‘Your shading is too heavy, as ever.’
Hanley did not bother to turn around. ‘You always mix your colours too brightly. And your nymphs look fat and drunk.’
‘The best kind,’ said José-Maria Espinosa. ‘Bacchus would approve.’ He leaned closer, looking over Hanley’s shoulder as the Englishman sat cross-legged beside the wall of the bridge and sketched.
‘Did no one ever tell you that it is the height of bad manners to watch an artist at work?’ Hanley still did not look back.
‘Genius grants considerable licence.’
‘You must remember this day, Chasseur Lebeque,’ said Hanley to the French light infantryman who was acting as his guard this afternoon. ‘For it seems we are in the presence of genius.’
‘Very good, sir. I’ll write and tell my mother all about it.’ Lebeque had taken off his shoes and gaiters and was sitting on the parapet, with his legs dangling over the swollen waters of the Guadiana. He had bent a piece of wire into a hook, tied it to a string and lowered the line into the river.
‘Caught anything yet?’ asked Hanley.
‘No, thank God. I hate fish.’ Lebeque was a conscript, making his best of the army. This afternoon was dull, but at least that meant no one was making him work. The lad had told Hanley that he was eighteen. With his small body and smooth, olive-skinned face he looked much younger. ‘That’s why I like to catch the little sods, just to teach ’em.’
Espinosa’s French was as good or better than Hanley’s, but he ignored the exchange and continued to speak in Spanish. He gestured at the sketch of the marching regiments. ‘I am surprised you haven’t turned them into legionaries.’
Hanley was sketching the columns of French soldiers marching across the long Roman bridge into Merida. As they came on to the crossing sergeants bellowed at the men to straighten their shoulders and march to the beat of the drums and look like the Emperor’s finest when they stepped into the town. In truth he had wondered about turning the billowing greatcoats the men wore into the cloaks of Augustus’s soldiers.
‘Might just as well record the new conqueror as the old,’ said Hanley, and for the first time he turned to look at Espinosa. It was three days after the battle and the Spaniard no longer wore uniform. Instead he was all in black, save for the white silk stockings and the brass buckles on his shoes. There had always been something very neat and controlled about José-Maria Espinosa.
‘You look like a lawyer,’ said the Englishman. ‘I was not aware that such a profession encouraged genius.’ Espinosa had dabbled in many things in the years in Madrid. He painted a little, wrote verse and satirical plays, but always talked more than he produced. Hanley mainly remembered the man’s acidic wit.
‘Genius flourishes by its very nature, wherever it chooses,’ the Spaniard replied airily. ‘But no, Sotero is the lawyer. He goes around telling everyone of the wonders of our new king.’ Hanley wondered whether Sotero was the man he had seen trying to persuade the prisoners to join King Joseph’s army.
‘I spread enlightenment in a dark world.’
‘That must keep you busy,’ replied Hanley, going back to his sketch. The infantry regiment had passed and a long line of artillery caissons was following. He worked in silence for five minutes, knowing that every stroke he made had become clumsy because he was being observed.
‘I believe your calculations are wrong,’ said Espinosa at last.
Hanley had written several columns of numbers on the open top right corner of the page, beginning with ‘60 arches’. Then, after a few rough guesses on the length of the bridge, he had begun noting down the number of each French regiment to pass by, their strength, and the number of cannon following them. He was not sure whether he would ever find such information useful, but it had made him feel as if he was doing something. His French captors had shown no interest in him during the last few days, and he had not seen Espinosa since their brief meeting on the evening of the battle. Hanley was given a good deal of freedom, but had the strange sense of waiting for something without knowing what it was.
‘I believe the three arches near the centre are medieval,’ he said.
Espinosa took off his round hat and passed a hand over the smooth top of his head. ‘Crude work,’ he said. ‘So very obvious.’
‘Well, I am not a genius.’
‘You hear him, soldier?’ said Espinosa, switching for the first time to French. ‘It seems our friend is not a great artist after all.’
‘Sorry to hear that, sir,’ replied Lebeque, staring fixedly down at the river. A month ago he had seen the body of a friend sawn in half by peasants and was not inclined to like any Spaniard. Nor was he that keen on civilians, much as he longed to be one himself.
‘You spoke of enlightenment?’ Hanley sensed the discomfort of the light infantryman, and liked the cheery young fellow enough to continue speaking Spanish.
‘Indeed, yes,’ said Espinosa. ‘The knowledge of science and the wisdom of philosophy. Joseph-Napoleon brings all of these things to a new and better Spain. He is a learned and intelligent man, gentler of soul than his brother. I am sure that you will like him.’
‘Well, should he care to call on me when I am returned to my prison cell . . .’ In truth Hanley was billeted in a modest and clean room near the ruins of the old Moorish citadel in the town.
‘No need. You are coming with me to Madrid.’
Hanley said nothing, although he could not conceal his surprise.
‘Are you not going to ask why?’ asked Espinosa.
‘A prisoner is not entitled to such questions.’
‘Asking questions is the beginning of wisdom. Have you really become so much the soldier to forget that and merely submit to orders?’
‘Perhaps you are confident that the King simply wants a mediocre artist brought to him?’ Espinosa laughed at his own joke. ‘This really is a compliment. We have need of clever men, men of reason and letters to build a new Spain and a new world.’
‘The forces of progress. Or did you think I mocked Godoy and the Bourbons, and yet had nothing better to offer?’
‘You prefer the invaders?’ Hanley stared at Espinosa’s face, struggling to know how much the man genuinely believed.
‘I prefer what is right. I prefer a state when knowledge triumphs over ignorance, and where ability counts for more than family or inherited wealth. And I can remember you speaking of such things with fire in your eye.’
‘And no doubt wine in my belly,’ said Hanley a little wearily. ‘I said many things.’ Ideas had always thrilled him, but had rarely imposed any fixed beliefs or great consistency. ‘But then I had not just seen thousands of my countrymen cut down.’
‘More than once I have heard you say that the truly enlightened man knows no country, only the truth and the lust for making a better world.’ The words sounded treacherously familiar, and Hanley still liked the sound of them, even if he had never worried too much about their meaning.
‘Look at that,’ Espinosa continued, and he waved his arm at the walls of Merida. ‘Eighteen hundred years ago the Emperor Augustus settled his veteran soldiers here as farmers and they took local women as their wives. They built a bridge that we still walk on today and which will no doubt still be here when all the ones made in the last fifty years have crumbled into ruin.
‘What was here before the Romans? Would you prefer Viriathus to the Caesars? Yes, the Romans came as conquerors and killed many. Many more Spaniards joined them. They became Romans, they lived in fine houses and read Virgil and Homer. There were senators from Spain, and eventually even emperors!’
‘Both of whom showed a marked preference for boys rather than women,’ said Hanley. He was used to the immense pride so many Spaniards took in the great and ‘Spanish’ emperors Trajan and Hadrian. The pair’s embarrassing homosexuality was rarely mentioned.
Espinosa ignored the provocation, and the way he continued made Hanley wonder whether the speech was rehearsed rather than genuine. The Englishman felt like a student listening to one of his duller teachers drone on.
‘Bonaparte is making a new Rome,’ declared Espinosa. ‘You cannot win when you fight him, any more than you could resist the consuls of Rome or the Caesars. The French have beaten the world. Can Spain hope to hold out against the power of the united world? Can Portugal? The English will make peace or watch as their power dwindles. To fight against the French is hopeless.’
Espinosa’s enthusiasm had raised the pitch of his voice until he was almost shouting over the trundling wheels, creaking harness and echoing hoofs of the passing artillery. ‘Yet you can join them and share in the great new civilisation being built. That is the path of progress. That is the chance for a man to be judged and rewarded according to his merit!’
For a moment Espinosa switched back to French. ‘Return to your fishing, soldier.’ Lebeque had been staring open mouthed.
‘Very good, sir.’ The light infantryman turned back to the river, for he had been long enough a soldier to know when to mind his own business.
‘Do you honestly believe all that?’ asked Hanley, genuinely curious, and as always unsure what to say after someone had made so passionate an outburst.
‘I believe the truth, and I do my best to see it,’ said Espinosa. ‘But tell me, now that you are a soldier, do you risk your life for King George and all the milords in London? Men you have so often scorned?’
Hanley did not really know. He had become a soldier because there seemed no alternative apart from utter penury. Once a soldier there did not seem any choice other than to fight whenever he was told to fight.
‘I fight to free Spain.’ That was true enough, although he guessed that he would have behaved no differently if the 106th had been sent somewhere else. He suspected that what mattered most to him now was his friends.
Espinosa was pleased with the answer. ‘So do I, as a true liberal.’
‘Oh,’ said Hanley, pretending the thought had just occurred to him. ‘I saw Velarde with the Army of Estremadura.’
‘Luiz?’ Espinosa’s tone suggested mild surprise, but no great interest. ‘That would be like him. The man was always a fool and a pig. It seemed so very fitting that he had so little skill as an artist. Any more would have been offensive in so ordinary a man.’
Hanley felt that the contempt was only half sincere. Espinosa was still acting, playing the part of the pompous convert to the new regime. The only puzzle was why.
They left the next morning, riding back across the same long bridge in the hour just before dawn, escorted by a squadron of German cavalry from Westphalia, dressed in green like the French chasseurs, but with a black leather helmet with a tall crest and decorations in dull brass. Now and again Espinosa would ride beside Hanley, holding forth on the glories of the new regime. ‘Look how these Germans fight for Bonaparte and receive their reward.’
On the second day the Westphalians returned to Merida and Hanley and Espinosa joined a column made up from detachments of all of the cavalry in Marshal Victor’s army – dragoons, chasseurs and hussars in their colourful uniforms. They were going back to their depots to form new squadrons to reinforce their regiments. Their mood was light, for the prospect of leaving Spain even for a while lifted their hearts. Spirits soared even higher on the next day when Lasalle and his staff joined them.
‘Ah, my Englishman, it is a joy to see you again.’ The hussar general took Hanley by the hand and appeared genuinely delighted to encounter him. ‘Come, you must dine with my officers tonight.’
Espinosa was not invited, and Lasalle barely acknowledged the man. ‘No soldier,’ he said quietly to Hanley. At the start of the evening the general was in high spirits. Entertainment was prepared for his ADCs and officers in what was clearly a well-practised drill for him. By the time they arrived at the inn the food was almost ready, long tables laid in the main room, and the serried ranks of wine, brandy and champagne awaiting their onslaught. So were half a dozen women, better dressed and more polished than the whores normally to be expected in a coaching inn.
‘The general likes his officers to live in a proper style,’ explained an ADC with sabre scars on his cheek and forehead and a carefully waxed moustache. ‘I made arrangements with an establishment in Madrid for the women and they were sent here to wait for us. One is French and a couple are Italians so we are assured of civilised company. I’m not sure about the blonde, as I haven’t seen her before.’ A woman in a pale pink dress with a plunging neckline had a mound of dyed golden hair piled high on top of her head. ‘Pretty, though, if you like them pale.’
Lasalle placed Hanley beside him at the table. The wine flowed freely, and Hanley found his glass refilled almost as soon as he set it down. The general drank much less than his officers, but even so remained in the highest of spirits.
‘I’m going to Paris to see my family and give my wife another baby. Then off to Vienna to a decent war against the Austrians. They are brave men who fight cleanly. Best of all we always beat them! Now drink with me a toast to the women of Vienna!’
Hanley found the spirit infectious. It was like being surrounded by a horde of bounding puppies, brimming over with excitement and joy.
‘Who has my heart?’ called out the general as the main courses were complete.
‘Your wife!’ chorused his officers in what was obviously a familiar ritual.
Officers began to disappear in turn upstairs, taking one of the women with them. Others began to drink even more heavily, or lit their pipes and smoked. Lasalle stayed with Hanley, a captain of the 2ieme Hussars and the scarred ADC sitting around the table. They played cards, gambling with piles of dollars the general had generously provided.
‘Go and have fun, Robert,’ Lasalle said to his ADC. ‘You’re having no luck tonight.’ The general had just won again.
‘I’ll try another hand, sir. Plenty of time for the battlefield of Venus later on.’
‘How old are you, Mr Hanley?’ asked the hussar captain.
‘You should be more than a lieutenant by now,’ said the hussar. ‘You should have been born a Frenchman!’
‘Everyone should have been born a Frenchman,’ said Lasalle. ‘Although then we would have no one to fight and life would scarcely be worth living. How could you enjoy peace without war?’
‘But do we need hate to know love?’ Hanley suggested. He had already drunk far more wine than was his habit and thought was beginning to become an effort.
One of the girls came past, supporting a chasseur lieutenant who was struggling to walk. It was the blonde in the pink dress. She let the man slump into a chair, bending down to lower him with her back to the scarred ADC. The temptation proved too much.
‘I know love!’ he yelled, and both hands grabbed the woman’s bottom through her flimsy dress.
She screamed, turning round in outrage that was more than half serious.
‘Saucy bugger!’ she yelled, and Hanley wondered why she spoke in English. There was something vaguely familiar about the girl’s face as she glared at the ADC and slapped him with just enough vigour to arouse him even more by joining the game.
‘Go, Robert,’ said the general, and the ADC almost sprang to his feet, and then grabbed the blonde and lifted her in his arms. She stared at Hanley for a moment as she was borne away, and his fuzzy thoughts tried to pierce the heavy powder and dyed hair, but could not.
‘I wish I was so young,’ said the general. ‘To be twenty-four again like you, Englishman – or younger still like Robert.’
‘I have always wanted to be older,’ said Hanley. ‘To be experienced and wise.’
‘Hussars need to be clever, not wise,’ said the captain, and the general nodded.
‘Winning the experience is a greater joy than having it,’ he said with an overwhelming melancholy. Hanley did not think that the general had drunk enough for this to be the brandy talking.
‘I should be dead,’ said Lasalle. ‘So many times I should be dead. A man should not live as I live and survive so long.’
‘A hussar who isn’t dead by thirty is a jean-foutre,’ said the captain in a tone that suggested a quote. Seeing Hanley’s puzzlement, he added, ‘A nothing, a scoundrel, a pile of horse dung, but worse than all of those.’
Lasalle drew deeply on his immense pipe. ‘Yes, I said that, and have tried to live up to it.’
‘I am twenty-nine.’ The captain’s words were solemn.
Lasalle blew out a cloud of smoke. ‘And I shall be thirty-four come summer. My luck should already have run out.’
‘A man makes his own luck,’ suggested Hanley, his mind too clouded to come up with anything original. In truth he was finding the sombre tone deeply oppressive. Penniless, he was now a prisoner too, cut off from his friends and facing what might be years of captivity. Then there was the strange purpose of Espinosa. He drank from his refilled brandy glass.
They were sitting in silence when the ADC returned.
‘You need to learn patience, my boy,’ said the general with just a hint of his earlier liveliness.
‘I knew I shouldn’t have left,’ muttered Robert under his breath so that Hanley barely caught the words. ‘Go with her, Englishmen,’ he said loudly. ‘You may disappoint after a Frenchman, but she knows her business. Take him, cherie.’ His hand darted back and pinched the blonde again. She yelped, hissed a string of Spanish, French and English oaths at him, but then dutifully put her arm around Hanley’s shoulder and began to lift him. He stood unsteadily. As they climbed slowly up the stairs, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw the ADC with the landlord, supervising a couple of the inn’s staff who were hanging a big mirror back up on the wall.
‘General!’ shouted the ADC. ‘You must show us again!’ The officers bellowed their approval.
Lasalle’s face changed, the desire to entertain his officers wrenching him from his own thoughts. ‘Gaston, my pistols,’ he called, and turned to find his orderly holding the weapons ready. ‘Robert, set up the glasses.’
Hanley stopped the girl, and made her wait. One of her hands began to smooth his chest in a way that was soon taking more and more of his attention, but he was still curious to see what was about to happen.
Empty glasses were lined up on a bench lifted on top of one of the tables. Lasalle stood with his back to them at the far end of the room, looking into the mirror. He raised a pistol in his left hand and then rested the barrel pointing back over his shoulder and took aim.
The bang resounded through the room as the pistol sparked and the first glass shattered into fragments.
The officers cheered, and the general was handed his second pistol.
‘He’s a mad ’un,’ said the girl, and Hanley was no longer capable of puzzling that she spoke English.
They walked on up the stairs and came to a door that lay ajar. Another shot rang out and there were more cheers. Hanley’s body now demanded that he give attention to the girl and he began a clumsy fumble.
‘Wait a minute, Mr Hanley,’ she said. ‘We’re nearly there.’
They went into the room, and he sank down on to the bed. His energy was fading, but he grabbed the blonde around the waist and tried to wrestle her down.
She slipped from his grasp and took a glass from the table. ‘Here, have this. It’ll do you good.’ He did as he was told. It tasted bitter, and then he flung the glass down and pulled the girl on top of him in spite of a squeal of protest.
In moments he was asleep, snoring loudly, and one arm flopped out of the bed on to the floor. The blonde disentangled herself, pulled at her dress to cover her bosom once again and refastened the buttons his eager hands had undone. She got up and stared down at him for a while, a thoughtful expression on her face.
‘Pity,’ said Jenny Dobson, and then managed to shift his dead weight enough so that there was sufficient of the bed for her to sleep. Half an hour would be about right before she should reappear and meet her next client.