Military history

Chapter 30

The girl’s smile was lavish, and her slim beauty made even stronger by the harsh shadows of the firelight. On the day of the battle Pringle had managed to forget about Maria. The battle itself already had a strangely dreamlike quality in his memory, and everything before it seemed both hazy and unimportant. The fact that he had been unconscious for much of the time doubtless added to this. Now Maria was back, but she was no longer a nun. Her long hair framed her face. She wore a tight-fitting orange-brown jacket and a flared skirt. This was short, like those worn by many of the Portuguese women, and revealed her ankles sheathed in white stockings and light black shoes tied up with straps around them.

Maria knew she was being inspected and leaned back in the camp chair she had been ushered to. The motion let her hemline rise another fraction, and helped to display her figure to full force. She reached up apparently absent-mindedly to smooth her long hair back over her right ear.

Pringle revelled in looking at the young Portuguese woman, and he could sense that Truscott, who sat on a boulder beside him, was almost equally appreciative. Hanley and Williams were on piquet duty, but he could sense that many of the officers of the 106th were finding reasons to drift nearer to the fire made by the officers of the Grenadier Company.

Lieutenant Miguel Mata coughed. ‘We need your help,’ he said slowly in French. Pringle had a basic knowledge of the language and Truscott spoke it well. ‘I think you owe me a favour.’ The former student turned gunner – though in an artillery regiment with scarcely a cannon to call their own and no horses to move the few they had – had arrived with the girl. He was clearly bursting with pride to be in the company of such a beautiful woman, flattered that she chose him out of a literal army of men. Truscott silently suspected that the young officer did not know how far out of his depth he was. Pringle just thought ruefully that he had got the nun, while Mata had damn well got the courtesan.

‘Shall we take a walk and speak more privately?’ said Maria in her excellent but accented English. Truscott wondered whether she exaggerated this to sound more exotic and fascinating. If so, then he had to admit that it worked.

She slipped her arm into Mata’s, who beamed happily as they walked out from the regiment’s lines. He no longer cared that the conversation was in English. Maria let Pringle take her other arm.

‘Denilov is an evil man, and a desperate one,’ she explained. ‘He has gambled away his family’s wealth and cannot honour his debts.’

‘How do you know all this?’ asked Truscott.

‘Men tell me things.’

‘I am sure they do,’ said Pringle before he could help himself. For a moment her expression was once again that of the nun. Both Englishmen felt sheepish. Mata had understood none of the exchange and smiled with contentment.

‘I met Count Denilov at a reception more than a month ago. There were usually a few Russians at these affairs ever since their fleet arrived off Lisbon. But he is a soldier, not a sailor, an officer in the Tsar’s guards, and see weline gentleman. He can be very charming.’

Truscott grunted. ‘I’ll take your word for it.’

‘My uncle – at least that is what he is in public – had already fled and I had no secure protector. I might have found one among the French, but there are some things I will not bring myself to do. Not ever.’ The bitterness in Maria’s voice was surprising and seemed genuine, although Truscott was no longer sure what to believe about her. She had decided that a good deal of the truth had to be revealed, even though she still found it hard to trust anyone after Denilov’s betrayal. ‘It was already dangerous to travel outside the city and I needed help. Everything I told you about my uncle and the money left to help the convent is true, I assure you. The duke is a generous man. With the money are some things he promised to me. I want only what is my due. I have come with Mata to show that I am honest. He is a good man and will make sure the money goes to the sisters. I want no more than my due.’

‘Which is?’ Pringle had spoken, surprising Truscott, who had thought he was the only one listening with any scepticism to Maria’s story. His friend had voiced the question he had himself been on the verge of asking.

‘Jewellery. Especially pearls. The duke used to like me to dress as Cleopatra and she was famous for her pearls.’

‘Among other things,’ muttered Truscott. ‘And Denilov promised to get them for you?’ he said aloud.

Maria nodded. ‘But I realised too late he would take everything and leave me nothing. He is a beast.’ She shuddered, and for the first time Mata looked concerned. She smiled at him reassuringly, and pressed her hand to his cheek. The former student, who was still little more than a boy, beamed.

‘He fooled me and I told him everything I knew, even the name of the man the duke had put in charge of the business. I did not know where he was, and by the time I had found him, Denilov and his soldiers were also looking. Varandas the steward was an old man who did not approve of me, but I managed to persuade him to tell me what he knew.

‘Denilov must have followed. I doubt the old man is still alive, for he must have told the Russians everything.’

‘They may have persuaded him, just as you did,’ suggested Truscott.

‘Not as I did.’

‘I see.’

‘Do you? Do you really know?’ The flash of temper vanished in an instant. Maria shrugged, startling Mata with her sudden movement. ‘Does any man really know?

‘Denilov knows only how to kill. You saw what they did to the poor priest. He would do that to anyone if it suited his purpose or merely to amuse himself. Anyway, it had become a race, but it was hard for me to be faster than them. I needed help and I found you.’

‘Not that it did you much good,’ said Truscott. The bitterness of failure had faded during the battle, but now returned to savage his pride.

‘Or us for that matter.’ Pringle rubbed the bruise on the back of his head, which had throbbed unpleasantly on today’s march.

‘How did you get away from Denilov?’ Truscott had not meant to sound so blunt, but the question had to be asked.

‘How do you think?’ Maria’s expression was both hard and bitter. Then she sagged. ‘I was lucky. Before too long we ran into a French cavalry patrol. They fired before asking who we were. The vile man they hawith them as interpreter was killed beside me. Denilov tried to tell the French that they were allies, but before they stopped shooting I managed to run. The Russians couldn’t chase me and persuade the French that they were innocent allies at the same time. Both the French and the Russians came after me later, but it was getting dark and they were nervous of running into any militiamen out for their blood. I hid and they did not find me. As I said, I was lucky.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Very lucky.’

‘You understand that I had to ask.’ Truscott was almost apologetic.

‘I would have done so if you had not,’ said Pringle, surprising his friend. ‘Anyway, this rather brings us to the point. What are you asking us to do?’

‘Not here.’ They were still near the camp of another battalion, and Maria had already attracted plenty of interested glances. ‘Could we walk somewhere a little more private?’ she asked.

‘Armies aren’t exactly designed for privacy,’ muttered Truscott. They walked towards the beach, heading away from the brigade’s lines. They passed occasional sentries, pausing in conversation until they were again out of earshot. For a while they let Maria explain, not interrupting her assurances of honesty.

‘There is a farm on the little road east from here. Perhaps two miles away, maybe less. It is owned by the duke. The money is hidden in a panel set into the fireplace. What looks like solid stone slides back to reveal a niche. That was all the priest knew and so all that Denilov knows. I know how to open the panel.’

‘How do you know Denilov has not been there already and opened it up through brute force?’ Truscott sounded interested, although far from committing himself.

‘Perhaps he has, but that does not mean we should not try. It does mean we should hurry. Still, he would not find it easy to reach the farm. The priest was vague and it is marked on no map. It is different for me.’


‘Because I was born there.’

Pringle thought again how little he knew about the woman. She had deceived them before and now she came asking them to risk their lives again. He had survived one battle, and another was expected. Pringle could not quite make up his mind whether that meant there were so many dangers to life and limb that another did not matter. The shame of being bested by Denilov’s men was still raw, but it was very hard to trust Maria, particularly because he was so aware of her beauty and how that sapped his resolve. The intimacy of walking beside her was intoxicating, and there was a promise when she gently squeezed his arm.

‘We cannot simply wander around at will, you know. We are officers and have duties.’ Truscott saved him from having to say something.

‘Miguel will help me.’ Maria repeated the statement in Portuguese and the young officer fervently assured her of his willingness. In spite of her reluctance, she resorted to French to include him. ‘Yet it may be difficult for him to move through your army and its patrols. Apart from that, he has only a few men he can trust.

‘At the very least, will you take him to your officers and ask permission for him to take a patrol through your . . . I do not know the word?’

‘Outposts,’ said Truscott. He thought for a moment, and then nodded. ‘That at least is something I am happy to do. Shall we go?’

‘Take the lieutenant.’ Maria smiled. ‘I may look a little uncial.’ She spoke quickly to Mata, and again touched his cheek with one hand. ‘Mr Pringle can escort me back to your camp in a moment. I am sure a nun is still safe with him.’

Truscott’s eyes flicked suspiciously from Maria’s innocent expression to his friend, but Mata was all eagerness to go about their task and he quickly led the man away.

Maria let them go, their shapes soon lost in the dark shadows. ‘I do love the scent of salt in the air,’ she said and stretched, arching her back.

‘Shall we walk back?’ Pringle asked after a moment, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice.

‘That way,’ the girl said, pointing towards a small copse. Her head leaned to one side as she looked up at him. ‘I still need to persuade you.’

‘Perhaps you cannot.’

Maria shook her head. ‘I am very persuasive.’ She took his hand and led him among the trees. Pringle decided to stop thinking.

‘I’m going with them,’ said Billy Pringle, ensuring that he did not look any of his friends in the eye. It took all his willpower not to keep breaking out into a grin.

Truscott sniffed. ‘I am not surprised.’ Hanley looked puzzled, but Williams did not seem to notice. The other two had gone out to meet them as they returned from piquet duty and explained Mata’s request.

‘We owe the lieutenant, I suppose,’ said Truscott, weighing his words. ‘After all, he and his men pulled us out of the soup. We have to be grateful for that.’

‘Enough to take another foolish risk?’ Hanley could not quite believe what they were saying. No one replied. ‘I mean, aren’t there rules about this sort of thing?’ Again there was no response. ‘What would MacAndrews say?’

Truscott shrugged. Their earlier exploit had been no secret and they could not simply wander off without permission. Yet he doubted anyone would try to stop them. It was a humbling judgement on their significance. Not that it mattered any more. Pringle was his closest friend in the regiment and, if he was going, then Truscott would go with him. He knew the others felt the same, and would go in spite of every misgiving.

Williams was checking the lock on his musket. He nodded. ‘They need to be stopped,’ he said simply.

‘So that’s settled,’ said Hanley wearily, still not quite sure how and why this was happening, but unwilling to be parted from his friends. He did not have much else in the world left to him.

‘We are to meet Maria and Mata in twenty minutes, just behind the piquet line on the east road,’ said Billy Pringle.

As they walked off, Truscott let Hanley and Williams go a short way ahead and then whispered to Pringle, ‘I hope it was worth this.’ Billy Pringle’s only reply was a beaming smile.

The moon was bright and silvered the landscape as they marched towards the farm in search of treasure. Williams always found such nights a little unreal in their beauty, but in this case that seemed appropriate. Pringle had gone to MacAndrews and got permission to take a patrol out in company with Portuguese soldiers during the night. As far as he could see the major had just wanted to get rid of him quickly, although he wondered whether MacAndrews knew far more than he was revealing, because his expression suggested that he thought Pringle and his fellows were damned fools. Co-operation with the Portuguese was one of the standing orders, howevererhaps that was why he gave them permission. On the other hand Pringle had heard that the major’s family had arrived and guessed there could be other reasons for such a curt dismissal.

Pringle had gone to confirm the matter with the brigade major, who had to be woken and promptly told him to take his patrol to the devil and stop disturbing honest men at their rest. As he departed, there was a shout telling him to make sure to tell the officers on the outposts unless he wanted his damned fool head blown off by his own side.

Mata had brought half a dozen of his men. They were all young, but each had a musket, a bayonet and a pouch full of ammunition. He also had a mule to carry the box with the money and another donkey for Maria to ride. Everyone else walked. Hanley had insisted on coming in spite of his arm. So had Dobson.

‘I’m your front-rank man, Pug,’ he had said. ‘I go where you go, because it’s our job to keep each other alive. We can look after Mr Hanley too while we’re at it.’

A little reluctantly, Williams had agreed. Part of him was glad the old soldier was there, because he reckoned that he was at least as tough as Denilov’s killers.

It took longer than he expected to walk the mile and a half to the farm. They went stealthily. The army had lost contact with the French, but that did not mean there were no stray patrols about. Then there were the Russians. None of the Englishmen wanted to be surprised a second time.

They did not lose their way, and only once did Maria have to think for any time to decide on their path. It seemed she really did know this area well. They did not speak save when they had to, for Dobson had from the beginning told them to hold their tongues, because the noise would carry much farther than they thought.

There were no lights in the farm when they arrived. They crouched down behind a dry-stone wall to have a closer look. It lay at the end of a lane leading off from the main track. Two smaller buildings sat on either side of the main house, which alone had two storeys. All three buildings cast long shadows in the light of the rising moon. Maria whispered that the smaller ones were a barn and a cattle shed. A large family worked the place as tenants of the duke, but there was no way of knowing in these times whether or not they were actually there.

‘No dogs,’ whispered Dobson to Williams. ‘If there’s no dogs at a farm then there’s no people either. Leastaways not those with a right to be there.’

Maria either did not hear or ignored him as she continued her description. ‘There are two doors to the house. The main one is at the front, and a small side door to the kitchen at the right end of the rear wall. In the old days they would not be bolted, but today . . . ’ There was more than a hint of bitterness as she added, ‘My family kept the place better.’

Two of Mata’s men returned from a wide circle of the buildings. They had seen nothing. Williams was close enough to sense Dobson’s contempt. ‘They’re just young ’uns. Don’t know they’re born, let alone how to fight,’ he whispered. ‘Best way in is from the top down. Daft buggers never guard the top floor properly. Look.’ He pointed. ‘See the far wall. There’s just a single window at the top. Force the shutters and in that way.’

Williams was tempted to ask him how he knew so much about housebreaking, but realised this was not the time and was not sure he would like the answer. He crouched as he went along the wall to join Pringle and Truscott and explained Dobson’s suggestion.

Truscott was unimpressed. ‘How the hell do we get up there?’ They were soon joined by Mata and Hanley, and there was a long whispered conference. In the end they formed a plan. Two of Mata’s men went to watch the entrance to the lane. They were to fire if either Denilov or any French approached and then run back to the house, which by then the others should have secured. Mata and four men would go in through the front door, while the British officers used the kitchen door. Williams and Dobson were allowed to try to force their way in through the upper window if they could. When the plan was explained to Maria, she baulked and refused to be left behind and this led to more discussion. Finally she agreed to follow at a distance behind the three British officers and wait for the signal to join them.

When the two main groups moved off, Dobson grabbed Williams’ shoulder and held him back.

‘Wait,’ he whispered. ‘After that parish meeting the whole bloody world must know we’re coming.’

‘If anyone is there.’

‘You’re a soldier, Pug. Always expect the worst. Now wait.’

Williams could see the five Portuguese walk slowly up the path to the farm’s main entrance. His friends swung wide to the side of the house, Maria just a few paces behind them. All of them cast long shadows and looked conspicuous in the moonlight. He tensed, waiting for the sudden flames and noise of shots.

Nothing happened. Mata reached the main door. He crouched and two of his men presented their muskets and aimed at the big shuttered windows on either side of the door. The other two closed up on the officer.

Pringle and the others had vanished around the side of the house. Mata waited to give them time to reach the kitchen door. Sword held in his right hand, with his left he grasped the large iron ring of the door and tried to turn it. To his surprise it moved and he felt the catch lift. As gently as he could, he pushed the door inwards, wincing when the hinges creaked so loudly that he thought the whole world must hear.

The kitchen door was also open. Pringle turned the handle and then slammed his shoulder against the door, flinging it open and half falling into the room. Truscott and Hanley both pointed their pistols through the open doorway. There was no one in the kitchen. Pringle had fallen against a high-backed wooden chair, one of three placed around a heavy wooden table. There were plates and pots on it, and more hanging from the walls and around the fireplace. The room smelt faintly of rotting meat.

Mata heard the bang as Pringle forced his way into the house, and pushed the main door harder. It was very dark inside and for a moment he could see nothing. He took a pace in, his sword held out before him. There was another door a yard or so in front of him and a second one to his right.

‘Bugger,’ hissed Dobson as he saw movement in an upper window just above the main door. Williams saw a tiny red spark fall through the air. One of the Portuguese soldiers felt something heavy strike his shoulder and thud into the dirt beside him. He looked down and saw a small sphere no bigger than a child’s ball. A fuse burned in it.

The explosion was thunderous, the red flame sudden and blinding. The two Portuguese soldiers covering the lower windows died instantly as the sharp fragments of metal smashed into their bodies. More jagged pieces scythed through the air to strike the men next to Mata, knocking them down. The lieutenant himself was unscathed, but left stunned by the noise. The doors opened and, before he could parry the blows, bayonets reached out andstabbed him. Hissing with pain, he dropped his sword and slumped down.

‘Grenade,’ said Dobson. Nominally they were grenadiers, but Williams had never seen one of the old-fashioned weapons for they were erratic and almost as much a danger to the man throwing them as to his target. The British Army had stopped using them regularly more than fifty years earlier.

The sound was muffled in the kitchen. Truscott and Hanley were at the inner door, which was locked. Maria had already followed them into the room and helped Pringle to his feet.

‘Sounds like a war,’ muttered Pringle. Truscott pulled back a pace or two to charge the door. Maria screamed when a figure appeared at the outer door and slammed it shut. Glass in the nearby window shattered as it was hit with a club. Then a round object was thrown into the room. A burning fuse flared as the iron grenade clattered on to the floor and began to spin wildly.

‘The table,’ yelled Pringle. He began to lift the nearest leg. Truscott joined him while Hanley flung himself at Maria and used his good arm to drag the girl down behind them. Grunting, the two lieutenants managed to tip the heavy timbered table on to its side and ducked behind it.

There was a pause that seemed to last forever and then an explosion louder and more appalling than anything they had heard in the battle. They felt the solid table shake with the impact of wickedly sharp shards of the grenade’s casing. Some pattered into the plaster wall behind them. Both doors were flung open and soldiers came through them with levelled bayonets. Truscott was swaying from the shock of the blast, but managed to fire, and the man coming through the outer door grunted and slumped to the ground. Pringle and Hanley turned to face the inner door and pulled the triggers on their pistols at almost the same instant, so that the reports merged into one. Both shots missed.

Behind the soldier came Denilov, the twin barrels of his pistol aimed squarely at Maria. He glanced at the others.

‘The same fools,’ the Russian officer said with contempt.

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