‘That will be the old Buffs making a blunder as usual,’ said General Rowland Hill wearily.
Wickham looked up towards the crest and saw the flashes, so very bright in the dim light. He and the general’s staff had ridden after their early dinner to find that the Second Division was in the wrong place, and were doing their best to sort out the mess. Now it looked as if chaos was turning into farce.
‘Well, Donellan, I’d be obliged if you put the Forty-eighth into line ready to occupy the hill.’ The order sounded like a polite request to a neighbour in the general’s beloved Shropshire.
‘Come on, we had better calm them down.’ The general clapped his spurs into his horse and set off like the bold hunter he was. General Hill – known as Daddy to not just his division, but half the army – looked like an affable country squire. Wickham had begun to realise that his kind nature hid an active and fearless commander. Reluctantly he followed the half-dozen horsemen as their mounts eagerly ran up the slope.
A battalion in open column of companies was beside them, the lines of men dark shadows. Beyond them another was deploying into line, while the third battalion from the brigade pressed up towards the crest, breaking up into clumps of men as it hurried.
‘Be careful. No sense being shot by our own fellows!’ called the general as he and his staff made their way through the dark and straggling line.
Wickham’s horse could never resist a race. He tried to hold the mare back, but it surged up until it was level with the general and his brigade major. There were men scattered in front of the mass at the top of the rise.
‘Cease fire, my good fellows! Cease fire!’ called General Hill. ‘You are firing on our own side!’
Men milled around them. They had wider tops to their shakos than usual. One grabbed hold of the general’s bridle.
‘My God, they’re French!’ yelled the brigade major.
The gout of flame from the musket seared across Wickham’s vision, so that for a moment all he could see was the glow against pitch black. There was a soft thump and a gasp and the brigade major was flung from his saddle. General Hill yanked hard on his reins and his horse reared, knocking the French infantryman down and making him let go.
Another shot and a bullet smacked into the horse’s chest, so that the general felt it shudder beneath him. He rammed his heels against its flanks and pulled it round, and the animal leapt away from the cluster of French skirmishers. More shots and one of his staff cried out, but did not fall. Wickham rode with them, but his mare never liked going downhill and would not go faster than a slow and bumpy canter.
The general and his staff vanished into the darkness ahead of him.
More flame and a deeper-throated boom than that of a normal musket and something hit him hard on his right arm and shoulder, flinging him sideways. His mare lost her footing at the same moment, stumbling forward, and Wickham was falling, spinning as he dropped to land flat on his back in the grass. His arm hurt savagely and there was blood on his cheek. The frightened mare ran on.
Wickham looked up at the starry sky, for the moment stunned and so dimly aware of what was happening that he felt no fear, only pain. A figure loomed above him, dark against the sky, and it raised in its hand an axe which glinted faintly and looked small, but very heavy.
‘Bastard,’ hissed a voice in strongly accented English.
Wickham had just the strength to plead. ‘No, please, no.’
A shot struck the ground just beside him.
‘Prisonnier! En avant, mes braves!’ came a voice from farther away, and there was the sound of men trampling the grass as they ran.
The man standing over him vanished, fleeing into the night.
‘Eh coquin, un officier!’ said one of the French infantrymen. Wickham hissed in pain as another began to run his hands through his pockets.
‘I’ll wait for you here,’ said Velarde.
‘We ought to help, sir.’ Lance Sergeant’s Dobson’s tone stopped just short of being a command.
Hanley and Dobson ran along the slope. Volleys slashed the darkness on each side. There were screams and shouted orders. Darker shapes came up the slope and then seemed to stop. Men fired, but the heavier volleys came from higher up.
‘What the hell is going on?’ shouted a voice ahead of them.
‘Who is in charge?’ This time it was another voice – a distinctly Scottish voice.
They got closer. Men fired again, and for an instant Hanley saw the silhouettes of two ranks of men clearly as they shot up the slope at the French.
‘Don’t fire!’ came a voice. ‘We are Germans!’
‘Bugger! Damn it all! Sergeant Hawkins, cease firing, they’re ours. Where the hell are you, Hawkins?’
‘We’re Germans!’ came the cry again.
There was a break in the firing. Hanley and Dobson heard the rattle of ramrods in the barrels of muskets.
‘Who the hell is in charge?’ It was the Scotsman again. ‘Give us orders.’
Dobson held out an arm to stop Hanley. ‘Down, sir,’ he hissed. They were almost behind the end of what seemed to be the British line, but now that the shooting had stopped the veteran had spotted movement coming up at an angle behind them. There was a dark mass, the head of a column and smaller shapes flitting ahead of it.
‘Look out, French to the rear,’ yelled Dobson.
‘Who the devil are you?’
‘Españoles! Españoles!’ shouted a higher shadow – an officer riding at the head of the column. Hanley thought the accent distinctly French.
‘Lying sods,’ whispered Dobson. He eased his bayonet out of its scabbard and fixed it to the muzzle of the musket lying beside him.
The column pushed up the slope and the skirmishers were flowing around the back of the British line.
‘Surrender, you are our prisoners,’ called a voice used to command.
‘They’re bloody French!’
‘Drop your muskets! You are prisoners.’
‘I’m bloody not!’ There was the sound of fighting and blows with the butts of muskets. The British formation broke up. Shots flamed in the night as some fled. Others were being hustled to the rear as prisoners. Some still struggled as Frenchmen grabbed their collars and dragged them down.
Farther along the slope, another row of flames stabbed up the hill. Closest to them the line had gone, but elsewhere parts of the battalion still fought.
‘Give us an order and we will dare anything. For God’s sake give us an order!’ The shouting was more distant now.
Men ran past them.
Dobson sprang up. ‘Stop, you buggers!’ he commanded in a voice unmistakably British.
‘Who the hell are you?’ asked a voice, but already a dozen men had stopped.
‘Who is loaded?’ asked Dobson, ignoring the questions. No one answered. ‘Then fix your spikes, lads.’
Hanley stood and drew his sword. He did not feel he could do anything better than the lance sergeant, but wanted to show willing. There were more shapes coming towards them, but it was harder for the French to see down the slope than it was for them to pick out the shapes above them.
‘Merde! Les anglais!’
Dobson fired. ‘Charge!’ he screamed, and rushed on through the smoke of his own shot. ‘Come on, lads!’
Hanley went with them. There was a hiss of pain as Dobson ran a French infantryman through the stomach, and then twisted the blade free as he kicked the man over. All around him men stabbed, hacked and struck at each other with bayonet and musket butt. One redcoat without a weapon pushed a Frenchman’s musket aside with his right hand and then punched the man with all his weight behind his left fist. Another British soldier died as an enemy thrust the muzzle of his musket against his face and then pulled the trigger. Hanley cut at a man with his sword. The blow was clumsy, for he had never really practised with the blade and all of his movements seemed so very slow. His opponent ducked beneath the slash, and then jabbed forward with the butt of his musket. Hanley gasped and struggled to breathe as he folded double. He collapsed kneeling on to the grass.
The French infantryman hit him again on the head, knocking him face down on the grass so that he did not see and only felt someone come and place his feet either side of him. With a clang the man parried the French light infantryman’s bayoneted musket as he thrust down to finish off the officer. Then something wet and hot flowed on to Hanley’s head, stirring him to consciousness as the Frenchman screamed in intense agony.
The French withdrew, leaving three of their number stretched in the grass.
‘Stay here, lads. Don’t follow!’ Dobson was still giving the orders, which meant that he was unscathed. ‘We can’t beat the lot of them on our own, but we can give time for our boys to come up and see ’em off properly. Now, kneel down and get them muskets loaded.’ Hanley felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘You all right, Mr Hanley?’
He pushed himself up. ‘I believe so.’ He saw a face that looked familiar kneeling beside Dobson and grinning at him.
‘It’s Ramón, sir. The Spanish lady’s coachman. Told you he’s a handy lad. That Frenchie would have done for you if he hadn’t turned up.’
‘Gracias,’ said Hanley hoarsely. His throat seemed so very dry and there was a faint taste of vomit.
‘I hate the goddamned French!’ said Ramón, not bothering to use his own language.
Shots came from the darkness ahead of them. The volleys were aimed elsewhere, but there was clearly a line of skirmishers facing them. A redcoat was hit on the kneecap and cried out in pain.
‘Bastards. They hit me!’ He sounded surprised and angry more than anything else.
‘Lie down, lads, once you’re loaded. Only fire when you can see a mark clearly.’ Dobson patted a man on the shoulder. ‘You. Drag him back five paces and then come back here. We’ll look after you when it’s over, son,’ he said to the wounded man.
Hanley rubbed his throbbing head as Dobson gave the orders. The officer did not understand this, or see how men like Dobson – or Williams or Pringle for that matter – saw a shape to it all and a form which they could control. He was more comfortable with the cleverness and deceit of men like Baynes and Espinosa.
The firing grew heavier around the peak above them.
‘Who are you, lads?’ asked Dobson.
‘Second Battalion of Detachments.’ That explained much of the chaos. It was always confusing to fight at night, but all the harder with unfamiliar officers and sergeants in charge.
A heavy company volley lashed at the French column nearest to them. Then there was a distinctly British cheer and a line of men, clear and stark shapes in the growing starlight, ran straight at the enemy, bayonets reaching out and glinting dully. The French mass quivered and then broke up as men fled. Another cheer came from the far side of the crest and then the higher French column collapsed into rout.
‘Up, lads,’ said Dobson. ‘With your permission, Mr Hanley, I think we should go forward. Steady, boys. Don’t want to rush and have some damn fool take us for Frogs. We’ll just clear up any of these light bobs who hang around.’
The French had gone, save for the dead and wounded. There were plenty of these, both British and French, dotted all over the slopes of the hill. Some moaned, or sobbed, or cried out for their mothers. The less badly hurt yelled for help or for their friends to come and fetch them.
More redcoats joined them, and Hanley set them to work collecting the wounded.
‘Where shall we take them, sir?’
An officer was always expected to know, but Hanley had no idea. Thankfully a corporal from one of the light infantry regiments had the answer.
‘A hospital has been set up in a farm on the back of the hill,’ he said.
‘Good, take them there.’
A surly officer from the 95th passed them, smelling of fresh blood.
‘Hard fight,’ said Hanley.
The only response was a grunt.
‘Hanley,’ a voice called. ‘Help me, Hanley. Oh God, please help me!’
It was Wickham, his jacket and boots stolen along with his purse, and the right sleeve of his shirt dark with blood.
‘Carry the major to the surgeons.’
‘Thank you, Hanley, thank you. You are a true friend. They robbed me, Hanley. The rogues robbed me.’ The voice faded as four men carried Wickham away in a blanket taken from the top of an abandoned French pack.
‘You stay with us, Ramón,’ said Hanley without looking at the Spaniard.
There was a cry of pain. ‘Oh my God, keep steady, you damned rascals, or I’ll have you all flogged!’ Wickham’s shout carried back to them. Hanley thought he saw Ramón grin wickedly.
General Hill passed, mounted on a new horse, and doing his best to bring order. The French had gone, and the high ground was now heavily occupied by the British, but that did not mean the enemy would not try again. Their surprise attack had so very nearly worked.
Officers appeared from the 2nd Battalion of Detachments and began to rally their men.
Hanley and Dobson with Ramón by their side walked back to the sheep pen where they had left Velarde and the wounded messenger.
‘He is dead,’ said the Spanish colonel. ‘I bound him up as best I could, but he had bled so much. It is a pity.’
‘Yes, does that surprise you? Why would I want the man dead? But it does mean I have no means of sending a message to Espinosa. Here is the packet. I have left the seal on it in case you still do not trust me.’
Hanley slipped the packet into his pocket. ‘We cannot read it up here.’
They followed the parties of men carrying wounded down to the farm on the western slopes of the hill. There was light there, but Hanley wished somewhere else was nearer.
‘Keep an eye on Ramón,’ he said quietly to Dobson as they arrived. ‘Make sure he goes nowhere near Major Wickham.’
The two officers found a spot under a lantern and tried their best to ignore the smell of blood, the soft noises of the hurt men and the buzzing of flies.
Hanley broke the seal and read, passing each page to Velarde when he had finished.
‘This changes everything,’ he said softly at the end.
Velarde simply nodded, and finished going through the last page. ‘We must tell General Wellesley.’
‘Yes. He will probably be on the hill somewhere trying to sort things out. You go and find him or Colonel Murray. I shall go back to the town and find Baynes.’
The Spanish officer looked at him. ‘Is this a test?’
‘Should it be?’
Velarde spread his hands. ‘As you wish. I’d be glad of your sergeant as escort. The sentries may be jumpy at the moment and better not to sound too foreign.’
‘Certainly.’ They walked over to Dobson and the Spanish coachman. The veteran was feeling the heft of a short axe.
‘Nasty brute, sir. Ramón tells me the savages use them in America.’
‘The Comanches,’ confirmed the coachman, who had once been an hussar, taking back his tomahawk.
‘Sergeant Dobson.’ Hanley did not bother to use the full rank.
‘Sir!’ Dobson stiffened to attention, sensing that the officer wanted to be formal.
‘I need you to take Colonel Velarde to find General Wellesley. He carries important dispatches. My guess is that the general will be somewhere on this hill, making sure that everything is in order. Once you have taken him to the general and his staff you may return to the battalion.’
‘I need to go back to the town and Ramón will be able to guide me there. I assure you that I shall be fine on my own.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Hanley wondered how two words still managed to convey the lance sergeant’s opinion that while the lieutenant was no doubt a splendid fellow, he was incapable of putting his own breeches on without assistance. ‘Are you sure, sir?’
‘I am, Lance Sergeant Dobson. I think at last I am.’
Hanley and Ramón went down the slope and then followed one of the main roads into town.
‘I need to speak with your mistress,’ he told the coachman. After that they exchanged no more words.
It was eleven o’clock by the time they reached the house. The doorman let them in without question. The housekeeper was a good deal less helpful. ‘The lady has retired and is asleep.’ She repeated the phrase over and over again. Hanley doubted it was true. The town was still noisy and full of stragglers; many of whom were now drunk.
Ramón supported him, and finally the old woman gave in.
La Doña Margarita appeared, in one of her fine widow’s dresses. She appeared so rapidly that it was clear she had not yet gone to bed.
‘Lieutenant Hanley, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?’ Her voice was calm. Her face seemed a little drawn as if from fatigue. She sat in one smooth motion, hands adjusting her skirts to the shape of the carved wooden chair with its high arms. ‘Please sit.’
‘I regret disturbing you at this hour, and indeed calling unannounced and uninvited.’
‘And yet you do so. Perhaps that rather weakens any apology.’ She smiled and turned to her coachman. ‘You may leave us.’
Ramón looked uncertain. ‘I am not accustomed to repeating instructions,’ said the lady. The coachman glanced at Hanley, then back at his mistress. La Doña Margarita inclined her head slightly, and Ramón left.
‘He is a good man,’ said Hanley, narrowly avoiding calling him a lad.
‘That is true, but paying that compliment appears inadequate cause for disturbing me at such an hour.’
Hanley looked at the lady. Her olive skin seemed darker in the lamplight, her curves fuller and her lips even more inviting.
She raised an eyebrow.
‘Forgive me.’ Hanley was sure he knew the answers, but needed to ask the questions. ‘I spoke to Major Wickham earlier this evening.’
The poise cracked for a moment and there was a flash of anger. ‘If he thinks he can simply send his friends to seek my company!’ Then the dignified façade reasserted itself. ‘It is late, and I do not believe I can offer what you want.’ She rose.
‘Sit, madam!’ Hanley had not meant to shout. He saw a flicker of fear in her eyes, but she stopped. Hanley had not moved from his seat. ‘You misunderstand. I do assure you that I am no great friend to Major Wickham. Please, please sit down.’ She did so reluctantly, and her glance remained filled with anger.
‘I know you are not with child. I know that you are not scarred from the flames after your heroism at Saragossa.’ Hanley spoke evenly. He was sure of all of this, and only the last piece of the puzzle would be a guess. ‘I also know that you are not the lady you claim to be, although I believe you were once her maid.’
He let the words hang in the air.
She was breathing deeply, her chest surging and falling. The silence was heavy, and in the far distance Hanley could hear a voice singing drunkenly.
‘Wickham did not tell you all that,’ she said at last.
‘He realised I was not having a baby when the carriage fell into the ditch all those months ago. His arm pushed aside the padding I wear.’ She gently slapped her enlarged belly.
‘Captain Pringle saw you shot in the same place.’
‘And he said nothing? A different man to your major.’
‘Wickham knew that a baby was important and could be the heir to a title and great fortune. My own place in society depends on the child. He threatened to reveal my secret and unmask the deception unless I let him take his pleasure with me. He wanted money as well, and then joked that he might solve my problem for me and give me a baby.’ Her voice was bitter. ‘What was I to do?’
‘I believe Ramón tried to kill him this evening.’
La Doña Margarita smiled thinly. ‘Only tried?’ She stared at the Englishman and read no threat there. ‘That was a great risk,’ she said.
‘I doubt even Wickham suspects anyone apart from the French.’
‘He is my father.’ Hanley’s face must have betrayed his surprise. ‘There, for the first time I reveal something you did not know. My mother died of fever in Mexico. When I was old enough the captain took me on and trained me to be his wife’s maid. Will you betray him?’
‘No. I cannot let him complete the task, but I do not feel Wickham or anyone else needs to know. The major will not bother you again.’
‘Your doing? Then I thank you on both counts.
‘The real widow died of fever just like her husband. Neither survived to reach the shores of Spain. I was at Saragossa, and this,’ she pointed at the wreath on her sleeve, ‘is mine by right. The story of the burns helps to keep men at a distance, even those not deterred by the baby.’
‘Why the deception?’
‘I have lived most of my life in the New World, and yet my heart is Castilian.’ Her voice was strong and proud. ‘As a maid without an employer what could I do? She hated the French, and she would approve. As a noblewoman I can be useful.’
Hanley stared at her for a long time. Neither said anything.
‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘Indeed you can. I shall tell no one what I know.’
‘And the price?’
He thought for a moment of Wickham’s bargain. The temptation was strong.
‘Punish the French,’ he said. ‘In your own way keep hurting them.’
La Doña Margarita watched him as he stood, bowed politely and walked to the door.
‘I like you, Mr Hanley,’ she said softly as he left the room. Hanley caught the words and could not help smiling.
It was cold when he stood out in the street. The moon was rising and the night was bright. Hanley shivered and wished he had his cloak. Part of him felt noble, and that was a novel sense for him to have. More importantly he was pleased with his cleverness and revelling in the joy of gambles that paid off. It was a feeling he had always enjoyed.
‘Good evening, William.’ Baynes sat on horseback beside him, leading a saddled mule. It did not surprise him. ‘Best I could do, I am afraid. We should be able to find your horse when we reach the general’s staff.’
Hanley hauled himself up on to the mule. ‘Where is he?’
‘Up on the Medellín hill, sorting things out. One of the German brigades broke. They thought that they were in the second line so had not set pickets. I strongly suspect that Sir Arthur will spend the night there. Therefore so must we.’
‘Has the general received the dispatches?’
‘He has, and as you may guess has plenty to think about. Soult is closer than we think – at most a week away. It is worrying that he was expected to be behind us at Plasencia even earlier and that we knew nothing about it. At least the report that Venegas is finally threatening Madrid is something.’
‘What will happen?’
‘My dear Hanley, you are the military man, so you tell me.’
They rode through the streets in silence after that, until they left through one of the gateways and began to climb the hill.
Finally Hanley asked, ‘You knew who she was, didn’t you?’
‘Then why did you say nothing?’
‘Secrets are better kept than broadcast. Would it have changed anything if you had known? Besides, it never does any harm to see how hard it is for anyone else to find something out.’ Baynes’ voice sounded full of contentment. ‘I am fully reassured.’
‘I might have made a mistake, have revealed her as a fraud or proclaimed her a spy.’
‘But you did not. You really should have more faith in yourself, my dear boy, more faith.’
Hanley could not think of anything more to say.