‘It must be a truly remarkable place,’ said Pringle with genuine enthusiasm. He paused to take a sip of port. ‘A land of harsh beauty, strange creatures, and wonderful and yet savage peoples.’
‘Indeed,’ replied the Doña Margarita, toying with the food on her plate without actually eating very much at all. ‘It is harsh enough. There are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of leagues with nothing but bare rock and sand. Then there are mountains higher than anything I had seen before, and rivers wider. Grandeur perhaps is there. I am not sure that I would speak of beauty.’
‘And yet one so fair must naturally be the finest judge of beauty – if only when peering into a looking glass.’ Major Wickham paid the compliment smoothly.
They had marched a good twenty-five miles escorting the carriage, before stopping for the night in another village. Colonel Wilson had given Pringle clear orders on the route to be taken by the two companies of the 106th, listing the distances of each stage. One of his men had ridden on to arrange for their billets.
‘Don’t want you running foul of Lapisse’s men,’ Sir Robert had said with a grin. ‘Not that I am sure you fellows could not each handle a dozen Frenchmen, but simply because I do not wish the lady to run any further risks.’
The villagers were prepared for their arrival, as the colonel had promised. There seemed little enthusiasm for the shabbily uniformed redcoats – even Pringle had to admit that his own men were scarcely the most prepossessing sight at present. The fine carriage and even finer name of the daughter-in-law of the Conde de Madrigal de las Altas Torres produced both deference and a good deal of excitement. The prior of the monastery on the edge of the village greeted them in person, and insisted on providing a sumptuous meal for the lady and the officers of her escort. It was laid out in the main room of the house kept for visiting fathers of the church. Evidently, thought Pringle, such men did themselves proud, for the room was well furnished, the food rich and the wine flowed generously.
‘If you will forgive me, my lady.’ That was Lieutenant Hopwood, the acting commander of Number Three Company since Captain Mosley had not yet recovered from the wound he suffered last August. Pringle suspected that only the copious stream of wine and now port had given the snub-nosed and freckle-faced subaltern the boldness to address the lady at all. ‘But have you seen the natives of the land? Is it true they ride like centaurs? And that they wear skins and feathers – and indeed precious little else!’
Pringle noticed Williams frown in disapproval at such indelicacy in the company of a lady. Yes, Hopwood was very red in the face, flushed with courage and dulled in his wits.
‘I doubt that a lady has occasion to spend much time in the company of savages,’ said Wickham quickly. ‘Although perhaps that is no longer true, now that she is the guest of our humble mess.’
The laughter was loud – indeed very loud, thought Pringle, detecting another sign that his fellow officers were taking full advantage of the prior’s hospitality.
‘I have already endured one savage wilderness, Major Wickham.’ The lady spoke as soon as there was a break in the guffawing. ‘No doubt I shall survive another – and one that I must say is a good deal more convivial.’ Her teeth where very bright as she opened her red lips into the warmest of smiles.
La Doña Margarita had them all under her sway. Pringle watched his comrades – suave Wickham, the reserved but readily enthusiastic Williams, shy Hopwood, and the frequently snide and rarely fully sober Hatch. Each was entranced by the Spanish lady and her dark good looks. In truth the presence of any woman, let alone an elegant and mysterious lady, invariably stimulated a group of young officers like the sparks and vigour of one of those electric shows performed on the London stage.
Pringle readily confessed that he was equally fascinated. On his first clear sight of the lady he had revelled in her beauty. Imagination quickly rolled time back a few months to before her pregnancy, and as promptly stripped and bedded her. It was an intensely pleasing thought. Not long afterwards his daydreams had as happily conjured a similar encounter with the maid, and even the cook, whose long hair was more grey than black, but who remained plump and cheerful in a rustic way.
Billy Pringle liked women, and felt no guilt in the knowledge of this simple truth. Opportunity to go beyond vivid imaginings seemed unlikely in the days to come. Command brought responsibility, and the need to set an example. It would not feel right to pursue his own pleasures when his fellow officers would not have similar opportunities. It was a pity, though, he thought, as La Doña Margarita turned to answer another enquiry about the Red Man from the persistent Hopwood. The line of the lady’s neck had a natural grace, her skin looked soft and smooth, and beneath swelled the lines of an ample . . .
Pringle took another long drink of port.
‘You must speak to my driver,’ said the Spanish lady with commendable patience. ‘Ramón served under my late husband in campaigns against the Comanches. They are a most warlike people.’
‘May we once again join together in extending our fullest commiserations at your dreadful loss.’ Wickham appeared full of sympathy and concern. Hopwood looked down, aware that he had clumsily provoked an unpleasant memory, but he and the other officers all echoed a chorus of ‘hear, hear’.
‘It is simply war,’ replied the Doña Margarita. Her eyes glistened with moisture, but her gaze was resolute. ‘My husband was a soldier. It was his duty to return and fight for his country. I am sure I do not have to tell soldiers of the risks inherent in their calling.’
‘I am sure he was a most gallant gentleman, whose fall was not in vain,’ said Williams. That was typical of his friend, thought Pringle, naturally both kind and expecting to see nobility wherever he looked.
‘My husband was taken by yellow fever on the voyage back from Mexico.’ The lady’s voice betrayed no obvious emotion. Pringle was sure he saw Hatch smirk at Williams’ immediate embarrassed confusion. ‘Most of our servants died as well, including a maid who had been with me since she was little more than a girl.’
‘A foe as terrible as any Frenchman,’ declared Wickham, ‘and one against which even the highest valour cannot always prevail. Fate has not been kind, but that must not diminish the high reputation of a great hero, nor indeed the respect we pay to a living heroine. Gentlemen, I give you a toast, La Condesa de Madrigal.’
‘La Condesa de Madrigal!’ they chorused, hearty enthusiasm struggling with the respect considered appropriate for a brave lady and a widow.
‘Both of my husband’s older brothers were killed.’
Pringle barely restrained a laugh. There was the faintest hint in the lady’s tone that almost made him believe she jestingly offered this as an achievement to balance her husband’s modest fate.
‘Tragic,’ he said, as solemnly as he could.
‘So many sons of Spain have fallen at the hands of the French,’ added Williams, thinking again of the collapse of the army at Medellín.
‘The second brother, Fernando, was killed by the English.’ Pringle was sure there was a brightness in her eyes that hinted at mischief far more than bitterness. Hatch’s pleasure at Williams’ discomfiture was also more obvious, although he doubted that his friend noticed. Pringle himself was uncertain of the root of so deep a loathing.
‘A man’s duty is to his country,’ said Williams, with surprising determination in the circumstances. ‘Even enemies can be respected for their gallantry and honourable conduct.’
The lady smiled. ‘A sentiment my husband shared and often expressed. He respected brave enemies, whether French or English – or indeed Comanche.’
‘I would guess there is rough-hewn virtue among the savages,’ said Hopwood, who had read some wildly romantic stories of the tribes of America.
‘Not sure I’d want to meet one of the fellahs, though!’ snorted Hatch, breaking his long silence. ‘Or a damned Frenchman for that matter!’
Williams, who was sitting beside the other ensign, kicked him under the table for cursing in the presence of a lady. Hatch looked at him in outrage, and then his face wrinkled.
‘Perhaps they smell better than some civilised men.’ At the end of the day’s march Williams and Dobson had hung their clothes over a wood fire to smoke out the lice. The method was effective, but did mean that the ensign now walked surrounded by a pungent odour of charcoal. The others had courteously pretended not to notice.
‘Civilised Frenchmen have behaved with all the cruelty of savages,’ said the Doña Margarita in a clear voice, which immediately drew all the attention back to her. Pringle felt she wanted to help Williams, perhaps through an instinctive dislike of the other ensign. ‘In spite of this I have met with courtesy from them on many occasions, in Toledo and Madrid, and during my travels. Even the worst of enemies can show kindness.’
‘Yet it is better still to meet as allies and friends,’ said Wickham. ‘Gentlemen, I give you another toast. To allies and to Spain!’ He inclined his head and glass to salute the Doña Margarita. ‘And most of all to its fairest flower!’
‘Thank you, Major Wickham. And thank you to you all. Now the hour is late and I am weary from another long day in the carriage. I shall bid you all good night.’
As the lady rose, the officers all sprang to their feet, prompting a stifled hiss from Williams, who had banged his knee on the table as he did so.
‘I do hope you are not injured, Mr Williams,’ she said fondly. Pringle began to wonder whether there was more to her attitude than simple dislike of the drunken Hatch. La Doña Margarita allowed Wickham to take her arm and escort her to the foot of the stairs. Before she ascended she thanked him and then once again smiled at the whole company. ‘Good night, gentlemen,’ she said, and was gone.
Pringle realised he was whistling silently through his teeth. If Hanley were there, Billy might have said something. Williams was too prim for such conversation, and the others not sufficiently close friends. Pringle missed Hanley and hoped desperately that he was at least alive. Even if he was, it seemed unlikely that they would see him again for a long while.
Billy knew that Williams missed their friend just as much, but they had not discussed the matter. The ensign told him what had happened and then listened with a wooden expression to Wickham’s account of the chaos when the Spanish army had collapsed and Hanley had fallen from his horse. Pringle was not sure whether the major had done all that he could to bring away their friend.
There was nothing they could do to change things, and it was the soldier’s lot to lose comrades. Last August Lieutenant Truscott had fallen in the last moments of the fighting at Vimeiro. He was an old and good friend, and lost his arm to the surgeon’s knife. They had to march on. Then in the winter Williams himself had been left behind when the army retreated. He and Hanley looked for him each time they stopped, hoping that he would catch up, and both had feared for him, until he did finally reappear, with Miss MacAndrews and Jenny Dobson’s abandoned baby in tow. He had to hope that Hanley would still surprise them all. Wallowing in their sorrow would not help that to happen.
‘I must go and relieve Mr Clarke in charge of the piquets,’ said Williams, reaching for his straw hat, which was the only headgear left to him. An officer should not go about his duties bare headed, even at night.
‘Thank you,’ said Pringle as the ensign departed. ‘Tell Clarke there is food waiting for him before he turns in.’ Hopwood and Hatch were already walking somewhat unsteadily towards the room they shared. Wickham looked fresh. He was also the senior officer and thus in charge of the detachment. Wickham’s commission as captain in the 106th dated to several months before Pringle’s own promotion. Thus he was undoubtedly in command, even if his brevet majority was army rank, held only while on duties away from his own regiment. Pringle was not sure whether the two companies of the 106th counted as the battalion. Such a concern was academic in the extreme. It would no doubt have intrigued the fastidious and precise Truscott, now recovered from his wound and back on duty with a detachment of the regiment in Lisbon.
Whether captain or major in this situation, Wickham had shown no inclination to take charge. Pringle regulated the column on the march, settled the men into their billets, and set sentries and a piquet on the roads leading into the village.
‘I don’t want to get in your way,’ said Wickham with earnest goodwill, ‘and have every confidence in your diligence.’
Pringle did not mind. His subalterns were capable men – even Hatch and young Clarke if no great initiative or industry was required. The men had been hardened by two campaigns and were no longer the fresh-faced recruits who had drilled in the green lanes of Dorset the previous spring.
Escorting such a fine lady was a pleasant enough duty, although he wondered whether two companies were necessary for such a task. Colonel Wilson had appeared from nowhere, and his infectious enthusiasm made his orders easy to obey. The whole business still struck Pringle as a little odd, and that unease increased when Williams had whispered to him of Dobson’s suspicions. Something did not make sense, but then their original orders to find and destroy a store of shrapnel shells had never struck him as other than a wild goose chase, dreamt up by a nervous quartermaster.
‘Have you read any of Sir Robert’s books?’ asked Wickham suddenly. The two senior officers were enjoying a peaceful smoke before they too retired.
‘Only the pamphlet about Bonaparte’s mistreatment of the Turks.’ Pringle chuckled. ‘My mother sent it to me. Said I ought to know what sort of monsters I would be fighting and act accordingly. She’s a cheerful old soul. Not sure whether she meant me to fall on my sword rather than face capture.’
‘Good to inspire the masses, no doubt.’
‘No doubt.’ Pringle drew deeply on his cigar, relishing the taste of the good tobacco – another gift from their host. He wondered how to broach the subject, and in the end could think of no more subtle method. ‘Does our current task in service of Sir Robert seem entirely justified?’
Wickham looked surprised. ‘It is unorthodox, but I believe it to be worthwhile. Colonel D’Urban spoke of the great importance of the reports and letters being carried. I have no doubt we are falling in with his desires.
‘Besides,’ he smiled, ‘there is a great opportunity here. We are of service to a member of one of the greatest families in all of Spain. That in itself is good. Even better we are performing a duty that will be greatly appreciated by our own government. It is a chance to win the gratitude of important men.’
‘I see.’ Pringle felt there was little purpose to be served in pursuing the matter farther. ‘Well, I believe I shall get an hour’s sleep before doing my rounds.’
There was no offer to share the burden, only best wishes for the night.
Pringle was asleep almost as soon as he lay down. He did not know what woke him, but guessed that he had been asleep for no more than half an hour. It was moments before he heard a door creak softly open and then footsteps crossing the hall outside. His room lay next to Wickham’s, with the larger main guest chamber occupied by La Doña Margarita opposite.
There was silence, and then again the sound of a door opening, and closing a moment later. Pringle sat up, and carefully got out of bed. In spite of his size and girth, he was light on his feet and moved silently across the floor, scooping up his boots as he passed. It was a luxury he would never have granted himself during the winter’s retreat to sleep in only his stockings.
As slowly and gently as he could, Billy Pringle opened the door of his own room. Then he froze and listened. There was a man’s voice, muffled so that he could not catch the words. A woman’s voice was a little louder, but still beyond comprehension.
Pringle listened for a while. Then he eased open the door to Wickham’s room. The bed was empty.
There seemed no cause for alarm – a little jealousy perhaps, but not alarm. The lady had not cried out. Pringle waited for some minutes in case that changed. The voices had stopped and he could hear nothing distinct.
Finally, he walked as softly as he could along the hall and down the stairs. At the table where they had eaten he donned his boots, straightened his uniform and put on his cocked hat. Then he went to inspect the piquets.
At the east side of the village Williams was waiting, with Sergeant Probert and a file of grenadiers.
‘Ah, I was just about to send for you, sir,’ said the ensign in greeting. Beyond him, in the far distance, the underside of the clouds glowed red from many fires.
‘How far do you reckon, Bills?’ asked Pringle, as much to have his own judgement confirmed as anything else.
‘Hard to say. Twenty miles? Perhaps a little more or a little less?’
Pringle nodded. ‘Make sure everyone stays on their toes and keeps their eyes open, but no need to stand to arms.’
‘I rather think the war is coming to us,’ Pringle said.