Military history

Chapter 13

It was a strange procession. The man led, walking ahead of a scrawny, one-eyed horse on which the woman with a baby was perched. The man wore a red coat, although it did not fit him very well, and it had brass shoulder wings, one of which was badly mangled. This suggested that he was an officer, and if the strange misshapen hat appeared to contradict this, then he certainly wore a sword like an officer. The red jacket suggested an Englishman. It also seemed unlikely that the leading French patrols would have a mother and child in tow.

‘I keep looking around for the kings,’ joked the Spanish captain to his lieutenant.

‘We’re a few days early,’ responded the junior officer automatically. ‘And I reckon we’ll see an emperor first.’

‘Yes. And not bringing any gifts we’d care for.’ They were the rearguard of the Army of Galicia, and General La Romana had left this brigade to hold the bridge at Mansilla. The captain knew a hopeless task when he saw one. He commanded the remnants of a regiment which now numbered scarcely two hundred men combined into a single battalion. Barely half wore the white coats with green front and facings, still less the cocked hats and red plumes in which the full regiment had paraded at the start of the year. The uniforms were threadbare and patched, but at least recognisable. The remainder of his men still wore the remnants of their civilian clothes, with just a red rag tied around their left arm to mark them as soldiers. All of his men had muskets, and that was something in this army these days, but the flints were poor and none of them had more than twenty rounds in their pouches. This was the second day when they had had no food apart from the little they could dig up. They had had no hot food for a week.

Both officers had been among the men rescued by the Royal Navy from Denmark. The captain had also lost a brother at Trafalgar, but preferred to remember the more recent friendliness of the English, and his far deeper loathing for the French. He and his men waited, and did their duty. The old soldiers among them must have known as he did that they could not withstand any serious French attack.

The sentry challenged them, prompting the redcoat to call out ‘Amigos!’ in such an atrocious accent that it farther convinced the captain that this strange couple must be English. He waved at the soldier to bring them over. A few words of English learned on the voyage from Denmark, combined with even fewer words of Spanish from the new arrivals, were enough to confirm that this was an English officer cut off from his own army and seeking to rejoin them. The captain assumed the young woman was the man’s wife and could not help envying him. To see such a gloriously beautiful girl on so grey and hopeless a day was an unlooked-for and precious joy. His own wife was in Saragossa, and he did not know whether she had survived the siege of the city earlier in the year. Yet when he watched his lieutenant lead the couple away towards the bridge he envied the man even more the freedom to leave.

Williams was pleased to have reached Mansilla before the French, and even happier with the sense that they were now with allies. It was the same day that Jenny had absconded, and somehow her disappearance made them both feel more vulnerable. As they came closer to the town, the landscape seemed less empty and more hostile. They saw no enemy soldiers, but one stretch of mud road was pitted with many prints from shod horses, and Williams suspected that they were French, and heading towards Mansilla. He said nothing to Miss MacAndrews, but he feared that the French already held the bridge, and for a moment he had despaired because he could see no other way of them ever reaching the British Army again. They waited for a while, and the pace slowed as he tried to avoid open ground and stay under cover.

The Spanish lieutenant was friendly, in obvious awe and adoration of Miss MacAndrews, but communication proved difficult and they said little as he took them through the Spanish lines. A few shallow ditches and earthworks had been constructed. Williams was scornful when he saw most of the allied soldiers sitting and watching while only a few dug, and then he realised that there were no spades or tools for others to use. Apart from that, the soldiers looked weak and emaciated. Some shivered as they sat or crouched, staring hollow eyed at nothing.

‘Typhus fever,’ said the lieutenant as he noticed the British officer’s gaze. Williams resolved to get Miss MacAndrews and young Jacob away from this place as soon as possible, and not stop to rest and search for something to eat as he had planned. The hope of finding another mount now seemed hopeless. He had not seen a single horse as they went through the Spanish lines and camp. If he had been able to find the words to ask the lieutenant, he would have been told that the Army of Galicia had no cavalry, or at least none with horses to ride.

Capitaine Dalmas was not at all surprised at the absence of any Spanish cavalry screen, and happily profited from it. Taking just two lancers with him, he scouted the approach to the town, while the rest of the mixed squadron waited a few miles short of the enemy outposts. At one point he caught a glimpse of the English officer and a woman riding a mule. Dalmas and his two men were in the shelter of a treeline, looking down a ridge at the little figures. He did not need to learn the way from them, since he already knew where Mansilla lay, but it had amused him to see how they stuck to the least visible path. Most of the same route was suitable for his own men. Sending one lancer back, he summoned the squadron to follow him. As he watched the English officer and his woman reach the Spanish outposts, he knew that his men were arriving in a narrow valley just behind him. There they were invisible to the Spanish. Foot patrols were unlikely, and the enemy had no horsemen, so his men should be safe from discovery.

Dalmas knew that Marshal Soult’s army was near, and that an attack was planned for today. He was well placed, almost behind the far right flank of the enemy position, ready to join the fighting if an opportunity presented itself. It was a curious chance that these same English had crossed his path again, but he dismissed that thought as he dismissed them. Instead he thought of possibilities, balancing what he might achieve with the cost to his command and its influence on his ability to fulfil his orders. It was the sort of problem Jean-Baptiste Dalmas loved.

After half an hour Williams and Miss MacAndrews were crossing the stone bridge at Mansilla, having waved goodbye to their guide. The British officer could not see any sign that the bridge was ready to be demolished and had small confidence in this rearguard’s ability to hold it for long. It was yet another reason to press on. At the end of an hour they were climbing up the slope to the ridge.

‘Why not take the road?’ asked Miss MacAndrews. They had spoken little all day, and he knew that she felt he should have gone hunting for Mrs Hanks, instead of pressing on as if nothing had happened.

‘Our army is over there.’ He pointed with a confidence he did not feel to the north-west. ‘The road takes us a long way out of our way. It’s also clogged up with the Spanish baggage and stragglers.’ He did not add that he wished to be as far away as possible from the disease-ridden soldiers, or that he feared the road would soon be full of French cavalry, chopping mercilessly down with their sabres.

‘I do not believe that I could have found Jenny quickly,’ he said, beginning the explanation he had rehearsed in his head. ‘She had a head start, and that mule is surprisingly fast.’

‘Could she really travel far or fast so soon after her confinement?’ The reply came quickly, suggesting that Miss MacAndrews had also been thinking of what she would say.

‘I confess to know little of such things.’ To himself he added that he rather doubted whether she did either. Part of him resented the unkind fate which seemed to make Miss MacAndrews freshly angry with him just when he felt that their friendship was deepening. Who was that Greek fellow in the myths who had to keep on rolling a boulder up a hill? Tantalus? No, he was the one unable to drink or eat. It annoyed him that he could not remember.

Williams did his very best to sound reasonable, and, he hoped, persuasive. ‘She could have gone in any direction. To search would have meant taking Bobbie away and leaving you and the baby on your own – perhaps for many hours.’

Jane said nothing, and Williams was unsure whether she approved of his concern or resented his judgement of her inability to fend for herself and protect the child.

‘The French were nearer than we thought, so the risk was even greater,’ he added.

‘It remains a puzzle to me why she left. How could anyone abandon such a dear little child?’ On cue the baby began to scream hungrily. Miss MacAndrews held out the glove for Williams to fill from the bottle of milk he carried. The officer pulled the cork from the mouth of the green bottle and began to pour. He had washed the bottle as thoroughly as possible, but there was still the faint scent of ardent spirits.

He grimaced. ‘I begin to fear that we may be raising a drunkard,’ he said, and was pleased to be rewarded with a smile. He handed back the glove, but the task of balancing on the awkward saddle and feeding the boy while still steering Bobbie defeated the girl. Williams took the reins, in spite of her protests, and led the mare on up the slope. Once again he was depressed by the thought of angering Miss MacAndrews.

‘Perhaps she was temporarily deranged?’ Jane said as the baby sucked contentedly on the finger of the glove. One fear had been nagging at her all morning since they had left. ‘What if Mrs Hanks comes to her senses and returns? How could she ever find us and her son?’

Williams paused, wondering how to explain, for in the last months he felt that he had come to know Jenny well. ‘I do not believe that she intends to return.’

His certainty was obvious, but Jane was unconvinced. She could not imagine abandoning any child, still less a helpless infant. ‘It would be most unnatural for a mother not to feel the deepest bond with her child. Perhaps not immediately, but I cannot believe that it would not swiftly grow in Mrs Hanks. For all her ways, she struck me as kind.’

‘There was no reason for Hanks and his wife to be so far away from the army’s outposts when I stumbled across them. I think they were planning to run.’ He doubted Hanks had played much part in the decision, but did not question his wife’s power of persuasion. ‘Jenny does not care much for the life of a soldier’s wife.’

Miss MacAndrews considered this for a while, thinking back to the many times Jenny had spoken eagerly of wealth and splendour. ‘It seems unlikely that a deserter would give her anything better.’

‘He could help her get away more easily than she could on her own, and offer some protection as they travelled.’

‘There still appears no great reason for her to give up her child. Would not her husband be reluctant to aid such a deed? Or was he a vicious man?’

‘Not at all. Gentle, slow, and very quiet.’

‘Then surely …’

‘I suspect that she would have left him and the baby as she left us.’ Williams spoke forcefully, interrupting the girl. ‘I cannot be certain, but I doubt that Jenny ever planned to raise the child herself, or return to her parents and the army. Where she is going I do not know. Perhaps to find a rich Spaniard or even a Frenchman? Perhaps she hopes to get to England? She often speaks of London.’

Jane frowned. ‘Nevertheless, I cannot believe her so callous as to abandon her baby to a fate even more precarious than her own.’

‘She did not, did she?’ Williams smiled ironically. ‘She knows us both well enough to be certain that we would do everything for the babe, giving our lives if necessary.’ Suddenly it all seemed so comic to him. ‘I fear this is the price of having a good reputation!’

Jane was amused, but still wondering whether the officer was right when the distant popping of musketry interrupted them. They turned to stare back across the river as the Spanish soldiers ran to arms. Three squadrons of French cavalry had appeared and were walking their horses inexorably towards the bridge and the town beyond. Behind them were another three squadrons, and more cavalry were appearing at every moment.

The Spanish captain did his best with his battalion to anchor the flank. He formed them behind one of the ditches, so that it would be hard for the enemy to sweep over them, and for a while he kept his men from wasting their shots, even though the rest of the brigade was firing at absurdly long range. When the closest French squadron approached them, he waited until they were less than two hundred paces away and gave the order. They emptied a handful of saddles, and the French halted to reply with their own carbines. Elsewhere the Spanish brigade was collapsing. They fled before the French horsemen could reach them, but men on foot struggle to outrun horsemen and soon the chasseurs and dragoons were among them, stabbing and slicing as they passed.

Perhaps the captain could have kept his men together and reached the bridge in some order. The soldiers were nervous, but they trusted him, and enough were experienced and knew that flight was far more dangerous than keeping together. The line split into two wings. One retreated a hundred paces and then halted, ready to fire to cover the rest of the battalion as it pulled back past them. The squadron ahead watched them warily. Those elsewhere were distracted by other, far easier targets. Then there was drumming of hoofs behind them, and a new force of French cavalry appeared as if from nowhere.

Colloseros!’ yelled the lieutenant, using the Spaniards’ nickname for the big cuirassiers. Dalmas’ men had rolled their cloaks and strapped them to the valise on the back of each saddle. Their swords were drawn and their armour and helmets gleamed in the pale sun. To their left the Poles had untied the red and white pennants on their slim lances, and the little flags whipped in the breeze as they lowered them to the charge position.

The line collapsed. It probably did not matter, for there was no time to form a square, and anyway the captain doubted that his men were capable of performing the drill. As his soldiers fled, he drew his pistol and pulled back the hammer. He aimed carefully, lining up the barrel to point at the fast-approaching leader of the enemy lancers. The man had an immense blond moustache and the Spanish officer decided that this was as good a reason as any to end his life.

He waited, ignoring his lieutenant’s cries to come on. At twenty yards he squeezed the trigger, willing the shot to strike squarely in the middle of the Polish officer’s yellow-fronted coat. The hammer slammed down and the flint sparked, but the low-grade powder in the pan merely fizzled and failed to set off the charge. It seemed fitting for such a day. The Polish officer’s sabre cut down across his face, destroying his left eye in a moment of searing pain. One of the lancers in the rank behind impaled him neatly near the heart, and then swung his arm round so that as he rushed past the lance was yanked from the Spaniard’s falling body. The Pole rode on.

From the hill beyond the river, Williams and Miss MacAndrews could not see the fate of individuals. The French squadrons simply washed over the few thin lines and clusters of Spanish infantry.

‘Poor devils,’ said Williams quietly. ‘We need to move quickly.’

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