The next day was as restful. The brigades leading the attack were to march at eight in the evening. The 106th were ordered to parade with the rest of the Reserve Division at 9.30, to follow on once the order came. MacAndrews insisted on a spell of drill in the morning, but that still left the greater part of the day to prepare. In the afternoon the commissaries drove half a dozen bullocks into a pen at the end of the street, where they were slaughtered and butchered. The meat was fresh, if rather tough, and to everyone’s delight there was an issue of bread that was only just going stale. It made a change from ships’ biscuits, which seemed to be either hard enough to crack teeth or soft and teeming with worms. There was time to cook and eat a good meal and everyone was grateful for it.
Mrs MacAndrews kept close to her daughter whenever she was away from their billet. They saw Wickham from a distance, but spoke no words to him. Jane was surprised at being so disappointed, but was struck by the ardent glance he gave her. Then the rain began to fall, and no one was inclined to venture out unless required to by duty.
At 9.30 that night the drums beat for muster.
Rain still fell steadily, washing away the last remnants of the snow and turning the roads into slippery mires. A torrent of water cascaded down from the gutter fringing the roof of the convent and spattered on the stones of the courtyard. Sir John Moore’s cocked hat was protected by an oilskin cover, and a heavy cloak kept him reasonably dry. Even so water gathered at each end of his hat and now and then a drip fell in front of his face. Captain Napier had wrapped his pistols carefully to keep the powder within them dry as he handed them up to the general, who pushed each in turn into the holsters on the front of his saddle, and then flipped the tops closed.
There was shouting from outside the gateway, and a moment later Graham brought in a Spaniard, drenched to the skin and covered in mud. The colonel explained that the man was carrying an urgent message from La Romana. Moore sheltered under the roof of the porch as he scanned the letter and translated its contents. The general looked impassive, but all present knew that the contents changed everything. The French were moving north from Madrid. Napoleon was coming.
By the time the 106th had paraded the rain had stopped and a bright moon shone amid the ragged clouds. The men all wore greatcoats, and had their white cross-belts over them. Each man’s pouch and pack had sixty rounds of ball ammunition, and between them the pack and haversack carried hard tack biscuit for three days. In spite of the hour, many of the women of the regiment stood silently watching their menfolk, when they marched off the mile or so to join the remainder of the division nearer to Sahagun. A brigade from another division was formed up in column, preparatory to moving off ahead of them.
Then they stood for an hour, awaiting an order that did not come. At the end of that time MacAndrews and the commanders of the other battalions were called to General Paget. After ten minutes they came back, but there was none of the usual rush which accompanied the issuing of important orders. Their horses seemed almost to slouch, and more than one senior officer appeared slumped in his saddle.
MacAndrews nodded to Sergeant Major Fletcher to call the 106th to attention. Before the major had begun to speak a murmur came from one of the other battalions and quickly surged into a roar of dismay. Similar shouts came from other regiments. Williams and Hanley, standing behind the rear rank of the Grenadier Company, both turned as they heard a strange clattering sound. A hundred yards away and facing in the opposite direction a Highland battalion had paraded. First a few and then almost all of its soldiers threw down their muskets in frustration.
‘Boys,’ began MacAndrews, ‘the 106th showed its courage back in Portugal. We also proved to the rest of the army that its youngest regiment not only knew how to fight, but how to keep good discipline. We may not like some orders we are given, but I know that you will always obey them.
‘The advance is called off. We will return to our quarters and then the army is to withdraw.’
There was silence. Although many must have guessed what was happening it did not make the shock much less. They were ready to advance and expecting to fight. It seemed shameful to stop when the enemy was near. They knew that they could beat the French, and wanted the chance to prove it once again.
The mood was sullen as the 106th marched back to the hamlet. There was almost no talk, and MacAndrews wondered whether it would not have been better to hear a few murmured complaints.
After the men had been dismissed back to their billets, at close to midnight he crammed the officers into the small church, which was the only place big enough for all thirty men to be in one room. It lacked much of its roof, which was why no men had been quartered there, but with the aid of a lamp it was good enough for his purpose.
‘Gentlemen, the enemy is moving against us in great force, led by Bonaparte himself.’ That was dramatic news and provoked an excited buzz that for a moment lifted the sombre mood. ‘They are perhaps three days’ march away, perhaps more, but in numbers at least double our own even before they join up with Marshal Soult. Our Spanish allies are for the moment unable to provide any real support.’ There were sneers at this. Hanley, concerted defender of all things Spanish, just looked at the floor. ‘If we remain where we are, then we will face enemies on two sides and must be overwhelmed. Therefore, from tomorrow morning, the army will begin to retreat. We of the Reserve Division, along with the light brigades and the cavalry, will remain a little longer to cover the retreat. I doubt that we will be pressed so early. Marshal Soult does not have the strength on his own, and the other French armies are still too far away. At most we may see some of their cavalry. It is unlikely that we will begin to move until Christmas morning.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘It will not be much of a celebration, I fear.’
The mood was gloomy throughout the battalion. Williams noticed that some men were more than usually irritable and argued over the slightest disagreements. Others were uncharacteristically silent and apathetic.
Major MacAndrews was far too old a campaigner not to sense the frustration of officers and men alike, and so he determined to keep everyone busy throughout Christmas Eve. Inspections were rigorous, and he urged every officer to look at packs and boots in particular. Most of the latter were in a bad state. They had hoped to draw new ones from store after reaching the main army, only to be told that none was available from the nearest depot.
As far as possible nothing that was not essential was to be carried. Experience had taught him that men burdened themselves with all sorts of useless weight on campaign, most of all trinkets they had scavenged or looted. While he doubted that any inspections would catch and make them discard even a quarter of such rubbish, it would at least be something. Alastair MacAndrews did everything he could to keep the battalion occupied and as ready as possible for the trials of the coming days.
It was not until late in the day that the major was able to snatch a few short moments with his wife, and even then there was much to arrange regarding their personal baggage and little or no opportunity for leisure.
‘You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?’ said Esther MacAndrews, only half in jest. ‘Tidying up your own little corner in the midst of impending disaster.’
‘I trust that things are not so very bad yet.’ Yet he had to admit that that the activity and the overall sense of urgency were most invigorating. ‘There is danger certainly. A march at this time of year through the mountains and pursued by the enemy is no gentle prospect.’
‘You need not sound quite so gleeful,’ she mocked him.
He smiled, and then looked serious. ‘You do realise that my duties will be heavy, I will not have time …’
‘You old goat, I should very much doubt there will be time for that!’
‘I meant …’
Again she interrupted her soft-spoken husband. ‘You meant that you shall be far too busy to pay much attention to your wife and daughter. That the journey will be arduous for us, and once again you silently wish that we had not accompanied you.’ She reached out and brushed her fingers against his cheek.
‘Only my concern makes me think that. In every other regard I am proud to have you with me.’ He took her hand with both of his and pressed it gently.
‘You are learning charm in your old age.’ Esther was only a few inches shorter than her tall husband. ‘Do not worry, we shall be careful, and I do believe your daughter and I can take care of ourselves.’ Silently she was pleased that this should keep Jane busy. Esther had noticed her daughter’s sudden interest in Wickham. Perhaps if they had remained at rest for many more days, she would have been forced to say something to the girl. Memories of her own reluctance to pay heed to the admonishments of her mother had made her cautious, lest a warning have the opposite effect. It was best that the girl work things out for herself, but although sensible and assured in many ways, it was doubtful that she had before confronted as charming a rake as Wickham.
‘I will look after Jane,’ said Esther firmly. Her husband seemed to detect the edge in her voice, but if he was puzzled he said nothing. Esther wondered whether to speak to him of her concerns. No, she thought, for then he would be bound to do something, and perhaps call the rogue out. Our daughter has sense enough already, or will soon learn it. He has enough to worry about without this additional burden. She smiled fondly at her husband, who was busy trying to cram far too much into one of the valises from his saddle.
‘Let me do it, you lump,’ she said, taking over.
At that moment, in the little room next to their own, Jane sat on one of the folding beds they carried in their baggage. It had proved an extremely wise purchase, given the dirty and often verminous furniture offered to them in the billets along the line of march. For the tenth time she read the words, the note clutched tightly in her hands.
My dear Miss MacAndrews
My mind can no longer contain anything beyond the thought of you. Instead of sleep come only images of your shining eyes, flawless skin, the radiance of your smile and liveliness of your company. Madam, you haunt me, exalt me, confuse and overwhelm me all at once.
Disappointments in life may be manifold, and yet to see you is to know with every fibre the joy of life and happiness.
It is Christmas tomorrow, a time for gifts. If the whole world were mine for the asking, I would want no more than this. Meet me, if you can. My duties permit me to be on the road north of the village for at least an hour and a half after eight o’clock.
Yours with all my heart – GW
The intended meaning of the second paragraph still eluded her, but the intent of the note was obvious, so bluntly so that it strengthened her resolve to ignore the request. Yet at the same time there was excitement in the secrecy and the boldness of his appeal. No one would ever know that he had slipped her the note when she and her mother had met General Paget’s staff on their only ride of the day. Wickham had paid her no particular regard.
Jane had told herself that she would not read the letter again. That vow lasted only for an instant, and she lingered over each word three more times. She was not sure whether or not she liked Wickham, but judged that no particular fondness had developed, although there was a good deal of sympathy. His manner was charming, his appearance most handsome and pleasing to the eye, and his conversation alive with wit – much of it dangerous in its tone. Jane was certain that she did not trust him, or doubt that his interest was less than utterly selfish, and she had to confess to herself that this made the danger all the more delicious. She could not trust Wickham, and part of her wanted to match her wits and her own determination against his challenge. She liked to think that she would not succumb, at least not to any serious extent, but she was not absolutely sure that this was true. For the moment, she tried to hold to her resolve not to go, or in any way answer such an impertinent request.
At least no one else would ever know. With more reluctance than she had expected, Jane dropped the note into the fire and watched the paper blacken and curl.
The retreat began at noon on Christmas Eve. Sir John Moore and Colonel Graham watched the southernmost column set out. Hope’s division of ten battalions was to be followed by Fraser’s division with another nine. They followed the same route as the advance, trudging along the road to Mayorga, to the bridge over the Esla at Castro Gonzalo and so to Benevente. At the same time Baird took his eight battalions in a separate column to cross the river at Valencia de Don Juan.
Moore stared fixedly at the passing soldiers in their long grey greatcoats, and only a friend as close as Graham would have noticed the marks of concern in his expression.
The men marched without spirit. There was no singing, no laughter, and even the drums of the closest regiment seemed forlorn. The French would face the same grim weather and execrable roads, but they were advancing and everything about them would be eager. The Emperor’s presence was likely only to make them drive on faster.
‘Two days,’ Sir John said softly. ‘Give me two marches before the French really know how close we are and the greatest danger should be over.’
‘Lord Paget reports no sign yet even of enemy patrols,’ Graham confirmed.
‘Good. I should prefer not to fight a battle here, but I must if they press me. Baird will be beyond recall. We simply cannot march together at any speed. At this season I will not make the men sleep in the open unless there is no other choice. Look at those fields.’ He pointed to the slopes of the hills rising gently beyond the road. ‘Not more than a few bits of scrub. There is no wood to make fires or cook, and without those men would start to die. So we must spread the divisions, and let them each take quarters in a different place each night.
‘Has General La Romana been reminded that it would be the greatest assistance to us if he keeps his men farther north and avoids our line of march?’ Colonel Graham nodded. ‘And has he been urged in the strongest fashion to deny the French the bridge at Mansilla for as long as possible, or even to destroy it?’
‘He assures us he will. How long he may hold will depend on how fast our friend Soult takes before he strikes. Where shall we concentrate the army again?’
‘I am not yet sure that we shall, but if we do it shall not be before Astorga. However, it may prove expedient to employ more than one route. I most strongly doubt that we can maintain ourselves in this part of Spain against the enemy’s numbers. So that means embarkation and so in turn depends on where the navy can best come to us.’
‘But surely, should enough of the army be together and the chance arrive, you will let us take a rub at the French?’ For a moment the elderly colonel implored with all the enthusiasm of an excited child. ‘There is not a man in the whole army who will not feel mortified and disappointed at the orders countermanding the advance.’
Moore could not help grinning. ‘And I thought we Scots were famed above all for our prudence.’ Graham chuckled. ‘Perhaps in the days to come. I do not know, and will not waste men’s lives without some worthwhile object. If we advanced now, Marshal Soult would be a fool not to withdraw before us. In four days’ time we most likely would not have provoked a general action, and by then the corps advancing from Madrid would be upon us.’
Graham understood the necessity, but his enthusiasm was slow to die. ‘The men would like a fight.’
‘As also would you, and no doubt all the officers in the army! If I were commanding a battalion or a company I am most sure that I would feel the same. I have no doubts about their spirit. It’s a fine army.’ To himself he added, ‘And I’ll not be the one to lose it.’