By the fourth day, Williams’ frame ached from the jolting of the carriage and his skin itched from the bites of the lice infesting his clothing. Apart from one night at Cáceres, they stayed at rustic coaching inns. There was always a good room for the Doña Margarita, and a smaller but decent one for Wickham the confessor. The aristocrat brought her own linen with her to ensure a clean bed and Ramón strictly supervised the inn’s maids to ensure the lady’s bed was decently made.
He and the other ‘servants’ found space in the stables on dirty straw alive with vermin, and surrounded by the horses, mules and the other folk unable to afford or demand a room. Williams and Dobson slept in their clothes, both because it was still cold during the nights and to keep their red jackets concealed. Apart from that, it would, as Dobson said, ‘Stop any thieving hound from making off with them.’
They made good progress, and the Doña Margarita’s fine name and even finer letters of recommendation carried them through every check. Each French officer they met was treated to a warm smile, elegant flattery and the gift of another Indian purse.
‘A man in the market at Seville makes them,’ the lady replied when Williams heard Wickham express surprise that she carried so many mementoes of her years in the New World.
‘Smart girl, as I said,’ whispered Dobson to the ensign.
They overheard little conversation from the inside of the carriage. Sometimes this was because the noise of the wheels and creaks of the springs and harness muffled the sound, but more often it was simply that there was no talk. La Doña Margarita appeared to prefer silence. At the beginning Wickham had constantly attempted to strike up a conversation, but his persistence met with little encouragement and no real success. Williams had no opportunity at all to converse with the lady, and indeed rarely saw her, since he was on the far side of the carriage. At night, the Doña Margarita pulled her thickly laced mantilla down over her face before leaving the carriage. After all these days, Williams doubted that he could have picked her face out in a crowd. There was a distinctive badge sewn on to the sleeve of her black travelling dress, which had an embroidered figure of the Madonna surrounded by a wreath.
‘Saragossa,’ said Ramón the driver, as if that explained everything. ‘We were there in the siege.’ He spoke slowly and haltingly in English, although Williams suspected that he concealed a better knowledge of the language. ‘A big fire in the hospital. My lady go in. She pull out tres. All alive, but she burn her arms. My poor lady. Very brave.’
They got no more from him, and the servant was otherwise as resolutely silent as the mistress. Williams had heard a little of the heroines of Saragossa, who had helped the city repel the French last year. The most famous was Augustina, whose lover had fallen, but who nevertheless fired the cannon he had loaded and so shattered a French attack. Ramón’s story made Williams regret all the more the lack of opportunity to converse with so brave a lady.
At dawn on the fifth day they crossed the Tagus by ferry – the signature and seal of King Joseph once again speeding their way. Then they went north-west along a good road, which ate up the miles.
Williams struggled to maintain his sense of where they were. He wondered about Pringle and the detachment of the 106th and whether or not they would be waiting at the rendezvous. It was hard to believe that men could march as fast as the carriage, even if their route was more direct. On this, at least, he was willing to share some of Dobson’s doubts about the hearty assurances of the colonel and Baynes.
He missed Pringle and the familiar faces of the grenadiers. Even more he missed Hanley, and wondered where he was. Wickham had admitted that he saw the lieutenant fall, but did not see him wounded or killed. Williams wanted to believe that his friend was alive, although that increased his sense of guilt that he had done nothing to find him. The explanations readily came to mind. The Spanish had lost the field to the French and it was impossible to return. As importantly, he had almost immediately been ordered away as escort to the Doña Margarita. Reason might be satisfied, but in his heart he wondered whether the affair would have happened differently if he had been with Hanley instead of escorting Baynes.
The carriage rolled on. Another night was spent in the out-house of an inn, heavily populated with vermin of all kinds, stinking of decaying meat and resonating to the snores of a dozen pedlars on their way south.
The next morning they turned off the main road and struggled along a track where the mud was deep and sucked at the wheels. Ramón, who seemed to have excellent eyesight, spotted movement in the trees edging the road and called a warning. The former hussar pulled the blanket away to uncover his loaded blunderbuss. Dobson brandished his own heavy firelock and Williams very obviously readied his pistol. They caught a glimpse of a villainous face with a red headscarf lurking behind a low wall, but no one dared to challenge them. Ramón drove the team on as fast as the mud permitted. The horses were tired, since they had had no opportunity to change them and this meant that they had to rest the team more and more often.
The country was rugged and empty, the track winding through valleys where rows of olive trees clung to the slopes. They crossed little bridges and went through long stretches of forest without seeing any other travellers.
Once again it was Ramón who spotted the rider at the moment when they were ready to begin after a rest of an hour, during which Wickham had dismounted and done his best to be genial and draw a somewhat sullen Williams into light conversation.
‘I see ’im,’ said Dobson. ‘On the crest to the right of those pines.’
Williams searched the slope, caught the movement and saw the silhouette of a cloaked horseman slip behind the trees.
‘Looks like a soldier,’ said the veteran.
Williams nodded. He had even thought he glimpsed the shape of a helmet.
‘Could be a deserter, or a wandering Spaniard,’ said Wickham dismissively. ‘Even if they’re French the Doña Margarita’s pass will surely get us through. Nothing to worry about.’
Williams’ instincts made him doubt such a sanguine assessment, and he sensed Dobson felt the same. So too did Ramón, and the driver used his long whip mercilessly to push the team hard and get quickly through the series of defiles they saw up ahead. He was good at his job, and if the carriage rocked on its springs as it took the tighter corners, he never lost control. Wickham yelled in protest, but then came the higher, sharper tone of La Doña Margarita ordering the driver to keep going.
A sharp corner led to a bridge, and Ramón braked for a moment as the horses’ hoofs threw sparks off the cobbles as they swung to turn in time. The left wheels brushed against the parapet, their iron rims sending up more sparks and squealing as they scraped past in a dark flurry of old mortar, but the carriage was still moving on. Williams looked back to see several stones tumble from the wall and splash into the brook.
They were going uphill now, and the horses naturally raced up the rise. Williams was still looking back, and on the longest stretch saw a horseman following them, with two more behind him. Then the man reined in hard and his horse reared up as he stopped sharply. He was bare headed, and wearing a long cloak.
A musket ball flicked a long splinter from the wood of the carriage roof just beside the rail he held. The report was almost instant, and as Dobson yelled a warning and pointed to the left, Williams spotted a French dragoon struggling to control his mount, frightened by the noise and smoke. Beside him, two more dragoons steadied their own horses and drew their long swords. Each had a cloth cover over his helmet to prevent the brass from glinting in the sun and betraying their position. On the right four more dragoons appeared from the trees and followed them, the carriage throwing up a great spray of muddy water as Ramón flogged the horses to pelt down the track.
Wickham heard the Frenchmen crying and leaned from the window of the carriage, calling at the driver to halt.
‘Don’t shoot!’ he screamed in French at the pursuing cavalry. ‘We are friends of King Joseph!’
Ramón did not stop and the Frenchmen splashed down the trail after them. Another man fired, this time with a pistol, and the ball snapped through the window above Wickham’s head, ripping a neat hole in the leather curtain. The major’s head shot back inside, and Williams was sure he caught a burst of clear, feminine laughter.
‘Don’t shoot! We are friends!’ This time the shout came from inside the carriage.
‘These lads mean business,’ called Dobson, clinging desperately on to the handrail as the carriage lurched and swung. He had his blunderbuss cocked, but knew that one-handed he would not be able to aim and feared wasting his charge when it seemed unlikely they would get the chance to reload.
Williams leaned back, pointing his heavy pistol at the closest dragoon. The carriage bounced, and the muzzle leapt from its aim squarely at the yellow front at the centre of the Frenchman’s dark green jacket. Thankfully he had not pulled the trigger, but the threat of the gun was enough to make the dragoons rein back a little. Another fired a pistol, but the ball must have gone high or wide, because neither Dobson nor Williams felt it pass near.
The carriage lurched again as Ramón skilfully took another bend in the road. Williams almost lost his footing as he leaned back, and for a moment his left foot was in the air, his balance going, and then another jolt pitched him back against the back of the car.
There were more dragoons waiting, this time six men on foot and two more holding their horses. The dismounted men fired a ragged volley. One shot cut a groove in the roof of the carriage, and another twitched at the heavy curtain on the left-hand window and slapped into the far side of the car, prompting a cry of alarm that sounded more male than female.
The right lead horse was pumping blood from a wound in its neck. Ramón knew the animal was dying, but wanted to get as far as he could, and so he whipped the poor beast and the team ran on. Gouts of blood sprayed back red from the wound.
After a hundred yards the team began to slow perceptibly. Then more dragoons appeared, weaving through the trees beside the road, four on either side. The green-coated riders had their swords out, and an officer was bellowing orders. Two men raced along beside the team. Dobson aimed as best he could, one arm looped through the handrail so that both hands could try to steady the blunderbuss. He anticipated the bump, waited for the moment when the carriage sank back down on its springs and pulled the trigger.
The detonation seemed huge and the cloud of filthy smoke blew back around the two men on the rear of the carriage, but the explosion of the nails and scrap metal struck the dragoon on the right from behind, punching through the cloth cover and the brass of his helmet and shattering the rear of the man’s skull. His head flopped to one side, but some nervous reaction kept the man’s knees in their high boots firmly astride the horse, and the animal ran on with its dead rider.
Williams aimed at the man on the other side, but then another dragoon closed with him, sword lunging, and the ensign swung his arm back and fired with the muzzle of his pistol no more than a yard away. He pulled the trigger and the flint snapped down and sparked. Nothing happened; perhaps the powder in the pan had been shaken out in their jolting drive. The dragoon was closing, and almost by reflex Williams flung the pistol at him, striking him in the mouth and making him yank with his left hand at the reins and swing away. He blocked the path of the men that followed, and for the moment they opened up some distance.
Williams reached for the other pistol and hoped desperately that this would fire. The carriage was starting to slow, and then the right lead horse died and the left’s collar was grabbed by the French dragoon who had sped up on that side. The trees fell back from the road as they came to a crossroads marked by a little shrine to a local saint. Ramón fumbled for a pistol just as the right lead slumped down. The team swung to the side, tugging the Frenchman from his saddle, and then the front wheel sank into a shallow ditch. There were screams from inside the carriage as the whole car rocked violently and the occupants were flung about. Dobson lost his balance and fell, rolling on the grass. Williams somehow stayed on.
Half a dozen French dragoons were closing, led by a slim officer whose uncovered helmet had a leopard-skin band and a tall white plume as well as the black horsehair crest. Farther back down the road, more dragoons cantered up in support. Williams jumped to the ground, and levelled the pistol at them, using his free hand to unbutton his greatcoat.
‘Jackets, Dob,’ he said. He was not sure the French would be inclined to take prisoners. With one man killed he could not blame them, but at least he would make the effort and show the enemy that they were British soldiers.
‘View halloo!’ The cry came as clear and purposeful as the brass call of a trumpet. ‘Tally ho! Come on the Twentieth!’ Williams could not see who was shouting, for the cries came from behind the carriage and the road off to the right. Then there were the thuds of a heavy-footed horse pounding through the mud and an immaculately dressed light dragoon officer shot past. His cloak billowed behind him, his trim-waisted tunic had rows of white lace widening at the shoulders, and he had the distinctively British Tarleton helmet with its comb of a crest. Behind him rode a corporal in the regulation place for a cover man. Both officer and NCO had their heavy curved sabres raised high.
‘Charge, my lads!’ the officer called, and behind him another rider appeared, this one a trumpeter in a green uniform Williams did not recognise. The man raised his trumpet and blew the intoxicating notes of the charge.
Williams fired, and had the satisfaction of seeing the shot strike home on the chest of a dragoon’s horse.
The French fled. Their horses were tired and they were spread out, and that was the worst condition in which to meet a cavalry charge. The officer yelled the order and the men wheeled sharply, and then kicked their spurred boots to send the horses racing as fast as they could back the way they had come. The dragoons coming up in support joined the prudent withdrawal.
None of the French looked back to share Williams’ surprise when he realised that the three horsemen were alone and that no squadron followed them.
‘Mad bugger,’ said Dobson admiringly.
The Frenchman with the wounded horse lagged behind, and the light dragoon corporal kept after him even after his officer had reined back. He closed steadily, and with a well-aimed and heavy swing the stockily built man cut the French dragoon from his saddle. His cry of pain hastened the flight of the others.
The light dragoon officer nodded approvingly, and then walked his horse back towards the foundered carriage. He had thick side whiskers framing his open, handsome face.
‘Well, that was all rather thrilling,’ he said happily. A couple of shots echoed up the valley. ‘Ah, that must be the excellent Charles, and the admirable Corporal Evans. They should keep Johnny Crapaud amused for a few hours. Corporal Evans displays a natural talent for banditry. Well, he is Welsh. Those fellows will be lucky to get away with their boots by the time he has finished.’
Williams dropped his long coat and revealed a red jacket which, for all its failings, still showed him to be an ensign in the British Army.
The light dragoon officer noticed and gave an easy smile. He wore a number of decorations Williams did not recognise. ‘I hope you will not take offence, my dear fellow, but if I were you I would have strong words with your tailor. A horse whip would seem the ideal way to start.
‘By the way, my name is Wilson.’