The mouth of the River Tagus was bright blue and sparkled in the sunlight as Hanley and Williams walked down from the remains of the Roman theatre. They had visited the site before in the previous autumn, and even now Williams struggled to make sense of it. In the last century an earthquake had split the ruins into slices which lay on different parts of the slope rather than joined together.
It was the second week in May and they had returned five days ago to find far fewer British soldiers in Lisbon than when they had left. That meant the remaining officers were finding plenty of tasks for the men of the 106th – both the company that had stayed in Lisbon and the other formed of convalescents and stragglers left behind the previous year.
‘I think it is good that Sir Arthur Wellesley is back,’ said Williams, breaking their companionable silence. ‘He knows how to win.’ Wellesley had beaten the French at Vimeiro, but then been immediately superseded by a cautious superior who had squandered the victory.
One general seemed much like another to Hanley. ‘He certainly has not chosen to tarry overmuch.’
Wellesley had arrived while they were with Wilson. By the time Pringle had marched the detachment back to Lisbon, the newly arrived general had gathered all available regiments and led them north against Marshal Soult at Oporto. Hence the enthusiasm with which commissaries, quartermasters and sundry other officers had pounced on his detachment as a source of sentries and escorts. This was the first free morning the Grenadier Company had enjoyed since their return.
‘I hope the lists I brought from Espinosa prove both accurate and useful,’ said Hanley.
Williams could tell that his friend was not boasting of the exploit, but was genuinely concerned. ‘By the sound of things they were. And he did tell you the French were in Oporto before anyone knew of it.’
‘Yes, although no doubt the news would have reached us in time. It has always struck me that the finest way to convince someone of a lie is to wrap it in truth.’
‘Is that the voice of experience?’ asked Williams mischievously.
‘Certainly not.’ Hanley paused for a moment. ‘Well, assuming that I am telling the truth now.’
They strolled along the hill, the road wide and well paved. Everything had been rebuilt after the earthquake and this part of the city was grand and carefully planned. The cathedral with its big arched doorway, high roof and two low towers stood just where the road ran down the slope towards the sea and the pavements outside were crowded with people leaving after morning mass. It was not the wealthiest area of the city, but men and women alike were dressed in whatever respectable finery they possessed. The women – and there were far more women in the crowds than men – walked proudly and gracefully, their dresses shorter than was the English fashion so that slippered feet were clearly visible.
Pringle’s voice hallooed them from amid the throng. It took them a while to make their way through to the far side of the street, stopping time and again to raise their hats and let ladies pass. Male companions greeted them with smiles, the women with chaste nods, for the British were once again very popular in the city since Wellesley had returned and acted so smartly.
When they came closer they realised that their friend was not alone. Pringle stood arm in arm with a lady dressed in a pale pink dress that would not have been out of place in a market town in Oxfordshire. It had puff sleeves, the high waist of current fashion, and a neck decorated in lace. Her gloves were white, as was the lace mantilla which now rested back on her shoulders. A pink parasol gave shade to the dark skin of her slim face with its full lips and grey eyes so pale as to seem almost without colour. Her free hand held her skirt off the ground, which even in this main street was liberally smeared in dirt and other filth.
‘Maria and I have just come from the cathedral,’ announced Pringle happily.
‘It is good to see you again, Mr Hanley, and Mr Williams,’ said the girl in English that was clear, and just tinted with enough of an accent to appear exotic. Maria was a courtesan. Not a common whore – Williams was surprised that the expression came to his mind since he would never have voiced it. Indeed, an uncommon one of great panache, whose clients were the wealthy and powerful. The previous August she had appeared in the guise of a nun and lured them into helping her retrieve a rich treasure left by a lover who had fled abroad. They had killed for her, and nearly died themselves.
Maria was very persuasive. It was not simply her remarkable good looks, for every movement carried an entrancing grace. That it was a studied performance made it no less powerful. She shifted slightly, turning to stare up into Pringle’s face, and somehow the new posture set off the curves of her figure more clearly.
‘Mr Williams.’ Maria’s voice broke in on his thoughts. ‘I am still greatly in your debt and must find a way to make recompense.’
‘An honour to be of service.’ That was not quite true, for they had been duped into helping, and then the affair became a challenge none of them could ignore. Since then, it was obvious that Billy Pringle – and he suspected Hanley – had enjoyed Maria’s gratitude in the most obvious way.
‘Surely there is something. Perhaps advice on clothes.’
Williams laughed. He still wore his threadbare jacket and trousers for he could not afford anything else. An ensign’s pay was modest, and as with all the rest of the 106th stranded in Portugal, his was months in arrears.
‘There is perhaps one way you might help me,’ he ventured. His friends exchanged incredulous glances. Neither would blame him, nor feel jealous, since no one could own Maria. It was simply a surprise that their pious friend with his devoted adoration of Miss MacAndrews had even noticed the existence of another woman. ‘It is just that . . . perhaps, if you did not mind to assist . . .’ Williams struggled to find the right words and knew that he was blushing. ‘I would seek tuition in the Portuguese tongue.’
Pringle bit his lower lip to stop himself laughing. Is that what you call it? he thought.
‘Then call on me at three tomorrow afternoon,’ said Maria, showing mild pleasure at his acceptance and no trace of amusement.
Williams looked at Pringle, who just managed to control himself.
‘I am sure we can spare you,’ he said, ‘although it may mean taking charge of the overnight guard at the warehouses.’ That’s assuming you have the energy to stay awake, he added to himself.
‘Then that is settled,’ said the girl. ‘Now, I must leave you.’
Pringle bowed to kiss her hand, and the others followed suit. Maria nodded to them, and ignored the disdainful glances of passers-by.
The three officers strolled off down a winding side street which led to their billet nearer the harbour. Tall houses towered on either side of the path, and although they could see the blue skies above them they walked shaded from the powerful sun.
‘A surprisingly popish excursion for you,’ said Hanley. Billy Pringle’s family had once intended him to become a vicar until his clear unsuitability was finally admitted on all sides. He nevertheless retained a distinct loyalty and fondness for Anglican ritual. Hanley had no religion, but the years in Madrid gave him some pleasure in the splendid theatre of Spanish Catholicism.
‘Maria was keen, and it was pleasant enough. It continues to surprise me how much chatter there is among the congregation during the quieter parts of the service.’
‘You did not attend confession?’
‘My dear boy, what on earth could an innocent lad like myself have to tell?’
‘Of course.’ Hanley saw no need to mention that Pringle had left to see Maria the previous night.
‘They would not let a heretic take part,’ said Williams a little solemnly. He appeared to think for a moment. ‘Well, in your own case, one cannot entirely blame them.’
‘Thank you kindly,’ replied Pringle, joining in the merriment. ‘Maria went.’
They thought about this in silence for some time.
‘Bet if you published that in London it would make you a fortune,’ said Hanley eventually. Then he caught movement above them. ‘Look out!’ he yelled, wrenching Williams back by the shoulders.
A woman was leaning out from a high window, a pail in her hand. They just managed to spring back before she poured out the contents and a rank-smelling stream of yellow-brown night soil splashed on the cobblestones where they had been standing.
‘I cannot help wondering whether that actually might make your coat just a little cleaner,’ said Hanley, his nose wrinkled at the stench which for the moment overcame the wider odours of the city. There was a dead dog on the far side of the alley, its stomach swollen to bursting point, and it brought back grim memories of a field of corpses. ‘Let us press on quickly.’
‘Oh yes, I do not know how I can have forgotten, but there is additional cause for haste,’ said Pringle. ‘Truscott sent word to say that he is bringing post for us. A navy sloop arrived this morning with official dispatches and a good deal of private correspondence.’
Williams set off at something more akin to a jog than a walk.
Truscott was waiting in the room they used as a temporary mess. The left sleeve of his shirt, like that of his jacket, was sewn against the chest following the amputation of his arm after Vimeiro. A slow recovery meant that he missed the winter’s campaign, but had not prevented his promotion to captain and assumption of command over the hundred and twenty or so convalescents and others left behind by the regiment. With the three companies blown back to Portugal on the Corbridge he had become the officer commanding a substantial detachment of some three hundred men. That was assuming that Wickham did not return, since he was senior.
Williams almost flung the door open.
‘Ah, Billy told you about the letters, I presume,’ said Truscott with a quizzical look. Williams felt that his face, always thin, had become haggard since his wound. Several neatly written pages were spread out and weighted down on the table in front of the captain. A clean page was similarly held down with quill and inkpot waiting for him to compose a reply.
‘He did mention it,’ replied Williams somewhat abashed. Pringle and Hanley finally caught up with him and came into the mess.
‘Anything to drink?’ asked Pringle. ‘I’m parched beyond belief.’
Truscott pointed the quill at an open wine bottle and some glasses on the side table.
Pringle grinned happily.
‘Before I pass over the letters, we ought to deal with official business,’ said Truscott solemnly. ‘It may vex your soul at the ever-changing world once again turned upside down, Mr Williams, but you ought to see this.’ He handed over a copy of the LondonGazette.
Williams saw that it dated to the beginning of April. He had never seen the Gazette which listed his commissioning as an ensign, but the date quickly dissuaded him from the hope that he would now see those glorious words in print.
‘Am I searching for something in particular?’ he asked.
Truscott looked at Pringle and shook his head. ‘One truly deplores the impatience of young subalterns in these modern times. They scarcely understand the burdens placed on their seniors!’
‘“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,”’ said Hanley.
‘You poor martyred captain,’ added Pringle.
Williams scanned the pages listing every promotion in the army. He spotted Wickham’s brevet and frowned. Surely that was not what Truscott wanted him to see. The latter watched him closely and finally saw the first shock, the long uncertainty and then the birth of excitement.
‘May I be the first to offer my congratulations.’
Williams wordlessly handed the paper to Hanley, who stood beside him.
‘Well I’m damned.’ Hanley passed it on to Pringle, pointing at the notable paragraph.
Ensign H. Williams of the One Hundred and Sixth Regiment of Foot promoted Lieutenant in the Second West Indies Regiment without purchase.
‘The army’s going to the dogs,’ said Billy Pringle with a broad grin, and then began pumping Williams’ hand with the greatest enthusiasm. ‘Well done, old boy, well done indeed.’ Hanley followed suit.
‘Bills, you old rogue, in six months’ time you will no doubt be ordering us all around.’
‘I fear you gentlemen may be in for a disappointment.’ Truscott raised his voice to cut across their celebration. ‘For our friend is not bound for the islands of palm trees and dusky maidens.’
‘And fevers,’ said Pringle. The prospect of so unhealthy a posting suddenly chilled Williams to the bone. So did the thought of leaving his friends – and even more being taken yet farther afield from the girl who formed the centre of his world.
‘Major MacAndrews writes to say that an exchange has been arranged with Mr Deacon, who is going on half-pay due to declining health. It will not matter to him in which corps he does not serve. So the 106th has not yet seen the back of our Bills! I trust you enjoyed your brief moment of exoticism?’
Williams felt a huge relief and then the joy of the step in rank. ‘But why?’ he asked, the doubt rising in case it was all some misunderstanding. ‘Others are senior.’ Two new ensigns had appeared on the regiment’s books since Williams was commissioned after Vimeiro, but every other subaltern was senior to him and ought to have received promotion before him.
‘The major does explain. Apparently it is on the recommendation of Sir John Moore no less, in recognition of your actions in January.’ Williams had rallied a group of stragglers from the main army and on his own initiative defended a bridge which protected the flank of the entire army. The general, and several of his staff, had complimented him afterwards, but he had not expected any formal reward. A lot of men had died at the bridge and he could not help wondering whether their families received anything.
‘Others deserve promotion more,’ he said.
‘Yes, I do,’ chipped in Pringle cheerfully. ‘But this is the army, Lieutenant Williams, and you must do as you are told!’
It was the first time anyone had used the title and Williams could not help grinning.
‘However, now that we have dealt with this trifle, let us hear the more important news of the regiment,’ said Pringle. ‘Has Toye sold out?’ Lieutenant Colonel Toye succeeded to command of the 106th after their previous colonel was killed at Roliça. Toye was wounded and captured in the same action. He returned to them just a few weeks later when the Convention of Cintra suspended hostilities, only to succumb to fever. Toye was unable to lead the battalion in the winter’s campaign. Now, his health irreparably shattered, he was selling his commission to help support his retirement.
‘Yes, the matter has been arranged. The regiment is now in the charge of Colonel FitzWilliam, late of the Guards, and younger son of a lord.’
Pringle whistled softly through his teeth. ‘God bless all here,’ he said.
‘Amen to that,’ said Truscott.
‘So MacAndrews is just a major again.’ The elderly Scotsman had led the battalion with great success at Vimeiro and during the winter. Formerly in charge of the Grenadier Company, he had taught Williams, Pringle and Hanley a good deal about soldiering.
Truscott shrugged. ‘He may get his chance one day.’ Vacancies caused by battle went to the next most senior officer and avoided the need for the substantial sums required to purchase rank. ‘They want us back with the battalion.’
‘Good to be popular,’ said Pringle. ‘Any idea when we might sail?’
‘No. What the new colonel wants and what actually happens in the immediate future may not coincide.’ Truscott had always had a precise, if somewhat opaque manner of speaking. ‘I suspect we may not get away for some months.’
‘Be a shame to sit here guarding stores while the rest of the army is in the field,’ said Williams.
‘Ambition rearing its ugly head once again, eh!’ Pringle laughed.
‘We may not sit things out,’ said Truscott, always happy to reveal greater knowledge than his fellows. ‘They have already formed two battalions of detachments and both are in the field with Wellesley. We only escaped because your two companies were gallivanting off escorting mysterious ladies. Now that you are here, I would not be surprised if there was talk of a third battalion.’
‘Any news of our pay?’ asked Hanley.
‘Mercenary dog,’ said Pringle.
‘The matter is being given attention.’
‘As bad as that,’ said Hanley. They were issued with rations, but none of the 106th received any pay. Borrowing money was possible, but expensive, and so their mess here was a modest affair and there was little or no money for pleasant extras.
‘At least they did not say “close attention”,’ said Pringle. ‘That way we would never see it.’
‘Probably true,’ said Truscott gloomily. ‘However, on a brighter note there are letters for both you and Williams. Nothing for you, I am afraid, my dear Hanley.’
‘I do not really have any family. The closest are you fellows.’
‘He’s looking for sympathy again,’ said Pringle with a thin smile, taking the half-dozen letters for him. There were two for Williams, both in the cautious, circular script of Anne, the eldest of his sisters. There was nothing from Miss MacAndrews and he tried to convince himself that he had never hoped for such a message.
‘If you will forgive me,’ he said to the others, and retired to a chair. In her methodical way, Anne had numbered the envelopes. He opened the one marked 11 first, leaving 12 to follow so that he would get the news in order.
It was with such joy and relief that we received your letter telling us that you were safe and sound. I cannot describe my relief to know you were well and to see your words and stop worrying. Oh joy you are well and soon we will see you again. Mr Hopkins[an elderly master’s mate who was a regular boarder at Mrs Williams’ house when not at sea] was at Portsmouth when the ships came back from Spain and said that he had never seen anything like it on land or sea when so many men like scarecrows came off the ships with officers no better than the men and all with beards and holes in their breeches.
He suspected his modest sister had blushed to write the last word.
He says it is terrible and so we were worried and then we were more frightened when you sent no word and your regiment told us that you were not with them and your ship was missing so that no one knew whether or not you were safe and sound. Mama had a very kind letter from Major MacAndrews saying that we should not be concerned and that he would write as soon as news arrived and also to say that you were so very gallant during the war and won praises from the general before that poor man fell like a hero in defence of our country. We were all so very proud of you and I wished all the more to see you and kiss my fine brother. And so we worried and fretted. Mama worried most of all . . .
Williams wondered a little about that.
. . . although she put the bravest of faces on it and no one who did not know her well would have realised.
That he could certainly believe, for Mrs Williams, widowed at a young age and left to raise her children as best she could, was most skilful at masking whatever emotions she felt.
And then came that glorious day when your letter arrived and on the very same day one from Major MacAndrews’ wife saying that her husband was busy about his duties, but that she wishes us to hear the good news without delay so took the liberty of writing to us herself.
Esther MacAndrews was a formidable lady and he could well believe her impatience, but he was extremely grateful for her kindness. His heart hoped that this reflected a favourable disposition towards him on the part of Jane MacAndrews’ parents.
The rest was small news, recounted in Anne’s breathless and enthusiastic style, and once again he lamented his inability to convince her of the merit of writing in paragraphs. He laid it down, knowing that he would read it again and again as news from home was such a rare and precious thing, and for a while even the minor details of his family’s life in Bristol would fascinate as glimpses of a world left behind.
Williams opened the second letter, which continued for over a page in the same vein. Kitty and Charlotte, the middle and youngest sisters, each had new bonnets and Mama had managed to find enough money for all three girls to have dancing lessons.
. . . It is with great anticipation and excitement that we look forward to the chance to attend balls in the summer months.
There was considerably more on this, with details and even a rough diagram of what they had learned. He skimmed through quickly, although on later readings he would make the most even of such a topic.
. . . And then we returned home one day from our classes to find Mama receiving visitors in the parlour with her finest china and can you guess who were the two fine ladies who sat with Mama and took tea and some pieces of cake? I am sure you cannot guess, and can you imagine our excitement when Mama presented us to Mrs and Miss MacAndrews and they spoke so very kindly to each of us. I have never seen such elegant and fine and beautiful and well dressed ladies in my whole life. Mrs MacAndrews is taller even than Mama – well you must know this, but imagine my surprise and yet she is like Mama in her poise and bearing so that they almost seemed sisters and so very friendly that I do not think I have heard Mama laugh so much for a long time.
That was hard to imagine, although Williams conceded that his mother laughed so seldom that perhaps it did not take much to impress his sister. His mind thrilled at the evident goodwill shown by the visit. He dared to hope and his eyes ran along the lines.
Mrs and Miss MacAndrews were on their way to Bath for the season, where they will be joined by Major MacAndrews when his duty permits.
Or when he can no longer think of excuses good enough to satisfy his wife, thought Williams.
It was so wonderful an afternoon and they spoke a little of the war in Spain and the high esteem in which you are held by the regiment. Miss MacAndrews is the most beautiful young lady I have ever seen.
Williams agreed with that verdict, but was also aware that many things were for the moment ‘the most beautiful’ things Anne had ever seen.
. . . And she spoke for a very long time to me and to Kitty and Charlotte and praised the bonnets we were wearing which are the ones we made last spring with the ribbons we bought from the market and said how much they became us and how she wished she had fair hair like mine and I said that her own hair was so lovely and surely far finer with its curls and colour. They stayed with us for almost an hour and then said that if we were to come to Bath we should call on them and accompany them to some of the functions and we all thanked them so very much for their kindness and said how very wonderful that would be. . . .
The letter ended with a series of plans for somehow taking advantage of this offer by accompanying neighbours such as the Baxters or old Mrs Waters, who would surely benefit from ‘taking the waters’ (the joke was underlined three times to make the point) and who ought not to go without a companion or companions.
Williams finished the letter and tried to get his breath back. It had become such a wonderful day that he ceased to be embarrassed as other officers came in and gave him their congratulations. With the general shortage of funds no great celebration was possible, but they toasted his health and in a moment of weakness he took a glass of port himself and drank it quickly. Euphoria did not prevent his throat from burning and his stomach rebelling at the infusion of alcohol. With the heat of the crowded room he felt nauseous and pushed his way to the door. Outside, in the almost fresh air of the street, he took deep breaths, leaning against the wall.
Ensign Hatch watched him, a look of pure hatred on his face, which vanished as Williams looked up.
‘Congratulations, Lieutenant, sir,’ he said.