Hanley’s forehead throbbed. His eyes did not want to open and when they did it was hard to focus. The light was white and piercingly bright. His tongue felt rough and so swollen that it pressed against the inside of his mouth, rubbing over teeth which felt as if they were clogged with great lumps of food.
With his right hand he managed to push aside the sheet covering his face and saw the open window and the dark timbers of the roof of the room. He blinked in the bright sunlight. His hand ran across his face and chin and felt the wiry stubble of two days or more.
Hanley was not a heavy drinker. Billy Pringle and most of his fellow officers soaked the stuff up like sponges, but Hanley was content to soften the hard edges of the world rather than wash them away altogether.
He could not remember where he was. He was hungry and oh so very thirsty.
‘I need a drink,’ he said as the door opened.
‘Senõr?’ It was a woman’s voice.
His thoughts trudged wearily up a long slope until he found the Spanish words. ‘I need a drink.’
There were footsteps and the door closed. Hanley felt that he had done enough work for the moment and lay there. A year may have passed before the door opened again.
‘Well, I see you have returned to us after all,’ drawled Espinosa. A maid came over to the bed and offered him a cup of water. Hanley drank with difficulty, dribbling down his chin.
‘Behold the highest form of creation,’ muttered Espinosa.
Hanley took the maid’s wrist, making her gasp. He stared at her for a moment. She was scarcely more than a child, her brown eyes nervous. ‘I do not remember you,’ he said. Then he smiled. ‘But thank you for your kindness.’ He let her go. The girl gave a faint smile in return, but was obviously still frightened of the strange foreigner. She left the room, leaving behind a tray with a bowl of soup.
‘Have something to eat and then get dressed,’ said Espinosa. ‘You have lain in sloth for too long. The barber is on his way. When he has finished I shall come back and then we can talk.’
Hanley forced himself to sit up, and swung his legs down from the bed. He looked around the room. Dim memories were coming back of Lasalle and his officers, and of the blonde.
‘I cannot see my uniform,’ he said, noticing only a brown suit draped over the back of a chair.
‘Burned,’ said Espinosa. ‘You were very ill indeed and your jacket and breeches were sorely stained when you spewed up the contents of your stomach. It was simply not worth trying to save those rags.’
‘I do not remember.’
‘On balance, I imagine that is just as well.’
‘How long have I been asleep?’ Hanley asked.
‘Two days, so you should feel well rested. Now eat. We shall talk when I return.’
By the early afternoon they were on the road. Espinosa returned as promised, but although they spoke for half an hour Hanley had learned very little. He had fallen ill two nights ago. First he had sunk into the deepest of sleeps, and a little later woken and purged himself for the first of several times. Lasalle and the column could not wait for one sick prisoner and pressed on.
Hanley still had his own well-worn and comfortable boots, but was now clad in a black shirt, brown jacket and breeches after the Castilian style, and a tall round hat, with a wider brim than the top hats beginning to be worn by the beaus in England. At his waist was a long scarlet sash. His sword belt ran over the sash, for there was nothing out of place in a Spanish gentleman carrying a blade. Espinosa similarly kept his sword and had a pistol in his belt, although he had changed his uniform for a black civilian suit.
‘There is no need to attract unnecessary attention,’ he said, although since they were accompanied by two hussars in the brown and sky blue of the Chamborant, that hope seemed futile. Both men rode horses suspected of lameness, and so had stayed at the inn in the hope that rest would permit a recovery. They were wary of pushing the animals too far, and Espinosa clearly found this frustrating.
‘There is no need for you to stay with us, Guindet,’ he said to the older of the two hussars.
‘Orders, sir,’ came the reply. Hanley began to wonder who was being guarded. He could sense that neither Guindet nor the youngster with him relished the idea of being out on their own.
Espinosa said little as they rode. They saw no other French soldiers and scarcely any civilians. By nightfall they reached a farm overlooking the road, and with Espinosa’s authority demanded rooms. The farmer had grey hair and skin the texture of leather. He did not seem especially impressed by the name of the King, but the two soldiers were enough to convince him to comply. He was relieved that they wanted so little, as since the start of the year passing soldiers had slaughtered and eaten a quarter of his pigs.
‘Worse than that,’ he told Hanley later in the night after they had shared the family’s stew. ‘One lot burned the shafts of my spades and hoes for firewood. Can you dream of such folly? Where is a man supposed to buy new tools in these times?’
They rode on the next morning, and after an hour passed a march company of convalescents going the other way as they returned to their regiments with Marshal Victor’s main body at Merida. The lieutenant in charge said that they had had trouble with peasants firing at them as they passed.
‘We caught one, but the rest of the scoundrels fled,’ he said with contempt. ‘Be careful when you pass that way.’
At noon they saw a corpse hanging from the branch of an old dead tree.
‘The one the lieutenant caught,’ said Espinosa without any particular emotion.
A few hours later they dismounted and let the horses drink from a pond. On either side of the road were walled vineyards. There were a few farms, a small chapel on a hillside, but most of the people evidently lived in the village they could see about two miles away.
Espinosa seemed on edge, and started up when Hanley accidentally brushed against his sleeve.
‘I am sorry,’ said the Englishman, more than a little surprised at the reaction.
The Spaniard said nothing, and then there was a shot and a ball flew over their heads. Hanley spun around and saw a puff of smoke from the corner of one of the vineyards, and glimpsed movement behind it. Another deep-throated boom and a musket ball flicked up a plume of dust in the dirt beside them.
The hussars quickly sprang back into the saddle.
‘Catch them!’ yelled Espinosa. Guindet gave him a glance, but then the two men were off, pounding along the path to the open archway of the walled yard. Sabres drawn, the hussars sped through the entrance, and they heard cries from beyond.
Espinosa grasped Hanley by the shoulders.
‘There is not much time. Inside the lining of your sash you will find an envelope sewn into the material. It bears a list of all the regiments in Marshal Victor’s army, and their strengths, as well as the numbers and station of the regiments under King Joseph’s direct command. The numbers for the other corps are much older, and their positions have no doubt changed considerably. One thing I do know is that Marshal Soult has already attacked Portugal from the north. He will have Oporto by now, and perhaps be farther south.
‘There, you have just heard something King Joseph himself will not learn for another day or two. This is all I have had time to prepare. Better information will come at greater expense.
‘Take it to your own superiors. Either to Lisbon if you go due west or if you go more to the north then to your Colonel Wilson, who patrols the border. There will be more. If someone comes to you and speaks a certain word, then you will know that they speak for me and can reach me.’
There was a shot from behind the high wall, and then a scream.
‘Why?’ asked Hanley.
‘Does it matter? There is food for four or five days in the saddlebags and a map.’
‘Then what is the word your men will say?’
Espinosa smiled. ‘Mapi.’
That was like the man to choose something personal, intimate and, in the circumstances, somewhat cruel.
‘Now, hit me and go.’
Hanley looked blank.
‘It must look as if you took me unawares and escaped. So you must . . .’
Hanley put all his weight behind the blow, slamming his right fist under Espinosa’s chin, so that the man’s head snapped back. Hanley was not a violent man. Even as a soldier he had rarely raised his hand against the enemy. Yet he was big, and had been confused and angered enough in the last week or more to relish the opportunity of venting some of his rage.
Before Espinosa fell, Hanley hit him again on the side of the face, and then kicked him for good measure as he lay on the ground. Reaching down, he grabbed the pistol from the Spaniard’s belt and tucked it into his own. He put a foot in the stirrup and swung himself up on to the horse. Glancing back, he saw the two hussars returning, a captive walking between their horses.
Hanley kicked his heels and set the horse running up the slope to the left of the road. The animal was strong and fresh and surged up the hillside. He did not look back until he was a good half-mile away and saw that the hussars had already given up the pursuit. Even so, the Englishman kept the horse cantering for another ten minutes, before he slowed to a trot. The awkwardness of that bouncing motion helped to make him focus on the present and the realisation sank in that he was now no longer a prisoner.
His right hand ached badly and he began to wonder whether he had broken a bone. That night he slept in a copse near a stream. He did not dare light a fire, and for all his efficiency Espinosa had not thought to roll a blanket on the back of the saddle. He was cold and got little sleep, but neither saw nor heard any sign of other human beings. Before he tried to rest he tended to the horse, and then ripped open the sash where he thought he could feel a lump. The papers were there, just as Espinosa had said.
It was hard to know what to make of the Spaniard. Hanley was wary of trusting the man, but could see no immediate advantage for Espinosa to have set him free only to have him hunted down. There seemed no reason for the man to want his death, and surely that could have been easily arranged in the long hours of his unconsciousness at the inn. That was presumably deliberate drugging, and he thought back to the blonde girl taking him off to her room. Everything suggested a careful plan to employ him as courier for this information. Was Velarde part of it all? Espinosa had not seemed surprised when the man was mentioned. Yet the whole thing appeared unnecessarily elaborate.
He scanned the papers in the last rays of sunlight. Some of what he read fitted with his own memories of the French battalions marching across the bridge at Merida. If he was a judge – and he was still willing to concede his ignorance of many aspects of martial science – then the lists looked both genuine and useful.
He had no means of sewing the envelope back into his sash. Part of him also felt that there was little point. If Espinosa was playing a game and would betray him, then it might be better not to keep the evidence where it was supposed to be. Hanley reached into the inside breast pocket of his coat and was surprised to find a piece of well-folded paper already there.
Opening it, he saw a sketch of a girl, sitting on a stool. It was one of his own works, and immediately his mind went back to the camp in Dorset and Jenny Dobson sitting for a portrait in the new dress she had got for her wedding. She had been widowed in the winter’s campaign, and had then struck off on her own. For a moment he was baffled.
Suddenly Hanley snapped his fingers and immediately felt searing pain. ‘Bugger,’ he hissed. He no longer thought that he had broken a bone when he punched Espinosa, but his hand was bruised and sore whenever he flexed it.
‘It was Jenny.’ He laughed as the pain died down. ‘Little Jenny Dobson.’ He shook his head. She was the blonde whore. Appeared from nowhere and then vanished to goodness knows where just as soon.
Did Espinosa know? Perhaps he realised that the girl was English and that was why he had bribed or persuaded her to help him.
It seemed the girl wanted him to know her, but there was no other message. Still, as far as he knew, Jenny could neither read nor write, but then perhaps he was simply assuming such ignorance. Williams would probably know.
Hanley could do no more for the moment. He slipped the envelope into the saddlebag he used as a pillow, and tried to rest.
The next day Hanley rode on through a country occupied by an invader and ravaged by marching armies. He saw no trace of the war anywhere, and there was an unreality to everything as he passed through the sparsely populated land. That evening he stopped in a small town preparing for market the next day. Espinosa had left a purse of money in the saddlebags, and he was able to procure the share of a room with a lawyer’s clerk from Talavera travelling north to visit his family in their pueblo.
He rode hard the following day. This time there were signs of war, and he passed dozens of boys trudging along the road in answer to the junta’s proclamation of conscription. Having seen the corpses strewn on the plain of Medellín he found it hard to look in the faces of these children.
Hanley rode on. A thick cloud of dust hovered over the country to the west and he began to see patrols of French cavalry. Most could be avoided, although it meant looping around in a wide arc to the north.
Then he came around a bend in the road between two orchards and saw a dozen French dragoons leading their horses. They were well over a hundred yards away and perhaps he could have outrun them. Instead he urged his horse into a trot and waved in enthusiastic greeting as he went to meet them.
A corporal led the patrol. He wore a round forage cap instead of his heavy helmet and his long-nosed, thin face was full of suspicion.
‘I am Major Velarde of King Joseph’s staff,’ said Hanley. His French was impeccable, and his steady voice belied the pounding of his heart. The name was the first which sprang to mind, and nearly made him grin with sheer mischief.
The corporal waved his hand in the most casual of salutes. ‘Sir,’ he said.
‘Stand to attention when you speak to me!’ bellowed Hanley in his best impression of a proper officer.
The tone prompted the habit of obedience. The corporal slammed the heels of his high boots together.
‘Sir!’ This time it was a shout of fervent obedience. The other dragoons all snapped to attention, although one of the fathest away glanced at his neighbour and rolled his eyes.
‘That’s better,’ said Hanley, and wondered whether his hand was shaking as much as he feared. ‘Now take me to your officer,’ he commanded.
‘Sir.’ The corporal turned to his men. ‘Larpent, Schwartz. Escort the gentleman to the lieutenant.’
They both rode to his left, and Hanley felt that more suspicious men would have kept him between them. He tried to appear utterly confident and careless, and decided that a proud Spanish officer would not deign to chat to common soldiers. In a few minutes they found a larger party of forty men led by a young officer.
‘Good day to you, Lieutenant . . .?’ Hanley gave a gentle smile.
‘Hollandais.’ The officer’s uniform was neat and seemed less spotted with dust than those of his men. He had dark freckles all over his tanned face and eyes which gave no hint of significant intelligence. Hanley guessed that he was a fairly new arrival, so would probably be either officious or gullible.
‘I am Major Velarde of King Joseph’s staff, lately come from Marshal Victor’s headquarters with a message for the senior magistrate in Leon.’ The lies came readily, and Hanley deliberately restrained the urge to appear over-friendly. Part of his mind screamed out that he was a British officer wearing civilian clothes and carrying secret information back to his own army. His heart had calmed down, as had his hand, but now a muscle in his thigh started to twitch and he longed to rub it. It was as well that he was mounted as he was sure that his leg would otherwise have been shaking.
‘I see, sir,’ said the French officer, his well-polished brass helmet gleaming in the sunlight. He turned to one of the escorting cavalryman. ‘Report, Dragoon.’
‘This peasant came riding up to us and claims to be a major,’ said the man without any emotion or sign of interest.
The officer looked at Hanley again. ‘Forgive him. Any civilian is a peasant to a French soldier. However, you must excuse me, sir,’ he said, ‘if I ask whether you have proof of your identity?’
‘That would be a most foolish thing to carry with me, would it not?’ Hanley tried to sound patient. His life was hanging by a precarious thread. What surprised him was that he found this exhilarating. The dangers of battle had never struck him in this way. ‘I have my dispatches concealed about my person. I could perhaps show them to your general, but I fear I would be failing in my duty to reveal their contents to anyone less senior.’
There, the gamble was made. Iacta alea est indeed, and the quote would no doubt have delighted Williams. If a French general appeared at that moment, or was close by, then it was likely that Hanley would hang or be placed in front of a firing squad. If he was fortunate they would not interrogate him too brutally beforehand. Hanley now felt that his heart was not beating at all.
‘I see.’ The officer’s face showed little emotion and indeed little interest. ‘Do you wish for an escort?’
‘That is kind, but it is better that I ride alone,’ said Hanley. ‘I am a Spaniard, unlikely to attract attention.’ Hanley was a big man, but so were some Spaniards. His clothes were local, his hair was black and since his years in Madrid his already dark complexion had permanently tanned.
‘Of course.’ The dragoon officer seemed truly relieved, and Hanley realised that his greatest fear had been facing a demand to provide some of his men to accompany the Spanish officer. ‘Then how may I be of assistance?’
‘I simply wished to ask whether you know of bandits on the road to Leon. I do not wish to court more danger than is essential.’
‘We have brushed most aside.’ The lieutenant’s assurance confirmed that he had not been long in Spain. ‘General Lapisse is advancing to bring the corps into closer support of Marshal Victor.’ Hanley knew that meant the French were also retreating from the Portuguese border, but the young lieutenant seemed wholly sincere in his optimism and utterly uninterested in the fate of a lone courier sent by his emperor’s brother. A sergeant who knew better was equally lacking in concern and was not moved to contradict his officer.
‘Good,’ said Hanley. ‘That is good to know. I shall ride by the main roads without fear.’
He rode away. There were no shouts, no pursuing horsemen. Nor had there been searching questions, and still less a search of his bags, disclosing the documents he carried. It was so very easy. Confidence was the key. Pringle always said that a plausible rogue had the world at his feet.
Hanley waited until he had ridden for more than a mile and was sure no one was following him. Then he laughed out loud, startling his horse, which flicked her head up and twitched her ears in surprise.
He managed to avoid other patrols, and a group of men in drab civilian clothes who rode mules and had muskets slung over their backs. They were probably guerrillas and patriots, but he suspected that it might well be harder to convince them that he was genuinely an ally.
As the sun was setting two horsemen appeared on the road ahead of him. He glanced behind, and saw two more gently walking their horses on either side of the track behind. The men were in dark jackets, but he did not think he had ever seen the uniform before. One wore a helmet like the British dragoons, and when they came close Hanley could see that his uniform was ornate and was a dark blue rather than the green of the others.
‘Well, what have we here?’ the man said in Spanish that was good and yet still betrayed the intonation of an Englishman. The soldier beside him challenged Hanley in Portuguese.
Hanley took another gamble, remembering the name Espinosa had mentioned.
‘I am looking for Colonel Wilson,’ he said in Spanish.
‘I am Wilson,’ replied the man in the blue cavalry uniform. There was no hint of surprise in his voice. ‘And who may you be, señor?’
‘Hanley, lieutenant of the 106th, and most pleased to see you, sir.’ It was almost strange to speak English again after so many days. ‘I carry information about the enemy which I believe will be most useful.’
‘Do you indeed! Well, my dear fellow, then I am all the more happy to meet you!’