Hanley shook his head. A company of green-jacketed riflemen were marching down the street, so Pringle did not try to shout a response, and merely shrugged. In the gap before the next company arrived, he dashed through the mud to join his friend.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘There is no sign of Miss MacAndrews or Bills anywhere in the town. Nor does anyone appear to have seen them.’
They had marched sixteen miles by the end of Christmas Day. It had been hard going, with the road little more than a mass of mud. Time after time they stopped and waited while a bogged-down cart or gun carriage was shifted by brute force. The rain fell with barely a break and the few Spanish they saw stared at them mutely. There were no cheers of welcome for their allies. Very few of the people of Mayorga had waited for their arrival. Many of the houses had been boarded up, but shutters and locked doors had been forced by the men from the other divisions billeted there the night before. Perhaps that was why the locals had fled.
The 106th was one of ten battalions to cram into the three hundred or so little houses, so the officers responsible for quartering had simply divided the streets into ten sectors and given each one to a particular regiment. There were none of the usual chalk marks on doors allocating the place to a set number of men from a company of a particular regiment. Instead as a unit arrived its men piled into the houses twenty or thirty at a time. The heat from the small fires did little to warm them, but in time the warmth of packed bodies made the single room of most houses almost oppressively hot. There was little talk, and scarcely any singing or liveliness as exhausted men steadily consumed their cold rations. Most of the women looked worse, and even the children were subdued, staring mutely at nothing.
‘Dobson and the others have caught up.’ Hanley had seen the veteran in a corner of one of the houses, being looked after by Mrs Rawson.
‘How is he?’
Hanley was not sure. ‘Silent,’ was all that he could think to say at first. There had been something disturbing about the emptiness of his expression. Hanley thought that he had looked so very ancient, like a hollowed-out tree ready to fall. Beside him his son and young Sal kept crying in spite of all that Mrs Rawson and the other women did to calm them. The veteran appeared to take no notice, and had spoken only once, to ask about Jenny. ‘Private Hanks and his wife are not with us,’ Hanley reported. ‘No one seems to have seen them.’
‘Perhaps her time came?’ wondered Pringle.
The thought pleased Hanley. ‘A baby at Christmas. Seems appropriate somehow.’
‘Probably not to be recommended in the circumstances, for the mother or child,’ said Pringle grimly. ‘Well, we must hope that they catch us up soon. For the moment, I’ll not make any mark on the company roster.’ If Hanks remained absent for any length of time, then there would be little choice but to mark him as a deserter, liable to be flogged when he was found. His previously good conduct would count in his favour, but the slightest suspicion of turning his coat and joining the enemy would make the punishment more savage or even place him in front of a firing squad. ‘There is still time. Time for all those left behind to appear.’ His voice was fervent with hope.
‘A hell of a day.’ Hanley sighed.
Pringle clapped him on the shoulder, and suddenly felt happy. ‘Make the most of it, tomorrow might be worse!’ He threw back his head to laugh, and the mood was infectious, because after a moment his friend joined in. Some of the riflemen filing past looked at them strangely, and that only made them roar all the louder.
Mrs MacAndrews did her best to be busy, bringing some organisation to the two-storey house allocated to all the officers of the battalion. She had also been out to many of the other houses, asking after the women of the battalion. It was pleasing to see Mrs Rawson so solicitous for her dead friend’s husband and her children. Esther had realised she was not needed and moved on.
Her husband had done all required of a battalion commander, before setting out to visit the cavalry brigades and light infantry regiments as they closed on the town. At each of the brigade headquarters he asked whether they had seen a young lady mounted on a grey. Often the first answer was a facetious wish that they had as it might have brightened a drab day.
‘No word,’ he told his wife when finally he got back to the billet. ‘No one has seen Jane. Some had seen one or two officers riding on their own, but who knows whether they saw Mr Williams or someone else. Some have duties, and by the sound of things there are already a few stragglers.’
‘Is that what our daughter is?’ Esther almost wanted to make her husband angry, but neither of them was betraying any emotion, still less talking of blame.
‘Williams is a capable young man. If he has found her then he will be well able to look after her.’
‘Not too capable, I trust?’ She tried to lighten the tone.
MacAndrews gave a thin smile, remembering his own flight with Esther so long ago. He doubted they were in any position to judge, until the father in him overruled such weak and indulgent thinking.
‘At least there have been no reports of the French so far,’ he added. ‘If they are lost, then it is to be hoped that they are not at risk from the enemy. They have horses and can go faster than we will march. We may well see them tomorrow.’ The conversation was whispered in a corner of a room they shared with the Kidwells, Brotherton and a few other officers, so he could do no more than take his wife’s hand and stare into her eyes. ‘We will get her back.’
‘Yes,’ said Esther with new resolution. ‘I will not conceive of it otherwise.’
Wickham slept soundly that night. He was tired, but he had increased his acquaintance with many important men during the day and it was to be hoped impressed them with his charm and capacity. He was too fatigued, and the little town too crowded, for him to think of seeking out a meeting with Miss MacAndrews. It was probably better to leave time for the girl to vent her anger. As her rage slipped into puzzlement at why her charms had failed to draw him to their meeting, he could apologise and explain that only his duty to the army had kept him away. Wickham was as happy as a man could be, sharing a tiny and poorly lit room with three other officers from General Paget’s staff.
His good spirits carried him through the next day, when the road was as bad as ever and the rain just as constant. The Reserve Division marched for twenty miles, and Paget and his staff travelled farther, moving up and down past the marching men to keep the pace steady. Wickham guessed that he had ridden twice as far as the soldiers had walked, but consoled himself with the thought that such hardships were the price of staff work, and that in time he might move to higher rank and lighter responsibilities.
In the 106th, Major MacAndrews insisted that all officers remain with their companies unless specifically ordered elsewhere, and so Pringle and Hanley were with the Grenadier Company at the head of the regiment. The major had always emphasised long marches in training and so they were at least as well prepared as any regiment in the army, but that did not make it any more pleasant.
It was still a hard slog. Pringle noticed that quite a few of the grenadiers had toes sticking from holes in their boots, and even more had soles that flapped with each step. Private Hope and little Jackie Richards had their feet wrapped in rags as some protection. Murphy went cheerily barefoot through the mud. One of eleven children on a tiny plot of land in Kerry, he had rarely worn shoes before he joined the army.
The men grumbled as they trudged along. It was surprising how much this helped, and the mood of the company and the battalion as a whole was more resigned and in many ways happier than the day before. Word had spread that they were heading for Benevente, where there were food and stores and even the prospect of turning round and having a go at the French. It gave them an end to anticipate. After a while, the jokes became more rowdy. Hanley was amazed when someone began an ironic rendering of ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen!’ and for a while all of the grenadiers were bellowing the words out like a challenge to the weather and the world as a whole. Only Dobson stared blankly ahead, his mouth closed. In the end the rain won, and one by one they sank into a silence, but it still seemed a good deal less melancholy than the previous day. Hanley tried to remember the look of the men and wondered whether he could catch it on paper.
Captain Pierrepoint of Paget’s staff rode past and stopped for a moment to pass on the news to Pringle as the grenadiers slithered on through the mud.
‘The French cavalry have caught up,’ he told Pringle. ‘Lord Paget set the Tenth Hussars on them just outside Mayorga and sent them rolling back! Better go. No rest for the wicked!’
Pringle waved farewell to Pierrepoint and watched the staff officer ride off. At the same time he listened to the story of the cavalry’s success spreading through the ranks. Most of the other company commanders rode their horses, but while a small part of him cursed Williams for depriving him of his own mare, Billy Pringle suspected that it was no bad thing to show the men that he could keep pace. To reinforce the point, he was carrying Williams’ pack, refusing to add it to the baggage on his own mule, and wondered again why his friend insisted on carrying so much heavy and no doubt unnecessary equipment. Tied to the side was a huge naval telescope, intended to be mounted on a tripod, which the man’s mother had bought for him from a pawn shop when he went for a soldier. It was powerful, but not really practical. He knew, however, that the dutiful Williams would never part with it. Well, Bills could damn well carry the ruddy thing himself as soon as he got back and then, good example or not, Billy Pringle would ride a few miles.
No one in the 106th saw any sign of Williams or Miss MacAndrews, or indeed Hanks and his wife, that day. Nor was there word of them.
‘They may be past us already,’ said Major MacAndrews when he told his wife that the French had closed on the rearguard. ‘If not, Williams has the sense to go north and join Sir David Baird’s division. This is friendly country, so the locals should help them.’
‘Yes.’ Esther said no more and did her best to fight down doubts. She rode away to check that the 106th’s families were managing well enough with the baggage train. Some were now walking, including Mary Murphy, with her baby in her arms, and Sergeant Rawson’s wife, holding young Sal by the hand. The axle on one of the carts had broken so that it had to be abandoned. Pioneers had set light to it and the column of dark smoke was whipped away by the sharp wind. A few of the women squeezed on to the other vehicles, but there was not room for all and so they walked. Mrs Rawson had the basket containing her dog slipped around her other arm.
‘Would you like to come up on my horse for a ride?’ Esther asked the little girl.
‘Isn’t that kind, Sal.’ Mrs Rawson’s enthusiasm failed to prompt more than the slightest of nods from the little girl. Setting down the basket and ignoring the yaps of protest, she lifted the girl up and Mrs MacAndrews took her and set her in front of the saddle.
‘If you are very good, I will show you how to use the reins.’
They stopped in a large village that night, and there were more signs of the angry soldiers ahead of them. Doors and shutters had been ripped off and chopped up to make fires. There were few inhabitants, although it was hard to know where they had gone. Even fewer of them offered any hospitality willingly. Sir John Moore was ashamed and angry at the misbehaviour of some of the redcoats, and at the same time frustrated by the lack of support from his allies. Spanish failures had already lost them the campaign. Now that he had made an effort to distract the French and placed himself in a highly dangerous position as a result, the behaviour of the locals beggared belief.
‘The people of this part of Spain seem to be less well disposed than those I have hitherto met with.’ He was reading aloud to Graham from his letter to La Romana, urging him to publish a proclamation asserting the duty of all the communities, and especially the town mayors, to prepare food and assist the British army in every way. ‘When the magistrates are not present, to give regularly, the soldier must take, and this produces a mischievous habit.’
Silently Graham thought that there were always a few soldiers ready to take even at the best of times. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I believe that remains within the bounds of courtesy and yet still stresses the imperative for action. However, I am not sure how much the locals will listen.’
‘It is their country.’
‘Yes, and they know that the French are coming to occupy it, and do not know when we or a Spanish army will return to drive them out. If the French are refused food and quarters, then they begin hanging and shooting people.’
‘So the peasants are more afraid of them than fond of us.’
‘I fear so. One can hardly blame them.’
That night the report came in of a cavalry raid. The Grenadier and Light Companies of the 106th were among the troops roused from their billets to form up in the streets in case they were needed. After an hour they were dismissed.
‘Well, that broke the monotony of sleep,’ said Captain Headley of the Light Company.
‘At least the rain has stopped,’ ventured Pringle. The sky had cleared and was full of bright stars, now that the waning moon had almost set. It was a lot colder.
‘Snow soon,’ suggested Headley with a wry smile.
‘Oh well, it is nice to have things picturesque.’
On the next day they had only five miles to go to Benevente, but it took them most of the daylight hours. The Reserve Division deployed to cover the withdrawal of a large convoy of ammunition – some baggage had been captured by a party of French cavalry during the night, and as the day went on more and more squadrons were spotted by the outposts, probing tentatively at Lord Paget’s hussars. The British rearguard was sufficiently ordered to deter any serious attack.
In the afternoon a forlorn group of half-naked and bruised men staggered in loose files past the 106th. The light dragoon escorting them said that they were stragglers who had drunkenly abused the people in a small hamlet a mile off the road. The locals had caught them as they made away with their loot, surprised them, and beaten them badly. His task was to take them into the town for more formal punishment.
In spite of such a discouraging sight, MacAndrews enjoyed the day. It was good to have sense and obvious purpose to their movements rather than merely plodding along a quagmire of a road. Officers and men alike looked better with a task to perform. Yet there was something unreal about it all as thick fog often made them seem alone in the plain beside the river. It was dark by the time they crossed the bridge and proceeded to Benevente itself. The town was noisy and chaotic, the streets full of soldiers, many of them drunk and some prostrate.
That evening the major gathered the officers of the 106th and read to them the Order of the Day:
The Commander of the Forces has observed with concern the extreme bad conduct of the troops at the moment when they are about to come in contact with the enemy, and when the greatest regularity and the best conduct are the most requisite. He is the more concerned at this, as until lately, the behaviour of the part of the army at least which was under his own immediate command was exemplary, and did them much honour.
The misbehaviour of the troops in the column which marched by Valderas to this place exceeds what he could have believed of British soldiers. It is disgraceful to the Officers, as it strongly marks their negligence and inattention …’
MacAndrews wondered whether Sir John was striking the right tone. ‘I am told that the commander exempts the corps of the Reserve Division from his admonishment,’ he said aloud to his officers, for it was clear that many of them were offended. ‘Let us ensure that he has no cause to change that opinion.’ It seemed improper to add farther commentary to the general’s words, but again the manner of the conclusion seemed to him ill judged, even though he believed every word to be both sincere and no doubt true.
It is impossible for the General to explain to his army the motive for the movement he directs. The Commander of the Forces can, however, assure the army that he has made none since he left Salamanca which he did not foresee, and was not prepared for, and as far as he is the judge, they have answered the purposes for which they were intended. When it is proper to fight a battle, he will do it; and he will choose the time and the place he thinks most fit: in the meantime he begs the Officers and Soldiers of the army to attend diligently to discharging their parts, and to leave to him and the General Officers the decision of measures which belong to them alone.
The army may rest assured that there is nothing he has more at heart than their honour – and that of their Country.
‘Gentlemen!’ MacAndrews spoke loudly to halt the flurry of murmured conversation. He had caught phrases such as ‘must have a chance to face the French’, and ‘is it caution, or something worse?’ and did not wish to give them the opportunity to vent their frustration at having to retreat.
MacAndrews banged his hand down on the table he was leaning against. ‘Gentlemen. I should not need to emphasise that this is an Order of the Day. It is not the custom in the British Army, and certainly not in this regiment, for junior ranks to subject orders from the commanding general to discussion. I shall not detain you longer. Many of you have duties – not least ensuring that your men are as well provided for as possible – and I would advise the remainder to take every opportunity to rest. There is no doubt in my mind that we will have plenty of fighting as well as many more hard marches.’