Read Flashman in the Peninsula Online
Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
|Flashman in the Peninsula|
|Number III of|
Adventures of Thomas Flashman
|Tags:||Literature & Fiction, Action & Adventure, Genre Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction|
|Literature & Fictionttt Action & Adventurettt Genre Fictionttt Historicalttt Historical Fictionttt|
This is the third instalment in the memoirs of the Georgian Englishman Thomas Flashman, which were recently discovered on a well-known auction website. Thomas is the uncle of the notorious Victorian rogue Harry Flashman, whose memoirs have already been published, edited by George MacDonald Fraser. Thomas shares many of the family traits, particularly the ability to find himself reluctantly at the sharp end of many major events of his age.
While many people have written books and novels on the Peninsular War, Thomas Flashman’s memoirs offer a unique perspective. They include new accounts of famous battles, but also incredible incidents and characters almost forgotten by history. Flashman is revealed as the catalyst to one of the greatest royal scandals of the nineteenth century which disgraced a prince and ultimately produced one of our greatest novelists. In Spain and Portugal he witnesses catastrophic incompetence and incredible courage in equal measure. He is present at an extraordinary action where a small group of men stopped the army of a French marshal in its tracks. His flatulent horse may well have routed a Spanish regiment, while his cowardice and poltroonery certainly saved the British army from a French trap.
Accompanied by Lord Byron’s dog, Flashman faces death from Polish lancers and a vengeful Spanish midget, not to mention finding time to perform a blasphemous act with the famous Maid of Zaragoza. This is an account made more astonishing as the key facts are confirmed by various historical sources
Flashman in the Peninsula
This book is dedicated to Fiona Brightwell and Jack Brightwell
Copyright © Robert Brightwell 2014
Robert Brightwell asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This ebook may not be reproduced or copied except for the use of the original purchaser.
The third packet in the memoirs of Thomas Flashman is by far the largest, covering his experiences in the Peninsular War from late 1808 to mid-1812. The Peninsular War took place in Spain and Portugal, and this was where Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, made his name fighting the French.
To keep the books a manageable size I have broken it down into two instalments, which both work as ‘stand alone’ accounts. This, the first one, covers the period from late 1808 to the end of 1810.
While many people have written books and novels on the Peninsular War, Flashman’s memoirs offer a unique perspective. They include new revelations on famous battles, but also incredible incidents and characters almost forgotten by history. Flashman is revealed as the catalyst to one of the greatest royal scandals of the nineteenth century, which disgraced a prince and ultimately produced one of our greatest novelists. In Spain and Portugal he witnesses catastrophic incompetence and incredible courage in equal measure. He is present at an extraordinary action where a small group of men stopped the army of a French marshal in its tracks. His flatulent horse may well have routed a Spanish regiment, while his cowardice and poltroonery certainly saved the British army from a French trap.
Accompanied by Lord Byron’s dog, Flashman faces death from Polish lancers and a vengeful Spanish midget, not to mention finding time to perform a blasphemous act with the famous Maid of Zaragoza. This is an account made more astonishing as the key facts are confirmed by various historical sources.
I have kept editing to a minimum with a few notes in the text, but more detailed historical information can be found at the end of the book.
As always, if you have not already read them, the memoirs of Thomas’ more famous nephew, Harry Flashman, edited by George MacDonald Fraser are also strongly recommended.
London December 1808
When I think back to how my adventures started, with most of them there was at least a hint of danger at the outset. When I went first to Spain I was on the run from a gang of ruthless murderers. (See
Flashman and the Seawolf
.) But the event that led to my second visit, and my longest trip abroad, seemed as safe as you could get. It just goes to show that when fate pulls your string, there is really no point hiding. I mean a poetry recital, even one of Byron's, is not the sort of place that you would expect to lead to blood and bullets. For a start the things are generally damned dull, unless you are of the poetic persuasion, and I certainly wasn't. Waste of paper and ink most of it, but it was not the literature that I came for. I was there to boost my diminished income by preying on the witless fools it attracted.
Carefully I lifted the lid of the box and Lord Hartington leaned over to look inside. He must have been eighteen then, heir to the Duke of Devonshire fortune and full of earnest enthusiasm. His mouth dropped open in wonder.
‘So this is weally the head of Chwistopher Marlowe?’ he asked in the affected Devonshire lisp. He had spoken in what he thought was a hushed tone, but as he was partially deaf his voice was always much louder than he thought. This enquiry must have carried halfway across the room.
‘It is,’ I lied, as we both stared at the ivory coloured dome that was the top of the skull. It lay in a velvet lined and artfully antiqued mahogany box.
Hartington slowly reached out his hand to touch it, but then hesitated as though he could not quite bring himself to make contact with the bone. ‘Beneath this shell,’ he boomed, ‘a living bwain gave life to some of the finest literwerwy cweations known to man,
Dido the Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine
and of course
‘I know,’ I lied again while making a mental note that I really should learn more about the bones I was selling. For it was not the first old bone I had sold recently. There had been the head of Thomas Wolsey and the skull of Thomas Becket, the latter skilfully cut in two and the edges made brittle. Then, finding a gullible and wealthy market amongst the literary young men who surrounded Lord Byron, I had met this with the hand bones of John Donne, the shin bone of Andrew Marvell and now the skull of Christopher Marlowe.
‘It is a cawapace of cweation,’ continued Hartington, his voice now shouting around the chamber and tears of emotion starting to brim in his eyes. ‘It is a cwucible of owiginal thought that even inspired Shakespeare to some of his finest works. Why it is ...’
‘You want it then?’ I cut in, looking over my shoulder to see if anyone else in the room was paying attention to us sitting in the corner. Several people were looking over and grinning, you could not do anything discreetly with Hartington. Just the previous night for devilment I had pointed out to him a pretty girl sitting with her family in the next box at the theatre. ‘Chwist on the cwoss would you look at the bweasts on her’ he had roared in a reply that could be heard half way across the stalls. The object of his desire went scarlet in embarrassment and her father turned a similar colour in rage.
Most of the others in the room looked away again and only Cam Hobhouse held my eye. He was standing next to woman in a green dress by the window. When he saw me look over he gave a sneering shake of his head in disgust. But then Hobhouse disapproved of most of the happenings at Byron's parties; his demeanour was normally that of a nun in a brothel. He was one of the shrewder members of Byron's circle, but while he disliked me, he would not say anything. Apart from the few wealthy members like Byron and Hartington, they all struggled to keep up with the financial obligations of being in the smart literary set. To some degree they all preyed on the innocence of the rich and the foolish.
We were in a private room in Dorant's Piccadilly Hotel, where Byron was living. There were perhaps a dozen people there: Byron was by the fire talking to a couple of fellows about his latest scribblings, a pair of dandies were playing chess near the window and the rest were scattered on various chairs talking errant bosh about some play or other. Yet this peaceful setting was about to launch me on a chain of events that would see a prince disgraced, appalling atrocities, ingenious courage, knavery, and breath-taking incompetence and cowardice that made even my yellow liver seem brave in comparison.
I know lots of Peninsular officers have published their memoirs of the war and they are full of accounts of lines of British redcoats beating French columns, sieges and long marches. Well there is some of that of course, but I venture to suggest that my experiences were rather more colourful. For example, I saved Wellesley from being captured by being shot in the arse, saw a small private army defeat a French marshal and had my life saved by Byron's dog along the way. I did not even make it to the end of the campaign as I had to reluctantly save the most irritating so called ‘Intelligence Officer’ the British army has ever recruited. I ended up being hunted in Paris for my pains. Even when I thought I had escaped from there I only found myself in the soup again in another part of the world; but that is another story. And if, dear reader, you have read my previous account (See
Flashman and the Cobra
), which concluded with me wearing undeserved laurels on my brow, and you are wondering what Flashy is doing pedalling bones, well I will come to that presently. In the meantime the jingle of coins attracted my attention back to the sale.
‘You mentioned your man was insisting on cash,’ shouted Hartington indicating the plump leather purse he had just put on the table. ‘Two hundwed guineas as you asked for Thomas. I would have paid double for it is the most marvellous thing. I will use it as my muse to help me cweate works half as beautiful as his.’
I inwardly winced at selling the skull too cheap, but the ease of the transaction renewed my love of poets, for they were easier to gull than a child. They affected to live in the clouds continually talking of beauty, inspiration and love, while pretending not to be interested in realities like poverty or the provenance of the things they were buying. They wanted to believe the bones were real and so they did. You just had to remember to insist on hard cash for payment as most were hugely in debt.
There was a fashion for old bones then, started partly by Byron. At his home, Newstead Abbey, his gardener had dug up the skull of one of the former Augustinian monks that had lived at the abbey before it was torn down by Henry VIII. Byron had arranged for it to be mounted on a stand as a drinking cup and we had all drunk from it at some of his late night parties. This prompted an interest in other macabre relics, which I was only too happy to fulfil as I needed the money. My half pay as a captain in the 74th Highlanders had been cancelled by the army’s commanders the previous year. Their excuse was that it was based on a battlefield commission, but in reality it was part of a cost saving drive as the war with France was proving ruinously expensive. The decision, however, nearly spelt ruin for me as well, for I had borrowed against the income. The kindly Russian Jew I had taken the loan from became as inflexible as a dowager duchess' corset when I tried to renegotiate terms. He also had a couple of vicious East End enforcers to ensure that payments were made.
My only other source of income was the rent from Flashman’s Row, the tenement building my father had bought for me in a trust that I could not sell. For any gentleman a job in trade was unthinkable, so the obvious thing to do was to turn the screw on my tenants by increasing their rent. That was when I discovered the skills of the forger living on the second floor. He wasn’t a painter, bones were his speciality. He picked most of them up from a cemetery in Shoreditch and then he would make wooden chests that looked ancient to keep them in, with inlaid brass plaques saying things like
‘The Skull of Queen Anne Boleyn’
‘The Head of Sir Walter Raleigh’.
He tried to sell them to the rich and the gullible, but they were wary about buying from someone who was not a gentleman.
He had offered me ‘Thomas Wolsey’ in lieu of six weeks rent and that is when I started spending time with Byron and his friends. The fact that they were university graduates did not mean that they were astute; the nobility were not required to attend lectures or pass exams to get degrees in those days. While Byron did read widely in Cambridge, he did not attend a single lecture but was awarded a Master of Arts degree. He and his circle of friends were now living in London and spent most of their time partying, gambling, indulging in fashion and countless other ways of enjoying themselves. I amused them with tales of India and soon found a buyer for Wolsey amongst their wider circle.
Byron himself showed no interest in the bones; he was no fool. He was born into relative poverty until he inherited a fortune aged ten. Oh he was vain, extravagant and selfishly dedicated to fulfilling his own desires, but often you felt he was acting the part he thought people expected from him. For example, most people did not know that he had a twisted right foot and withered calf, which he hid with specially made boots. He boxed for exercise and was a prodigious swimmer. At the time of that party he had recently lost several stone in weight through diet and exercise, while claiming to others that food bored him. I never understood his writing, it seemed endless drivel to me but, while I would like to dismiss him as an effete dandy, I must admit that I liked him. I am happy to sacrifice principles for my pleasure too.
Speaking of pleasure, as I looked up after pocketing the gold I saw the lady in the green dress now staring over at me. The other three women in the room were dressed in a page boy style as Byron liked his women dressed as boys. At least I assumed that they were all women, you could never tell with Byron. The low cut green dress showed a generous top hamper leaving no doubt as to the gender of its owner, and she was a stunner. As I watched she put her hand on Hobhouse’s arm and had evidently asked to be introduced, as they walked over.
I stood to meet them as Hobhouse, stiffly formal, announced, ‘Thomas, may I have the honour to introduce you to Mary Clarke? You may recall that she is a most particular friend of …’ but he got no further as Mary pushed forward and cut him off.
‘Why Captain Flashman, what a delight to meet you. I have heard so much about you and your adventures in India, you must tell me all about them.’ I was surprised she knew my military rank as I did not use it with the poets. But before I could consider that further her blue eyes were sparkling at me and she took my arm and steered me away to a small table with two chairs where we could be alone.
We talked for some time and she did indeed seem fascinated by India. She listened attentively to all of my tales, while ordering Madeira wine and sweetmeats from a passing waiter to keep me refreshed. She was, I guessed, three or four years older than my twenty-six years but she was pert, vivacious and quick to ask questions. Sometimes she was almost a little too quick, such as when I mentioned that I had lost my commission. She asked if I knew others that had been deprived as part of the previous year’s cost cutting review. I had not mentioned when the commission had been lost. I remember looking curiously at her then but she gave me another dazzling smile, leaned forward giving me a good view of those splendid bouncers and put her hand on my thigh. Conspiratorially she whispered to me, ‘So we both have reason to resent the commander in chief’s cost cutting then.’
‘Why is that then?’ I asked distractedly.
‘He stopped my annuity as well.’
I raised my gaze back to her face. ‘I don't understand. You cannot be army, how did you get a pension?’
‘Not army?’ she laughed, ‘I will bet I have commanded more of it than you!’ I looked at her puzzled at that. I had heard of some women serving in the ranks disguised as men, but it was hard to imagine Mary Clarke disguised as a man. She laughed at my confusion. ‘In my time half of all the senior officer appointments and transfers between regiments came though my hands, and those that wanted them paid handsomely for the privilege.’
I was still confused for a moment, but then as the realisation dawned I blurted out, ‘You were the Duke of York’s mistress! I have heard stories,’ I continued, ‘a year or two ago, that if a man could afford it, then the quickest way to promotion was to pay our commander in chief’s mistress. That must have been you.’
‘Exactly,’ she confirmed. ‘The daughter of a printer wielding power in the British army, but now I fear on the way down again.’
‘Did you really organise that many promotions?’
‘Gawd yes,’ she was laughing again. ‘Sometimes there would be such a list of names I would pin it on the end of the bed to make sure Freddie did not forget it in the morning.’
‘And he always agreed to them?’ I asked.
‘He did if he wanted his plums tickled,’ she said firmly. ‘Mary Clarke has never given a refund for services rendered; anyway I was a damn fine mistress to him.’