‘Permission to speak, sir?’
The two sergeants stood rigidly to attention. The older man, his black hair flecked with grey, was Sergeant McNaught of the 42nd, and it was he who had spoken. Sergeant Rudden of the 43rd was probably no more than twenty-five and his fair hair made him appear younger. Williams had heard the men calling him ‘the kid’ and could understand why, although Rudden evidently deserved his rank and was a capable NCO. He and McNaught were also clearly unhappy and it had shown in the lethargic way the Light Company had practised skirmishing.
‘Yes, Sergeant McNaught, please say what is on your mind.’ Williams already guessed what they wanted and knew he could not give it to them.
‘Thank you, sir. We mean no disrespect, but there are contingents from both of our corps with the First Battalion of Detachments.’
McNaught hesitated and the light infantry sergeant took over. ‘We would like to be transferred to join them, sir. Fight alongside our own.’ Rudden looked nervous but determined.
‘Meaning no offence to yourself, sir,’
‘None at all, sir,’ added McNaught.
‘But now we are with the army instead of on our own.’ Rudden was staring just to the left of Williams’ head, avoiding looking him in the eyes and any punishable challenge or insubordination.
‘And with Mr Grant in the hospital, sir,’ said the Highlander. He left unspoken the obvious implication that the men felt happier with their ‘own’ officer. Williams knew that he remained a stranger.
‘The colonel says no, and the general wants to keep the battalions as they are. It is too late to change. If your corps were here in full strength then it would be a different matter.’
Actually Pritchard Jones had suggested that the score of Royal Highlanders with the First Battalion of Detachments ought to be transferred to his own command, but had failed to get approval for this.
‘The First Forty-Third are on their way, sir,’ said Rudden determinedly.
Williams was amazed at how quickly the word had spread. After what he had said he could scarcely change tack. ‘When they arrive I promise to speak to the colonel about having you transferred to them.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Rudden looked marginally less aggrieved. ‘Any word on our pay, sir?’
‘I am afraid not. The pay of the entire army is in arrears.’ They must have known that, and also known that there was nothing he could do about it. For a brief moment he regretted his new uniform, the colour of the jacket still bright, its buttons all in place and gleaming. Perhaps they believed he was wealthy and beyond such concerns. Then Williams began to resent being blamed for problems beyond his control.
He knew that he could not say that. Rudden’s protest seemed to be over, but McNaught was clearly not satisfied. ‘None of my men are from the Light Company, sir,’ he said, raising yet another grievance.
‘I realise that, Sergeant, and understand that the training is new to you. Yet most of your lads are good soldiers and have natural aptitude. Did not the Ninety-fifth draw heavily on the Highland regiments when they were formed?’ So Pritchard Jones had assured him when explaining why he wanted Williams’ company to act as skirmishers for the battalion.
‘Maybe, sir.’ McNaught, like a lot of pipe smokers, had one of his stained lower teeth missing and Williams found himself obsessively staring at the gap. He also fought with a powerful desire to make these men like him. Both appeared to be good soldiers, and in their place he would no doubt have also preferred to be back with the 106th rather than serving in a mixed unit. Soldiers relied on their comrades, and trusted their officers and NCOs. None of them was given any choice about joining this battalion and there were simply too many strangers – some of them even foreign to make the discomfort worse.
It was a little surprising to see the two NCOs approaching him together and only a shared dissatisfaction made it possible. Williams had noticed that the two contingents were keen to do everything their own way. At every opportunity the redcoats from the 43rd marched at the quicker light infantry pace, their muskets held at trail rather than on the shoulder. The Black Watch responded by speaking Gaelic among themselves – even though there were a handful of Irish and English soldiers in their ranks. The number wearing kilts had increased to almost half, and Williams was baffled as to where they had found the tartan. Then he happened to notice that some of the men’s wives, who had formerly worn regimental skirts, were now wearing local brown cloth instead and the mystery was solved.
Williams also had two dozen men and a corporal drawn from convalescents released by the hospitals. The rivalry of the 42nd and 43rd and their deep suspicion of all outsiders had bonded these men into another distinct faction. As the only officer left to the company, he had to rely on his NCOs, especially when they deployed as skirmishers, for he could not be everywhere. At the moment he did not lead a company, but three hostile tribes.
‘You could split them up,’ suggested Pringle, when Williams asked his advice later that evening. ‘Mix ’em all together and so they cannot simply stay with their own.’
‘No. I thought of that, but cannot help thinking that the bond of the regiment is the strongest we have. They will fight better beside their comrades.’
‘Do you want me to send you Dobson? I have raised him to lance sergeant.’
‘Is he happy about doing a sergeant’s job for a corporal’s pay?’ asked Williams with a smile.
‘He did mention it. Then he said since no one was getting paid he supposed he would just have to get on with it. I suspect he was pleased – if only because the new Mrs Dobson is delighted.’
‘Again, thank you, but no. I suspect it would be a mistake to bring in anyone else from outside the company. Apart from which both of my sergeants would be senior.’
‘I am not sure mere seniority would prevent old Dob from making an impression on those around him,’ said Pringle wryly.
‘’Probably,’ and for a moment Williams was tempted to accept the offer. ‘No, it must be resolved within the company.’
‘Well, at least take some of Dobson’s advice. He has told this to me and I dare say to you as well, but there is no harm in saying it again. If you don’t know what you are doing then act as if you do. Play the part, and never for a moment even hint that you could imagine anyone not following you and jumping to every order.
‘Keep them busy, too.’
‘Oh, I shall most surely do that. There will be extra drill for the Light Company until we make a better show of forming, advancing and withdrawing to command. If they are discontented now, then wait until I have really worked them. After all, they do not need to like me.’
‘Spoken like a true tyrant,’ Pringle laughed.
When they trained he tried not to yell too much. Taking over from the sergeants and doing their job for them would not help. There was a slow improvement, and when Williams got permission from the colonel to expend cartridges in some live firing there was even a little excitement. He had them firing at paper targets at one hundred paces and let them shoot in competition as three groups. The Highlanders loaded more quickly, and to everyone’s surprise the convalescents scored the most bulls in the first round. They took a break to replace the targets and it was clear that Rudden had harangued his men for they took the second session far more seriously. So did the other two groups, and the light infantrymen from the 43rd only narrowly scraped a victory in marksmanship.
Pritchard Jones was inspired to order a battalion sports day as a break from the normal routine. It added to the rivalries among the different contingents and introduced a new level of company competitiveness. Williams was pleased that his light bobs won more than their fair share of events. The culmination was a tug of war. They won the first two contests easily, and as a novelty it was decided that officers would take part in this, adding another stake to the rivalry. The struggle with the Grenadier Company was long and arduous, but ended when Pringle slipped and brought down Murphy, Dobson and several of the other key men. In the final, Williams’ men were soundly trounced by the disciplined skill of the Germans from the 60th.
The colonel bought barrels of wine at his own expense and the weary men ended the day in a cheerful mood. The men of the Light Company even took their drink off to sit together. The three groups remained distinct and did not mix to any extent, but at least there was a desire to set themselves aside from the rest of the battalion.
Williams kept driving them in the days that followed. There was more progress, but now he wished that the army would move. The prospect of action ought to give the men a stronger sense of the purpose of it all.
Hanley trotted past the Light Company as it trained, and saw Williams blowing a whistle so that half of the company jogged forward in pairs. MacAndrews had put them through the same drills in England almost a year ago. The realisation that he had been a soldier for a year surprised Hanley. It was getting harder and harder to imagine himself part of the world outside.
Williams spotted him and nodded, but then quickly returned to the practice. Hanley could not tarry to watch and nudged the horse with his heels to keep the tired animal in trot. Behind him the corporal and his escort kept pace, knowing that they would soon be dismissed and back in the comforting world of the squadron.
Colonel Murray was waiting for him at headquarters.
‘Victor is retreating,’ said Hanley after he had drained two glasses of iced water. A servant brought him a brandy and he was sufficiently restored after the long ride to take pleasure in sipping it slowly. ‘He was desperately short of supplies and has petitioned King Joseph for weeks for permission to leave Merida.’ He handed Murray a copy of a letter from the marshal.
The colonel scanned the pages, and smiled as he read aloud. ‘“The troops are on half rations of bread. They can get little meat – often none at all. The results of starvation are making themselves felt in the most deplorable way. The men are going into hospital at the rate of several hundred a day.” Yes, well, we have some idea of what that is like. “The whole population of this region has retired within Cuesta’s lines, after destroying the ovens and mills, and removing every scrap of food. It seems the enemy is resolved to starve us out, and to leave a desert in front of us if we advance.” Laying it on a bit thickly, isn’t he? I doubt the land is as empty as he claims.’
‘There were certainly plenty of folk left in the city and some of the villages when I was there,’ said Hanley.
‘Well, many cannot risk leaving all that they have. Oh, this bit is good. “Carefully estimating all my stores I find that I have barely enough to last for five days in hand. We are menaced with absolute famine, which we can only avoid by moving off, and there is no suitable cantonment to be found in the whole space between the Tagus and Guadiana: the entire country is ruined.” Hmm, well, perhaps they should not have robbed the country blind in the first place.
‘That confirms what Baynes tells me. He has returned to Cuesta’s army for the moment. Does your fellow Espinosa have any word on where Victor is going?’
‘Back north of the Tagus. The corps is to concentrate and hold the bridges from Almaraz to Talavera de la Reina. They are probably there by now. The bridge at Alcantara is destroyed.’
‘Yes, Wilson’s fellows blew it up.’
‘Well, Victor says that without it he cannot advance against Portugal. They wanted him to help Soult, and have only lately learned of his defeat. So he has put the river between himself and Cuesta. They do not seem to know about Sir Arthur’s army and believe that only a small Portuguese force is here at Abrantes.’
‘Good to know they are even more blind than we are.’ Murray beamed happily. ‘Well done, Hanley, this is splendid stuff. It fits with everything we know and fills in quite a few gaps. Yes, Mr Espinosa is earning his pay – at least at the moment. Did the fellow turn up in person?’
‘He sent a servant. The man seemed to know the country. The guerrillas tell me he used to be a smuggler.’
‘Espinosa writes to say that he will send a new message on the ides of each month and use Caesar’s cipher.’
‘Gone all classical on us, has he?’
‘Probably for my benefit,’ said Hanley.
‘Is he being clever or witty, do you think?’
‘He probably feels both.’
Murray nodded. ‘Good, let him keep thinking that way.’ He looked Hanley up and down. There was dust on his boots and clothes, and smudges from where he had wiped the dirt from his face with a wet towel. ‘You must be greatly fatigued. Let me have your observations on the roads and then go and take some rest. But well done, man, well done indeed.’
The training for the day over and his duties complete until he did his evening rounds of the men’s billets, Williams sat in the shade of an orchard wall and read the letter again. It was hard now to share his sister’s excitement in the early pages.
Oh joy, dearest brother, our heart’s desire has come true! Mrs Waters did decide to take the waters!!! and asked us to accompany her. Mama would not let Charlotte go this year, saying that she was still too young and needed about the house, but said that Kitty and I should go and that it would be good for us. So we waved our poor sister goodbye and she wished us joy . . .
Williams suspected this was through gritted teeth.
. . . and have been in rooms in Bath for ten days now. Kitty was all for calling on Mrs MacAndrews at once, but I felt it incumbent on us to spend our first days attending on Mrs Waters since only her generous invitation had allowed us to come at all. Bath is a far more handsome town than Bristol, although most hilly and Mrs Waters soon became tired on each of our walks and would stop and sit for a long while . . .
Williams skimmed through the lines.
. . . On the fourth day we went to the Assembly rooms, but I cannot speak with warmth of the lack of kindness we encountered there for no one came to speak to us. Mrs Waters lacks acquaintances. But then Miss MacAndrews appeared from nowhere – a picture of beauty, elegance and friendship. She expressed her great delight in our coming to Bath and chided us sweetly for not yet calling upon herself and her mother.
The sinister hint came late.
. . . Also in Bath was a party including Colonel FitzWilliam and so through Mrs MacAndrews two of your little sisters have now been presented to the head of your regiment! Oh think of that!! He is not as tall as you, dearest brother, and though I speak as a sister I would not say so handsomely furnished by nature. Yet he is the most gentlemanly person I have ever met, not at all afflicted with pride or disdain and open in his friendship without ever demeaning his position in life.
And he danced with us!! On the next evening he came and asked both Kitty and I for the ‘honour’ – not once, but twice!! He is a most accomplished dancer and attentive as a partner, with an elegant poise and leg. He danced with Miss MacAndrews more often – and they stood out in every set as by far the most elegant of couples. She was in a deep blue gown . . .
Much as he was fond of picturing Jane MacAndrews, Williams skipped the extensive description of her costume, followed by comparisons with those of his sisters and apparently each one of the other one hundred and fifty or so ladies present.
Kitty is sure that they are in love and that they make the most perfect pair that anyone could imagine, but Kitty is young [a full fifteen months separated the sisters] and inclined to fancy. Yet I believe she is correct to see a considerable partiality on the part of the colonel beyond simple good manners. Who could not fall in love with so fine a lady as your major’s daughter . . .
Who indeed, thought Williams bitterly, and how could he compete with a colonel, an aristocrat and a man by all accounts generally held in high esteem. His elevation to lieutenant seemed hollow and perhaps his failure to inspire the company was deserved. Miss MacAndrews was beautiful, kind and courageous – he had seen her fortitude and inventiveness in the winter’s retreat. She was admirable in every way. If he were honest then she surely deserved better than he was able to offer.
He wished some word would come from her. They had no promise, and the girl admitted nothing beyond friendship. He just wished she would write to him, even as a friend. For the hundredth time he wondered about sending a letter to her. Over and over again he had composed it in his mind, trying the phrases, testing them and refining each word in desperate quest for perfection.
He could not. He had proposed and she had turned him down. The warmth with which she waved to him from the passing ship still thrilled him with the hope of a change of heart, but perhaps that was merely a presumptuous dream. The letter remained unwritten.
Williams shook the thoughts away. It was time to visit the company, to see their rigid faces. He still did not know these men, however much he tried. In the winter he had led a band of stragglers, but then there had been no time to learn even the names of some, and yet they had responded to fight like tigers.
The men of the Light Company – the Highlanders, the 43rd and the mixture of men from the hospitals all alike – struck him as good soldiers. It could be a most excellent command. Williams wondered gloomily whether he was good enough to lead them.
He passed a cheerful Pringle, out visiting the billets of his grenadiers.
‘Rumour has it we will soon be off,’ said Billy. ‘Take a stab at Marshal Victor.’
‘Good,’ said Williams, and glumly wondered whether a battle might solve all his worries.
Hatch paused and absent-mindedly licked the tip of his pencil. The lead tasted sour, making him grimace, and he reached for the wine and took a sip straight out of the bottle. His funds were low, and when faced with the choice of buying ink or wine the decision had been easy. A moth flirted with the candle flame, casting weird flickering shadows against the canvas of his borrowed tent, but the ensign ignored it and stared fixedly at the paper before him. He skimmed over the first few pages of pleasantries and small news and decided that they were engaging enough, imagining Mrs Davenport’s demure chuckles and Lydia Wickham’s brazen giggles.
The last page was the one that mattered and he studied it closely. The tone must be light, that of a well-meaning friend, amused and generously tolerant of the failings of others.
Our Mr W continues to provide amusement throughout the battalion and army for his misadventures. Elevated in rank, and now in responsibility since the illness of an experienced officer leaves him at the head of a company – the Light Company, no less! As you know, our ‘light bobs’ as we call them are chosen from slight, agile men with quick wits. Poor W is a slow giant among them, puffing as he runs to keep up, bellowing out orders five minutes after the men have obeyed them. ‘They must learn,’ says he, by which we all know that he must discover for himself what his men already know, and so the weary fellows of the Light Company must run about in the evening sun or under the light of the moon, training an officer who most earnestly believes he is training them! They indulge him generously, for they know the lieutenant means well and is doing his poor best.
‘A company must be ordered,’ W declares, his brow furrowed in the sober cares of high command, for even Sir Arthur appears less sensible of his heavy responsibility. The Light Company are regulated in every aspect, and even the soldiers’ wives ordered to starch their petticoats just so, and lay their infants down to rest at seven o’clock precisely. W is always inspecting the company lines and passing the time of day talking to their women. No doubt he is pleased to find them fascinated by his conversation – especially following his previous disappointments with the fair ones (although this term scarcely extends to the followers!). He is quite the success, and these sweet damsels smoke their pipes and listen to his stories of his bravery. If this continues I dare say some husbands will be jealous of their new rival!
Hatch was tempted to add more, and kept his pencil poised over the page for a while before laying it down. The moth, its wings irreparably burned, tumbled on the table beside him.
No, that was enough. He would wait and write more strongly in the next letter – for he was determined that there would be more letters. Let Williams be a poltroon for the moment, paving the way to blackguarding him thoroughly in the future. Mockery would readily turn to disdain and contempt. Hatch feared to fight the man, but he would kill his character and reputation stone dead.
Flicking the dying insect aside, Ensign Hatch folded the pages and slipped them into an envelope. He used the candle’s heat to melt his stick of wax and sealed the letter. Pritchard Jones had arranged for all officers’ correspondence to be carried in a single packet that would leave the next morning.
Satisfied with a task well begun, Hatch smiled to himself and reached again for the bottle.