Chapter 8

‘My lady,’ said Colonel Wilson with an impeccable bow. ‘It is good to see you again. I hope you were not in any way incommoded during the chase?’ Wickham took the Doña Margarita’s hand to help her step down from the carriage. In spite of her condition she did so with graceful ease.

‘I am perfectly recovered, Sir Robert. And must thank you for such a timely and heroic arrival.’ Her voice was deep, the English perfect with the barest trace of an accent, and her speech less formal than before. With her mantilla now around her shoulders, Williams for the first time saw her face clearly. Her long black hair was coiled on top of her head and braided down to her shoulders. Her eyes were such a deep brown as to seem almost black, and she looked boldly at each of them in turn, her gaze strong and unblinking. They were set in a round, almost heart-shaped face, with lips that were wide and a little fleshy. If her features were not perhaps wholly perfect, there was an animation in her expression and movements which leant them a lively beauty. As much as her appearance, Williams admired the coolness she had displayed in the recent chase, confirming what Ramón had told them of the lady’s courage.

She was taller than he had guessed, or perhaps for the first time was standing straight, so that she was only a few inches shorter than Wickham. Her skin was a dark cream, at the moment still somewhat flushed with excitement. ‘You are the perfect caballeros, appearing at the moment when all seemed lost,’ and after the compliment, she made the slightest motion of a curtsy, hardly bending her knees and yet conveying a considerable elegance.

‘I am most delighted to hear it, although I dare say your fellows would have fought the enemy off without our aid.’

It was a generous, if absurd, compliment. ‘We are most glad you arrived,’ said Williams.

‘Indeed, for we were most surely outmatched,’ added Wickham.

‘A happy chance,’ replied Sir Robert, ‘and we are pleased to have been of service. Now, we ought to get your carriage ready to move again in case any more of those fellows turn up.’ They were surprised to see the colonel undo his helmet’s chinstrap, take it off, and then peel off his cloak and jacket. ‘Come, Dobson, is it not? Let us see if we can shift this wheel, while the Doña Margarita’s man attends to the team.’

Williams was surprised to see a senior officer so readily submitting to manual work. Wickham was aghast, but immediately reprieved from copying the example when the lady asked him to help carry her travelling case over to the shade of a tree so that she could sit down. He was all attention.

The ensign happily joined Wilson, his corporal and Dobson as they clambered down into the shallow ditch. The wheel was undamaged, but the slope of the little trench almost vertical, although no more than eighteen inches deep. Without tools, they could not dig out a gentler slope.

‘Well, brute force it is,’ declared the colonel. The dead horse had been taken from the traces and dragged away by the rest of the team. Then the remaining lead was moved back to replace the animal behind, and Ramón led them forward while the four others heaved at the axle to raise the coach. The horses strained, were whipped on, and with a sudden surge the rim of the wheel gripped the top of the bank, crumbling the edge, until the carriage was rolling on. All four of them quickly let go to save themselves from being dragged forward as the team raced a few yards before the driver restrained them.

‘I must thank you again, sir, for your most timely appearance,’ said Williams, brushing the dirt and grease from his hands.

‘Don’t mention it. Happy to be of service, and simply good luck that we were here.’

Williams doubted that it was luck, and suspected that the colonel had been looking for them. So had the French dragoons, for there seemed no other reason for such an immediate and determined attack. The other enemy soldiers they had encountered had always behaved with considerable caution. There was, after all, no obvious threat posed by a single carriage.

The French must have wanted either the lady herself or something she carried. Perhaps they were after the messages she bore, but Williams could not help thinking of Dobson’s suspicion that the carriage concealed something heavy. It had certainly been a bigger effort than he expected for the four of them to lift the wheel of so lightly constructed a vehicle.

‘I must say, sir, that it was a bold and gallant stroke to attack so many.’

‘Capital sport!’ After a moment Colonel Wilson chuckled to himself. ‘Reminds me of the time back in Flanders when a couple of squadrons of their chasseurs tried to snaffle a battery while most of our fellows were dismounted and resting their horses. Lord Paget, Willy Erskine, myself and a few other officers were the only ones on horseback so we flung ourselves at the Frenchies and laid about for all we were worth. Gave our light dragoons the chance to saddle up and we put the whole lot into the bag. Capital sport, Mr Williams, capital sport!

‘Audacity is the key. Never give them time to think or count how many you are. Just go bald-headed at the enemy and he will spring back “as one who has tread on an unseen snake amid the briars, when stepping firmly on the earth.”’

Williams felt the quote was familiar, and suddenly the rest of it came to him. ‘“And in sudden terror pulls back as it rises in anger and puffs out its purple neck.”’

‘“And so we charge and with serried arms flow around them”,’ added Sir Robert, delighting in the exchange. ‘I shall not claim the prowess of a son of Venus and his warriors for myself and Corporal Gorman, but the outcome was just as satisfactory.’

Wickham and the lady were close enough to hear the conversation and now the major joined them, confident that any unbecoming labour was at an end. ‘Mr Williams and I had the honour of serving under Lord Paget at Sahagun last winter,’ he said, seizing the opportunity of parading any acquaintance with such a great man, and resenting his subordinate’s ready knowledge of the classics. ‘I was on General Paget’s staff. Mr Williams was there to act in the capacity of a translator.’ Wickham’s tone indicated the unimportance of such an unmilitary task. ‘Although in the event Lord Paget was too busy setting about the French to give much thought to communication!’

‘Ah, so you are familiar with modern languages as well as ancient, Mr Williams?’ asked the colonel with evident enthusiasm. ‘That is an excellent practice for a young officer.’

Williams’ honesty surfaced immediately. ‘I fear there was a wholly mistaken esteem for my skills. Since returning to Portugal, I have attempted some small study of the language, but confess that my success is limited.’

‘Your diligence does you credit, as does your modesty. Vanity and promotion of one’s own deeds are the most terrible of vices, and ensure that all too often the higher commands go to the braggarts rather than the men of true worth. Such is the world we live in.’

‘The Doña Margarita wonders when we shall be recommencing our journey, Sir Robert,’ said Wickham, relishing such a level of intimacy with two persons of title.

‘Of course, of course, we shall leave immediately. Mr Charles and Corporal Evans will be able to catch up with us as soon as their business is complete. We ought to move, just in case another stray patrol chances upon us. We will take you on and guide you to a far stronger escort waiting to take the lady the rest of the way.’

‘Escort, Sir Robert?’ asked Wickham.

‘Two companies of your own corps, under the command of the estimable Captain Pringle. I spoke with him last night and suggested that he wait for you in a little village lying on the old coach route.’

That was splendid news, and Williams saw no point in commenting that Sir Robert had obviously been aware of their coming – and indeed a good deal more than he was choosing to tell.

‘Wickham my dear fellow, I feel it is best if you continue to travel in the carriage and attend to the comforts of La Doña Margarita. She is a fine and spirited lady, but given her situation the journey itself must be fatiguing, apart from the threat of the enemy.’

‘Of course, Sir Robert.’ Williams noticed something new in Wickham’s expression, which went beyond mere satisfaction at so comfortable an assignment. The Spanish aristocrat seemed more inclined to conversation than in the past, and perhaps this encouraged the major.

‘Mr Williams, we have saddled the spare horse with the Frenchman’s tack, so would you do me the honour of riding with us. An additional pair of eyes would not go amiss. I doubt that we shall have more trouble with the French, but one can never be sure.’

The carriage horses were tired, and now reduced to a team of four, but they kept to as fast a pace as possible, helped that the trend in the road was downwards. After two hours, they were joined by Captain Charles, a gunner officer with a boyish face and a nose left crooked by some childhood misadventure. He was followed a few minutes later by a ginger-haired rogue who proved to be Corporal Evans. He had an infantryman’s jacket with yellow facings and yet looked as comfortable on horseback as any cavalryman. He confirmed that no French were following. The two men seemed exhilarated by the recent skirmish, reflecting Sir Robert’s own light-hearted enthusiasm.

‘Charles is my adjutant,’ said the colonel, after the gunner and Williams were introduced to each other. ‘He helps me to run the Legion. Without him I would no doubt forget to issue the men with musket balls to shoot or breeches to wear!’

‘I am sure you would manage, sir.’

‘Well, I do let you have some sport as well as making you slave away. Eh, James, better than manning some godforsaken fort on the windswept cliffs of Sussex?’

‘Undoubtedly, sir,’ replied Captain James Charles. ‘That was such a dull existence, without the slightest chance of action. With the Legion there is always such capital sport.’

Williams could not help noticing the officer using the same expression as his commander. When Sir Robert took a turn riding ahead to scout, the gunner was even more effusive.

‘The chief is a wonder. Do you know that with just one battalion of ours, a few dozen horsemen and the support of the local Spanish, we have kept General Lapisse and a whole French corps busy. We move fast, you see, and the chief will attack at any opportunity. Sometimes it’s just a handful of us, a troop of cavalry, a howitzer and a company of infantry, and we’ll pounce on their outposts. There’s usually more of them, but then they don’t know that, do they? So we charge in and overrun the piquets, and usually take every man. The shock of that is sufficient to make their regiment think thousands are attacking. Nine times out of ten they pull back, and we nibble at their heels like terriers. If they do choose to fight, then we will not give them the chance. It’s easier for our small numbers to escape.

‘For the last month we have led Lapisse a merry dance. Convinced him he had no chance of capturing Ciudad Rodrigo up north, and so the French broke the siege. The way things are going we may chase him out of the whole country. If only those damned fools in London and Lisbon would realise it and give the chief more men, we could keep the border secure and liberate half of Spain.’

‘I understand your corps is principally recruited from the Portuguese,’ asked Williams when the flow slackened.

‘The Legion? Have you heard of us?’

‘I confess little more than the name. The Lusitanian Legion is it not?’

‘The Loyal Lusitanian Legion,’ said Charles with heavy emphasis. ‘Show him your hat, lad.’ This was to the trumpeter, who dutifully took off his helmet and showed the plate to Williams. It bore the crest of Portugal and the letters L L L. ‘I suspect Bonaparte has one as well so we need the full title! Yes, like young Arturo here, almost all of the Legion is Portuguese.

‘When the French invaded, a number of officers and patriotic gentlemen found their way to London. As you might expect, they were without exception adventurous men, and they all wanted to fight against the invader.’

Williams wondered cynically whether it might have been easier to fight the invader if they had stayed in Portugal, but quickly dismissed the thought as unworthy. He knew that the Portuguese army had been in no state to mount a long resistance. ‘And Sir Robert was appointed to lead them?’ he said, lest his silence seem rude.

‘Quite so,’ continued the artillery officer happily. ‘Not sure whether he or the Portuguese ambassador came up with the splendid title of legion.’

‘It does have a ring to it, and such a marvellous heritage.’ Williams’ love of the classics ensured his enthusiasm was now wholly sincere.

‘The chief wants a well-balanced light corps of foot, horse and guns to move quickly, but strike with great precision and force. From the beginning there were a few British officers like myself to assist in the task, but most of the commissioned ranks and all of the soldiers are Portuguese. The recruits flooded in as soon as we arrived and with all the usual bloody-minded selfishness of politicians there weren’t enough supplies for them all.’

Williams nodded. The story was so familiar. ‘Yet clearly he has taken the field, and to great effect.’

‘Yes, in spite of those self-serving fools. Our first battalion is complete and has been active since the autumn. Between that ruddy bishop and a German blackguard, only God knows what has happened to the second battalion.

‘Damned shame. If we had all the men we should the chief wouldn’t half be playing merry hell with the French. He still is, truth be told, but we could do so much more.’ The captain’s almost cherubic face seethed with frustration at such folly. He expanded on the theme at considerable length, and Williams could not help being relieved when Wilson returned and sent Charles and Corporal Evans off to patrol ahead of them.

‘No sign of the French,’ said Sir Robert. ‘I suspect that we have given them the slip for the moment. Or more likely they have learned caution and we must take advantage of the fact. If we can keep to this pace then I believe we shall reach your comrades not long after nightfall.’

‘That is good news, sir,’ said Williams, and meant it, although his heart sank at the thought of having to tell Pringle that their friend was either dead or a prisoner of the French.

‘The good captain told me that you ran into a storm after sailing from Corunna?’

Williams nodded. ‘I confess that I am not the best of sailors, and the ferocity of the weather and the waves overwhelmed me.’

‘Yes, I know. For reasons best known to himself old Father Neptune has conceived a great dislike for poor Sir RW. As soon as he glimpses me on a boat he unleashes his savage gales and flings me about every which way. Given sailors and their superstitions, it’s a wonder I haven’t been tipped overboard on some of the rougher nights!’

He changed the subject abruptly. ‘So you charged at Sahagun, Mr Williams?’

‘My horse did rather run away with me that morning.’ At the moment he was struggling to control the carriage horse, unused as it was to a saddle. The animal was continually shifting under him, tossing its head and threatening to surge away at a gallop. Williams clung on to the reins to keep a nominal control.

‘You are too modest, I am sure. It was a gallant action and I am proud of my old corps.’

‘You served in the Fifteenth, sir?’

‘Aye, till I transferred to the Twentieth. In my day we made almost as gallant a charge at Villers-en-Cauchies back in ’94. Did the French cavalry meet you at the halt? By the way, if I were you I would lengthen the reins and use less force. At the moment he’s fighting you every inch.’

Williams followed the advice, and the horse lurched into an awkward trot. He pulled back hard. For a moment the animal threw up its head and he had no control, but then it sullenly slowed back to a walk. Wilson suspected that the rider’s nervousness was communicating itself to the mount and making him skittish. Yet for all his evident inexperience as a horseman, Sir Robert liked the young ensign, with his open face and remarkable bashfulness, but most of all for his impression of confidence and ability as a soldier.

‘Yes, the French waited and fired volleys as we approached. I could not understand why. Surely impetus is the great strength of the cavalryman.’ Wilson liked the ensign’s lack of bluster.

‘It is indeed, as long as order is retained. Once the enemy break then a regiment will split up in the chase. We went eight miles or more in Flanders. My horse and most of the others were lathered in sweat. I have rarely felt so elated and weary at the same instant. One of our farriers killed twenty-two Frenchmen by himself.’

Williams had an image of an axe dripping blood, then realised that was absurd for the man must surely have used his sabre.

‘You never saw such slaughter,’ continued Sir Robert. ‘Well, of course you probably have, for your corps was in the thick of things in Portugal, was it not?’

‘I was commissioned there,’ said Williams, for there was something about the colonel’s enthusiasm which made him ready to speak. ‘I was also at Medellín, and saw the French slaughter the Spanish.’

Sir Robert looked grim for a moment, and then smiled. ‘A dreadful day, but I have no doubt Don Gregorio will dust himself down and rise again. He’s a tough old bird. Your commission is the first step of many, I am sure. Villers-en-Cauchies got me my knighthood, or did you think me some scion of ancient lineage?’ He laughed out loud, and continued before an answer could be given. ‘There is something pure and very right in a title won by battle. We were under Austrian command that day, so, believe it or not, you are looking at a Knight of the Order of Maria Theresa and Baron of the Holy Roman Emperor. There is something fine in being a modern crusader. Although I dare say Boney would claim the title has lapsed now that he has dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. Damned cheek.’

‘The truest form of nobility is surely the reward for courage,’ said the ensign with obvious sincerity.

‘I am proud of the honour, but doubt that our own country will copy such an example. Just imagine if the Lords was filled only by the heroes of our nation.’ Wilson shook his head. ‘Instead I fear we blame our heroes. It is truly shameful how ministers now condemn Sir John Moore for their own failure to support him.’

‘He was a great man,’ said Williams with a note almost of awe in his voice.

‘Your regiment served in his last campaign.’ Sir Robert caught something in the voice, and was curious. ‘Did you meet him?’

‘Yes, I was beside him when he received his mortal wound, and waited and watched with the others during his final hours.’ Reluctantly, and with considerable encouragement and cajoling from the colonel, Williams told the story. It seemed more like an age than little more than three months ago.

‘A great man, and a great loss. His was a clear mind, who knew that this war could only be won in Spain. Portugal cannot be defended. Its border is too long, its fortresses too few and easy to pass. It is in Spain that we must beat the French, and we must beat them by attacking, always attacking.

‘My Legion is merely the start. With more men and more regiments we could hound the French from dawn till dusk!’ Williams was reminded of Charles’s recent passion.

‘Can a light corps achieve so much, sir?’ Williams asked with genuine interest.

‘Even on its own it can achieve a great deal. Is that not the lesson from America, where the Yankees showed us how it was done? We could win battles and yet lost the war. They controlled the country. Our outposts, our foragers and our sympathisers were always at risk of attack. The only way to challenge such partisans was with fast-moving and well-led bodies of horse and light foot. Numbers mattered less than speed.

‘I have ridden with the Turks and the Cossacks. It is an ancient way of fighting, and we can learn much from them. Boldness is what matters, as I believe I said to you some hours ago.’ Sir Robert chuckled. ‘I fear I have been up on my hobby horse once again. You have shown commendable patience in listening with such courtesy.’

‘You are too kind in your judgement, for I have listened in fascination. Indeed, I believe the speed of your campaign has readily overcome any chance of my disagreeing.’

Sir Robert laughed.

‘May I ask where the main body of the Legion is at the moment?’ asked Williams.

‘Moving fast, I trust, and waiting for the right moment to harry Lapisse. We have been occupying his corps and now they have grown tired of our hospitality. Do you know we captured nearly a thousand of them last week? The prisoners should be on their way to Ciudad Rodrigo by now.

‘Once I have seen La Doña Margarita safely to her escort I shall ride to join them. I am only out so far to spy out the land. Knowledge, Mr Williams, knowledge. That is what a commander most needs, and often the best way is to see with his own eyes.’

‘Are we to escort the lady farther, sir? There remains the question of our own orders.’

‘Your famous shells? All gone, I am happy to say. They were taken to Ciudad Rodrigo and my own Colonel Mayne dealt with them. They were the wrong calibre for the Spanish guns, so he blew the lot up. So now that you are unoccupied you can perform a task for me, and for our allies.’

‘An honour, sir,’ said Williams, for there was no real choice.

The last hour passed with little talk, but without any alarm. The land seemed empty. Houses had their shutters tightly closed and it was not until they reached the bottom of the valley and looked up to see the village that they spotted silhouettes in the fading light. There were soldiers forming a piquet beside the road. Captain Charles rode forward to hail them.

As they passed up the track Williams felt at home to see the familiar uniforms of his regiment, and faces he knew. They went between the first houses of the village itself, and Williams saw Pringle – plump, reassuring Pringle with his round glasses and ready smile. He saluted and exchanged courtesies with Sir Robert and Captain Charles, before grinning at Williams.

‘So you have been off wandering again, my friend. And leading poor Hanley astray. Where is he, by the way?’

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