paul…”
“I’ll see,” Paul said, his hand already on the carriage door. He jumped down onto the cobbled street and saw his coachman, lantern in hand, peering into the darkness. “What happened, Jose?”
“Your pardon, Colonel. Are the ladies injured?”
“No, they’re fine. What is it?”
“Beggars, sir.” Jose waved his whip in the direction of a huddled form by the side of the road. “Stupid fool almost got herself killed. Be off with you!”
The form shifted and began to move, hunched and shapeless in the darkness, and Paul hesitated, torn between a desire to find out if the woman was hurt and the wish to get his wife away from a dark street where anybody might be lurking. Lisbon was generally very safe, but he was not naive enough to believe that some of the refugees might not be desperate enough to snatch what they could. As he dithered, a sound emerged from the woman, a keening wail of distress. The woman spoke quickly, trying to quiet the noise, and behind him Paul heard the carriage door open.
“Paul, what was that?”
“I’ll find out. Get back inside, Nan.”
She had already jumped down and the lantern light picked out the gleam of pearls at her neck. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Nan, get back in the damned carriage, I’m not armed and you’re wearing a small fortune around your neck and in your ears. I’ll…”
His wife shot him a look which he could only partially see in the darkness. He suspected he should be grateful for that. “That was a child’s cry,” she said, and turned to the woman. “Wait,” she called, in Portuguese. “Are you hurt? Let me see.”
The woman turned. Paul could see nothing of her in the enveloping cloak apart from a flash of white face and enormous frightened eyes. His wife moved forward quickly and Paul bit back his urge to yell at her and followed.
“I am sorry, Senora,” the woman whispered. Anne had reached her and Paul saw her kneel down on the cobbles.
“Your children?” she asked.
“My sister and brother,” the woman said. Her voice was hoarse, but Paul realised that she was younger than he had first realised. “We are not hurt. Your coachman was quick…”
“Let me see her,” Anne said, gently but firmly, and the woman allowed her to draw the folds of the cloak back. “She’s ill.”
“Not fever, Senora, I promise you. Just hungry.”
Anne placed her hand on the forehead of the child in her arms, and then reached down and took one of the hands of the boy. He was probably five or six, Paul guessed, thin and shivering in a ragged jacket and bare feet. He wondered suddenly how tall his own son had grown now and felt unexpectedly sick at the thought that Francis might be the same age as this skeletal child.
“I’m not leaving them here,” Anne said.
There was a challenge in her voice. Paul heard it and felt himself smile.
“No. But lass, we can’t be sure there’s no sickness here, it’s rife in the refugee camps and I’m fairly sure that’s where these have come from.”
“I’m not afraid of fever, Paul, I’m never ill.”
“I know you’re not, but Caroline might be.”
“Then I’ll walk back with them.”
“You bloody won’t. God knows who could be lurking in some of these alleyways.” Paul looked around, and saw Caroline Longford looking out of the window. “Ma’am, don’t get out. Look, I’ll stay with them. Longford, get the ladies back to barracks, will you, and send the carriage back for me, it’s only ten minutes away.”
“I’ll wait with you,” Anne said.
Paul wanted to protest, but even a short time living with Anne had taught him the meaning of that particular tone of voice. He sighed.
“Get Caroline home, Longford,” he said. “Jose, come back as quickly as you can.”
It was silent in the dark street once the carriage had rattled away. Paul looked round at his wife. The woman had sat down on the cobbles. She was shivering violently, whether from cold or fear or some other cause that Paul could not see, he had no idea. Anne crouched beside the boy.
“What is your name?” she asked.
The child’s teeth were chattering. Paul saw Anne reach for the clasp of her cape and stopped her with a gentle hand.
“That gown wasn’t designed for a night under the stars, bonny lass. Here.”
He took off his red coat and draped it around the boy who looked up at him from startled dark eyes. Paul smiled slightly and crouched beside Anne.
“How old are you, Alfredo?” he asked in careful Portuguese.
“I have a son a little younger than you. And your sister?”
“Maria is two. Francisca is fifteen.”
He was startled, realising that the older girl was no more than a child herself. His wife was bending over the smallest child, talking gently to her sister, and after a moment the girl relinquished the child into Anne’s arms. Paul watched as she shifted the burden onto her shoulder, wrapping the velvet cape around her. He suspected that all three of them were filthy and probably crawling with lice but he had observed before how little such matters seemed to bother his wife. Something about the sight of her, murmuring softly to the child, touched his heart and he wondered if he might one day watch her with their own child in her arms. She had been married to her first husband for two years and had never conceived, while Paul had three older children, but there was no reason to suppose that she could not.
The sound of carriage wheels interrupted his thoughts and he rose and turned to the boy. “That sounds like our transport. Up you come, lad.”
He scooped the boy up and lifted him into the carriage then helped Anne and the older girl to climb in. They were silent on the short drive back to barracks.
Both his wife’s maids awaited their arrival having clearly been warned by Caroline Longford. Paul stepped back and watched as she gave instructions for the care and accommodation of the refugees. He knew that she would not relax until she had made sure that they were settled, so he took himself up to their rooms and poured a brandy, stoking up the fire. She joined him around half an hour later, looking tired, and he observed that the white of her gown was muddy from kneeling in the street. She saw his gaze and looked down, then up again, smiling ruefully.
“It might come out.”
“I don’t care if it doesn’t, love. Come to bed, you look completely shattered.”
“I am. No early bugle, thank God.”
Anne slept later than usual the following day and joined him as he was finishing breakfast. She was dressed in one of the plain dark gowns she wore when working in the hospital and had the abstracted air of a woman with plans for the day. Paul, his mind on the approaching meeting, kissed her and left, riding the short distance into Lisbon at an easy pace. The air was warmer than it had been and it was a pleasant ride along roads lined with trees.
The meeting was less pleasant. Paul was quietly seething by mid-afternoon when he set off to ride back to the barracks. He knew that he needed to step back and let it go. It had not been part of his brief from Wellington to get involved with the problem of Lisbon’s refugees and back with his regiment he would have no time or opportunity for further involvement but seeing the misery every time he rode into town made it impossible for him to ignore.
Riding through the archway which led into the Sir John Moore barracks, Paul reined in, aware of unexpected activity. He sat his horse, looking around him, and the sight drove the refugees from his mind.
On the far side of the yard, two men were seated on upturned crates, while a barber worked on each of them with scissors and razor, bowls of soapy water beside them. One, he recognised as Garner from the light company who had been a barber before joining up; the other was young and dark and probably Portuguese from one of the shops in town. A queue of men stood patiently waiting, and Paul was astonished to realise that each one of them had damp hair and the air of men who had recently bathed.
Further around he saw Charlton, one of several cobblers in his ranks, working industriously at his last. Outside one of the barracks blocks, somebody had set up two long tables and there were piles of new kit laid out. Behind it sat Corporal Hammond of his light company with Captain Corrigan, his temporary quartermaster beside him, checking off a list as Sergeant Carter and Sergeant Williams inspected the kit of each man queueing up. These were the men who had already been washed and shorn and Paul, staring at them in complete astonishment, realised that he had probably never seen his men this clean all at the same time.
“You’re back nice and early, sir,” a voice said beside him, and Paul turned to see Private Jenson, his orderly, limping towards him. “Shall I take him for you?”
Paul dismounted, unable to take his eyes from the neat lines. “Jenson, what in God’s name is going on?” he demanded.
“Annual bath and kit replenishment, apparently, sir.”
“Is that…I mean does that happen? I don’t seem to remember it happening before.”
“No, sir, nor do I. But then you weren’t married to Mrs van Daan before. She lined them up the minute you were out of here and had the officers and NCOs march them down to the river to bathe. They bloody hated it, it was freezing, but who’s going to argue with her? Nearly done now, sir, these are the last few.”
Paul could feel himself beginning to smile. “What a bloody brilliant idea,” he said softly.
“Yes, sir. Women and children too. She’s bought half a dozen bolts of material from the warehouse in town for new clothing for them. A couple of them were crying like babies.”
“I suspect they’ll be busy sewing for the next week or two. Christ, they’ll wonder what’s happened when we get back to Pere Negro. I wonder if she’ll try and do this to my entire regiment next year.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her, sir,” Jenson said placidly. “Corporal Hammond is keeping a record of what gets taken from the stores…”
“Good. Do me a favour and make sure the lads know it doesn’t come out of their pay. I’ll make up the difference as a Christmas gift. Although if they’ve lost half of it by Easter I will bleed the bastards dry for it!”
Jenson laughed. “Yes, sir. I’ll get him rubbed down and bring up hot water for you in a bit.”
“Thanks, Jenson.” Paul looked around. “Freddie?”
“I was going to save this until tomorrow, but actually I’d rather do it now when it’s just us.”
He put his hand into his coat pocket and drew out a small item which he handed to Jenson. “There’s a bottle of rum from my wife as well. This is from me. Happy Christmas, Corporal.”
Jenson looked down at the cloth in his hand and then up. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “Go and find your wife before she gets any more bright ideas. Mind you, barracks will smell better than normal this Christmas.”
The weather had turned again the following morning. Paul awoke early as usual, and slid quietly from the bed so as not to disturb Anne. He went through to their sitting room to dress and then went to the window and was surprised in the early light to find the rosy glow of sunrise falling over a world turned white with a rare frost. Lisbon could get cold at times but he had never seen it this bad and it made him smile, thinking of Christmas at home. He missed his children at moments like this, and thinking of his last Christmas with them, when snow had fallen in Dublin, he missed suddenly, with an ache of loss, his pretty gentle first wife, Rowena, who had died giving birth to her namesake. She had worn a fur trimmed cape that cold December and he had walked to church holding her hand and thought how lucky he was. Going to the door of the bedroom he looked at Anne, asleep in a tangle of long limbs and black hair and wondered how one man could be that fortunate twice.
He went down to the mess and stood still in the doorway, looking about him in some surprise.
“You’re up early, sir. Merry Christmas.”
Paul turned with a smile at his mess sergeant who was approaching with a mug of tea. “Merry Christmas, George. Who did all this?”
George Kelly looked around at the greenery which decked the long dining room and grinned. “Mr Manson and Mr Grey with a few of the lads did it yesterday after dinner, sir.”
“I’d a feeling they were up to something. How are our guests, any idea?”
“Doing well, sir. Not much wrong with them apart from half starved. Mrs van Daan went shopping for clothes for the children and she’s found a dress for the lassie. She’s settled them in the infirmary for now, sir, she said it would be warmer.”
Paul nodded and set off across the frosty parade ground and between several of the barracks blocks to the infirmary. He found Teresa, his wife’s Spanish maid already there and she was accompanied, to his surprise, by Sergeant Carter of his light company.
“Morning, sir. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Danny. What the devil are you doing up at this hour? Even I’m not calling early drill on Christmas morning.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you, sir. Came down to see if Teresa needed any help. We thought our refugees might like to come and have breakfast with the lads, sir.”
Paul surveyed the refugees in some amusement. All three of them had clearly been bathed. The boy was dressed in dark trousers and a rough woollen jacket which was a little too big for him and black slippers which looked a fairly good fit. His younger sister was dressed in an embroidered linen dress like those sold in the markets in Lisbon with a warm woollen shawl about her shoulders. She was seated on the lap of the older girl who wore a plain dark gown which Paul suspected was one of Anne’s winter dresses.
Paul looked at the older girl and summoned his Portuguese, wishing that he had studied harder or had Anne’s easy ability to pick up languages.
“It is Francisca, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. Your lady was so kind. The children were starving.”
He could see, in the cold light of morning, that she had been starving herself. Her wrists were stick thin and the bones on her face were too prominent, her face gaunt. For all that, it was a face of some distinction, her hair newly washed, falling in red gold waves over the blue wool of the shawl Anne had found for her. Her eyes were an unusual shade of green and she was small and delicately made. He rather thought, that with a few weeks of good food and enough rest, she might prove to be a very pretty girl.
“You’re safe,” he said quietly. “We’ll take care of you now, and when you’re all well enough we’ll make sure you’ve somewhere to stay and some work to keep you. Where are you from?”
“Coimbra, sir, a farm about six miles from the town.”
“And your parents?”
“My mother died when Maria was born. My father and another sister died this winter. We had no food, sir, and they got sick.”
“I am sorry,” Paul said gently. “Rest and keep warm. We will take care of you.”
His wife joined him in the mess for breakfast, dressed warmly in green velvet, and he kissed her. “Merry Christmas, bonny lass.”
“Our first,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of Rowena, today, we had Christmas dinner with you last year. Are you all right, Paul?”
He thought how like her it was. “I’ve been thinking of her too,” he admitted. “I can’t believe it was only a year ago. And I can’t believe how good it feels to be here with you and how bad I feel that she’s not with me. Very confusing.”
Anne took his hand. “I miss her too,” she said gently. “But she’d have wanted this, Paul.”
“I know she would. Come and eat, love.”
They ate and then she went to speak to his officers to wish them happy Christmas. Paul sat for a while, watching her move along the table and thought how easily she had fitted into his life and that of his regiment.
She stopped beside Lieutenant Manson, talking to him, and Paul saw him smile. Manson did not smile enough. After a difficult start in the regiment, he had begun to settle down and had seemed much happier but the arrival of Captain Longford had caused him to withdraw back into his shell. Longford was unpopular with all the officers of the 110th but he had taken a particular dislike to Manson and Paul was very aware that he took every opportunity to make the boy’s life difficult. Glancing over at Longford, Paul smiled at the expression on his face. Anne’s obvious liking for his youngest officer did not help matters; Longford was patently jealous.
With no English church nearby, Paul had managed to find a German minister who had agreed to give a Christmas service in English. He had not made attendance compulsory for his men but he was faintly touched when they crowded into the empty barrack block where he had planned to hold the service. Eventually Anne went to speak to Mr Gruber and his wife and some time was spent moving the proceedings out onto the parade ground where all the men could attend. There was little organised religion in Wellington’s army, but Paul supposed that on this one day the familiar ritual reminded some of them of home.
Christmas dinner was served in the mess with a good deal of wine and a lot of hilarity. Over in the barracks the men would be eating their own meal, followed by dancing and probably a good deal more drinking through the evening. It was good to be able to let them celebrate for once, without having to worry too much about sentries and the possibility of attack.
Aware that he was neglecting his social duties, Paul turned with a smile to Caroline Longford who was seated beside him, but realised she was looking beyond him down the room and he followed her gaze and saw, to his considerable surprise, Sergeant Carter in the doorway. He got up.
Paul moved forward. “All right, Sergeant.” He looked over at Anne. “Carry on,” he said, and she nodded. Paul went out into the hallway.
“What’s going on, Carter. Don’t tell me the French have been sighted?”
“Not that I know of, sir. If they’ve made it past our lads and the light division, I’ll be very surprised.”
“Sir – it’s the lassie. The girl you brought in from town.”
Paul shook his head to clear it of the wine he had drunk. “Francisca? What is it, Carter, is she ill?”
“No, sir. We brought them through to the barracks, sir – for dinner. The women are in there with us eating. Didn’t want to leave them alone. Didn’t realise straight away – we’ve all had a few drinks, sir.”
“You and me both, Carter. It’s bloody Christmas. What’s happened?”
“She’d gone, sir. Maggie Bennett offered to settle the little one with her boy, they were both exhausted. The lad has taken a liking to Private Terry, following him around. So none of us noticed for a while. When we realised, Hammond took off after her. He was worried, like. Didn’t think she’d abandon the children. Easy enough to follow her tracks, it’s been raining again.”
“Did he find her?”
“Yes, sir. Not just her, though.” Carter took a deep breath. “She’d made off with some food. Not that much – Christ, nothing we can’t spare. There’s a camp, sir, just across the river. No idea they were there. We always use the widest part for water and bathing. We were all down there yesterday, they must have heard us freezing our arses off in that water…a refugee camp, sir. She was taking them food, it’s where she came from.”
Paul stood looking at him. “How many?”
“About thirty or so. Men women, about eight or nine children. Looking at the state of them, I’d say they’ve lost a few.”
“Starvation, sir. And cold. They’ve tried to make shelters out of blankets. Sitting huddled together under the trees, shivering, soaked. Waiting to die, I reckon.”
Paul took a deep breath. His mind was suddenly clear, as if he were about to go into battle. “Do you think they can walk, Sergeant?”
“Not the old ones, sir.”
“All right. You have enough sober men to hitch up a couple of wagons and get them up here.”
“We’ll sober them up, sir.”
“Do it. We’ll find blankets for them from the stores. This Christmas is going to cost me a bloody fortune. I’ll get my wife to organise opening up one of the empty barracks blocks and we’ll put a couple of braziers in there to warm it up.”
He turned back into the room and saw Anne coming towards him, her eyebrows raised. “What is it?”
“Bit of a refugee crisis, love.”
He explained quickly and then left her to it, hearing her issuing crisp instructions to his junior officers. Going outside he found his men pulling out two of the supply wagons, clumsy in places from too much wine and food. Turning, he found Jenson leading out Rufus and his own horse.
“Thought you might want to ride down and see for yourself, sir.”
“I do. Thank you, Jenson.”
It was less than ten minutes ride down to the camp, splashing through the ford and up a slope, slippery with soaked vegetation, to the pitiful enclave under the trees. Paul dismounted and moved forward, finding the girl crouching beside an elderly woman with iron grey straggling hair, her black skirts soaked and her body shivering violently.
Paul looked at her. “Did you go into town to try to find food for her?”
“To earn it if I could.”
He understood with sharp distress. “The children.”
“I can’t leave them here; they might wander off. She isn’t well enough. Alfredo will look after Maria while I…it doesn’t take long.”
“I wish you’d told us, lass,” he said. “Come on, let’s get her up. The wagons can make it to the top of the bank but we’ll have to get them up there.”
He carried the old woman up the slippery bank, appalled at how light she was in his arms and then returned to help some of the others up. They were silent and bewildered, blank eyed and gaunt, no longer trusting in the goodwill of others and Paul was silently furious, fighting back tears as he lifted emaciated bodies up to his men on the wagons and then rode ahead of them back to the barracks where his wife waited in the doorway of an empty block with towels and blankets and the calm practicality which always seemed to him to be at war with the delicate beauty which would have made her the toast of London had she cared to return there.
They carried the remains of the Christmas feast from both barracks and officers mess and the refugees received roast pork and duck and George Kelly’s pudding as if they had never seen such riches. Paul watched his wife supervising to ensure that they only ate a little at a time.
She sat, finally, on the bunk beside one of the men, a white haired man who could have been forty or eighty; it was hard to tell from his gaunt face.
“Senora, we are so grateful.”
“Hush. You’re safe and we’ll make sure you’re warm and fed. Rest tonight, you’ve nothing more to care about. Tomorrow I’ll tend to any sickness.”
“God has sent you to us, Senora.”
Anne smiled and to Paul’s amusement, lifted the gaunt hand and kissed it. “It’s Christmas,” she said. “Perhaps he sent you to us.”
She joined him finally as the officers and men congregated around the fires which had been lit on the parade ground. Private Flanagan was tuning his fiddle, and Paul took his wife’s hand. “All right, bonny lass?”
“Yes. I hope they’ll be all right. I’m a bit worried about one or two of the older ones, but we’ll see in a few days if they improve with food and warmth. Oh Paul, they were ten minutes away from us and we didn’t know it.”
“I know. Christ, what a bloody mess. I hope Wellington has got this right.”
“Paul, he’s doing the best he can. We all are.”
The music began, an Irish jig, and Paul watched, holding her hand as his men and their women began to dance. It warmed them in the cold night air, and shortly he saw Michael O’Reilly approaching.
“Ma’am, are you too tired…?”
“No, but she’s dancing with me first. Piss off and find yourself a pretty Portuguese lass, I notice a few of them from the village have turned up. Dance with me, girl of my heart.”
“You put it so nicely, Colonel.”
He took her hand and drew her into the circle by the firelight. “Best make the most of this, lass. God only knows where we’ll be this time next year.”
He left the thought unfinished, but she picked it up as he had known she would. “And who will have survived the year? Make sure you do, will you, Paul? I’ve got very attached.”
“So have I, bonny lass. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Colonel,” Anne said, and in a swirl of black hair, she spun away from him and was caught up in the dance and the firelight and the temporary joy of the cold Christmas night.