A Provincial Nobody

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Provincial Nobody pdf:    A Provincial Nobody

A Provincial Nobody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just one?”

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

“Do I know this cousin?”

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

“Who is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think of her?”

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

“Miss Harcourt of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re going to hate it.”

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

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

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

“Good night, Miss Quayle.”

***

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

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

“Do you think he likes me, Maria?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodness, I have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you regret it?”

“Regret what?”

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

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

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

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

“Did you not like him?”

“I did not dislike him.”

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

“No of course not.”

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

“I didn’t want to be Lady Calverton.”

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

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

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

“It’s not your fault, Felicity.”

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

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

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

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

“But there’s another reason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I’ve been asking.”

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

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

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

“You are impertinent, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“I know where it came from.”

“Lord Calverton.”

“Or at least his friends.”

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

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

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

“Are you speaking from painful experience?”

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

“Why not?”

He hesitated. Eventually he said:

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

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

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

Thurlow said nothing for a moment. Then he said:

“Do you like to ride?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?”

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

“Good girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you quite well, my Lord?”

“I…you…you…”

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

“Are you feeling unwell, my Lord?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He insulted your fashion sense?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It sounds very dull.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m interested.”

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

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

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

“I’m hoping you’ll support it.”

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

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

“That’s a very good idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t wrong either, was I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Private?”

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

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

“What do you mean?” Benjamin said indignantly.

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

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

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

“Yes.” Benjamin said.

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

“I couldn’t find the right moment.”

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

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

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

“Of course I bloody love her.”

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

“You were.”

“And?”

“I lost my nerve,” Ben ground out.

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

“Seventeen.”

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

“Yes.”

“You counted?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I thought if we do this tour first…”

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

“What if she says no?”

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

“What if I lose my nerve again?”

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

“That’s a bit of a walk.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure it was.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unquiet Dream

An Unquiet Dream is not, in fact, my new free short story for Halloween 2023. For those of you who have been waiting for that, it is coming I promise you. This year, it’s running slightly late.

When I wrote my Halloween story for this year, which is called The Sight, I chose to link it to the new book. An Unattainable Stronghold, for anybody who hasn’t realised, is out on November 1st. I intended to publish the story first but after reading it, my editor made a really good case as to why the story would work better if it was read after the book.

This left me with a dilemma, as I wanted to put out something for Halloween. My solution has been to delay The Sight until November 5th. Instead, I’m sharing An Unquiet Dream. Those of you who have read the Historical Writers Forum anthology Hauntings will already have read this. It’s been the only one of my short stories not to be freely available until now.

For those of you who haven’t read it, I hope you like it. It’s set during 1812 at an army hospital in Elvas and features one or two familiar characters. If you enjoy it, I really recommend you try Hauntings which has some excellent ghost stories from a variety of historical periods.

Watch out for the Sight on November 5th…

This story is also available as a pdf here.        An Unquiet Dream

An Unquiet Dream

Elvas, Portugal, 1812

The dreams were the worst.

They came relentlessly every night, so that after two months of waking trembling and bathed in sweat in the early hours of the morning, Sean O’Connor dreaded going to bed. He knew that he cried out in his sleep from the awkward enquiries of his room-mates, and Sean was embarrassed. He was immensely relieved when Dr Adam Norris, who was in charge of the general hospital, approached him as he was leaving the mess one afternoon and suggested a change of room.

“It’s very small, Captain, one of the attic rooms. I’ve had Colonel Stephens in it, but he left us on Thursday. There’s a convoy leaving for Lisbon, he’s going home.”

“Do I warrant a single room, Dr Norris? I thought you usually reserved those for more senior officers.”

“We don’t have any senior officers left, Captain O’Connor. And I thought you might prefer it.”

Sean felt himself flush. “I think my poor room-mates might prefer it. Have they been complaining?”

“They’re worried about you, Captain. As am I.”

“Thank you, Doctor. There’s no need, I’m doing very well.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m fine. The infection has gone and I’m getting stronger…”

“Captain O’Connor, you spent eighteen hours lying under a pile of dead bodies with your abdomen slashed open, it’s astonishing that you’re still alive.”

“Don’t,” Sean snarled, and Norris fell silent. After a long pause, he said:

“I’m sorry. I know you prefer not to talk about it, but…”

“I can’t talk about it,” Sean said. He could feel his muscles beginning to tense. There were beads of sweat on his brow and he longed to turn and run. It happened all the time. He could manage short, simple conversations about the weather or the quality of the food, but anything that touched on the long hours of his ordeal at Badajoz set off a collection of incomprehensible physical symptoms which terrified him.

“All right, Captain,” Norris said soothingly. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of the orderlies to move your kit to the new room…”

“I don’t need help,” Sean snapped. “I may not be capable of doing my job any more but I’m quite capable of shifting a few bags up a couple of flights of stairs. Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your concern.”

Sean had made it to the door of his current room before he remembered there would be no solitude there. Captain Hendy and Lieutenant Brooke were still downstairs in the mess room, but Captain Smith would probably be in their shared room as he could not yet make it downstairs without assistance. Sean changed direction and went down the back stairs and outside. He was sorry that he had snapped at Dr Norris because he liked the man and he knew that Norris was genuinely concerned for him, but it did not help Sean to talk any more than it helped him to be silent.

Sean had been moved from the general hospital on the edge of Badajoz to the attractive little town of Elvas. There was no accommodation for officers within any of the three hospitals there. It was one of the ironies of Wellington’s army that the privilege of holding an officer’s commission turned into a significant disadvantage when an officer was sick or wounded. It was considered unsuitable for them to be treated alongside the common soldiers, so they were billeted in individual houses and left to fend for themselves. Those officers with private servants, or who had the means to pay for help, might do well enough. Others, who had nobody to tend them, were left to the mercy of whichever householder they had been billeted on and Sean had heard of men dying alone and untended.  

Sean was surprised and relieved on his arrival in Elvas, to be offered space in a tall house in a narrow street behind the cathedral. It was under the supervision of Dr Adam Norris who ran one of the hospitals and was also responsible for the care of a dozen sick or wounded officers billeted in the Casa Mendes. The house was plainly furnished but scrupulously clean and food and basic nursing care was provided by Señora Avila the stout housekeeper who spoke little English but ran an efficient household. The officers combined their pay and rations, and Captain Hendy’s servant ran errands and assisted with the heavier nursing tasks. The arrangement was very effective.

“Better than being in one of those hospitals, old boy,” Hendy said to Sean at their first meal together. “They’re hellish.”

“I’ve never heard of an arrangement like this for officers.”

“It’s not common, although Norris and Guthrie and a few of the other surgeons have been writing to the medical board to ask for better provision for the officers. This was set up by the regimental surgeon from the 110th but most of their wounded have been moved out, so Dr Norris has taken it over.”

“Thank God for the 110th,” Sean said with real feeling.

For ten days after his arrival, Sean was confined to bed, still burning with fever. There was a small isolation room on the first floor and having established that Sean could pay, Norris found a skinny twelve year old to take care of him, ensuring that he was fed when he could eat and kept reasonably clean. Eventually he examined the appalling wound across Sean’s midriff and gave an approving nod.

“It’s doing well, Captain, and the fever has gone. I thought we might lose you, but it appears you’ll live to fight another day.”

Sean tried not to shudder at the thought. He could not explain to Norris or anybody else how that day haunted his dreams. Badajoz had not been his first battle and not even the first time he had been wounded but the long hours that he had lain trapped under dead and dying men in the breach had left him with wounds that could not be seen and could not be treated. Around him, his fellow officers moved on. Some were sent back to England to recuperate while others went back to join their regiments with real enthusiasm.

Sean could do neither. Physically he was becoming stronger every day and Norris continued to give positive reports on the healing of his horrific wound. Mentally, he was a broken man. He started at every sound, cried out in his sleep and awoke sweating and terrified after dreams of blood and death. He was morbidly anxious about his health, and that of his fellow officers, checking on them compulsively and asking Norris worried questions about anything that seemed unusual. Sean knew that his fellows regarded him with a mixture of compassion and embarrassment and had begun to avoid his company.

Outside in the narrow street, Sean walked quickly down to the cathedral. The doors were open, and he slipped inside and made his way to a pew. There were several other people around, all of them locals who were either praying or sitting in quiet contemplation. One or two shot Sean a curious glance but did not speak to him. The priest was at the lectern, flicking through a huge bound bible and he looked over and gave a faint smile. Sean nodded in response then sat back and closed his eyes. Father Nani had become accustomed to his daily visits during these past weeks. He spoke a little English, and had even discreetly heard Sean’s confession when the cathedral was empty and there was no danger of an unexpected visit from a red-coated tourist. The religious preferences of Irish officers were never discussed in the mess. Sean kept silent on the matter and practised his childhood Catholicism in secret when he could.

He found the church both a comfort and a refuge in his current misery although so far his impassioned prayers had brought no answer. Sean knew that his continued, steady recovery was putting Dr Norris in a difficult position. Within a few weeks, he was going to have to declare Sean fit for duty again and that would place the onus of making a decision squarely upon Sean’s shoulders. Sean knew that Norris was trying to avoid that for as long as possible. If Sean was physically fit, he needed either to return to his regiment, resign his commission and go home, or at the very least, request a spell on half-pay.

Sean could not decide. Theoretically, an officer could sell out at any time, but few did during wartime unless they were too sick or too badly wounded to carry on. Sean’s wound had healed well, and he suspected that at least some of his fellow officers would think that fear, rather than necessity, had made him leave the army and despise him for it. He rather despised himself.

There was no comfort today in religion. Arriving back at the Casa Mendes Sean was both relieved and irritated to find that Norris had ignored his wishes and that Private Coulson was already arranging his possessions in his new room. He saluted as Sean arrived and Sean found a coin and handed it to him.

“I can unpack for you if you like, sir.”

“No need. I’m not that helpless, Private. Go on, off you go.”

The room was small and clean with a narrow bed, a wooden table and chair and a small wash stand with a ceramic bowl and jug. Sean had few possessions, and it did not take him long to arrange them, using one of his boxes as a table beside his bed and the other as storage for his clothes. He set out writing materials on the table alongside a bottle of brandy and a pewter cup. It had been two weeks since his last letter to his wife and he knew she would be frantic for news, but somehow he could not bring himself to write until he had a decision to give her. Janey would want him to come home. Were it not for the children, she would have been on a transport to nurse him herself. Sean ached to see her but was glad she was not here. At some point she would have to know how badly his ordeal had affected him, but he was happy to delay it until he had made his choice. He sat staring at the blank page and had written nothing when the call came for dinner.

Meals, for those who were able to attend, were served in what must have been a parlour and which the officers had turned into an informal mess room. After dinner a few officers generally lingered on in the room playing cards, sharing wine and swapping battle stories. Sean rarely joined them. He desperately missed the camaraderie and banter of late nights playing whist for pennies and making bad jokes, but he could not risk making a fool of himself by flinching at a slammed door or getting a bout of the shakes at the mention of Badajoz. His mess mates were kind, but Sean did not expect them to understand.

Sean spoke little during dinner. He managed a conversation about the departure of Colonel Stephens and his new quarters and listened to a squabble between two subalterns about the best fishing spots on the Guadiana River. When the table was cleared and the cards were produced, Sean made his excuses and went up to his room. The others no longer tried to persuade him to linger.

Sean had recently received a parcel of books from Jane, and he sat on his bed under the sloping attic window and read until the light faded. He could hear the others going to bed, the opening and closing of doors and a muffled curse as Captain Gregg missed a step and stumbled, with his newly fitted wooden leg. Eventually it was quiet, and Sean got into bed and lay there, both longing for and dreading sleep.

It came eventually but when he awoke it was still dark. For a moment he was disoriented, expecting to see the shape of his room-mates on their narrow bunks and the litter of their possessions scattered around the room. Instead there were the few items of furniture and the closed ill-fitting door. Sean lay still for a few minutes with a sense of bewilderment, although he did not immediately know why. Finally it dawned on him that he was awake but perfectly calm. There was none of the usual panic and he could not recall dreaming.

The realisation almost sent him into panic and Sean unexpectedly wanted to laugh at how stupid that was. His usually lively sense of humour had been one of the first casualties of Badajoz and it was very good to see that it had not gone forever. Sean sat up, listening, and realised that he had been woken, not by his usual terrifying dreams, but by a sound.

Sean sat listening for a while. It sounded like footsteps, pacing backwards and forwards across a room. Occasionally it would stop, as though the person had paused in their restless movement, but then it would start up again.

Sean could not work out where the sounds were coming from. They could not be above him as his room was at the top of the house. There were other rooms on this floor, but as far as he knew they were not occupied by patients. Dr Norris definitely had the room next to his, and Sean had an idea that the other rooms belonged to the medical orderly and two or three officers’ servants’ as well as the Portuguese maid who was employed to clean the house and to help in the kitchen. Norris had not returned from the hospital by the time the other officers went to bed. Sean supposed it could be him, but somehow he could not reconcile this restless pacing with the doctor’s calm demeanour. When he had told Norris about his sleep problems, the doctor had replied that his long hours of work left him so exhausted that he slept the moment he got into bed.

Sean got up and padded to the door, listening. After a moment, he opened it cautiously and stepped out onto the landing. Out here, the sounds were quieter. Sean tiptoed to the door to the next room and listened again. He could still hear them but not as distinctly. For a moment, he hesitated, then shrugged and went back into his room, closing the door. He was curious but he could hardly knock on the doctor’s door in the early hours. Given the noise he frequently made in his own room during the night, he did not have the right to complain about anybody else. Sean got back into bed, closed his eyes, and resigned himself to a sleepless night, hearing the steady tramp of the footsteps.

It was light when he awoke, dawn coming early on these summer days, and he lay there for a while feeling very relaxed. The bed, although narrower than the wide bunk in his previous room, was very comfortable. It was covered by an old patchwork quilt which must have been part of the original furnishings of the house. It reminded Sean of home, where his mother and sisters had worked at quilting through the long winter evenings. This one was faded but very soft and Sean ran his fingers over it and wondered about the women who had made it and whether they had lived in this house.

Eventually there were signs of life below, and Sean got up. He had no servant with him so he had got into the habit of bringing up water each evening so that he could wash in the mornings. It was cold, but that hardly mattered at this time of year. Sean washed, shaved, and dressed. He was sitting down to pull on his boots before he realised what had brought on this unaccustomed sense of well-being.

He had not dreamed.

The realisation shocked him, and he remained seated on the wooden chair, gazing up at a blue sky through the high window without really seeing it. Sean could not remember the last night he had slept without the awful nightmares. Nothing had happened to bring about the startling change and Sean was almost afraid to hope that this was more than a temporary respite. All the same, it had cheered him up considerably and he arrived at the breakfast table and collected his portion of bread and spiced sausage in an excellent mood. The arrival of a supply convoy meant that there was sugar for his tea and Sean ate with a good appetite, listening to the usual conversations.

Letters had arrived from Wellington’s army, marching towards Salamanca and Madrid to engage the French, and there was a lively discussion about his Lordship’s probable plans which Sean found himself able to endure surprisingly well. There was also news of a convoy travelling to Lisbon within a fortnight to convey some of the sick and wounded either to convalescent hospitals in the capital or back to England. A hunting party had brought down several deer which promised a feast of venison that evening and Captain Hendy, who was almost fully recovered and expected to be able to re-join his regiment in a week or so, offered to supply the wine for a celebration.

As the other officers left, Dr Norris appeared in search of a belated breakfast. Sean sat down again and poured more tea into two cups. Norris thanked him and began to eat.

“You seem better this morning, Captain O’Connor.”

“I had a better night,” Sean admitted. “At least, I didn’t dream. I did wake up though. It was very odd, I thought I could hear somebody walking about in the early hours, but when I checked the corridor there was nobody there. Did you hear anything, Doctor?”

“I wasn’t there,” Norris said, around a mouthful of bread. “I was called out at about eleven and ended up having to perform an emergency operation on a German cavalry officer. I’ve only just come back. Once I’m at the hospital, there are always patients to see and I’m never back before morning. I was going to eat and go up to see if I can get a couple of hours sleep. God, I’d forgotten what tea with sugar in tasted like. Is there any more in the pot?”

“I’ll get some,” Sean said, getting up. He took the pot through into the kitchen, ignored Jenkins’ rolled eyes at the request and went back to the table to find Norris regarding him with some amusement.

“You really are a lot better, Captain. Who knew that a night without dreaming could bring about this effect?”

“It probably seems stupid,” Sean said. “It’s just that I think I’d convinced myself it was never going to happen. That I’d be like this forever.”

“The reassuring thing for me is that you’re talking about it,” Norris said. “You’ve been trying to hide from it.”

“We don’t discuss fear in the officer’s mess, Doctor.”

“No, because you’re all too frightened to,” Norris said without irony. “But that doesn’t mean men don’t talk about it at all, among friends. And it affects most soldiers at some point or another, even those who haven’t been through such a horrific ordeal as you. I’ve a friend, a fairly senior officer these days, who freely admits that in the early days he used to throw up after every battle and that his hands shook for half a year after Assaye. You’re not unique.”

“I bet he doesn’t talk about that in front of his junior officers, though.”

“I’ve no idea, although knowing him, I wouldn’t place a bet on it. But congratulations for taking the first step. Don’t panic when it comes back – because it will – and don’t run and hide again. Now that we’ve spoken, believe that I can be trusted. I’m not going to share your confidences with the rest of the army.”

“I know you won’t. Doctor – thank you. You’ve been the soul of patience and I know you’ve delayed signing off my sick leave for longer than you should.”

“I have, and I’m going to extend it for longer. You shouldn’t rush into a decision either way, just yet. In fact, I’ve a proposal for you. We’ve no commandant in charge since poor Major Clarke died of typhus. Eventually they’ll assign somebody, but how do you feel about helping me out with the running of the place until they do? I’ll write to Dr McGrigor, and he can speak to Lord Wellington and your commanding officer about it.”

Sean was taken aback. “I know nothing about medicine, Doctor.”

“That’s why I’m here. The medical staff are my responsibility, but there should be a regimental officer as commandant, in charge of the orderlies and ward-masters and to take care of general discipline. It won’t be a formal appointment, but it would be a big help, and it might give you more time to decide.”

“All right,” Sean said. “Doctor, I’m not sure I’ve ever said this, but I’d like…it was always my aim to get back into combat again.”

Norris smiled and poured tea from the replenished pot. “I know, Captain. If it hadn’t been, you’d have allowed me to send you home on those first transports. Let’s give it some time, shall we? Now what was this about footsteps in the night?”

“I thought it was you, at first,” Sean admitted. “They sounded so close, like a man pacing up and down the room.”

“Not me. By the time I get to my bed, I’ve no energy to pace the floor. I wonder if it could have been in the room below? Sounds can carry in an odd way in these old houses.”

“Who has the room under mine?”

“Ashby and Newton. It won’t be Newton, though, I’ve had to move him out, he’s down at the fever ward.”

“God, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that.”

“I must say I’ve never heard Ashby moving about in the night, but that doesn’t mean much, I sleep like the dead and besides, my room isn’t above his.”

“I wish I knew,” Sean said. “If it is him, then there’s a reason behind it. I don’t know Ashby well. I don’t know any of them that well, but perhaps something’s troubling him.”

“He never seems that troubled to me,” Norris said frankly. “But in any case, he’s got a clean bill of health and he’s off back to his regiment.”

“I’ll be the only one left soon,” Sean said.

“Not for long, Captain. There’ll be another battle and another wave of wounded men coming in by wagon and it will all start up again. That’s why I need your help.”

Sean was doubtful about his new role as temporary hospital commandant, but he quickly found that his new responsibilities kept him very busy and kept his mind occupied. Over the following week he met with the commandants of the other two hospitals in Elvas and began to familiarise himself with his new duties. There was a lot to learn but Norris was a patient and informative teacher.

There were no more dreams. Most nights, Sean slept through, tired out after a long and busy day. Twice he awoke in the night to the sound of pacing footsteps, and lay listening to them in growing bewilderment. He broached the matter with Lieutenant Ashby just before his departure and Ashby stared at him so blankly that it was clear that he knew nothing about the matter. It was a mystery, but Sean had no time to dwell on it.

The dream came after ten days and was so unexpected that it shook Sean, who had begun to think that his troubles were over. He awoke after hours of peaceful sleep into a room bathed in silvery moonlight. He had left the window slightly open against the stuffy heat of the summer night and a breeze had sprung up, wafting cool air into the room. At the foot of his bed, a woman stood immobile.

The moon made it possible to see her clearly. She was dressed in a shapeless white garment, her long dark hair loose around her shoulders. Sean thought that she looked very young but also very unwell. She was thin and gaunt, her arms almost skeletal and the bones of what should have been a very lovely face standing out in sharp relief. Her eyes were pools of darkness.

The shock make Sean yell. He closed his eyes tightly and pulled the quilt up over his head. There was no sound in the room. Sean lay curled up for some time, sweating in fear, with his heart pounding. Eventually, reluctantly, he forced himself to move. Peering over the top of the quilt, he saw the room, neat and unremarkable as it had been when he went to bed. The girl was not there, and Sean decided that she never had been.

Sean got up and went for the brandy. Pouring a generous measure, he went back to bed and sat sipping it, waiting for his heart to slow down. He realised it must have been another dream and that his first waking had been part of the illusion. It was disheartening, but Sean sternly forbade himself to overreact. He had gone for almost two weeks without dreaming and this dream, although terrifying, was nothing like the repetitive nightmares of Badajoz. At the very least, that cycle had been broken.

Sean mentioned it to Norris when they were going over some supply requisitions the following day. His instinct had been to keep quiet about his relapse, but he remembered what Norris had said and decided that talking about it might be a good idea. Norris heard him out without interruption.

“Well done for talking to me,” he said, when Sean had finished. “And it’s certainly different from your previous nightmares. I wonder why this woman? You didn’t recognise her, did you?”

“No. She looked ill…half-dead to be honest. I did wonder…”

“Go on.”

Sean took a deep breath. “I could hear them screaming,” he said abruptly. “When I was lying there all those hours, thinking I was about to die. I could hear the people screaming when the soldiers sacked the town. Especially the women. I heard afterwards what they did to them. How many of them were raped. And I felt guilty that I was lying there listening to it happening and I couldn’t get up to help.”

“Dear God, I didn’t realise that,” Norris said softly. “No wonder you have nightmares, Captain. Look, try not to worry about it too much. You’ve come so far in the past few weeks. Do you want me to give you a sleeping draught?”

“No. I tried that at the beginning, and it made me feel terrible. I’ll be all right.”

“Well let me know how it goes over the next few days,” Norris said. “Are you still hearing the footsteps?”

Sean laughed. “Yes. Although not last night, oddly enough. They don’t bother me, I think it’s just the house falling down around us. They don’t even keep me awake for long, although I always wake up. I do wonder what it is, though.”

“Rats scampering around and chewing on the plasterwork, probably. We’ll know when a section of the roof caves in,” Norris said philosophically. “I’m glad that you’re taking a more light-hearted attitude Captain, it’ll do you good.”

Sean agreed with him. While he was unable to deny his disappointment at the return of his nightmares, he was pleased that his mood remained optimistic. He was enjoying having a job to do and he realised it was improving his confidence. As many of the convalescents left and others arrived, he had no need to explain his continuing presence at the hospital. Norris merely introduced him as the temporary hospital commandant and his new mess mates did not hesitate to come to him with questions and complaints. While it was not the same as being in command of a company of the line, it made Sean feel useful and for the most part it kept the nightmares at bay.

He saw the woman again a few nights later. This time, the dream caught him just on the edge of wakefulness and he made himself lie still, his heart pounding with the shock, staring at the slender form. Without the panic he had felt at his first sight of her, he was able to observe details that he had not noticed before. She was definitely wearing some kind of nightgown, stained in places and with a ragged hem. Her hair looked dishevelled and the sunken misery of the dark eyes unexpectedly wrung Sean’s heart. His eyes hurt as he forced himself to stare at her, trying hard not to blink. He could not help himself, and in that flicker of an eyelid, she was gone.

Sean sat up. The dream puzzled him because he had no sense of when he had slipped between sleep and wakefulness. The first time he had seen her, it might have happened at any point when he was huddling under the bedclothes, but tonight he would have sworn that he had been awake the whole time. It was clear that he could not have been. If he had, then his illness had taken an unexpectedly sinister turn. Sean settled down, then lay awake for several hours worrying about brain injury.

He took his concerns to Norris the following day. Norris had asked Sean to join him on an expedition to inspect a building which might be suitable for a new fever hospital. Fever patients were currently lodged in one of the convent buildings, but it was not large enough. Sickness was rife in Wellington’s army and far more men died of fever or dysentery than in battle. Norris had been searching for a new location for his fever patients for some time and walking through the dusty sheds of an abandoned winery, Sean thought he might have found it.

They were at the site for several hours, making lists and notes and talking to the owner, an elderly farmer who had lost his son to war and clearly had very little interest in what became of the unused farm buildings. Repairs would be needed and a thorough cleaning before bunks could be installed, but Sean thought that there were probably enough walking wounded to do much of the work. His new position had quickly introduced him to the idlers and malingerers who haunted every army hospital and he suspected that giving them an honest day’s work would convince many of them that it was time to return to their regiments.

It was evening before they rode back towards the hospital, and Norris suggested that they stop at one of the taverns in the square for a meal and a drink. It was the first time since Badajoz that Sean had done anything like this, and he enjoyed it enormously. They sat outside on wooden benches after they had eaten, sharing a jug of wine and swapping stories.

“How are your nightmares?” Norris asked finally, as they poured the last of the wine.

“I’m not sure. Yesterday, I started to wonder if it’s a dream at all or if I’m going a bit mad. I saw that girl again, but it felt as though I was wide awake. Is it possible that I’m seeing things?”

“Hallucinations?”

“Are they real? I’ve heard of them, but I’ve no idea.”

“Oh yes. It’s not unusual with a brain injury, I’ve known men who have seen the oddest things. I suppose it’s possible, but if you hurt your head in that mess I’d have expected to see signs of it weeks ago. If you want my honest opinion, I think it’s another of your dreams and you just didn’t realise it. But this one doesn’t seem to be upsetting you as much, and you’re definitely less jumpy now.”

“That’s the wine,” Sean said, lifting his cup. Norris laughed and raised his in a toast.

Sean felt pleasantly mellow as they went back to the house and up the stairs to their rooms.

“If they need me in the middle of the night you’ll have to shake me awake, Captain, or I’ll never hear them,” Norris said. “I’d invite you in for a last brandy, but I’ve run out.”

“I’ve got some,” Sean said. “Come in. It’ll help you sleep.”

They laughed together as Sean poured the drink, slightly tipsy and shushing each other loudly. Sean sat on the bed, giving Norris the chair. It was a bright clear night, a sliver of moon and a canvas of brilliant stars shining through the window. Sean lit two candles and sat back, sipping the brandy and enjoying the companionable silence. He realised he was becoming sleepy and closed his eyes. Norris had fallen silent as well and Sean wondered suddenly if he had dozed off on the hard wooden chair and opened his eyes to look.

She was there, as on the previous occasion, wholly immobile, with the dark eyes staring sightlessly towards him. She was so close to where Norris sat that he could have reached out and touched her. The shock of it drew a squawk of alarm from Sean. He scuttled backwards on the bed into the corner by the wall, spilling the dregs of his brandy onto the quilt, and closed his eyes tight.

“Captain! Captain! Are you all right?”

“No,” Sean said, shaking his head violently. “No. Oh no, no, no, no, no. I can’t stand it. I’m going bloody mad. Bad enough with the dreams, but now I’m seeing things when I’m wide awake and I can’t take it.”

A hand grasped his arm. “Up,” Norris said in peremptory tones. “Come on, into my room. Don’t argue with me, move.”

He bundled Sean into the next room and pushed him into a folding camp chair. Sean realised Norris had brought the brandy with him and watched, silent and trembling, as the doctor poured two cups. He carefully put one into Sean’s shaking hand and made sure that he drank some before sitting in an identical chair opposite him and drinking a large gulp from his own cup.

“Better?”

Sean nodded and drank more. “I’m sorry. Look, I know you’ve tried, but I need to resign my commission. I’m never going to…”

“Sean, will you shut up for five minutes and let me speak. Don’t say anything at all.”

Sean was surprised into obedience. He suddenly realised that there were beads of sweat of Norris’s forehead and his hand holding the cup was not entirely steady either.

“You’re not going mad and you’re not seeing things,” Norris said quietly. “Or at least if you are, it’s contagious. I saw her too.”

Sean stared at him. It was at least a minute before he really understood the words and when he did, he could not say anything, frozen with shock and sudden terror. His voice when he finally spoke was a croak.

“You saw her. You mean…”

“No, don’t say anything,” Norris said quickly. He was on his feet, rummaging around on his desk. His room was considerably larger than Sean’s with a wide old fashioned bed and a collection of battered furniture. Norris came back to him with paper and a pencil. He handed Sean a large book to lean on.

“Write, he said briefly. “It doesn’t have to be neat. That’s why I wanted you to keep quiet. I want to compare what we saw. You’ve seen her several times, so yours should be a lot more detailed than mine. Get on with it.”

Sean put down his glass on the floor and took the pencil while Norris went to the desk. Having something to do helped to calm his fear and he found that after a moment he was able to write fluently. As he wrote, Sean reflected that it was an advantage to have a scientific mind. It would not have occurred to him to compare notes in this way.

Eventually, Sean ran out of things to write. He read what he had written and put down his pencil. He got up and handed Norris the paper and Norris scanned it, his lips quirking into a smile.

“Yours is a lot neater than mine. I suppose you’ve had time to get used to her.”

Sean looked over his shoulder. “Or it could be because you’re a doctor. I’ve never yet met one who could write legibly.”

Adam gave him a look. “Perhaps I should hand over more of my paperwork to you, Captain O’Connor, as you’re so proud of your penmanship. As I thought, yours is a lot more detailed. I didn’t notice the embroidery on the shift although I did see the stain, mainly because I thought it might be blood. I didn’t see as much of her face as you did, and I didn’t notice that her feet were bare. But I wrote a lot about her physical condition because she looked as though she was half starved.”

“That may also be because you’re a doctor. It makes sense that we noticed different things.”

“But generally, the accounts tally remarkably well. I’d say we saw the same thing.”

“I can’t believe it,” Sean said. “I thought I was going mad. But Doctor…”

“My name is Adam. I think we’ve gone beyond formality.”

Sean smiled faintly. He was beginning to feel a lot better. There was something very reassuring in Norris’s practical approach to the vision. “Adam, how did she appear? Every time I’ve seen her, I’ve had my eyes closed and I’ve just opened them and she’s there.”

“It’s difficult to say. I was looking at you, laughing to myself, thinking you were going to fall asleep in front of me. And then I saw something to my left, like a flutter of movement, so I turned my head, and she was right there. I nearly died of fright.”

Sean could not help laughing at his frank admission. “It probably sounds rude to say that I’m glad, but I bloody am. Look, Adam…have you ever come across anything like this before? I mean what is it? What is she? Is she…have we seen…?”

“A ghost? How the hell would I know? No, I’ve never seen anything like it before, although I’ve met men who say they have. To be honest I’ve generally put it down to too much drink and a dark night on sentry duty.”

“We’ve been drinking.”

“That’s why I wanted to write it down,” Norris said. “I think it’s entirely possible for two men in drink to egg each other on to the point that they’re convinced they’ve seen a ghost. But I don’t think they’d be capable of the kind of detail we just produced independently. Admittedly you did tell me previously that you’d seen a woman, but you gave me no details at all.”

Sean regarded him for a moment. He felt very sober, with the beginnings of a headache. “So who the hell is she? Or was she?”

“I’ve no idea. Look, why don’t you sleep in here tonight, Sean, I’ve…”

“No, it’s all right. I’m not afraid of her, Adam, it’s just a shock when I see her. But she never appears more than once a night. I wonder if it’s always the same time, I’ve never looked.”

“Well it was around midnight when she turned up this evening because I’d just taken out my watch. I was going to wake you up to say goodnight.”

“I’ll add that to the notes,” Sean said, and his companion grinned.

“We’ll make a scientist of you yet. Get some sleep, Sean. I need to do my early rounds tomorrow, but we’ll meet up during the afternoon and talk about it. If you want to.”

“I do. There must be some explanation for this.”

***

Adam Norris slept late the following morning and dragged himself through his rounds with an effort. He was usually a moderate drinker, and it was not until midday that his headache subsided, and he began to feel better. The evening was one of the strangest he had ever experienced, but Adam found himself thinking about the early part as much as its dramatic conclusion. He had enjoyed spending time with Sean O’Connor, and it reminded him how much he missed his friends who were up at the lines. It had been a promotion to be placed in charge of a general hospital, but there were some disadvantages of being away from the main army and isolation was one of them.

Sean’s ghost was entirely another matter. Adam considered himself a rational man and had made it a principle during his medical career to weigh the evidence as far as he could before making a decision about diagnosis or treatment. In the heat of battle, there was no time to do anything other than react to every emergency and Adam knew that he sometimes made mistakes, but it was part of the job to accept that many patients could not be saved and live with it. Generally, however, he took his job seriously, studied whenever he could to keep up to date and was willing to accept new ideas.

Adam had never expected his open-mindedness to be tested by the appearance of a ghost, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not come up with any rational explanation for the figure he had seen the previous evening. There was no possible way the girl could have entered the room without him seeing her do so, or indeed hearing her, as Sean’s door creaked horrendously. She had looked, for those few moments, as real and solid as Sean, but then she had vanished as Adam blinked and left no trace behind.

The apparition had alarmed Adam at the time, but there had been no sense of menace about the woman. She seemed sad and possibly desperate, but not threatening. Making his way through the hot, stinking wards of the hospital, Adam found himself wondering about her. Having never believed in ghosts, he knew nothing about them apart from stories around the fireside during his boyhood, but all the tales of hauntings he had ever come across involved a person once living.

He mentioned this to Sean when he joined him in the commandant’s office that afternoon before dinner. Sean looked surprisingly well and grinned when Adam said so.

“Ten years of army life will give you an awfully hard head for the drink, Adam. Sit down. I’ve a very nice madeira or I can send Private Edwards for some tea if you’d prefer.”

Adam laughed. “Let’s try the madeira, although if this goes on I’ll be dead of the drink before the end of this war. I’ve been thinking about your ghost all day.”

“My ghost, is it now? I did wonder about that, you know, because I’m assuming that Colonel Stephens never mentioned seeing anything. So is it the room she’s haunting, or is it me?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “To be fair, Stephens was in a lot of pain. He’d lost his right arm and I had him dosed on as much laudanum as I could. Which he later supplemented with wine. He’d have slept through an army of ghosts marching through that room, and this one was fairly silent.”

“Was she though? I admit she’s never made a sound when I’ve seen her, but I’ve heard those footsteps pacing many times.”

Adam was startled. “Good God, I’d forgotten about that. So you never found out who it was?”

“No. I’ve asked around, but they all looked at me as if I was mad. As you know, I put it down to rodents of some kind but I’m not so sure now. It didn’t sound much like rats or mice, it’s too regular and too loud. And honestly, it didn’t sound as if it came from below me. I’d have said either next door or above, but there’s nothing up there that I’m aware of.”

“Or in the same room,” Adam said quietly.

“Now isn’t that a delightful thought.”

“Well it’s one you don’t need to dwell upon. I’ve had them clearing out Major Clarke’s room for you, I wanted it well scrubbed because of his illness, but it’s ready now. It’s on the floor below mine and it’s a lot more comfortable than the room you’re in. You could move your kit before we go into dinner. I’ll help you if you like.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Sean said. “It’s not that it’s frightening exactly, but it’s a little unnerving now that I know she’s not just in my head, not knowing when she’ll make an appearance. And we can treat it as a piece of research. At least that way, we’ll find out if it’s me or the room.”

Adam laughed aloud. “Whatever the cause of this, Captain O’Connor, it’s been the making of you. You’re a changed man, between ghosts and your new responsibilities.”

“And a man I can call a friend,” Sean said, echoing closely what Adam had been thinking earlier.

“That as well.”

“About those dreams, though. I actually think she did help me out with that infernal pacing. It woke me up so many nights, that I think it interrupted the dreaming. By the time I went back to sleep, I was thinking of something else and once I stopped worrying about the dreams, they stopped coming so much. Although I still jump like a nervous colt if a door slams close by.”

“One thing at a time, Sean, you’re doing very well. Have you written to your poor wife yet?”

“I have, so. I told her I’m staying out here for the present, in a temporary posting and that I’ll make my decision when they find a replacement for me.”

“Good for you.” Adam paused. He had a question, but he was not entirely sure how to phrase it. “Look, Sean, we can leave it here if you like. If you move into another room and the whole thing stops. I’ll close that room down, use it for storage.”

He could see the Irishman considering it. “We could do that,” he said. “But I rather like the notion of a hospital for officers, I think we should have more of it not less. And besides, now that I’ve seen her, I want to know.”

“Know what?”

“Who she was. What happened to her. Why in God’s name she’s wandering the rooms of this house.”

“And how are you going to find that out?” Adam asked with genuine curiosity. Sean grinned and raised his glass.

“Research, laddie. I learned the value of it quite recently from a scientific mind that I very much respect. Your good health.”

***

Sean slept well and dreamlessly in his new room. He was kept busy for a few days because of a selection of disciplinary matters among the convalescing soldiers. It was well known that idle soldiers were the most troublesome to manage and Sean was finding that discipline was the biggest challenge of his new post. He had been trying to steer a course between firmness and compassion, but a report from the Portuguese authorities in Elvas about a raid on a local farmhouse pushed him beyond his limit. The owners of the house had been robbed and beaten, but what infuriated Sean was the tearful aspect and bruised face of the farmer’s daughter. No complaint of sexual assault was made, and Sean was not surprised, since the farmer would not wish to broadcast his daughter’s shame, but he was determined to make an example. Too many of the more active convalescents assumed that their status on the sick roll made them immune from punishment and Sean summoned a court martial, determined to prove them wrong. He could not flog them for rape, but their other crimes were well documented and although the punishment was relatively light, Sean could sense their shock that he had administered it at all, and in front of every man fit to witness it in the entire hospital.

When it was over, Sean informed Dr Norris that the men involved had effectively proved their fitness for duty and would be sent back to the lines with the next convoy, along with a letter to their commanding officer about their crimes. Adam made no attempt to argue, and with the matter concluded, Sean had time to turn his attention to the matter of spectres. He knew nothing about how the Casa Mendes came to be part of the general hospital and took his initial queries to Adam, who shook his head regretfully.

“I wish I could tell you, but I had nothing to do with it. We were struggling with the wounded after Badajoz and the officers were billeted all over the place and then Mrs van Daan informed me that she had found this place and that we could have the use of it. Señora Avila and her staff came with the house, but I know nothing of the owners.”

“Mrs van Daan?” Sean said blankly.

“The wife of Colonel van Daan of the 110th. He commands the third brigade of the Light Division. She helps out with the wounded, and…”

“I’ve heard of Mrs van Daan,” Sean said, and then saw the expression on Adam’s face and hastily revised a large amount of gossip he had been about to repeat. “I mean…isn’t she the lady who has worked with the surgeons and who does rather more than nursing?”

Adam Norris studied him for a long moment then gave a faint smile. “Anne van Daan and her husband are two of my closest friends, Sean. She came to work with me as a volunteer in Lisbon three years ago and I trained her, against enormous opposition from my fellow surgeons. She’s extraordinary. She’s also a very good organiser and she found this place. I’ll write to her to see what she knows. In the meantime, I’ve had another idea. We need an excellent source of local gossip and I know just the place to find it.”

“Where?”

Norris grinned. “At the local brothel, of course.”

Sean stared at him. He realised his mouth was hanging open like a callow boy who had never heard of a brothel and closed it quickly. “I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”

Norris laughed aloud. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. There’s a young woman by the name of Pereira who runs a very pleasant tavern on the edge of town. I have been there, but not as a customer. One of the girls was very unwell during the time we were here, and Senorita Pereira had no faith in the local apothecary so I was asked as a personal favour if I would attend.”

“A personal favour for whom?” Sean asked.

“A young officer who is a particular friend of the lovely lady. I’m not giving you his name, it wouldn’t be right. We can walk over tomorrow if you wish. It’s not far, just near the Santa Luzia Fort.”

“Convenient for the garrison, then. If my wife knew I was planning a visit to a brothel, she’d never speak to me again. I’m assuming you aren’t intending to tell yours either?”

“Oh, I’m not married. I can’t imagine how your wife would find out, but I promise to bear witness to your good behaviour if ever I’m asked. You’ll like Diana Pereira, she’s not at all what you’d expect.”

It was less than two miles to the tavern, and they walked through quiet streets as the people of Elvas generally took a siesta during hot summer afternoons. Sean wondered if they would be admitted but the tavern door was wide open. They went in and found the tap room almost empty apart from two elderly men seated on a bench with a jug of wine and a chess board between them. A stocky dark-haired man was seated on a high wooden stool behind the bar with what looked like an account book in front of him, but he stood up as they entered and gave a little bow.

“It’s Emilio, isn’t it?” Adam asked pleasantly. “Dr Norris. I was here last year, to tend Lotta; I’m not sure if you remember me?”

The man nodded but did not speak. Adam ordered wine. As he was paying, a door at the back opened and a woman came into the room. She was dressed in yellow muslin, and she wore her hair pulled back at the sides with decorated combs but otherwise loose down her back. Sean thought she was probably in her twenties and was very attractive and very self-assured.

“Welcome, gentlemen. A pleasant change to see a red coat, we don’t see so many of them these days. Have you just arrived…?”

She stopped, her eyes on Adam’s face, and then she smiled again and there was warmth in it. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I didn’t recognise you immediately. You’re even more welcome as an old friend. Please, put your purse away. You wouldn’t take a penny for your services to Lotta, the least you can do is allow me to buy you a drink.”

Adam took her outstretched hand and raised it to his lips. “Miss Pereira. May I introduce the acting Commandant of my hospital and my good friend, Captain Sean O’Connor.”

“My pleasure, ma’am.”

“Mine too, Captain. Are you just here for a drink, Doctor, because I’ll willingly leave you in peace?”

“I was hoping to speak to you, ma’am. We’re in search of some information about the Casa Mendes and the family who lived there before the army medical service took it over. An administrative matter.”

Bright brown eyes surveyed them with amusement. “Well I can’t help much with that, Doctor, because I understand the place is rented through an agent. Although I imagine you knew that.”

Adam grinned. “I do, ma’am, and you have caught me out. I’m in search of gossip.”

The woman gave a broad smile. “Ordinarily, I would tell you that you have come to the wrong place, Doctor. Discretion is, after all, my business. In this case, however, there is no need for discretion since none of the Mendes family have ever patronised my establishment. Come through to my sitting room and I will give you a rather better wine.”

The sitting room was a comfortably cluttered room at the back of the house. Diana offered chairs and wine then seated herself in a comfortable armchair. Sean tried hard not to stare. It was many years since he had last visited a brothel as a very young officer but he was sure that it had been nothing like this. He looked around the room curiously and looked back to see that his hostess had caught him staring. She smiled.

“It is my place of work, Captain, but it is also my home. And since you are probably wondering, my English is so good because my father was English.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I was being rude.”

“No, just curious. What do you want to know?”

“Did you ever meet the Mendes family, ma’am?”

“Heavens, no. Dom Alfonso was a gentleman in his fifties, a widower for several years. There is a son, who serves at court in some capacity or other, so he went to Brazil when the royal family fled Lisbon. I believe the house is rented out through an agent.”

“You said ‘was’, ma’am.”

“Yes. Dom Alfonso died several years ago which means the house belongs to his son. I must tell you that I was not in Elvas at the time of these events, by the way, so I am repeating gossip. But I have heard the story often enough from a variety of local gentlemen, and I think it is largely true.”

“Go on.”

“When the French invaded in 1808, the house was occupied by Dom Alfonso and his sixteen year old daughter Juana. She was convent educated and I am told she had only recently been brought home because a marriage was being arranged for her. Her mother was already dead.

“Dom Alfonso could have fled south to Lisbon and joined his son, but he did not wish to leave his various properties to the mercy of the French, so he remained. He was apparently furious when they took the town, and very quickly commandeered his house as billets for French officers. He loathed the invaders and made no secret of it.

“They were here for six months and when they marched out after Lord Wellington’s victory at Vimeiro and the peace treaty, Dom Alfonso was left in the house again, without the invading officers but also without his daughter.”

“You mean she left? Or did she die?”

“Well that, of course, is the question. Here, I am afraid, there are several different versions, and I cannot tell you which is true. Dom Alfonso gave out the story that his daughter had been abducted and murdered by a French officer. He behaved from that day on as though she was dead, and very soon made arrangements to leave for Brazil to join his son. He never arrived, however, but died of some illness aboard ship.”

“But was the murder never investigated?” Sean asked. He had forgotten his awkwardness in her presence in his interest in her story. “Surely if he reported this to the local French commander, there would have been a court martial?”

“One would think so, but the French had gone before he ever told the tale,” Diana said. “This of course, led to a number of different theories which quickly spread through the town and probably contributed to his sudden decision to go to Brazil. Some people suggested that Juana’s father found her dead and killed the officer then hid his body. Another story was that the girl fell in love with the officer and left with him, either married or in disgrace. Either way, Mendes would never have forgiven an alliance with the enemy, so he cut her off entirely. I would like to believe that one.”

“Any others?”

“Many people seem to think that Mendes found out about the affair and killed the girl himself. I do not think he could possibly have killed her lover, since the French would have arrested him and the whole story would have come out. But his daughter? From what I’ve heard of him, I think he might have done it.”

“Do you think anybody suspected?” Adam asked.

“As I said, I wasn’t here then, but Elvas is a small place and Mendes had boasted about the grand Court marriage he planned for the girl. I think he might have considered she had dishonoured him. He was a minor member of the nobility and he had high hopes for the alliance.”

“What of her brother?”

“Still in Brazil as far as I am aware. When Dom Alfonso packed up and left for Brazil to join the royal family he employed Señora Avila with a small staff to take care of the house until a tenant could be found. I believe it was briefly used to billet some of the Light Division officers last year and then Mrs van Daan took it over for the 110th regimental hospital.”

“That poor girl,” Sean said softly. The woman studied him thoughtfully for a long moment.

“Yes, I’ve always thought it a very tragic story. As I said, I would love to believe she managed to leave with her French lover, but I am rather afraid she did not. I am longing to know why two English officers have such an interest in a long-buried local scandal.”

Sean could think of no answer that would not leave Miss Pereira thinking them mad, but Adam was better prepared. “There is a question over the lease,” he said. “If we are to make further improvements to the hospital, we would like to know that the family are not about to return, demanding their house back. The agent was odd about it, but it sounds as though he was concealing a scandal rather than avoiding a business arrangement. Thank you, Miss Pereira, you’ve been very helpful.”

Sean drank deeply. He was vaguely aware that the wine was excellent, but he found it hard to think of anything other than the thin, tragic figure of the girl in his room. He endured the rest of the visit as best he could and waited until they were well away from the tavern before he said:

“It has to be her.”

Adam glanced at him. “Our ghost?”

“Yes. It must be Juana Mendes. He killed her.”

“Her father or her lover?”

“Either of them. Or both of them, one way or another. She was just a child, straight out of the convent. Whatever they did to her between them, somebody should have been there to look after her.”

“Well if they didn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it now, Sean. She’s dead. She died four years ago.”

“Is that what you think? You don’t think she went off with her French lover?”

Adam glanced at him. “We’re probably never going to know for sure,” he said gently. “Honestly, we’ve found out more than I thought we would. I still don’t really know what it was that I saw that night in your room, but it’s clear we saw the same thing and if you add that to the story we’ve just heard, then I think it was some kind of ghost or spirit – the spirit of Juana Mendes. I wish there were something more we could do, but there isn’t. Unless you feel like talking to the local priest about an exorcism, and I must say…”

“No. Oh God, no,” Sean said, revolted. “You’re right, I need to let it go. I’m glad we found out what we did, though. Adam, thank you for this. For all of it. Wherever I end up, I’ll always be glad I had this opportunity to get to know you.”

***

High summer brought news from the front, of a spectacular victory at Salamanca and a march further into Spain. Wagons full of wounded and convalescent men made their way back to the general hospitals in Portugal and Adam Norris was so busy that he had no time to ponder the sad little story of Juana Mendes. The usual autumn sickness arrived early that year and Adam was grateful for Sean O’Connor’s capable presence as the hospitals were overrun and new premises became essential.

In November, they received word that Lord Wellington’s glorious campaign had come to an abrupt halt against the implacable walls of the citadel of Burgos and his Lordship’s army was retreating through appalling weather back to the safety of the Portuguese border, with the French snapping at their heels. Adam was supervising the unloading of a convoy of medical supplies outside the hospital when Sean joined him.

“The post is in. Endless letters telling us to expect a flood of sick and wounded. It sounds as though they’ve had another Corunna, poor bastards.”

“I know, I had a couple of letters from friends. Something went badly wrong with the supply chain.” Adam noticed that Sean was holding a letter. “What’s that?”

“A job offer,” Sean said. “Did you know about this?”

“Yes,” Adam said. “They wrote to ask if I would recommend you for the job. I said I would.”

“It comes with a promotion to major.”

“I also told them that I thought you were fully recovered and ready to return to combat if you should wish to do so, Sean.”

“I know. It’s my choice.” Sean looked around him. “It didn’t occur to me that I’d end up doing this permanently.”

Adam eyed him hopefully. “That sounds promising.”

“I ought to make you sweat, you underhanded bastard, you’ve been working at this, haven’t you?”

“Sean, it’s my job to make sure this place is well run. The improvement since you took over is astonishing, I’d have been mad not to ask them to make you permanent. But you can go if you want to. We’ll still be friends.”

“I’m staying. There’s so much to do here. In addition to running this place, they’ve made me district superintendent, which means I can inspect and make recommendations about the other hospitals.”

“Thank God for that,” Adam said. “The large convent is a bloody disgrace, I wouldn’t send an animal to stay there.”

They dined together in celebration and Adam felt pleasantly mellow as he settled to sleep. It had rained for almost a week and many of the town streets had turned to quagmires, the mud churned up by wagons and carts bringing in supplies and the first sick men from the retreat. Adam fell asleep thinking of the men currently marching into Ciudad Rodrigo with empty stomachs, camp fever and unhealed battle wounds and felt very fortunate.

He woke in darkness to an unfamiliar sound and sat up in bed. For a moment, disoriented, his mind flew to the apparition of the young girl and he wondered if this was some new manifestation of the ghost, but a moment later, he realised that what he was hearing was very much of this world. The rain was still falling, a strong wind driving it against the wooden shutters but there were sounds in the corridor outside, loud voices and footsteps and an alarming crashing sound.

Adam scrambled out of bed and into his clothing, then opened the door. Every occupant of the top floor of the Casa Mendes was there, the housekeeper and maids with cloaks and shawls over their nightclothes, and the clamour of voices was deafening.

“Sean, is that you? What the bloody hell is going on?” Adam called, and a voice floated up the stairs.

“The roof has caved in. Must have been a leak and the plaster has rotted. Thank God it’s above the empty room. Don’t go in there, Adam, it’s not safe. The rooms below are flooded though. Can you get everyone downstairs? I’m helping Fellowes down, he can’t make it on his own. The ground floor is dry, they’ll have to camp out down there until the morning, then we can get somebody to take a look.”

Adam groaned inwardly and turned his attention to the staff. Fortunately, after her initial panic, Señora Avila had regained her usual calm and was shepherding them downstairs with armfuls of bedclothes to find refuge in the dry part of the house. Adam made his way to the next floor down, where eight sick or wounded officers had their quarters. Sean had managed to light two oil lamps and was guiding the men, wrapped in blankets, down the narrow stairs, their feet splashing through water on the bare boards.

It was dawn before they were finally settled. The kitchen was in the basement and thankfully unaffected and as a grey light began to filter between the shutters, Señora Avila roused her staff and chased them upstairs to dress properly then down to the kitchen to begin preparing hot drinks and food for the exhausted invalids. Adam drank coffee with Sean in the mess room then rose with a sigh.

“Shall we have a look?”

“Might as well get it over with. The rain seems to have stopped, so I’d like to get someone out as soon as possible to start clearing up this mess so that Da Costa can have a proper look at it. I don’t want to have to give this place up if I can help it, Adam, not now. We’ll be back to having sick and injured officers scattered all over the damned place and with so many men coming in from this bloody retreat, we don’t need that. I want that roof repaired. We can round up enough convalescent men to do the clear up and if that’s not enough, I’ll write to Lord Wellington asking for a work party. There must be some men still on their feet in his army.”

“If it comes to that, I’ll write to Colonel van Daan. It will avoid a lot of unnecessary argument, he’ll just march them down here and claim it’s a training exercise,” Adam said with a tired grin. “But let’s see what we’ve got first.”

They made their way up the stairs, inspecting the damage. The south facing wall of the house was drenched, but not damaged and Adam thought that it could be dried out, as could the floorboards. They sounded walls and moved furniture and tested floorboards.

“I think we’ll have to keep an eye on that corner of the ceiling, but this is not as bad as I thought,” Sean said. “I wonder why it came down in such a deluge?”

“At a guess, I’d say the water has been pooling somewhere, it’s been raining for weeks. We’d better have a look in that empty room. Are you all right about that?”

“I’m fine, Adam. Come on.”

It was the first time Adam had been in the corner room since he had helped Sean move his possessions to his new quarters. The room was empty apart from some crates of medical supplies, the meagre furniture having been put to good use elsewhere. Fortunately, the equipment had been piled against the internal wall because the ceiling against the outside wall had completely collapsed. A pile of soaking, unpleasant smelling rubble was piled beneath a gaping hole and the room was covered in sticky plaster dust.

“What a mess.”

“It is. We’ll need to get this room cleared out as soon as possible and get the builder over to have a look. The first priority is to fix the roof, since it’s clear that’s how the water has been coming in. I’d guess it’s been collecting in the roof space above this room and soaking the plaster until it just gave.”

“Yes, the roof comes first. We could just board this up since nobody is using the room.”

Sean walked over to the pile of rubble and peered upwards into the dark hole. “I can see daylight up there,” he said. “I think a couple of tiles are missing.”

He paused and stood staring. Adam waited but his friend said nothing. After a while, Adam said:

“Sean? Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Sean turned. “Adam, this doesn’t make sense.”

“What doesn’t?”

“This house. The roof of this house. Come with me.”

Adam followed him downstairs and out into the street. Although it was still early, there was a good deal of activity as the people of Elvas emerged after the storm. A few doors down, an elderly man stood on a ladder wielding a hammer, the nails held between yellow teeth as he repaired a broken shutter. Sean looked up at the house and Adam followed his gaze.

“Look at the slope of that roof. That’s the window of the small room. If you move this way a bit, you can see the missing tiles. That’s where the rain came in, it’s probably been collecting there for months.”

“Very likely, it will have rotted the boards through.”

“But what’s above there? It must be an enormous space.”

“You mean under the eaves? Attic space, I presume. There’s nothing odd in that, Sean, loads of houses have a decent amount of space under the eaves, most people use it for storage.”

“How do they get up there?”

“A loft hatch, usually. I’ve seen them with wooden pull down ladders in some old houses, or they just keep a ladder nearby to be used when they need it.”

“So why is there no hatch in this house?”

Adam stared at him blankly. “I don’t know. Isn’t there?”

“No. I’ve been in and out of all the rooms on the top floor since I took over as commandant and none of them has a hatch. In most of the houses I know, it’s above the corridor but there’s nothing there. Why wouldn’t there be? Everybody needs storage space. Even if the house was built without a hatch, it’s an old building. You’d think one of the owners at some point would have seen the need for it and put one in.”

Adam stared at him. Sean was right and for some reason the thought made him uneasy, although he was not sure why. “I can see your point,” he said slowly. “It is unusual. But why does it matter?”

Sean’s eyes were troubled. “Because I think there was a hatch,” he said softly. “Looking up where the ceiling came through, I can see the remains of a wooden square hanging down. I think there was a loft space and it’s been boarded up. That’s why the rain pooled so specifically in that area.”

“You mean…in that room?”

“Yes,” Sean said. “Is there a ladder about the place somewhere?”

“I think there’s one in the wood shed although I don’t know its condition. Sean are you sure?”

Sean turned back. “I have to,” he said, almost apologetically. “I have to know.”

***

They found the ladder attached to the wall in the wood shed. It looked in good condition and as they carried it up the stairs between them under the curious eyes of a number of the other occupants, Sean reflected that the last time he had climbed a ladder had been at Badajoz. He did not mention the fact to Adam, however, as he wanted to be the one to go up into the roof space and he did not want Adam fussing over his emotional state. Sean did feel emotional and a little shaky but that had nothing to do with his experience at Badajoz.

It took several minutes to work out the safest place to set the ladder. Adam looked at him, but Sean shook his head firmly. He could not have said why it was so important to him, but he needed to be the first to enter the roof space. Adam nodded and took firm hold of the ladder and Sean climbed up.

As his head and shoulders emerged above the ragged hole in the ceiling, he could see immediately that he had been right. Part of the wood had rotted away and been pulled down when the ceiling fell, but the remains of the square loft hatch were unmistakable. There had been no sign of it from below, Sean was sure. He had spent plenty of time looking up at that ceiling when he could not sleep, and he would have seen the outline. Somebody had not only boarded up the loft but plastered over it.

The space was enormous. It must stretch the full length of the top floor of the house and had clearly been used for storage at some point, since it was fully boarded with wooden planks laid over the rafters. A variety of objects were scattered about the room, all covered in a thick blanket of dust. The light was good, owing to the missing roof tiles, and Sean could see several chests, a pile of mouldy fabric which may have been curtains, a broken mirror and a battered table with miscellaneous objects piled on top of it. Further down the space were two stacked wooden chairs, a wicker basket and a sturdy box of the kind Sean had seen used to store letters and paperwork. At the far end was an old mattress with straw poking out from its torn cover. There was something lying on top of it which looked very much like another hand stitched quilt although this one was covered, like everything else, with a thick layer of dust.

Sean stepped off the ladder. The roof was steeply sloped and at its highest point down the middle of the attic, he could stand upright. He took two or three steps forward then stopped. After a moment he set off again. The sound of his steps was unmistakeable. Sean felt that it should have been obvious that the footsteps could have been from a room above his head, but then he had not known this space existed.

He stopped before he reached the mattress and stood looking down. Nothing could be seen other than the quilt, but Sean had absolutely no doubt that she was there. He waited for a moment, steeling himself, then bent and lifted the edge of the quilt very gently, coughing in the cloud of dust that arose.

Sean had been dreading some horror, some sign of the agony of her last days, but he supposed at the end, after long hours of pacing the room, probably of crying out for help, she had grown progressively weaker and had just lain down. The bones were white, resting within the tattered fabric of her shift. The most upsetting thing was her hair, which had not yet rotted away and lay dark against the white of her skull. Sean felt tears start to his eyes and he settled the quilt back over her as she had been before and turned away.

As he turned, he thought Adam had followed him up the ladder, but he quickly realised his mistake. The girl stood before him and in the bright daylight spilling through the broken roof, Sean saw her more clearly than ever before. Her eyes were a deep brown and must have been lovely before dehydration and starvation had hollowed out the sockets. There were the tragic remnants of beauty in the bone structure of her face.

Something was different though, and Sean felt a sudden chill as he realised what it was. For the first time, the girl was looking at him. Before, in the room below, she had been an image, like a portrait with eyes staring into nothing. Now the eyes were on his face and he was sure that she could see him. For a moment, he was terrified, and then the fear receded and instead he felt a deep and abiding sorrow.

“He left then, did he?” he said very softly. “Your lover? He probably had no idea what that evil bastard did to you. I don’t know what happened on that ship, but however he died I hope it was long and painful. I’m sorry, Juana. All I can do is see you properly buried, but that I’ll gladly do. Then you can rest, I hope.”

She said nothing, but Sean had an odd sense that she could hear him although he did not know if she would have understood since he had no idea if the living Juana understood any English. He could feel tears on his cheeks and as he blinked and then wiped them away, she was gone and there was no mark in the dust where she had stood.

***

The burial service was private, with only the priest, Sean, and Adam present. Sean used bribery, when persuasion had failed, to pay for a simple stone with Juana’s name and the dates of her birth and probable death. Adam listened in shocked silence to his friend’s account of his experience in the loft and did not question his insistence that Juana have a memorial. She was buried in an army coffin, wrapped in the dusty quilt from the attic and afterwards, Adam arranged for dinner to be served in his room and opened a bottle of wine.

“Are you ready to hear the rest?” he asked.

“The rest of what?”

“We’ve been clearing out the loft ready for the repairs. The carpenter is going to restore the hatch and put a proper ladder in so that it can be used for storage again.”

“Not while we’re here.”

“No, but in the future. The point is that they found some papers in a box and brought them to me as they’d no idea what else to do with them. They should go to the family agent but given how that girl was murdered by her own father, I felt no scruples about going through them, and I’m glad I did.”

“What did you find?”

“Letters. Her lover wrote several of them in the weeks after his immediate departure, asking her why she didn’t keep their appointment and begging her to join him. That bastard Mendes must have put them up there with her deliberately before he walled her up and left her to die. He probably thought it was fitting. I hope she found comfort in them.”

“Oh God, Adam. You mean there really was a French lover?”

“More like a French suitor, as far as I can see. He wanted to marry her and when the old man refused, they planned to elope. When the French marched out after Cintra she should have been with him as his wife.”

“I wonder if he’s still alive?”

“I don’t know, Sean, but I’m going to write to him to tell him that she died and where she’s buried. Not the details of how, he doesn’t need to know that. But if he’s still alive and still out there, I’d like him to know that she didn’t mean to let him down.”

“Can we do that?”

“Oh yes. There are regular channels of communication regarding prisoners and if we enclose a note explaining it’s about a family matter, they’ll see he gets it. It’s surprisingly reliable, I was a prisoner myself for eight months.”

“Do you mind if I do it?”

“Not at all. I have the letters here, you can read them. It gives his regiment four years ago, but if he’s moved on for promotion they’ll know how to find him.”

They finished dinner in companionable silence, then Adam produced the letters and finished his wine as Sean sat reading them. Afterwards, Adam was called to a patient in the main hospital. Sean walked part of the way with him then made his way through the town to the churchyard and stood in the gathering dusk before the fresh grave in the churchyard.

Sean could give no reason for his certainty that Juana Mendes was finally at peace. He thought about the young Frenchman who had fallen in love with her during those months at the Casa Mendes. The man’s letters had upset him with their increasing desperation at receiving no word from Juana. It was clear that he had loved her very much and Sean wondered if there were other letters, written after her death and destroyed by her vengeful father. Adam was right, the man deserved to know at least part of the truth.

It was full dark now, and Sean could barely see the grave. He bent his head and spoke a short prayer for Juana and for the young man she had loved, then he crossed himself and turned to walk back up to the hospital. He had paperwork to do, then he would open another bottle of wine in case Adam was back early enough to share a drink. While he was waiting, he would write a letter to his wife to remind her of how much he loved her, and another to a young French officer called Louis Bernard, to tell him that he too had been loved.

Author’s Note

The idea for this ghost story came from somebody I met locally who was reading my Peninsular War Saga and told me the story of his ancestor. Lieutenant Waldron Kelly, an Irish officer who served in Wellington’s army eloped with a well-born Portuguese girl and married her against furious opposition from her family. Mrs Kelly went back to Ireland, partly because her family threatened to kill her for disgracing them. The story is told in some detail in Charles Esdaile’s Women in the Peninsular War and is one of a number of tales of local women becoming involved with British soldiers. It occurred to me that this probably also happened during the French occupation, and that a Portuguese or Spanish family might have been even more angry if their daughter became involved with a hated invader.

While both Adam Norris and Sean O’Connor are fictional characters, there really were several general hospitals in Elvas and they would have been jointly run by a senior doctor and an officer commandant. Hospitals for officers were rare, although in 1813 the voluntary provision of a separate hospital for sick and wounded officers was finally included in regulations. It was hugely inconvenient for medical staff to have to travel to wherever a sick or wounded officer happened to be billeted, and there are several accounts of what appear to be informal hospitals for officers throughout the war. It seems madness to us today that considerations of rank were placed above good medical care, but Wellington’s army existed in a very different world.

 

 

Alverstone by Beatrice Knight

Alverstone by Beatrice Knight is a carefully plotted Regency saga by an author who is new to me. I ran into the author on Twitter one day during a discussion about writing animals into fiction and was fascinated when she mentioned that some French officers took War Poodles on campaign with them. Honestly. War Poodles are a thing. How fabulous.

Anyway, back to the novel. When I began reading Alverstone, I was expecting a traditional Regency romance in the style of Georgette Heyer and her more modern counterparts. It quickly became obvious this was so much more than that. Beatrice Knight has created an entertaining family saga set during the Regency period. In fact there’s so much to this book it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with the characters. Knight introduces a big cast of characters from both ends of the social scale and handles them with professional ease. Her hero and heroine, Jasper and Charlotte are well-written and believable with all the necessary virtues but also plenty of faults. It’s something of a problem to me when a character is too perfect and there were moments where I wanted to yell at both of these two. At the same time they are both very likeable. I enjoyed their interactions with the rest of the characters as well as the relationship between them. 

Beatrice Knight’s research is impressive.  I know a lot about the Regency period because of my own books, both on and off the battlefield. Alverstone is set primarily in the social milieu of the era but moves into the military and political from time to time and the author gives the impression of being very much at home there too. I can be picky about detail in books of this kind but I found it hard to find fault. There were a couple of minor things that made me flinch, but interestingly when I looked them up I found the author was right. A reticule (small evening type bag) was indeed, at the time, also called a ridicule. I still prefer the former because a lot of people are going to think that’s a typo, but it isn’t.

Beatrice Knight’s writing flows very well and I enjoyed her style. She keeps a good sense of period but doesn’t drown the reader in Regency slang or try to base her writing on other authors; her voice is distinctly her own. The book was well paced, which is quite an achievement given that it’s fairly long and she held my interest to the end.

The book is very funny in places. There are several eccentric characters but they’re kindly drawn. I enjoyed Sylvie’s burgeoning friendship with Violet. I rather imagine we’ll be seeing more of these two in future books and I can’t wait. I was also delighted to meet Brodie the War Poodle who seemed to have made the transition from battle dog to pampered pet without a hitch.

So are there any criticisms of this book? To be honest, from my perspective no. I read it over a couple of days and I’m looking forward to the sequels. I do think it’s difficult to place this book into a particular genre. The cover screams Regency and it’s definitely rooted firmly and accurately in that period but it’s not a Regency romance as such. I hope that doesn’t put readers off. It reminds me more of the family sagas which were popular when I was young, written by people like Brenda Jagger and perhaps it’s time for these to make a comeback.

Family is a major theme in Alverstone. This is not just a romance about two people. The ties that bind the two households run throughout the book and I suspect will run on into the future. I look forward to seeing more of Jasper and Charlotte as well as their siblings and various dependents. I hope readers do give this book a chance because it’s well-researched, well-written and a lot of fun.

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

 

 

Women of the American Revolution

Women of the American Revolution is a book it would never have occurred to me to pick up if I’d not heard of it through the Historical Writers Forum on Facebook. The author, Samantha Wilcoxson, mentioned that it had just come out on audiobook. 

I like audiobook as it adds to the amount of time I can spend reading for  enjoyment. I can listen while out for a walk, driving to the supermarket or doing housework. I’m often prepared to try something different when it’s an audiobook and occasionally, as in this case, I discover a real gem.

My lack of knowledge about the American Revolution is nothing short of embarrassing. I could give you a cautious summary of the political situation in England which led to it but the closest I’ve come to knowing anything more about it when when I read the Outlander series a few years back and I’ve given up on that now. I can remember watching the Patriot many years ago but I wouldn’t expect to get any actual history from that and it wasn’t even a good film. 

It has frequently occurred to me that I should learn more, especially as I have some ideas about writing the war of 1812 later on and could do with some background. This book felt like a good start. I began listening to it casually while cleaning the bathroom and ended up doing very little else until I got to the end. The house is surprisingly clean and the book was great.

Samantha Wilcoxson has chosen to explore the years of the American Revolution through the eyes of the women involved. Using their letters, diaries and a variety of secondary sources, she devotes each chapter to a different woman and examines the effects of war on their daily lives.

When writing about the women of past eras, the source material is often far less than is available for men. Women were probably given little choice in the side they took as it was assumed they would share their menfolk’s loyalties. They experienced hardship and tragedy without being able to control the course of events. They lost husbands and children and other family members. They suffered and grieved.

All these aspects of eighteenth century social history are fully explored in this book, but there is a lot more besides. Samantha Wilcoxson’s straightforward writing style makes the book an enjoyable read and the narrator makes a good job of the audiobook.  The author is also a popular writer of historical fiction which may explain the excellent pace and narrative style. I loved her genuine warmth for her subjects. The personality of each woman steps out of the pages in all their flawed humanity.

The author also handles the historiography of the period very well. She shows no particular bias for women on either side of the conflict and she is particularly good at weighing up some of the myths of the era, looking at how much is likely to be true and at why and how such stories developed.

I came away from this book with a genuine enthusiasm to learn more about this period and with a desire to read more of Samantha Wilcoxson’s books. She is a lovely writer with the ability to make her subjects feel like real people, even within the constraints of a single chapter. I’d like to see what she can do when she has a whole book to play with.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book and highly recommended.

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.

The Jolabokaflod – an annual tradition

Welcome to the Jolabokaflod- an annual tradition here at Writing With Labradors. Every year since 2017 I’ve offered some of my books for free on Amazon kindle as a Christmas gift to my readers, old and new.

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalogue of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book. They are also easier to give away, and I like to celebrate my own version of the Jolabokaflod with my readers, by giving away the e-book versions of some of my books on kindle for three days, on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

It’s been five years since I first made the decision to independently publish my historical novels, and it has gone better than I ever expected. Sales have risen steadily, I’ve had some great reviews and my latest book This Bloody Shore which is the third in the Manxman Series won me my very first number one in new releases tag on Amazon.

I couldn’t have done it without the loyalty of a very engaged band of readers who read the books, review them and engage in regular discussions about them on social media. I’ve not only become a full-time author, I’ve made friends along the way.

This is my way of saying thank you to all my readers and hello to any new readers out there.

Visit Amazon to download the following books free on 24th, 25th and 26th of December. Please note that The Reluctant Debutante will only be available on 25th and 26th due to problems with Amazon. My apologies for that.

 

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyAn Unconventional Officer (Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga)

A Regrettable Reputation (Book 1 of the Regency Romances)

The Reluctant Debutante (Book 2 of the Regency Romances)

A Marcher Lord (a novel of the Anglo-Scottish borders)

A Respectable Woman (a novel of Victorian London)

Don’t forget to try the latest free short story, the Glassblower’s Daughter. 

An Unattainable Stronghold, book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga will be arriving in 2023.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all of you, from Lynn, Oscar and Alfie, the staff at Writing With Labradors.

The Glassblower’s Daughter

The Cathedral in Palma

Welcome to the Glassblower’s Daughter, my Christmas story for 2022. As with all my short stories, it’s free and available to share as much as you like.

Just a minor warning with this story. Because it follows on directly from the events of my latest Manxman book, This Bloody Shore, my regular readers may want to finish the book before reading this. The story stands in its own right, but there will be one or two spoilers.

I wrote this story during a recent holiday to Mallorca. We stayed near the little town of Alcudia and my husband and our four friends spent the week cycling. I’m not a cyclist so I planned a few excursions then settled down to do some editing on This Bloody Shore while sitting outside the pool bar.

As far as I was aware, I wasn’t likely to find much Napoleonic history in Mallorca. The Royal Navy had a base on neighbouring Menorca and their presence in these waters kept the French away, so Mallorca was never invaded. However, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of digging around to see if they at least sent troops to the Spanish army.

The first thing I discovered was that Mallorca was indeed invaded in 1811, not by the French but by a small army of desperate refugees from the French storming of Tarragona. I was delighted to find such an immediate link to the end of my latest book and it gave me an opportunity to follow up on two characters from This Bloody Shore. 

I spent a lovely week in Mallorca. There was indeed a Mallorcan regiment which went on to fight at Vitoria. There’s a wonderful and historic glassmaking factory and I discovered the story of the Xueta, the descendants of a group of Jewish families persecuted by the inquisition who had still not had their rights restored at the time of this story. I’ve woven these elements into this tale. I hope you enjoy it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. It’s been a great year for me, with two books out and I feel as though I’m back on track again. I’m now researching book eight of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s called An Unattainable Stronghold and is set around the 1813 siege of San Sebastian.

The Glassblower’s Daughter

Mallorca, November 1811

It had rained all morning with typical Mallorcan ferocity. Drill and training were cancelled and the one hundred and fifty men of the 13th Mallorcan infantry currently on the island huddled within the leaky wooden farm building they were using as barracks: playing cards, smoking or watching the spectacular display of lightning over the mountains.

Captain Don Bruno Ángel Cortez was glad of the respite, although he would not have admitted it to his ill-assorted collection of non-commissioned officers and men. Since being appointed to the temporary command of two companies of new recruits, he had taken care never to allow them to see any kind of emotion in him other than anger. Ángel had been raised within the rigid structure of an aristocratic, although impoverished Spanish family and had been taught that emotion was a sign of weakness.

Ángel was sometimes envious of his junior officer who seemed to have no such qualms. Captain Don Óscar García, recently promoted after the bloody storming of Tarragona, was from the same social class as Ángel. He had even more reason to take pride in his lineage, as his father was a nobleman and a member of the Cortes of Cadiz, the council which governed Spain in the absence of the Royal family, who had fled the invading troops of Bonaparte. García might have had a comfortable and safe administrative posting in Cadiz but instead he had accepted a post as ADC to General Contreras during his command of Tarragona. Ángel, ten years his senior and a veteran of both Bonapartist and Spanish armies had initially been rather contemptuous of García’s youth and inexperience. The siege and its bloody aftermath had changed that. Óscar García was an intelligent and courageous soldier and the first real friend Ángel had ever had. He was trying hard to hide how much that meant to him.

Ángel was eating breakfast and staring out of the window at the rain when García joined him. News of his promotion had arrived with a consignment of supplies including new uniforms. Ángel liked the red facings of the Mallorcan regiment although he thought it suited García’s dark colouring better than his own fair hair. During their long convalescence recovering from wounds received at Tarragona, García had cut his curly hair short and it made him look older. He set his hat down on a side table, seated himself opposite Ángel  and reached for the coffee pot.

“It’s almost empty,” Ángel said.

García grinned. “Nothing else to do this morning, sir?”

“At least it’s not brandy. I’ll ring for some more.”

“No need, I’ll go…”

García was halfway to his feet when the door opened and a young woman entered the room with brisk steps. She bore a fresh jug of coffee in one hand and a basket of bread in the other. The jug was made from local pottery and looked heavy but the woman set it down on the table without effort. García remained on his feet, bowing to the woman. Ángel got up reluctantly to do the same. His junior tended to treat females with what Ángel considered exaggerated courtesy, regardless of their social position. He had even seen García helping the laundry maid when she was bowed down under a heavy load of wet sheets and towels.

The social status of Señorita Raquel Segura confused Ángel. She was the only daughter of his host who was a prosperous glassmaker. Señor Juan Segura was a master glassblower and the owner of a large factory on the edge of Palma which shipped luxury glassware all over the world, although trade these days was limited by the exigencies of war. He also ran a shop in the narrow streets of Palma and ten years ago had purchased a seventeenth century palace within the city walls.

The Casa Segura was the most comfortable billet Ángel had occupied in his fifteen years as a soldier. The entrance was modest, but the interior was a haven of cool rooms, sunny courtyards and terraces and polished wooden floors. Segura was a generous host and his wife, a stately woman of around fifty, treated the two officers as honoured guests. Ángel knew that his attitude to her daughter was churlish but there was something about Raquel Segura that made him deeply uncomfortable. For the first few weeks of their stay he had tried hard to convey without actually saying so how much he disapproved of her friendly manners and forthright speech. More than four months later he had given up because he did not think she had noticed.

García was holding out a chair. “Please, sit. You should not be waiting on us. Have some coffee.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Raquel sat down with a pleasant smile at Ángel. “Just for a short time, then. I have a busy day.”

García poured coffee into three pottery cups, laughing. “You always have a busy day, Señorita. You make me feel very idle, sitting here watching the rain fall. Captain Cortez is right though, we can do nothing with them in this weather. The field we use for training will be so muddy they will lose their shiny new shoes in it.”

“And you will spoil your shiny new boots, Captain.”

“That was my first consideration of course,” García said gravely. The girl laughed aloud.

“Considering the state of you both when you first arrived here, I think you deserve to be properly dressed again. I have never seen such a sight. Dressed in rags with the manners of a grandee. It was very funny.”

“Are you laughing at my vanity, Señorita?”

“Not at all. I was impressed with your dignity, Captain, given that you had lost your boots during the rescue and there were big holes in the toes of your stockings.”

“I will be honest, Señorita and tell you that I felt none of the embarrassment I should have. I was too ill.”

“You look a lot better now,” Raquel said. “Captain Cortez, have you any more news of your next posting? I know that you write five letters a week to anybody who might tell you when you can escape from us. Have you had a reply?”

Ángel flushed. “No news, only gossip, Señorita. The Mallorcan regiment is serving with the Spanish troops under Lord Wellington but I have received no orders to sail. I’m sorry that we continue to be such a charge upon you.”

“Oh do not be so silly, you are no charge at all. Two skinny officers in this big house with such a huge kitchen. You give our cook something to do.”

“Skinny?” García said indignantly and she laughed and surveyed him from well-shaped blue eyes.

“Well perhaps not as skinny as you were. I only ask because if you are likely to be with us at Christmas time we should inform our friends and neighbours as they will wish to include you in any invitations. Let us say that you will be here. Nobody will be offended if your plans must suddenly change.”

“We are not here to attend parties, Señorita,” Ángel  said harshly. He realised immediately that he had been rude and wondered why Raquel Segura had this effect on him. He then realised he had forgotten to apologise. His friend blushed slightly and gave him a look.

“What Captain Cortez was trying to say, Señorita, is that we cannot be certain of our plans yet, but are very grateful for you kindness and would love to be included in your Christmas arrangements if we are still here.”

Raquel Segura gave Ángel a long thoughtful look. Ángel looked back at her trying not to appear defiant. She was a tall graceful girl of twenty-two with delicious curves and a riot of dark honey-blonde curls which she wore in a loose knot on the top of her head. Ángel had always preferred slender delicate-looking women who did not trouble him too much with their opinions, but over the past weeks he had discovered that warmly tanned skin, a slightly aquiline nose and a laughing mouth could disturb his dreams much more effectively than any of the aristocratic beauties he had admired from a distance.

The girl rolled her eyes and returned her attention to García.

“You do understand, Captain, that was not what he was trying to say at all, don’t you?”

Ángel’s blush deepened but García began to laugh. “It was what he should have been trying to say, Señorita.”

“That at least is true. Well you shall be invited anyway, Captain Cortez, and if you choose to hold up your nose at our poor Mallorcan celebrations we will not miss you so very much. I must go. Some of the ladies of Palma have been making a collection of warm clothing and blankets for the refugees and I am helping to distribute them. Now that the weather is becoming worse, those without shelter are suffering dreadfully. I am going to talk to my father again about trying to find some abandoned buildings for them. Even half a roof is better than nothing in this weather.”

García stood up immediately. “May I escort you? Perhaps I can speak to some of the council members, I have got to know them a little. After all, if I were not in uniform I might have been on the streets myself.”

The girl smiled. She had a broad smile, with no hint of shyness. Ángel  had no idea how to make her do it and wished he did because it always made him feel happier. When she smiled at him it was generally because she was mocking his sour mood or cynical remarks. He wondered how it must feel to be on the receiving end of those smiles as often as García.

As he thought it, Raquel said:

“Captain García, you have been our guests for almost four months now. I would very much like it if you would call me by my name. I am exhausted with this formality.”

García’s face lit up. “I would…that is, would your father not mind?”

“Well I do not suggest that you start calling him Juan, but he will not care what you call me, I promise you. After all it is my name, so only I can choose who uses it.”

“It is such a pretty name. But if I am to do so, I would like you to call me Óscar.”

“Óscar. That is a very good name.”  Raquel turned her gaze to Ángel. “And you, Captain Cortez? Must we remain this formal?”

Ángel  flinched internally and bowed. “I am honoured, Señorita, but I cannot have you calling me by my first name in front of my men. It would be bad for discipline.”

Raquel gave him a long look and a weary sigh. “That is utterly ridiculous,” she said. “Very well, Captain. You may call me Raquel anyway and I shall continue to call you Captain, in the way of a young girl with a much older friend of her father. It will serve perfectly well.”

“Older?” Ángel said, forgetting his dignity. “I cannot be more than ten years your senior.”

“Really? It seems more. I cannot decide if it is your stuffy manners or your old-fashioned hairstyle. Come, Óscar, we should go.”

***

It was still strange to Raquel to see the refugees living on the streets of her city. Palma had always had its share of beggars but they were all familiar; in many cases their stories known to her. Her people, the Xuetes, made their own charitable collections separate from those of the church and Raquel had often accompanied her mother and aunt to distribute food, blankets and clothing to those without shelter during the wet winter months.

These beggars were different. More than a thousand men, women and children had fled to the island from the horrors of the French storming of Tarragona, most of them arriving in the British Royal Navy ships or in Spanish frigates. Some had planned their departure enough to bring baggage and money with them. These were the lucky ones, who filled every hotel, tavern and house to rent in Palma and the surrounding area. They were assimilated quickly into local society, bringing new life to the narrow cobbled streets of the city.

There had always been close trading links between Mallorca and Tarragona and some young men had even gone to fight at the siege, returning at its conclusion with stories of war and terror and, in one or two cases, with a Catalan bride. Raquel loved the changes wrought by the newcomers. Catalan food, Catalan manners and Catalan fashions began to appear amidst the staunchly conservative upper classes of Mallorcan society. Balls and dances were given and public dinners were held to welcome the newcomers and to celebrate their survival.

Raquel did not attend such events but the close-knit community of the Xuetes had their own way of welcoming the strangers. Many men of the middling classes had fought on the walls of Tarragona and had lost families and livelihoods when the French overran the town. They had been prosperous artisans and merchants and many had valuable skills; while others were willing to learn. Juan Segura had taken on three of them as apprentices in his glassworks and provided lodgings over one of the storage barns. Raquel knew others of her people who had done the same. The Catalans came without the historic prejudices of the Mallorcans against the Xuetes and were simply grateful for paid work and a place to sleep.

Too many refugees remained on the streets of the city and villages even five months later, surviving as best they could. They slept in the open along the sea front, begged for coins and took casual work where they could get it. These were the people who had lost everything and had no friends or connections who could help them find work or somewhere to live. Many were women with children, their men either dead in the siege or away with the army with no knowledge of what had happened to their families.

Their plight was bad enough during the hot summer months but as autumn brought cooler weather and regular heavy rain, they had nowhere to go. It distressed Raquel to see them sitting hopelessly under makeshift blanket shelters, shivering in ragged clothing. It was fever season and some died, their bodies quietly buried in unmarked graves.

The local Mallorcan authorities and churchmen held meetings to discuss relief and began to make plans for a soup kitchen to keep the refugees fed through the winter. Señora Segura rallied her own friends to donate and distribute whatever clothing they could spare.

“If we wait for those fools at the town hall, these poor people will all be dead by spring,” she told Raquel. “They need help now, not at Christmastide. And they need more than a few dry blankets which will be soaked and rotting within two weeks. They need places to stay. I am going to make some enquiries. There must be somewhere they can go.”

The boxes and bags of donations were being stored above the Segura glassware shop in the Carrer del Sol. Señora Segura had organised a small army of helpers to distribute the offerings and Raquel took her place in the storeroom making up bundles of essentials to be delivered. Óscar García remained beside her, taking instructions without comment and chatting easily to the women, girls and young boys as he handed out the bundles. Raquel shot him an occasional smile. She was enjoying having him working beside her and thought, not for the first time, what an easy companion García was.

Raquel had welcomed her family’s house guests with interest when they had arrived at the end of July. Both had been badly wounded during the siege and although they were beginning to recover, the journey had left García bedridden for two weeks before he was able to join the family at meals and take up some limited duties in barracks. Raquel enjoyed the presence of two attractive young men in the house, especially because neither was from the restricted society of the Xuetes nor from the wider society of Mallorca where she was forbidden to socialise and could not possibly marry. Raquel was not naïve enough to assume that the rest of Spain was free of either class or racial prejudice but it was obvious that neither García nor Cortez knew anything about the peculiar position of the Xuetes in Mallorca which made a pleasant change. She was sorry when, once both officers were up and about their duties again, her father felt obliged to explain to them.

The boxes of donations were almost empty and the volunteers had all left. Raquel rummaged through a basket and lifted out a knitted lacy shawl with a little sound of appreciation.

“This is very pretty, although I cannot believe it will be useful to keep anybody warm during the winter.”

García came to look. “It is for a baby, I think. The kind of thing my mother used to knit for the children of the estate workers. She spent hours on it. I can remember as a boy that I didn’t understand why she did not just buy them from the market and save herself the time, we had plenty of money. But she told me off when I suggested it. It seems that doing the work with her own hands was pleasing to God.”

Raquel laughed aloud. “I do not suppose that God – or the babies – cared at all. I loathe knitting. Or any kind of needlecraft other than embroidery. I like complicated designs with a lot of colour.”

“I know, I was admiring the tablecloth you are working on. I don’t know how you have the patience.”

Raquel shrugged. “I do not really. When I was growing up I loved to run over to the glassworks and watch the men. Sometimes they would allow me to help with the furnace when my father’s back was turned. I envied my brother so much because he was taught everything.”

“Your father told me that he was killed at Talavera.”

“At Medellin. He ran away when he was nineteen and joined the army as a common soldier. He had to do it that way because he could not apply to join the Mallorcan regiment as an officer.”

“Because he was a Xueta?”

“Yes. All form of public office is forbidden to us, including the army. Some of my people have been trying to fight back against it: they have petitioned the king. With the war, of course, nothing much has happened. Perhaps one day.”

Óscar García watched her as she repacked the few remaining items into a wooden box. Raquel was very conscious of his scrutiny. He had particularly fine eyes and an expressive face. For the first few weeks of their acquaintance, Raquel had thought Cortez the more handsome of the two, but she had decided that slate-grey-blue eyes, silver-blond hair and a chiselled profile were no substitute for laughter and warm admiration. She had developed something of a tendre for Óscar García and since his presence on the island was only temporary, she was making the most of his company.

“There. These things may remain until the Christmas collection. Then we may find somebody in need of them. By then I hope the Mayor and his friends will have managed to get their soup kitchen up and running. In any case, my mother has arranged to double the baking in our ovens each week for the Catalans and any food left over in our kitchen is to be distributed to them.”

“Your family is very good, Raquel. And your Xueta charity seems to work much better than the church here.”

“Oh some of the monks and nuns are doing a great deal. It is just that they cannot coordinate anything without two hundred meetings and personal leave from the Pope. It is infuriating.” Raquel realised that her tongue might have run away from her and shot him an anxious glance. García was a faithful churchgoer, unlike his friend and Raquel had begun to attend more often as an excuse to spend more time with him.

She was relieved when García laughed aloud. “They need you to take charge, it would work much better.”

Raquel preceded him down the stone stairs and looked into the shop. Her father’s shop manager was busy with a customer so she lifted her hand in greeting and turned to lock the wooden door to the store room. The rain had stopped though the slick cobbles were still very wet and slippery. It was an excellent excuse for García to offer his arm and Raquel took it with a sunny smile.

“I was wondering if you have time for a walk?” García asked. “There will be no training today and Captain Cortez will already have inspected the barracks six times and be on his third letter to Cadiz for orders, so I am not needed. We could walk down to the harbour.”

Raquel felt a little lift of happiness. “I should like to. There are always things to do, but I like to get some fresh air every day. My mother scolds me about my complexion and says I will never find a husband with a tanned face but I do not care. Someone will marry me. It is not as though the choice is so great.”

García did not answer and Raquel wished she had not said it. She found it difficult to hide her bitterness about the restrictions of her social position but she did not want it to spoil the little time she had with this charming young man from a different world.

They reached the harbour and García turned to look up at the impressive bulk of the cathedral and the Palace of La Almudaina on the clifftop above.

“So beautiful. I’ve seen many glorious churches during my travels but this has to be one of the most magnificent positions for a cathedral. Part way to God before they even started.”

“I wonder if they thought the same about the Royal Palace?” Raquel said. García grinned and took her arm again, beginning to stroll along the sea front.

“You’re very cynical for one so young, Raquel Segura.”

“I am sorry, is it annoying? I will try to stop.”

“I don’t want you to stop. What I would like to do is ask you a great many impertinent questions that I couldn’t ask your father when he was good enough to explain a little about your people. But I will understand if you don’t wish to answer.”

Raquel stared straight ahead at the jumble of masts of the various fishing boats and pleasure craft moored in the harbour. Further out she could see the graceful lines of a Royal Navy frigate. A boat was rowing out towards it, probably with supplies or a visitor. Raquel was used to the comings and goings of the Royal Navy. Their main base was on the neighbouring island of Menorca but they called regularly for supplies or for the officers to take brief shore leave and they were frequent customers in the shop. Raquel knew that the security of her island home, which had never been touched by the brutal French invasion was due to the presence of the Royal Navy.

“I will answer,” she said. “It feels strange to talk of it to a stranger. Everybody here just knows.”

“A stranger?” García said, and something in his tone made her look round in surprise.

“Oh. Oh no, I did not mean that. I don’t think of you as a stranger at all. That is why sometimes I forget myself and say things I should not say.”

There was a broken section of sea wall, low enough to provide a seat. García steered her towards it and to her amusement, took off his coat for her to sit on. Raquel shook her head, removed her dark shawl and spread it for both of them.

“You will get sea water on your lovely new jacket, Óscar, and then I should feel guilty. This is old and the stains will not show.”

García grinned and put his jacket back on. “I have never met a girl who teased me quite as relentlessly as you, Raquel Segura.”

“Does it annoy you?”

“No, I like it. Sit down, gather your thoughts then tell me what it means to be Xueta on this beautiful island of yours.”

Raquel settled herself. She was shorter than he was and her feet did not quite reach the ground. After a long pause, she said:

“You already know a little. My ancestors were Jewish. You are Spanish, Óscar, you must know what that means. For centuries the persecutions came and went. For a time we would be left in peace, then all would change again and we were hounded from our homes or arrested. Some fled abroad. Many were tried and chose to reconcile with the church and become Catholic. Others were burned to death by the Inquisition. This happened all through Spain.”

“I know,” García said soberly. “It’s shameful. One of the only benefits of Joseph Bonaparte’s rule over my country has been the abolition of the Inquisition.”

Raquel shot him a little smile. “Not everybody agrees with you, especially on Mallorca. The people here are very traditional. Anyway, some of the Jews of Mallorca fled. Others gave in and became true members of the church. And some complied outwardly but kept up their traditions secretly. Those were my people.”

“I’ve heard of that happening in both Spain and Portugal,” García said. Raquel thought that he sounded genuinely interested. She had gleaned enough information about their guests to know that both the Spanish officers were from aristocratic families but while Cortez’ long dead parents had lost both money and property many years ago, Óscar García’s father was a member of the government in Cadiz and connected by blood or marriage to many of the ruling families. Judaism had been publicly illegal and privately despised for centuries by his people and Raquel was surprised that he showed no shock whatsoever.

“Here in Mallorca they have their own traditions,” she said and this time did not attempt to hide her bitterness. “There is a book, published more than a hundred years ago during some of these trials. They call it Faith Triumphant and it details the trials and the verdicts and lists so many reasons why my people should not be allowed to take part in public life or even associate with decent Christians. Even now, they publish it again every few years, just in case it should be forgotten. There is also a public display in the St Domingo Monastery of the sambenets – the tunics they made our ancestors wear as punishment, declaring their crimes. The surnames of my people are listed in that book and in that display, to make sure that the people of Mallorca never forget what disgusting creatures we are.”

She could feel his shock and wished that she had not told it so forcefully although she was not sure that she could have found a way to sound light-hearted about it. Miserably, she thought she had probably ensured that this was the last time he invited her to take a walk with him. It was probably for the best, given that nothing more than casual friendship would ever be possible between them, but she had been enjoying that friendship so much.

García reached out and took her hand. Raquel looked at him in astonishment and then down at their linked hands, aware that she had blushed scarlet and felt suddenly shy which was unheard of for her. She could think of nothing to say.

“That’s appalling,” García said and there was no more laughter in his tone. “I cannot believe that is allowed to happen when we are supposed to be trying to drag our country into the nineteenth century. Can nothing be done, Raquel? And what does this mean to you and your family? I’m shocked. You live well, your father has a prosperous business and is a master craftsman. I’d no idea.”

“Oh the Xuetes have done very well in trade and business. It is the only thing we have been allowed to do, you see. Most will trade with us. Some of the more progressive families will even invite us to dinner privately. But we cannot marry their sons or daughters, only within our own kind. We cannot hold public office, nor enter the church or the army. It is as if they found a glassmaker to build a glass wall about us two hundred years ago. He must have been a master glassblower indeed, that man. The glass is so clear and so perfect. Our sons can see everything on the other side of it but when they reach out to touch they find…just glass.”

“And your daughters?” García said. He sounded angry but he was still holding Raquel’s hand so she decided that he was not angry with her at all. She looked up and met the warm brown eyes.

“Daughters are restricted everywhere, Óscar. You know this. Do you have a sister?”

“No, she died when I was very young. I’m an only child.”

“Then you may not be so aware that even were I not from the Xuetes I could not marry where I chose without the approval of my father and there is no profession I could enter because I am a girl. Although I suppose I could have become a nun. I have an older cousin who will manage the glass factory and the shop and my father hopes I will agree to marry him when I have grown up a little and stopped being so angry.”

“How old are you?”

“I am twenty-two.”

“The same age as me. I think if you were going to stop being angry, you would have done it by now.”

Raquel laughed and was surprised that she could do so, given how upset she was. “I am sorry. This is not a pleasant conversation for a walk along the harbour.”

“I wanted to know. And I’m glad you told me. But there is one thing I still don’t understand. You go to church. I have seen all of your family go to church.”

“Oh we are not really Jewish, Óscar. It’s been two hundred years, most pretence turned to reality years ago. There are some churches we feel comfortable in. St Eulalia is my favourite, it is in the middle of the Segell District…the old Xueta quarter of Palma. My family used to live there but we moved out as Father became more successful.”

“You said there have been attempts to petition the King.”

“The King gave us our rights more than thirty years ago by royal proclamation but then withdrew some of them again because of local protests. The arguments go back and forth. We are not always sure any more what our legal rights are, but what we do know is that the people of Mallorca will never allow us to enjoy them unless they are forced to do so. And while Spain fights against Bonaparte, there are other things to think about. Sometimes I used to wish that my father would pack up and move away. To Barcelona or somewhere our surname has no meaning. But seeing what happened in Tarragona, to these poor people and to you…this is not the time for a grand gesture.”

García was silent for a moment, then looked up and gave her a grin which melted her heart. “Perhaps not. But I may be in the mood for a smaller gesture. Come on, I should get you back. It is going to rain again.”

***

Drill and training resumed the following morning and as if to make up for the brief respite, Cortez pushed the men hard for the whole of the following week. Some of them were not really strong enough for the long hours of work and after a few days, Óscar decided it was time to intervene. He waited until the afternoon siesta when the men had gone to their bedrolls and Cortez returned to the Casa Segura to see if any mail had been delivered. Óscar gave him time to open his letters and set aside a letter from his own mother since he could guess the contents fairly accurately without bothering to read it.

“Captain, we need to talk about the men. Some of them are still not strong enough to train this hard.”

Ángel gave a contemptuous snort. “Well they had better get used to it, García, because they cannot be coddled on the march, or in battle.”

“Some of them only joined a few weeks ago and they came from the streets. From the refugees. They have not eaten properly for months, they need some time to grow strong again.”

“They may not have time,” Ángel said. He was still scanning a letter but now he held it out to Óscar. Óscar took it. He was torn between exasperation at his senior’s intransigence about the men and awareness of how far their relationship had shifted since he had first joined Ángel on Contreras’ staff in Cadiz a year ago. Back then, Ángel would have barked out orders but it would not have occurred to him to share the letter with his junior. Óscar took it and read it quickly then looked up.

“Ciudad Rodrigo? I’ve never been there, have you?”

“I passed through it once. Fortress town on the Portuguese border. We had three days respite after a forced march of four hundred miles and the only things I remember clearly are that it was as hot as Hades, the fish stew was rank and there was a girl at the Golden Bell who could do things with her tongue that…”

“Ángel, for God’s sake!”

Ángel was laughing and the sight warmed Óscar as it always did. It had taken eight months before he had seen the older man manage anything more than a contemptuous sneer. “I can’t believe I can still make you blush, García. Although I found it hard to believe you’d not had a woman at all until you arrived in Cadiz. I suppose you’ve got time to catch up.”

Óscar laughed and handed him back the letter. “I’ve no ambition to catch up to you, sir, I’d be too worried about what else I’d catch along the way.”

“Oh I’m very careful these days. Bored married women and starry-eyed tradesmen’s daughters are my preference. Which of the men are struggling?”

Óscar ignored his flicker of distaste at Ángel’s remark and gave him the names. Ángel shrugged.

“All right. You can move them over to your company, you’ve fewer than I have anyway. Work out what they can do and rest them more often. But talk to them as well. If they can’t improve, they’ll either die on the march or get killed during their first skirmish. We can’t sit down and wait for them halfway to Portugal. If they aren’t strong enough, we may have to let them go. Colonel Julian de Anaya currently commands the 13th Mallorcan regiment and he has written to me about you, García. On arrival, you’ll command a company of your own.”

Óscar looked up quickly, his exasperation forgotten. “Really? I’d expected to act as your lieutenant for a while at least. This is…”

Óscar stopped, a thought occurring to him. He sighed. “Not that I am going to turn it down, sir, but I presume my father arranged that for me? I’m newly promoted and very young. I don’t suppose for one moment…”

“No, he didn’t. The recommendation was mine, based on your performance at Tarragona. I’m not expecting to regret it.”

Óscar was silent for a long moment. He realised that this was the first preferment of any kind that he had won on his own merit and it felt very significant. As he thought it, a glass of wine appeared on the table before him. He looked up. Ángel was holding his own glass, waiting for the toast. Óscar picked up the glass.

“Thank you, sir. I promise you won’t.”

“Good. I’m surprised to see you here. Usually you have slipped away by now to dally with the delectable Señorita Segura who is far too robust to require an afternoon siesta like the rest of her sex. Has she deserted you for a local beau?”

Óscar bit back several acerbic replies. “No,” he said mildly. “As a matter of fact, we have been invited to tour the glass factory this afternoon, sir, if you are interested. There is a visiting merchant from London who is looking to establish regular trade with the island and who may well become a customer. They are putting on a demonstration which will be followed by a grand dinner. Señor Segura would welcome the officers of the regiment, if…”

“Señor Segura had nothing to do with that invitation, boy. Go by all means, I’ve letters to write. But be careful with that girl, she has her eye on you. Not that I blame you, she looks very enthusiastic. But she’s utterly unsuitable marriage material and you’re far too gentlemanly to…”

Óscar set down his glass with a sharp clink on the table. “Sir, please stop it.”

His senior regarded him with raised eyebrows. “Stop what? I’m not serious, boy, I know you’ve more sense than that. I just don’t want a scene with her father before we leave because you’ve unintentionally compromised his ewe lamb. Not that she’d object, mind…”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking you to stop, sir, and you might not be serious but I am. These people are our hosts and they’ve been very generous. I hate the way you speak about them as though they’re automatically inferior because they made their fortune in trade. It’s outdated, unnecessary and rude. I can’t help the way you think but I’m asking you not to share it with me. I don’t see it the same way.”

Ángel did not speak for a moment. He picked up his wine glass and drained it then went to pour another from the decanter on the polished sideboard.

“I am suitably chastised,” he said dryly. “Although I think you would find your father would be horrified at the way you’re running around with a tradesman’s daughter.”

“I’m sure you are right, sir, but I’ve already made it clear to my father that I’m a man, not a boy and I’ll live my life the way I want. Otherwise I’d be dancing attendance in the drawing rooms of Cadiz instead of fighting for my country. Like you, I’ve given blood in that cause and I think that gives me the right to choose my friends and to take exception to you insulting them for your entertainment. You don’t have to agree with me. You just have to respect my request and keep it to yourself.”

There was a brief silence then Ángel  reached out, picked up Óscar’s glass.

“That was a very long speech.”

“I know.”

“It was also pompous.”

“I don’t care. I meant it.”

To Óscar’s surprise, the older man gave a faint smile. “Whatever happened to that very respectful young officer who joined me in Cadiz and took on every unpleasant job I landed him with? You were like an enthusiastic but very well trained puppy. I rather miss that at times. But you’re a lot more use these days. I’m not going to change my opinion, García. But I’ll do my best to keep it to myself.”

“Thank you,” Óscar said in surprise. “Are you coming to the glassworks?”

“No, you can give my apologies. I need to reply to Anaya and I want to start listing what supplies we’ll need for the journey and plan our route.”

Óscar could not help laughing. “We’ve two months, sir. You could spare an afternoon.”

His commander smiled and shook his head. “You won’t enjoy it as much if I’m there,” he said. “Go and get changed or you’ll be late.”

Halfway through the afternoon, Óscar realised that Ángel had been right and that he was enjoying the day far more without his senior officer’s faintly disapproving presence. He had visited the factory once before with Segura but it was the first time he had seen a proper demonstration of glass blowing and he was fascinated.

Mr Henry Summers, the English merchant, was a stocky gentleman in a plain suit and a down-to-earth manner. Óscar had wondered what kind of man travelled abroad during wartime in search of new suppliers and new markets when most merchants remained safely at home but he quickly decided that Summers was a man who would always want to be personally involved in the running of his many enterprises. He spoke no Spanish but very good French and he and Señor Segura conversed easily in that language.

The tour took in every aspect of the glass works, from the stokers at the furnace, through the foundry, to the moment when the liquid glass first formed in the blowpipe. The glassmaker chosen to demonstrate the process was Raquel’s cousin Miguel, who had recently attained the title of master glassblower after his three year apprenticeship. He was around thirty, a tall willowy figure who managed the blowpipe with considerable grace. Óscar watched as he turned the pipe from side to side, manipulating it to create the effect he wanted. He seemed supremely confident, a man sure of his own ability and his place in the world. Óscar thought Raquel could do a lot worse for a husband. She remained beside Óscar, explaining every process as they followed the tour and Óscar wished he could hold her hand and tell her just how much he could not stand the thought of her marrying this perfectly good man when she should be with him.

Afterwards they went to watch the final stage of the process which was the engraving of the fine goblet, a task which Señor Segura chose to perform himself. He had designed an elegant motif involving the coat of arms of the city livery company to which Summers belonged, with the merchant’s initials on the other side. Óscar watched the Englishman’s face as he studied the goblet, firing questions at Segura in rapid French and thought that Raquel’s father had found himself a new customer.

It was the first time Óscar had really allowed himself admit his intentions towards Raquel and it was both painful and joyous. His brief quarrel with Ángel Cortez earlier had crystallised feelings that had existed for months. It occurred to him that Cortez, who was not generally perceptive about the feelings of others, had been ahead of him on this occasion.

Óscar did not share Ángel’s opinion of the unsuitability of Raquel Segura as a wife, although he was sure his parents would. His mother had a list of potential brides for her beloved only son and if Óscar had obeyed his father’s wishes and taken up an administrative post in Cadiz, he knew she would have attempted to force the issue by now. As it was, every letter she wrote reminded him that it was his duty as his father’s heir to marry a girl of his own class and provide heirs to the title and the considerable estates.

This was even more urgent given Óscar’s gallant if wholly unnecessary determination to remain in combat. He had almost died at Tarragona and if it had not been for the intervention of Ángel Cortez and the Royal Navy he would have spent the rest of the war as a French prisoner. Was it not possible, his mother wondered, to return to Cadiz even for a short time to do his duty by the family? She could select the bride and make the wedding arrangements for him and his family could take care of their pregnant daughter-in-law if Óscar insisted on returning to fight.

Óscar was revolted by the idea of such an arrangement and had told his parents so, in terms that they could not possibly misunderstand. His father did not mention the matter again but his mother brought it up in every letter, bemoaning his intransigence, until Óscar no longer bothered to read them. He knew perfectly well that Cortez was right. His family would be appalled if he presented them with the daughter of a tradesman as his bride, no matter how wealthy she might be. He was not sure that her Xueta heritage would matter as much because he suspected his mother would know nothing about it anyway.

It did not matter to Óscar. He disliked the idea of being estranged from his family because he loved them but the title meant nothing to him. He supposed that one day he had looked forward to settling down on his family estate in Andalusia but he had known for a long time that he had already moved beyond the traditional values of his parents and he thought that Spain would move with him. If he could not live the life he wanted with the woman he loved beside him, he would choose a different life. What he was not sure was whether Raquel Segura shared his views and would be willing to take that enormous step with him, especially if her family also disapproved.

She was seated beside him at dinner, a lengthy meal with enormous amounts of food and wine. Óscar drank moderately and spent much of the meal flirting with his companion. At the end of the day, Mr Summers needed to return to his ship in order to catch the tide the following morning and his host offered to escort him to his boat personally. Many of the guests chose to follow and it became an impromptu procession lit by torches through the darkened streets of Palma.

Óscar walked beside Raquel. One of the younger men was playing music on some kind of wooden flute and it turned the procession into a parade. Occasionally a shutter crashed open and there were furious shouts from respectable citizens trying to sleep but the Xuetes paid no heed. Summers walked beside his host looking slightly bewildered but thoroughly delighted at this send-off and at some point, Óscar reached out and took Raquel’s hand in the darkness. She did not attempt to draw away but moved closer to him. They walked in step together and in step with the procession, waving as the small boat pulled away from the quay and its lantern was no more than a flickering yellow light on the water.

The party broke up after that, saying goodnight and thanking their host before returning to their own homes. Óscar and Raquel followed the Segura party back through the narrow streets to the Casa Segura. It was a clear December night and very cold and Óscar paused to remove his coat, draping it around Raquel’s shoulders. The brief pause meant they had dropped behind the rest of the group and as Óscar went to take her hand again, she moved closer and drew his arm about her shoulders. They walked slowly and Óscar wondered what her father would say if he took it into his head to turn back to find out what delayed his daughter.

The door was still open when they reached it, the doorman sleepy and uninterested and waiting to lock up. The rest of the family seemed to have gone straight to their beds. Raquel removed Óscar’s coat and handed it to him with visible reluctance.

“I do not want this night to end,” she said.

Óscar took the coat and put it back around her. “Ten more minutes,” he said recklessly. “There will be nobody on the terrace overlooking the bay.”

The blue eyes widened and then she laughed softly and took his hand. “My mother will not be impressed.”

“Nor would mine, but she’s not here. Come along.”

It was very cold out on the wide, tiled balcony but the view of glittering lights along the shore and out on the ships and boats anchored in the bay was well worth it. Óscar stood with his arm about her with her head on his shoulder, the dark gold curls tickling his jaw. He had not thought to speak this soon but it occurred to him that perhaps he would never have such a good opportunity again and at least if they were about to be interrupted by a furious parent, he could honestly claim honourable intentions.

“Raquel – I don’t want this to end either.”

She turned towards him and into his arms. Óscar had no idea if it had been intentional or not and did not care. He bent his head to kiss her and she reached up and put her arms about his neck, drawing him closer.

They stood together for a long time and kissing her settled any lingering uncertainty. Eventually he drew back a little, still holding her hands. There was no light on the balcony and he could just make out her features in the dim light from the window above the terrace. Óscar wondered suddenly whose room that was but he decided he did not care. He took a deep breath.

“Raquel, I shouldn’t be here kissing you on the terrace when I’ve not spoken to your father and I’ve no idea what he’ll say. But given that I’m about to set off an explosion in my family that they’ll probably hear in Paris, I need to be sure of you first. You must know how I feel about you. Will you be my wife?”

He felt her hands tremble in his and for a panicked moment he thought she was going to pull away and flee, then her fingers tightened around his and she gave a little sigh.

“Oh Óscar,  I’m very glad you spoke to me first. I’ve no idea either. I don’t even know if we can do this at all. But if we can’t, it won’t be because I don’t love you.”

He drew her closer again. “If you love me, querida, we can do it. I’ll need to explain my circumstances in full to your father, but to you all I can say is that I’m either a very good marital prospect or utterly penniless apart from my officer’s pay which isn’t very much. But whatever happens, I’ll find a way to support you, I promise.”

She kissed him again and he heard her soft laugh in the darkness. “We won’t be penniless, Captain. I’ve no idea if my father will be disappointed that I don’t marry Miguel, but he’d never cut me off without a penny. I am more concerned about my status as a Xueta. I’m not even sure that I am allowed to marry outside my people.”

“They cannot stop you. Legally, that restriction ended years ago along with a number of others. It has been perpetrated by the Mallorcan authorities and upheld by their courts in direct contravention to the dictates of the Royal decree. If we can’t find a priest to marry us here, we’ll take a Royal Navy ship to Menorca and get married there, they don’t have any of these absurd restrictions.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I wrote to them. I’ve a friend in the Royal Navy, we met in Tarragona. He’s in England at present and when I began to think…anyway, I wrote asking his advice. His Captain sent a letter of recommendation to the British authorities there, they’ll give us any help we require. I’d rather marry you here with your family and friends in attendance, but…”

“Father Dominic would perform the service, I am sure of it,” Raquel said. She sounded breathless. “I know you must soon leave. I do not wish to wait, Óscar. Unless your family…”

“That may take a while. I will write to them, but I will not wait for their approval, providing I have yours. Do I?”

“Yes.”

Óscar bent to kiss her again, no longer feeling the cold. After a long, very happy moment, he drew back reluctantly.

“We should go inside. Tomorrow I will speak to your father, Raquel, and then…”

“That will be quite unnecessary,” a voice said from above and both Óscar and Raquel jumped. Óscar stepped back, still holding her hand and looked up at the illuminated window. It stood open and Raquel’s father was leaning on the window ledge in shirt sleeves.

“Sir. My apologies. I had no idea. I mean, I would not have…”

“Captain García, it is completely unnecessary to tell me that you would not be kissing my daughter on the terrace if you knew I could see you. I accept your word for it. Raquel, you are wearing the Captain’s coat. Give it back and go to bed, it is past midnight. Tomorrow we will have breakfast together and discuss how this will work. You will not go to Menorca, you will be married here from our home. Congratulations, my children, I think you will be very happy. Now let me sleep, I am tired.”

***

News of the betrothal reached Ángel through his servant. Manuel had been a refugee from Tarragona, an underfed fourteen-year-old orphan who had attached himself to Ángel aboard the Royal Navy ship and had somehow never left. Ángel had dined in a tavern in the city the previous evening and had watched the procession pass with a curious sense of regret. He wished that he had felt able to accept the invitation and envied García his easy ability to mix with whatever company he found himself in.

He stayed out late drinking and was trying to decide whether to join his hosts for breakfast or get something in town on his way to the training field, when Manuel appeared with a jug of hot water, a welcome cup of coffee and the news that the family was all at breakfast celebrating the betrothal of Captain García to Señorita Raquel. Ángel almost dropped his coffee and scathingly told Manuel not to listen to gossip, but when the boy had gone he sat sipping the scalding black liquid and quietly seethed.

He had been well aware of García’s infatuation with the Segura girl and even more aware that she was a woman who knew how to make the best of her opportunities. From time to time, Ángel had considered making an attempt on the girl’s well-guarded virtue himself. She pretended indifference but in the early weeks of their arrival she had been just as willing to flirt with him as with García. He had not responded and she had withdrawn, concentrating all her efforts on the younger man. Ángel had not expected them to succeed so spectacularly.

Unable to bear the festive atmosphere and the discussion of wedding plans, Ángel went to an inn for breakfast and then rode out to barracks. He was not surprised to receive a note from García on his arrival giving him the news and excusing himself from duty for the day. Ángel  badly wanted to scribble a scathing response and send it back with the Segura servant but he stopped himself. He had made his views clear to García and the boy had ignored him. He had no legal right to interfere in the marriage of his junior officer and if García’s letter were to be believed, he could not even complain that it would delay their return to duty. The earliest a transport could be provided to take them to Oporto ready for their march across to Ciudad Rodrigo was mid-January. García’s letter informed him that Señor Segura hoped to arrange the wedding before Christmas to give the young couple some time together.

Ángel read García’s letter again. He had apologised for not catching Ángel that morning to tell him in person and hoped to have his company that evening for a bachelor dinner at their favourite tavern to celebrate. Ángel was surprised at how furious he was. It was not really his business if García chose to ruin himself and it would make no difference to their working relationship; the boy was a professional. But there was something about the girl that bothered Ángel and he decided he needed to speak to Raquel Segura himself.

***

Raquel had just returned from the market when she met Ángel Cortez in the hallway and sensed that he had been waiting for her. She paused politely and he bowed.

“My apologies, Señorita, I can see that you are busy. I was hoping for a few moments of your time.”

Raquel felt her heart sink. She could guess his views on her betrothal and she had no particular wish to hear them but she knew that Óscar was dreading the conversation and it occurred to her that she might be able to blunt the worst of his senior’s wrath if she allowed him to take it out on her. With a sigh she handed her basket to the maid and led the way out onto the eastern terrace, a peaceful courtyard with a small fountain in the centre and several tiled tables and basketwork chairs.

“Won’t you sit down, Captain Cortez? Would you like some wine?”

“No, thank you. This will not take very long, Señorita.”

“I’m glad about that, since it is obvious you want to shout at me. Very well, let’s get it over with.”

Cortez fixed her with his cool blue-grey eyes. “I should not need to say this to you. Nothing could be more unsuitable than this marriage. You are not his equal in birth or fortune. Because of you his family will cut him off. You will ruin his life and his happiness and what can you bring him in return?”

“I bring him love, Captain Cortez. I understand that has no meaning for you, but in my family it has always been very important. And apparently Óscar agrees with me.”

“Love?” Cortez almost spat the word. “Is that what you think he feels for you? Oh, I’ve seen the way he looks at you and I’ve no doubt that he has feelings, but I promise you he will satisfy those after a week or two in bed with you and will be left with a lifetime of regret. Do you think that a woman like you will be able to hold a man like him?

Raquel had not intended to respond, but she could feel herself getting angry. “A woman like me? And just what kind of woman am I, Captain? I am curious: is it my face, my fortune or my character you object to?”

“It is everything. Your people, although good enough, are not even accepted here on Mallorca. You are outcasts. It is not your fault but that will not help García when he finds himself shunned. Your fortune is well enough for another tradesman, but it is nothing compared to his birth and lineage and everything he will inherit if he marries a woman of his own kind.”

“If, of course, there is anything left of his family fortune by the time the French have ravaged their way through Spain. But do go on, I’m charmed by what passes for your reasoning.”

“As for your character, I think you are a scheming young woman who has taken advantage of a naïve boy to catch herself a husband who might help her raise herself to a better position in life. I do not think you care for him at all. If you did, you would do the decent thing and withdraw from this.”

“Well if that is your hope, you are going to be very disappointed, because I have every intention of marrying him. What happens after that will be up to him. I will go where he goes, follow where he leads. I love him. A man like you cannot imagine what that means. I have heard enough, I am leaving.”

Cortez stepped between her and the door. “Not just yet, Señorita. There was one more item on your list. Your face – and the rest of you. Now that is the reason we are in this situation. On that score I have nothing at all to complain of, I have been admiring it myself for a while now. If I had known you would go this far, I would have taken you to bed two months ago when you were casting lures in my direction. I would have enjoyed you very much and García would have realised what you were like. I should have done it then but perhaps after all it is not too late.”

It had not occurred to Raquel that he would touch her, which made her slow to react. Before she had time to utter more than a squawk of protest she was in his arms, his mouth covering hers. There was none of Óscar’s gentle consideration in this man. His hands moved down her body with a familiarity that appalled her and his mouth bruised hers, forcing her lips apart, his tongue invading her mouth.

Frozen shock was followed by a wave of utter fury. Raquel could not easily scream with his mouth on hers but she managed to make a sound in the back of her throat which surprised even her and caused Cortez to step backwards in astonishment. He stood looking down at her, seeming almost bewildered by what he had just done.

Raquel gave him no time to speak. Stepping forward she lifted both hands and shoved him hard in the chest. He staggered backwards and Raquel began to hit him with both fists, pummelling him as hard as she could, not caring what part of him she connected with. Cortez put up both hands to protect his face and then yelled in pain as her fist struck his left hand. Raquel knew it had been badly injured at Tarragona and that for a time, he had thought he would lose the use of it. His cry made her pause for a moment and Cortez took the opportunity to dodge behind a table.

“Stop it, you’re going to cripple me, you little termagant. In fact I think you’ve already done so.”

“Come out from behind that table and I will castrate you!”

“Then I’m not coming out.” To Raquel’s fury, she could hear laughter in his voice. “Stop. Just stop and breathe, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

“I am going to hurt you!”

“Just listen to me. Listen for a moment. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve no idea why I did that, it was the most stupid…”

“I know why you did it,” Raquel spat. “It is because you are an animal, a creature who thinks it is your right to bully women, to intimidate those weaker than you, to hurt…”

“Raquel, please stop. That’s not it. I mean I am…perhaps I am some of those things. I am not a good man. I am not like García.”

“No, that you are not!”

Cortez was nursing his hand against his chest as if it genuinely hurt. His eyes were on hers again but his expression was different. “I will go. You will not want me in this house after this. I can find lodgings in town or near the barracks until we leave and I promise that I will not trouble you again. García will think I have left because I disapprove of his marriage. Raquel, you should let him think that. Don’t tell him…”

“Of course I am going to tell him, you imbecile. How else do I explain this?” Raquel touched her lip which was bleeding a little.

“You are a very intelligent woman, you will find a way. As I will find a way to explain why I cannot use my hand for a week. If you tell him I did this, he will challenge me and I must accept. We will fight and he will not be content with first blood, he will want to kill me.”

“I hope he does.”

“He isn’t going to kill me in a duel, Raquel, but I could very easily kill him. Don’t do it.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No, I am telling you that with a sword in my hand I am all the things you accuse me of being. I cannot always stop.”

Raquel felt a little chill and her anger seeped away into sudden fear. “You would kill him? Your friend?”

“He’s probably the only friend I’ve ever had. Possibly the only one I will have. And I have just realised that if I had the opportunity to kill him to prevent him from marrying you, I might well do it. Let me go, Raquel. Go and find him. Take care of him for me and when we leave for the war I’ll do my best to take care of him for you. It is the only thing I can do for you. Let me do it.”

Raquel stared at him. She was no longer afraid and no longer angry but she was utterly bewildered. “That makes no sense.”

Unexpectedly his expression softened into something like a smile. “None at all, but men often make fools of themselves when they…never mind. I do not want to hurt him, Raquel, but I cannot bear the thought of hurting you.”

Abruptly Raquel felt the beginning of shocked understanding. Her brain rejected it immediately.

“I do not believe you care what happens to me.”

“It is much better that you continue to believe that.”

Raquel did not respond. Memories were coming back to her, flashes of the past four months and she was horrified to realise that in fact she was having no trouble believing him at all. Wrapped up in her growing feelings for Óscar García, she had missed it entirely; but the signs had been there. She could see him watching her come to the realisation that she had been utterly blind.

“Oh. Oh no. Captain, are you telling me that you…”

“Don’t say it,” he said quickly. “I don’t ever want it to be said. You once gave me permission to use your name, Raquel and it seems I have accepted it. Can you not do the same for me? Just this once.”

Raquel realised that her throat was choked with tears. “Ángel…I had no idea…”

“My dear, I had no idea either until just now. But even if I had, you would still have chosen to marry Óscar. You are, as I said earlier, a very intelligent woman. I need to leave now. I need to be alone. Please.”

Raquel nodded, feeling the tears spill over onto her cheeks. He stepped forward, took her hand and bowed over it with an old fashioned courtesy he had never showed her before.

“Congratulations on your engagement, Raquel. Be happy. You both deserve it.”

***

They were married three days before Christmas and the twelve days of the season were to be an extended celebration before their inevitable separation. Óscar had written to his parents and received no reply; although there had been plenty of time for a letter. He chose not to dwell on it. The Segura family welcomed him as one of their own and a long session with Raquel’s father discussing finances and settlements made it clear that even if the García family chose to cast him off entirely, he could make a good life with these people. Privately, Óscar was wondering if he might make a career in the law. He had spent many hours studying the various legal documents pertaining to the status of the Xuetes of Mallorca and he found it unexpectedly fascinating.

The wedding took place in the church of St Eulalia. Nobody raised any public objection to it and one or two of Óscar’s acquaintances in the town outside of the Xueta community even went so far as to congratulate him. Others did not mention it at all but continued to treat Óscar with courtesy. As long as there were no repercussions for his wife and her family, Óscar did not really care what they thought.

His relationship with Ángel Cortez was still fragile but seemed to be improving again. Cortez had said little about the marriage other than to express concern about its effect on Óscar’s future inheritance. He had expressed his disapproval more tangibly by moving out of the Segura house and taking lodgings close to the barracks but he managed it with surprising tact, citing pressure of work as the cause and the Seguras pretended to believe him. He did not attend the wedding but sent an elegant gift of Castilian china which must have cost more than he could easily afford. Óscar recognised an olive branch and thanked him warmly.

The Segura family usually attended Mass at St Eulalia on Christmas Eve but the two Spanish officers had been invited weeks earlier to attend the traditional Mallorcan midnight service at the cathedral. Ángel, who had a profound dislike of all religion had sent a civil refusal but Óscar had been looking forward to the service. He had been told of the singing of El Cant de la Sibil-la which was a Gregorian melody introduced to the island in medieval times. It was sung virtually without instruments and the singing was led by a boy in medieval costume bearing a sword.

“A sword?” Óscar enquired, when his wife explained the tradition. “That doesn’t sound very much like the birth of the Christ child, Raquel.”

They were lying late in bed, listening to the sound of the household coming to life around them and Óscar had been wondering how he was going to be able to rise from this bed in a month’s time and leave her behind. He had never been this happy in his life.

“I believe the song is about the final judgement,” Raquel said cautiously. “Although I have not been personally of course. I am told that the service and the music is very beautiful. You should go, Óscar and then you can tell me all about it. I’ve often wished to hear it.”

She sounded wistful and Óscar felt a little pain about his heart. He leaned over and kissed her. “Just to remind you that until I have to step onto that ship, I am not going anywhere without you. Come with me.”

“Óscar, I cannot. No Xueta has attended Mass in the cathedral that I know of. We have our own churches.”

“Who say the same Mass to the same God. Come with me.”

Raquel smiled in the way that melted his heart every time she did it. “I love you but you have made your gesture, Óscar and we are married. It is enough.”

“I did not marry you as a gesture but because I love you. And it will never be enough until that book is burned to ashes and that display in St Domingo is torn down. When I come back from the war I shall attend to both personally. I won’t force you to come, Raquel, but I wish you would. I would like to show the world how proud I am of my wife.”

“What if they turn me away?”

“Then they turn us both away and I will make them regret it one day. It’s up to you, querida. I don’t want to spoil your Christmastide.”

“I have you, Óscar. Nothing can spoil this Christmastide.” Raquel sat up. “Very well, I will come. The worst that can happen is a little embarrassment and the best is that I will attend Mass in my own cathedral in my own city for the first time. If you can be brave in battle, Óscar, I can be brave in this small way.”

She was nervous all the same. Óscar could feel her hand shivering slightly in his as they walked through the well-lit streets, strung with lanterns for the season. His father-in-law had shaken his head at the idea but made no attempt to dissuade them.

“I do not think they will let you in, Raquel, but if you are determined, then go. It will be one more protest at the way we are treated and if they turn away an officer who has shed blood for his country and it becomes known, it can only help our cause.”

“I’ll make sure it is known,” Óscar said grimly.

Segura laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “My daughter married a warrior,” he said. “But then so did my son-in-law.”

Heads turned as they approached the brilliantly lit main doors to the immense gothic cathedral. Already the organ played inside and hundreds of candles lit up the space. Through the open door, Óscar could see the huge vaulted ceiling and the glorious colours of stained glass reflecting back the candlelight. By the door he could see a gaggle of robed priests in anxious conversation and several members of the island council in their finest clothing looking grave and unsure. Óscar thought they were plucking up the courage to step forward and tell him that he could not bring his wife into the Mass. He wished he could punch them but he knew that would upset Raquel more, so he steeled himself for the embarrassment and prepared to make a dignified retreat.

Before any of the men was brave enough to step forward, there was an approaching sound which was so familiar that for a minute or two Óscar did not even realise how incongruous it was in this holy place at such an hour. He could see other people stopping, turning to look and he knew suddenly what it was and spun around, putting his arm around Raquel. He could not believe that somehow they were sending out the city watch to make an arrest but the sound of marching feet was unmistakable and Óscar decided that if any man put a hand on his wife, he would kill them.

It was not the city watch. To Óscar’s complete astonishment, one hundred and fifty men of the 13th Mallorcan Infantry were marching in, wearing dress uniform. A familiar voice rapped out an order and the men halted by the door of the cathedral.

Óscar could not believe his eyes. He had never seen Ángel Cortez so neatly turned out. He had cut his silver blond hair short which robbed him of some of his piratical looks and made him look like a professional soldier.

Ángel stepped forward and saluted and Óscar responded automatically.

“Captain Cortez. Er…have you come to Mass?”

“We have all come to Mass, Captain García. In honour of your recent marriage, the men of the 13th Mallorcan Infantry are here to celebrate the birth of Christ and to pay tribute to their brave officer and his beautiful and very courageous wife.” Ángel  turned and raised his voice. “Sergeant! Salute to the Captain’s lady!”

There was a swish and clash of steel as swords were drawn and bayonets lifted in salute. Óscar responded, his throat tight. Around them was complete silence apart from the haunting beauty of the organ music floating on the still night air through the cathedral doors.

The Sergeant called the men to order and Ángel Cortez turned to Óscar and his stunned wife. “Shall we go in? The Mass will be starting soon and I’ve no wish to miss any part of it. Sergeant, march the men in and make sure they behave.”

“Their bayonets, sir?”

“Oh.” Ángel looked momentarily nonplussed and beside him, Oscar heard his wife give an undignified snort of laughter. Surprisingly, Ángel grinned instead of glaring at her. “I had forgotten it isn’t usual to take weapons into a cathedral.”

“I think Tarragona may have confused you,” Óscar said. “They can pile them beside the door, Sergeant. Carry on.”

A robed churchman stepped forward to escort them to a pew. Ángel seemed to hesitate for a moment when ushered to sit beside Raquel and Óscar wondered if he felt awkward give his open disbelief in God and everything the church represented, but Raquel smiled at him somewhat mistily and he came forward and sat beside her, while his men shuffled into pews further back.

Óscar stopped trying to make sense of it and gave himself up to the beauty of the cathedral, the glory of the music and the deep sense of spiritual connection he felt during the Mass. During the pure notes of El Cant de la Sibil-la he felt his wife take his hand and glancing at her he saw that her cheeks were wet with tears.

When it was over, Óscar took his wife’s hand and followed Ángel outside. They watched as the men set off back to barracks. When they were out of sight, Ángel offered his arm to Raquel. Wearing a particularly implacable expression he led her towards some of the departing worshippers. Óscar watched in awe as he proceeded to introduce Raquel to the entire council of Mallorca including the High Judge. Óscar thought he looked ready to draw his sword if any man dared to refuse the introduction. None of them did.

Walking back to the Casa Segura, Raquel said:

“Captain Cortez, how are you spending Christmastide?”

“Very comfortably, Doña Raquel, at the home of Señor Moreno and his family. Though I thought I might accompany you to Mass at the cathedral again on the festival of the Three Kings.”

Raquel laughed aloud. “Come to St Eulalia with us and dine with us afterwards. It will be less dramatic, I promise you.”

“Doña, I…”

“Please, Ángel. Just one evening before you have to leave. If you could do this, you can do that. It would mean a great deal to both of us.”

Ángel gave a slightly crooked smile. “Very well, Doña Raquel. Enjoy your Christmas. García, you have put on weight but I expect the march from Oporto to the Portuguese border will soon sweat that off you.”

Óscar stepped forward and drew him into a quick embrace. “You can yell at me all the way if you like. Thank you, Ángel. You’re a very good friend.”

Ángel looked startled but did not pull back. “Not always. Not that often. But it pleases me that you think so. Goodnight, Captain García. Doña …”

“Raquel.”

The crooked smile came again. “Raquel. Please know that the sight of you marching up to that cathedral daring those old fools to do their worst, will stay with me all my life.”

“Thank you. I once spoke of living behind a glass wall, Ángel. Tonight, you broke it. Only one pane of glass, perhaps, but for me it was a very important one. I will never forget that.” Raquel’s solemn expression vanished and the mischief was back. “And I am glad you took my advice about your hair. It suits you.”

Angel raised a hand to touch his hair involuntarily then stopped himself and gave her an unconvincing scowl.

“It is as well that we’re leaving soon, Doña Raquel or I shall have no dignity left. I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmastide. Goodnight.”

Óscar watched him go, his boots echoing on the old cobbled streets.

“I cannot believe he did that,” he said. “He loathes the church, I’ve never seen him set foot inside one unless he intended to use it as a fortress or a hospital.”

“I do not think he came for the Mass, Óscar.”

Óscar looked down at her. He thought she looked a little sad and wondered if she was upset at Ángel’s stubborn refusal to spend Christmas with them.

“He did it for both of us, Raquel. He has got over his objections to our marriage, I promise you. And it was never about you, it’s just his stupid, outdated notions of social class. In fact he likes you more than I realised.”

Raquel smiled. “As long as you like me, Óscar, I really do not mind.”

Óscar grinned, kissed her and drew her inside. The thought of his impending departure saddened him, but it was Christmas and she was with him and he intended to enjoy every moment he could.

Vercingetorix’s Virgin

Vercingetorix’s Virgin by Virginia Crow

Today I’m delighted to welcome author Virginia Crow, who has joined me on Writing with Labradors to talk about Vercingetorix’s Virgin, her contribution to Alternate Endings, the new anthology from the Historical Writer’s Forum.

Hi, Virginia, welcome to Writing with Labradors. I’m very excited about the release of the latest Historical Writers Forum anthology “Alternate Endings” and it was great to get an early look at your story.

Hello Lynn! Thank you for hosting me and my story on your fabulous blog!

You’re very welcome. Can you start by telling us a bit about what you generally write and how does this story fit into that?

I have to admit, this story broke a number of the constraints I normally wrap around my writings! It doesn’t really match up with any of them – at least not yet – I’ll explain more about that later on.

I absolutely love exploring history and finding the random events which have been tucked into the telling with seemingly little relevance. Only, they must have been significant enough to have been recorded in the first place! These events provide the bones, while the plot wraps around the flesh of the story. Because this is how I write, I don’t have a specific time period I write in, but Vercingetorix’s Virgin is the earliest to date!

Most of my writing has an edge of mythology, be it historical fantasy like my Caledon books, or cultural superstitions like in The Year We Lived. I find the extra dimension which this gives to both the plot and the characters absolutely invaluable. The incorporation of Roman religion allowed me to explore this aspect within the story, and the superstitions and beliefs which surrounded the characters is at the core of Vercingetorix’s Virgin.

Ancient Rome is a long way off. What first sparked your interest in that period?

When I was invited to write a What If? story, I spent a long time trying to come up with an idea. I tried to think of figures from history who I had come to know from researching my own books, sparing the life of my historical heroes, or altering the course of battles. But then comes the inevitable realisation that sometimes it is the unjust nature of events surrounding these historical figures which drew me to them in the first place! Did I really want to take that from them?

So I shelved those ideas and talked through a few different ones with my family. My sister suggested: What if the Gunpowder Plot had been successful? and I was leaning towards that. But I have to admit to knowing almost nothing about the Stuart period beyond what I was taught in school, and I just couldn’t motivate myself to actually research it.
Then came an invite from Pen & Sword to review Simon Elliott’s book Alexander the Great versus Julius Caesar. Bingo! This was exactly what I was looking for: something I had a deep interest in, but no real connection to. So, after reading and reviewing the book (which is fantastic, by the way, and I would definitely recommend!), I started to delve into researching that world…

That’s really interesting. I’d like to see your ideas about the Gunpowder Plot if you ever get around to it. To come to your story – it’s a very interesting concept. How did you come up with this particular alternate ending. I mean, when you first heard about the theme of the anthology had you already considered this one for yourself or did the idea come to you once you started thinking about it?

Thank you!

I knew I wanted something which would show a different ending but not alter the entire course of history. Every story I write focusses on little things which make big ripples. To tweak the Conquest of Gaul meant that big ripples were caused, but they were only as transient as those ripples on the water’s surface. Eventually, they would fade away and history would return to its course once more. But, I have to admit, I enjoyed inserting these two heroes of the ancient world. I’ve never really told the story of famous people (well, not exactly – although The Year We Lived might be an exception to that!), but the theme for the anthology meant that a significant event (and therefore significant persons) needed to be modified…

A very real challenge followed – to explore the precise manners and relationships of these two men – but the result hopefully worked!

I think it worked very well. Tell me a bit about the Vestal Virgins. Who were they and what was their importance in Roman society?

Like most people, I suspect, the first time I ever came across Vestal Virgins was in the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale. I never really understood the reference, but then I never really understood most of that song anyway!

A few years ago, I visited Rome with two of my sisters. It was such an incredible place – history tucked in everywhere, hiding in plain sight. We behaved like real tourists with our sightseeing and one of the places we came across was the ruins of the Temple of Vesta. There isn’t much left of it now, but what is there shows the wealth and power which was given to this aspect of the Roman beliefs. While we were in Rome, I got one of those books with plasticky pages which you can hold over one another to see what these ruined buildings had looked like in their heyday, and there was a little bit of writing about each place.

This was where my interest in the Vestal Virgins sparked. One of the things it mentioned was the power Vestals had to pardon people who were being led to execution. That was it! A potential ripple on the surface of the water!

I researched more for the rest of the time we were in Rome, and continued after we returned home. I had an idea for a story based on this event, which then went on to follow a number of twists and turns (of course!) before concluding in the horrendous death of essentially being buried alive which awaited any Vestal who broke her vows.

Vestals played an incredible role in Roman society. They were deemed to be the very best of humanity. Their word was trusted intrinsically, they were never questioned, they were allowed to oversee legal affairs, and their touch and gaze carried the power of the goddess herself.

Vestals served a thirty-year tenure in the temple, they wanted for nothing and were given all they required. But thirty years must have seemed a long time, missing out on the prime of their lives. Many did go on to marry after their service was complete – in fact, a former Vestal was thought to be one of the best wives a man could have – but placing those things which had been forbidden into the hands of a person accustomed to never being questioned, did not always make for the most amorous marriage beds!

That’s fascinating, I’d no idea the Vestals were that influential. Or that some of them married afterwards. That really must have been an interesting adjustment. Have you written other short stories or is this your first? How do you find working in this shorter medium as opposed to writing full length novels? Which do you prefer?

Eeek! My writing motto is: Never use one word when ten will suffice.  So writing short stories is always a challenge for me! Back in January 2020, before COVID, I set my New Year Resolution to enter a writing competition/journal each week. It was a very ambitious target but, courtesy of my obsessive nature, I managed to see it through. I got one short story shortlisted and a poem published, which might not seem like much for 52 weeks, but I felt quite proud of them both!

But more than that, I learnt how to make this style work. I finally perfected (good enough for me, anyway!) the art of writing in different genres and different lengths. Since then, I’ve had a few more acceptances too, which is fantastic.

After writing Vercingetorix’s Virgin, I’ve dabbled with Alternative History a little bit more. I have an idea to possibly one day publish an anthology along the lines of “What did the Romans ever do for us?”, pointing out how different life would be without their input. It might never come to fruition, but you never know!

I love that idea! I bet it would be popular. And just wow about your Story-a-Week project. I could never manage to stick to that – very impressive.

To move on to your characters, what was it like writing Julius Caesar? He’s such an iconic historical character – what did you want your readers to learn about him from this story?

Firstly, I have to explain that I had preconceived ideas about Julius Caesar. I had come across him in school as the first Roman to conquer Britain. That was my first misconception, but it was not my last. And that quote, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) has absolutely nothing to do with Britain!

So I had to undo everything I thought I knew about him.

Thankfully, my dad is something of an Ancient Rome/Ancient Greece enthusiast – my siblings and I always suspected it was because he was there when it was all happening, and we say that only half-jokingly! – so there was plenty of pointers he could give regarding where to look for more information concerning Caesar.

For me, it wasn’t the case that the more I read about him the more I liked him.  It was more like: the more I read about him, the more I pitied him. Here was a man who built up an empire but was left with so much that he was entirely alienated. All his work and campaigning ultimately counted for nothing.  His successor would go on to murder Caesar’s son, establish himself as an Emperor on the basis of the conquests Caesar had made, and even re-model Caesar’s calendar to deify himself on an equal footing.

Ultimately, what we tend to remember the most about Julius Caesar is his death. How sad is that? His work, his conquests, all forgotten as his own people turned on him.

So, when I came to write him, I wanted him to be connectable. I didn’t want a distant, aloof figure, because I honestly don’t think that was how Caesar wanted to be. Ironically – since he made himself dictator – I think he missed people. So, for the sake of Vercingetorix’s Virgin, he is someone always trying to reach out without being seen as weak; someone seeking to cement his legacy, but who knows it is unobtainable; someone who is looking to put right the relationships he had failed to rectify the first-time around.

In many respects, Vercingetorix was the anti-Caesar. Writing them both – especially as they interacted with their seconds and the Vestals – was a brilliant contrast to explore.

That makes Caesar sound much more human, somehow. And rather vulnerable. It makes me wish that he really could have had an alternate ending.

So now that you’ve tackled Caesar, do you have any other alternate endings that you’d like to write about one day? What are they?

I have written one other alternative history story. It’s called The Triumph of Maxentius, which is based on the question: What if Constantine lost the battle of Milvian Bridge? This would have had major repercussions for the Christian religion and this was the exact topic of that story.

Because of the gap in time but the huge impact they left, I’ve found Roman history is my preferred era for alternate endings!

And one day, I might have a go at the Gunpowder Plot one, too…

Ha! I’m going to keep an eye out for that one. Virginia, this has been great and I hope a lot of people go on to read your amazing story, it’s well worth it. What else are you working on at the moment? Anything recently published or in the pipeline?

My obsessive nature coming into play again, I am a strict NaNoWriMo participant. Having avoided it for years, I signed up in 2019 and now I refuse to be beaten by it! So all this month I’m chipping away at a new – rather different – novel. For the first time, I’m attempting a dual timeline story. Set part in the 3rd Century, and part in the 18th Century, this book draws from the story of the Amcotts Moor Woman. It is steeped in early church history and runaway Jacobites – a sop to my passion for theology and history!
I’m terrible for starting books, though, and never seeing them through. Maybe this one will get finished but I suspect, if it hasn’t been written by the end of November, it will join my increasingly growing pile of “I-will-get-around-to-it-one-day” books. Time will tell!

That sounds like an amazing project. I hope you do manage to get it finished. Either way, I’ll be following your progress through November as I struggle to get started with my own new book.

Virginia, thanks so much for joining me on Writing With Labradors. It’s been lovely to have you and good luck with the publication of the anthology and with NaNoWriMo as well.

About Virginia

Virginia Crow is an award-winning Scottish author, who grew up in Orkney and now lives in Caithness. She comes from a large family of writers and readers, and has been surrounded by books her whole life. Her favourite genres to write are fantasy and historical fiction, sometimes mixing the two together. She enjoys swashbuckling stories, her favourite book being The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and she is still waiting for a screen adaption that lives up to it!

When not writing, Virginia is usually to be found teaching music. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of music, especially as a tool of inspiration, and music is often playing when she writes. Her life is governed by two spaniels, Orlando and Jess, and she enjoys exploring the Caithness countryside with these canine sidekicks.

As well as books, she loves cheese, music, and films, but hates mushrooms.

Readers can find out more about Virginia on social media here:

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/DaysDyingGlory

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/DaysDyingGlory

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/stompermcewan

Alternate Endings is available on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon.

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