‘She expected someone else,’ translated Baynes.
The slim girl looked at them suspiciously. She was small and delicate, but moved with the grace of the dancer she once was. Her face was soft, the features pretty, and her brown eyes large and expressive. They suggested a quick wit, a great kindness and the profound sadness of one used to pain and expecting disappointment.
‘Tell her I have something to say to her alone, and after that she can decide whether to trust us or not.’ Williams was concentrating, going over in his mind the phrase Hanley had given him.
Maria Pilar looked doubtful as Baynes spoke to her. They had ridden to meet the irregulars. Hanley had told Williams that the captain would be able to send a messenger to one of Espinosa’s agents in Madrid. Instead they found she was already waiting for them.
‘Say that she is a lone star on a bleak winter’s night, and that Guillermo is my friend.’
Baynes obeyed. Williams thought he saw a slight flush in Mapi’s face as the merchant spoke the words which Hanley had once said. He also understood something of what his friend had meant. Mapi was beautiful and seemed so fragile that she would break at the first touch.
The girl nodded. Williams looked at the merchant until Baynes stepped back a few paces and joined Captain Rodriguez standing at the door of the little cottage. He walked slowly towards Mapi, and then leaned to whisper in her ear.
The first phrases were in Spanish, and Hanley had made him repeat them over and over again. They were little pieces of lovers’ talk, or the things he said when he was young and believed himself a great artist and thinker not bound by the rules of society. The last words were the only English he knew she understood. ‘You are my life, my inspiration.’
Williams was embarrassed to repeat the words, and even more so because he knew that his friend had tired of the girl and in the end deserted her. ‘He will understand if you hate him,’ he said in Spanish, just as he had been coached. It was no doubt an easy thing for Hanley to say.
Maria Pilar’s eyes were moist. She stared up at him and Williams was overwhelmed by her beauty and her sorrow. He wanted to hold her close, to comfort her like a child and claim that everything would be all right, but he was afraid to do it. Williams felt guilty because Hanley was his friend.
Mapi took his hand and squeezed it. He was not sure what she meant and whether the touch was really for him or Hanley. It still made him feel better. He called to Baynes and the girl told her story.
Espinosa was dead, hanged when he was denounced as a spy. Mapi did not know who his accuser was, but since then several of his servants, friends and agents had been arrested or killed. Espinosa might have told his interrogators a lot before they sent him to the gallows.
She carried the last report from him. Together with a dispatch captured by Captain Rodriguez and his men, it changed everything.
‘We must ride immediately,’ said Baynes, who had earlier spoken with anticipation of rest and a good meal.
‘Tell her she must not return to Madrid,’ said Williams. The merchant looked at him strangely.
Mapi simply stared at him, without any mark of emotion. ‘I imagine she will do what she thinks best,’ said Baynes. ‘She deserves fame and glory, for she may well have saved us from utter disaster.’
Soult was not alone. Apart from his own corps, he commanded Ney and Mortier with all their regiments. Sir Arthur Wellesley was marching unawares to attack fifty thousand men who would crush him however bravely his men fought. So they rode hard, and Baynes could not keep up the pace set by the Andalusian mare, and so he gave the captured documents to Williams, who rode on with the best mounted trooper of the escorting hussars. They went to Cuesta first, and on from him to Wellesley.
The hopes of marching into Madrid died. Once again the British Army retreated.
‘I must express my profound thanks for the kindness you showed,’ said Williams stiffly. It was over a month since he had seen Baynes. ‘Too many brave fellows were left behind to be captured.’ Absent-mindedly the lieutenant tapped his pocket. There were two letters inside, part of a fresh packet of mail sent to the detachment which had been dropped in a river and ruined. One letter was wholly illegible, but his heart told him it was from Jane MacAndrews. Did she write in greeting, in friendship or to tell him bad news? The second letter was from his sister and the only words he could read were ‘dreadfully worried’. Fear gnawed at him.
A wind blew gently from the sea, taking the edge off the heat of the sun. Williams was still sweating all down his back. Much as he dreaded the motion of the ship, it would be good to settle in a cabin and cool down. He wanted to be home, even though he dreaded what might await him there.
‘The kindness was chiefly the work of La Doña Margarita,’ said Baynes modestly. ‘I merely informed the lady of the plight of men who had done her good service in the past.’
When Marshal Victor advanced on Talavera, the outnumbered Spanish Army had withdrawn. Well over a thousand British wounded too weak to travel easily had been left behind. The French reaped a rich harvest of prisoners, whom they treated with kindness. Hanley and Pringle, along with Dobson and his wife, had escaped in some style, riding in the carriage of La Doña Margarita. Wickham also got away – Williams suspected to the chagrin of the lady.
‘Nevertheless you have my thanks.’ Williams inclined his head in the gentlest of bows. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, I should go aboard and ensure that the Grenadier Company is suitably accommodated.’ The remnants of the 106th were sailing home to rejoin the main body of the regiment.
Williams turned, and marched away. Hanley was sure his stiffness of manner expressed distaste at the merchant and the dark world he inhabited. At the moment he was inclined to agree with his friend.
‘It all seems such a waste,’ he said when Williams was out of earshot.
‘Could have been far worse,’ said Baynes, ‘far, far worse. Sir Arthur’s – forgive me, but I am not yet used to the name – I mean Lord Wellington’s army survives when it risked utter destruction.’ Talavera was hailed as a great victory in England, prompting a grateful monarch and his ministers to give the victor a new title.
‘We won a battle and lost the war.’ Hanley’s tone was bitter. ‘My friend Pringle said much the same to me at Corunna.’ His leg still ached, and he leaned on a cane as he stood on the harbour side, although this was now more through habit than necessity. He felt worn out, drained of energy and every drop of enthusiasm.
‘Not the war, dear boy, but one round. We shall be back in the mill soon enough. I am on my way to Cadiz to help things along. A happy chance, since it permits me to bid you farewell and wish for your speedy return. We shall need you.’
‘Austria has surrendered. Surely Napoleon will now return to Spain with all his might.’
‘All the more need for clever men to help us outwit the enemy here.’ Baynes smiled, and even Hanley found it hard to see past the open, honest face, to the steel beneath. ‘But it is late in the year, and unlikely that much will happen before next spring. Wellington is convinced he can hold on in Portugal.’
‘For how long?’
‘Until the wind changes. Austria is beaten for the moment, but has no cause to love Boney. The same is true of Russia and Prussia. We need to keep going to give them a chance to recover. Then one day, who knows – perhaps a Spanish army marching into Paris. Poor Don Gregorio would have loved such a day.’ Cuesta, worn out by his injuries and disappointment, had suffered a stroke and resigned his command.
‘You begin to sound like Brigadier Wilson,’ said Hanley with a smile.
‘Do I indeed? Well, I suspect good Sir Robert would be assuring us we could be there next week if only the fools in charge gave him a few thousand men. Do you know he is already writing up the rout of his soldiers as a great victory.’ Wilson had unwisely chosen to fight Marshal Ney’s entire corps. His position was strong, but the vastly more numerous French veterans had forced their way through anyway. ‘By the time he gets to London no doubt many of his political friends will happily believe him.’ Baynes’ tone was more amused than weary. Sir Robert Wilson had left his Legion to the charge of others, vowing never to return to the Peninsula.
‘The truth does appear a very malleable thing,’ said Hanley. ‘At least in some hands.’
‘Well, I suspect the danger is when a man begins to believe his own lies.’ Baynes’ head leaned slightly to one side, but his eyes never left Hanley’s and radiated apparent sincerity. ‘I do not believe you are prone to such weakness.’
‘Velarde,’ said Hanley at last. He was sure the merchant wanted to discuss the Spaniard. So did he, for he was plagued by the thought that his own mistakes had led to so many deaths and could so easily have led to many more and a great disaster. ‘Have you news of him?’
‘None. That may mean many things.’
‘Perhaps he died with the others,’ said Hanley when the other man failed to continue.
‘That is possible. It is most certainly one way of vanishing.’
‘If not, then surely he was the one who betrayed Espinosa and his people. His reward would no doubt have been great, and if we were blinded for a while so that Sir Arthur marched off to destruction, then he would be well placed in the new regime.’
‘He did what we wanted at Talavera,’ said Baynes.
‘When it probably seemed to his advantage to do so. After that we nearly walked into a trap. Perhaps that was the big lie for which Colonel Murray kept searching.’
Baynes smiled again. ‘You need to come back, William, as soon as you are well.’
Hanley did not reply.
‘I have news of your particular friend,’ said the merchant, ‘and given her role in all this – and indeed her undoubted charms – I am very pleased to say that she remains in good health.’ Baynes no doubt knew that Mapi had been Hanley’s lover, but chose not to say anything.
‘I am glad of that. Thank you for telling me.’ Since Williams had spoken of the meeting, Hanley both longed and feared to see the girl. He wondered whether he would ever be able to make amends, and then thought guiltily that he was still more troubled by his own feelings that hers. ‘I believe it was Velarde. Whether he turned traitor on the opportunity or was always working for them I do not know.’
‘Then come back, William, come back. You can find him and kill him.’
‘I am not an assassin,’ said Hanley, and was shocked to think that he must sound like Williams. ‘I am a soldier.’ He bowed – again the echo of his friend’s manner was more than a little amusing – and walked away to board the ship.
‘Are you indeed?’ Baynes spoke the words softly, ignored by the group of dock workers carrying bales of rice past him. ‘Then I dare say you will do as you are damned well told!’