That evening Williams paid a call on Dobson and his family, as part of his round checking on the company. Dobson and Sally, their children and Hanks, along with Sergeant Rawson and his wife, occupied one of two ground-floor rooms in the little stone house on the edge of the hamlet. The other married grenadiers and their families were in the only other room, which did not have a fireplace, and so the wizened Spanish woman who lived there and her three small children watched the British visitors warily from a corner they maintained as their own.
The veteran sat in some state, bolt upright on a clumsily made wooden chair, smoking his clay pipe. The room was gloomy, and since there was no chimney the air was full of the heavier smoke from the main fire. Only a single candle stub perched in the neck of a bottle gave any addition to the red light.
Williams felt his eyes smarting as soon as he went in. Rawson, always a formal man in spite of his close association with the company officers through his duties, sprang to his feet. His jacket was undone and he began furtive attempts to fasten the buttons. Dobson’s son, a drummer, who wore a white jacket with red cuffs and collar as a distinction, also stood up, although less steadily. His father had let him join him in his daily tipple, as a mark that it was soon to be Christmas, and he was approaching his fifteenth birthday. The rum, combined with the heady atmosphere of the room, had left him more than a little light headed.
Dobson himself made no move, since for the night this was his home and he knew that the officer would not expect formality. He nodded.
‘Good evening, Mr Williams, sir. Welcome to our humble abode.’ When Williams was still a volunteer he had served as Dobson’s rear rank man, standing behind him in formation, loading and firing past his shoulder. Front and rear rank men depended on each other and the veteran had made it clear that he expected his to be up to the mark.
‘Good evening, Dobson. Good evening, Sergeant Rawson. I trust you are well, Mrs Rawson?’ The sergeant’s wife was a highly respectable woman, always neat in her attire and God-fearing in her ways. She and Sally Dobson, in spite of so many differences, had become firm friends, and the two families were billeted together now as a matter of course, an arrangement which both found satisfactory. She stood, gave a curtsy, and thanked him for his enquiry. A sharp barking interrupted her, as the little terrier she carried in her basket expressed discontent at being ignored.
The welcome from the others in the room was far less formal, but genuinely warm. Hanks said little, but that was not unusual. Jenny was bright and chatty, and never one to feel bound by deference. He paid her for repairing his jacket.
‘Try not to get it shot again,’ she said by way of thanks. ‘Making work for me.’ She shook her head, swaying her thick dark hair consciously. Pregnant, wearing a dress that was patched and worn, Jenny Dobson was still very aware of her looks, even in the ash-filled gloom. ‘That’s the best me and Ma could do, but you can still see the hole.’
‘Thank you for your efforts.’ He smiled. ‘I shall try to avoid getting shot again!’
Dobson snorted. ‘Aye, see that you do! I don’t want to be breaking in more new officers at my time of life.’ He must have been forty, and had served in one regiment or another for more than half his years. He had been promoted many times and always reduced to the ranks after having one drink too many. In October he had been raised to corporal once again, and it had lasted for almost a month before he went on a colossal drunk and wandered the street, half naked and telling everyone that he was going to shoot Major MacAndrews. By the time he had sobered up even he could not remember why, for he had both respect and affection for his commander.
Dobson’s leathery face was lined, but without any trace of weakness. With age, he simply seemed to have grown stronger and harder. Williams had never seen him flag, even on the longest march, and knew the cold efficiency with which he fought and killed.
That thought reminded him of Redman, one of the ensigns in the Grenadier Company when Williams had joined the regiment. Jenny had flirted with him, taking presents and, in time – Williams feared the time may have been brief – taking him as a lover. It seemed more than likely that he was the father of her baby – or if not Redman then his friend Hatch, who had often joined their parties. Williams was sure that Dobson had discovered this, and hurriedly arranged his daughter’s marriage to prevent her public humiliation. He was almost certain that Redman had died on the veteran’s bayonet in the confusion at Roliça. So much had happened in those few days that his shock had ebbed away, and Dobson had saved Williams’ and his friends’ lives soon afterwards. Murderer or not, Williams had found that he still trusted the old soldier. Dobson responded with an almost paternal interest in the young officer’s success. He was always respectful, and never overfamiliar in public. His daughter did not share these inhibitions.
‘You need a new coat,’ she announced. ‘No matter how much we scrub we can’t get the stains from your sleeves.’ Traces remained from where the black dye of the original cuffs had run in wet weather. Jenny grinned at him, and gave a sly wink. ‘Can’t expect to impress her if you look so shabby.’
Williams hoped that the poor light concealed his embarrassment. His close friends knew of his admiration for Miss MacAndrews. He hoped that it remained a secret to everyone else, and he feared to make her the subject of gossip. Mrs Rawson was obviously shocked. ‘I … I do not know what you mean,’ he began.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Jenny saucily. Williams noticed that neither Mrs Rawson, nor Sally Dobson, nor even the Dobsons’ youngest girl appeared to dispute Jenny’s claim. He feared that his feelings were too obvious. Dobson himself looked mildly amused, but said nothing and continued to puff on his pipe. Williams decided to change the subject.
‘And how are you, Mrs Hanks?’
‘Fat,’ replied Jenny. ‘Fat and ugly. I can’t wait for the little bugger to pop out!’ Mrs Rawson hissed at her language, even though living as a soldier’s wife must have hardened her somewhat.
‘It’ll come in God’s good time, Mrs Hanks,’ she said, ‘and not a moment before. Just hope it goes well and all are healthy.’ She and her husband had not been blessed with any children as yet, and she viewed birth with sacred awe.
‘Mrs Calloway has promised to help when the time comes.’ Sally Dobson had considerably more faith in the wife of one of the sergeants than the battalion’s surgeon and his assistants.
‘I don’t want that old trout mauling me!’ Jenny’s anger was sudden and sharp, and Williams suspected than an oft-rehearsed argument was about to resume, so changed the subject again.
‘Well, you will be reassured to know that the families are to stay here with the baggage when we advance. At least you can make yourselves comfortable and know that there will be a roof over your head.’ Williams was pleased to pass on the good news. Then he noticed that the Spanish woman was busy picking lice out of her children’s hair. It reminded him of the shock of seeing rows of people sitting one behind the other in Lisbon, each engaged in the same task. On one bridge he had seen the women perched in a row on one parapet and the men on the other, all singing happily as they worked. The sight then as now was enough to make him feel that his own skin was crawling with vermin. He had caught a few lice in his jacket in recent days, but hoped his uniform was not yet badly infested. Bidding them good evening, he left to complete his rounds.
It was not quite so cold as it had been, but even so he wished that he had worn his greatcoat. He nodded to the shadowy figure of another officer, walking along the far side of the street and no doubt going about the same task.
‘Good evening to you, Williams.’ It was Ensign Hatch, and as usual his voice was more than a little slurred from drink.
Redman had loathed Williams from the very start, and his crony had often joined in the mockery. After Roliça, Hatch had come to make peace, genuinely saddened by his friend’s death and with no reason to suspect that anyone apart from the French were responsible. More recently his behaviour had been strange, with an unctuous friendliness accompanied by ostensibly unintended minor insults or provocation. Williams often struggled to understand people, but officers of necessity were often in each other’s company and it was better to be affable.
‘Good evening, Hatch. Bit warmer, I think,’ he said with a smile.
‘Then I am sure it must be.’
Williams decided to ignore the tart response and felt obliged to continue a conversation he had begun. ‘Still, I’ll be glad to be back in the warm, once I have finished checking on the company. How are your fellows settling in?’
‘Well enough.’ Hatch smiled. ‘Squalor suits most of them, and some of the families have already made themselves as comfortable as in their own hovels back home. That grubby brute Peters was already rutting with his sow of a wife under a blanket.’ He paused, and frowned as if in deep thought. ‘At least, I assume it was his wife. Didn’t fancy lifting the blanket up to make sure, eh!’ Hatch gave a cheerful wink.
Williams gave a brief and restrained laugh for courtesy’s sake. The wit of his brother officers was often a little raw, and at times blatantly crude. Such was the common coin of army life, and if he did not especially care for these things, he knew that most of them were good fellows at heart.
‘Well, you’d know, of course,’ added Hatch.
‘I doubt that.’ Williams knew the reply was weak, but was not altogether sure what the other man had meant.
‘You are too modest. Everyone knows the Grenadier Company is a well-ordered household. I am sure you know each of your men well.’ Williams was suspicious of the compliment, but could not see any barb within it. ‘Acquainted with their wives and children as well.’
‘Contented men are good soldiers,’ said Williams, aware that it sounded prim, and trying to understand what the other man was implying.
‘Of course, and good officers keep them so, even if it means stirring out on a cold night to visit their quarters.
‘Well, we had better continue with our duties instead of chatting away. Good evening, Mister Williams.’ Hatch emphasised the ‘Mister’, and took a couple of brisk paces away before looking back over his shoulder. ‘You know, it is a pity we cannot encourage the lads and their women to bathe more often.’
Williams was dubious. ‘Not enough wood to burn to heat the coppers, but certainly an admirable enough ambition.’
‘Yes, might also liven up these inspections and let us see some tit now and again.’
Hatch vanished into a doorway before Williams could muster a response. He wondered whether it was only his imagination which made Hatch’s conversation a good deal cruder whenever they were alone. It was not something he could easily discuss, even with Pringle or Hanley. Williams shook his head, trying to dismiss both the thought and the encounter while he finished off his rounds.
At least what he saw was encouraging, for it was clear as he went around the billets of the grenadiers that the company was largely content, and he suspected that the mood was general to the battalion. The 106th had enjoyed their day of rest, aside from some inevitable muttering when told that they were still required to parade and then drill for a couple of hours. After that some had carrying and fatigue parties to perform, and sentries were required, although to universal relief they were not called upon to provide piquets today. Many of the officers and all of the clerks toiled to catch up with the company and battalion paperwork. Yet by the middle of the afternoon almost everyone had the chance to enjoy some rest.
Someone from the Light Company had produced a football – battered, patched, but still just recognisably spherical – and a noisy game developed, which at various times involved several hundred players. On the far side of the rows of houses, officers from the brigade played cricket amid the melting snow. With more than forty scouts in such a small area, scoring was difficult. Williams thrashed a few wild runs before a lieutenant from the 91st caught the ball in his feathered bonnet. Pringle enjoyed longer success by aiming his shots between scouts and trusting that the running men would collide with each other as their eyes followed the ball. Hanley, baffled that anyone could enjoy such a patently futile game, had contented himself with sitting near by and sketching the scene. It was rough, and he struggled to capture the sense of slowness and sudden action, so after a while he wandered to the other side of the town and tried his hand at drawing the football. This at least had the virtue of constant flow, although he remained entirely ignorant of any result.
When the cricket match broke up, Williams and Pringle went over to join their friend. There was no sign of the football abating, and Hanley’s drawing gave a good impression of the mobs of players whirling around the ball. He handed the pad to them for inspection. Pringle smiled, and Williams nodded enthusiastically as he wished once again to possess such skill himself.
‘I have only ever been able to draw trees,’ he confessed.
‘At least they don’t move about,’ commented Pringle. He flipped over the pages and cast his eye over a series of landscapes. Then there were the great arches of the aqueduct at Segovia. ‘Good to see this in daylight.’ Hanley had shown him the drawings the previous night, but the light of their candle had made it impossible to study them properly.
‘It is a spectacular work,’ said the artist, moderately proud of his sketch, and sharing his friends’ enthusiasm for antiquities of every sort.
‘Is it still in use?’ asked Pringle. ‘The preservation certainly looks remarkably good.’
‘It crosses the valley and I believe supplies most of the water to the town,’ Hanley confirmed. ‘There are regular marks and traces of an ornamental inscription at one of the highest points, but I had no opportunity to climb up and see them closely.’
Pringle nodded, but from the small human figures in the sketch he guessed that the height of the aqueduct was considerable indeed and wondered at his friend’s enthusiasm at the prospect of taking such risks. Personally, he had no head for heights, but perhaps Hanley was unaffected by such nervousness. ‘The marks perhaps indicate bronze letters?’
‘I should think so. A priest told me that the inscription declared the work to have been carried out by the Emperor Trajan, but priests are generally inclined to name either him or Hadrian.’
‘Local fellows, of course,’ murmured Williams of these emperors from Roman Spain, but his mind had drifted away as he caught sight of Miss MacAndrews, returning from another ride. Earlier in the day, he had seen the girl and her mother pass by, both of them straight-backed as they effortlessly controlled their mounts. Too far away to greet them, he found his mood souring when Wickham passed in the other direction and was able to bid them good day. At least the suave officer’s face betrayed no particular emotion, but the generosity of the smile with which Jane had greeted Wickham’s appearance was a source for concern – and, he had to admit privately, no little jealousy. It was hard to tell at that distance, but Williams felt that her expression became harder when the captain passed with no more than the barest of civilities.
Now the girl was out riding again, but this time without her mother. Beside her, mounted on a saddled mule, rode Mrs Kidwell, the quartermaster’s wife, who had joined her husband while they were in Lisbon. She was a plump woman, and her bulk kept the animal to the slowest of walks, which no doubt frustrated the fast-riding Miss MacAndrews. The two ladies paused on the crest of the hill beyond the town. There they were joined by three red-coated officers, and stood for a while to converse, before the group split up. Mrs Kidwell and two of the officers came at a steady pace, while Miss MacAndrews and the remaining man trotted briskly down the road ahead of them. The bearing of the redcoat told Williams that it was Wickham before he could recognise any features.
‘I said that one must admire the enterprise of a villain even as you deplore his actions,’ repeated Pringle loudly.
Williams was snatched from his thoughts, and looked puzzled.
‘We were speaking of whoever it was climbed up so high to steal the bronze letters,’ explained Hanley. Williams still appeared to be lost to the world, and so he returned his attention to Pringle. ‘The aqueduct at Toledo is almost as large, although these days less well preserved. I have a rough sketch of that somewhere near the back …’
Captain Wickham and Miss MacAndrews passed close enough for the girl to raise her long whip in greeting, but neither she nor her escort showed any inclination to stop and talk. Williams could not quite make out the words she spoke to her companion, but the tone, and her manner in general, indicated deep sympathy.
The captain’s voice was deeper and carried more clearly. ‘I should have been a parson,’ he said in a resigned tone, ‘in a good living in Derbyshire, encouraging kindness in the world rather than making war. All through the jealousy of a man raised to be as a brother to me. I am almost glad his poor father did not live …’
The riders had passed, and perhaps were speaking more quietly, for he could discern nothing more. It did not matter. Like most of the officers of the 106th, Williams had heard this story from Wickham. Knowing the man better, he was inclined to believe that there was more to the tale, but could remember how readily he had sympathised when Wickham had first confided in him such an apparently intimate part of his history. Miss MacAndrews’ sweet nature would most likely respond in the same way and this worried him.
‘I am forced to question whether that man’s intentions are honourable,’ he said firmly.
‘Oh, I should not think so,’ replied Pringle without thinking. He was intent on Hanley’s sketchpad, as the latter pointed out features in drawings of other aqueducts and bridges, including one of the great bridge at Salamanca. ‘Of whom are we speaking, anyway?’
Pringle had grave doubts about the integrity and general probity of George Wickham, but when he looked around and realised that Miss MacAndrews was the principal focus of his friend’s concern he realised that some delicacy was necessary.
‘Miss MacAndrews is a thoroughly sensible young lady,’ he ventured.
Hanley stood up. ‘She is,’ he agreed.
‘She is still very young,’ replied Williams.
‘She also has her parents with her to keep her under observation. I do not think that the major would take kindly to any attempt at his daughter’s honour.’
‘The mother is even more intimidating,’ added Pringle, hoping to lighten the mood. ‘You are a fine fellow, Bills, but sometimes just a little too ready to jealousy. You even became suspicious when out of the sweet kindness of her heart Miss MacAndrews was so assiduous in visiting old Truscott in hospital!’
‘I grew to suspect that he was enjoying her company and exploiting her sympathy.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Pringle. ‘We only have his word for it that it was the French who shot him! Perhaps it was all arranged as part of some devilish scheme to win Miss MacAndrews’ favour?’
Hanley threw his head back in laughter. Williams joined in after a moment.