Wickham gave the tall horse its head, racing off across the hard earth, hoofs brushing aside the long grass. Hanley guessed that the elegant officer was none too keen on being seen with so inelegant a figure as himself. Velarde barely kept up with the chestnut hunter, and his own mule refused to move any faster than a walk, in spite of repeated efforts to kick or slap it onwards. The two horsemen quickly grew distant. The Spanish officer turned, called an apology and gestured in the direction they were going.
Hanley was sure that he knew the way, until a troop of hussars in sky blue and green thundered past in front of him. They had tall, tapering shakos hung with scarlet sashes to complete a most striking uniform. His mule protested at the noise and movement, and bucked so badly that Hanley almost fell off. One boot touched the ground and he pushed hard on it to shift his weight back up into balance. By the time the cavalry had passed and their dust had cleared, he could no longer see the others. The fields, so flat from the modest height from which he had sketched, rolled more than he expected. He knew that they were to go to the far right of the army, and presumed that the duke and his staff would readily stand out as soon as he was closer.
He headed a little to the left, until he was no more than a couple of hundred yards behind the main line of Spanish infantry. The closest battalion wore white uniforms with red facings. Most had bicorne hats, worn crosswise just like Napoleon himself. They were halted for a moment, but then the drums beat furiously and shouted orders sent the battalion moving forward again. A cannon boomed, and then came a smattering of shots as skirmishers fought their private battles ahead of the main lines. A few men came back, some limping and leaning on their muskets as if they were crutches. Others clutched at roughly bandaged arms or heads. A few men carried others, and he knew that in the 106th they were always ordered to leave the wounded to the aid of the bandsmen assigned to the task. Helping others offered too easy an escape to the timid. Perhaps the Spanish did things differently, he thought, but it was clear that the casualties and their helpers were so far few in number.
As Hanley rode along behind the line, he could see that the Spanish were still going forward at all points. Sometimes there were pauses, but always the men would begin to advance again after a few minutes. The infantrymen cheered as they marched on, and he heard cries of ‘Victory or death!’, ‘Viva Ferdinand VII’ and the grimmer ‘No quarter!’ The Army of Estremadura was advancing. The plan still seemed to be working.
It was the same all along the line, although the colours of the uniforms changed, and he passed regiments still in civilian clothes, and another where there were uniform coats of half a dozen colours. The Spanish infantry fired, cheered and moved forward.
Hanley found the Duke of Alburquerque farther forward than he had expected, attended by a gaggle of colourful staff officers and with an escort formed by another troop of hussars like the ones who had passed him. He heard a call, ‘Guillermo!’, and spotted Velarde beckoning to him.
‘Glad you made it,’ came the cheerful greeting. Wickham acknowledged him with a nod, and then they were immediately ushered up to be presented to the duke. Alburquerque was a slim, handsome man with jet-black hair and a ready smile. He clearly liked the English, and via Velarde’s translation displayed great admiration for Wickham’s thoroughbred.
‘Please express my fullest gratitude to His Grace, and say that I believe much is to be admired in Andalusians, preserving as they do the Arabian bloodlines,’ said Wickham, visibly relishing his reception by the aristocrat.
The duke was even more delighted to be told that Hanley spoke Spanish, and Wickham enjoyed being associated with this enthusiasm and for the moment disregarded his fellow officer’s attire.
‘That is wonderful,’ enthused the duke. ‘I wish I had time to learn the language of our allies, but for the moment there is no time for anything not needed for the field of Mars. I fear that I am unable to pay many compliments to your steed.’
‘Yes, I fear it is not even worth the name Rocinante!’
The duke laughed. ‘Well, of course, we are close to La Mancha today, although sadly it is mainly held by the French. Do you know this country?’
‘I travelled a little hereabouts, but for almost two years I lived in Madrid.’
‘Well,’ said the duke, ‘it is greatly to be hoped that soon we will all march back there. It is good to have the English here to watch. Together, we will drive the invaders forever from Spain. Then it is up to us to build a better country.’ The last words were added as a low afterthought, and Hanley could not be sure that he had heard them precisely.
A cannonball skipped over the infantry battalion some fifty yards ahead of them and bounced just short of the group of staff officers. It flicked up a plume of dust and shattered the front legs of Hanley’s mule. The beast gave a scream of agony that was almost human as it dropped forward, its rider sliding over its head to fall against its neck. Horses whinnied as the other officers managed somehow to drag them back out of the path of the shot. The escort troop split like a shoal of minnows frightened by a pike, but no one else was hurt. There was much urging and cursing as the ranks reformed.
Hanley pushed himself up. The poor mule thrashed in agony, and its snapping teeth caught his right sleeve and ripped the patch off the elbow. He tried to spring away, stumbled and rolled into the grass, but at least he was out of reach of the mule’s head. Histrousers were moist, and he glanced down to see them covered in blood and flecks of shattered bone and flesh.
‘Poor Rocinante,’ he said, breathing hard.
The duke said something to Velarde and then spurred his horse forward to the infantry line. His staff followed, but the Spanish major beckoned to one of the escort and had the hussar dismount. The man drew a pistol, and efficiently dispatched the crippled mule, before handing the reins of his mount to Hanley.
‘Much obliged to you,’ said the Englishman, who was still a little shaken. He had forgotten how sudden and appalling the violence of battle could be. The horse was small, no more than fourteen and a half hands, and it was easy to put one foot in the stirrup and swing himself up.
‘Now you look more like a gentleman,’ suggested Wickham. ‘Although not perhaps a gentleman at his very best!’ The mule’s bite had ripped off a fair chunk of the original scarlet wool of the sleeve to show the white of Hanley’s shirt.
A rolling surge of musketry rippled along the front of the Spanish infantry. Hanley and Wickham both turned at the moment another cannonball whipped through the cloud of smoke and this time struck squarely, smashing muskets into matchwood and flesh and bone into bloody ruin. The battalion was six deep, and debris flew and blood sprayed high as one file of six men was cut through by the shot, grazing at waist height. The gunners were getting the range.
‘Remember, Hanley, that we are merely observers. This is not our battle, and so duty dictates that we should not get too closely involved. We are to watch and report.’ Wickham’s speech was steady enough, although he looked a little flushed.
‘That is most proper,’ said Velarde, and then added in Spanish for Hanley’s benefit, ‘and I rather think our own officers will manage without your assistance!’ The major’s face betrayed no trace of sarcasm. Reverting to English once again, he continued, ‘You must judge your own position as is fitting, Major Wickham. However, I ought to rejoin the duke and his staff.’
‘We shall accompany you.’ Wickham’s response was automatic, prompted by the fascination of nobility – even foreign nobility – and especially a senior officer and aristocrat who had received him so cordially. Hanley was pleased. Some men were reassuring to be near in battle, and the duke struck him as just such a man. Pringle was another, as was Williams, and indeed Corporal Dobson.
Before they reached the duke, he had bellowed the order to cease fire, and after much repetition by the officers and some blows by the sergeants the battalion had obeyed. With a cheer they charged. There were similar cheers from the regiments on either side as they joined in the attack. They had gone a good quarter of a mile before Hanley and the others caught up with the duke’s staff. The commander himself was shouting orders as the battalion’s leaders halted and reformed the line.
Hanley saw French guns, limbered up to their teams of four horses, the drivers on the left of each pair whipping the animals to speed them as they retreated. Gunners jogged along on foot beside the carriages. To the left was a battalion column of infantry in very dark blue coats. They did not look much like the French he had seen before, and as he looked more closely he could see that they were wearing tall black helmets.
‘Who are they?’ he asked.
‘The enemy,’ said Velarde with a shrug. ‘It is good to see you, by the way. There was not the chance to say so earlier.’
‘It is a pleasure to see you again.’ The two men had known each other tolerably well during his time in Madrid, and had many mutual acquaintances. He would not have described Velarde as a friend. Indeed, he wondered whether any of the self-absorbed, driven young men of his circle had been capable of making true friends with anyone. Certainly, he had never become as close to any of them as he had so quickly done with Pringle and Williams.
In Madrid they had all argued with each other. He remembered Velarde as an even more fervent and vocal admirer of France’s Revolution than he was himself, and as willing to adopt deliberately provocative arguments. The sculptor had never struck him as a likely soldier. Still, he had no doubt that everyone – himself included – had once thought the same about William Hanley.
If Velarde chose to remember a close bond then there seemed no harm in it. ‘So, a major?’
‘Yes,’ replied the Spaniard. ‘And after more than six months with the army. I really ought to be at least a colonel by now!’ The conversation was in Spanish, and the excluded Wickham quickly preferred to edge his horse closer to the duke, doing his best to exude the ardent enthusiasm of a true ally. There was never any harm in being noticed.
‘Obviously a great hero,’ said Velarde. ‘What would we do without the English?’
The French had withdrawn well beyond musket range. The Spanish batteries were moving forward, but this took time because the heavy gun carriages were drawn by plodding oxen, which had to be goaded into life by their drivers. The infantry lines reformed, and men loaded their muskets. The lucky ones had some water in a bottle or canteen and took the chance to quench their thirst. Skirmishers on each side kept up a desultory squibbing of charges, but for the moment there was a lull.
‘I think they may be Germans,’ said Velarde suddenly, nodding in the direction of the dark-coated enemy column when Hanley looked puzzled. ‘From Baden, I would guess. We believe that some of General Leval’s division has joined Marshal Victor. Leval has Germans and Dutch.’ He paused and then gave a grim laugh. ‘The whole world seems to have come to Estremadura! Well, they do breed pretty women in these parts.’
‘I bow to your greater experience.’
‘Not much greater, from what I remember of you, Guillermo. Although one caught you in the end.’
Hanley presumed that he meant Maria Pilar, the dancer he had taken as a lover in Madrid. He had abandoned her when he fled back to England, a decision which still caused him shame, even though he had no longer loved her. Perhaps one day he would confront that guilt, and maybe even meet the girl again, assuming that she had survived the brutal French suppression of the May uprising. For the moment, he did not want to be reminded of his actions, still less to discuss Mapi with Velarde.
He was also intrigued by the Spaniard’s remarkably precise knowledge of the French Army, surprising in someone so recently turned soldier, whose manner otherwise conveyed a cavalier approach to his duties.
Hanley looked over to the far right of the Spanish line, where the cavalry secured the flank. In the lead was a straggle of riders on lean, quick horses. Most had green jackets, and all broad-brimmed hats and tall lances, whose points sparkled with light.
‘Are those the famous Garrochistas?’ he asked. ‘The ones whose charge broke the French at Bailén?’ In June a French army had been trapped in Andalusia and forced to surrender. It was the first serious check suffered by Napoleon’s men for many years. It was also the only major battle won by the Spanish in almost a year of war. Since then there had been only defeat.
‘Yes. Their fame spreads as quickly as they can boast. The generous ones concede that there were others at Bailén as well, and that perhaps they helped a little.’ Velarde’s expression was wooden, reinforcing the heavy sarcasm. ‘It is a story people want to believe. Simple cattle herders rushing off to war, and herding the French soldiers as easily as they tamed their bulls. No need for training, no need for proper armies, no need for leaders and governments, no need for money.’
‘You have become serious, my friend.’ Hanley felt that there was nothing to be lost by behaving as if their companionship was as deep as Velarde believed or pretended.
‘My country has been invaded. Is that not a time to be serious?’ The Spanish officer spoke quite openly, his tone light, and his conversation attracted no particular attention from those near by. Only Hanley could see the hardness in his eyes. ‘We have had three kings in as many months, and more governments and leaders than a man can easily count. Now there is one Central Junta led by “Rey chico” doing its best to control the juntas in each region. That best is not very good.
‘The French hang and shoot those who oppose them. Our patriots hang those who do not. Bandits rob and kill whoever they please, and there is no one to stop them. Armies are everywhere, stealing and burning. There are the French, and their German and Italian lackeys. There are Portuguese soldiers on the borders of Leon. And now you British are back, after running away in the winter.’
‘We are allies, are we not?’ Hanley felt obliged to defend his countrymen.
‘Is that why you try to steal Cadiz?’
‘I understood that a force was sent to provide a strong garrison so that the city would be secure against any French attack.’ Soon after they had reached Lisbon, many of the regiments there had embarked on transport ships bound for Cadiz. It was felt that southern Spain would provide a more defensible base for operations than Portugal. ‘Is that not natural assistance from one ally to another?’
‘The French came first as allies. Now they have taken our country. Should we trust you?’
‘We are not Bonaparte.’
‘And he does not hold Gibraltar.’ Velarde’s quick retort was loud enough to draw attention.
Wickham caught the name, and even if he missed the sense he could not help wondering at his fellow officer’s lack of tact in raising such a delicate subject. He held his reins tight, and made his chestnut step back until he was closer to Hanley.
Before he could speak, there was a burst of heavy firing from over on the far left. The French held a low hill – the only feature of any note on the whole wide plain. They had a battery of guns there, backed by infantry, and the challenge of the salvoes was answered by guns and volleys from the Spanish line. From this distance it was hard to see what was happening, but it seemed that they were still making progress, because all the Spanish regiments in sight began to move forward once again. The Duke of Alburquerque ordered his own division to press on, and followed them with his staff. On their flank the lancers led the Spanish horsemen forward to keep pace.
A single squadron of hussars was ahead of the French cavalry. Hanley could see their brown jackets and sky-blue trousers clearly.
‘They are the Chamborant Hussars,’ said Velarde, noticing the direction of his gaze. ‘Is it not curious that they call themselves by their old royalist name, preferring that to the plain number given to them under the Revolution?’ The confident assertion was no longer quite so surprising, and yet Hanley remained unsure of its purpose. For all Velarde’s vices – and he believed that they were many – he had never suspected the Spaniard of parading his accomplishments or knowledge merely for the sake of it. Presumably, he was hoping to gain something, but the Englishman could not guess at his goal. For the moment, he contented himself with observing the battle, since the other mystery showed no ready solution.
For all his continuing bafflement at so much of the military way, Hanley was now just enough of a soldier to see that the enemy hussars were withdrawing skilfully. The same was true of the rest of the regiment, which lay in support, some two or three hundred yards behind. What was it Dobson had said – ‘not going back any quicker than they choose to’. They threw up so much dust that it was hard to see much behind the hussars, but Hanley thought that he glimpsed more cavalry.
One rider stood out from the rest, and even from the gaudily uniformed ADCs surrounding him. Hanley wished that he had Williams’ telescope to study the man. Wickham had his own glass to his eye, and his attention was clearly drawn to the same man.
‘Wonder who that plucky fellow is?’ asked Wickham, in the same tone that he might use to remark on an elegant gentleman or lady promenading. ‘Cocked hat and green jacket, and great moustaches. And yes, I do believe that he is smoking a long pipe.’
‘That is Lasalle,’ said Velarde, in a voice of so little animation or feeling that it was all the more striking.
‘Can you be sure at this distance?’ asked Hanley. The Spanish officer was not even using a telescope.
‘No man who was at Medina de Rio Seco will fail to recognise Lasalle.’ That battle was one of many Spanish defeats, followed by a brutal pursuit when the French horsemen ruthlessly slaughtered fleeing men.
‘Looks a fine, dashing gentleman,’ said Wickham, oblivious to the Spaniard’s tone and perhaps ignorant of the disastrous battle.
‘His family were aristocrats,’ said Velarde flatly.
‘Ah, you can always tell.’ Wickham spoke with the utter conviction of a man who dearly wished that his own blood was noble.
The firing from the far left was even heavier now, audible over the sporadic shots of the skirmishers in this part of the field. Hanley saw few men fall as a result of this, but several riderless horses wandered between the lines, one of them dragging a rider whose foot was trapped in a stirrup, bumping across the ground. There were a few corpses – little bundles of brightly coloured clothes dumped untidily in the grass.
‘They’re going back again!’ said Wickham approvingly. A trumpet sounded, its brass call clear over the bickering of the skirmishers, and the leading squadron of French hussars wheeled about and went back, just as they had done so many times. ‘I must congratulate the duke, for I believe that we are about to witness a great victory.’
Hanley felt that the pronouncement was a little premature, but even he sensed that momentum was with the Spanish. They really were winning, the miracle happening before their eyes.
Ahead of them, the Spanish lancers trotted gently forward to occupy the ground abandoned by the enemy. A Spanish battery had just arrived, but the duke ordered his battalions to march without waiting for the guns to deploy. The gunners were told to wait until the line formed again, a little farther forward.
Firing slackened, and they heard cheering from over on the left.
The brown-and-blue hussars halted at another trumpet signal, and wheeled back towards the enemy. Then the trumpeter blew another command and the squadron did not halt, but sent their horses into a trot. Almost as one, the two ranks of sky blue and brown hussars drew their curved sabres.
The Garrochistas seemed to ripple like a sheet in the wind. Some stopped, some clustered together, a few went forward, but more were turning their little horses to the rear.
‘The French are fools,’ said Wickham. ‘They’re outnumbered five to one!’
The trumpet sounded again and the French spurred into a canter. Barely four or five strides later they went into a gallop, without waiting for the order. Sabres were held high, points arced forward ready to thrust.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The shout came from a hundred parched throats.
The lancers scattered and fled, their horses plunging back into the supporting regiments behind them.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The shout was more distant, but powerful, as Lasalle led the remainder of the hussar regiment to join the charge.
The miracle died as the Spanish cavalry collapsed and fled.