On Christmas morning, Sally Dobson and the other wives of the Grenadier Company watched the 106th’s quartermaster as he tried to bring some order to the chaos. Mr Kidwell and his assistants ran up and down the line of carts, yelling and pushing to get the baggage wagons, the regiment’s equipment and the women and children ready to move. As well as the usual local ox-carts, there were two big wagons, almost as large as the bulky farm-carts used in Britain, although as with the smaller vehicles they were pulled by plodding bullocks instead of dray horses. During the night, the drivers of both wagons had vanished, and now a redcoat stood by each team, bayonet fixed to prod the animals on if necessary. It was just one element to add to the confusion. Children ran in and out of the line of vehicles, shrieking as they chased each other, and ignoring the profane calls of their mothers to come back. The remaining Portuguese and Spanish drivers were clustered in a huddle, yelling at each other in some dispute, which appeared to be on the edge of violence.
‘Get those boxes tied securely, you fat-arsed buggers!’ bellowed Kidwell.
Major MacAndrews and almost all the men of the battalion were away to the north, forming a piquet line, but his wife and daughter were here, doing their best to help the quartermaster. The mother had a carrying voice and an authoritative manner. Miss MacAndrews was quieter, but had long since made friends with most of the regiment’s children and had a good way with them. The girl returned Sally’s wave as she passed, walking beside her horse and holding the hand of a sobbing infant, before finding the child’s mother. Sally liked and approved of the major’s wife and daughter. They were part of the regiment, as important in its daily life as he was.
Mr Kidwell kept swearing viciously as he struggled to bring order to chaos, and then he would notice that Mrs or Miss MacAndrews was near by and would begin a profuse apology, before some new outrage of discipline prompted fresh blasphemies. One of the army’s guides passed by, and was halted long enough to persuade the drivers to return to their carts. Most of the children were gathered, and now that all the wagons were full of baggage, the families were allowed to climb on top of the piles, wherever they could find space. The families of the Grenadier Company immediately occupied the first of the big wagons, abandoning their fondness for being at the head of the column. This change to the normal routine prompted angry shouts from some of the other wives, who had already decided that the bigger vehicles were likely to offer the smoothest ride. The quartermaster drew upon an extensive vocabulary, fostered by years of service in the ranks, to resolve the dispute, which essentially granted the case to the occupier, and left the companies somewhat mingled.
‘God in his heaven!’ wailed the quartermaster. ‘Get that damned harness untangled! You!’ He grabbed at one of the redcoats standing beside the first of the big wagons. ‘You won’t go far like that. Unbuckle the bloody thing and fasten it straight and tight.’ Frustrated, he watched the man fumble with the wet leather, before quickly pulling him aside. ‘Damn it, man! Get out of the way, I’ll do it myself. Why in God’s name I should be saddled with such a damned useless bunch of …’ An instinct saved him for the moment, as he glanced round behind him and spotted Mrs MacAndrews close by. ‘Oh, sorry, ma’am. I must apologise for my …’ He stopped in the middle of the sentence, as he spotted the women climbing down from one of the carts and two beginning to fight. ‘Oh, the stupid bitches.’ He sighed. His apology was half-hearted, as he finished fixing the harness and strode off to deal with this latest outrage. Sally noticed that Mrs MacAndrews was struggling to conceal a grin.
Kidwell wanted to get moving. The 106th, along with the rest of the Reserve Division, was not due to set out until ten o’clock, but he and the other regimental quartermasters intended to hurry the baggage on so that the trudging pace of the bullocks would not hold up the main column when it followed. At dawn, they had begun to marshal the baggage trains, but it was still 8.30 before they were ready. For a short while, it was almost peaceful as they waited for the train ahead of them to move off. Sally Dobson settled comfortably, wrapped in one blanket and sitting on another to soften the hard edge of a wooden box filled with ship’s biscuit.
The baggage columns ahead at last began to move, and Kidwell signalled to his own carts to follow them along the road. The rain began at almost the same moment, feeding the mud which already lay inches deep all along the rutted and churned road. The quartermaster breathed a sigh of relief and urged his own mule on, and then cursed once again as he saw that the redcoats were having trouble making the teams of the big wagons move. They yelled, struck at the animals’ rumps with the butts of their muskets, and then reversed the weapons to prod with their bayonets. Nothing happened. They jabbed harder, drawing blood, and the beasts finally lurched forward, bellowing in protest.
‘Where’s Jenny?’ Sally Dobson had sudden realised that her daughter was nowhere in the wagon. ‘Oh, Mrs Rawson, have you seen my Jenny?’
‘Perhaps she is on the front cart?’ The fastidious Mrs Rawson put down the dog in its basket to lean out and peer forward.
Sally was becoming agitated. ‘Can you see her? Oh, where is Mrs Hanks? Where is my little girl?’
The other wives took up the shout, while the sergeant’s wife tried to calm her friend. ‘Private Hanks is with her,’ she said. One or two of the married men had been permitted to help their wives prepare for the move. All had then returned to duty, but because of his wife’s condition, Captain Pringle had told Hanks to stay with the wagons until he was sure that Jenny was secure. ‘She cannot come to harm.’
For some reason the carts of the regiment in front of the 106th stopped, and they too were forced to halt.
‘Our Sal,’ said Sally to her younger daughter, named after her, but always called Sal by the family. ‘Get down and go and find your sister.’ The ten-year-old, happy to be doing something, scrambled down, putting her feet between the spokes of one of the big wheels and jumping, in spite of Mrs Rawson’s call to be careful. The girl splashed happily through the puddles, running past each cart and looking for Jenny.
Sally leaned precariously from the top of the great mound of crates at the front of the wagon and watched the child go. ‘Oh, Mrs Rawson, I will not rest until I have Jenny beside us.’ She spotted another of the company’s wives in the cart ahead. The pretty Mrs Murphy had drawn her shawl tightly around her, cradling her baby in her arms and singing softly to him. Not one of the wives chosen by lot in the summer, Mary Murphy had somehow managed to find passage on board a ship and had got to Portugal, eventually walking all the way to Almeida to find the regiment there.
‘Oh, Mrs Murphy!’ Sally’s voice was strong in spite of a persistent cough which had troubled her for years. ‘Have you seen Mrs Hanks?’ Mary shook her head, but stood up, and tried to help by looking.
Esther and Jane MacAndrews, drawn by the noise, stopped to talk to Sally, although found more coherent explanation from the sergeant’s wife. They split up, the daughter riding to the front of the column to search, while her mother went down the opposite side.
The carts ahead began to move. The Portuguese and Spanish drivers yelled and prodded to get their own vehicles moving again. Sally Dobson was watching her little girl run back towards the team of oxen on the big wagon at the moment when the redcoat had a flash of inspiration. He jabbed with his bayonet, and at the same time shouted out the same command the locals were using at the top of his voice. The oxen almost galloped off.
‘Look out, Sal!’ screamed Sally Dobson, and then the crates she was resting on shifted with the sudden, jerky movement and she was pitched forward and falling. Her head struck the edge of the iron-rimmed wheel, and her shriek turned into a short grunt as she slid down in front of it. The oxen were still pulling with all their strength, and the big cart rolled inexorably forward, the wheel passing squarely across her chest, crushing down with the huge weight of stores and people, pressing her into the mud. The passengers felt the wagon lift slightly, but only slightly.
Sal Dobson stared in open-mouthed horror. Mrs Murphy screamed, and an instant later the shriek was taken up by all the women and children, as they saw what had happened or word of the horrible accident reached them. The redcoat driving the cart sobbed, and then dragged at the yoke to halt the team, stopping the wagon just before the second wheel reached Sally.
Esther MacAndrews had turned when she heard Sally’s shout and had been just yards away – so close that she thought, or perhaps imagined, that she had heard the crack of bones amid the driving rain. She never for a moment doubted that the body lying in the mud was lifeless, but dismounted anyway. Mrs Rawson had already jumped down, catching her skirts for a moment on the side of the wagon, but it did not worry her that her legs were exposed as she rushed to help her friend. Esther herself ran to the little girl, and grabbed Sal, hugging her and turning her away from the grim sight.
Mr Kidwell was there in a moment, shouting to see why they had stopped, until he realised the ghastly cause.
‘We must fetch Private Dobson,’ he said. ‘Poor, poor man.’
Esther did not want her daughter to see and, passing Sal to Mrs Kidwell, she walked towards Jane, who was riding back to find out what was going on. She reached her, patted the grey on the neck, and spoke softly.
‘Mrs Dobson is sadly killed. Ride to the grenadiers and tell her husband to come here. I shall try to find the older daughter.’
Jane gasped at the news. Then nodded, and without saying anything – indeed, unable to trust her voice to speak – she flicked her long whip to set the horse off across the fields. Her mother went over to the group around the body to tell the quartermaster what she had done and offer help in any other way. The two redcoats lifted the corpse out of the road, and Esther noticed one of the men shudder as he felt the unnaturally loose body and limbs.
Kidwell had to get the carts moving again, for they could not delay the rest of the baggage. One of his assistants took over guiding the one cart and he walked alongside the other, leaving the two soldiers to start digging a grave with a spade taken from one of the wagons. Mrs Rawson stayed behind, her arms around poor Sal, and the older woman forced herself not to cry so that she would not upset the child. The major’s wife got back on her horse and rode along the line of carts, looking in vain for Jenny or her husband. Then she went back to the forlorn group standing in the rain beside the shape wrapped in a blanket.
‘Good morning to you, Miss MacAndrews.’ The adjutant raised his hat in greeting. He had stopped his horse when he saw Jane approaching. ‘Are you looking for your father?’
‘No, I am looking for the Grenadier Company. There has been a horrible accident and Mrs Dobson is dead. I have come to tell her husband.’ As Jane spoke the words it all seemed unreal.
Brotherton let out his breath. ‘How truly terrible. Then I must not detain you, although perhaps the poor man would prefer to remain in ignorance of his loss for as many more minutes as possible.’ He pointed behind him. ‘You need to bear more to the right. Captain Pringle has established himself in a small barn. He will be able to tell you where to find the unfortunate fellow.’
Jane rode on, gave her horse to the sentry outside the barn and went in. There was a strong smell of damp straw and the feeble fire the redcoats had lit produced more smoke than warmth. It was not Pringle she found with the reserve of the Grenadier Company, but Hanley, whose warm greeting faded when he saw her expression.
‘What on earth is wrong? Are you unwell?’
The girl explained once again. Sergeant Rawson paled at the news.
‘Where is Dobson?’ Hanley asked him.
‘With the piquet the captain has just gone to relieve. May I guide the lady, sir? One of us ought to stay here. I know Dobson well.’ Hanley was by now used to the tone employed by sergeants when their request was not a request, but already decided.
‘Of course.’ Hanley turned to look at Jane. She was wearing her hussar-style riding habit once again, its shade made darker by the rain. ‘It is very kind of you to go to this trouble,’ he said.
‘It really is nothing.’
Rawson walked beside the grey horse. It was not far, and within a few minutes they had topped a low rise and come upon a line of redcoats standing at ease behind a dry-stone wall which offered some small shelter from the wind-driven rain. Pringle was standing beside Bobbie, sharing a steaming mug of tea with a group of men. They had erected a greatcoat on some sticks to give just enough protection to a fire and boil a kettle. Billy Pringle disliked tea, and never drank it for pleasure, but could not refuse their generosity. The men’s spirits were still low, and news of the accident made them drop even farther. Dobson said nothing when Sergeant Rawson explained what had happened. His face was wet from the rain, drops of which hung on the peak of his shako, but nothing about his expression seemed to change. The two men walked off, heading back to the road where Sally was being buried. Rawson talked, trying to distract the old veteran. Dobson walked stiffly, as if in a dream.
‘Poor devil,’ said Pringle. ‘I thought he and his wife were tougher than granite and would outlast all of us.’ Like Hanley he thanked the girl profusely.
Jane ignored the praise. ‘I keep thinking of the poor girl, and her brother only a little older.’ She closed her eyes for a moment. ‘I would like to gallop, to feel the rush of air and not to have to think for a while.’ Pringle nodded in understanding. ‘Would such a thing be permissible? Or would it be your duty to arrest me?’ Her laugh was thin.
‘Probably best if you do not go too far. The outlying piquets are a quarter of a mile ahead of us. Mr Williams is with them. They are just short of the main road. If you get that far then it is best to turn back. It’s an open line, but try to stay behind our piquets. We do not believe the French are anywhere near, but a degree of caution would be prudent.’ Pringle’s glasses were misted with rainwater. Even so he did his best to show the earnestness of his expression. ‘Thank you,’ he repeated.
Jane nodded to him and rode round to go through the gap in the wall which led down the slope. She went quickly through the field, for the ground was firmer than she expected. With her left heel and the whip on the other flank she pushed the grey faster and faster. Sorrow still gnawed at her, and for the first time since before they went to help the baggage train she thought of Wickham. He was still a challenge, and if the danger no longer seemed so delightful, at least it was distracting.
She crossed another low rise and in the distance saw a score of redcoats, and a little way ahead of them a row of sentries spread widely apart. Williams was there, and the girl noted how he both stiffened to attention and grinned as soon as he spotted her. Today, this enthusiasm seemed lacking in subtlety and more than a little annoying. Beside the tall man was Ensign Hatch, crouching down into the shelter of his dark cloak. The two officers appeared to be waiting in silence as she approached. Jane knew they did not get on well, and if she was inclined to agree with Williams’ low opinion of his fellow officer, at the moment this silence added to her distaste for his awkwardness.
‘Good morning, Miss MacAndrews,’ Williams called in greeting. ‘And may I also take this opportunity of bidding you a very merry Christmas!’ Having so far failed to obtain a replacement for his cocked hat, he was wearing the woollen forage cap he had worn as a volunteer, red-topped and with the numeral 106 on the front. Soaking wet, it had fallen into a shapeless mass on his head.
Jane was unable to return Williams’ greeting with warmth, and a small part of her even took an unjust satisfaction in seeing his reaction as she passed on the terrible news, and he became ashamed of his jollity.
Hatch murmured a vague, ‘How tragic,’ as he joined them.
‘If you will forgive me, I believe it is unwise for you to go any farther,’ said Williams. ‘The army will be withdrawing soon. If you go straight back, you will pass Mr Pringle and his men, so that you will be sure of the way.’
‘Do you have the hour, Mr Williams?’ Jane asked in reply, not deigning to respond to the implied criticism of her ability to find her own way.
‘I fear I do not.’ A watch was another luxury denied to him by his meagre funds.
Hatch produced a fine fob watch, his expression suggesting disdain for any gentleman who lacked something so useful. ‘Just short of nine, Miss MacAndrews.’
‘Thank you.’ Jane smiled with no particular warmth, but it was more attention than she had granted Williams this morning and he noticed this with resentment. ‘I shall go back, then. Good day to you both.’
They watched her trot away and vanish into the fold of ground.
‘A most elegant young lady.’ Hatch knew the comment would irritate the other officer, even though he could not object to it.
‘Indeed,’ was all that Williams managed.
Hatch looked at him, and wondered again that the face of a murderer could appear so innocent, even rather dull. At Vimeiro he had overheard a dying sergeant tell Dobson that he had not said a word about Mr Williams killing Redman. The sergeant had been wrong, but Hatch did not know that. Instead he was forced every day to see the murderer of his friend living among the officers as if nothing had happened.
‘A fine seat,’ said Hatch, who was no more than an adequate horseman himself, but was sure that this nevertheless gave him the advantage over Williams.
The taller man frowned, trying to work out whether there was a deliberate and coarse ambiguity in the comment. ‘Indeed,’ he said after a while, before adding, ‘Miss MacAndrews is certainly a fine horsewoman.’
‘It is the natural accomplishment of good birth,’ said Hatch firmly, and again Williams wondered whether this was unconscious clumsiness or a deliberate insult based on his own lack of skill and his background.
Hatch’s face was impassive and innocent. He was not a bold man, and even if duelling had not been forbidden by the Articles of War, he doubted that he would have had the courage to call out a known killer.
Williams changed the subject. ‘A deal warmer, although I wish the rain would stop.’
‘You do appear to have a deep interest in the climate, my dear fellow.’
Williams gave a brief snort of amusement, leaving Hatch disappointed at his sarcasm. He felt distaste as Williams unslung the musket from his shoulder and checked that the pan was securely wrapped in rag to keep the powder dry.
‘Do you not find that an encumbrance?’ Officers in light companies often carried a long arm, but these were usually finely made gentlemen’s weapons, and not the heavy Brown Bess carried by ordinary soldiers. Hatch carried a pistol as well as his sword, but felt more armament than this was unbecoming in an officer.
‘It was not last summer.’ Williams saw no need to conceal his path to a commission, and was indeed proud of his rise from volunteer.
Hatch searched for a more sensitive subject. He could think of no means of exposing Williams as a murderer. For the moment, all he could manage was to pick away at his composure and reputation while avoiding an open quarrel. Thomas Hatch was not an especially subtle man, even on a cold morning when he was – regrettably – fully sober. Yet some marks were easy, he thought, as Miss MacAndrews appeared on a distant rise.
‘Some lucky fellow, eh?’ Hatch was pleased with the anger obvious in Williams’ face, before he added, ‘I mean, to think of the man who might one day call such a fine lady his wife.’
There was a drumming of hoofs on the spongy turf. It was not the girl, but Brotherton.
‘You are to withdraw shortly. Does either of you have a watch?’
Again Hatch enjoyed a moment of satisfaction.
‘Good man!’ said Brotherton. ‘In that case, in fifteen minutes’ time you, Mr Williams, will take half the men back to the main line and then you and the men can rejoin your respective companies. Mr Hatch, you wait a further quarter of an hour, until nine forty-five, and then return with the remainder. I’ll come and collect you to make sure that all is well. Good day to you, gentlemen.’ He urged his horse on to visit the other outposts.
When Williams reached Pringle, the captain was preparing to rejoin the rest of the company at the barn. Billy walked beside his men, leading Bobbie, who snapped at the ensign when he patted his neck.
‘A sad day,’ said Pringle.
‘Very sad.’ Williams searched for better, less conventional words, but could not find them. Not that talking was likely to be of any great help. ‘How is Dobson?’ he asked.
‘Didn’t show much when Miss MacAndrews brought the news. Know he must be pretty cut up, though.’
‘I do admire Miss MacAndrews’ compassion in carrying the word to him – and indeed her composure in doing so.’
Pringle nodded. He knew full well of his friend’s adoration of the major’s daughter.
‘I fear she was sorely saddened by the experience, but hope she looked in a little better spirits when she returned past you,’ Williams continued.
‘She did not come back this way,’ said Pringle. ‘Her intention was to go for a ride. It seemed a sensible thing.’
‘I suggested that she return rather than get beyond the army.’ Pringle privately suspected his friend’s advice and tone may not have been welcomed.
‘No doubt she came another way.’
Williams stopped. ‘May I borrow Roberta?’ The tone reminded Pringle of Sergeant Rawson. It had been old Dobson himself who had taught him that an officer never gave an order unless he was confident that it would be obeyed. Pringle doubted his friend would obey an order to remain.
‘Miss MacAndrews will be fine. I am sure there is no need to go hunting for her.’ Silently he thought that such a spirited girl would also resent being chased around like an errant child.
Williams had his foot in the stirrup and was already swinging himself up. With his forage cap, rolled greatcoat worn over his shoulder, and musket, he looked an unlikely horseman.
Pringle sighed. ‘Go if you must. Just don’t get yourself lost! I need Bobbie!’
Williams’ urgency conveyed itself to the mare, who staggered immediately into her jerking canter. When Pringle got to the barn Hanley asked about their friend. ‘Off playing Sir Galahad,’ was all the reply he got.
‘In this rain. His armour will rust!’
Williams greeted Hatch with no more than a curt nod and the briefest of explanations. The other ensign had already formed his men up to march off and stood some distance away from them. Not long after Williams had disappeared, the watch showed 9.45 and as if on cue Brotherton arrived.
‘Anything to report?’ he asked.
‘Nothing at all,’ said Hatch firmly, and ordered the detachment to march away.
The 106th began its retreat on time, forming with the rest of the reserve and then setting off down the road. Rain still fell steadily, and ran down Dobson’s face as he piled stones over his wife’s grave to keep animals away. Esther MacAndrews stood and watched the pitiful scene. Having buried three of her own children, she knew how to mourn and felt there was some comfort for the bereaved in knowing that other people understood their loss. She also waited for Jane. Pringle had told the major that his ensign had gone looking for the girl. He had been surprised when he realised that neither was yet back with the regiment. Private Hanks was also missing, although Pringle assumed he had caught up with the baggage and was looking after his wife.
As each regiment marched past the forlorn group of figures around the grave the drums went silent and each mounted officer drew his sword and raised it in salute. When Dobson, Sergeant Rawson and the two redcoats marched on, Esther MacAndrews waited until the men of the light brigades passed and only the hussars were left behind.
‘No one behind, apart from the French, and there is no sign of them,’ she was assured by the fourth hussar officer she stopped. Like the others he could not quite conceal his opinion of anyone who had let a girl ride off on her own in the middle of a war. ‘No doubt your daughter has ridden ahead and is already with her father.’ There was the clear implication that the rearguard was equally no place for an officer’s wife, however handsome. ‘I am sure the best thing you could do, dear lady, is to join them.’
‘Thank you for your advice.’ Esther MacAndrews let her courtesy slip, but could see no purpose to remaining behind. She drove her horse hard along the road, splashing through the deep puddles, and using her whip whenever the animal tried to go round. The rain had stopped, and a red sun sank beneath the horizon as she passed a dozen German hussars singing in their own language. Only when she caught some of the words did she remember that it was Christmas Day.