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.

Fur and Feathers at War

The idea for Fur and Feathers at War came to me when the Historical Writers Forum announced that their April monthly theme would be Animals. When I began writing the Peninsular War Saga many years ago, I will freely admit I didn’t really think much about animals. I knew there would be some of course. Horses and pack animals were essential for early nineteenth century logistics and even though I wasn’t writing about the cavalry it was obvious they would feature.

As the books moved on, gained readers and then fans, it was clear however that animals were destined to play an important part in both series and the associated short stories. Apart from the transport and riding animals, we’ve had dogs, cats and even a budgie. Animals also feature as essential food and occasionally simply as comic relief. During the early nineteenth century, vegetarianism and veganism wasn’t generally an option.

Anybody who follows me on social media will know me as an animal lover. On Napoleonic Twitter, I’m sometimes referred to as the Mad Labrador Woman but there are also a variety of cats, birds and goldfish in my past. I’m unashamedly sentimental about animals while recognising that my officers and men cannot often afford to be. The horrors of war, particularly on horses, are very well documented elsewhere.

My animals tell my readers a great deal about my characters but by now, they are also characters in their own right. In honour of ‘Animals Month’ therefore, I thought I’d share some of my favourite fictional creatures. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Horses

Horses and carriages were an essential form of transport in the early nineteenth century and most officers had several horses with them. Paul van Daan’s favourite horse is Rufus, a roan gelding he bought in Ireland before he went to Copenhagen in 1807. Right from the start, it’s clear that he is very attached to Rufus and although he is generally his first choice on a long march, Paul prefers not to take him into battle. On at least one occasion when he does, Rufus is injured when a bullet grazes his side and Paul’s reaction is a good indication of why he’d never have joined the cavalry.

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroPaul hung on grimly, hearing the shouts of the men around him, and a furious volley of fire back at the enemy. Bringing Rufus finally under control he slid from the saddle feeling physically sick and ran his hand down the animal’s sweating neck.

“Good lad. Settle down and let’s look at you.”

“Sir.” One of the German captains had reached his side. “Are you hurt?”

“No, but he is, I felt him flinch. Hold him, would you? Christ, he’s shaking.”

Paul gave the reins to the German and moved around to study Rufus, quickly seeing the dark stain on his right shoulder.  Talking soothingly to his horse he moved closer and very gently examined the wound.  The horse tried to pull away and Paul held on and put his face against the smooth neck, whispering to Rufus as he checked the wound.

“I don’t think it’s too deep – a bad graze. He’s a bloody bad shot.”

“Nein, Colonel. He aimed at the horse, I was watching him,” the German said. Paul turned to look at him.  Around him he was aware that the sound of firing was dying away, only the shots of the rifles ringing out as they fired after the retreating cavalry.

“It’s Captain Steiger, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. I was looking directly at him. As you turned away, he lifted his pistol and aimed it at you. And then he lowered it and pointed it at the horse.”

Paul was holding Rufus’ head close to him. He kissed the horse very gently on the nose and smiled as his mount nuzzled him. “Bastard.  He probably couldn’t see to aim at me in this light, so he went for the bigger target. If I see him on the field this week, I am going to blow his bloody head off. All right, boy, calm down. If you’re snuffling for treats, you’re not that bad.”

There are too many other horses involved in the Peninsular War Saga to list them all, but one of the most popular appeared in the Manxman series, when Paul’s battalion were sent to Denmark. For such a short campaign he chose not to subject his horses to the misery of a sea voyage, but managed to hire two horses from a local inn. One of them was a young horse called Felix. The other was Luna, an overweight piebald mare. I found it very entertaining to send my gallant hero trotting around Denmark on the equivalent of a Thelwell pony and my readers absolutely loved the story of Luna, especially how it ended. It’s probably the first time in the books that we glimpse just how sentimental Major van Daan really can be about animals.

“Captain, do you think you could spare Mr Durrell for an hour tomorrow to show me the way? After that, I promise I’ll be out of your hair, my wife will have forgotten what I look like.”

“Willingly,” Hugh said. “As long as he doesn’t come back telling me he’s accepted a commission in the army, I’d be less than pleased to lose him now that I’ve grown accustomed to a first lieutenant who knows what he’s doing.”

He saw the surprise in Durrell’s eyes and he avoided looking at Paul van Daan. The Major was already arrogant enough.

“Are you travelling post?” he asked.

“I am, although I’m taking it slowly as I’ve a horse to take with me. I bought the young black from Hr Lund. He’s a beauty, Lund had no idea what he’d got there.”

“Really? How the hell did you get him back?”

Paul laughed. “I paid an extortionate bribe to the captain in charge of one of the troop ships to find them a berth; it’s why I’ve taken a while to set off home, I’ve been waiting for them to arrive.”

“Them?” Roseen said.

Hugh saw the Major flush slightly. He met Roseen’s amused gaze and then laughed aloud. “I didn’t mean to admit that,” he said.

Hugh stared at him in astonishment. “Major, you aren’t telling me you bought that fat, ugly mare and paid to have her shipped to England?”

Paul was laughing. “I’ve two children, Captain, and she’s such a gentle soul.”

“And you could buy something similar at any horse fair in England for half the price. That animal is one step away from the slaughterhouse…”

He broke off, understanding, and then started to laugh. “Nobody could believe you were that soft,” he said.

“I would,” his wife said. “Does Sir Arthur Wellesley know?”

“No, thank God. And I am not telling him, he will roast me for years. I paid very little for her; Lund couldn’t believe I’d offered anything.”

“He’s not alone in that,” Hugh said.

“With proper care she’s got a good few years left in her and she will be good for the children, she’s got the sweetest nature.” Paul shrugged. “I got attached to her.”

“Christ, fella, how do you bring yourself to kill the French?” Hugh said.

“Oh, I’m very good at that. I hate killing their horses though.”

The other horse to play a very significant role in the books doesn’t arrive until book six and makes an immediate impact. I didn’t have to invent a name or description for Lord Wellington’s favourite mount, since Copenhagen was real. This is one horse that Paul is not particularly fond of.

“As it happens, I have several new horses I am trying out. One of them looks particularly promising, I’d like you to see him.”

Jenson led Rufus back into the square and Pearl followed Lord Wellington, frisking excitedly around him, knowing that she was going out. After a few minutes, one of the grooms appeared from the stable, leading a horse that Paul did not recognise.

He was a stallion, not particularly tall but with a strong muscular frame, a very dark chestnut with two white heels. Wellington came forward and patted the horse’s neck. Pearl jumped around and the horse sidestepped a little to avoid her. Paul came forward as his chief put a hand into his pocket and withdrew a treat. He fed the horse as his groom still held the reins, bent to check the girth then put one foot into the stirrup and mounted.

Unexpectedly, the horse pulled away from the grooms, backing up fast, his teeth bared in a grimace. Wellington hung on and the groom reached for the bridle. The horse bucked and then reared up with a squeal, his hooves lashing out. One caught the groom on the shoulder, and he fell back with a cry of pain. Wellington clung to the reins, displaying impressive reactions, fighting to bring the animal under control, while Jenson turned Rufus away and led him out of range before the horse’s panic affected him.

As Paul tried to grasp the bridle, the horse kicked out hard with his back legs and Paul dodged, then moved in fast, and reached the horse, grabbing the bridle while taking care to avoid the animal’s flying hooves. Wellington had regained his composure immediately and took a firm hold, pulling the horse in, talking to it in low tones. Paul met his chief’s eyes and stepped back, releasing the horse. With another man he might have held on until he was certain that the horse was calm, but he was not afraid for Wellington, who was a superb rider and more than capable of managing the most difficult mount. Paul stood watching for a moment, to be sure, but Wellington had the animal well under control. Paul turned to the groom, who was being helped to his feet by Wellington’s orderly.

“Are you all right, Brett?”

“I think so, sir.” Brett was cautiously moving his arm. “Winded me a bit.”

“You should see the surgeon, just to get him to have a look at that, it was a hell of a kick.”

“I’ll be all right, sir. I’m sorry, my Lord, he caught me off guard. Shall I take him…?”

“Do not be stupid, Brett, if you are injured, you may not be able to control him, and besides he will settle down now that he knows who is in charge. Morrison, escort Brett to see a surgeon. General van Daan, stop fussing over the poor man like a mother hen, you are making him uncomfortable.”

“I think it was the kick in the shoulder from that ungainly brute that has made him uncomfortable, sir. Where in God’s name did you get him from?”

“He has recently arrived from Lisbon. I am in need of one or two new mounts and Gordon heard that Charles Stewart had two to sell prior to his departure.”

“Charles Stewart sold you that horse? I’d ask for my money back, sir, you’ve been robbed.”

“Nonsense,” Wellington said. He was stroking the smooth chestnut coat. “He rides well, he is very strong and he doesn’t seem to tire easily. He is a little testy, it is true…”

“A little testy?” Paul surveyed the horse in disgust. The horse returned his stare with a baleful eye. “If you want my opinion, he’s a cross-gained, bad-tempered brute who is likely to throw you in the middle of a battle.”

“He will settle down once he is accustomed to me, and understands that I will brook no defiance, General,” Wellington said, watching as Paul retrieved his own horse and swung himself into the saddle.

“Like the rest of the army then, sir.”

“With one notable exception. Brett, why are you standing with your mouth hanging open, when I am sure I instructed you to visit the surgeon?”

“Yes, my Lord. Very sorry.”

Paul eyed the horse as they rode out of the village. “What’s his name?”

“Copenhagen.”

“He’s Danish?”

“No, but he was foaled in ’07. Probably just about the time you were getting yourself court-martialled for insubordination towards senior officers of the Royal Navy. It is a pity he is already named, I would have liked to have come up with something in memory of such a significant event.”

“What an excellent idea, sir. You could have called him Popham, he’s got that smug expression, with a strong look of being up to no good behind the eyes. I just hope that when he throws you, it’s not in the middle of a fight. I’ll tell Fitzroy to look out for the eye-rolling and bared teeth just in case.”

“If he proves too troublesome, General, you could take him off my hands. Perhaps you would like to exchange him for that black you bought in Denmark? I have always liked the look of him, he is far too good a horse for your orderly to be riding.”

“Felix? Not a chance. If you think I’d put Jenson up on this bad-tempered bastard, sir, you must be all about in your head. Send him back to Stewart and ask for your money back.”

“Knowing Charles Stewart, I imagine that the money has already been spent on expensive Madeira and port for the voyage home. Besides, I have no desire to send Copenhagen back. I will offer you a wager, if you like, that within the year, he will have proved his worth. I am tired of horses blowing up halfway through a fast journey. I think I may have found the mount I have been looking for.”

“If you like, sir. I’ll happily stake a case of good port that you’ll be looking to get rid of him in a year. What’s your stake?”

Wellington touched his white neckcloth. “A broken neck, if you prove to be right, General.”

“That’s not funny, sir.”

Dogs

A Briard, giving a good idea of how I visualise Craufurd.

In addition to the equine population, my books host a fine collection of dogs. Dogs are my passion and you can reliably assume that if a character in my books is a dog lover, they’re going to be one of the good guys.

The first and most famous dog to be introduced belongs to Anne van Daan, who somewhat irreverently named him after Major-General Robert Craufurd. Paul found the puppy amidst the horrors of the sacking of Badajoz and presented him to Anne. Since then, Craufurd has grown into an enormous shaggy hound who is frequently a menace to his surroundings. He provides a lot of comic moments with his tendency to chew up Paul’s paperwork and Anne’s hats but he proved his worth during the miserable retreat from Madrid and Burgos when he attacked a French dragoon to save Anne’s life.

Paul grumbles incessantly about Craufurd but obviously adores him. In An Indomitable Brigade however, there is trouble at headquarters during a briefing meeting.

“General Victor Alten, you will take your brigade directly through Salamanca via the old bridge. General Fane, you will cross by the fords below Santa Marta. I imagine you are right, General van Daan, they will have retreated before we arrive, they must have reports of our approach by now. I believe that is everything. Unless there are any questions…what the devil is that?”

There was a scrabbling sound from outside, and then a crash as the door was flung open against the wall. All the men turned to face the intruder, and both Lord March and General Fane went so far as to draw their swords, while General Alava stepped between Wellington and the door. Paul did not move. He knew it was unnecessary, as the would-be assassin would come to him. He stood braced.

Something large and hairy bounded across the room and hurled itself at Paul. Standing on its hind legs, it placed huge paws on his shoulders and managed one enthusiastic lick across his face before Paul caught its legs and placed it firmly back on the ground with a sharp command.

“Craufurd, down.”

Anne’s large shaggy grey dog obeyed immediately, his tail wagging excitedly. He looked remarkably pleased with himself, and Paul wondered if there was any possibility that Craufurd had found his way to the kitchen and the leftovers. He loved food and had an astonishing appetite.

“For God’s sake, what is that dog doing here?” Wellington exploded. “This is supposed to be a military headquarters, not a menagerie. Did you bring him here, Van Daan?”

“Well, I brought him as far as the stable, sir,” Paul admitted. “I didn’t invite him to dinner though. I am sorry, he needed a run. Clearly it wasn’t far enough. Will you excuse me, I’ll just…there you are, Jenson. What on earth happened?”

Paul’s orderly appeared in the doorway, looking harassed and a little dishevelled. “Sorry, sir. Sorry, my Lord. He was locked in one of the stalls, but he must have chewed his way through the latch. I found him in the kitchen with Pearl, but I don’t think he’s done any damage. I don’t know what’s got into him lately. I’ll get him out of here.”

Craufurd rose and trotted politely towards the orderly. He allowed Jenson to attach his lead and followed him out of the room walking perfectly to heel. Paul noticed that the back of Jenson’s uniform was covered in mud which suggested that he had been knocked off his feet by Craufurd at some point during the chase. Jenson closed the door behind him. There was a long, pointed silence. Both March and Fane sheathed their swords, looking rather embarrassed, and Alava moved away from his protective stance in front of Lord Wellington. The officers shuffled silently back to their previous positions around the table.

Paul risked a look at Wellington and was not at all surprised to see that Wellington was glaring at him. When he finally spoke, it was in the voice of a man driven beyond all endurance.

“Somerset, remind me to carry a loaded pistol to all briefing meetings in future.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

Paul was fighting back laughter. “I don’t think my wife would like it if you shot her dog, sir.”

“It was not the dog I was thinking of shooting. Does anybody have any questions about my orders?”

Wellington’s tone suggested that questions would be wholly unnecessary, and none were asked. Outside, the officers collected their horses. Nobody spoke about the incident. Jenson brought Paul’s horse forward, and once the other officers were all mounted, released Craufurd from his prison in the stables. The dog frisked around excitedly. Paul looked down at him.

“My career means nothing to you, does it?” he said.

There was a curious sound behind him. Paul turned to find Charles Alten leaning forward on the neck of his horse. He was laughing so hard that he was almost choking. Beyond him, both Kempt and Vandeleur were helpless with mirth. Paul began to laugh as well.

“This bloody dog. I’m going to get him out of here before his Lordship finds that pistol. Not that he’s likely to hit anything, but I don’t want to take the chance. There’s always a lucky shot.”

This gives an idea of how I visualise Pearl

Craufurd’s impromptu visit to headquarters proved more than a temporary embarrassment for Paul. The previous Christmas, the Van Daans had given Lord Wellington a silvery-grey hunting greyhound called Pearl. His Lordship had grown very attached to her and was not at all amused to discover she was expecting puppies.

Paul took the letter and unfolded it. Johnny watched as he read it with a deepening look of puzzlement.

“What is it, Paul?” Anne asked.

“He’s expecting to be with us the day after tomorrow, and there’ll be orders to march out. But he’s in a bad temper about his hunting bitch.”

“Pearl?” Anne said. “Oh no, is she all right? Has something happened to her?”

“I believe she’s very well, given the circumstances,” Paul said. “It seems she’s expecting a litter of puppies.”

“Puppies?” Johnny said blankly. “What in God’s name does that have to do with you? Even Wellington can’t blame you for…”

There was a sharp bark at the top of the stairs. Anne got up and went to the bottom. “He doesn’t like the polished stairs,” she said. “Come on Craufurd, down boy. Take it slowly and you’ll be all right.”

Both Paul and Johnny turned to watch as Anne coaxed her enormous dog down the slippery stairs. A sudden thought occurred to Johnny, and he turned to look at Paul. Paul was studying his wife with an expression of deep foreboding.

“Nan. Before he turns up here yelling, can you tell me…is there even a remote possibility…?”

Anne turned. Her face was pink with the attempt to stifle her laughter and there were tears in her eyes. “Paul, you know there is. Don’t you remember when you took Craufurd up to Headquarters and then wished you hadn’t because he escaped from the stables and came racing into the room halfway through Lord Wellington’s briefing?”

“Yes,” Paul said in hollow tones. Craufurd had reached the bottom of the stairs. He trotted over to Paul and pushed his shaggy head into his hand. Paul stroked him. “He was wagging his tail as if he’d managed to steal the roast mutton. I wondered what he was so pleased about.”

“Of course, it might not be,” Anne said hopefully.

“It will be,” Paul said morosely. “That bitch is going to give birth, every one of the puppies is going to closely resemble this oversized carpet on legs and I am going to be hearing about this for the rest of my army career. Possibly for the rest of my life.”

Johnny and Anne dissolved into laughter. Paul attempted a glare, but Johnny could see that it was an effort. Eventually, he grinned.

“He is going to be such a pain in the arse about this. Never mind. Go and write to Mary, Johnny. When you’re done, we’ll open a bottle of wine, and we will discuss Ensign Fox and Sergeant Stewart. Let’s get them out of the way before dinner.”

India, the puppy at the centre of Eton Mess

A dog provides a crucial plotline in one of my short stories as well. Eton Mess tells the story of Paul van Daan’s schooldays and introduces young Toby Galloway who is trying to conceal his spaniel crossbreed puppy named India from the school bullies. Galloway is a true dog lover and when we meet him again in a later short story, An Unsuitable Arrangement it’s clear that India was by no means the only dog in his life.

 

 

 

“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.”

Cats

Horses and dogs fit well into the action of the Peninsular War Saga but the Manxman series is about the Royal Navy where Captain Hugh Kelly and First Lieutenant Alfred Durrell have the ship’s cats to contend with. In This Blighted Expedition, Durrell finds himself explaining the situation to Miss Faith Collingwood in rather more detail than he had intended.

Molly, the cat on whom I based the ship’s cat of the Iris…

There was a big flat rock, almost dry now, and Durrell took off his coat for her to sit on. She did so, dropping the hat beside it and lifting her face to the sunlight. It brought a sudden image to Durrell, and he laughed aloud.

“What is funny?”

“You reminded me of something, but I’m not sure if I should tell you, you might be offended.”

“Something you like?”

“Yes. Secretly.”

“I am intrigued, Lieutenant. Tell me, it is your duty to entertain me today.”

“It was the way you lifted your face towards the sun and stretched a little. It reminded me of Molly, the ship’s cat aboard the Iris. She likes to sunbathe on the quarterdeck in hot weather. When we were off Gibraltar last year I was forever falling over her.”

Faith gave a broad smile. “I like cats. I wish I could have a pet, but my father will not permit it. He says they track in dirt and leave hairs on the furniture.”

“Well, he’d loathe Molly then, she leaves hairs everywhere.” Durrell grinned. “When I first joined the Iris three years ago, I realised we had a problem with vermin. All ships do, of course, which is why most ships carry a cat. Molly has been there for years. Generally speaking, a cat stays with the ship, but Captain Kelly was so attached to her that he brought her from his previous ship, the Newstead. It didn’t take me long to realise that the reason Molly was such a useless hunter was because the captain lets her sleep on the end of his bunk and feeds her choice scraps from his dinner. She has no need to hunt whatsoever.”

“Oh no.”

“I took my duties very seriously back then and I didn’t really know the Captain. I delivered several rather long lectures to him about the problem and spent a lot of time collecting Molly and dumping her below to do her job. It didn’t improve the situation at all, but that’s because she was sharing the midshipmen’s dinners instead. She’s very fat and very lazy.”

“What did you do?”

“Found another cat when we were in Chatham. I explained to Captain Kelly that I’d found a new home for Molly on shore. Captain Kelly explained to me that if it was such a good home, I could live in it myself. It was fairly clear that given a choice between myself and that cat, I was going to be the loser.”

“So Molly stayed?”

“Molly is probably snoozing on the Captain’s bunk as we speak. I did bring another cat aboard, though. His name is Orry and he’s a very good hunter which is just as well because he very quickly had a family to feed. It didn’t occur to me to find another female.”

Faith was laughing uncontrollably. “Oh, no. How many kittens?”

“Eight survived. We kept four of them, the rest went to other ships and the Captain took Orry to the ship’s surgeon who performed a small operation to ensure there were no more.”

Durrell paused, suddenly appalled. He had completely relaxed into the conversation, and it had not occurred to him that it was not acceptable to be discussing a cat’s sex life with a young lady he hardly knew. He could feel himself flush, but before he could stammer an apology, Faith said:

“My aunt has three cats and had to do the same thing. I am very glad Molly won you over, though.”

Molly and Orry are very well-travelled moggies and are still going strong aboard HMS Iris in the most recent book, This Bloody Shore.

Jannie the Budgerigar.

My decision to introduce a budgie into This Blighted Expedition was prompted by this very beautiful painting which I found in one of the museums in Vlissingen during my research trip. My female main character, Katja de Groot is a prosperous widow raising three children and running her late husband’s textile business. When I saw this portrait it looked so much like the character I visualised that I decided to research whether budgies had been introduced into Europe in 1809. There was no definitive date, but traders definitely started bringing them in around that time so I decided to give Katja a pet bird called Jannie.

A sound caught his attention and he turned. There was a cage on the far side of the room, hanging from a hook in the ceiling before the window. Ross rose and went to look at the bird. It was small and a beautiful shade of blue, like a miniature parrot with black and white markings down its wings. Ross had never seen anything like it before. He touched the bars of the cage and the bird immediately waddled along its perch and nibbled delicately at his finger, surveying him disapprovingly, with a beady eye.

“What kind of bird is it?” he asked.

Katja came to join him. “I do not know the name. Cornelius bought him from an English trader in Vlissingen docks for my birthday. We call him Jannie. He can speak.”

Ross shot her a surprised glance. “Really?”

Katja laughed. She said something in Dutch and the bird mimicked her, managing the odd guttural sound of the language very well. Ross started to laugh.

“I don’t believe it, that’s amazing. What did he say?”

“He said good day to you, Captain,” Katja said mischievously. “I am very fond of him. He was the last gift Cornelius gave to me. The children are very naughty and try to teach him things he should not say.”

“I’m not surprised,” Ross said, still laughing. “Perhaps I should teach him some English.”

“They would enjoy that very much.”

 

These are just a few of the animals who wander through the pages of my books and short stories. I love writing about them and find them a really useful way to highlight some of the traits of my characters as well as a way of making people laugh. They’ve proved very popular with my readers and people who message me about the books are just as likely to ask about Craufurd and Pearl as they are to ask about Paul and Anne. Sometimes, in moments of high stress it helps to have a dog or cat to stroke and I don’t see why my characters should miss out on that.

I’ll leave you some photos of the real animals who have kept me company over the years here at Writing with Labradors…

 

Joey and Toby
Oscar and Alfie

 

 

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.

 

 

Here Comes 2023 at Writing with Labradors

Here comes 2023 at Writing with Labradors and a very Happy New Year to all my friends, family and readers.

I decided to look back at last year’s opening post to get some ideas about what I wanted to say about the past year and my plans for this one. I’m very glad I did, because it’s really put into perspective how different 2022 was from the previous year. In 2021 I’d really struggled with lockdowns and a variety of family problems and it affected my writing. My post was full of regrets about the things I didn’t manage to achieve along with hopes for the coming year.

Let’s see how that went.

I’d already effectively finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga at the end of 2021 and passed it on to my editor. Poor Heather had a somewhat fraught start to 2022 since she knew how desperate I was to get another book out after a year’s gap. She worked very hard despite some health problems of her own and the book was published in April. An Indomitable Brigade, set during the Vitoria campaign of 1813, was a big hit with fans of the series.

With one book under my belt, I went back to book 3 of the Manxman series. I’d started this in 2021 but for some reason I just couldn’t get on with it. I was happy with the storyline and had done loads of research but writing it was like wading through treacle. Eventually, because I had to write something to get myself out of my gloom, I abandoned it and wrote the Vitoria book instead.

I went back to This Bloody Shore with some trepidation in May and much to my surprise I discovered what was wrong with it on the first read through. I cut the first two chapters completely, starting the book at a different place and was pleased to find that most of the rest of what I’d written was completely fine. The writing raced along, I loved seeing more of Captain Bonnet and my two new Spanish characters were immensely satisfying to write.

 

Thanks once again to an end of year sprint by my fantastic editor, This Bloody Shore came out in December and sales and reviews proved it to be a winner. I received my first ever number one bestseller in new releases tag from Amazon. I was delighted, not just for myself but for Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell who have earned their place in the hearts of my readers alongside Paul van Daan. The surprise hit of the book, according to reader comments, was Faith Collingwood. The shy girl of book 2 seems to have blossomed in book 3 and my readers love it.

In addition to the two books, I wrote my usual three free short stories this year. Valentine’s Day took us back in time to the winter of 1808-09 and an Unassuming Gentleman, a traditional Regency romance for one of the officers of the 110th. Halloween took us even further back to Paul van Daan’s schooldays at Eton, finally solving the question of why he was expelled for throwing the Greek master into a fountain in Eton Mess. And my Christmas story, The Glassblower’s Daughter, was written during a recent holiday to Mallorca and featured two of the main characters from This Bloody Shore.

I also published the Recruit on St Patrick’s Day. Set during the days of the bloody rebellion of 1798, it tells the story of how one of the major characters of the Peninsular War Saga came into the army and is a taster for a full-length novel I’m planning.

With travel opening up again, I fulfilled a long-held wish and signed up for a Waterloo tour with Number One London Tours, led by Kristine Hughes and Gareth Glover. The tour began in London then moved to Waterloo, taking in all the museums and many of the monuments around the battlefield. Gareth’s knowledge of the battle is remarkable and he’s also a very good storyteller while Kristine’s expertise on the social aspects and personalities involved made the stories even more poignant. I loved every minute of the tour and came home with my brain teeming with ideas about how to write Waterloo when the time comes. For the first time I understand why so many writers get to this point and jump forward to the battle but I’m not going to. My characters need to get there the hard way, just as the men of Wellington’s army did during the war.

Other trips during the year were more about catching up with friends and family after such a long separation during lockdown. I still managed to slip in some historical visits though, with a trip to the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth, Maritime Greenwich in London and the Military Museums in Winchester, where I acquired a Rifles bear to add to my desk army.

 

The Cathedral in Palma

I wasn’t expecting to find Napoleonic history in Mallorca in October, where I was only there to accompany my husband and a group of cycling friends. I was surprised to discover that in a direct follow-up to This Bloody Shore, the island was overwhelmed by refugees from the fall of Tarragona in 1811. Mallorca is beautiful, with some fascinating history and I wrote this year’s Christmas story sitting by the pool.

I was excited by the prospect of attending my first Napoleonic conference for several years in September. In fact, only the first day happened as planned, a tour of Apsley House. The death of the Queen meant that the National Army Museum was immediately closed and the poor organisers had to move the entire thing online with less than 24 hours notice. They did a remarkable job, and those of us already in London for the event watched the talks online during the day and then met up in a pub near the venue for the evening. Seeing old friends and making new ones was still a highlight despite the disappointment of the conference.

Another thing I’ve been able to tick off my list this year is that all the books are finally available in paperback and I have new covers for both of my Regency romances. My long-suffering editor, Heather Paisley of Dieudonne Editorial Services, is gradually working her way through my back-list to bring all the books up to her rigorous standard. She assures me this would go faster if I would just stop writing new books and short stories which need to take priority. I can’t thank her enough for the hard work she puts in on this. She’s promised to do a blog post with me this year, explaining more about the processing of editing. It should be a fun read and we’re hoping it will be helpful for new writers who might find the process of working with an editor somewhat daunting.

I’ve been a member of the Historical Writers’ Forum on Facebook for some years now and run their Twitter account. They organise regular Zoom panels and I was involved in one last year talking about writing battles. This year’s panel was particularly exciting as we had a special guest in the person of Mr Bernard Cornwell who joined us to talk about creating great characters along with M J Logue and Paula Lofting. It was great fun and the talk is available online for anybody who missed it.

I’m hoping for some more online adventures this year. I’ve also agreed to another short story for an anthology, but this one is right out of my period and my comfort zone, which is why I’ve agreed to do it. I like a challenge.

On a personal level, I’ve mostly recovered from the effects of the various lockdowns. I’ve made a start of book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s called An Unattainable Stronghold and follows the 110th into the Pyrenees and the storming of San Sebastian. After that, I’ll be going back to the Iris to join Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell along the coast of northern Spain where they are joining Sir Home Popham on his campaign to annoy the French and the Spanish equally. I’m very much looking forward to the biography of Popham currently being written by my good friend Dr Jacqueline Reiter. I’m hoping to make good use of it when it’s published.

The year had a sad ending when we heard that my uncle, William ‘Bill’ Bryant had died. Bill was a huge personality, very much part of my childhood and will be very much missed. He raised a family of history lovers and I laughed aloud during one of the eulogies about his passion for watching war films, despite the fact that he must have seen Zulu and the Battle of Britain a thousand times. The final piece of music played at his funeral was chosen by him, and we both laughed and cried as we left the service to the rousing sound of the Great Escape.

 

I’m looking forward to 2023. Last year was all about work and catching up on the time I’d missed. This year I feel confident again in my ability to write. I have also (finally) worked out how I intend to divide up the final books in the Peninsular War Saga. At least I think I have, though you know what I’m like for changing my mind. So for those of you who have been wondering…all titles are provisional by the way.

Book 8: An Unattainable Stronghold (San Sebastian, Vera and San Marcial, July – Sept 1813)

Book 9: An Inexorable Invasion (Bidasoa, Nivelle and Nive plus winter quarters 1813-14)

Book 10: An Improbable Abdication (Feb-April 1814 taking us through to the end of the war and possibly back home)

Book 11: An Insubstantial Peace: (Peacetime in England plus the Congress of Vienna. For those of you howling with laughter, I am not sending Paul to Vienna as a diplomat. Even I couldn’t write that. But somebody will be there with Wellington…)

Book 12: An Implacable Engagement: the Waterloo campaign. (Enough said really)

Book 13: An Amicable Occupation (the Army of Occupation)

And that will be it for the Peninsular War Saga. Some of the dates will probably change as I’m not sure where book 10 will end and book 11 begin. Still, at least I’ve got my head around the Pyrenees now.

As for Hugh and Durrell, I’ve got some interesting new ideas about these two that I’m still considering. Watch this space.

I hope all my readers have a fantastic 2023. Thank you all once again for your support during the past year and for your continuing enthusiasm for the books and for my characters. Please keep in touch. I love hearing from you all.

Happy New Year to all of you from Lynn, Oscar and Alfie at Writing with Labradors.

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

Trying to write in the middle of a busy household with a couple of Labradors and an over-developed sense of responsibility, I’ve often dreamed of going on a Writer’s Retreat. I’m sure many of my fellow writers feel the same way. After yet another week where writing plans have sunk without trace in a round of supermarket shopping, dealing with elderly relatives, proofreading essays and cleaning the dogs’ ears, I love the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in lovely surroundings with nothing to do but write. I’ve never done it though.

I’ve come close a few times. I used to volunteer to cat-sit for my sister, who lives in a very beautiful place, and I certainly took the opportunity to catch up on work while I was there. Somehow though, it was still never the haven I dreamed about. I’ve taken off on research trips on my own many times, but those tend to be a frantic round of getting to the places I wanted, taking photographs and making notes. It would almost have felt too self-indulgent to spend the day sitting doing nothing but writing.

Organised writers’ retreats look very appealing, but many of them seem very expensive. Besides which, they generally include other writers. I know myself too well, and the opportunity to sit and talk writing, history and general nonsense with a group of like-minded people would be irresistible. They’d be a lot of fun, but I’d get nothing done.

The second half of 2021 was hard for me. It is well recorded elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t do well with lockdown and restrictions, and although I would have loved to book a research trip somewhere in Europe, I didn’t trust that these wouldn’t be reinstated at a moment’s notice. Richard managed a couple of cycling trips to the UK, and we had some friends to stay the moment restrictions lifted enough, but I was miserable. The only trips I made to the UK were necessary family visits and none of them were particularly restful. We had been having a lot of problems with my elderly in-laws who had recently moved to the island and I felt as though my life had become one long round of hospital visits and troubleshooting phone calls.

2021 was also the first year since I began publishing that I didn’t manage to get a book out. Back in October, it seemed as though I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I knew what I needed to do, and the book was going well, but I couldn’t get enough time to work on it. I was frazzled and seriously burned out and I needed a break, but I had no idea where I wanted to go or what was practical in the post-Covid world.

Burnout is one thing, but the annual Halloween short story was due, and I had an idea for a story set during Captain Hugh Kelly’s younger days, when he was newly promoted to captain of a frigate. My research so far has all been based around the 74-gun Iris, but I wanted information about one of the smaller, faster ships which made stars of the navy captains. A quick spell of internet research introduced me to HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

The Trincomalee looked gorgeous and was located in the Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, something I didn’t even know existed. I did a bit of research and decided that I absolutely wanted to go there, and sooner rather than later. I was actually very excited. It’s been two years since there was a very real prospect of me travelling anywhere to do something just for myself, and the sheer joy I felt, made me realise how badly I needed a break. I checked dates with Richard then went searching for accommodation.

I was determined not to stay with family or friends. This time I wanted to be completely on my own agenda. I didn’t want to stay in Hartlepool, but somewhere pretty, within easy driving distance. North Yorkshire looked good, and I love that area. No self-catering. I do enough cooking at home. I typed in my requirements, to be listed by cost for a week, lowest first.

The first thing that popped up was a room at the Duke of Wellington Inn, in Danby. I swear to God, people, I’d booked it within ten minutes. Sometimes it’s obviously a sign.

The Duke of Wellington Inn is an ivy-clad traditional eighteenth century inn located in the tiny village of Danby in the North York Moors, about fifteen miles inland from Whitby. Until I found the place, I hadn’t decided that my trip was going to be my very own personalised writer’s retreat, but a bit of research made me realise it was perfect. Danby really is small, although very pretty. The Moors National Park Centre is just at the edge of the village, and there’s a tiny bakery with a café just behind the Duke of Wellington. Other than that, there’s not even a shop in the village. For somebody wanting uninterrupted writing time, it couldn’t have been better.

I checked with the owner whether there was a suitable table in my room for working. The single rooms were fairly small, but he assured me there was a guests’ sitting room with a desk in it and I’d be very welcome to work there as it was seldom used. When I arrived and saw it, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. For a week, I effectively had my own personal study. It was completely lovely.

The Duke of Wellington Inn was built in 1732 and was originally known as the Red Briar. It was used as a recruiting post during the Napoleonic Wars and was apparently known as either the Wellington Arms or the Lord Wellington during this period. I haven’t yet been able to find out when the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington – my first thought was that it must have been after 1815 to commemorate the victory at Waterloo, but I discovered that when Canon Atkinson arrived in 1847 to take up his post as Vicar of Danby, the inn was still called the Wellington Arms so the transition must have come later. At that point, the inn was kept by two sisters known as Martha and Mary.

A cast iron plaque of the Duke was unearthed during restoration work and can be seen on the wall as you go up the stairs. The inn is not large and is very obviously old – floors are uneven and the furniture is very traditional. Impressively, though, all the essential things for a comfortable stay work really well – the bed was comfortable, the bathroom modern and heating and hot water were spot on. I’d booked bed and breakfast, but after a look at the dinner menu, decided I’d eat there in the evening as well. It was standard pub food, but well-cooked and sensibly priced, and I never object to sitting by an open fire in a traditional country pub to eat. In addition, the staff were absolutely amazing. Nothing was too much trouble and they treated my invasion of the guest sitting room as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Thank you so much guys.

I’m pleased to say I stood by my resolution to treat this week as a writer’s retreat. Apart from my one excursion to Hartlepool, I remained in and around the village. The weather was beautiful, crisp and cold but with only one rainy day. I ordered breakfast early then went for a walk every morning before sitting down to work. Lunch was soup and sandwiches from the Stonehouse Bakery, with some excellent cake for afternoon tea, and then I’d go for another walk before dinner. It was often almost dark by the time I got back, and the sunsets were gorgeous.

During the day I took over the desk and worked solidly on book seven, An Indomitable Brigade. I found, to my joy, that I’d been right about the book. There was nothing wrong with either plotting or the research I’d done. I just needed time, and peace and quiet to get on with it. I kept in touch with my family during the evening, but firmly refused to take calls during the day. I was helped by the fact that the wi-fi was variable. It worked very well in my room, and down in the bar areas but in the study it was patchy, which removed the temptation to chat on Twitter or Facebook. After the first day, I was completely absorbed in the world of the 110th and the battle of Vitoria.

I enjoyed my day out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, and the Trincomalee was everything I hoped for and more. The museum is set up around a historic quayside restored to look like an eighteenth century seaport and its beautiful waterside setting. The various buildings are set up to show tradesmen like tailors, printers and instrument makers with stories about the Royal Navy and the men and women associated with it. It’s a great place for kids, with an adventure play ship and loads of activities, and because I was there during half term, there were demonstrations of gunnery and swordsmanship and various talks scheduled through the day. I went to everything, even though most of this wasn’t new to me. It was a great atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive Fighting Sail exhibition, though the kids commentary around me probably entertained me as much as the displays.

The Trincomalee was perfect, one of two surviving British frigates of her era. The other, HMS Unicorn is a museum ship in Dundee and I’m going to get there when I can. The Trincomalee was commissioned in 1812 to be built in India using teak, due to the shortage of oak in Britain after the intensive shipbuilding of the Napoleonic wars. Work did not begin until 1816 so by the time the ship was finished the following year, the wars were over and Trincomalee was put to other uses.

On the advice of one of the guides, I waited until the kids were completely absorbed in learning how to form a boarding party on the quayside using foam swords and cutlasses before boarding the ship. It was completely empty and I was able to take photographs, absorb the atmosphere and write stories in my head to my hearts content. The Trincomalee quickly morphed into the fictional Herne in my imagination, Hugh Kelly’s first post-command, and the story was finished. I’ll definitely come back to it though, I’d like to write a lot more of Hugh’s earlier adventures in the navy.

Rush hour in Danby

Back at my borrowed desk, I had a blissful few days of writing, walking on the moors and falling in love both with Yorkshire and with my fictional world all over again. By the time I set off for the ferry at the end of the week, the book was back on track, and I was fairly sure I’d have it written, even if not edited and published, before the end of the year. I had also forgiven myself for my inability to work as well as usual during the past two years. There are probably writers out there who made the most of the restrictions of lockdown and emerged ahead of the game. I suffered, and emotionally it was hard to put myself into the heads of my characters when my own head was so full of confusion. I think on those long, winter walks over the moors I’ve worked out how to be kinder to myself and how to keep a distance when the world feels an alien and unfamiliar place.

I’ve concluded that a writer’s retreat means different things to different people. For some, it’s about learning, and they’re looking for lectures and workshops and the ability to try something new. For others, it’s about connecting with other writers to share ideas and stories and to feel part of a community for a while, in this very solitary job that we do. For me, it’s definitely a retreat, a place of quiet and solitude and some beauty, where I can throw myself back into what I do best without any nagging sense of all the other things on my to do list.

Of course, it also helps to have an eighteenth century Napoleonic recruiting inn and an early nineteenth century frigate thrown in for good measure.

 

The Last Sentry

Welcome to the Last Sentry, my ghost story for Halloween 2020 and I hope you enjoy it. As always it’s free, so please share as much as you like. This year, in addition to being available to read online, I’ve included a link to a pdf.

As usual, the story is based around the world of the Peninsular War Saga, with its mixture of real and fictional characters. Readers of the books will have heard mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton in book six, and I imagine you’ll meet him again at some point. There is one character in this story who is definitely not fictional, and I suspect you’ll know him when you meet him.

If you enjoy this, please take a look at my other free short stories.

While I have your attention, can a give a shameless plug to an excellent website for those interested in learning more about the Napoleonic Wars. You’ll find huge amounts of information there. I also recommend Zack White’s excellent podcast, the Napoleonicist,  and not just because he interviewed me on it.

Happy Halloween, (or Hop tu Naa to all my Manx friends and followers), and I sincerely hope things start to look up very soon. In the meantime, reading can be a great escape…

***

The Last Sentry

The journey from England to Spain was beset with problems and delays, and on arrival in Oporto, when it became obvious that due to a particularly unpleasant voyage, the officers’ horses would not be fit to travel for some days, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton listened with half an ear to the complaints of the other five officers who had arrived with the Sally-Anne and acknowledged that he was relieved. A week of almost constant sickness had left him feeling weak and exhausted, and he found himself a comfortable inn, ensured that his groom, his valet and his horses were well-cared for and went to bed.

Philip was on his way to take up a new command, in charge of the first battalion of the 115th. He should have joined the regiment during the previous year, but within days of the confirmation of his promotion and transfer to a new regiment, his personal life had fallen apart with terrifying speed, leaving Philip  floundering in the midst of the chaos of his deceased father’s affairs. He had written to his new brigade commander, horribly aware that Lord Wellington’s army would be marching into Spain without him, and had dreaded the response. It had been kinder than he had expected and had given him a good impression of the commander of the third brigade of the light division, making him all the more eager to settle his affairs and get back to his job.

Settling his affairs had taken some time. The death of the Honourable Thomas Norton had come as a shock, though not a grief, to his only son. Norton had died as he had lived, half-drunk and throwing his horse over a fence on the hunting field. Philip was in London, making arrangements for his journey to Portugal while awaiting the birth of his third child. Emma had been well through the pregnancy, and was her usual placid self when Philip apologetically told her that he would need to post down to Hampshire to be with his mother and sister, and to help arrange the funeral.

“Go, Phil. If the baby comes, it comes, it isn’t as though this is the first time I’ve done this. I’m sorry I can’t come with you, since I know it will be hard for you, but I shouldn’t travel this close to my time.”

Philip kissed her warmly. “I’m so sorry, Em, and you’re an angel. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”

Emma was dead before Philip reached his family estate, having gone into early labour the day he left. The child died with her, leaving Philip alone to manage his two small sons, his mother who was apparently prostrated with grief over a husband who had never been faithful to her, and a sister of twenty trying to conceal her fears for the future.

Mrs Norton raised herself from her bed at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and made her pronouncement.

“Dearest, it is terribly sad, of course, but it is not as though it was a love-match, after all. Indeed, I have never understood why…however, your duty is now clear. With your father gone, and your two little boys motherless, you will naturally sell out and come home. Nobody would expect anything else.”

Philip bit his tongue and took himself from the room. He knew that she was right, and that the army would fully understand and support his decision to sell out. His father’s affairs were in disarray, and he had no idea how his wife’s money was settled. He had married Emma in full understanding that she was looking for a place in society that her late father’s situation could not provide. In return, she had agreed to pay his family’s debts and purchase his promotions.

Philip respected his wife’s clear-sighted practicality and insisted that she settle her considerable fortune on their sons when they were born, with a dowry set aside for his sister, Amelia, and a comfortable jointure for his mother should she be widowed. He had asked the lawyers, during the negotiation of the marriage settlement, to ensure that Emma’s personal fortune remain with her, well out of reach of his feckless father and grasping mother. Philip had made a marriage of convenience to secure his future, but he was not greedy and he had no wish to watch his family bleeding his wife dry.

Emma’s will was a shock, and brought with it a fresh flood of grief, as Philip listened to the lawyer’s dry tones and understood that alongside the agreed provisions, she had left him a wealthy man. He cried bitter tears alone in his room, hoping that she had known how much she had come to mean to him. Philip had hoped for friendship in this unlikely marriage, but instead, they had fallen in love, and he read, in those brief lines of her final testament, her firm and abiding affection and trust.

It made his job much easier, although no less tedious and painful. Philip told neither his mother or his sister of his unexpected prosperity, merely assuring them that there was money to support them. Amelia, as he had expected, was relieved and grateful, while his mother was visibly discontented. She was furious at Philip’s announcement that he intended to rent out the London house for the foreseeable future, and even more so, when he informed her that when his sister was ready to return to town for another Season, she would do so under the care of her aunt.

“I hope you’re happy with that, Ammie. I know you didn’t much enjoy London last year. I’d hoped that once the baby was born, you could try again with Emma, but…”

“So did I, Philip. Please don’t worry, I’m thankful. I’ve no wish to do the round of balls and parties just now, I couldn’t think of it. Ignore Mama, she would be angry whatever you did.”

“I can’t give her free rein to run through Emma’s money in London.”

“You should not, she is very comfortably provided for. At present, I am happier at Hanley. And you, dear brother, will be happier back in the army.”

“I will. My new commander has been very generous with my furlough, which makes me all the more determined that I will get back as soon as I have sorted out the chaos of my father’s affairs and paid his debts. I am trusting you to look after Tom and Ned for me, they’ll have Miss Carling and Nurse, but they’re going to miss Emma so much, she was…”

“She was the best mother ever, and I envied them. I’ll do everything I can for them, Phil. Just don’t do anything foolish. I know how much you loved her, I couldn’t bear it if…”

“I give you my word. As far as any soldier can. Take care of yourself, Ammie.”

After the turmoil of family drama, it was bliss to don his uniform and to think only of transport and kit and billets. Even the misery of the voyage gave Philip something to think about other than Emma. It was eleven months since her death and Philip had begun to believe that he was recovering, but away from England’s shores, he missed, all over again, the weekly routine of writing to her.

From Oporto, Philip joined a supply convoy travelling towards army headquarters on the Portuguese-Spanish border. His fellow officers were all veterans of the Peninsula, having been home either on furlough or sick leave. Along with the wagon train of weapons and medical supplies, there were a hundred and eighty reinforcements for the 43rd and 112th, so the officers travelled at marching pace. To Philip, suddenly eager to join his battalion, it felt painfully slow, and he was not at all surprised when they reached the commissary office in Pinhel to discover that Lord Wellington had marched his army into Spain three days earlier.

“There’s a supply depot in Ciudad Rodrigo, sir,” Captain Jones said helpfully. “Only a day’s march from here. Lord Wellington sent instructions that all reinforcements and supply wagons are to be sent on to there, where he’ll have left orders for them.”

Ciudad Rodrigo was a small cathedral town situated at the top of a rocky rise on the right bank of the River Agueda. Philip knew it was one of the key fortresses along the Portuguese-Spanish border, and two of his companions had been present when Lord Wellington’s army had stormed the town at the beginning of the previous year in a bloody engagement. Philip and the other officers were greeted by Colonel Muir, a depressed-looking Scot in his fifties, who commanded the district supply depot and looked as though he would rather be somewhere else.

“Aye, I’ve orders for you, I’ve got details of the quickest and safest route for you to follow to catch up with the light division, it seems you’re expected.”

“I have been for some time,” Philip admitted. “Will the supply column be taking the same route?”

“ The supply column is my problem now, Colonel Norton, don’t worry your head about them. The reinforcements, now – that’s another matter. You’ll be staying a few days to rest the horses, I’m guessing?”

Philip eyed him suspiciously, sensing an unwelcome request. “One or two, maybe, but I don’t want to delay longer than I have to, sir. My brigade commander has been incredibly generous in granting extensions to my furlough to sort out my late father’s affairs, I don’t want him to think I’m taking the long way round.”

“That’ll be Van Daan, will it? He’s not in my good books just now, since he poached two of my best officers on his way out, blast him. He doesn’t deserve that I do him a favour, the thieving bastard, but I’m going to. I’m asking if you’ll wait a few more days, Norton. We’re expecting another draft of reinforcements for the 110th within the week.”

“Can’t they follow when they arrive?”

“The thing is, Colonel, we’ve been having a lot of problems with discipline among troops making their way back to their regiments. Half the time, they either don’t have an officer with them at all, or the officers are young and inexperienced, or from a different regiment and don’t really give a damn about looting the local population. Wellington’s furious about attacks on Portuguese and Spanish farms and villages. You’ve got a few officers with these drafts for the 43rd and 112th, but they’re all very junior, and they tend to take a casual attitude to their duties on the march. If they’ve a colonel of the 115th  to supervise them, it’s very unlikely any of the men will try sloping off to raid a wine cellar or rape the farmer’s wife.”

“Jesus, is it as bad as that?”

“On occasion.” Muir eyed Philip thoughtfully. “And not just among the enlisted men. I don’t know if the gossip has reached you yet, Colonel Norton, but…”

“If you’re referring to the murder of Major Vane, I received a very full letter from Major-General van Daan,” Philip said. “A terrible business.”

“Aye, it was. Did you know him?”

“Never met the man in my life, I’m new to the 115th, I transferred in for promotion. And I believe Vane did the same. I’d never wish a man dead, Colonel, but I find myself thankful that I don’t have to manage an officer like that in my battalion.”

“Aye, his conduct wasn’t right, that’s for sure. All the same, a lot of the officers I’ve spoken to, don’t think it’s right that his murderer escaped the death penalty. Sets a bad example to the men.”

Philip did not particularly want to get into a pointless argument with a senior officer, so he said:

“So you’d like me to wait until the rest of the light division reinforcements arrive and march them up to the lines?”

“I think your brigade commander would appreciate it, Colonel. We can make you comfortable here, you can join our mess.”

Philip could see the sense of it, and firmly quashed his frustration at yet another delay. Now that he was formally, if temporarily in command of the new troops, he went to inspect their bivouac outside the city walls, gave strict instructions to the NCOs about leave passes and behaviour and rounded up the few junior officers who would be marching with him, to remind them of their obligations. His duty done, he decided to make the most of his enforced leisure to see something of the town and the surrounding area.

Ciudad Rodrigo was a walled city, dominated by its solid medieval cathedral. Narrow streets opened up into wide squares with houses and churches built in mellow local stone, and although there were still many signs of the destruction of the previous year, the citizens had already made good progress with rebuilding damaged houses and there was scaffolding up at several of the fine churches. Philip could see damage to the walls and tower of the cathedral caused by artillery, and the Spanish garrison of the town were out daily to supervise work parties who were close to completing the repairs to the town walls, where Wellington’s guns had blown two enormous breaches in the ancient stonework.

It was hot during the day, and Philip rode out with one or two of the Spanish officers to shoot game in the countryside. Neither of them had been present during the siege, and seemed more interested in complaining about delayed pay and poor leadership in the Spanish army than talking about the recent history of the town. Muir, when applied to, was more helpful, and provided Philip with Sergeant Griffith from his department. Griffith had lost an arm and an eye during the storming and proved a willing guide, walking out to the Greater and Lesser Teson with Philip, to explain the placement of Wellington’s troops and the direction taken by the storming parties.

Dinner was a protracted affair, with a good deal of wine and brandy, and afterwards Philip developed a habit of going for an evening walk through the pretty cobbled streets of the town and up onto the walls. The sentries along the walls were all Spanish, and Philip thought that they seemed to take a relaxed attitude to their duties, although he supposed that with the French a long way off, they probably had little to do other than drink, smoke and complain. He spoke Spanish fairly well from his time in South America, and he stopped to chat to them, listening to their stories of battles fought and friends lost and wives and families left behind.

Philip lingered late one evening, watching the sun go down from the Citadel, colouring the slate roofs of the outlying villages with a dazzling palette of rose gold and brilliant orange. He had drunk a little too much wine in the company of some Spanish officers in Colonel Muir’s cosy dining room and realised it was becoming a habit. It was too comfortable here, and felt a long way from the war. Philip walked around the walls to clear his head, pausing to look out over the old Roman bridge and smiled at himself as he realised he was willing the new troops to march in over the bridge, leaving him free to do his job.

Further around the walls, he climbed down a flight of steep stone steps and stood looking up at the repaired section of wall where the men of the light division had fought and died on that bloody night in January. The different colour brickwork reminded Philip of a scar, and he realised that he felt a connection standing here, even though he had not been present and his new battalion had not even been part of the light division at that point.

Walking back along the walls to his billet, Philip noticed that the sentries were out of position again. He had observed it several times, and although they were not his men, and the town was in no danger of attack, it irritated him as a breach of discipline. Four or five men were grouped together, a lazy spiral of cigarillo smoke rising into the air, while only one man, dressed in a dark cloak, stood in position above the breach. Philip paused to watch him, standing completely immobile looking out over the countryside. He did not appear to have his musket with him, and Philip wondered if he should go back and speak to the man, but decided against it.

Philip remembered the incident the following afternoon at the dinner table. He was seated beside Colonel Ramirez, determinedly avoiding a third glass of port, when Colonel Muir said:

“Are you still having trouble with the men on the northern wall, Ramirez?”

Ramirez rolled his eyes expressively. “Always, Colonel. Only last week, I have two men on a charge for deserting their post. I tell them that if Lord Wellington comes back, he will have them shot for their cowardice. I hope to make an example of them, so that we have no more problems.”

“Cowardice?” Philip said, surprised. “Surely it can’t be that, they’re miles from the French lines with the whole of Lord Wellington’s army in between. Perhaps they’ve just got sloppy, sir. I admit I walk the walls most evenings, and they’re often not in position, particularly along that wall. They tend to gather together in groups, smoking and talking. I suppose they’re bored, but you’re right, it’s poor discipline.”

“They are not afraid of the French, Colonel Norton, they are afraid of the ghosts.”

Philip spluttered on the last of his port and set his glass down. It was immediately refilled. “Ghosts? Surely you’re not serious?”

“I am not serious, Colonel,” Ramirez said. “Me, I do not believe in ghosts. But my officers tell me that the men complain that sometimes they hear things up there after dark. Screams and cries and the echoes of guns that have not fired since that night.

Muir snorted, reaching for the bottle. “Drunken bastards. If they’re hearing things that aren’t there, they’re coming from the bottom of a bottle, if you ask me.”

“I have told my officers to search them for drink, Colonel, and they assure me they go on duty sober.”

“Over-imaginative, then. A lot of you Spaniards are, I believe.”

Philip blinked at what felt like an astonishing lapse in good manners. He shot an apologetic look at Ramirez, and was relieved that the Spanish colonel seemed amused rather than offended. He winked at Philip, then said smoothly:

“It is possible, I suppose, Colonel, but we do not pay them to feed their imagination with ghostly tales. I will tell my officers to make frequent inspections again.”

“There was one man up there last night,” Philip said. “You’re right, sir, the others were all huddled further round by the steps, but one brave soul didn’t mind the ghosts, he was standing right above the breach. Although it looked as though he’d forgotten his musket, I couldn’t see it.”

“On sentry duty without his weapon?” Muir said scathingly. “Wouldn’t catch an English sentry doing that.”

Philip wished he had not spoken. “He probably had it, sir, he might have just leaned it against the wall while he was having a smoke and forgotten to pick it up. Look, why don’t I take a walk around there after dinner and have a chat with the men? They might speak more freely to me, given that I’m not their commanding officer.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully for a moment, then gave his charming smile. “Thank you, Colonel, it is a kind offer. I fear, if they do not improve, I will be obliged to take more drastic action against them.”

It was pleasantly cool as Philip began his nightly circuit of the walls. The Spanish sentries had grown used to the sight of him by now, and greeted him cheerfully, although without the formal salutes and springing to attention he would have expected from an English garrison. Philip took his time, stopping to chat. One group on the eastern wall offered him a drink from a bottle concealed in a coat pocket, and Philip took a swig, then reminded them pleasantly that their own officers might not be so tolerant.

It was beginning to grow dark as he approached the section of the northern wall above the lesser breach, and Philip could neither see nor hear the sentries. He paused, listening, peering ahead into the dim light. This entire section of the wall appeared to be unguarded, and Philip quickened his step. He had been inclined to take a light-hearted view of the Spanish garrison’s dislike of manning this section of the wall at night, but to find no guards at all was beyond a joke.

It was cooler now that darkness was falling, and there was a faint summer mist. Staring ahead in search of the missing guard, Philip caught his foot on a jutting piece of masonry and stumbled a little, catching the edge of the wall to steady himself. The fall brought him up short. The ramparts were not high, and it would be easy for a man to tumble over the edge. Philip made his way forward again, but more cautiously.

The sound of footsteps made him pause again. Clearly somebody was up here after all, although Philip still could not see him. He wondered if it was the lone sentry once more, the stocky figure who seemed the only member of the garrison willing to patrol this part of the wall. Philip waited, as the footsteps came towards him, puzzled by his inability to see the man. The steps were firm and confident, and were growing very close. It was not yet fully dark, and Philip could easily see through the mist, but there was no sign of the Spanish sentry.

A sudden breeze ruffled the feather in Philip’s hat, and he felt it, cool on his face. The footsteps were inexplicably fading again, as though a man had walked briskly past him and onwards down the walkway, but there was nobody there. For a moment, a shiver ran through Philip, then he heard voices from below. Going to the inside edge of the walkway, he peered over, and thought he understood. The foot of the wall was paved all the way up to the next bastion, and the footsteps must have been below him, the sounds distorted by an echo in the quiet evening air. Philip grinned at his momentary superstitious folly and ran lightly down the bastion steps, surprising the Spanish guards who were huddled in the shelter of the small tower passing a bottle between them. They turned in surprise at Philip’s abrupt descent from above, and one put the bottle behind his back. Philip was suddenly angry.

“To attention!” he barked, in Spanish. “Give me that bottle, that you’re so pointlessly trying to hide. Why aren’t you at your posts?”

There was a scramble into  line, and Philip held out his hand and took the bottle. “You have deserted your posts,” he said. “I am not your officer, is not my job to walk the wall and ensure you do your duty, but I am here to tell you that Colonel Ramirez is well aware that you are not where you should be. He has declared that it is enough, and your officers will be checking on you each night. If you continue this way, you are going to be disciplined, possibly flogged. I will not be here to see it, I will be leaving in a few days, but it is sad that I leave with such a poor impression of Spanish troops. You – step forward. What is your name?”

“Garcia, sir.”

“What’s going on, Garcia?”

The Spaniard threw out his hands in a dramatic gesture. “It is not our fault, Colonel. Time and again we tell the officers that we cannot be on that part of the wall at night. All other places, we will guard. From this bastion to the further tower only. But they will not change the location of the sentry posts.”

“Why can’t you be on that wall?”

“Because of what we see and hear, Colonel. That place belongs to the ghosts, it is not for men.”

“Nonsense,” Philip said firmly. “At least one of your men has been up there, I’ve seen him twice now, the man in the dark blue cloak. Clearly it holds no fears for him.”

There was a long, awkward silence. Then Garcia said:

“He is not one of our men, Colonel, and he has no reason to fear a ghost.”

The tone of his voice brought a momentary chill to Philip, but he mentally brushed it aside. “Well, if he isn’t one of yours, it must be one of the townspeople,” he said. “Either way, it isn’t a ghost.”

“How do you know it is not, Colonel?”

“Because I don’t believe in ghosts, Garcia. And a ghost isn’t a good enough reason for you to shirk your duty. I’m going to talk to Colonel Ramirez, but I’m warning you, you’ll need to improve your behaviour if you don’t want to get into trouble. For tonight, get yourselves back up there. One picket at the top of this bastion, the other along the wall at the further tower.”

Garcia sprang to attention and gave a dramatic salute. “Yes, Colonel. That, we can do.”

Philip watched them go, not sure whether to laugh or be irritated, but the Spanish garrison was not really his problem. He walked back to his billet, giving the bottle to a surprised old man who was smoking on his doorstep, and grinned at the extravagant thanks and blessings that followed him up the narrow lane as the man realised it was more than half full.

A message arrived as Philip was writing a letter to his brigade commander the following day, to say that the new troops had arrived. Philip finished and sealed the letter quickly, and sent his groom to add it to the daily post, then took himself out to the bivouac by the Agueda, to ensure that the new men had set up camp properly and had rations. There were six junior officers from various regiments who would join him on the march to Wellington’s lines, and Philip ran an experienced eye over the camp, spoke to one or two of the NCOs and decided that it would be a fairly easy command. Most of these men were new recruits, and although there would be the usual sprinkling of troublemakers, either criminals who had come through the courts into the army, or simply men who found it hard to learn discipline, there would be no time for idleness on the march. Philip gave orders to his juniors to make regular inspections of the camp, ordered a forty-eight hour rest period before the march and went to see the quartermaster to make sure that rations would be issued. Once he was on the move, Philip wanted to reach the army as quickly as possible.

Philip dined with Colonel Muir and some of the Spanish officers, who drank enthusiastic toasts to his journey and his new posting. Going outside into the warm evening air, he hesitated. Knowing he would be on the road in two days, he had asked both his valet and his groom to check his kit and his horses, and to let him know if he needed to make any last minute purchases. He wrote to his brigade commander informing him of the date of his departure, and wrote a dutiful letter home to his mother and his sister, and missed once again, the writing of a long letter to Emma, filled with army news and gossip and the trivia of his daily life. For the first time since arriving in Ciudad Rodrigo, Philip felt lonely, and he realised he was longing to reach his new battalion, to get to know his fellow officers and to make friends with the easy facility which was an asset in the shifting relationships of army life. Philip recognised the importance of this extended journey, as a pause between his old life and his new, but it had gone on for too long and he wanted it done with.

Almost without thinking, Philip passed his billet and walked down into the Plaza Mayor, where lanterns hung outside every shop and tavern and the people of Ciudad Rodrigo went about their business as though no war had ever touched them. Philip knew that after the bloody fighting in the breaches, the English and Portuguese troops had run wild for a while, looting the town and terrorising its inhabitants. Returning the smiles of men and women at the sight of his red coat, he marvelled at their resilience and their forgiveness.

Philip was approaching the cathedral, when the sight of another red coat made him pause. No leave passes had been granted to the English troops, as Philip wanted them sober and fit to march. The officers were free to wander through the town unless they were on duty, but this was not an officer. Philip stopped and surveyed the man. He was of medium height and compact build, with curly dark hair, and the insignia on his coat told Philip that he was a sergeant.

Philip stood watching with considerable interest, laced with admiration, as the sergeant went through the process of bartering with the elderly Spaniard selling wine from a market trestle. It was clear that the sergeant spoke Spanish fairly well, and it was equally clear that this was not the first time he had done this. Most of the newly arrived troops were raw recruits, but there was a sprinkling of old hands returning from sick leave, and after ten minutes, three bottles of wine had been neatly stowed in the battered pack, and Philip was certain that this man was not new to this.

The sergeant seemed in no hurry to return to camp. With his purchases made, he wandered through the market, stopping at a food stall to buy a hot tortilla wrapped in vine leaves, which he ate as he paused to watch a juggler giving a performance outside the convent. Philip stopped too, and looked up at the windows of the house. He was not surprised to see a flutter of white at the window, proving that the novices were not above enjoying a glimpse of the outside world. He also observed that the sergeant looked up as well, noticed the girls, and gave an impudent wave, sending them scuttling away in maidenly confusion, and probably, if they were unsupervised, a fit of irreverent giggles.

Philip realised that he was delaying approaching the sergeant, because he was enjoying watching the man. There was something about him which spoke of happiness, and a sheer love of life, and Philip was reluctant to end his illicit holiday too soon, although he was definitely going to. He kept his distance, shadowing the sergeant through the town, until it was growing very dark. The townspeople were beginning to gather their children and their purchases and head for home, and some of the shopkeepers were putting up their shutters. By now, the sentries on the walls would have changed over and Philip wondered if the deserted stretch of the northern wall was properly manned tonight.

It was clear that the sergeant was in no hurry to get back to camp. He stopped at a tavern and sat outside with a cup of wine for a while, watching the people of Ciudad Rodrigo head home to their beds with a benign expression. Philip hesitated for a moment, then gave in to his baser self, slipped into the tavern, and bought his own cup of wine, then walked outside and approached the sergeant’s bench from behind.

“Lovely evening for it, Sarge, mind if I join you?”

“Not if the next drink’s on you, my dear, it’s good to…”

The sergeant broke off as Philip walked to the bench opposite him and set down his drink. The expression on his thin, pointed face almost made Philip laugh out loud. He scrambled to his feet, tripping over the bench, managed to right himself and stood rigidly to attention, saluting, staring straight ahead, his dark eyes fixed on a point above Philip’s head.

“Sir. Very sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you. Many apologies.”

“I’d rather guessed that, Sergeant. Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to see your leave pass. One of the officers clearly didn’t understand my orders about no leave granted, I need to see who signed it.”

The sergeant shifted his gaze to Philip. Philip held out his hand and waited, and the sergeant did not disappoint him. He clapped his hand to his breast pocket, then shoved both hands into coat and trouser pockets, rummaging industriously. Coming up empty, he reached for his pack, opened it, and rustled around inside it, skilfully concealing the clink of bottles. Eventually he looked up, wide-eyed.

“Well I don’t know how I’ve done that, Colonel, but it looks like I’ve lost it,” he said, and his voice was rich and mellow with the rounded vowels of the West Country. “Maybe I left it in my tent, but I don’t think so, I’ve got an excellent memory, and I’m sure I picked it up. Now, I wonder if some thieving brat has picked my pocket for me in this crowd, knowing I’m new here and taking advantage…”

Philip held up his hand. He was enjoying the performance, and recognised in the sergeant a natural comedian, but he did not have all night. “That’s enough, Sergeant, you’ll have me weeping into my wine cup in a minute. Name and rank?”

“Sergeant Nick Coates, sir, 110th second company. Was under Captain Elliott, but I’ve been away for a while now.”

“Wounded?”

“Aye, sir. At Badajoz. Been convalescing ever since.”

“That’s a long convalescence, Sergeant Coates.”

“It was a bad wound, sir. More than one. They bayonetted me in the chest as I reached the top of the ladder, then I broke an arm and a leg when I hit the ground.”

“Christ, you’re lucky to have survived that with all your limbs.”

“We’ve good doctors in the 110th, sir.”

“And now you’re on your way back and thought you’d give yourself a night off as a treat. Don’t start searching for the leave pass again, it never existed. What I do want to know is where you got the money for three bottles of good wine. Have you been looting, Coates?”

“No, sir.” Coates hesitated, then took the plunge. “Not my money, sir. It’s more of a commission.”

“A commission? For whom?”

“A gentleman, sir, new to Spain, and with none of the language. They’ll fleece the youngsters something awful, sir, when they first get here.”

Philip was beginning to understand. “So you did have permission.”

“Informally, sir.”

“Which officer?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir. They’re not my officers, you know, and he didn’t approach me directly. One of the men brought the money and said I could keep the change as an incentive to get a good price. They must have heard I’d been out here before and could speak Spanish.”

Philip shook his head. “I suppose if I asked you to point out the soldier in question…?”

“Not one of my men, sir, I didn’t know him. They all look very much alike, don’t they. I was to put the wine outside the officers’ billet, I was just on my way to do that, sir. Sorry I’m not more help.”

Philip studied Coates for a long moment. “I think you know bloody well who ordered that wine,” he said softly. “Do you think he realised that you could end up flogged and demoted if you got caught?”

Shrewd dark eyes met his. “Oh yes, sir, I expect the young gentleman knew that all right. But I didn’t have to say yes, of course.”

“Why did you, you bloody fool?”

Coates looked around the darkened square, where only the taverns remained well lit, men sharing wine on rough benches outside. “I liked this place. Met a girl here. Army hospitals weren’t that much fun, and it was a bloody awful journey, mopping up puke from the new lads and running out of food on the march because the greenhorns don’t know the ropes. I fancied a night out, sir. Didn’t expect to get caught.”

Philip managed to bite back a grin at the other man’s matter-of-fact tones. Picking up his cup of wine, he sat down. Coates remained standing to attention. Philip waited for at least two minutes.

“All right, Sergeant. Sit down and drink your wine, and then we’ll walk back to camp together, I want to check on them. When I leave, I’ll take those bottles and deliver them personally, with a word or two about using the NCOs as errand boys and hanging them out to dry afterwards. Next time, make the young bleater give you a permission slip and then you’re covered, and it’ll be him that’ll get the bollocking.”

Coates stared at him in astonishment, then lowered his compact form onto the bench with a broad grin. “Thank you very much, sir. Your very good health. I’m guessing this is not your first time out here either, you’re not new at this.”

“By no means, Coates, but not out here. Alexandria, Walcheren, Ireland and Naples, with a spell in South America, which is why I was able to admire your bartering so thoroughly.”

Coates sipped the wine. “It’s good that you’re going to Van Daan’s brigade, sir, you’d get cashiered anywhere else, drinking with the NCOs like this.”

“I don’t usually drink with the NCOs, Sergeant, so don’t get any ideas. It’s my night off. And besides, you looked as though you were enjoying yourself.”

Coates looked up and grinned. “I was, sir. Am I on a charge?”

“Not this time, although you were a bloody idiot. But I’m looking for experienced men to help out on this march, since I seem to have been landed with two hundred and fifty raw recruits and half a dozen officers so wet behind the ears they need a nursemaid. I will do you a deal, Sergeant Coates. I will forget all about this little escapade, and in return, I get your unqualified support in getting these sorry specimens up to Lord Wellington’s army.”

Coates studied him for a moment, then picked up his cup and raised it. “Sir, you have yourself a deal.”

“Excellent. You can start tonight. On the way back to camp, I want to walk via the walls. The Spanish are having trouble with ghosts.”

“Ghosts, sir?” Coates sounded bewildered. “What ghosts?”

Philip explained, and Coates seemed to enjoy the story. They sat late into the evening. Philip was aware that his conduct in drinking with an NCO was reprehensible and would bring at best a stern reprimand and at worst, a conduct charge, but there were few English officers presently in Ciudad Rodrigo, and those would be up in the mess with Colonel Muir. Philip had missed his friends in the regiment badly and Coates, although only a sergeant, was intelligent, very funny and shrewd. Philip was careful to keep some distance, but enjoyed Coates’ colourful account of his entry into the army seven years earlier, through the agency of a magistrate in Truro.

“Smuggling was it, Sergeant?”

“I prefer to call it free trading, sir. It was my job to provide the gentlemen with their port and their brandy and the ladies with their silks and tea.”

“And sugar?”

“No, sir, I didn’t deal in sugar, on account of the slaves. Nasty business, slavery.”

Philip stared in astonishment. “A Cornish smuggler who is an abolitionist? I might need another drink to hear this story, Coates.”

“It’s not a long one, sir, though I’ll happily stand you another drink. I was fifteen and on my father’s boat, running brandy and tea into a cove near Marazion when we picked up a body in the water. Younger than me, he looked, half-starved and beaten bloody, poor little beggar.”

“Oh Christ. Slaver gone down?”

“Not as such. Runaway page boy, caught in Plymouth and sold back to the West Indies. He could remember life on the plantations, preferred to drown himself.”

“He was alive?”

“Yes, sir. Algy, his name was. Crewed that boat with me for nigh on ten years, until we got picked up on a run from Roscoff, and after a spell in gaol found ourselves with the choice of the army, the navy or a trial which could have ended much worse. Algy chose the navy, safer for him. Often wonder how he got on, he was a good mate, was Algy.”

“It sounds as though you were too. Right, come on. Time to earn your parole all over again, Sergeant Coates. Let’s get up there and put the fear of God into those sentries, then I will take the officers’ wine and let them know I want a word with them in the morning.”

“You could always confiscate it, sir. Good wine, that.”

“You were born to be hanged, Coates. Get moving.”

There was no sound or movement along the town walls. This late, the sentries were in position, huddled together for warmth and companionship, the air around them hazy with cigar smoke. Philip paused by each group in turn as they saluted and spoke a few words. It was the last night he would do this, and he hoped he was making enough noise to get the sentries on the northern wall into position so that he could give a favourable report to Colonel Ramirez. They approached by the small bastion, and Philip was pleased to see four men, albeit on the wrong side of the tower, muskets shouldered. They looked grim and miserable, but they were there, and he stopped to compliment them on their fortitude, although he was aware that he could not see the next picket.

The night was very clear, with a full moon, and Philip heard the clink of bottles from Coates’ pack as the sergeant followed him onto the wall above the breach. He wondered suddenly if this place held painful memories for Coates, but the sergeant showed no signs of discomfort.

Further along the wall, Philip caught sight of a lone figure and immediately recognised him. He knew by now that the man was not one of the garrison, but must be a townsman, probably from one of the houses directly below the wall, who came up each night for a breath of fresh air before bed. Philip had not been this close to him before, and as he drew nearer, he realised that what he had thought was a cloak, was actually a dark blue caped great coat. He wore a simple bicorn hat, and Philip wondered if he was in fact an officer, either on sick leave or visiting, although he was surprised he had not met him during his week in the town, as the English officers all knew each other socially.

Behind him, Coates echoing footsteps stopped abruptly. Philip paused and looked round in surprise. The sergeant’s face was clearly illuminated in the moonlight, and his expression chilled Philip to the bone. The thin face wore an expression of utter terror, the dark eyes wide, and Coates was backing up so fast that Philip sprinted to grab him by the arm, worried he might tumble backwards over the low parapet. He realised as he grasped Coates, that the sergeant was shaking violently.

“Sergeant, what the hell is wrong with you? Look stand here for a moment and catch your breath. Are you ill?”

“No. No, no, no, no. It can’t be. He’s not here, he’s not here. He’s dead. He’s bloody dead, I saw them bury him.”

Understanding was slow to dawn, and by the time Philip understood, the brisk footsteps along the walkway were coming close. Suddenly, he was afraid as well, and it took all his courage to turn around to see what had caused the sergeant’s sheer terror. The sight was so ludicrously normal that Philip felt completely disoriented.

For the first time, he could see the face of the stocky man who guarded the lesser breach every evening, and although there was nothing spectral about it, it was formidable. He was not old, possibly in his fifties, with very dark hair under his hat, and a pair of piercing dark eyes under thick, beetling brows. His complexion was swarthy, as though he had spent many days in the saddle under the hot Spanish sun, and he walked with deliberate authority, his sword belt jingling slightly as he moved. There was a sense of power and controlled energy about him, and Philip found himself standing to attention and saluting even before he saw the glimpse of a red jacket beneath the swinging coat. Unquestionably this was a senior officer.

The man turned to look at him as he passed. Dark eyes flickered over Philip, as though to check that he was correctly turned out, and then the officer nodded in approval and saluted. He walked past the shivering sergeant without comment. Philip watched his retreating back, feeling as though he had just passed an inspection from a difficult commanding officer, and turned to Coates.

Coates was white in the pale moonlight, and looked as though he might be sick. Philip took him firmly by the arm. “Come on, Sergeant, let’s get you off this wall before you kill yourself. No, don’t try to speak. We’ll go back to my billet and if necessary, I’ll call the surgeon.”

Philip waited until they were inside his warm little room. He pushed Coates into a chair and went for brandy then realised that he had run out. Making a mental note to send Barlow, his valet, to buy more before the march, Philip went to the sergeant’s pack and removed one of the bottles of wine. He poured for both of them and set a glass down in front of Coates.

“I’m going to get cashiered, drinking with a sergeant twice in one day. If I’d not been with you earlier, Coates, I’d have thought you were half-sprung already, but you’re clearly not. What happened, were you ill?”

Coates was beginning to regain his colour. He drank half a glass of wine without taking breath and set it down, then looked up at Philip.

“Thank you, sir. Sorry. Must have taken a turn. Won’t happen again. I’ll leave the wine here, you can give it to the gentlemen in the morning.”

He made as if to rise, and Philip pushed him firmly back into the chair and refilled his glass. “What happened?”

“Permission not to talk about it, sir?”

“Not granted. What were you on about – he’s dead. Who’s dead, Coates? Was it the breach – did you lose friends up there?”

The sergeant drank more wine and did not reply. Philip sat down and sipped his own wine. “Look, I understand. I know what it can do to you sometimes, although we all pretend it doesn’t affect us. I don’t need the details, Coates, but if this is something…”

“You said you’d served in South America, sir,” Coates said abruptly. “Mind me asking when?”

“I was with Beresford during the first invasion, but I developed fever and was sent home, so I missed the worst of that shambles. What on earth has that to do with anything?”

“Because he was out there afterwards. Major-General Craufurd. But you won’t ever have seen him.”

Understanding flooded through Philip along with a chill of horror. He stared blankly at Coates, not wanting to believe what he was saying. “Don’t be funny, Sergeant, I’m not…”

“Did it look as though I was joking up there, sir?” Coates said furiously. “It was him. I know him, I’ve seen him a thousand times. I served in the 110th and we fought under him at Fuentes d’Onoro and at the Coa, and in a dozen skirmishes out on the border. And before then, I marched in his column during Moore’s retreat. I saw that bastard flog the skin off a starving man’s back for stealing a turnip and then give the same man the remains of his own rations later in the day. I was out there, climbing over dead and dying men into the breach last year and I saw him go down. I was at his burial, at the foot of the wall, in the breach. I know him. It was Craufurd.”

Philip believed him. He sat in silence, drinking wine, shocked and feeling slightly shivery. Neither man spoke until Coates set down his empty glass and got to his feet. He saluted.

“Permission to return to camp, sir.”

“Granted. Don’t go that way again.”

“I’m going nowhere near it, sir.”

“Get your kit and the men organised, Sergeant, and be ready to march out the day after tomorrow. I’m counting on you to make my life easier along the way.”

“My word on it, Colonel.” The Cornishman hesitated. “Sir?”

“What is it?”

“I’d prefer not to speak of this to anyone else, sir.”

Philip gave a small, grim smile. “Not a chance of it, Sergeant. They’d think I was mad. Look – are you absolutely sure? It couldn’t have been another man? A trick of the light, maybe you were thinking about Craufurd up there?”

“I saw him, sir. As clearly as I can see you now.” Coates shook his head. “He was a bloody good general, his men thought the world of him. I’d have been glad to see him again, but he shouldn’t have been there.”

Philip thought about it. “I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. Maybe he should.”

The following day was taken up with preparations for the march, and by dinner time, Philip was fully packed and had inspected the men and the baggage wagons, spoken to the Spanish guide allocated to him and said farewell to his hostess. He dined in the mess as usual, but rose early from the table, as he hoped to be on the road at dawn and did not want to set off with a hangover. Colonel Muir shook his hand and wished him well, and Philip was engulfed in a wave of handshakes and good wishes from both English and Spanish officers.

When Colonel Ramirez shook his hand, he said:

“Did you visit my idle sentries last night, Colonel?”

“I did,” Philip admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it, Colonel, and it’s possible the problem is easier to solve than we thought. It seems there’s one stretch of that wall that they hate to patrol. It’s right above where the breach was, and I’d guess they imagine horrors when they’re up there. Perhaps if you moved the pickets a little further apart to either side of that stretch, they’d be better behaved.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully. “It is an interesting idea, Colonel Norton. I will think about it. Goodbye, and good luck.”

Outside the mess, Philip hesitated. He had things to do still, but the wall was there, still and quiet in the sleepy late afternoon air. After a long moment, Philip turned away from his billet and walked down to the small bastion, going up the steps onto the wall. He walked along the stretch between the two small towers, then turned and walked back again. Nobody was there, but it was early, and he would not expect to see a ghost in broad daylight.

The thought made Philip smile, it was so ridiculous. He turned again, to go down the steps, and saw him immediately, the stocky figure in the dark coat and hat, staring out over the countryside to the position where almost eighteen months ago, the light division had formed up, ready to storm the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Philip did not move or speak. After a moment, Major-General Robert Craufurd turned towards him and began his brisk, confident march along the walkway until he reached Philip. As before, he turned his head to look at him, and Philip straightened and saluted. It should have felt ridiculous, saluting a man who was not and could not be there, but Philip did not care. Whatever shadow of Black Bob Craufurd that lingered on in the place where he had fallen, deserved his respect.

Craufurd returned the salute with the same quirk of his lips, and walked past Philip. After a moment, the footsteps could no longer be heard. Philip turned to look, but both the bastion and the walkway were empty once more.

It was barely light when the two hundred and fifty men formed up under their temporary officers and set off at a brisk march around the outside of Ciudad Rodrigo towards the Salamanca road. Philip rode at the head of the small column, with the walls rising to his right, bathed in rose pink and golden rays from the awakening sun. The repaired wall was clearly visible, looking more than ever like a scar, and Philip looked up and was not surprised to see the lone figure standing above it, watching them leave. He reined in to allow the troops to march past him, until he was at the back of the column. Unobserved, he took off his hat, and saluted for a long, silent moment. Then he replaced it and cantered forward to the head of his men, setting his horse and his thoughts firmly towards Wellington’s distant army.

The Last Sentry pdf

 

 

Love Letters, 1813

Love letters, 1813 is something I wrote last week, in between preliminary reading for book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which covers the Battle of Vitoria. It’s early days, but I suspect the title will be an Indomitable Brigade. Occasionally, I like to imagine correspondence between some of my characters, as I did with Paul and Hugh during the Walcheren campaign, it can be an excellent way of setting the scene in my mind, and getting in touch with my character’s current feelings. It’s not exactly a short story, but it definitely tells a story, and I liked this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all, to whet your appetite for the next book…

For the first time ever, I am struggling to decide which book to write next. My original intention was to write the next book in the Manxman series, and I’ve done some reading for that as well, but at the moment, it appears that my head and heart are very firmly rooted in Spain with the Light Division, so I’m going to go with that and see where it leads me.

I wrote a short story in 2019 for Valentine’s Day, A Winter Idyll, which showed Johnny Wheeler going home during winter quarters to settle his uncle’s affairs, and discovering that his land agent’s daughter has been running the estate. There was the hint of a romance, although Johnny was clear at that point that he still felt bound to his lost love, Caroline Longford. Johnny is back in Spain now, and on the march towards Vitoria with the rest of the third brigade…

Quinta de Santo Antonio, May, 1813

 Dear Miss Ludlow

Thank you for your letter. I’m very glad your father continues to improve, and that he is able to get out and about a little, and I’m sure you are right that the fresh air and exercise will do him good. I have to scold you a little, however, since I hear from Mrs Green that you have made no use of the barouche as I instructed. You cannot expect him to go far either on foot or on horseback, and he will quickly grow tired of strolling through the village.

I imagine this is due to your scruples with regard to the horses, so I have made arrangements through friends in Leicestershire, for the purchase of two carriage horses. It is high time that Jed and Carney were put out to grass, and I hope they enjoy their retirement in the meadow as much as I intend to when I come home. Write to me, to tell me that they have arrived safely. There is also a new mare, the one we went to see just before I left, whom I hope to breed. I know I can trust you to exercise her.

Your report of the home farm and the tenancies is excellent, and very detailed. I feel as though I’m there, watching the improvements happen. I wish I was, it must be very pretty at this time of year. I realise I’ve no idea what grows in my gardens as it was under snow for half the time I was there, and barely shooting up as I left.

My journey back was uneventful and it is good to be with my friends again, although I must tell you that I walked into a very difficult situation between two fellow officers, which I will not write in detail, but will save for when I see you again. In happier news, I was in time to assist at the wedding of my very good friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Swanson, and Miss Trenlow.

We have received orders that we shall be on the move again very soon. The postal service is always surprisingly reliable here, and letters seldom go astray. I am not accustomed to receive very many, so I look forward to yours, when you have time.

Your servant

Colonel John Wheeler

***

Aberly, Derbyshire, June 1813

Dear Colonel Wheeler

Thank you for your very prompt reply. I am delighted to hear that your return went well, and more than a little apprehensive that by the time you receive this, you will no doubt be on the move, probably into danger. I have paid very little attention to news of the current war until now, other than to listen to your uncle’s stories of you before he died, but now I find myself scanning the Gazette for the slightest mention of an action.

The new horses arrived safely, although I am shocked at how much you must have spent on them, considering you are not here to have the benefit. Cora and Millie, the carriage horses, are beautiful animals, very well matched, and according to Jimmy, they are a “dream to drive”. He is eager to take them out, so I have little choice but to follow your orders and take my father on various excursions. Aphrodite, the black mare, is perfect to ride, but a thoroughgoing aristocrat, turning up her nose at the least thing, so that it makes me laugh. I think it is the fault of her owners for giving her such a name, it has made her conceited. I have begun to call her Affie, in the hope of taking her down a peg or two.

We had a disaster with the hen house, I am sorry to say, since that infuriating fox found his way in and created havoc. I have replaced the birds with stock from Jennings’ farm and personally supervised the rebuilding of the coop, so I hope we will have no more trouble.

Father continues well. In fact, being able to get out in the barouche around the farms seems to have improved his memory, and we have talked very sensibly about estate matters, although I am afraid he sometimes forgets that your uncle is dead. Still, it is good to see him more like his old self. I will send you a summary of the quarterly return when I have made it up, but all is progressing just as it should, and I think you will be pleased.

I cannot find the words to express my gratitude that I have been allowed to continue as I have. Few men would have been willing to allow a female the management of their property, and I promise you that I will ensure that you don’t regret it. I’m very happy here, feeling more settled than I have for a long time. At the same time, would it be very impertinent to say that I have found it a little lonely since you left? It is good to have a like-minded person to talk with, about things one cares about. I’ve missed our talks and our rides together.

With warm regards

Mary Ludlow

***

San Munoz, May, 1813

My dearest Miss Ludlow

The postal service has surpassed itself, and I am dashing off this reply since we are camped here for two nights only, and I want this to go off with the headquarters mail before we march tomorrow. I’ll try to make it legible.

It is a very beautiful evening, and I have just feasted on roast pork and am seated outside my tent in a pensive mood. Just over six months ago, during the retreat from Madrid and Burgos, I lost my good friend Patrick Corrigan beside this river and I nearly died myself. The limp has gone now, and I’m back to full fitness, but I’ll never forget those days, believing I wouldn’t survive. I hadn’t realised at the time, but along with inheriting my uncle’s estate, it’s made me think differently about a number of things.

I walked up with some of the men to the woods where Pat fell. There’s nothing left now. I am told, and I’m choosing to believe it, that when both armies had moved on, the villagers came out to bury the dead. I think it is at least partly true, because our guide showed us several mounds which have been piled with rocks. It makes me feel better to think that Pat is lying there, and it makes me very thankful that I’m not.

I miss you. I miss talking with you and riding with you and laughing with you. It was only three months, and they passed very quickly, but I am left both restless and strangely content. I hadn’t intended to write this, since I have no idea when I’ll see you again, or even if, given that the general believes we’ll be engaging the French within the month, and none of us are invincible. But since you were very honest with me, I wanted to reciprocate. I miss you, Mary.

You would love this view. We’re camped on the heights, looking out over the river, and there are dozens of lanterns and campfires, pungent but very pretty in the gathering dusk. We’re marching out at dawn, so I’m going to finish this now. I don’t know when your next letter will reach me, but write it anyway, will you? I want to know that it’s on its way.

Affectionately yours

Johnny Wheeler

***

Vitoria, June 20th, 1813

 My dearest Mary

I write Vitoria, since it is the nearest town I have a name for, but we are well outside the city, camped in a valley at the foot of a mountainous ridge, waiting for the rest of the army to complete its flanking manoeuvres. We have been engaged in several sharp skirmishes on the march, including an affair at San Millan, but we have come off very lightly and have given the French something to think about.

I have not received a letter, nor expected to in this time, but as I suspect I will be in battle tomorrow, I wanted to write this. I shall leave it with Mrs van Daan, and asked her to send it on to you. I confess that I have spoken of you to her a good deal, although to nobody else.

I want to be honest with you, dearest girl, since I have been honest from the first, to tell you that I have left two letters with Mrs van Daan, one to the lady I have spoken of. Our attachment was such, that I feel a duty to write to her in case of my death. If I survive, and I generally do, I will destroy that letter and write another.

This letter is for you. I realise that during those few months at Limm, I probably spent more time with you than in all the time I knew Caroline. I fell in love with her when we were both lonely, and had she not been committed to another, I think we could have been happy.

My time with you was different. There was no drama, no headlong rush, no real expectation of anything at all. And yet, looking back, I have the sense that I knew, even before I left, that I had found something that I’d been looking for all my life. Just thinking of you, brings me joy.

I wish I had spoken before I left. I told myself that it was too soon, that I needed to be sure of my own feelings and that it would be wrong to ask you to wait for a man wedded to his career and determined to see this war out. Now you are far away, and I miss you, and I want you to know how I feel.

I think, I hope, that you feel the same way, Mary. Will you be my wife? What a thing to do, asking you in a letter with no certainty that I will ever be able to honour my promise. Even after this battle, I have no hope of more leave for a long time, and will have to beg you to wait for me. I have tried to imagine how I would feel if our situations were reversed, though, and I decided that I would want to know.

Should anything happen to me, I have left my affairs in good order, and you will be very well taken care of, Mr Langley has all the details. Assuming that it goes well for me, I will write again very soon, and I hope you will forgive me and be kind, and tell me if I may hope.

With all my dearest love

Johnny

***

Aberly, Derbyshire, July 1813

My dearest Johnny,

It is the worst thing, writing to you without even knowing if you will receive this, but write I must. I comfort myself by thinking that if you are wounded, or exhausted or sorrowful, I may help a little to lift your spirits.

The answer is yes, of course, with all my heart. You must have known that it would be, as I do not suppose I ever made a good job of concealing my feelings. I had begun to hope, when you left, that your former attachment did not hold such complete sway over your heart, but I had not expected you to speak so soon, and under such difficult circumstances. I am so happy that you did.

All is well here. I have told nobody of your offer and will not do so until I am sure that you are safe, but know that you are in my prayers and in my heart, every hour of every day. Write soon, my dear, I cannot rest until I hear from you.

Yours, now and always

Mary

 

An Unmerciful Incursion….an early snippet

An Unmerciful Incursion….an early snippet

This is the opening scene of the new book, an Unmerciful Incursion, book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s due out on 31 July 2020 and I can’t wait.

We’re in winter quarters in 1812-13 and the Royal Scots Guards are having an unusually bad day…

Captain Leo Manson was hungry. He had been aware for some time of his stomach growling, but the sound was becoming audible now, or it would have been, if there had not been so much noise on the parade ground. The noise was rising steadily, a combination of marching feet, shouted orders and the quiet grumbling of officers and NCOs who were aware that it was past the dinner hour. The bugle had called some time ago, and the major who was theoretically supervising the drill had hesitated and shot an uncertain glance towards Manson and his companion, who had shaken his head without speaking. Major Beaumont signalled for the drill to continue, but the interruption seemed to have affected the troops, and the manoeuvres, which had been looking considerably better, were deteriorating again.

“To the right, wheel! March!”

The men on the right of the rank stepped off, turning their eyes to the left. Manson watched, hopefully. For the first few steps, things seemed to be going well, but as the movement continued, he realised that some of the troops had forgotten to lengthen their steps. To maintain the wheel in perfect order, each man needed to pay attention to the exact length of his stride or the wheel would fall apart very quickly. It did so, before Manson’s gloomy gaze, with several men treading on those in front of them, and others scrambling in a series of quick, untidy steps to catch up. The celebrated first battalion of the Scots Guards looked like a draught of militia recruits during their first drill session and Manson gritted his teeth to stop himself intervening, silently pleading with the officers to stop the manoeuvre before it got any worse.

“Halt!”

The bellow was so loud that Manson physically jumped, even though he knew it was coming. The battalion stopped in its tracks, apart from several men caught in mid-step who cannoned into their comrades, causing a series of collisions which shoved one man out of the front rank on his own. The private froze, recognising his isolation, and looked desperately at his sergeant, who glanced at the nearest officer before jerking his head to indicate that the private retreat. The man made his way back into the line in a sideways shuffle which made Manson want to laugh aloud. Manson’s companion said a word under his breath which was inappropriate for a senior officer on the parade ground and strode to the front of the battalion with the air of a man driven beyond his endurance. Manson, who had served under Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry for more than two years, forgot about his rumbling stomach and just prayed that his commanding officer did not hit anybody.

“You, what’s your name?”

The hapless soldier who had just made it back into the line, stared at the colonel, his mouth open, but no sound came out.

“Step forward.”

The man did so. Paul van Daan moved closer and inspected him from head to toe with ruthless thoroughness, then held out his hand.

“Musket.”

The man hesitated, and his sergeant, who seemed to have regained his wits, stepped forward. “Andrews, the officer of the 110th wishes…”

“Enough!” Paul roared, and the sergeant jumped to attention. “Andrews, give me the bloody musket before I take it from you and shove it where it will never see the sun. Sergeant Bolton, step back, I’ve not given you an order.”

Andrews handed over the musket. He was sweating in fear, and Manson felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Paul turned the weapon over in his hands, inspecting the touch hole, the lock and then the entire weapon very thoroughly. When he had done, he handed the musket back to Andrews who took it and returned to attention, staring woodenly ahead.

“Well, Private Andrews, it’s clear you were paying attention when they taught you how to keep your musket in good order, even if you missed basic drill training. When did you join?”

“August, sir.”

“When did you arrive in Portugal?”

“October, sir.”

“Well you were bloody lucky you didn’t arrive earlier, you missed the worst retreat since Corunna. How much drill training have you had, so far?”

“Sir.” Andrews shot an agonised look towards his captain, who was watching the little drama with a thunderous expression. Paul followed his gaze and Manson saw a faint smile.

“Never mind, you can’t really tell me you’ve had virtually none, can you?”

Paul turned away and walked to the front, surveying the battalion. His voice had a carrying power which any drill sergeant would have envied.

“Major Beaumont. Your officers will be missing their dinner. Why don’t you go on ahead, I want a word with the battalion and then I’ll join you.”

There was a rustle of disquiet among the men as the officers left. Colonel van Daan waited until they had gone, then turned back to the men.

“Sergeant-Major Clegg. Separate out the new recruits, get them lined up over there. And get a move on, I’m so hungry my belly is sticking to my spine. Private Andrews, lead them out.”

Manson watched their faces as Paul began to shout out orders, and he wanted to smile. He had seen it happen many times before. Within minutes, the drill was running, and with only experienced troops, it ran very well. The NCOs, visibly relieved at being able to demonstrate how well their men could perform, kept the movements tight, and the companies worked well together. Paul watched, calling out an occasional order, but mostly left the NCOs to their work. Once it was evident that the Royal Scots Guards were moving smoothly, Paul crossed to where the new troops stood watching in miserable silence, and Manson saw Paul put his hand on Andrews’ shoulder. He was speaking to him, pointing out what was happening in the manoeuvre, and Manson could see the man relaxing. Paul said something and several of the men around him laughed.

When the drill was done, Paul called the new recruits back into line. “Well done,” he said. “I’d a feeling you were better than that. Don’t get arsey with the new lads, we were all there once and they’ll learn quicker if you work together. I’m pleased that I’ll be able to report back to Lord Wellington that the Scots Guards are still the men who proved their worth at Salamanca. Is anybody hungry?”

There was a murmur of laughter and then somebody cheered. Paul grinned, and taking it as permission, the battalion yelled to a man, driven, Manson thought, not only by the thought of dinner but by an unexpected sense of camaraderie. Paul gave the order to stand the men down and walked over to Manson.

“Do you think we’re going to get any dinner?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, sir. That went very well, though.”

“Yes, they’re good lads.”

“They’re good officers as well, sir.”

“They might be, Captain, but if they’ve done more than a couple of hours worth of work with their new recruits this winter, I’ll be very surprised. Don’t look at me like that. I’m going to go in there, explain his Lordship’s instructions and be really, really tactful. I give you my word.”

Manson watched as the tall, fair figure walked towards the solid farm building which currently housed the battalion officers’ mess and felt his heart sink. Colonel Paul Van Daan could manage the enlisted men and NCOs better than any officer Manson had ever seen, but his attitude towards a commissioned officer whom he suspected of shirking his duty frequently left chaos in his wake.

“Captain Manson, where the devil are you? Get in here, I’m hungry.”

Manson sighed and followed, reflecting that whatever the atmosphere in the mess, there would at least be dinner.

The atmosphere was uncomfortable enough for Manson to be happy to miss breakfast the following morning. It was approximately thirty miles from Guarda, where the first division was in cantonments, to Freineda where Wellington had his headquarters. Paul, Manson and Sergeant Jenson, Paul’s orderly, were travelling light and made good time. They stopped in the little village of Braga where a farmer made up for the lack of an early meal with excellent fare and a wealth of local gossip. He and Paul were clearly old acquaintances and Manson ate in silence, trying to follow the conversation which was in rapid Portuguese and seemed to consist of a series of enquiries about members of the farmer’s extended family. Back on the road, Paul was considerably more cheerful.

“I’ve known old Barboza since I was out here under Craufurd a few years ago, he was always good to us. Much better manners than the officers of the Royal Scots Guards, I must say.”

“Sir, you threatened to punch one of the officers of the Royal Scots Guards.”

“Only after he challenged me to a duel,” Paul said composedly. “A challenge which I nobly resisted. I wonder if he’ll complain to Lord Wellington?”

“I expect he’s already written the letter, sir.”

“Perhaps Wellington will be so furious that he’ll remove me from this assignment,” Paul said hopefully. “I’m not at all suited to the job.”

Manson could not help smiling. “You are suited to the job, sir, you just hate doing it.”

“I hate being away from my wife,” Paul said. “She’s barely out of her bed after giving birth, and given what a horrendous ordeal that proved to be, she shouldn’t be out of her bed at all. But we all know that she won’t give a button for the list of instructions that I left for her and is probably doing something highly unsuitable without me there to keep an eye on her.”

“Sir, she’d be doing that even if you were there.”

“You know her very well, Captain.” Paul shot him a smile. “I’m glad I asked you to come with me, Leo, it’s been good to get some time with you.”

“Me too, sir. It’s been a mad few months.”

“It’s been a mad few years.”

Manson could not disagree. He had arrived in Portugal with the 112th infantry, and his early introduction to army life and in particular to Colonel Paul van Daan had not been easy, but both Manson and Paul had persevered. Two and a half years later, Manson was captain of the 110th light company and enjoyed a close friendship with both Paul and his young wife, who travelled with the battalion.

Paul was currently in command of the third brigade of the light division, under its Hanoverian commander, General Charles Alten, but during winter quarters, had been given an unwelcome secondment by Lord Wellington to tour the various divisions of the army, inspecting training and combat readiness. Manson was not entirely clear about Paul’s remit and he did not think that Paul was either, but after only a few weeks it was obvious that some of the officers of Lord Wellington’s army were furiously resentful about his interference in the running of their battalions. Paul’s friendship with Wellington, and his past record of taking on jobs that no other officer in the army wanted to do, had led to him being nicknamed Wellington’s Mastiff several years ago. Manson had heard the sobriquet again recently, and not in an affectionate way.

If Paul cared, he gave no sign of it. Manson thought that his commanding officer was more concerned with the problems he was finding with training and discipline in some of the divisions, than with his own unpopularity. Another officer might have treated this job as a sinecure, sending glowing reports back to Wellington on every occasion and making friends throughout the army but Manson knew that Paul would do no such thing. He treated each inspection as a personal quest to improve things and Manson was exasperated both with his over-conscientious colonel and with Lord Wellington who had set him an impossible task. To make it worse, many of the officers he was dealing with, were of higher rank than he, and resented advice and recommendations from a mere colonel.

An Unmerciful Incursion is available to pre-order on Amazon here.

 

Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors

Quill pen

Although this post is entitled Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors, my more observant readers will notice that this is in fact the first day of posting. That probably tells you how I’ve been getting on.

For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo,  is an annual Internet-based writing project that takes place during  November. Participants try to write a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1 and November 30 with online encouragement from well-known authors and from fellow participants.

I’ve been tempted to do this before, but the time has never been right. Once, I did actually do a chapter of a possible historical romance before realising that a) I didn’t have time and b) I hated what I was writing. This year, however, it seemed that the timing was perfect.

My latest book, This Blighted Expedition, was published on 31st October. It took me a long time to write this one; generally I manage two books a year but there was a lot of research and it was a challenging storyline which I rewrote several times before I was happy with it. I really wanted to get on with my next project, which will be book six of the Peninsular War Saga, as soon as possible, knowing that a lot of readers are really waiting for that one.

For the past couple of books, I’ve given myself a month off before starting the next one. That month inevitably drifts into two and possibly even three, and I was determined not to do that this time. I already knew the basic storyline of An Unrelenting Enmity and I know my characters and background very well. Why not use NaNoWriMo to kickstart me into getting on with book six? It sounded very simple.

Needless to say it was not. What made me think that I could leap straight into a new book on the day after the last one was published, I have no idea. There were things to do, publicity, blog posts, a mini blog tour and a last minute scramble over the paperback formatting. The first of November came and went and I hadn’t even logged in to the site.

I was determined to do it this year though, and so yesterday I finally sat down, logged in, and updated my pitifully small word count so far. To my amazement, it really worked. Seeing the chart cheerfully predicting that at this rate I wouldn’t reach my 50000 word goal until the eighteenth of December was surprisingly motivating, and I sat down and got on with it. I really like using the timer, to see how long I’ve worked, and the word count is already back on target, after only two days.

I’m generally a very fast writer, and having good touch typing skills helps with that. It’s research, planning and displacement activities like social media and housework that slow down my writing process. Or writing blog posts, maybe…

It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have achieved my goal, which will be about half a book for me. That won’t give me anything like a finished product, and there will still be days when I have to take time out to research and plan and to simply live my life. Oscar isn’t going to walk himself, after all…

Still, I’m excited about this month and will continue to post updates and perhaps an occasional snippet as I go along. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the second book of the Manxman series, but it is so lovely to be back in the Peninsula with Paul, Anne, Johnny and of course Lord Wellington. I cannot describe how much I’ve missed Lord Wellington. I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from today, bearing in mind that this is a first draft and not everything that I post will make it into the final book. This one might, though…

“I have no time to celebrate Christmas, Colonel, as you well know. I am setting out for Cadiz tomorrow. Really, I should be back at my desk now, there are some final orders…”

“Stop it,” Paul said. He saw the blue eyes widen in surprise, he was seldom so abrupt with his chief, but he was suddenly exasperated. “I know you need to go to Cadiz, sir, and I know why. I think you’re bloody mad to travel in this weather, you’ll be forever on the road and my sympathy lies with every single one of the men travelling with you, you will be horrible. And I am grateful that you didn’t insist on me going with you. But my wife has organised this very early Christmas dinner so that you at least have one day to eat a decent meal, have a drink with some of your officers and mend some bridges after that appalling memorandum you sent out last month. She’s put a lot of work into this, and I am not having you grumbling over the roast mutton because there is one more rude letter to some hapless Portuguese administrator that you forgot to write. Are we clear?”

There was a long and pointed silence and Paul tried not to look as though he was holding his breath. Eventually, Lord Wellington took a long drink of wine.

“There is still time for me to insist that you come with me,” he said, and Paul laughed.

“Having me with you while you insert one of Congreve’s rockets up the arse of the Spanish government sounds like a really bad idea, sir, they do not need two of us.”

Wellington snorted. “That is why I am leaving you behind to do the same to every senior officer in my army who fails to follow my instructions on the drills and training to be conducted during winter quarters this year,” he said. “By the time we are ready to march, which I hope will be no later than April, I want every man of my army to know what he is doing. That is your job, Colonel.”

“And a lovely Christmas gift it was too, sir. I’m already having to take a bodyguard out with me when I visit the other divisions, I have been doing this for two weeks, and they hate me.”

“Not in the light division.”

“No. They’ve no need of me there, General Alten is doing a very fine job. And here he is.” Paul shot his chief a sideways glance. “Come and be social, sir. Just for today.”

Wellington studied him for a moment, then gave one of his rare genuine smiles. “This is very good wine,” he said, as though the preceding conversation had not taken place. “Where is it from, Colonel?”

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyFor anybody new to the Peninsular War Saga, they’re available on Amazon kindle here and will be available in paperback before Christmas.

I’ll be posting daily updates on my NaNoWriMo journey over on Facebook and Twitter from now on.

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