Chapter 23

This time it was the Spanish who ran. A whole brigade of some two thousand men lined an earthwork built to extend the stone-walled gardens outside Talavera. Then they saw some French cavalrymen more than half a mile away. There were little puffs of white smoke as the dragoons popped away with their pistols.

‘Firing at the snakes?’ wondered Hanley aloud.

‘Or testing the Dons’ discipline?’ suggested Murray.

It was an absurd, impossible range for a musket, and yet one Spanish infantryman raised his firelock to his shoulders, took no sort of aim and fired. The dull boom shattered the evening’s peace and then another man fired and another. Two thousand men pulled their triggers in a drumming thunder of noise, flames and smoke. Half the men had been with the army for only a few short weeks. None had ever heard so loud and so terrible a noise. More regiments farther down the line poured a volley at the horizon as the firing rolled along over the mile or so held by Cuesta’s army.

‘If they will fire so well tomorrow, the day is ours,’ said Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Spanish general beside him. His face was amused, his beak-like nose casting a long shadow across his face in the light of the early evening sun. ‘But as there is nobody to fire at just now, I wish you would stop it.’

‘Well, that has revealed the position,’ said Murray drily.

‘Treason!’ shouted a voice. Hanley could not see who called out. Just like the contagious first shot, others swiftly joined in until it became a great chant. ‘Treason!’, ‘Treason!’

Two thousand men dropped their muskets and fled from the noise of their own shooting and from an enemy too far away even to know what was happening. They pushed at each other to force their way through the press, tearing off their packs and throwing down anything that would slow them. Their faces looked blank and unnaturally pale, eyes staring at nothing, and arms pumping as they ran.

Sir Arthur shook his head slightly, as if disappointed at the behaviour of a hound. ‘Only look at the ugly hole those fellows have left.’ He smiled at the Spanish general and spoke as if asking for the most minor of favours. ‘I wish you would go to the second line and try to fill it up.’

Orders were shouted, and staff officers set off at speed to see them carried out.

‘It took a lot of work to make Cuesta stay and fight,’ said Baynes quietly to Hanley. ‘We had thought them safe behind walls and earth banks.’ The Spanish Army was bigger than the British, but Sir Arthur had arranged with his ally for them to hold little more than a mile of frontage. ‘At least that will permit them to have one or even two lines of reserves. Your Mr Williams should approve!’ Hanley looked baffled. ‘My apologies, I recall a conversation with your friend a long time ago and on a different field.’

‘Then let us hope things go better this time.’

‘Well, they could not go much worse. I just saw the fellow, by the way.’ Hanley looked puzzled. ‘Your earnest Mr Williams,’ explained Baynes. ‘He is helping to build a redoubt, or whatever you military gentlemen call it, near the end of Wellesley’s line.’ The British would hold the rest of the frontage, more than twice as long and with few natural advantages, and that would be the place the French would attack if they had any sense. Even the rawest of Cuesta’s regiments could prove formidable behind walls. The British would mainly fight in the open.

‘We do not need to bother Colonel Murray, I think. He will have plenty to do helping Sir Arthur to organise his army. In fact I rather suspect Sir Arthur will end up organising Cuesta’s army as well. Can’t blame him after this farce.’

Hanley had told Baynes and Murray of the dead messenger, the lost message, and seeing Velarde.

‘He may be a traitor, but can you be sure it was not the French who killed the courier? Their soldiers were swarming all over that place.’

‘I mean to go to the church,’ said Hanley. ‘The priest may be able to tell me how to reach Espinosa or when the next messenger will come.’

‘Assuming Espinosa knows what has happened so soon.’

‘He seems to know a lot,’ said Hanley, ‘and know it quickly.’

Baynes said nothing for a moment. ‘Yes, so be it. It is not wise to go alone. Talavera will be a shambles with all these stragglers. It will no doubt get even worse when darkness falls. Even if there are no other perils it is better not to be alone.’ The merchant looked suddenly old and very weary, almost sinking down in his saddle.

‘Find out what is happening, William.’ It was the first time he had used Hanley’s Christian name. ‘We must survive and win this next day, and then we must survive the weeks to come. Everything is coming to a head. I sense it somehow.’ He smiled. ‘Forgive an old man his fancies, but we may lose the game in the hours to come – or win it, or perhaps just stay for the next trick.’

‘Where shall I find you?’

‘With Wellesley, and I suspect that for the next hours that will mean with the Spanish Army. I may be of some small use to him.’ Baynes looked the lieutenant in the eyes. ‘Good luck, Hanley. Good luck to all of us.’

Hanley rode to the redoubt and was disappointed by its diminutive size. The land rose so slightly that even with the piled earth its walls were barely at waist height.

‘Where is Billy?’ he asked Williams, after they had expressed mutual pleasure that the other was unscathed.

‘Back with the battalion. There are only two companies of us helping with the work here. They are behind the Guards Brigade, and were in the second line of our own brigade. Expect he is loafing somewhere while others toil!

‘Yes, typical lazy grenadiers!’

Hanley pressed on, and found Pringle with a fatigue party from the Grenadier Company gathering firewood. ‘Goodness knows what we are going to cook, but I suppose at least we won’t freeze.’

‘May I borrow Dobson?’ said Hanley.

Pringle frowned, pulled off his glasses and wiped them on his sash before putting them back on and replying. ‘Trouble?’

‘There may be.’

‘Is it official?’

‘Almost.’

‘Then I cannot order him, but suspect he will come along. Try not to get him killed. Mrs Dobson would never let me hear the end of it! Do you want anyone else?’

Hanley shook his head.

‘Well, bring him back before it is too late. He has a wife and the girl.’ Dobson’s younger daughter Sal was with the couple. His son was a drummer and with the rest of the 106th back in England, and who knew where Jenny Dobson was now. Hanley wondered for a moment whether she might be just a few miles away, waiting to service French officers in a tent or the bedroom of an inn. He could not help wishing he was one of them.

‘Give them a few hours together, just in case.’ Pringle’s tone was grim.

It was hard for Hanley to imagine anything ever touching the old veteran. Then he remembered how the man had drunkenly wept after his previous wife was killed in the retreat. Reason told him that no one was safe, even if his heart did not want to believe it. Williams has it easy, he thought, with his simple faith in God. Must be nice to be so confident.

‘They say we have two full French army corps up against us,’ said Pringle, interrupting his thoughts.

‘Yes, and some of Joseph’s own regiments.’

‘Then there are at least two of them to every one of us – probably more.’

‘Only if we do not take the Spanish into account. Sir Arthur believes they will fight from behind their defences.’

‘So why should the French attack them?’ Pringle took off his glasses to give them another polish. ‘Oh, I am sure the day will go well. Just wish there was more in my belly! I’ll send for Dobson.’

The lance sergeant arrived and readily agreed.

‘I’ll look after Mr Hanley, don’t you worry, sir,’ he told Pringle.

‘Thank you, Dobson.’ The Grenadier Captain smiled. ‘He may not look much, but I have grown fond of him.’

They walked into town. Hanley had no horse to offer Dobson and so he left his with Pringle. The baggage of the British Army showed all the signs of an orgy of looting. Packs lay with their contents strewn across the ground around them, and officers’ valises had their locks broken and contents stolen or tossed aside. Parties of redcoats and women went about trying to tidy up and find things precious to them. They passed a group of soldiers’ wives doing their best to comfort a sobbing, fair-haired girl whose dress was torn to rags and whose face was bruised.

Truscott nodded to Hanley as he passed. He and a half-company of the 106th were guarding one of the medieval gateways into the town. ‘Sorry to say some of our fellows joined in. Not the battalion, but men from other corps. Watch yourselves,’ he said when Hanley explained that they had business in the town.

Hanley took them through the side streets. Some were untouched. Others showed broken windows and signs of marauders, but they saw no riotous soldiers in any uniform. Then they turned on to one of the main roads for a short distance and saw a well-dressed British officer strolling away from them. It was Wickham. Hanley did not need to see his face to recognise the straight back, right hand pressed just so against his waist, while the left held the hilt of his sword to stop it trailing, and the languid stride which appeared careless, but was surely conscious. Wickham had style, there was no doubt about that, whatever his personal character.

William Hanley was a gambler by nature. He liked cards, and played well enough to win more hands than he lost, but the thought that he could lose made it all worthwhile. Now he changed his plan and took a chance.

‘Major Wickham!’ he called. The other man turned, and nodded in recognition. ‘May I have a word?’ Hanley was walking quickly to catch up.

‘Certainly, old boy, certainly, although make it quick as I am due to dine with the general. We are all to be fed before we go and join the division up on the big hill.’

‘This should not take long, and I believe it will be in your own interest.’ Hanley’s voice had a hard edge.

Wickham laughed. ‘You sound very solemn, my dear boy, very solemn indeed.’

‘It is a serious matter, I am afraid.’

Wickham’s eyes darted. He saw Dobson behind Hanley, but paid no attention to a common soldier, and instead wondered whether there was anyone who knew him near by. A few civilians walked briskly along, heads down and not wanting to look any soldier in the eye. ‘If it is about the fifty guineas,’ he said, recovering himself and once again with an easy smile, ‘you know that I am good for it. You will have the money as soon as our arrears in pay turn up.’

Hanley doubted that promise, and had almost forgotten the loan made more than a year ago. ‘That is not my concern. I wish to speak to you about a lady.’

‘Of course, yes,’ said Wickham lasciviously. ‘I believe there is a good house just off the main square.’

‘I mean La Doña Margarita.’ Hanley was trying to make his questions blunt, almost brutal, but doubted he was being convincing. He needed to frighten Wickham because the major could tell him something that might just help.

‘Bit late for you there, old boy, given her state.’

‘She is not with child, and she is your mistress.’

Wickham looked shocked for a moment, but only for a brief instant. ‘You should not listen to gossip, old boy.’

‘You are lovers. Shall I write to your wife and tell her?’

‘Scarcely the act of a gentleman, my dear fellow.’ Wickham looked him up and down. ‘Yes, we are intimate. What business is that of you or anyone else? I know you and your friends keep that flash whore in Lisbon. Why should you care?’

Hanley stared at him, but Wickham stared back. The man was probably no stranger to confrontations like this. ‘Because of who she is.’

‘Bit late to worry about her honour, old boy. That ship sank without trace long ago.’

‘I am concerned about your honour.’

‘You have spent too long with that old Methodist Williams. Who will care?’

‘They may care enough to end your career. They may care enough to put you on trial.’

‘You’re raving, old man.’

‘She is a spy for the enemy.’ Hanley did not know that, but finally Wickham looked surprised and worried. ‘What have you told her?’

‘Oh my God.’ Wickham spoke quickly, nervously. ‘That bitch, that trollop . . . Oh no, damn it, man, you cannot mean that my loyalty is suspected. Oh God, you can’t think that.’ He rallied a little. ‘I am an English gentleman.’

Hanley thought he heard Dobson mutter, ‘Well, that’s all right, then.’

‘Does she ask you about the army?’

‘We don’t talk a lot. Look, the whore lured me on, but I have taken pleasure with her and no more.’

‘Tell me about her body.’ Hanley snapped the words like a command.

‘What?’ Wickham was baffled. ‘What the hell do you want to know that for? She is a woman, for God’s sake, a damned woman with all the usual meat on offer.’

‘Her arms?’ Hanley thought of the story of the burning hospital and the heroine of Saragossa.

‘What about her damned arms? She has two of them just like any other dollymop. They’re smooth and they reach from her shoulders to her hands.’

‘Not scarred?’

Wickham looked baffled. Presumably he had not heard the story or simply did not care.

‘Of course they are not damned well scarred, although they will be if I get my hands on the trollop. I’ll flog the bitch until she is raw.’

‘You will not.’ Hanley could not help noticing that Wickham had not questioned being interrogated by a mere lieutenant. The sign of a guilty conscience, no doubt. ‘Major Wickham, you shall not see the lady again. Stay away from her and do not communicate with her in any way. Your reputation, and indeed your career, depends on this. So may the success of the army.’ Hanley felt he might as well lay it on thickly.

‘Of course, of course, you have my word on that. And I swear I told her nothing, nothing at all.’

Hanley let himself smile. ‘I am sure of it. None of this need go any farther. Enjoy your dinner.’

Wickham was white faced as he walked away and Hanley thought he was even shaking slightly. ‘I must be better at this than I thought,’ he said softly to himself.

He would see the lady later. For the moment, Hanley needed to find the priest at Holy Trinity and see if the man could tell him anything.

They were near the church before Dobson broke the silence.

‘Is the lady a French spy, sir?’ he asked, his voice matter-of-fact.

‘I do not honestly know,’ said Hanley. Dobson had good instincts and broad experience. ‘You know that she is a spy of sorts, carrying messages and money. Whether she is really on our side or works for the enemy is hard to say.’ He gave Dobson a quick summary of his suspicions.

‘I’ll not hurt a lass, sir. Not for you, not for anybody.’

‘It should not come to that.’

‘Just so you know, sir.’ The veteran thought for a moment. ‘That driver of hers, Ramón, is a good lad. Knows how to handle himself. May not be able to put him down unless it is permanent.’

‘Hopefully she is innocent and there will be no need to try to deal with him.’

The priest did have a message, and Hanley marvelled that Espinosa had reached him so quickly. Another courier was coming. At sunset he was to be waiting at a cattle pen just to the south of the highest crest of the big ridge, the Cerro de Medellín. The name sounded like a bad omen.

‘There is a carving in the wall of Saint John the Baptist. It is very old, my son,’ explained the father, who himself must have been seventy or more.

‘What time is sunset, Dob?’

‘About an hour, give or take,’ said the veteran, mildly surprised that the officer did not know this.

There was time. ‘We’ve got some walking to do.’

They went quickly, for Hanley saw that the sun was indeed low in the sky. For a while the two men followed the road, but soon this veered to their right towards the stream cutting across the plain, and so they went straight on, heading for the hill. By the time they were beginning to climb they saw a column of weary redcoats ahead of them. The men had blue facings and were covered in dust.

‘KGL,’ said Dobson.

There were two brigades of King’s German Legion infantry in Wellesley’s army. The officers and many of the men were King George’s Hanoverian subjects, who had chosen not to accept Bonaparte’s occupation of their country.

A staff officer rode back along the column and noticed Hanley. It was one of Colonel Murray’s men, and he waved and stopped for a moment. ‘Some damned fool sent them to the wrong place. The poor devils marched extra miles, began to set up camp, and then had to pack up and march again.’

‘Goddamned staff!’ said Hanley cheerfully.

‘Wastrels and tomfools the lot of them,’ said the officer, and set his horse off down the slope. ‘Best to you, Hanley!’

They kept on up the slopes. The Germans marched down into a dip and vanished for a while, but when Hanley and Dobson were higher they looked and could see the leading battalion halted, ready to be dismissed to their much-anticipated rest. There were troops moving elsewhere on the rolling hill, and others settling down or settled for the night. They passed through the camp of an Irish regiment, the men chattering to each other happily. Hanley avoided looking any of them in the eye, as he did not want to force them to notice an officer and so have to react and show him proper respect. The redcoats were equally keen not to have to stand to attention and salute and so interrupt their rest, and thus by mutual consent the lieutenant and the lance sergeant walked through the camp without disturbing anyone. Hanley was puzzled by the packs of a group still formed up and marching to mount guard.

‘Kerry Militia?’ he read from the badge painted on the pack. ‘What the blazes are the militia doing here?’ Britain’s second army of the militia regiments served full time with the colours, but were not required to serve overseas.

‘Volunteers,’ said Dobson. ‘There’s lots of them transferred into the real army. Good boys, most of them, once they toughen up. A lot haven’t been in long enough to be issued with packs by their new regiments. You see plenty of them wearing their old jackets as well.’

Hanley thought for a while and then stopped when they were through the camp and no one was near. He shaded his eyes for a moment and looked across beyond the valley and the stream where another, lower hill stood. Troops moved there as well, but these were French, and he saw them as dark masses or shadows in the grass. A few wisps of smoke and some much thicker clouds drifted in the light air from where the enemy guns had fired for a while at the British as they took up position. Beyond the smoke he saw a group of riders racing towards the top of the hill. No doubt they were enemy officers, perhaps even King Joseph himself.

‘Are we ready for the French, Dob?’

Hanley saw Dobson frown in the red light of the setting sun. They could still see it, but lower down the slope the sun must have gone and the shadows were thickening.

‘They’re good lads, sir. A lot of second battalions, so plenty of them are young and this will be their first fight. Not too many of us who have seen how it’s done.’

‘Can we beat the French? There are a lot of them.’

‘Well, they’ll know they’ve been in a scrap.’

Hanley said no more and they began walking once again. The round peak of the Medellín Hill was a good landmark, and they pushed on towards it as straight as they could for a good five minutes.

‘I reckon that is it,’ said Hanley, pointing up the slope towards a low stone enclosure. He followed the wall, and found the carved stone with the figure of a bearded man. It was badly worn, and in the fading light he would have to take the priest’s word for it that it was supposed to be John the Baptist.

Dobson stiffened. He had been carrying his musket down low. Now he raised it slowly and eased back the hammer to cock it with a firm click. He nodded at two vine trees at the far corner of the pen.

‘I could shoot you down where you stand,’ said a voice. ‘Perhaps both of you. I have two pistols.’

Dobson said nothing, but kept raising his musket. With a sudden rush the butt was couched against his shoulder, the muzzle aimed squarely at the trees.

‘You could try,’ said Hanley, with a confidence he did not feel. He imagined a pistol or musket aimed at his chest. Would he see the spark of the flint, the flare of the powder and then the explosion as a ball hurtled towards him to sink deep into his flesh?

He gulped, hoped no one heard him and then gambled again. ‘Or you could come out and talk, Luiz.’

There was a pause, then a laugh, and the barely audible sound of a hammer being gently lowered back into place.

‘Of course,’ said Velarde, as he stepped from the cover of the trees. ‘We are on the same side, after all. Well, more or less.’ The sun began to sink below the hills to the west.

Dobson made no move, not understanding the Spanish words. His firelock followed the Spanish colonel, his finger still poised on the trigger.

‘It’s all right, Dob,’ said Hanley. The veteran lowered his musket, but kept it cocked and ready.

‘I presume we are waiting for the same thing,’ said Velarde. ‘You really do impress me, Guillermo, with your talent for finding things out.’

‘We may not be waiting for the same reason.’

‘Really.’

Some distance away a musket fired, the sound soft. It was followed by several more.

‘The piquets showing their hate,’ pronounced Velarde.

Dobson’s eyes flicked down the slope towards the French, but only for a moment.

‘And what about you, Luiz? Why did you kill the messenger this morning?’

‘Why blame me, and not the French?’

Hanley said nothing. There was another shot from down the slope of the hill and then silence once again.

‘He recognised me,’ said Velarde with the slightest of shrugs. ‘It was unfortunate, but could not be helped. He was not a bright man and would have told everyone that I was a French spy. Someone would probably have been stupid enough to kill me if the word spread.

‘You do not seem surprised. Well done indeed, Guillermo.’

‘So now I know, why should I not kill you?’

‘Because you are smart.’ Velarde shrugged. ‘I tell things to the French. Or rather I tell them to Espinosa and he tells the French. We tell them some nonsense, but more truth even if it is sometimes too late to be of much value. That way we both are trusted and so they give us their own secrets. That way we can fight them.’

‘Who is we?’

‘I want a new Spain. One country, not divided into the old kingdoms. I want it enlightened and liberal, where men of worth choose their leaders and the king rules by consent. You must remember our talks.’

‘I believe King Joseph wants the same thing,’ said Hanley.

‘Yes, or so he says, but this new country cannot be made by outsiders. Do you think Bonaparte truly gives anything and does not come simply to take?’

‘Which leader promises what you want? Or do you wish to lead this new Spain yourself?’

‘They could do worse.’ Velarde chuckled. ‘They could do a lot worse. But no, I do not belong to any faction. Nor does Espinosa. Nor do we agree on the new Spain, but we do agree that it must be made by Spaniards – not Castilians or Andalusians or anyone else, but by Spaniards. So we must beat the French first, and so we help anyone who fights them strongly. Too many of our people are more concerned to outwit their rivals than the real enemy. I will not get caught up in that. I will certainly not die for that. If I must die for my country then so be it, but not for Cuesta, or Palafox or the Junta or anyone else.’

‘A good speech,’ said Hanley. ‘How much is true? You never struck me as the stuff martyrs are made from.’

‘Still the same.’ Velarde laughed again. ‘I believe what I have said. I believe other things too. I fully plan to survive this war, and it would be nice to be wealthy. Is that what you want to hear, Guillermo? It is just as true.’

‘So what do you plan to tell the French tonight?’

‘That the Spanish position is impregnable from the front, but that the British Army is stretched thin and vulnerable. Is that not what your General Wellesley wants them to know? Cuesta’s men may panic again. If the battle is to be won then the British must do most of the fighting. None of that is a secret, or at least more than they could work out from their patrols. Yet it is enough to convince them of my usefulness. You may see the note, if you like. It is in cipher, but that should not slow a man like you. Or I could just tell you the key if you do not relish the challenge!’

‘Sir!’ Dobson had noticed the darker shape of a figure stumbling down towards them from the crest. The man was running, making the long grass swish about his legs. ‘Up there, sir!’ Dobson was looking higher now. Silhouetted on the highest point of the hill were more figures – a lot more figures. There was a dense crowd of men where there had been none before and where it seemed none were supposed to be.

Dobson’s musket snapped up to cover the man, leading a little to allow for his movement. He was close now, and they could just make out the shape of a wide-brimmed hat.

‘Wait!’ hissed Hanley.

The running man stumbled, recovered and ran straight into Hanley, who grabbed him to hold him upright. He could see the whites of his eyes as the man looked up in terror. His head flicked from side to side, surprised to see three men where he had expected one.

‘Mapi,’ said Hanley. One of his hands was soaking wet and sticky as it touched the man’s side. The messenger was breathing only with difficulty and not because he was tired.

‘The French,’ he said, and then his whole body went slack.

A moment later dozens of muskets shattered the night with flame and noise.

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