Military history

Chapter 10

Jane woke slowly. She was on her side and something heavy rested on her. The dying fire gave only a faint glow and it took her a moment to realise that it was a man’s arm clad in a loose shirt. A bulky, warm presence leaned against her back and she presumed it was the owner of the arm.

Her mind moved slowly and the memories of yesterday were dim and weak. Then she remembered Wickham’s note and how she had gone to meet him and fear snapped her into full consciousness. Was this it? Had she lost her honour and perhaps ruined her life, bringing disgrace on her parents? A rebellious part of her felt that it was severe punishment indeed, since she could remember none of the supposed ecstasy of such a moment. Perhaps it was true that only the man gained the pleasure.

No, this was not right. She could remember clearly her anger because Wickham had not appeared. So who did lie beside her, breathing so softly and still sound asleep? Jane lifted the arm as gently as she could so that she could turn on to her back, and then twisted her head to look. A large head lay beside her, and even in the poor light the hair on it was clearly fair and not Wickham’s dark brown. Turning a little more she saw that it was Mr Williams, looking even more boyish than usual.

Jane was not sure how much comfort to take from this. She still remembered nothing of how she had got here, and a quick exploration revealed that she was almost completely naked. That did not appear to be true of Mr Williams, but she was unsure how much significance to rest on this. Again she lifted his arm, and began to slide out from underneath, raising her head to look around. A stamp and a snort, followed by movement in the shadows, revealed a horse, and there was just enough light to see an empty eye socket, so that made it Pringle’s mare. A mule was behind it. That explained some of the more earthy smells in the room. Clothes – her clothes, she realised – were stretched out around the fire, draped over bags and saddles. Beyond the fire Jenny Dobson sat with her back to the wall, her head down almost on her chest as she slept.

Memories rushed upon her of the French lancers, of her flight and the horse shying and plunging her into the river, and then the icy water and someone – yes, Williams – reaching out to grab her as she swept past. There was no recollection after that at all. Jane slid out and let the man’s arm drop so gently that he slept on without the slightest stir. She did not know whether or not she ought to be aware whether anything else had happened, but there would be some small comfort in being clothed.

She felt her shift. It was cold, and still perhaps a little damp, but surprisingly unstained, for the river had looked to be full of mud. Jane pulled it on and felt just a little more confidence.

‘Up and about, are we?’

Jane started, even though Jenny spoke in no more than a whisper. She smiled nervously, but for the moment could think of nothing to say that would not sound foolish.

Jenny stirred the fire into life, and added the last of the chopped straw. She lifted a small pistol from her lap, carefully relaxed the hammer and laid it down beside her. ‘How do you feel, miss?’ she asked with an unusual degree of deference.

‘Thank you, I believe I am well.’ Jane found herself trying to be overly formal because the situation was so very irregular. ‘But I shall be glad to be dressed. Would you help me?’ She had put on the small stays she wore over her shift, but needed someone else to tie the laces. In Portugal she and her mother had shared a maid, but her father had forbidden them to bring the girl on campaign – Jane suspected in a doomed attempt to make them stay in the comforts of Almeida – and more recently mother and daughter had performed the service for each other.

‘Good for the figure, these.’ Both women were still speaking quietly. Jenny fingered the stiff support, which was a delicate pale pink. She liked fine clothes, and longed for the day when she would own many of her own. That would come soon, she told herself. ‘Tight enough?’

Jane nodded. ‘Thank you, yes.’ She drew on her stockings and then reached for her silk drawers. Jenny had never seen such a thing before last night, nor even known they existed. Her admiration was fulsome.

‘I got them in Charleston,’ said Jane, finding talk of clothes pleasantly distracting. ‘The lady in the shop assured us they came from Paris, but then they will say anything.’ It all sounded so exotic to the sixteen-year-old Jenny.

‘Bet men like ’em,’ she said, shocking the other girl, but she continued obliviously. ‘Well, leastways taking ’em off.’

‘I cannot vouch for that one way or the other,’ came the prim reply. Yet the point could no longer be avoided. Jane looked down, still struggling with the words. ‘Last night,’ she began. ‘When I came here … did … That is to say, did he … I mean, Mr Williams …’

Jenny’s look was unbelieving and included just a hint of scorn. ‘He saved your life twice. When he pulled you out of the water you were like a block of ice. You’d be dead now if he hadn’t kept you warm.’

‘But did he …?’

‘Ravish you in your sleep!’ Jenny scoffed, only narrowly stopping from using a more blunt term. She could not believe the naive ignorance of a woman several years her senior who always appeared so confident in public. ‘Him. ’Course not.’ She laughed at the thought. ‘Expect some would, but not him.’ She looked her straight in the eye. ‘You’ve got a good one there.’

‘Perhaps Mr Williams has misinformed you. In no sense is he mine.’ Jane was relieved. She was sure that she was relieved. She also felt unnerved by the younger woman’s knowledge. ‘How is your husband, Mrs Hanks?’

‘Dead,’ said Jenny brutally. ‘A Frenchie got him. Mr Williams there killed the Frenchie, and here we are.’

‘I am so very sorry,’ said Jane after a moment. She wondered whether it would take time for the sorrow to sink in. Then she remembered the accident of yesterday morning, which somehow seemed an age ago. ‘I fear I have some more dreadful news to convey …’

‘Poor old Ma.’ Jenny seemed genuinely moved, but there were no tears or obvious displays of feeling. ‘Dad will take it hard. Poor old bastard.’ This appeared to close the subject and there was silence for a while as Miss MacAndrews drew on her petticoats – a second shorter one went over the first in deference to the cold – and then her riding boots.

‘So old Mr Williams saved you and me both, and here we all are. I told you, you’ve got a good one there.’

‘And as I explained before, Mrs Hanks, in no way is the gentleman mine.’

‘Please yourself.’ Jenny’s smile was broad and she was evidently enjoying the young lady’s discomfort. ‘But he could be if you wanted. He’s handsome enough in his way. Bit dull maybe, but loyal.’

‘Then you marry him.’ The response was unthinking, and then Jane thought how cruel the words must sound to a new widow.

‘Nah, he’s got no money.’ Jenny’s reply scarcely suggested any annoyance. The assurance in her tone surprised the other girl.

‘And do you feel wealth essential for happiness?’

‘Ask me when I’m rich.’ Jenny gestured at the sleeping man. ‘Look at him, out like a log. You could always creep off and see the lodger any time you got bored.’

Miss MacAndrews gasped aloud in shock. Jenny guffawed, while silently remarking that the other girl had known what she meant. Williams began to move, and a few very male groans punctuated his stirring to consciousness. He sat up and blinked, unsure where he was. He glanced around blearily, seeing the two women, the animals and the little room. The realisation that one of the ladies was Miss MacAndrews cheered and surprised him. It was closely pursued by the recognition that she was not wearing a dress. Amazement was swiftly chased away by excitement, which engaged in a bitter but indecisive battle with respect for her modesty. His face changed again as the memories returned, recent fear mingling with disbelief and wonder. He blushed, or perhaps it was the red light of the fire, but then Jenny noticed that the young lady’s complexion had also changed.

‘I hope that you are fully recovered, Miss MacAndrews?’ he asked, dropping his gaze at last.

‘Thank you, sir, yes, I believe I am unharmed.’ He did not notice the emphasis on the last word. ‘And also that I owe you my thanks.’

‘Pray do not mention it.’ Both of them were now looking anywhere but at each other.

‘I’m well too,’ put in Jenny after a moment, ‘although the little beggar is kicking me black and blue.’

Williams insisted on going outside ‘while Miss MacAndrews completes her toilette’. They both ignored Jenny’s just audible. ‘Not as if he hasn’t seen it all already’, but Williams had to look down in case he was smiling.

Somewhat later they shared a little of the food from Jenny’s bags – neither of the others had anything to eat with them, although Williams had a canteen of water. He urged Miss MacAndrews to eat, and when Jenny added her encouragement, Jane no longer felt bound by courtesy. The girl was soon greedily spooning up a bowl of the stew which Mrs Hanks had kept simmering. Jane was weak, but the warm food soon began to make her feel stronger.

Afterwards they began to speak of practical things. Williams was also pleased to find a map in one of the holsters in Pringle’s saddle, and a pistol with a small powder flask and a dozen or so shot in the other. The map was the work of Hanley, copied from one borrowed from Major MacAndrews. There were few maps in the army, and most of the ones bought in England or Portugal and Spain themselves were woefully inaccurate. Hanley had added to the impression of greater fiction than fact by embellishing the original with drawings. Next to Leon, he had drawn a little Roman soldier. Segovia had a tiny aqueduct, and Astorga, rather obscurely, a statue of a naked woman holding a vase. On a largely empty patch to the north-east, he had written ‘Here be dragons’ in an ornate script.

At the time, Williams had enjoyed the wit. Now he rather wished for something more true to the landscape, although he doubted that much if anything of value had been lost from the original sheet. It had surprised them all how little many Spaniards knew of villages and towns even fifty miles away from their homes.

It was still early in the morning when they went north. On his own, Williams would most likely have tried to slip through the French lines and rejoin the rearguard. With two mounts between three, and one of the three likely to give birth at any moment, he judged this to be impractical. Instead he hoped to join up with Sir David Baird’s column.

Jenny rode her mule. Miss MacAndrews perched herself as best she could on Bobbie, sometimes using the left stirrup, and balancing her right leg on the front of the saddle. She had not ridden astride since she was very small, and suspected that it would be too uncomfortable to do so now for any length of time. Although the thought was more than a little absurd, for the moment she was also determined to cling on to whatever traces of modesty she still possessed. Williams was happy to walk. Given Mrs Hanks’ situation, they could not have gone much faster for any length of time.

Williams was glad that he took them across country in as direct a line as he could manage when rain clouds blocked all save the dimmest sense of where the sun was. It meant that they spotted the cavalry on the road before they were themselves seen. They were in the far distance, little more than a dark bluish streak on the road below them. Pringle had left a small glass in a pouch on the saddle, and he extended this and thought that movement above the tiny figures hinted at tall lances. He wished that he had his own telescope to be absolutely sure that these were French and not some of the hussars covering the British retreat. Yet unless the going was atrocious, Baird’s column should be a good deal farther ahead by now. The cavalry must be French.

They kept out of sight as best they could, staying away from the tops of hills. They stopped every hour for Jenny to dismount and rest, although she was fiercely and often profanely uncomfortable whatever they did. Early in the afternoon they stopped at a small farm and, piecing together some halting Spanish, they secured some flat loaves, and a bowl each of oily soup. The coin Williams handed over was worth far more, but he and the others were so grateful that none of them cared.

In the late afternoon they halted for well over an hour in a patch of wood as French cavalry passed them in the valley below. They were cuirassiers, their body armour just visible through parted cloaks, and through Pringle’s telescope Williams recognised the two men he had encountered yesterday. Both were clearly officers, and the one in the helmet presumably commanded the cuirassiers.

The French officer raised a hand and no doubt shouted a command, which Williams was too far away to hear. The column halted and he worried that they might be planning to search. Yet he could think of no good reason for the enemy to waste their time chasing a few stragglers – it saddened him to apply the word, but from a military standpoint that was all that they now were. You simply do not matter, Williams thought to himself, partly so that the truth sank in, and also in some superstitious hope that the conviction would carry to the cuirassier officer down in the valley.

Perhaps it worked. The French troopers dismounted, and one of the lancers had to be helped down by his comrades, which suggested a wounded man. Williams wondered whether his shot had caused serious injury. A practical, if callous, part of him felt some satisfaction that this would encumber the enemy. The cavalrymen fiddled with their saddles and then began to march on, leading their horses by the reins. Williams assumed they were resting the mounts, and that suggested they planned a long journey. He watched them continue along the track and disappear, and only then felt secure enough to accept that they were not concerned about him and his companions.

Even so, they waited something like an hour after the French had gone before they moved on. Without a watch, it was hard for any of them to be sure. Williams decided that it would be too much of a risk to press on in pursuit of Baird’s division, now that the French cavalry were sniffing at his trail. So they would head for the bridge at Mansilla, which he knew the Spanish army were supposed to be guarding.

When it was almost dark, they approached another farm. Only a woman and some children were there, but the mother welcomed the travellers with great kindness, especially when she saw Jenny’s condition. There was considerable confusion as the woman tried to work out just which of the two visitors was married to the foreign officer. Eventually she dismissed the matter as some Protestant folly and permitted Williams to sleep in the small barn with the animals, while the two young women each had a straw-filled mattress in the single room of the house, along with her and the children.

There were traces of mist the next morning, but it soon burned off and a winter sun – still markedly stronger than the thin rays at this season in England – gave them warmth as they travelled. They saw no sign of any Frenchmen. Williams insisted on keeping watch when they stopped in the middle of the day for a long rest and to eat. Jane was equally insistent that she take a turn, and so went to the edge of the hollow where they sat in a long-abandoned sheep pen. The woman in the farm had given them slices of ham, apples from a store and a fresh loaf, and angrily refused any payment.

Williams and Jenny ate in silence. Kind though he was, she was left with the distinct impression that she rarely entered his thoughts. He had tried several times to express his sorrow at her mother’s death and his concern for her father. Jenny was sure that the sentiments were genuine. She just did not want to talk about it, and still less did she wish to speak of something that clearly troubled the young officer. He had raised the matter once, asking why she and her husband were so far from the battalion when he stumbled across them.

‘Thought the baby was coming,’ she had said eventually, avoiding his eyes. ‘I weren’t going to be laid up in some field, or with half the regiment gawping at me. So I told Hanks to take me somewhere quiet and warm. We’d have caught up again once the kid was born and I felt strong enough.’ She hoped that she sounded convincing. ‘Poor Ma would have loved to be a grandma,’ she added, changing the subject and then dropping into silence.

Up on the lip of the hollow Jane stretched out and lay looking down the slope beyond. She scratched her arm, and hoped that the itching she was beginning to feel was no more than the inevitable result of wearing clothes which had also been dunked in a river for the third day in a row. She ran a hand through her hair and wondered what state it was in. Mrs Hanks had given her a scarf to wear against yesterday’s rain, but although it was cold today she had done without a covering. She knew her parents would be worried, and that they were still a long way from being safe, yet she had to admit that there was pleasure in such a wild, gypsy-like life. A fresh itch began on her left thigh.

Williams tried not to stare, but knew that his gaze returned again and again to the girl lying in the grass. Since their first meeting Miss MacAndrews occupied a great many of his waking thoughts. There had always been a physical element in those dreams. He was forced to admit that for the moment the carnal was dominating.

‘Dirty devil,’ said Jenny. He looked confused. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking.’ She shook her head. ‘All alike, all alike.’

That night they came to another lone house, but calls and then banging on the door produced no response. They must be near Mansilla by now, and perhaps the people had gone to take shelter there under the protection of their army. Williams prised open the shutters a little way and then reached in with his clasp knife to raise the catch. He shrugged.

‘Your father showed me,’ he said to Jenny. He climbed in and opened the door. It was too low to admit the animals, so he tethered them in the lee of the sloping roof. They had had little to eat apart from grass in the last few days, and he thought he noticed a new thinness. He would have to hope they could find better fodder soon.

By the time he went into the house, a fire was burning and filling the room with smoke. They had made good progress during the day and all were tired. After eating more than half of their remaining food, the three of them slept without undressing, each lying to one side of the fire.

Jenny’s cries woke them hours later. She looked scared and Williams reached instinctively for the sword that lay beside him.

‘The baby’s coming!’ The girl sounded her age, very young and very frightened. Williams was terrified.

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