Chapter 17

Hanley waited in the hall of the house occupied by the general’s headquarters. It was cool, and that was something, for the heat of the day was oppressive and Pritchard Jones had kept the battalion at drill throughout the long morning.

‘The general bids you attend upon him,’ the colonel had said to him afterwards, his big mouth and wide face once again split into an impish grin. ‘Whatever he asks, refuse at all costs. Spit in his eye if necessary. I have already lost too many officers to spare another to the whim of our commander-in-chief.’

An ensign and a lieutenant had collapsed on the march and had to be left behind. Captain Grant had made it to Abrantes by sheer willpower alone, for the man looked more and more like a moving skeleton and could not keep his food down. He was now in the hospital. Wickham, presuming on distant acquaintance, had secured himself a place as an additional ADC to General Hill of the Second Division.

Hanley waited, sitting on a chair with its back against the wall. A tall clock noisily ticked the seconds away as nothing happened. The noise from the street was more muted, with muffled voices, and then for a good ten minutes the maniacal screams of the ungreased axles of local ox carts.

A servant in civilian clothes came past and offered him a glass of water, waited for him to drain it, and then carried the empty vessel away. This excitement did not last long, but it was reassuring that at least someone had noticed his presence.

The clock ticked on and Hanley waited. He presumed his summons had something to do with the business of Espinosa, although perhaps there was simply a need for someone able to speak Spanish. The pride so many of his fellows took in being unable to understand any language other than their own continued to baffle him.

He wondered about learning Welsh, and that kept him occupied for a good five minutes before he decided that the opportunity to practise it would be too rare for true accomplishment.

The clock ticked on and so he had to accept the fact that time was passing. There was no other evidence of this. Hanley was tired, and had the chair not been so uncomfortable he suspected that he would have fallen asleep.

A cavalry officer appeared from one of the rooms along the corridor, nodded affably to him and then went on his way.

The clock informed him that another ten minutes passed before a captain in the jacket of the Foot Guards came from the same room.

‘Lieutenant Hanley?’

Hanley stood up.

‘Please follow me. I must apologise for the wait. We are all rather on the hop today.’ He led Hanley up the stairs and along another corridor. Rather ominously there were three chairs in a row outside the grand double doors to what was presumably one of the main rooms of the house.

‘If you would like to sit, they will call for you in a few minutes.’ The captain vanished and Hanley sat and waited. He was beginning to feel that he was very good at it. This chair had arms and a padded seat. He was sure that he could doze here if he could just get comfortable.

‘Hanley, dear boy, it is grand to see you again.’ Baynes’ cheerful red face had appeared around the now opened door. ‘Come in, dear boy, come in, we need your advice.

‘May I present Colonel Murray.’

‘We are old acquaintances,’ said the colonel with a warm smile. ‘Welcome.’ Murray had a thin face with high cheekbones and dark expressive eyes. His brown hair was neatly combed apart from one unruly patch above his forehead. Hanley had met him the previous autumn, but was surprised to be remembered with such warmth. It reminded him of Velarde’s and Espinosa’s equally surprising enthusiasm, and made him wonder whether this man had any greater sincerity.

‘Thank you, sir.’ There was silence as they looked at him. He noticed a map spread out on the table. A door to a side room was ajar and he could faintly hear a sharp authoritative voice dictating a letter. The colonel and the merchant paid it no attention and simply watched Hanley for a while.

‘Talkative, ain’t he?’ said Murray to Baynes.

‘Isn’t that an advantage? Perhaps it is better if you explain the situation.’

‘Just so. Well, come over here, Mr Hanley, and I will show you our problem.’ Murray stood on the far side of the table, and pointed the worn stub of a pencil at the map. ‘We are here.’

‘Abrantes,’ said Baynes helpfully. ‘That’s in Portugal.’

‘That is useful to know.’ Hanley grinned.

Murray smiled briefly. ‘Well, it might soon be in France if we make a mess of this, so pay attention.

‘We will have twenty thousand men when all the brigades have arrived. Thanks in part to the papers you brought us from this Espinosa, we have some idea of the enemy’s dispositions. Soult should not trouble us for a month or more until he has licked his army back into shape and found himself some guns. Ney and Mortier are too far to the north to be an immediate threat. We need to keep an eye on them, in case they do move, but there has been no sign of it yet.

‘Marshal Victor is still mainly concentrated around Merida and General Lapisse has retired to join him. Well, you saw something of that. A few weeks ago Victor sent a strong force north to drive back some of Wilson’s men who had seized the bridge at Alcantara.’ Hanley followed the line of the River Tagus eastwards into Spain. Alcantara was not far from the border. ‘His fellows put up a good struggle, but took a real pounding and in the end retreated. Wilson was not with them, and Sir Arthur has just decided to reinforce him with a fresh Portuguese battalion so that he will have a full brigade for the coming campaign.

‘Any questions before I continue?’

Hanley shook his head. It was a lot to take in and he wanted to concentrate.

‘Good. Now that Lapisse is back Marshal Victor has his full corps of three divisions. We hear he has supply problems – and no doubt Bonaparte is barking orders at him from all the way away there in Austria and wanting him to attack. He will probably move soon, but we do not know which way he will go. There is another corps under General Sebastiani – he is a mere general and not a marshal or a prince so I don’t know how the poor fellow upset Boney not to get his promotion and a few new baubles. Probably told him the truth or some other damned fool thing like that. Well, whatever his fault may be, General Sebastiani is farther east, around Toledo.

‘King Joseph has a smaller force of one division or so stationed near Madrid itself. All told, we judge them to have some forty thousand men in the valley of the Tagus. We cannot deal with such numbers unless we co-ordinate our action with the Spanish. General Cuesta’s army watches Victor from a safe distance. A smaller army under General Venegas is to the south-east, somewhere well down here.’ Murray circled the pencil well to the south of Toledo.

‘We need the Spanish and they want to attack. Well, so do we, but after what happened to Moore we want to make sure we know what is happening before we charge deep into Spain.’

‘That is where you can assist us,’ said Baynes. ‘How do you know Espinosa?’

Hanley told them of his years spent in Madrid, a little embarrassed these days to speak of his artistic ambitions, but conscious that only the truth would serve.

Baynes and Murray exchanged glances, and the latter gave the gentlest of nods, before the merchant continued. ‘How well did you know him? Velarde tells me you were all friends.’

‘We knew each other, and knew many of the same people. I would not have said we were especially close.’ He could not help wondering what Velarde had said.

‘Acquaintances rather than friends.’

Hanley nodded.

‘Do you trust him?’ asked Baynes.

‘No.’

‘Do you mean Espinosa or Velarde?’ asked Murray, who had obviously been listening intently.

Hanley smiled. ‘I meant Espinosa, but the answer applies with equal vigour to both of them.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I strongly suspect that Velarde knocked me from my horse and so caused my capture by the French.’

‘Imaginative fellow,’ said Baynes without great surprise. ‘Do you believe he and Espinosa are in league?’

Hanley had wondered about this more than once. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Although I doubt very closely.’

‘Why?’ Murray was watching him intently.

‘They both know the other is quite clever and neither has a trusting nature.’

Baynes snorted with laughter at this judgement. ‘I told you Hanley has the right sort of mind for our business,’ he said. ‘So do you believe they trust you?’

‘They have no reason to do so.’

Murray’s gaze never left Hanley. ‘So tell us, are they patriots or afrancesados – those who welcome the French? Which side are they really on?’

‘I believe both will endeavour to be on the winning side. Whatever it takes.’

‘Good, then I suppose our concern is to ensure that we are victorious.’ Murray rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Well, Major Velarde is officially on our side. Espinosa is not, and we should take advantage of his willingness to deal with us, even if we don’t actually trust the little rogue farther than we can kick him.’

‘He did ask for payment,’ Hanley reminded them.

‘Him and every other rascal in these wretched countries,’ said Murray with a flash of anger.

‘Sir Arthur is desperately short of funds,’ explained Baynes. ‘Bankers drafts are of little use, and the army needs Portuguese coins to pay the merchants here and Spanish dollars once we cross the border.’

‘Well, we won’t be doing that until we have paid our debts here and somehow hired enough muleteers, carters and animals to lug our supplies with us. That is of course assuming we can buy enough grain, meat and fodder in the first place.’ Murray’s tone expressed a deep weariness. ‘Still, that, God help me, is my difficulty. Yours is to reach Espinosa or his agent and find out what he has to tell us.’

‘Word is already on its way to him along with a small sum of money. I managed to keep back a few hundred dollars before we exchanged them for escudos,’ said Baynes, taking over the explanation.

‘La Doña Margarita is our agent again. Her family has houses in Talavera and Toledo as well as Madrid itself. The message will reach him soon if it has not already done so.

‘It will also inform him that you will be riding along the north road and will be near Coria for a week from tomorrow. We will give you an escort and a guide. There is a band of irregulars led by a Captain Rodriguez who will also help.’

‘Will that be enough for his man to find me?’

‘Yes, if Espinosa is any good,’ said Baynes, ‘and if he is not then we may all be wasting our time. If he just has letters then there are other ways he could reach us. Yet nothing has come from him since the papers you brought. So for whatever reason he appears to want to work solely through you. You might want to think about why, but for the moment we must accept it and find out whether he can be of further use.’

They were interrupted when the side door opened fully and a slim man in a plain blue frock coat, buff breeches and well-polished riding boots strode into the room.

‘Well, Murray, that is one more letter trying to make the captain general see reason. Have you finished arranging matters?’

‘Almost, Sir Arthur. May I present Lieutenant Hanley.’

Hanley had seen Sir Arthur Wellesley once or twice before, but never been so close. The general was of little more than average height, but seemed bigger. His grey-blue eyes spoke of restless energy and little warmth.

‘May I wish you good fortune,’ said the general formally. ‘Get as much from this fellow as you can. I will not fight this war blindly and so must see what the French are up to on their side of the hill.’ Hanley started when without warning the general bayed with laughter. ‘Hard enough trying to work out what our allies are doing without the French being difficult! Baynes, I need your assistance in composing a letter to the junta. Perhaps they can find us a less obstinate general. Murray, I shall need you in half an hour. We must find more carts from somewhere. Good day to you, Mr Hanley.’

Wellesley was gone and the room now seemed empty.

‘Can you deal with the rest?’ Baynes asked Colonel Murray.

‘Yes.’

‘Well, Hanley, I look forward to what you can bring us. Please try not to get killed in the process.’

‘If you do, send the information back to us first,’ added Murray cheerfully as the merchant knocked on the door to Sir Arthur’s office and then went in.

‘I have other work for you so that you can earn your pay properly,’ continued the colonel. ‘It is less dramatic, but in time will be almost as useful. You can draw, can you not?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Then at the end of each day you travel I want a map. I want to know the route of the road and how good it is, the ground to either side, the places of note, the bridges, fords and passes. Whenever there is time I want sketches of the topography. In short I need all the facts that our useless maps fail to tell us. This is how I want it all done.’ He produced a bundle of papers and went through each in detail. Then he went through it all again. Hanley felt like a schoolboy.

Two hours later he left Abrantes with a corporal’s guard of light dragoons as escort and still felt like a child, albeit one pretending to be a soldier as part of some over-imaginative game.

‘Nice to be out in the country,’ said the corporal when they had gone three miles.

Hanley grunted assent, and they rode on in silence.

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