Whenever the carriage slowed, Williams felt the heat of the sun and longed for them to be moving quickly again. At speed the wind kept them cool and he was willing to put up with the lurches and jolts as they raced along the better stretches of the rutted track. He clung tightly on to the brim of his straw hat, but could not risk removing the long brown coat and refused to take off his uniform jacket and so wore it underneath. Neither he nor Dobson would be mistaken for spies and risk being hanged or put in front of a firing squad and shot. That was prudence, but Williams also felt an instinctive distaste at the thought of the slightest association with so dishonourable a role.
Wickham was immediately swayed by the sentiment, regretting that he had not expressed it first, and so wore his red coat and overall trousers underneath his black priest’s robes. D’Urban did not try to dissuade them. Baynes was obviously amused, and yet showed no sign of offence.
‘As you wish,’ he had said. Williams now believed that the round-faced merchant was himself partly the spy. ‘I suspect it will be most uncomfortable, but I have no wish to tarnish your reputations in any way.’
‘Your hope must be in concealment,’ added Colonel D’Urban, as the plan was explained in the camp where Cuesta was rallying the broken remnants of his army. A day had passed since the battle and as evening fell they were on the edge of the mountains to the south.
‘The French are between us and your detachment under Mr Pringle,’ he continued, his slim face keen and earnest. ‘Marshal Victor has led most of his regiments down towards Merida, and only a few squadrons of cavalry have followed us. He does not have enough men to occupy the whole area, but there are bound to be patrols and foraging parties. He will not find it easy to feed his men and horses. God knows, General Cuesta has had enough trouble. This was a poor region, even before armies started marching through it and eating everything in sight.’
Baynes took over, feeling that his military colleague was wandering from the main point. ‘If you try to go straight to Badajoz and north from there, you will be moving through the heart of the French army. Major Velarde has gone to take a message to your Mr Pringle, telling him to take his men even farther north beyond the Tagus, where you will join him.’
‘And what of the stores we were sent to find?’ asked Williams.
D’Urban could not decide whether the man was desperately unimaginative or trying to assert a stubborn independence. ‘As far as we can tell they were taken on the road to Madrid. Velarde will make more detailed enquiries at Badajoz, and assist in any other way.’
‘It is quite possible that the local authorities have already taken or destroyed them,’ added Baynes. ‘Or the French may have them. That would be regrettable, but you all have an opportunity to perform a great service to our allies and ourselves.’
‘Of course, we understand our duty,’ said Wickham. ‘Although I will regret being unable to assist you here.’
‘We shall miss you, of course.’ Privately Baynes could see little sign that Wickham had been or could be useful as part of their delegation. ‘But this is a task requiring a man of experience and rank.’
Williams loathed the thought of being placed under Wickham’s command, but the army never gave a man choice over such things. The latter’s account of his flight from the battle and the loss of Hanley sounded plausible enough. In the confusion, there was every chance that a man might fall behind and could not be rescued. His instincts told him that Wickham was hiding something. Williams had hoped to gain a clearer account from Velarde, but the Spanish officer had ridden for Badajoz before there was a chance to see him privately.
‘Travelling as part of the household of the Doña Margarita you should be able to pass unmolested by the enemy,’ continued Baynes. ‘Her late husband was the younger son of the Conde de Madrigal de las Altas Torres, one of the great families of old Castile. The war had already taken both of his two older brothers and made him the heir to the title and the estates.’
Wickham’s interest became all the more evident, and he sat straight and eager on the folding camp stool he occupied.
Williams was sceptical. ‘Does wealth bring safety even in the middle of a war?’
‘It never does any harm,’ chuckled Baynes. ‘At any time.’
‘Doña Margarita’s father-in-law is a very old man, as well as a wealthy and influential one,’ explained D’Urban. ‘His political inclinations remain unclear, but you can be sure that they will carry great weight. So he is courted by all sides, and his family treated well. Doña Margarita carries letters of protection signed by Joseph-Napoleon himself, as well as others bearing the seal of the Duke of Astorga, of General Palafox, and many other men of note in Spain. She can move almost at will throughout the country. A few weeks ago she resided in a family house in Toledo, in spite of the French occupation.’
‘Is she safe from marauders?’ asked Williams. ‘They may not trouble themselves to read any letters.’
‘She has her servant, who was an hussar in her husband’s regiment,’ replied Baynes, pleased at this sign of intelligence amid the suspicion. ‘But that is why you will be performing such a service by protecting the lady and that which she carries.’
‘The child?’ Williams had glimpsed the heavily veiled Spanish aristocrat only from a distance as she climbed down from her carriage and was ushered to a tent. It was clear that she was heavy with child, and that brought back memories of the terrifying hours back in the winter when Dobson’s daughter Jenny had given birth in a tumbledown shack. Williams, Jenny and Miss MacAndrews had been cut off when the army retreated. For that night Jane MacAndrews had taken charge, and ordered the nervously clumsy officer outside. To his immense relief the boy was born sound in limb and voice, and the mother survived the ordeal in robust health – so robust, indeed, that she absconded and left the child in the care of the other two. Williams had no idea what had become of Jenny.
‘If it proves to be a boy, then the child will be the grandfather’s heir,’ said Baynes. ‘In the case of a girl, then I believe the legal situation is less straightforward. But I did not speak of the babe, for all the joy of new life. In addition the lady’s confinement is not expected for several months.’
Williams was relieved. He was also a little puzzled, since the lady looked very large for someone still in the earlier stages of pregnancy. Yet the relief was by far the stronger emotion, for the suggestion of another delivery terrified him, especially without Miss MacAndrews’ reassuringly capable presence. The thought of the girl brought the usual pang. Wickham had confirmed that the rest of the regiment had reached Portsmouth without incident and that Major MacAndrews and his family were safe. He was reluctant to ask more closely, since he strongly suspected that the married Wickham had displayed an unhealthy interest in Jane.
‘The Doña Margarita carries something of far greater value for the course of the war,’ said Colonel D’Urban. Wickham’s arms pressed against the frame of the stool as he listened intently. Baynes and D’Urban exchanged glances.
‘She carries news,’ said the merchant after a long pause. ‘And that can be beyond price.’ Wickham’s grip slackened and he sagged slightly, sitting again more comfortably.
‘The Iberian peninsula is extensive, and much of it mountainous,’ D’Urban explained. ‘Bonaparte has sent more than two hundred thousand men to occupy it and they operate in half a dozen armies. Much of the time we have little idea of where these are. We may watch those closest to us, although even then mistakes are made. It was believed that Marshal Victor had fewer troops than proved the case.’
Williams doubted that numbers had been the cause of the previous day’s disaster. In the end, raw youngsters were sent against hardened veterans and that was all there was to it. Numbers would not have made enough difference unless truly overwhelming. The French were simply better led and better trained.
‘We do not know where King Joseph’s reserve is stationed and whether he moves to support Victor. Ney is in Galicia – we think – and Mortier perhaps in Leon. Marshal Soult is somewhere in the north, but whether in Spain or Portugal no one knows.’
‘Except the poor devils fighting him,’ added D’Urban after a moment.
Baynes ignored him, once again feeling his military colleague was wandering from the main point. ‘Nor do we know much more about our own side. Many of the local juntas and generals are unable to communicate quickly with the Central Junta at Seville. Some choose not to. As far as we are concerned Aragon and Catalonia might as well be on the moon for all we know of events there.
‘How much were you told, my dear Wickham, of the situation in Spain before you left London?’
The elegant officer looked surprised, and took a moment before giving his reply. ‘Well, I had been on General Paget’s staff and so saw a good deal of the last campaign.’
Yes, but from as safe a distance as you could manage, thought Williams to himself.
‘Yet I would say that more recent information was vague,’ continued Wickham, speaking the truth, but also aware that the colonel expected him to reply in this way, and he had never been one knowingly to disappoint a superior. ‘Indeed, I was told very little. The plans of the Ministry seemed unformed, with a definite desire to assist in the liberation of Spain, but uncertainty over how to achieve this, or whether indeed it was practical at all. Our army will take time to recover from the rigours of the winter. The cavalry in particular.’ He added this last comment knowing that the colonel was a light cavalryman himself. ‘Very few horses were embarked. However, there are confident hopes that Austria will declare war on Bonaparte.’
Williams had heard such rumours before. He hoped that this time it was true, as a new threat would prevent the French from focusing all their attention on Spain.
Wickham gave an easy smile. ‘It was also understood that events might change during my journey, so from the beginning they were wise enough to trust that the members of the British mission to General Cuesta’s army were likely to be best informed about the current situation.’
D’Urban snorted at the idea of wisdom in his country’s government. ‘Well, as you now know, our best is by no means satisfactory. The Spanish are unaware of much that happens, and tell us less than they know.’
‘In fairness, Colonel D’Urban,’ said Baynes, ‘the Spanish often do not tell each other all that they know. And it is not as if we hold no secrets back from them. Your magical shrapnel shells, for instance, Mr Williams.’ He stared at the ensign. ‘You have come from Lisbon not long ago?’ Williams nodded. ‘How large a force does General Craddock dispose?’
Williams thought, and Wickham noticed that he had the uncouth habit of pressing his tongue against the inside of his cheek as he did so. ‘Well, the bulk of his force was at sea on the expedition to the south. I would guess at some three or four thousand. Perhaps double that if the expedition is included.’
D’Urban nodded. ‘A good guess. Yet perhaps it would surprise you to learn that many Spaniards, including a good few of their senior generals and politicians, fervently believe that we have ten times as many in Portugal. And they cannot understand why so strong a force has not marched to the aid of their beleaguered armies.’
Baynes took a deep breath. ‘It makes them believe that we have ambitions of our own, and are willing to let Spain’s armies bleed to boost our own power. The recent offer of installing the expeditionary force as a garrison of Cadiz was both naively concocted and clumsily made.’
‘Many of the Spanish do not trust the British,’ concluded D’Urban.
Baynes shrugged. ‘Which given our government’s habit of fomenting dissent in their American colonies and the enthusiasm of our men of commerce for bullying their way into the most profitable of Spain’s markets seems unduly suspicious of them.’
D’Urban ignored his companion’s cheerful sarcasm. ‘Certain information of what is happening is vital. Much of it will concern the little things – numbers and names of regiments, the quality of roads and bridges or the availability of forage. We need to learn about everything to understand the war and wage it better. Both we and our allies must understand the true strength of the other, and we must be doubly sure of the enemy’s dispositions and their intentions.
‘The Doña Margarita became caught up in the fight against the French at Saragossa last year. Now she travels speedily and often, in spite of her condition. She carries such knowledge and helps to gather more. Others do the same, and in time they may help us to pierce through the mists and see clearly what on earth is going on. After that, we might stop making such a hash of everything and start winning.’
Williams was a good soldier and Colonel D’Urban a man in authority. When given orders Williams obeyed, but tried to do so shrewdly rather than blindly. That was something he had learnt from Dobson, back when he was still a volunteer and served as the veteran’s ‘rear rank man’ in the company’s formation. He was glad that D’Urban and Baynes had explained something of the wider situation, and as they travelled the next day Williams took Dobson into his confidence. The corporal had not been included in the previous night’s conference.
The veteran listened without betraying any opinion until the ensign had finished.
‘So are we supposed to pass as dagoes, sir?’ he asked sceptically. Williams was blond, and both men bigger and thicker set than was common in Spain.
The coach was moving quickly again, bringing its cooling wind at the price of making the two seats on the rear of the carriage far too precarious for safety. Instead Williams and Dobson stood, so that their heads and shoulders looked to the front over the top of the car, and they held on to the rails designed for that purpose. Wickham in his priest’s garb travelled inside the carriage as the lady’s confessor.
‘No, thankfully.’ Williams laughed and then coughed as dust from the road caught in his throat. ‘The Doña Margarita returned from Mexico last year after many years in the country,’ he continued after he had recovered. ‘So we are her American servants. What Frenchman is likely to recognise the differences of speech?’
‘Yes, sir, very good, sir,’ replied Dobson, a master of the old soldier’s art of expressing contemptuous disbelief while avoiding punishment. ‘And do you reckon any Crapaud with eyes in his head won’t spot himself as a soldier?’ The veteran jabbed his thumb towards Ramón, the former hussar who drove the carriage. ‘Or us for that matter?’ Dobson had replaced his shako with a brown felt hat in the broad-brimmed, Spanish style. Their muskets, equipment and Williams’ and Wickham’s swords were hidden in a box under the carriage. A wide-mouthed blunderbuss was clipped to a notched bar on the roof within Dobson’s easy reach and another lay beside the driver. Williams and Dobson each had a heavy horse pistol tucked through their belts, and the officer had another to hand.
‘No law against being an old soldier,’ said Williams blithely, although without much conviction. It was true, there was simply something about the way a soldier stood that got into the blood.
‘No law against getting killed either, sir. That’s if the buggers don’t try to recruit us.’
‘Good promotion prospects in the French Army,’ Williams grinned. ‘No flogging either.’
‘Too much garlic in the food.’
‘Then let us hope that we do not meet them.’ If he had permitted himself to believe in superstition, Williams would have regretted saying that thought aloud as making it inevitable that it would come true.
An hour before sunset half a dozen chasseurs in green jackets and dust-covered shakos stood their horses on the road ahead of them. Two more closed in on the carriage from each side. Such a fine vehicle was a rare sight. Even more unusual were the six well-matched grey horses drawing the coach. Only the very wealthy could afford horses rather than mules.
Ramón halted the team impeccably, looped the reins over a hook and raised his hands. Williams and Dobson did the same. The grey-haired sergeant in charge of the piquet had a scar running from his right ear to his mouth, gold rings in his ears and looked capable of any villainy.
Wickham leaned out of the window, and in French so rapid that Williams struggled to follow introduced himself as Father O’Hara, priest of the daughter-in-law of the Conde de Madrigal de las Altas Torres, and demanded that they be escorted to his superior officer.
‘He’s plausible, I’ll give him that,’ whispered Dobson, who grasped the sense if not the precise meaning of the little speech.
The sergeant was not a man to take unnecessary responsibility if there was an officer close enough to take any blame. Four chasseurs took them down a side track to a walled farm where the main body of the chasseur company was settling for the night. A lieutenant, whose furious desire to grow a bushier moustache continued to be frustrated, at first looked with suspicion at the priest, and at Dobson and Williams with downright hostility.
‘They’re Americans,’ said Wickham, as if that explained everything. ‘Ugly, aren’t they, although of course all God’s children.’
The lieutenant laughed, and began to warm to the charming priest, and was suitably impressed when he saw the pass signed by King Joseph. When the carriage door was opened again and he was presented to the Doña Margarita, he bowed low. She gave him a smile which won his heart. Her mantilla had slipped back a little to show her round, pretty face and the coils of her long black hair fastened up in braids. Although the black dress of mourning was modest, it nevertheless betrayed the line of a full bosom.
Her French was also excellent and completed her overwhelming conquest of the light cavalry officer’s admiration. She spoke lightly of the savages of the new world, and presented him with a little leather pouch, decorated with beadwork.
‘The women of the tribes make them for the bravest warriors to carry their musket balls,’ she explained.
After twenty minutes they left, and were escorted by a dozen chasseurs until they reached the inn two leagues away.
‘That lady’s a cool one,’ said Dobson as the carriage sped along at a good trot. ‘Pretty too.’
‘And you a newly married man!’ joked Williams, who suspected that the veteran was right, although he had yet to enjoy a very clear view of La Doña Margarita. At least her condition ought to prevent any misbehaviour by Wickham.
‘Don’t mean you stop looking.’ Dobson’s wife of many years had died at Christmas, crushed underneath the wheels of a wagon during the retreat. For a while the veteran had been shattered. Williams did not see it, but Hanley and Pringle had a haunted look when they told him of what had happened. Yet he recovered, and in the army way had taken a new bride when they were on board ship sailing away from Spain. The new Mrs Dobson was herself the widow of a sergeant, and a very religious and proper woman. It was an unlikely combination, and yet they seemed happy. The veteran had quit drinking on his new wife’s insistence. In the past, he had been repeatedly promoted and broken for drunkenness. Pringle had risked raising him to corporal immediately, and Williams suspected that sergeant’s rank would soon follow. No man was more capable when sober.
‘No, she’s a good lass.’ Williams assumed Dobson still meant the Spanish aristocrat. ‘Wouldn’t trust her an inch,’ he added. ‘Nor our major, of course, or them other two that sent us off.’
‘I see no reason to doubt Colonel D’Urban as anything other than a gallant officer,’ said the shocked Williams.
‘They can be the worst, sir.’ The veteran laughed. ‘But if this cart is carrying only news then I’m a Dutchman. Look how low it hangs on the springs.’
Williams did not know what to say or think, but experience taught him that the old soldier’s suspicions were usually sound.
Dobson looked around at the French cavalrymen riding as escort. He glanced at Williams and then smiled happily. ‘Still, I will say it makes a change from marching!’