Talavera was bustling that evening, Spanish soldiers in white, brown, blue, green and yellow uniforms mingling with the redcoats. Then there were the followers of both armies, women and children of all shapes and sizes looking for food or anything useful or unguarded. Many of the townsfolk who had fled the French occupation had returned. They and the ones who had lived through the days when Marshal Victor’s regiments marched through the streets now looked with almost equal suspicion at the throngs of newcomers. There were soldiers and their women from distant kingdoms of Spain, with strange accents and odd manners.
Then there were the English, and they were heretics and came from a distant island of rain and cold, and what man could understand their speech or their heathen ways. Many looked like thieves, and the stallkeepers in the market kept a close watch on their wares whenever the odd men in their patched red jackets or their grubby women sidled up.
Hanley was dressed in the dark suit of civilian clothes provided by Espinosa. He turned the corner into an alley and then stopped because a Highlander and his family were coming the other way. The man was tall and lanky, his knees bronzed and bony beneath his dark kilt. His jacket had green facings and was faded to look more purple than red, and patched with brown cloth on the sleeves. He had long since lost or sold the feathers from his bonnet and now wore it as a plain blue cap. His wife had a hard face, lined with care, worry and days and nights spent out in all weather. Her drab brown skirt was tattered and stained, her hair greying and dirty where it peeked out from underneath her frayed straw hat. Husband and wife alike showed teeth stained brown as their lips parted in what was perhaps intended to be a polite smile, but came across as a grimace. A small boy scampered beside his mother, and his single tooth was at least a wholesome colour as he stared open mouthed at all around him. A girl a few years older walked with the pride of a queen beside them and a third child was strapped to the mother’s back.
‘Mary, mother of God,’ whispered a well-dressed man beside him. When the Scots had passed he turned to Hanley and crossed himself. ‘They say these men are forced to wear such clothes because they are criminals. Pray God they leave soon, with all the other intruders.’ Hanley was not sure whether the man meant the French or Spain’s own soldiers. He had heard the story about Highland dress before. Billy Pringle reckoned that it was first spread by one of the Scottish regiments who did not wear kilts.
Hanley pushed on. There were fewer people in the alley, but it was still busy. He was reassured that the man had taken him for a Spaniard, and then he saw a group of British officers coming towards him and worried that they might be men he knew and greet him openly.
It was a relief to see that they were strangers, and one of them – a man who was elderly for an ensign and had a sour expression – glared at him in the disdainful way that showed the man saw him as a foreigner, a civilian and no doubt a fool.
‘The buggers wouldn’t fight on a Sunday,’ said one of his companions, a lieutenant with a pronounced stoop and arms which swung in an ungainly way as he walked.
‘Cowardly devils!’ said the ensign. ‘Want others to die to save their precious country.’ He almost spat the words in Hanley’s direction.
Plenty of rumours were spreading throughout the army since the cancellation of the morning’s attack. Hanley had already heard the one about Cuesta refusing to fight on the Sabbath. Baynes had told him it was false. ‘He gave plenty of excuses, but that was not one of them.’
The Spanish general would not attack. Every request, every reminder of their agreement by Sir Arthur, every plea, met the same stubborn response. The Army of Estremadura would not attack today and probably not tomorrow either.
‘He’s a damned old fool,’ Murray said angrily. ‘A craven relic of a man not fit to command a corporal’s guard.’
‘The Spanish say that the enemy position is formidable,’ Baynes responded, without any conviction.
‘Was it any stronger yesterday when he agreed to the plan?’
‘Then perhaps he knows something – or believes he knows something we do not.’ The merchant had then looked at Hanley. ‘See what your man has to say.’
‘If the messenger turns up.’ Espinosa’s note had said that he would try to reach him with more intelligence at the same time in the yard of an old tannery on one of three nights. No one had appeared on the first two although Hanley had waited for more than two hours after the set time.
‘Well, we can but try.’ Murray smiled. ‘Or rather you can but try. Different factions are busy accusing each other of treachery. We need to know as much as we can learn.’
It was dark by the time Hanley walked through the gateway into the courtyard. It had been years since the tannery had last been in proper use and only the faintest of odours lingered. It was a quiet part of the town, the alleys less busy, and the only houses near by were small and occupied by those who could not find or afford better. Most seemed to be empty and there was no light from any window.
The smell of horses, leather and dung was fresher inside the courtyard. Just a few days before it had served as billets to a French battery and all its horses and mules. They had chopped up the few remaining doors and shutters to burn.
‘Mapi,’ hissed a voice from the shadows.
Hanley started in surprise. He was early, and after two days with no sign of a messenger he really had not expected anyone to appear.
‘Follow me.’ The voice was familiar, and so was something about the way the dark shape moved towards the door of the main building.
Hanley was nervous and did not really know why. He followed the man into the hall and off to a small side room which reeked of rotting meat. His boots crunched softly on something. The man lit a lamp on the table and as the light flared hordes of beetles and other vermin scuttled across the floor. There were bones in the corners of the room, and a dish with water.
‘I suspect the officers kept dogs.’ It was Espinosa himself, dressed all in black and with a hooded cloak which gave him a theatrical air. ‘How are you?’
‘Impressed by your luxurious residence.’
‘You cannot be paying me enough.’ Espinosa’s smile was faint and nervous.
‘You have papers?’
‘Nothing written. That is why I came myself. Victor knows you are here and that he is outnumbered. He began to withdraw several hours ago.’
‘He would be a fool not to, and blind if he had not realised that British as well as Spanish faced him.’
‘That is true, but he was also told early this morning. A dawn attack would still have caught him, even though surprise had gone, but as the hours passed he had his chance and so slipped away.’
‘Who told him?’ asked Hanley.
‘I do not know.’
‘You are surely capable of working out that it would not have been in my interest to do so.’
Hanley let that pass. ‘So what else do you have to tell me? We could have guessed all of this.’
‘You have the money?’
‘What else do you have for me?’ said the Englishman, ignoring the question.
‘I have the money,’ said Hanley.
‘Good. Commerce is so much better than mere trust. Venegas has moved.’
‘As he was supposed to.’
‘Perhaps, but I doubt he was supposed to stop. He is a long way away and no threat to Joseph or his capital. They know you are here and Victor is moving back towards them. The French may soon be able to match your numbers.’
That was bad news. The plan rested on keeping the French armies apart and beating them separately. Espinosa waited for some reaction. ‘You know, you have become more English, my friend.
‘Venegas may be about to move again,’ he said after a long pause.
‘How do you know?’ asked Hanley. It seemed that the Spaniard was aware of far more than the plans of King Joseph and the French commanders.
‘I listen, and people bring me or sell me things, so that I know the Junta in Seville has promised Venegas supreme command if he is the first one to reach Madrid. Cuesta will learn of this by tomorrow if he does not already know. You cannot expect him to care very much for the idea. So no doubt there will soon be two Spanish generals changing from lambs into lions.’
‘What of the French?’
‘Ah yes, it is so easy to forget them with so many different sides in this war. Joseph cannot flee Madrid for a second time, and so when he hears from Marshal Victor he will want to fight, but he must not lose. So he will want all the force he can find. I made one mistake in my earlier reports.’
Hanley smiled. ‘An error? You do surprise me.’
‘Errare est humanum after all, even for me. Sebastiani’s corps is twice as big as I thought.’ He started patting his pockets. ‘No, cannot find it. I did have a list. Perhaps twenty thousand men is a better estimate.’
That was important, and shifted the balance between the armies in favour of the French. ‘Then perhaps General Venegas was wise not to press him too hard,’ said Hanley.
‘Well, he is a hero of the war so he must also be wise, I am sure. A true hero with a pure heart and a wooden head.
‘There is more news. Soult is in charge of all the armies in the north.’
‘You have told us that already.’
‘Yes, I have, but then he was ordered to attack Portugal once more. That has changed. When he is ready he is to drive south. Napoleon writes from all the way there in Austria to tell his generals that the most important thing is to destroy the British Army.’
‘Then when will he be ready?’
‘That I do not know.’ Espinosa shrugged when he saw the Englishman’s expression. ‘Yes, I confess there are many things I do not know. He writes to Joseph asking for artillery and the horses to pull the guns. Silly fellow. Perhaps the King should write back and say that he ought to have looked after his own better in the first place.’
That suggested it would not be soon. Perhaps they had weeks before the odds would begin to shift more heavily against them.
‘I think you have time,’ said Espinosa, apparently reading Hanley’s thoughts. ‘Some time anyway. All of Spain is there to be won – or lost.’
‘I do my small part.’
‘That you do,’ said Hanley thoughtfully. He reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a purse. ‘Thank you. This is well worth your price.’
‘My dear Hanley, it is worth ten times that much.’ Espinosa smiled, spreading his hands wide, before taking the money. ‘But I am not a greedy man and I love my country.’
‘It is as we agreed.’
‘Oh, I trust the English,’ said Espinosa, slipping the bag into his own pocket without looking inside. ‘However, in a spirit of trust I must now ask you to wait for ten minutes before you leave.’
‘Afraid I’ll see what you’re up to?’
‘Let us just say that I prefer to keep my dealings private. Now, I will take your hand, and bid you good night. We shall not use this place again, nor can I say whether I will come in person. In three nights go to the Church of the Holy Trinity and tell the priest that you want to light a candle and pray to St Mary of the Pillar. He will pass more information or tell you how it will come.’
‘Are you going to see Wilson?’ said Hanley abruptly as the other man was in the doorway.
‘The good Sir Robert? Why not, he is on your side.’ Espinosa pulled the hood back over his head. ‘Ten minutes, Guillermo, before you leave.’
Hanley took out his fob watch and tried to remember the game where he had won it from a captain in the light dragoons. There was no particular reason not to wait. Espinosa was no doubt dealing with others, and surely Spaniards as well as the British. None of that made his information of less value. It was barely nine, so he would not have to feel guilty about waking Colonel Murray as the man was bound to be still hard at work.
When the time passed he blew out the lamp and left, glad to leave behind the stench and the crawling things. There was a torch burning in a wall bracket out in the courtyard and that surprised him because it had not been there before. Hanley could still see the faint yellow glow of the snuffed-out lamp as he came through the black darkness of the hallway and now the torch seemed almost painfully bright.
Something was wrong. A shape moved under the arch of the gateway and he flung himself to the side as a flint sparked, powder flared and then the main charge of the musket split the night apart. Something seared his right side and Hanley fell with a grunt of pain, banging his elbow hard against the flagstones. He lay still.
The man approached cautiously, stopping after each step. He slung his musket and drew a long, slim-bladed knife. Through half-closed eyes Hanley could see that he was dark haired and had a moustache and was probably Spanish.
Hanley watched, still stunned and hurting and not knowing what to do. He had a pistol in his belt, but if he moved the assassin would surely be on him in a moment.
Boots pounded down the alley outside and there were shouts – thankfully English shouts.
‘Down here, sir, down here!’
The man ran past Hanley and into the building as a corporal and two men in greatcoats appeared under the arch.
There were explanations and delay before Hanley convinced the ensign and his patrol to look for the assassin.
‘We’re out to try to stop any theft by our fellows,’ explained the young officer. His men found nothing in the house and Hanley was not surprised. He refused their offer to take him to the surgeon.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said, ‘just a graze.’ He hoped he was right. His side throbbed and he should probably get it bound up, but he wanted to explore behind the tannery just in case there was any indication of where the man had gone.
‘Thank you again,’ Hanley said as he waved goodbye and then tried to find his way through the alleyways until he was in the right spot. He did not want to go through the house just in case the would-be assassin was watching and waiting for him. Hanley found the back door as he expected – or at least a doorway since the door itself had probably been another victim of French cooking fires.
There were no footprints or obvious trail and he was not really sure what he sought. Most of the lanes were empty, the shadows very dark, and Hanley began to wonder whether he was being wise. He followed a lane which seemed to be heading towards the more prosperous parts of town and came to the high wall of a garden. It was obviously big and belonged to a grand house and when he came to the main road, which was well lit, he could see a grand entrance with a crest carved into the stone archway.
Hanley smiled to himself and walked past before doubling back to crouch in a lane opening opposite the main entrance. This must be the house of the Conde de Madrigal de las Altas Torres. He wondered whether La Doña Margarita was in residence, and his suspicions were confirmed when five minutes later he saw Major George Wickham swagger out into the road. Pringle and Williams had told him of the lady’s deception and the officer’s association with her.
Others passed along the street, but for a long time no one else went in or out of the house. Hanley felt a stab of pain from his side every time he shifted slightly. His elbow was sore from where it had hit the ground and he knew that he ought to take his information to Murray and Baynes. Still he waited. Then Velarde walked down the road and into the house, nodding amicably to a doorman who presumably sat unseen behind the gateway.
It was becoming so much easier for Ensign Hatch and all that Wickham had said delighted his heart. These days Hatch found himself often thinking of things to write in his next letter, playing with phrases and ideas as he went about his duties. Tonight he was in Talavera in charge of a party sent to guard the artillery park, but his sergeant had proved more than capable of regulating the sentries, and Hatch had just heard a story so wonderful that he felt the words instantly forming in his mind. An old acquaintance from the wagon train was generously obliging, giving him pen, ink and paper, and the peace of the room in use by day as their office to write in. Best of all was the rich port his host provided, for good liquor certainly aided composition. No wonder so many poets were sots!
Hatch laughed out loud at the thought, but then forced himself to concentrate now that he had reached the heart of the letter.
At Talavera we found that the famous Spanish lady of our acquaintance is in residence. Mr W grew instantly excited, forgetting his amours of the past months, and once again began his ardent pursuit of the dark eyed – and wealthy! – Dulcinea. Soon he was seen, haunting the street outside her grand house, mixing with the pedlars and wastrels of the town, in the hope of a glimpse of the lady or better yet some words with her. He waited outside, because he was not permitted within – the servants forbidding him whenever he requested an audience and the lady ignoring his pleas when she drove past in her coach. Poor simple fellow, W is unable to understand just how unwelcome his attentions are, and is convinced that the servants, and not the mistress, are to blame! He cannot see that so fine a lady – and she a widow and soon to be a mother – would at no time even glance in the direction of so uncouth a suitor, or indeed any foreign officer save of the most exalted rank.
Actually, Hatch had happened to pass the house and seen Major Wickham being ushered in by the doorman, but there was no reason to concern his readers with such details. Nor need the knowledge that Williams had been nowhere near the place even for a moment spoil a good story.
No doubt due to his frustrated passion, Mr W’s manner has grown rougher and it is the unfortunate soldiers of the Light Company who suffer as a result. He bawls and shouts at them in a savage manner and still they train for hours on end as the poor fellow struggles to understand his duties and vents his spleen.
He has also become more distant in his relations [that was a good and suggestive word] with the soldiers’ wives and no longer spends as much time regaling them with tales of his exploits. Opinion is uncertain as to whether he now spurns such companions in the hope of better, or if those stalwart souls grew weary of his boasting. Whatever the cause, his anger now extends to these women as much as their husbands. Marauding is a serious problem in the army, and often the female followers are the worst culprits. Each day new orders come for ceaseless vigilance to prevent them riding on their donkeys ahead of the column and buying or stealing provisions intended for the commissaries, or simply abusing the inhabitants. In another division of the army, some wives were arrested and trussed up to the halberds in the public square to be flogged on their lower back. W is much taken by the story, and openly dares the wives of the Light Company to misbehave in like manner, boasting that he will ‘take his cane and himself give them six and thirty strokes on the bare —— if they be caught in the act’.
Hatch wondered whether the unwritten, but suggested, word was too much. Mrs Davenport would blush, he had no doubt, but he judged that she would read on none the less. Mrs Wickham would pretend to be as shocked and all the while laugh uncontrollably. In fact, Hatch had heard the dour Caledonian sergeant in the Light Company give this stern warning to the followers, and the man – he neither knew nor cared to know the fellow’s name – had said ‘bare doup’, which presumably was some Scotch vulgarism. A dash was better, allowing the reader to be as chaste or coarse as their imagination permitted.
W is a simple fellow, and perhaps little is to be expected from one of his background, but there was a gleam in his eye when he spoke which hinted at dark instincts, mingling rage with disappointed passion. An unkind observer might wonder if he longed for the chance to commit such brutality, and whether or not he had his eye on one or two comely victims, but I think that this is mere gossip.
And so to less amusing themes. May I pass on the best wishes of . . .
He closed with a few lines of pleasantries, and then leaned back in his chair well satisfied. The words had simply flowed, and he had finished this longer letter far more quickly than its predecessors. Hatch drank happily and wondered whether his fiction of an ardent, brutish Williams would actually excite passion in the bosom of Lydia Wickham. The girl was an outrageous flirt, and he suspected would prove willing for more in the right circumstances. A comical image of her pursuing the confused Williams took shape and delighted him, one scene following another. Wickham calling the lieutenant out – perhaps drilling him through the heart with a ball, for the major was reputed to be a fine shot – and even if he survived ruining his career.
His friend reappeared, a fresh bottle in each hand.
‘Have you finished?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ Hatch sealed the letter. ‘Although I am pondering whether I have it in me to write a romance,’ he said more than half seriously.
The officer grinned, revealing small and misshapen teeth. ‘An admirable ambition, I am sure, and there was I planning to idle my time away in drinking.’
‘An even better enterprise, and you inspire me to join you!’
His wound cleaned and bandaged, Hanley went through his story once again.
‘Espinosa?’ asked Murray.
‘It seems unlikely and I cannot see what he would gain from killing me.’
‘If he meant to do so,’ said Baynes.
Hanley touched his side ruefully. ‘The man appeared to be serious.’
‘Yes, but not competent. If the man was any good you would not be here now. You admit that you were surprised?’ There was little trace of the jovial merchant as Baynes spoke with cold reason.
‘Yes, I suspected nothing until I came out into the courtyard.’
‘Then either he was no good or he was not really trying. It would make us more inclined to believe his story.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Hanley, ‘but is the story not plausible enough?’
‘Oh, aye, it all adds up,’ conceded Murray, ‘although God alone knows how he found out about it. Spying on Joseph’s court is one thing. Knowing what the Junta or Venegas are up to is another. Makes you wonder how much he knows about us – and who he’s telling. For the laddie spoke no less than the truth when he said this is all worth more than we are paying.’
‘He also spoke of a traitor in the Spanish camp warning the French of our attack,’ said Hanley.
Baynes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘He did, and there may be one, or indeed several.’
‘Cuesta may just be an old fool and no general,’ said Murray.
‘And he fears rivals – Alburquerque, Venegas and half a dozen others generals, let alone our own Sir Arthur. Any one of them could take his command and he is convinced that he is the only man able to save Spain.’ Baynes shrugged. ‘It could be jealousy, or simple malice.’
‘Or it could be his bad instincts as a general. There need be no great mystery in any of it,’ said Murray pragmatically, ‘least of all in Victor realising he is facing long odds. He’s a sly old fox.’ It was now clear that the French corps had retreated.
‘Do you trust Velarde, or La Doña Margarita?’ asked Hanley.
‘Trust is a very grand word,’ said Baynes with a smile.
‘She has lied about her condition. Presumably without the prospect of an heir her importance to the old count is greatly diminished.’
Baynes nodded his head. ‘Yes, although I am told the old man was fond of her as a child. She and her husband were distant cousins. It may simply be that she wishes to keep his favour, although surely such a deception would be unmasked in due course, unless . . .’
Hanley thought of Wickham. ‘Would the late appearance of a child not cause comment?’
‘No doubt, no doubt.’ Murray tried to bring them back to the matter in hand. ‘She has been a useful courier, let us leave it at that since we know no more at present. Velarde is considered loyal by at least some senior Spanish officers. They may be in league, they may be lovers, or they may be loyal patriots working to free their country.’
‘They may indeed be all of those things and more,’ added Baynes.
Murray frowned. ‘The news of Soult is worrying, since it may in time pose a grave danger. Time is the key. From what I saw of the state of his army during the retreat from Oporto I cannot credit him ready to take the field for another fortnight at the veryearliest. Now I cannot but regret the obstinacy of General Cuesta in not placing stronger garrisons to hold the passes.’ If Soult were to move against them rather than attacking Portugal, then the most direct route ran through the passes in the mountains to the north.
‘We can do no more now,’ said Murray decisively. ‘Temper trust with secret suspicion. There is a big lie somewhere, I am sure of it, a great deception. Pray God we do not discover it when it is too late.’
‘Amen to that,’ said Baynes, and then laughed when Hanley crossed himself. ‘You are getting used to playing the Spaniard!’