Chapter 15

‘There, at least now I shall not be ashamed.’ Maria walked around behind him, inspecting the new uniform. Williams was not sure whether he ought to feel shame for escorting a known lady of the town to the theatre, but knew that he did not. Judge not, lest ye be judged, he thought to himself.

‘Stop grinning like a fool!’ Maria ordered sharply. ‘You are supposed to look like a hero. Now sit down.’

Williams obeyed.

‘Yes, that is good work.’ She ran a finger along the top of his collar, ruffling his fair hair, and the simple gesture instantly put him on edge. Everything about Maria was sensual, and although in the last week their friendship had never extended to greater intimacy, Williams was kept constantly aware that she was a woman. Miss MacAndrews had the same effect on him – perhaps an even more overwhelming one – but he was in love with her and that seemed right. He liked Maria and she was true to her word in instructing him in Portuguese. There was no more than that.

Now it was her turn to ask for another favour, and as part of this she had insisted on purchasing for him a new uniform. ‘I could not possibly be seen with you as you are,’ she said, and sent him to one of the many Lisbon tailors who now catered for the requirements of British officers. Two days later, the new uniform was waiting for him, and it seemed that it had passed inspection.

‘That will do. It is a pity that the cuffs are red and not bright yellow like some others I have seen.’

‘It is the colour of my regiment,’ said Williams. The 106th had red facings, so that cuffs and collar matched the rest of the jacket. In keeping with his status as an officer, Williams’ new jacket was made in brighter scarlet than the coats of the ordinary soldiers.

‘They should have asked a woman to devise it. Well, too late for that now.’ She walked beside him. ‘These are good.’ For the first time in his life Williams was the owner of the tight-fitting white breeches worn in full dress uniform and a pair of new and highly polished black hessian boots, complete with tassels at the top. The leather was stiff, and it would be a while before they softened enough to be comfortable, but there was something very pleasant about being dressed like the most fashionable of officers.

‘Yes, I think this will do. You look almost dashing. It will please his vanity to take me from you.’ Maria planned to capture the affections of a certain Mr Howarth, who was in Lisbon as part of the British legation and also had an interest in several of the companies under contract to supply the army. Howarth was small, pale and short sighted, but considered himself something of a buck. Maria was sure the man resented the presence of so many handsome men whose uniforms outshone his own civilian finery. ‘Now, you must look as if you desire me above all things.’

She walked in front of him, the long windows opening on to the balcony behind her. Bright afternoon sunlight streamed into the room. Her white cotton dress was modest, with a high neckline and very little decoration. In the bright sunlight it was also almost transparent. Williams’ eyes widened. He glanced down for an instant, but only for an instant. The curves of her legs and body were all in dark silhouette, stark, clear and very lovely. An image flashed into his mind of Jane MacAndrews, naked after her drenching in the icy river as he tried to stop her from dying of cold, and other images of his ardent dreams. They could not quite blot out the immediacy of the woman in front of him. His nobler affections had little say in the matter.

‘Yes, that is a little better,’ said Maria. ‘You may stand up again.’

Williams did not move. Maria smiled with satisfaction.

Three hours later, Williams walked Maria into the theatre. Her dress was a brilliant white, with its top for the moment covered in a tight crimson jacket. Her thick black hair was piled high and topped with a black ostrich feather. ‘Your Scottish soldiers sell the ones from their hats to buy wine,’ she explained.

They had a small box to themselves. He helped her to her seat, dancing attendance upon her with only a little of his accustomed clumsiness. Somehow he did not feel nervous around her, perhaps because this was all an act. He helped her to remove the jacket, revealing a plunging neckline displaying a good deal of her out-thrust bosom. Williams’ throat felt dry.

‘At least you will be able to practise your Portuguese,’ she said. ‘Ah, there he is as usual. In the largest box on the far side.’ Williams was surprised to see a younger man than he expected. He was dressed in a light blue jacket and immense kerchief. Howarth was an ill-favoured fellow with an expression ever shifting from disdain to petulance and back again.

‘Are you sure you want to bother?’ he asked.

‘He is rich,’ she said. ‘And will do for a few weeks.’

Williams struggled to follow the play. It was clearly a comedy, and he recognised the stern guardian, the dull tutor and the handsome nobleman disguised as a simple student to woo the beautiful maiden. There was also a villainous rival, who wore a hat with a French cockade and a false nose adorned with a wart. The actor was hissed on each appearance.

Maria was not inclined to explain. ‘Whisper in my ear,’ she commanded. When he did so, she gave a little laugh and fluttered her fan.

A few minutes later she repeated the instruction. This time her response was to flush. Williams noticed Howarth looking in their direction. He was not the only one, and many of the men kept glancing at his companion.

‘Kiss me!’ she ordered.

‘I beg your pardon,’ was all he could manage.

‘On the cheek, kiss me!’

‘I . . .’

‘Get on with it, while we have his attention.’

Williams leaned over and pecked her lightly on the cheek. Maria recoiled, looking surprised and shocked.

Lieutenant Williams panicked, sure he had misunderstood. ‘I am so sorry, but I thought . . .’

‘Again. On the lips this time,’ she whispered. ‘I will struggle, but force me until I say.’

‘If you are sure . . .’

‘Do it.’

He slid his arms around her and tilted his head as he pressed his mouth firmly against hers. Maria’s perfume was intoxicating, her lips smooth and soft. She squirmed, her left hand with the fan smacking his head in apparent protest, while her unseen right grasped his shoulder firmly and pulled him ever tighter towards her. They struggled, Williams unsure quite what he was supposed to do and very conscious of the beautiful young woman held in his arms. Maria twisted her mouth away from his, and so he kissed her neck instead.

‘Enough,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I said enough,’ she repeated as he continued to press his lips against her skin.

She was breathing hard, a fact all the more evident because somehow his right hand now cupped her left breast through the thin silk of her dress. Williams looked down and stared as if somehow this would help him to understand. Maria also looked down, then her face filled with anger. Williams at last withdrew, and the girl slapped him hard on the cheek.

‘I am sorry . . . I do not know . . .’ he stammered.

‘’You are doing well,’ she hissed. ‘Wait a little and we will try again.’

There was a burst of unnaturally loud laughter from the stalls beneath them. It did not seem to be provoked by anything the rest of the audience found amusing.

‘Why did you not ask Pringle or Hanley to help you with this?’ asked Williams in an effort to recover his balance.

‘Pringle has glasses and you have blond hair. You also look like a bold man,’ she said bluntly.

‘So does Hanley.’

‘But I could not be sure of stopping either of them! You are safer.’

Williams was not sure whether he was being complimented or insulted.

Maria saw his confusion. ‘I trust you because you are in love,’ she said quietly.

‘Did one of the others tell you?’

‘Yes, but I did not need to hear that. It is so easy to see.’

He was pleased at that, even if part of him knew that she was very good at pleasing men and doubted her sincerity.

‘You’re looking in the wrong place, old cock!’ The shout was loud and came from beneath them. On stage the guardian was patrolling with his faithful retainer and looking for the lover, who was now disguised as the tutor.

Maria turned to Williams. ‘Some of your countrymen. Is such boorishness accepted in England?’

Williams had rarely had the funds or inclination to attend the theatres. ‘Perhaps in the lower halls, but no, I do not believe so.’

‘Look under the stairs!’ came another helpful comment in English. The cast tried to ignore the heckling, raising their voices in an effort to be heard.

‘Silly old sod, he’s not listening.’

‘Let’s help the poor old dog out!’

There was commotion beneath them, with chairs falling and voices raised in protest. Williams leaned forward to see and was dismayed when two British officers scrambled up on to the stage. There was relief when he spotted that one was in the blue facings of a royal regiment and the other in white, and then they turned to help a third redcoat up and his heart sank as he saw the coat of the 106th. It was Hatch. Williams put his hand over his eyes.

‘It would be,’ he muttered.

Hatch was bare headed, his long brown hair not yet trimmed back after the month or more spent on the march to Spain and back. He was swaying visibly, as were his associates. The man in white facings dropped something which rolled noisily across thestage. He crouched down on all fours searching for it. The man from the royal regiment took a swig from a brandy bottle, and then generously offered it to the actor playing the servant.

‘Please yourself,’ he said when the man declined. ‘I was only being civil.’

Ensign Hatch appeared to notice the audience properly for the first time. He smiled broadly and took a bow, but the motion brought a wave of nausea and for one horrible moment Williams thought the man was going to vomit. He staggered back a few steps before recovering and bumped into the guardian. Hatch appeared offended.

‘Look where you are going,’ he said. ‘No way to treat a guest.’

Someone was obviously calling and gesturing to the officers from the wings. The officer in blue facings noticed and turned to the servant. ‘I think they want you,’ he said helpfully.

With a fortitude that Williams could not but admire, the cast did their best to continue, pretending the drunken Englishmen were not there. Two maids appeared, one very plump and white haired and obviously played by a man.

‘My darling,’ said Hatch, spreading his arms in greeting, and lurched towards them. The actress dodged him, but the man was not so fortunate and was taken in an embrace. ‘Together again at last,’ said the ensign.

Meanwhile the officer from the royal regiment had finally realised that the people in the wings were calling to him and he wandered offstage to see what was so damned urgent. The man from the regiment with white facings continued to crawl around the stage, almost tripping the guardian and the disguised suitor.

‘It’s all a fraud,’ yelled Hatch, as the actor managed to free himself, but lost his mobcap and wig in the process. With surprising speed the officer lunged forward and jabbed at the maid’s bosom. ‘Look, a fraud,’ he said, as if making a great discovery.

Maria seemed more amused than angry. ‘They are not very good actors at the best of times,’ she explained. ‘Still, ought you not to do something to restrain your comrades?’

‘Get off the stage, you fellows!’ he called as loudly as he could.

Hatch nudged the actor playing the maid. ‘They don’t seem to like you.’

There was shouting from the wings. ‘Don’t think they like you either,’ added the ensign. He jabbed his index finger against the man’s bosom again. ‘A fraud, you see, it’s simply no good.’ Then he edged towards the actress playing the pretty maid, who squealed at the sight of his outstretched finger and retreated behind the guardian, who was promptly prodded in the ribs.

‘Get off!’ shouted another English voice from beneath them.

‘Leave ’em, this is better than the damned play!’ chipped in another.

‘You must make them,’ said Maria.

‘Must I?’

‘Yes, it is time for you to leave my side and give him his chance. Earn your new rank,’ she added after a moment. ‘After all, you are the hero.’

‘So you keep saying.’ Williams rose reluctantly. Reasoning with drunks was rarely profitable, and he could not help thinking that a situation like this could all too readily end in scandal. What if one of the drunks called him out? He knew Hatch disliked him intensely, although was never sure why. ‘I’ll go, then.’

‘Do.’

Williams walked slowly, hoping that the matter would resolve itself. He studied the walls of the corridor as if they were works of art, taking his time.

As he came out at the back of the stalls a woman’s scream cut through the commotion. Hatch raised his hand high. ‘The call of honour,’ he shouted before tripping over the crawling officer and falling offstage.

Suddenly the actress playing the daughter ran out on to the stage, wearing only her stays, petticoats and the old-fashioned hoop which would support her skirts when she was wearing them. She was closely pursued by the ensign from the royal regiment, who in turn was followed by several angry men.

‘View halloo!’ The man dodged the guardian, knocked the servant down and took the opportunity to kiss the pretty maid as the daughter tried to hide behind the others.

Most of the audience were yelling protests, apart from a few English voices, and then a red-faced major barged through the doors and led a file of redcoats with muskets past Williams. The curtain fell and ended the first half.

‘You, sir!’ The major pointed at Williams. ‘This one is one of yours, isn’t he?’ A soldier was lifting Hatch to his feet. ‘Take him away and see that he does not get into any more scrapes.’

‘Sir,’ said Williams without any enthusiasm, but he dutifully supported the ensign.

‘Who are you?’ said Hatch, his eyes clearly unable to focus.

‘A sad man,’ replied Williams, thinking that he had arrived with a beautiful woman on his arm and was leaving with a drunken lout. He hoped the man would not throw up over his new uniform.

There was a press of people outside the theatre, where men were selling wine, pastries and cool lemon juice sweetened with sugar. The buzz of conversation ceased for a moment when the two officers appeared, before redoubling in volume.

‘Wasn’t much of a play,’ muttered Hatch.

Williams saw that Maria was there, with the diminutive Howarth attending her. He marvelled that she had worked her magic so quickly. The girl feigned alarm at the sight of him, and the small civilian moved protectively in front of her. Well, the fellow had pluck at least, and good luck to them both. Yet there was something wounding about being seen to lose to such a man – or indeed to lose at all, even if Maria meant nothing to him.

‘Look at those tits,’ said Hatch with slow reverence, his eyes evidently responding better.

Howarth glared at them with a mixture of distaste and triumph and took Maria’s arm to lead her away.

The next night, Williams found himself in charge of the guard placed on the rear doors of the theatre. Sir Arthur Wellesley himself had given the order for this after similar displays to that of the previous night, but the practice had lapsed when he set off on campaign and soldiers were in short supply. It was also hoped that there were too few British officers left in Lisbon with the energy to cause such mischief.

Lance Corporal Murphy himself stood outside the dressing room used by the actresses.

‘You may have to assure my Mary that I behaved like a gentleman, your honour,’ he said when Williams did his rounds.

‘Of course.’ They both tried to ignore the girl wearing only a loose robe who walked out of one of the rooms, looked them up and down and then returned through the door. ‘I trust Mrs Murphy is well.’

‘Thank you, sir, that she is.’ Having lost an infant to the winter’s cold, Mary Murphy was now once again expecting. ‘She’s sad as well, but happy, if you know what I mean.’

No rowdy officers appeared and Williams was glad for he had no particular desire for confrontation. Howarth brought Maria to the performance and he was surprised that he found it disturbing to see them together. When the man was not looking, Maria blew him a kiss. Williams smiled, shaking his head, and returned to his duties.

‘Be good to be back in the field again,’ he remarked to Murphy at the end of the night. The same girl appeared again, this time clad in only a flimsy shift.

‘Aye,’ said the corporal. ‘In a way.’

Ensign Hatch stayed in his room that night. In part this was because he had neither duties nor funds with which to enjoy himself. He also had something important to do.

He hated Williams, and the man’s elevation to lieutenant was especially wounding. Hatch was sure that the man had murdered his closest friend in the chaos of Roliça. That was not true, for Dobson had done the killing in revenge for Ensign Redman’s seduction of his daughter, but Hatch did not know this.

Hatch dared not call Williams out. Duelling was against the Army Act. Sympathetic fellow officers who felt the quarrel was justified might forget what they had seen and so a court martial would collapse. Hatch doubted his comrades would protect him in this way, especially since he had no evidence to offer them. More importantly, Williams was a killer, and he suspected that his prowess as a duellist would be as formidable as his ferocity in battle.

Ensign Hatch had no wish to die. He must wound his enemy in secrecy and so for months he took every opportunity to make jokes at Williams’ expense, in the hope that his respect in the world of the regiment would crumble. Success was so far modest, but now he realised that there was a better way.

This time he would write a letter. It was addressed to Captain and Mrs Davenport. Mrs Davenport was an intimate of Mrs Wickham, sure to pass on any gossip about mutual acquaintances to her friend. Telling such stories to Lydia Wickham was much the same as shouting them from the top of a church tower.

Hatch began slowly, telling of their recent march into Spain. His account suggested a cheerful picnic rather than a grim skirmish.

Our Mr Williams was much taken by the Spanish lady. She was a handsome lady, no doubt, although her grace diminished by the advanced state of a certain condition. Sadly for our Sir Galahad, she was immune to his rustic charms, which also seemed poor in the company of other, more gallant officers.

On our return to Lisbon, Mr W set his cap at more attainable goals, and began to be seen in company with a woman – I cannot say lady – famed throughout the city for the mercantile nature of her charms – although I would not mention the title for such a one in a letter or polite society. It appears he had some success, so much so that she paid to dress him in a new uniform of finest materials and he became quite the buck. However, once again fate was not on the side of our brave macaroni, for the female as promptly threw him over for a civilian no less, and a tiny, ugly little brute to be sure. All our Mr W could do was gnash his teeth.

He was soon consoled for his loss! For now he stands special guard over the actresses in the theatre to protect these damsels from who knows what peril.

There, that should do it. In time the stories would circulate. There would be laughter, and when the tales reached Miss MacAndrews no doubt there would be anger.

Hatch laid down his pen with considerable satisfaction.

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