Captain George Wickham had one brief pang of disappointment when he realised that he would not be able to make his assignation with the red-headed girl. General Paget kept all his staff very busy, and more than a few times vented on them his own annoyance at the necessity of retreating.
‘No time for that, Mr Wickham,’ he had bellowed angrily, at the captain’s suggestion that he take a ride around the northern flank of the army. ‘You are no longer with Betty Burrard. I expect my aides to work.’ In August Wickham had been appointed to the staff of Sir Harry Burrard, who was as indulgent to his staff as he was slow moving.
Wickham followed the commander of the Reserve Division as he rode through the rain, chivvying his battalions on. Later, he had the great pleasure of being sent once again to carry a message to the general’s older brother, with instructions to stay with him and observe the withdrawal of the cavalry. It was pleasant to find that Lord Paget welcomed him warmly. Black Jack Slade was even more handsome in his greetings. Their officers were lively and spoke of the latest society gossip.
Viscount S___ had eloped with the wife of Colonel Powlett. Wickham was not sufficiently acquainted with aristocratic society to guess the man’s identity, but knew enough to keep silent and appear to understand. In most cases, the answers to such mysteries were either soon revealed or unnecessary to join the conversation. His judgement was swiftly vindicated.
‘Can’t say I blame Sackville,’ said a magnificently dressed hussar captain, laughing, his waxed moustache standing out stiffly on either side of his face. ‘You must have seen Mrs Powlett in the Row, Ferrars. You’d certainly remember her. Famous frontal development!’
They soon turned to the topic of Miss Clarke, and here at least Wickham knew enough to follow from the beginning.
‘Will it damage the Duke?’ he asked. The Duke of York was head of the army, and as good an administrator as he had been poor as a general back in Flanders. His former mistress had recently revealed to the newspapers that she had been using her influence over him to gain commissions for her friends, the friends of her friends, and indeed anyone inclined to be generous to her.
‘Oh, Freddie will manage,’ said a major from the Blues, and then paused as he took a pinch of snuff from an intricately decorated box. Balancing the pinch on a practised hand, he carefully returned the box to its pocket, before inhaling. ‘Might have to retire for a month or two, but no more than that, I should think.’ He prepared for a colossal explosion, and then looked puzzled when no sneeze came.
‘From what I hear Annie Clark is enjoying all the attention, and now gets invited to many a salon formerly closed to her,’ the major continued with great assurance. ‘She’s still a pretty little thing, although past her prime. I can remember seeing her on the stage when I was just a boy. Grew me up in a hurry, I can tell you!’
‘Is that how you joined the army?’ asked the hussar with affected innocence.
‘As good a way as any.’ The major chuckled, and seeing that the joke was acceptable, Wickham joined in.
Somehow, the talk turned to cricket. Wickham recognised the name of Lord Beauclerk from listening to Billy Pringle, who was obsessed with the game, but found that his attention soon wandered as the conversation became more technical. It was a shame not to be able to take a run at Miss MacAndrews. Wickham was not quite sure whether or not she would meet him. Even if she did, it might not be until the next assignation that she would finally succumb. She had spirit, and he suspected was more than a little the coquette, but like most of these young pieces she was also naive and required coaxing, which only made the result all the more gratifying. Perhaps she had gone to the meeting and his failure to arrive would cause her to lose her temper. So much the better, for the step from rage to passion was a small one if well guided. He smiled.
‘You look happy,’ said a very tall infantryman on Lord Paget’s staff.
‘Just thinking of a filly who is well on the way to being broke.’
‘Four-legged or two?’
‘Two. I think I shall soon get a saddle on her.’ The nearby officers laughed.
Wickham knew himself to be an intensely physical man, and if his love for his wife had long since faded, hers was undiminished and they took great pleasure in each other. Lydia was now in England. There had been places in Lisbon, and plenty around the cloisters of Salamanca, but it had now been weeks since he had enjoyed a woman. The enforced celibacy oppressed him, and he had even began to notice some of the drabs among the soldiers’ families. Then the 106th had arrived with MacAndrews’ daughter, and for the last few days he had dreamed of a mass of red curls, a trim figure and smooth skin. The whores in Portugal and Spain had been well enough, but now he craved the complexion and manners of an Englishwoman. Soon, he thought to himself, soon; for the moment it was far more useful to ingratiate himself with influential men.
Jane found no sign of Wickham on the road to the north of town. There was indeed no sign of anyone. She felt her anger flare, and drove her horse into a faster run, splashing through the puddles on a track barely used by the army. After five minutes she turned and cantered back in the opposite direction. Her sense told her to go back. Her rage made her want to see the man long enough to snub him, and make it clear that in future she would not contemplate either his attentions or indeed any degree of familiarity. Part of her wanted to see him smile, and wondered how he would excuse his lateness. Jane walked her horse into a little hollow, where the ruin of a shrine and a steep bank crowned by a holly bush gave shelter from the wind, if only a little from the rain.
Jane was not sure how long she waited. She wondered about dismounting, but her grey was a good fifteen hands and she could not be certain of climbing back on to him without assistance. She was cold and wet and told herself that she was a fool for ever letting herself be drawn on by the dashing captain. Her rage turned entirely against herself, especially since she was no longer quite so sure where she had joined the road and so where the battalion lay. The thought that she had taken this risk only to distract herself from the sadness of Mrs Dobson’s death merely made her own behaviour seem selfish as well as foolish.
Miss MacAndrews walked her horse back on to the road, and headed towards where she thought the army lay. The road dipped ahead, then rose to a little hummock. There was movement on the edge of the dip. Two thin poles wavered in the air, and a faint glint showed that they were topped with pointed steel heads. Beneath them were riders, wearing strangely shaped hats with square, flat tops, all covered in a buff oilskin. They were going away from her, and Jane wondered how she had not seen them come down the road past her. A track led off away from the road into a patch of trees, and she assumed they had come that way.
Jane was about to call out, feeling that on such a foul day it was better to ignore her pride and ask for directions from the patrol. Then something stopped her. The men did not look anything like the British hussars. She had never heard of British lancers and wondered whether the men were Spanish. She spoke little of the language, and doubted that she would be able to understand any directions. Oh well, she would simply have to rely on her own memory and hope it did not take too long to stumble back on to one of the outposts. If Mr Williams was there, she would pretend to be entirely confident of the path and not need any assistance.
One of the horsemen turned and looked startled. He said something to his companion, and both turned their mounts to face her.
‘Qui vive!’ The challenge was given in a guttural accent, and only after a moment did Jane realise that is was in French. Would the Spanish use the language? she wondered. The two cavalrymen spurred their horses towards her and she realised that they must be enemies. The girl turned her horse and sent him cantering along the path off the road. Fear fought with anger at her own folly. She used the whip mercilessly to drive the grey ever faster.
Her horse was fit, and unburdened with a large rider and heavy equipment, and Jane soon left her pursuers behind. Within ten minutes she had lost them, but in the process had lost herself. Wandering for a while, all sense of direction gone, she found a road and gambled that following it in a direction chosen on a whim was the best chance of finding the army again. Then two more lancers appeared and gave chase. She rode for twenty minutes, but the grey was tiring and she could not shake them off. One was now some way behind the other, but neither showed any sign of giving up.
Williams wandered for a long time across the fields and beyond the road, unsure where Miss MacAndrews was likely to be. Part of him hoped that it was all unnecessary and she had had the good sense to return long before now. He wished he knew when now was, and he felt the lack of a timepiece far more than when Hatch had paraded his own. Williams was fully aware that he ought to turn back. He could not do it, excusing this weakness by telling himself that searching for just a few minutes more could make all the difference. In his heart he knew that he would not abandon her, and also that he could not ride up and down for ever. The army was moving and he had duties to perform. He had a dreadful thought of being left behind by the entire army, a sudden terror that long hours had passed without his realising and that the battalion and everyone else had gone.
Then he heard a woman scream and a great wave of fear and horror swept over him. It came from the left, beyond a straggling row of trees, and he wrenched on the reins to turn Bobbie and then slammed his feet against her side. She protested, but ran.
Williams bounced in the saddle, almost lost his musket as the sling slipped down to his elbow and banged against his side. The scream came again, and then was cut off short. The musket slid again and he just caught it with his right hand and held it down against his leg. The rag covering the lock stayed in place, as did the cork he had put in the muzzle to stop the water getting in.
With only one hand on the reins, he steered clumsily, and Bobbie took him so close to one of the trees that a low branch slashed at his face and drew blood. Then they came into a patch of open ground, with a thicker stretch of woodland beyond it. Some sense drove him to the wood, and he followed a track running through it. There were shouts – men’s voices yelling at each other – and he pressed on.
Round a bend in the track, Bobbie swerved hard to avoid a braying and bucking mule. The mare’s hoofs narrowly missed Jenny Dobson, sprawled on the ground, her eyes closed and a trickle of blood coming from her lips. Her cap had fallen from her head and her long dark hair was spread around her like a fan. A few yards away a big soldier in a silver-grey helmet with a black horsehair plume and wearing a long blue cloak stood in the centre of the track, long sword drawn and facing Private Hanks. Hanks fired his musket, but the flint sparked on to damp powder. The Frenchman turned to look at Williams, and his hope that it was one of his own comrades died at the sight of a red coat.
Hanks lunged with his bayonet, striking the man’s body squarely. The Frenchman reeled, staggering back a step as the other man looked in bafflement at his blade bent almost double. A rapid jab with the sword, and Hanks dropped his musket to claw at the steel sunk deep into his throat.
Williams forced Bobbie between the two men, and before the Frenchman could react, the tall officer jabbed down with the butt of his musket and struck the man on the peak of his helmet. Bobbie’s chest pushed against the Frenchman’s sword, still embedded in Hanks’ neck, but although it had fallen from his grasp, the wrist strap prevented it from falling. As the mare pushed, the sword was wrenched from Hanks’ flesh, which pumped blood like a fountain, and the enemy soldier was falling. Williams hit him again, breaking his nose with the end of the musket, but the blow unbalanced him and he slumped down from Bobbie’s back, rolling as he fell.
The Frenchman was on his knees, his cloak open to reveal a metal cuirass, but he was groggy from the blows and slow as he fumbled to get his fingers back around the handle of his sword. Hanks choked and gasped as he died, kneeling down and then toppling forward.
Williams pressed with his hand to get to his feet, and then kicked the Frenchman in the face, tumbling him back. He drew his sword, point reaching out towards the cuirassier, who pushed up and forward so that the tip of the Russian blade went through his left eye. He died with no more than the gentlest of sighs.
Breathing hard, Williams looked around him. Hanks and the Frenchman were both obviously dead, the former in a pool of his own blood. Bobbie stood on the path, idly munching at the long grass, so that the froth around her mouth was turning an unsightly green. He walked over to Jenny and was glad to see that she was stirring. A bruise was blossoming on her cheek and he guessed that the Frenchman had struck her, cutting off her last scream.
‘It is all right,’ he said, and then realised the folly of that statement when the woman’s husband was lying dead a few feet away. ‘Are you hurt?’ He worried that the child might have come to harm.
‘Bastard!’ she said. ‘God-damned French bastard!’ She reached up, licked her fingers, and rubbed away the blood from her face. ‘Going for a girl when she’s about to have a baby. Bloody French.’ She began to get up. ‘Come on, give me a hand,’ she commanded.
‘I am afraid the Frenchman has done for your husband.’ Williams tried to make his tone as gentle as possible.
Jenny glanced at the corpse. ‘Poor Tom,’ she said flatly. ‘He weren’t much of a man, but he were kind.’ Williams was to be disappointed if he expected any greater grief.
He heard a man shouting from back the way he had come. The voice was not speaking English. ‘Can you ride?’
‘Reckon I can. You’ll need to lift.’ He helped Jenny climb on to the mule, and was surprised at the ease of lifting her in spite of her current bulk. Then he turned, picked up his musket, and went over to Bobbie. By the time he was in the saddle, two men had appeared around the bend in the path. One was another cuirassier, in a long blue cloak just like the dead man. The other wore a cocked hat, and a very dark blue jacket and breeches. He shouted, and cocked a pistol.
‘Go on, Jenny,’ yelled Williams. As long as the girl was with him he could not risk fighting, especially as he did not know how many more men were behind the two Frenchmen. The girl hit her mule with a stick and the animal trotted away. The man in the cocked hat levelled his pistol, but the cuirassier stopped him, and instead began to draw his sword.
Williams walked his horse after Jenny, wondering whether the man wanted to avoid the sound of a shot, or perhaps was squeamish enough not to fire when there was a chance of hitting a woman. Jenny’s mule was surprisingly fast, and a glance showed that she was leaving him behind, so he trotted on to follow her, still looking warily behind him.
Capitaine Dalmas watched the red-coated officer ride off, and wondered what an Englishman was doing outside the outposts of the army. He strode along the track, saw the dead British soldier, and his own man stretched out in the grass. Guibray had been a good man. Not imaginative or fit for promotion, but a brave, reliable soldier, whose only weakness was the speed with which he was distracted by women. Like a lot of the fellows from those early days of the revolutionary army, he had fallen into bad habits when discipline was so slack. Dalmas guessed that he had seen the girl and that had prompted the attack. Still, perhaps he had simply stumbled across the English. He was supposed to have been watching their horses, inside a sheep pen in a fold of the ground.
‘Let’s hope the English did not get to the horses,’ said the engineer Lieutenant Maizet. Dalmas had noticed a tendency in the man to state the obvious. He had brought him because his eyes were keen and his memory good, and anyway his other officers had things to do. They had come to watch the English army, and make sure of the routes they were taking. Dalmas wanted to look at their patrols and outposts and judge how vigilant they were likely to be. He did not want to fight, still less to be drawn into running skirmishes with the rearguard. They would look and then go north and wait for better opportunities as the retreat continued and the enemy grew tired. It would be better if the British officer could not get back to their lines quickly, in case the commander of the rearguard started to get too aggressive. Dalmas had left the remainder of his cuirassiers some distance back. The Poles were with him, stretched out in a line to observe, and the Englishman was already behind that line. He should not be able to get back to his own people. That was enough. Nothing useful would be gained by devoting too much effort to finding him, and the girl would prove to be a liability as Guibray’s useless death had shown.
‘Yes. Well, we might as well go and see.’ The cuirassier had been silent so long that the engineer officer had almost forgotten his own question. Now he surged through the undergrowth beside the track, and the other man struggled to keep up. A moment later they found the three horses where they had left them. It had been a chance encounter, then, or one brought on by Guibray’s lust.
There was little time to talk as Williams and Jenny rode across the rolling fields.
‘Have you seen Miss MacAndrews?’ he hissed as soon as they had left the two Frenchmen far enough behind.
‘Her?’ Jenny frowned. ‘No.’
He decided not to pass on farther news until they were safe.
It was hard to see far in any direction, and he was unsure how many French were there. After five minutes he turned west, thinking to swing round and get back. Before they had gone more than a few hundred yards, some movement caught his eye. Two lancers whose blue jackets had yellow fronts emerged from a sunken road a quarter of a mile away. They did not seem to have seen him, and he quickly led Jenny back into a dip in the ground, where they followed the line of a gully. For a moment he stopped, got down and then edged his way up to peer over the bank. The two lancers were some way away, but another patrol was nearer, barely three hundred yards from where he lay, letting their horses crop the grass.
Williams tried going east, but all the while they were also going north, farther and farther away from army. The day was getting on, and by now the reserve must have marched. Probably the light regiments and the cavalry of the main rearguard were already drawing back. Yet as he tried to loop east they kept spotting the blue-jacketed horsemen. He thought of doubling back to try again in the west, but the line seemed solid. Then they stumbled on another pair of lancers on the farthest side of a small walled field. It was still raining, and no one bothered to attempt a shot. Williams and Jenny fled as fast as her mule would run. The Poles gave up the chase after a few minutes, but he felt it prudent to keep going at a trot for longer. They came to a stretch of better road, and went for a mile before they slowed to a walk. Williams was surprised when he looked at Jenny and saw the exhaustion in her young face. Her condition had slipped from his mind as they dodged the French patrols.
It was now late afternoon, and the rain slackened a little and then died away as the grey light of a cloudy winter sky began to fade. The land was rising steadily. They came to a valley, and the river that curved through the bottom was fast and swollen with rain from the mountains. Jenny was swaying on the back of her mule, and clearly could go no farther. Williams saw a small stone building clinging to the slope above the river. Telling her to stay, he rode over, dismounted, and walked cautiously up to the heavy wooden door. He knocked, felt foolish for doing so, and then lifted the catch to open it. He guessed it was a shelter used by the shepherds, as there were signs that animals were sometimes kept inside. As his eyes adapted to the gloom he saw sacks and a pile of straw and then neater piles of the chopped straw the locals used for most of their fuel. It would do.
Jenny looked almost ready to faint when he brought her over. He helped her down and then took her inside. She asked for the bags on the mule and he took them off and put them inside before bringing the animal in as well. Hopefully they had left the French behind, but it would be better not to advertise their presence. By the time he came back, the girl had lit the stub of a candle. He was surprised at how practically she began arranging the wide single room.
Williams went to attend to Bobbie. The clouds had split to let the setting sun shine its red light across the drab landscape. Even the wind had dropped, and for the first time in hours he felt a sense of peace, until sudden movement caught his eye.
The grey horse looked bright in the fading light. Miss MacAndrews, hat gone, and hair streaming behind her, struck again with her whip to keep the horse going, its sides a foam of sweat.
Williams swung himself up on to the mare, musket held across his body, left hand on the rein and the other slapping her rump as he urged her on. He headed for the gap between Jane and the closest Pole, but they were still a good quarter of a mile away. The man seemed to be gaining on her, and Williams bounced as he raced down the slope, but no longer noticed the discomfort. There was a shout as the second lancer spotted him, and slowed his horse cautiously.
Jane looked up, saw a man in a red coat, and only as she turned towards him recognised who it was. The leading Pole shifted direction to follow her.
Williams was sure the lancer would reach the girl before he could get to them. He stopped, dismounted and wrenched the rag off his musket’s lock. Then he reached to yank the cork from its muzzle. The Pole was some two hundred yards away, the girl nearer. He prayed that the musket would spark, and that the charge had not been so shaken around by the long ride and its use as a club that it would not fire the ball with any real power.
He let them come closer, almost fired, but just stopped as Bobbie chose to swing her neck against him. He took a couple of paces forward and kneeled. They were one hundred and fifty yards away, an absurd range for a soldier’s musket. Yet if he waited Jane, who was swinging towards him, would soon be between him and the pursuing lancer. He took a deep breath, half let it out, aimed at the horseman’s chest and then raised the muzzle to allow for the distance.
It was a miracle when the powder in the pan flared and the main charge went off. It was even more of a miracle that the ball fell true and gouged a deep furrow on the man’s left arm just beneath the shoulder. The lancer rocked with the force of the blow, felt his limb go dead, and dropped his lance to steer the horse with the other hand as he turned and retreated. Williams did not know that he had hit, but saw the man turn as the smoke of the discharge began to clear.
It was unfortunate that the grey horse panicked at the noise of the shot or perhaps the sudden flame and smoke, and bolted. Jane bounced in her seat as the animal swerved sharply, and with strength she thought long exhausted galloped towards the river. The girl dragged at the reins, but the animal did not stop. Williams barely noticed the two Poles retreat down the road as he clambered on to Bobbie and set off in pursuit of the girl.
At the high riverbank, Jane just managed to steer the animal away from the water. It reared, and somehow she stayed on the side-saddle, and then the grey horse galloped again, running along the top of the bank. As its weight fell on earth undermined by the recent floods, the ground gave way. The bank crumbled, and Jane for the first time screamed in fear as the grey lurched to the side and toppled into the river. She fell free, and the shock of the icy flow was terrible as she sank under the waves. When she came to the surface again she was being swept along, the horse already some distance ahead.
Williams drove Bobbie on, running at an angle, trying to judge where he could get in front of the girl. A bend in the river hid her from view, and he rode on in dark fear until with massive relief he saw the white of her face emerge from the brown water again. She was close to the near bank, and that gave him a chance, but he could see that she could make little headway in the torrent.
He lost sight of her as he cut across another bend, and then he was at the bank. Jumping down, he scrambled on to a boulder standing proud of the flood. Again there was a surge of relief as the girl came into sight. She was close, and he hoped that he would have a long enough reach as he lay on the stone and stretched his musket out.
Jane dropped beneath the surface again, then came up spluttering and saw Williams just yards away, his musket extended. With all her strength she reached towards him, struggling against the appalling weight of her waterlogged clothes. Her hands stretched up, and as her arms rose her head again went under the water, but she felt the touch of wood and her fingers closed desperately around it. Then her other hand found the musket’s butt and clung on.
Williams felt himself shifted violently to the side as the girl grabbed hold and was stopped. For a moment he feared that he would slide off the rock and end up in the river with her, drowning or freezing instead of saving. He pulled slowly, terrified that a sudden move would loosen her grip, but she came towards him and her head emerged again. Jane was close enough for him to take one hand off the musket and grab under her arm. He pulled harder now, for the current still dragged the girl away from him. Gloved hands slipped on the soaked wood and Jane lost her hold on the musket, but Williams let the weapon go and it slid into the water. His other hand was now under her other arm and despite all the wet cloth he held her tight, pulling her to the edge of the stone.
It was still a huge effort to lift her out of the water, and Williams would never have believed that the small woman could possibly be so heavy. He lifted her out and knelt, pressing her against him. Jane’s hair looked almost black as it was pasted flat against her head. She was shivering violently, and the skin of her face was icy to the touch.
Williams raised her by the arm, but after a few steps she staggered. He reached down, shifted the weight and lifted her in his arms. Unable to think of a way of getting on to the horse, he managed to loop Bobbie’s reins over a couple of fingers and led the mare as he walked up the hill to the stone hut. Jane’s grey had vanished downstream. There was also no sign of the Poles and he hoped that they had gone, especially since his musket was lost to the river.
For a while Jane clung to him, her shivers shaking him as he walked. Then she passed out and hung limply down. The shivering had stopped and he worried that this was bad sign. As he carried her into the little building her skin looked almost blue in the candlelight. Jenny had already got a fire going, but the chopped straw produced only a modest heat. The pregnant young woman moved surprisingly easily as she came to look at Jane. Jenny touched her cheek.
‘Get her clothes off!’ she ordered.
‘Strip her! She’ll die if you don’t warm her up. Get them clothes off and then hold her close so that she can feel your warmth. I’ll cover you with one of the blankets and that coat of yours.’
‘But …?’ he began.
‘For Gawd’s sake get on with it. I’ll build up the fire.’ She turned away, dismissing him to his task and muttering, ‘I never thought I’d have to persuade a bloody man to do that.’
Williams looked at the unconscious Jane and was no longer sure that she was breathing. He began to fumble at the buttons of her pelisse. The material was sodden, his gloves slippery, so he pulled them off with his teeth and began again. It was still difficult, for there were nine buttons on the jacket and each fitted tightly. Her dress fastened with hooks at the back, and only a few ivory buttons, so was a little easier, although he found it difficult to balance the unconscious girl and go about his task at the same time. At one point Jane stirred, made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a moan. Her eyes opened and a panicking Williams just managed to stop himself from dropping her as he prepared for an outrage which he no doubt deserved, but she did not seem to focus and quickly passed out again.
In the end it was done, and if in private thoughts he had dreamed of such a moment, his imagination had not made it like this. Fear for her safety drowned out all other emotions.
‘Not bad,’ said Jenny. She had stretched a blanket on the bare earth floor and Williams gently laid Jane down on it. Another, and Williams’ greatcoat would go on top of them. He took off his jacket, itself very wet, and then stopped.
‘Might it not be more proper if you …?’
‘Me? I’m about to have a baby in case you hadn’t noticed.’ She shook her head. ‘I’d have thought you’d jump at the chance,’ she added.
Williams got down and pulled the girl to him. There was a faint motion of breathing, but she felt so very cold that his fears for her grew strong again. Jenny covered them.
‘Sleep if you can,’ she said. ‘I’ll keep watch.’ She produced a tiny pistol from the pockets of her skirt. ‘It’s easier for me to sit by the fire than lie down these days.’ She settled down carefully, pulling the remaining blanket around her like a shawl.
Williams pressed Miss MacAndrews to him, and thought he saw the blue tint fade from her skin before he dropped into an exhausted sleep.