Military history

Chapter 15

Williams slipped on a patch more ice than snow and only just broke his fall with his arms. Little Jacob began to cry, jerked from sleep by the sharp motion. Williams pushed himself upwards, almost sliding back again, before his worn boots found some grip. The baby’s cries were muffled by the thick greatcoat. The going had been treacherous for the last few hours, and Miss MacAndrews was unable to control the mare, maintain a secure seat and keep the infant warm and safe at the same time. In spite of this, she was most reluctant to give him charge of the boy. Jane had insisted on dismounting, leading the horse and clutching Jacob tightly to her, singing softly to him whenever he grew restless.

Miss MacAndrews was an active young woman, and under normal circumstances Williams would have admired her determination and pluck. Yet as they had climbed higher the snow had grown deeper. Her smooth-soled riding boots gave her poor footing. A shrivelled thorn bush, hidden in the snow, snagged the hem of her dress and tore it. Many brisk walks in more or less clement weather were no real preparation for days of travelling harder and faster than she had ever done before. The girl flagged, although it was some time before Williams could persuade her to admit any fatigue, and convince her that she must ride, at least for a while.

He took over the task of carrying the child, making his long crimson sash into a sling and wearing his greatcoat over the top. After a brief protest, Jacob accepted this new accommodation and dozed off. Now he was awake again, and as Williams opened his coat he saw the little face screwed up as the boy screamed.

‘May I have the milk?’ he called over the noise of the howling wind. Earlier in the day he had seen footprints like those of dog, only larger. He knew wolves were common in these hills, and hoped that the howling and other eerie sighs they heard were just flukes of the wind among the rocks. They saw seen no sign of human enemies, and that was a relief.

‘Really, Mr Williams,’ Jane shouted down to him, ‘a baby does not always cry because he is hungry.’

A raw scent grew prodigiously until Williams felt it was overwhelming him. He had to concede the wisdom of Miss MacAndrews’ statement.

‘I believe I may need a new sash after this.’ He cupped his hand to call to her. Jane smiled weakly. Snow began to fall, whipping around them in the gusts of wind. ‘We need some shelter.’ The girl nodded.

The baby was still crying. ‘Try singing to him,’ Miss MacAndrews suggested.

They trudged up the slope, Bobbie’s head down, but her stride sure footed, and Williams’ rendition of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ drifting on the wind. The top of the rise revealed a distressingly empty valley, but there was a line of human footprints running along the slope beneath them, and it seemed as good a plan as any to follow them. Fortunately the snow stopped and left the trail clear. After a mile they saw a stone cottage clinging to the slope most sheltered from the wind. Knocking on the door eventually prompted it to be drawn back wide enough for suspicious eyes to peer out at them. They belonged to a thick-bearded man wearing a faded red headscarf. His manner was brusque, but seeing in them no danger, he ushered them into his home with considerable dignity. As usual there was just one big room, filled with smoke from the central fire. Three goats occupied one corner, and the man, his wife and their four children – none of them older than seven – lived in the remainder. The visitors were given a patch of the floor beside the fire. The family’s meal, a greasy stew, heavy in oil and reeking of garlic, was shared.

It was a sign of his hunger that Williams bolted down the mixture quickly, his obvious enjoyment very pleasing to the wife, whose long, thin hair was grey, her skin heavily wrinkled even though she was barely in her middle twenties. She provided milk for young Jacob, and also heated water, and helped Jane as she bathed the child. It was clearly a process rarely undergone by her own offspring, and all sat and watched in silence, as if this was great entertainment. The husband talked cheerfully to Williams all the while, oblivious to the fact that his guest seldom replied, and indeed understood barely a tenth of the strongly accented words.

For a while Williams and Jane sat side by side, with their backs to the wall and their feet near the fire. Their host continued to speak at length of life in the hills. Jane cradled the baby in her arms. Williams could not quite remember when and how he placed his arm around the girl’s shoulders. Miss MacAndrews did not shy away, and indeed was soon leaning to him. He wondered whether he had ever before been so happy. They slept well that night, lying on straw with the baby between them. Jane had Williams’ blanket, while he used his greatcoat as covering.

The next day was better in every respect. The snow had stopped and as they continued along the valley, they were sheltered from all save occasional gusts of wind. At times the sun broke through the clouds, and although the glint off the snow was harsh, Williams as always was cheered by the brightness. Miss MacAndrews was reassured to once again have charge of the baby, for the going was good, and the one-eyed mare docile and happy to be moving after a night spent in the cold.

At times it seemed as if they had the world to themselves. Williams tried singing again when Jacob cried and would not be placated, and for a while his deep voice echoed along the valley. Surprise, fear or genuine pleasure quieted the child, who soon afterwards was feeding with every sign of contentment.

Much of the time they talked. Unusually, Miss MacAndrews spoke of her own life at some length. She told stories of growing up in garrisons in the West Indies and Canada, of the eccentricities of her parents, and the opulent life of her mother’s family in America.

‘The heat in Charleston is oppressive,’ she said. ‘One drinks iced water and tries to do as little as possible.’

‘It must be dreadful.’ Williams clapped his gloved hands together to bring some life back to his fingers.

‘And the winters in Nova Scotia would make this seem like a mild spring day.’ Her tone was flat.

‘Then perhaps we must consider ourselves fortunate.’ Williams tried to match her mock seriousness, as he watched the sparkle growing in her eyes.

‘Of course, in Canada you spend a lot of time next to a roaring fire, and venture out only when swathed in furs.’

‘I knew there would be catch,’ he said, and then they both burst out laughing, not stopping until Jacob began to cry. They talked no more until he was calm, and then, somewhat to her own surprise, Jane began to tell him of her dim memories of the brother and sister who had died when she was young, and the sorrow she knew dogged her parents over this loss, and that of an older brother who had succumbed to fever long before she was born.

‘Every year, at the beginning of May, Mama would be sad. She spoke less than usual, often remaining in the house for days on end, instead of busying herself with the life of the garrison.’ Williams found it hard to imagine the formidable Mrs MacAndrews being so subdued. ‘Father would be on edge, not quite understanding how she felt, but knowing that she was suffering, and knowing why, and doing everything he could to comfort her.

‘They did not snap at me, even though when I was very small I did not understand, and tried as a child to be more lively to make them happy. I was inclined to sing and dance,’ she said archly.

‘No doubt a delightful performance.’ Williams’ smile faded almost immediately. ‘You were little. It is hard for a child to understand. I can only dimly remember my father. He was big, but his voice was soft and his ways gentle. He always smelt of oil and his clothes were stained with grease.’ He smiled. ‘My mother complained all the time about the disreputable state of his handkerchiefs, saying that they were not fit for washing, but deserved to be burned.’ The smile faded. ‘I know I felt sadness when he died, but I doubt a child really understands.’

‘Or rather understands as a child?’ Jane nodded. ‘Sometimes I saw Mama weeping. Once I came into the room and she and father were embracing, each of them sobbing as they clung so tightly to each other that it was a wonder they could breathe.

‘I never saw anything so sad, or so frightening,’ she said.

Williams felt bold enough to hold the girl’s hand. ‘I never knew my mother to cry,’ he said.

Williams listened more than he spoke, but later Jane coaxed him to tell of his own family, of how the young widow raised four children. Jane asked him about his sisters, and he expressed a devout wish that one day she would be gracious enough to let him introduce them to her.

‘I shall look forward to making their acquaintance. If they resemble their brother, then I am sure that we shall be friends.’ On that more formal note, they lapsed into silence.

In the middle of the day they found shelter in a cluster of a dozen or so buildings around a tiny chapel. The people were wary, until the production of a few coins, and the encouragement of a priest who seemed to be the only well-fed person in the place, produced bread, cheese, a little wine, and milk for the baby. They sat at a table in the main room of the only substantial house in the place. Almost the entire population came to stare at them.

Williams tried conversing with the priest in his own fragile Latin and failed to get any response, apart from apparent agreement through nods and smiles to everything he said. Later, Jane was able to pick out enough words to hear the man explaining to his flock that England was a desperately cold country, next to Denmark, where God punished the Protestants who lived there with a vile climate and a people inclined to criminality. Several crossed themselves.

In the afternoon, their conversation was lighter. When they spoke of schooling, Miss MacAndrews joked about Thwackum and Square, and was pleasantly surprised when Williams recognised the allusion.

‘“His natural parts were not of the first rate, but he had greatly improved them by a learned education,” ’ quoted Williams. ‘Though clearly not to any great profit, as the contradictory views attributed to him make clear.’

For some time they discussed Fielding’s hero, the officer insisting on a degree of stern disapproval at the roughness of his virtue, while Miss MacAndrews defended Jones on the basis of his essentially good heart.

‘And at least from the beginning he shows finer feelings,’ she said. ‘How does it go? “… for though he did not always act rightly, yet he never did otherwise without feeling and suffering for it”. He may do wrong with Molly, but at least tries to set things right – and that to a woman who has deceived him, and been as much the cause of his ruin as her own.’

The situation of the poacher’s daughter was too close for his comfort to Jenny’s indiscretions with Redman and Hatch and perhaps other officers. It was a sad thought, and quickly followed by fear that the girl had walked away to her own death somewhere in the grim mountains.

Then Williams looked at Miss MacAndrews and saw her far more animated than for days. Talk of books was an escape from their own plight, and it was clearly doing her good. Frowning, he tried to think of a good answer.

‘Yet is it enough to make a hero fairly virtuous, winning our sympathies because those around him are worse? Should not the hero – or indeed the heroine – not have high qualities in his or her own right?’

‘That sets a high standard,’ came Jane’s swift response. ‘The hero must triumph over adversity, but surely it is no less a triumph if the obstacles come from his own weaknesses. Indeed, perfect virtue is less than inspiring. Or would you have every hero an Aeneas, who only comes to brief life when behaving in a blackguardly manner to poor Dido?’

The sudden shift to the classics chimed well with Williams’ taste and knowledge, and soon their discussion blossomed to consider more of the Ancients. Jane remained surprised at how familiar he was even with the poets, for his distaste for Ovid was based on a fair degree of acquaintance. She defended his poems for the richness and beauty of the language, as much for the sake of argument as from any firm commitment. Like their controversies, this was keenly fought, but always with goodwill, and indeed with much laughter.

They went higher just once, to cross over a saddle and enter a valley that pointed in a better direction. As darkness began to fall they could see it led down to a distinct track. It was too late to follow it, and the discovery close by of a shepherd’s stone hut with a turf roof provided them with a decent prospect for warmth and shelter overnight. There was no sign of recent occupation, but the stocks of chopped straw had been disturbed and scattered by the visit of some small animal. They were still ample, and there was space to bring the horse inside. Soon a fire was burning, and the place had a warm comfort about it in spite of the smell of horse and harness, and the remarkably powerful odour produced just after they arrived by young Jacob.

While Miss MacAndrews cared for the child and assembled a meal for them from the provisions they had obtained earlier in the day, Williams attended to Bobbie, realising that he had been inclined to neglect her in recent days. Afterwards they ate, and took turns to hold the baby and sing softly to him until the lad at last was claimed by sleep. Jane smiled with considerable fondness as she placed him gently down in a nest of straw covered with a blanket. The smile broadened when she noticed Williams looking dismayed as he held up his sash. The officer laid it down with some distaste and then began to clean the pistol he had found in Pringle’s saddle holster. His sword lay beside him awaiting the same treatment. Jane looked at her jacket sadly, and wished for a needle and thread to restore some of its buttons. Still more she wished that she had some means of repairing the tear in her skirt, which she was convinced had grown longer. That only prompted more unavailing wishes, and she ran her hands through her long hair and thought gloomily that it must be in a dreadful state.

They busied themselves about their separate tasks for a while, sometimes sitting, sometimes weaving around each other as they needed. Miss MacAndrews was carrying her jacket to drape it over the piled saddle when she realised that she had trodden on the hem of her dress. Putting her weight on the other foot, she reached down to pluck away the material and hold it out of harm’s way. She lost balance and stumbled, falling against Williams just as he turned towards her. His arms closed around her by instinct. Each was surprised, and for just an instant there was a flicker of fear in Jane’s eyes, their pale blue-grey looking dark in the poor light.

Neither spoke and neither moved. The fire crackled, and Bobbie stamped his front hoof and snorted to himself.

With a boldness he had never dreamed he possessed, Williams leaned down and kissed Jane on the lips. He felt her tremble faintly – or was that him? Did she push him away for a moment, or was that also his imagination? It did not matter because then she was kissing back. The jacket fell and her arms clasped him, just as his own pulled her tightly to him.

They kissed hungrily, mouths beginning to part, and Williams lifted her in his arms until her booted feet were in the air and her face level with his. For a moment their lips separated and Jane sighed her affection as he kissed her cheek and neck devouringly, until she turned her head and forced their mouths back together.

He set her down, and one hand ran through her curls. Jane’s hair was long and thick. In the last week it had been drenched by river and storm, had rested as she slept on dirt floors in smoke-filled rooms. Williams had never felt anything so soft, unless it was her skin.

‘Jane, I love you, Jane,’ he whispered in a brief pause between kisses.

His chin felt rough to her, rubbing against her own face. His fine hair had begun to create a thin stubble after days without shaving. She did not care, and her hands grabbed either side of his head, as if she could somehow pull them even closer together. She moaned softly.

Williams’ other hand ran down the small of her back, feeling the rigid stays, until it was lower, touching soft flesh beneath the layers of fabric. It all seemed so easy, so very natural. Memory led him to the ivory buttons on the shoulder of her dress, and this time they slid from their places so very easily.

Jane hesitated, pulling away from his kiss, but not the embrace.

‘I think I love …’ she whispered, and neither was sure who moved so that their lips were together again.

He unfastened the first of the hooks at the rear of the dress. At the second it noticeably slackened its grip around her. When the third was open he slid his hand beneath, feeling the laces of her stays. His other hand began to gather a bunch of her skirt, clasping her leg through it and lifting.

Jacob woke and screamed, bawling out his protest at a world where he was not granted instant food and attention.

Williams felt the change. The girl no longer met his kisses, and a slight shift made their embrace no longer so natural.

Little Jacob cried. Miss MacAndrews pushed gently. Williams leaned forward to kiss her closed lips, desperate to preserve the moment. Miss MacAndrews became more forceful. He let go of her leg, and then his other hand came away. He could not bring himself to step back.

She looked at him, head leaning slightly to one side, then moved away, and her loosened dress began to fall from her shoulders until she grabbed it and held it in place. Trying to do up the hooks at the back, the girl went over to the baby. She picked the boy up, cradling him and crooning softly.

‘Get some milk.’

Williams obeyed, although all of his movements felt sluggish. They said nothing else for the rest of the evening. Miss MacAndrews’ expression made it very clear that the earlier incident was not to be repeated. After a while, with Jacob at peace again, they lay down with the baby between them. Williams slept little. His mind was still exhilarated and reeling from the ecstasy of holding the girl, of feeling her lips on his, her warmth, her softness. He did not know how far ardent passion would have carried them. The honourable, God-fearing and decent gentleman he hoped himself to be knew he should feel guilt for his own loss of control, and assured him that it was as well the interruption had come. He had been given a taste of the true bliss he could expect if ever he proved so fortunate as to make Miss MacAndrews his wife, and that in itself was a wonderful thing, and more than sufficient. Another, regrettably persistent voice cursed the infant for choosing such an untimely moment to wake. All of him, noble and ignoble alike, tried to preserve every memory and every sensation of those few brief minutes.

Miss MacAndrews seemed especially distant the next morning, and Williams also struggled to converse easily. The pair avoided each other’s gaze. They spoke only when the situation required, usually about the baby. Jane was worried that he had developed a temperature. Williams did not think the child’s forehead felt any different, but the concern began to nag at him as they followed the track.

‘I wonder what has become of Mrs Hanks?’ Miss MacAndrews asked after a particularly long spell of silence. In spite of her coarseness and outright vulgarity, Jane had rather liked the other girl. It troubled her to think that she had really abandoned her child.

‘I hope she has better fortune than her foolishness deserves,’ came the reply, and she could not decide whether his mixture of stern judgement and sympathy was admirable or a mark of coldness.

Not long afterwards, they heard the shouting. Then shots rang out, echoing up from a bend in the valley.

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