22nd January, 1809 The Lizard, Cornwall, England
“Another dead ’un over here!”
Miriam Tregohan’s gloved hand flew to her mouth. The man stooping over the body straightened up before snatching off his hat. “Beg pardon, Miss Tregohan, but you ought not stray this far down the beach.”
Acid bile burned the back of Miriam’s throat. She half-swallowed her horror and tore her eyes away from the corpse. Only last week, she remembered with a start, she had sat up all night to finish a novel in which the dashing hero narrowly avoided a similar fate. She took a deep breath and let it out, “I am quite recovered, thank you Mr Larkin.”
“But your father, miss...”
“...will be quite safe in his carriage,” she said, determinedly regaining her composure. “Our coachman will remain with him.”
Miriam turned to stare back up Coverack beach. Behind her a group of villagers waited, faces grey as the sky. On the road beyond two farm wagons stood in line, the first already part loaded with its cargo hidden from prying eyes beneath wet tarpaulin. Waiting draught horses blew smoke into the chill air. “The carts blocked our passage,” she explained.
“Even so...” Larkin shook his head.
Miriam watched more sightseers clambering over rocks as they headed towards the tide-line. Some paused as they went, checking every piece of jagged timber or frayed rope they passed. In the hope they might find something of value, she thought. Further away two small boys bounced up and down on the ribcage of a dead horse. An old couple scolded at them before one boy pushed the other off the carcase and they both ran, laughing, along the beach, scattering windblown seabirds before them.
“A wreck always draws a crowd,” Larkin observed, as if reading Miriam’s thoughts.
She turned back to him. “Can you say what ship?”
Larkin grimaced. “You can’t often tell; not this early on. A transport, probably. They’ve picked up a dozen dead soldiers already, God rest them.”
“Dragoons, they look like, miss, and one an officer.”
That could not be true, Miriam thought; Larkin must be mistaken. An officer would surely not have drowned; he would have swum to shore. Officers saved the day. They rescued heroines. They were incredibly brave and incurably romantic. Heroes almost never died. Tragedies were out of fashion.
Two burly men brushed past. Bending down, one took hold of the dead man’s ankles while the other grabbed him under the armpits.
Miriam turned at the unexpected voice by her side. The tall newcomer politely raised his hat with one hand while the long black cane he held in the other jabbed at the dead man’s feet. “No shoes, you see? Better to climb the rigging. A sailor, I shouldn’t wonder. Any more washed up yet?” he asked Larkin.
“Tide’s going out. There’ll be others cast ashore very soon, mark my words.” He sounded almost cheerful. “Look,” he raised his cane, pointing to where receding waves snapped and snarled at a mound of flapping seaweed, “there.” He tacked towards it, into the headwind.
Miriam hesitated. What if...? No, she decided; she was behaving like a silly girl. Brave officers certainly did not die - the books she read said so. It was as simple as that. She trudged after the tail of hangers-on who followed the tall oracle like the Pied Piper’s rats.
“Lord save us from a know-all,” Larkin remarked under his breath as he fell in step beside her.
It was a horse, so tangled in kelp fronds as to be unrecognisable at first. Know-all gave the animal a good poke with his cane as if to confirm it was really dead. Larkin dragged rotting weed away from its head.
“Dragoons, you said?” know-all mused aloud. “Returning from Spain, I shouldn’t wonder.”
A woman stepped forward to clutch at know-all’s arm. “Oh sir, do you know what ship? Please, sir?”
“He can’t know that, Mary, love.” Her husband was apologetic. “It’s our son, you see, sir, in the army. We’ve not heard a word for months.”
“My dear lady,” know-all gave Mary a winning smile, “I’m certain you have no cause to fret. No news is good news, after all, is it not?”
Miriam thought Mary about to burst into tears.
“Its feet,” know-all suggested, pointing again with his cane, “check its hooves. They’re often branded, or so I’m told.”
Larkin paddled around the back of the carcase. One hind leg bent sideways at an unnatural angle but he ignored it. Stooping, he took hold of a front hoof, rubbing at the horny surface with his thumb. He squinted, “There’s a number seven on this one and...,” he tugged at the animal’s other front foot, “...might be an ‘H’?”
“Just as I thought,” know-all said in triumph, “the 7th Hussars. On their way back from fighting old Boney.”
Miriam heard Mary make a small moaning noise, but it appeared of relief rather than sorrow, “Oh, thank you, sir,” she touched know-all’s arm again, “thank you. My boy’s with the 18th,” she added for the listeners at large.
Turning her back on the crowd Miriam walked along the tide line, pulling her coat closer against the wind. Men died; she accepted that. Workers in her father’s mines sometimes lost their lives in accidents. It was part of life. Her father would die soon, she suspected, of the illness which befuddled his mind.
But those deaths were different, somehow. Less noble. Officers ordered their men into battle knowing some must be killed. That was their duty and their curse; one of the terrible burdens such heroes must bear, the novels said.
She stepped around a stoved-in barrel the waves had cast up, her feet sinking into wet sand. Out at sea white horses fought, plunging and rearing over the Manacles, jagged rocks just below the surface. A graveyard for unwary mariners. Miriam screwed her eyes tight shut, trying to imagine what horrors awaited a vessel trapped by those granite shackles. The crack of pebbles dragged out on the ebb tide was the sound of timbers torn apart; the screech of scavenging gulls the desperate shrieks of terrified men as they fought to escape their fate. She opened her eyes to banish such awfulness.
In front of her a dying wave broke as the sea retched up more of its plunder. A spar, dirty white sail still attached by frayed ratlines. As the wave receded Miriam saw something lay tangled in the wreckage. She stepped close enough for icy water to wash over her shoes. A dark shape stopped her abruptly: another body, wrapped in a canvas shroud.
Miriam turned away, waving frantically towards Larkin and the others still crowding around the horse.
It took three men to drag the wreckage beyond the sea’s reach. Larkin produced a knife, sawing at wet rope until he was able to peel the sail from the man’s body.
“Another dragoon,” know-all said, “a private soldier, from his clothing.” He pointed his cane at the dead man’s woollen overalls.
Larkin tore away the canvas wrapped around the soldier’s boots, “Look here - these spurs are silver if I’m not mistaken.”
“Spoils of war, no doubt,” know-all suggested, “though much good they’ll do him now.”
“Let’s get him up, then,” Larkin said sadly. “Face away, ladies,” he advised the group, “for the rocks may have marked him.”
Morbid fascination stopped Miriam turning from the dead man while Larkin grabbed an arm, rolling him onto his back. Then she gasped aloud, for the fair-haired dragoon was her dashing young hero, cast half-dead upon a storm-blighted shore.
PART I : Friend or Foe
October 1808 Belem Cantonment, Lisbon, Portugal
Sergeant Joshua Lock felt a stab between his shoulder-blades.
“Oi - you!”
Regretfully, Lock lowered his wine cup after only a single draught. Straightening from a slouch against what passed in the dim taberna for the counter, he turned to face the man who spoke, “What did you say?”
“You ’eard. Get shot of yer blackie,” the redcoat repeated, glancing coldly at Lock’s companion. “We don’t want to be drinking wi’ no niggers. Us, nor the lieutenant there,” he jerked his thumb to the right, indicating a tall, blond-haired officer standing further along. “Get rid of ’im. Or I will.” A murmur of assent came from the infantryman’s six companions.
Lock stared at the scarlet jacket. Chevrons on each sleeve proclaimed its owner’s sergeantcy and its bright colours were not yet bleached by harsh Iberian sunlight. A ‘Johnny Newcombe’ then, as newly-arrived troops were nicknamed, and a damned rude one.
The long room had filled since Lock’s arrival. Men standing around in small groups and others seated in the fug of tobacco and cooking smoke turned their heads at the infantryman’s raised voice. Lock smothered his annoyance. For years he had counted in his head, battling his temper; now he mostly managed by taking a deep breath. He gave the redcoat a friendly smile. “Tell you what, sergeant – I’ll pretend I never heard that remark,” he leaned forward so his face was closer to the redcoat’s and spoke softly, “so why not bugger off and find another place to drink, eh?” Lock gave the sergeant a nod of dismissal before turning back to his wine.
“I’ll go,” Trumpeter Matthew Picker whispered in Lock’s ear. “No point causing no trouble.”
Lock gave a tiny shake of the head but again the finger jabbed him in the back, so hard wine slopped over the side of his mug, splashing the front of his dolman. His best coat. Lock chided himself - why had he not changed into his stable jacket before going off duty? Taking a deep breath he turned again to face the group of redcoats. “Still here, sergeant?” he asked, a little less affably.
The infantryman poked Lock in the chest, “You bloody donkey-wallopers think you’re God’s gift, don’t you? Didn’t you hear me first time?” He grabbed a handful of Lock’s dolman, “We don’t want your sort ’ere.”
“That’s not very friendly,” Lock said in a dangerous tone. Very deliberately he took hold of the sergeant’s wrist with his right hand, forcing it away from his chest, but the redcoat’s fingers hooked through two loops of white braid stretching across the front of Lock’s coat and tore them away from the dark blue cloth.
“I’ll give you bloody friendly...” the infantryman grabbed at the hand around his wrist trying to prise the thick fingers away, but he was far too late. Lock’s left fist smashed into his face, throwing him backwards so he crashed heavily into the men behind. Another of the group swung at Lock but he dodged, grabbing the off-balance redcoat’s outstretched arm to fling the man away.
Lock glanced over his shoulder at a bump in the back but it was only Picker, struggling with another assailant. A jug sailed over his head to smash behind the counter, taking his attention just long enough for another redcoat to land a blow. Lock tasted blood in his mouth and as the redcoat stepped back he followed, landing a punch under the man’s ribs.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. Lock turned, anticipating another attack.
“Provosts!” Picker dragged him sideways, making for a doorway half hidden in a darkened corner. Lock stumbled through after him, following the trumpeter down a short passageway which led outside. “’Ware cesspit,” Picker warned, running sharp left down a cobbled street before angling right into a narrow lane between two stone cottages. He slowed to a walk, allowing Lock to catch up.
“That was smart, Matthew.” Lock rubbed his nose as if he could wipe away the stink of open drain. He touched the cut on his lower lip with the tip of his tongue and winced.
“Always look for an easy way out ’fore I stay anywhere too long,” Picker mumbled, catching his breath. “If they recognised you, sarge, you’ll be in trouble with the captain.”
“So will you.”
“What for? I didn’t call him names. ’Gainst King’s Regulations, that is.”
They reached the end of the lane. Lock motioned Picker to stop while he cocked his head, listening. Faint crashes and shouts, still, but no clattering of boots. It seemed there was to be no pursuit, the provosts too busy trying to stop others fighting.
“Anyways, I didn’t hit him.” Picker smiled, “You caught him a beauty, sure enough!”
Lock fingered his uniform’s torn braid. “No-one rips my best coat, Matthew,” he said, still angry, “No-one.”
Major-General Sir John Moore halted his horse. Pre-dawn light softened the harsh lines of the great encampment, he thought, abstractedly blurring its sprawl into a pastel sketch of reality. He sometimes wished that it were: that this army, Britain’s only field army, was but an imagination rather than alive, a restlessly slumbering beast he must somehow goad into action.
He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly, trying to flush the stale city-smell of Lisbon from his lungs. A ride might help him concentrate on his task: clear muddle from his brain. For if he was to help the Spaniards’ struggle to rid themselves of Bonaparte and his puppet King, as his orders now required, he must move northwards into Spain very soon.
Moore clicked his tongue and his mount obligingly moved off through the cantonment. Over time the original neat lines of tents had grown into a confused tangle of canvas-roofed shelters and ramshackle bivouacs. Seeming to expand as each day passed, it spread outwards from the Belem slums like some malignant fungus.
Here and there the general passed cooking fires with embers still glowing but lately unfed. Only sentries and picquets would be about at this hour. Or spies and thieves, he thought, and theft was becoming a problem despite the men receiving regular pay. Drunkeness was on the increase because soldiers easily grew bored. Not even the continual marching and drilling certain officers dosed their men as a daily cure-all seemed to work.
Moore knew he must get them on the move but supplies were proving a huge headache. Or at least their carriage was. Carts needed for such a huge operation were hard to obtain: their owners reluctant to either sell or hire. And to his frustration many muleteers and bullock-drovers would agree to contract their labour and animals only to disappear the following day. Soon the weather would take a turn for the worse and once the heavens opened the army must remain stuck outside Lisbon for the winter, bogged down by mud. Chilled by that thought as much as the early breeze Moore buttoned his greatcoat up to his throat before jamming his bicorn down tighter on his head.
The general’s horse pricked its ears, jolting him back to the present. Engrossed in thought he had left the camp behind. On the track ahead four green-jacketed soldiers stood to attention, their sergeant fussing over uniforms and weapons. Moore felt a surge of absurd pride. Light infantry - his idea. It was thanks only to his persistence the army trained such men. As the general got closer the sergeant stood to one side before yelling, “Present!”
Moore reined his horse to a stop. “Good morning, sergeant. Anything to report?”
The greenjacket beamed up at him. “No, sir. Just wanted to wish you a good morning, sir.”
Moore nodded, casting his eye over the honour guard. “Your men do you credit. But you’ve not asked for a password, sergeant,” he admonished
“Er, no, sir...but I think I can vouch for you, general.”
“I see,” Moore was amused. “Do I take it you are the outlying piquet?”
The sergeant huffed his disappointment. “If you’ll forgive me saying so, general, but it was you that wrote the manual, sir. So you’ll see two riflemen a quarter-mile forward. Actually, sir,” he corrected himself, “you won’t, ’cause they’re supposed to be invisible, so if you do manage to spot ’em they’ll have me to deal with, after.”
“Carry on then, sergeant.” Moore turned to leave but the greenjacket had not quite finished.
“Almost forgot, sir. A squadron of dragoons passed earlier; said they were on exercises. Going for a jolly if you asks me, sir, but just in case you should happen to run in with them.”
Moore let his horse gallop freely up the long slope towards the tree line at its summit. A strong breeze tugged at his hat until at last it flew off, fluttering to the ground in his wake, but he cared not; the exhilarating speed of the animal pounding beneath him made him feel freer than he had in months. He would collect his wayward hat on his return.
For the cobwebs had blown away and he knew now what he must do. Despite his reservations he must trust the Spanish to deliver what their generals and representatives in Lisbon had agreed. And if they failed to keep their promises he would simply take the army home. The time for procrastination was over. In two weeks he would march for the heart and minds of Spain.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Surprised, Moore pulled his horse to a stop. “Friend!” he called back.
A dragoon walked slowly out from behind the trees. He came to a stop in front of the general, carbine levelled at Moore’s chest. “Who are you, friend?”
“General Moore, Commander of the Forces.”
The dragoon laughed, “And I’m the Emperor of France! Pearce, get over here,” he shouted, barely turning his head.
From a separate hiding place a second dragoon trotted across to join them. He looked at the newcomer with surprise, “Who’s this?”
“Says he’s General Moore. Does he think I was born yesterday?”
“I don’t know, Bill,” Pearce sounded alarmed, “What if he is? I don’t recognise him from Lieutenant Harris’ troop. And he’s no armband,” he pointed out.
Moore noticed each dragoon wore a scarlet handkerchief tied above his right elbow. He must have stumbled into the cavalry exercise the rifle-sergeant warned him of. “Gentlemen, I shall prove my identity to your satisfaction,” Moore offered, reaching to unbutton his greatcoat. He stopped abruptly as the carbine muzzle rose level with his face. The barrel was perfectly clean, he noted with approval, though its bore seemed much larger than he remembered. He decided he did not much care for the experience.
“You keep your hands where I can see ’em, General Moore.”
Pearce looked uncertainly at the stranger. “I don’t like it. I’m going to find the sarge: he can sort this out.
Moore sighed, but Pearce was following the rules, in his estimation, and ought not be criticised for it. He hoped the men’s superior was not far away.
If the sergeant was shocked, Moore thought, he hid it well. His sharp salute extended just long enough to confirm he recognised his visitor before he turned to bark at the first dragoon. The man’s face turned deathly pale; his carbine trembled and dropped. Without another word the sergeant snatched the offending weapon, flicking its frizzen forward to blow the powder charge from the pan. Then he leant across and shoved the ashen-faced dragoon so hard in the shoulder the man fell from his horse and lay sprawled in the dirt.
“And next time, use your bloody head!” the sergeant bawled at the man on the ground. “Sorry, sir,” he turned back to Moore, “You’ll be wanting to see Captain Killen? Follow me, sir, if you please.”
He wheeled his horse and sped off without awaiting a reply, forcing the general to kick his mount into a sudden canter so he should not be left behind. Wanting to avoid a conversation, Moore thought; not surprising judging from the way he treated a subordinate. And the mark on his face showed evidence of a recent fight: the braid on his jacket torn. A bully, then, or simply a thug. The army could do without such men.
They crossed the brow of the hill without slackening speed before descending to an abandoned cottage missing half its roof thatch. A black dragoon orderly took both horses and Moore was mildly surprised to hear the sergeant offer thanks, addressing the man by his Christian name. Then he spoiled it by barging through the door without knocking.
“General Moore to see Captain Killen!”
Captain the Honourable John Killen jumped out of his chair.
Moore offered his hand as Killen’s dropped from the salute. “I was simply passing, captain, and thought to pay my respects,” he said soothingly. “I am only sorry we have not previously met.”
Killen swallowed. “I am delighted to meet you, sir. And...I hold only brevet rank.”
“Nonsense, captain,” Moore smiled to put the young cavalry officer at ease. He glanced around the single room, filthy from neglect. Apart from the captain’s table and chair the only other furniture was an empty packing case. Despite Killen’s protestations he turned it on end, slapping dust away with the hem of his greatcoat before perching on one corner. “So, captain - I’m informed you are exercising.”
“Er...a little training, sir,” Killen almost whispered, tucking his finger inside his stock and pulling at it to loosen the material around his neck.
“Piquet and outpost duties, sir,” Killen at last found his voice. “The men are bored and...”
“Forgive my interruption, sir, but might I be excused?” the sergeant asked politely.
“What? Oh, yes; of course.”
The sergeant saluted and marched out but Moore heard a galloping horse approach as the man left and he was soon back, though this time he knocked before entering.
“Acting- Lieutenant Harris, sir!” the sergeant gave a formal introduction. For his benefit, Moore realised.
Harris was red in the face and seemed unsure whether the general or Captain Killen should be the recipient of his first salute. Moore noticed he wore a white handkerchief above his elbow. The opposition, then.
“What is it, Charlie?” Killen said in a calming voice.
“Oh,” Harris was still flustered, “not sure if I should be bothering you with this, sir...”
“Well,” Harris screwed his face up in concentration, “you see the enemy, that is the other troop, sir...they’re massing opposite my left flank, in the trees. But it’s not good ground for cavalry, sir.”
“What is your question, Charlie?”
“Erm...well, I thought it a bluff, sir, and they’d go for the open ground in the centre. But should I reinforce the flank? I mean, in case they try to force that?”
Killen rubbed his chin. “What is your own view?”
The sergeant leant sideways to whisper something in Harris’ ear.
The lieutenant stared at him, “D’you really think so?”
“Well?” Killen pressed.
“I get it now, sir,” Harris grinned as he saluted, “thank you sir! General.” He rushed back out the door and Moore heard a horse gallop away.
“What did you say to him, sergeant?” Killen asked.
“Yes,” Moore agreed, “I too am curious about that.”
The sergeant looked from one to the other, “I...just told him to go with his gut, sir.”
“And is that what you would do, sergeant?” Moore said.
“More often than not, sir.”
“I see,” Moore nodded. “One more thing - your men have loaded firelocks?”
The sergeant reached into the ammunition pouch slung in the small of his back and retrieved a paper cartridge. He dropped it onto the table in plain sight. The carbine ammunition was a fraction of the size Moore might have expected..
“A quarter-load of powder, sir, with no ball,” the sergeant explained, “had them made up myself. All smoke and noise. Gets the horses used to firing over their heads,” he grimaced, and looking Moore in the eye for the first time said, “but you wouldn’t want a discharge in the face, sir.”
Perhaps that was the reason the sergeant reacted as he had, Moore thought.
“And - it teaches the clumsy to hold onto their ramrods when reloading.” The sergeant suddenly grinned, “Any man who drops one loses his spirit ration to him that retrieves it. Makes them keep their eyes open, and gets them jumping off and on their horses a bit sharpish, sir!”
To his surprise Moore found the man’s smile infectious. “Thank you, sergeant. You may return to your duties.”
“A rum sort of fellow,” Moore said, once the sergeant left. “At first I took him for an unsavoury character: perhaps I misjudged him.”
“Sergeant Lock can be...difficult,” Killen admitted, “though I never found him deliberately insubordinate.”
“Not really, sir,” Killen smiled, “though he may sometimes interpret orders in an unconventional manner, shall we say?”
“It looked to me as if he’s been in a fight.”
“He confessed as such to me,” Killen admitted. “He insisted a redcoat insulted his uniform, something I know the sergeant would not stand for. I cannot say I would have not have reacted in similar fashion, had the honour of the regiment been called into question in my hearing.”
Moore frowned. Though the previous night’s brawl had spilled from a taberna into the street and taken some time for army provosts to break up, a regiment was family, impugning its honour akin to a capital crime. And with the camp like a tinderbox fists were less likely to set it ablaze than powder and steel. “I am certain you would control your temper admirably, captain. But if you are satisfied that was the case...?”
“He has never lied to me in the past, sir.”
Moore nodded, happy to let the matter drop. “Now - we were discussing your training exercise.”
Killen unfolded a map which he spread out on the tabletop. “Until we arrived here none of the men were familiar with the way enemy forces might probe our defences, or we theirs. We do not seem to receive instruction on such manoeuvres in England. So here we have two troops, one acting as marauders, the other as defenders of this line,” he traced a finger along the waxed paper, “which the marauders must not breach. Sergeant Lock acts as one of the referees. In fact,” Killen said, “the exercise was his idea.”
Moore raised his eyebrows.
“Well,” Killen admitted, “he suggested what training the men would find most useful. I simply worked out how best that objective might be achieved.”
“But surely...that responsibility lies with the squadron commander.” Moore had been through the lists but found it impossible to recall every single name.
“Captain Rapton commands in Major Hughes’ absence but...”
“But what, captain?”
Killen looked uncomfortable.
“Out with it, sir,” Moore ordered.
“The captain seems pre-occupied with other matters, sir.”
“Matters other than his duties, d’you mean?”
“I cannot say, sir.”
Or will not, Moore thought crossly, but reticence was understandable. The regiment again, looking after its own. And it was at the very least grossly unprofessional to criticise a fellow officer, particularly if Killen really had no evidence of what was going on. He changed the subject. “It is fortuitous we met, Mr Killen. When General Wellesley wrote to me on a separate matter he suggested I seek you out. Do you know John Le Marchant?”
“We have never met,” Killen said, “though I have heard of the general, of course.”
“He proposes an academy for cavalry officers, similar to that we set up at Shorncliffe. Sir Arthur believed you a suitable appointee to such a project, and since I am in regular correspondence with Le Marchant as regards detail, it seemed sensible to sound you out.” He smiled, “Opportune, in fact, given today’s activity.”
“I would be delighted, sir,” Killen said, and looked it. “Er...subject to my being released from duty, of course.”
“Of course.” Moore stood up. “I shall take no more of your time for the present, captain. Make an appointment with my secretary as soon as you are able. We will discuss this further.”
As he breasted the rise on his way back to the road Moore found Sergeant Lock blocking his way, but armed only with the general’s hat.
“Came across it further down the slope, sir.”
“I’m obliged to you sergeant,” Moore slapped the bicorn fore-and-aft on his head and tugged it into shape. “How goes the exercise?”
“Well, sir, if one half of them remember what they should be about in the face of the enemy I’ll count it a triumph.”
One half! By God, Moore thought with dismay, he would need every soldier to know what he was about once they came up with the French. Adding yet another insoluble problem to his ever-growing list he offered a curt nod to the sergeant’s salute and set course back to Lisbon.