Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
‘I see. I can imagine that Wellesley would not take kindly to one of his officers complaining over his head.’
‘That’s the other thing – Sir Robert has never seen himself as under the command of the British army. He has styled himself as a major general and sees himself as Wellesley’s equal even though he only has a fraction of the men. He even wrote to Sir Arthur before we embarked with some suggestions for the coming campaign. You can guess how well that was received.’ I could; Wellesley must have choked on that advice like a cat with a fur ball. We stood in silence for a few minutes looking at the view; two more ships, one a fast message sloop, were coming up the river. Around the town loomed green hills that looked benign now, but if captured by the French they would make holding the city impossible.
‘Do you think that we will be able to stay in Portugal this time?’ I asked, voicing the thought that had been on everyone’s mind since we had heard about the Spanish defeat.
‘Not if we just stay here,’ stated Campbell. ‘The French will gather their armies together and destroy us. Sir Arthur has to move and fast to attack their armies one by one. Soult is the obvious first target, he is nearest.’
‘But he has more men, mostly veterans, unless you count the Portuguese and they are not trained yet.’
‘The French might be veterans but morale in their army is low. They have been cut off from other French forces for months now, living off what they can find in the countryside around them, with foraging parties regularly being attacked by guerrillas.’ He paused now, staring out into the countryside as though assessing how he would attack it. Then he added quietly, ‘I don't mind telling you, Flashman, that I think it will be hot work. If we win it will be a close run thing and men like us will have to show an example to some of the less experienced officers.’
I looked across at him then. His blue eyes were still staring at the fields and with his broad shoulders, lantern jaw and curly blond hair he looked the epitome of the heroic officer. He was the genuine article too. While my reputation was based on lies, misunderstandings and situations where I had no choice; he had charged into breaches like Dick Champion, fought to save fallen comrades and had probably flipped a coin to poor Willie the orphan boy on the way home. When men like him start to get anxious then it is time for us lesser mortals to make sure that they have a fast horse to hand and a clean escape route planned. With that in mind I was looking down and counting the ships in the harbour when I heard more footsteps coming up the stairs behind us.
Two young women stepped through the archway, both respectably dressed but from the worldly way they ran their eyes over us, they were professional women for certain and by far the prettiest I had seen since we docked. Campbell did not even look round at them. His mind was clearly still on the battles ahead as he said, ‘It is good to have someone who will not think I am croaking to talk to, Flashman. We are both the same; I was reminded of that on the way out when you took fifteen guineas off me in that card game during the storm. Everyone looked nervous apart from Sir Arthur and you.’
‘I was surprised you gave me the money so easily,’ I said grinning.
‘I can’t swim,’ he replied, ‘drowning is the one thing that frightens me.’
thing...’ I repeated in dismay at this brave dolt who thought we were the same. Before I could say more there was a giggle from the two girls who had gone to stand on the opposite side of the tower looking at the town.
Campbell seemed to notice them for the first time. ‘I say Flash,’ he said, indicating across to them, ‘You don’t think that they are...’ He paused and started to blush before continuing, ‘
kind of women.’
Hullo, thinks I, have we found the heel of this Achilles? ‘No,’ I replied. ‘They look perfectly respectable to me. This is probably a popular spot for young ladies to take the air.’
‘Yes, quite so,’ he agreed, but still looked decidedly uncomfortable.
‘Are you married now?’ I asked, having a suspicion I already knew the answer.
‘No, there was a woman three years ago, but not since then.’ He gave an embarrassed grin, ‘I wasn’t joking about the Calvinist upbringing, it is hard to shake off.’
‘You mean you have not been with any woman since then?’ I asked, appalled.
‘No, not one.’
I was genuinely speechless. This strapping hero could have had any women he wanted and he had forgone them all for three years. I may not be a Calvinist but I could see where my Christian duty lay. ‘Do you speak Spanish or Portuguese?’ I asked innocently.
‘Not beyond the basics,’ he replied, ‘I have never had the time.’
‘I am fluent in Spanish,’ I told him. ‘I had better introduce us to the ladies. I am sure it is what they would expect a gentleman to do.’
‘If you are sure,’ he said, going red again. ‘I'll stay here.’
I stepped across the tower to do the finest service I have ever done for a brother officer. Campbell evidently did not understand much Spanish or he would have picked up on the astonished gasps of ‘
!’, and been more suspicious of the sympathetic and downright lustful glances they cast in his direction. I explained that he was shy and would never go into a knocking shop and would need to be suddenly brought to the boil in case his Christian principles got in the way. It was soon evident that I was dealing with experts in their field. In exchange for the fifteen guineas that I had won from Campbell during the storm, they offered a respectable house we could use and a guarantee that we would both have a night that we would never forget.
‘They have invited us to take afternoon tea with them,’ I told Campbell when I returned. ‘They are sisters and their parents’ house is nearby. As Wellesley does not want us to offend the locals I thought we should accept.’
‘If you are sure,’ said Campbell, going red again at the thought of it. While the two girls had come up the stairs quite easily, they now claimed that they needed assistance to descend and one linked arms with me while the other grabbed a startled Campbell. On close inspection they were both beauties, flawless complexions of the milkiest coffee, lustrous dark hair and hazel eyes with more than a hint of mischief. The girl held by Campbell affected to stumble twice on the way down forcing him to catch her. He was sweating with repressed lust and confusion by the time we reached the bottom. It took all my self-control to keep a straight face as he asked, ‘I say Flashman, are you sure we should be doing this?’
I reassured him and a few minutes later we were sitting in the front room of a very well furnished house making polite conversation with one of the ‘sisters’ while the other ostensibly organised tea. The second sister returned a few minutes later followed by a girl in a maid’s uniform carrying a tray of tea things. One glance told you that the girl was no more a maid than I was. She was blonde for a start, a rare thing in Portugal, another stunner and with a wanton look in her eye that latched straight on to Campbell, whose jaw had started to sag at the sight of her. The second sister winked at me and whispered that it was time for us to leave.
‘My companion just wants to show me a portrait of her mother,’ I told Campbell over my shoulder, but I was not sure he was paying attention. Once out of the room, my girl closed the door and turned the key in the lock.
‘We would not want him escaping too soon would we?’ she said with a grin, but it was soon evident that escape was the last thing on Campbell’s mind.
After a sudden exclamation of, ‘Oh you
pros...’ there was giggling from the girls and then, ‘Oh God’ repeatedly from Campbell, accompanied by the sound of breaking crockery. We listened for a few seconds but then I felt fingers undoing buttons and in a moment I found that I had literally placed myself in the hands of a skilled professional who drew me away upstairs.
Fifteen guineas will buy you a lot in Portugal, and we stayed there for the rest of the afternoon and the night. I recall steak and eggs arriving at one point along with bottles of red wine, but it was hard to enjoy a peaceful repast with the ardent noises coming up from below. With the girls giggling and Campbell yelling, they seemed to be making up for three years in one night. I swear he was howling in Gaelic at one point and another time I heard him roar to one of the girls that he was going to bend her over and ... Well what he shouted was not for sensitive ears, but suffice it to say that it would have made John Calvin choke on his beard.
I woke up the next morning feeling well pleased with myself. A good rattle always leaves me in fine fettle. I left the house early and as I passed the ground floor room I tried the door. It was now unlocked and the interior looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. There was a tray and a pile of broken crockery in the corner, half eaten plates of food and bottles on the floor, and in the middle of the room was a mound covered by rugs and a blanket. From it protruded a male foot and two female calves of different complexions, while a loud snoring emanated from within. Saint Flashy I thought, your duty is done.
I strolled back to the palatial building that Wellesley was now using as his headquarters. Apart from sentries, few people seemed to be about, so I went up to the map room where Wellesley had given us a briefing the previous day. At first I thought it was empty but then a familiar voice barked from a corner of the room by the window, ‘Ah Flashman, perfect timing. You haven’t seen Campbell in your travels have you?’
‘I have not spoken to him since yesterday sir,’ I answered honestly, if not fully. Wellesley was sitting in his usual plain blue coat at a small table by the window, reading through a pile of despatches.
‘Well help yourself to coffee and join me over here will you, there is something that we need to talk about.’ Once I had settled in the chair opposite the table he continued, ‘You ought to know that I have had a despatch about you from Horseguards.’
‘Really,’ I said guardedly; I sensed from the tone that this was not good news.
‘Yes, that damnable fellow Tasker seems to think you are involved in the Clarke affair somehow. He uses the duke’s name to require me to advise him of anything to support his suspicions. It is a gross impertinence.
‘That is ridiculous sir, I can assure you...’ but Wellesley waved my protests aside.
‘Don’t worry. I have no doubt as to your innocence. You are not the only one, there are three other names on the list and I am sure that they are innocent too. But Horseguards seems determined to get to the bottom of the matter. They have insisted that I take Sir William Erskine onto my staff as he is close to certain members of the court. He is to be an unofficial investigator and I am ordered to give him every assistance. Do you know the man? No? Well he is a dangerous and volatile fellow, completely mad.’
‘Mad sir?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘Oh, I do not use the term figuratively Flashman, I mean literally mad. He has been committed to an asylum twice already, but apparently that does not stop him serving as a Member of Parliament or as an officer on my staff. I complained about the appointment before we left and I got the reply on a fast messenger sloop that arrived yesterday. Here, let me find it.’ He burrowed around amongst the despatches on his desk before holding one up triumphantly. ‘Here it is, listen to this – they say that ‘he is sometimes a little mad, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow’. Then a clerk has added at the bottom of this letter that ‘the duke trusts he will have no fit during the campaign, although he looked a little wild as he embarked’.’ He sat back shaking his head in despair. ‘First my Spanish allies show that they are incapable of any sensible action and now I have lunatics appointed to my staff.’
‘Perhaps you could appoint Erskine to Cuesta’s staff sir, it probably could not make things worse.’
‘Christ knows what those two could come up with if they were put together,’ exclaimed Wellesley, ‘more training exercises for French cavalry probably.’ He looked me in the eye, ‘No Flashman, liaison with Cuesta is the job I need you for. After his recent defeat it will be harder than I expected, but I know you are cool under pressure. Compared to India it should be a walk in the park for someone of your abilities.’
‘I'll do my best, sir,’ I was wondering, not for the first time, if my unearned reputation would be the death of me. The trip to India had nearly seen me eaten by a tiger and blown apart by rockets, but at least here I spoke the language and could lie low if I had to. ‘What exactly do you want me to do?’
Wellington leaned over the table, pulling a map from his papers and laying it out between us. He traced his route with a finger as he talked. ‘In two days’ time I am marching north with the army to Oporto and Marshal Soult. Information we have from deserters is that their morale and supplies are low, so if we can get across the river near Oporto easily we should beat them.’ He stabbed the town of Oporto with his finger. ‘Then I plan to turn south and try to beat Marshal Victor before he can be joined by any other French forces. I need to beat these marshals one at a time or we will be overwhelmed.’ The movement of his finger became vaguer now circling a wide area in the middle of Spain. ‘What I need you to do is find Cuesta, see what is left of his army and make sure that he is ready to join me to beat Victor. I doubt his army will be much use but we need all the men that we can get.’
‘Where do you think Cuesta is now sir?’
‘Craddock has no idea,’ admitted Wellesley. ‘Many of his men fled north into the hills for protection after the battle at Medellin. I am hoping that they are at least holding the bridge here at Alcantara as that blocks the route straight into Lisbon across the Tagus valley.’ As he spoke, he pointed to a town on the map just inside the Spanish border where two rivers joined and then headed to Lisbon. ‘Go here first Flashman. If Cuesta has the brains of a woodlouse then he should at least have some forces here who can direct you to him, if he is not there himself.’
‘Do I have an escort?’
‘God yes, the hills around here aren’t safe for a single horseman, there are all manner of villains and bandits around. I can spare you a troop of thirty dragoons. Downie is going with you. He needs to find out what supplies the Spanish can provide as we head south.’
I sat back, and in my naiveté I did not feel too alarmed. Few bandits would take on thirty well-armed troopers unless they were guarding a pay chest, and the alternative was to march north with Wellesley and get embroiled in what would probably be a contested river crossing and battle with Soult. From what I had heard, Soult was a very capable commander and Wellesley was then not yet the proven military genius that he became. I knew better than anyone that his victories in India had an element of good fortune to them. A hardened commander like Soult, with his veteran soldiers, would not make the same mistakes. If Wellesley was beaten we would soon hear of it and would have a clear ride back down to Lisbon, or if necessary we could head further south to Seville, the independent Spanish capital.
‘Give Cuesta this letter,’ Wellesley continued. ‘It details my plans, and I don’t need to tell you to make sure it does not fall into enemy hands. Once you have had a chance to assess Cuesta’s strength and intentions then I would be obliged if you would ride back and let me know.’ That, I thought, could be the tricky bit. I did not want to ride slap into a routed British force and the pursuing French.
‘When do we leave?’ I asked
‘Downie is organising the cavalry escort, they leave from the square at noon.’ He looked up and saw me looking thoughtful about my mission and grinned. ‘Don’t worry Flashman, I know you would prefer to be testing your steel against Soult and his men. But this duty is vital for the next phase of the campaign, taking on Victor and his army. I will make sure you are in the thick of the action when we meet him, have no fear.’ You can imagine how reassuring I found that statement, but I managed to sound suitably enthusiastic for form’s sake as I took my leave.
I met the escort in the square just before noon. The troopers were led by a Sergeant Butterworth, but there was no sign of Downie.
‘He was ’ere earlier sir,’ said the dour sergeant. ‘Fussin’ around about supplies ’e was.’ Butterworth looked across at his men who, like the two of us, stood next to their mounts. Judging from the way a few of them were checking saddles and tack they looked experienced men. Butterworth followed my gaze and added, ‘Most of us were with the first expedition sir. Got taken off at Corunna, but we had to shoot the horses then and leave them behind. These mounts are a bit green and most didn’t eat much on the voyage so some of the girths have had to be tightened. Bit of exercise on solid ground and some grass will see them good again.’
‘I am sure you are right sergeant,’ I replied, testing the girth on my own horse, which seemed tight enough.
‘What ho, Flashman!’ A voice called out from nearby, and there walking towards me was Downie, and alongside him a pensive Campbell. This could be awkward, I thought. If there was any justice Campbell should be damn grateful for the favour I did him, but you could never tell with these puritanical types. He could now be wracked with remorse and blaming me for leading him astray. My thoughts were interrupted by Downie calling, ‘Are you ready to go? I have got you some eggs.’
‘Eggs?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘Yes, hard-boiled eggs, excellent on the campaign if supplies get low. Lots of energy and they keep well, ready wrapped to keep them clean so to speak,’ he laughed.
‘Thank you.’ I accepted the small cloth sack he offered that looked and felt like an overstuffed scrotum, and from the shape contained half a dozen eggs.
‘Don’t eat them in the first few days remember,’ advised Downie. ‘Save them until rations are low.’ He turned to Butterworth, ‘Now Sergeant, did you sort out some eggs for the men as I asked?’
‘Yes sir,’ replied the sergeant with a stony blank look on his face. ‘The men have all the eggs they need.’ I looked over the sergeant’s shoulder and several of his troopers were now smirking at this response. It was evident that these experienced troopers felt that they needed the advice of the boyishly enthusiastic Downie like a drowning man needs a drink. I turned back to Campbell who, to my relief, grinned at me.
‘You knew what those girls were from the outset, didn’t you?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I replied, with my best ‘butter would not melt in my mouth’ expression of innocence. ‘The girl I was with was entirely respectable, you would not believe how many pictures of her mother we had to look at, then some of her cousins. By the time we came back, the door was locked and ... well, I am too much of a gentleman to say what I thought was happening.’
Campbell laughed out loud. ‘You planned it all in the tower! They hinted as much when I thought I might need to pay them this morning. They told me you had paid for me.’ He paused, ‘I might regret it when the Christian guilt sets in but right now I think it was the best night of my life.’
‘When you are old and grey,’ I replied, ‘what are you going to remember most, last night or a night on your knees praying?’
‘You are right, which is why I wanted to give you this,’ he was holding out another cloth bag.
‘It’s not more bloody eggs is it?’ I said, taking hold of the gift. The shape at the bottom of the bag was a tube and when I looked inside I saw a small folding telescope which looked expensive. ‘Are you sure? This must have cost a good few guineas?’
‘I have another. This was loot from the first campaign, and for the service you have done me you are very welcome to it.’ We shook hands, and then with Downie calling that it was time to leave, I mounted up and the column of horsemen trotted out of the square.
There are perhaps four weeks of the year when the weather in Spain and Portugal is pleasant, two in the spring and two in the autumn. Outside of these it is either too cold and wet, or too hot. Sadly, our trip to Alcantara did not coincide with one of those fortnights. Once we had ridden out of Lisbon the countryside rose up in a series of steep hills called the Torres Vedras, the top of most of them hidden by low cloud. We stayed in the valleys following the river, but the ground was wet and boggy and we frequently had to wade through gushing streams bringing rain water down from the hills. There was a steady drizzle of rain for most of the day. I was already feeling cold, soaked and miserable by the end of the first day when we had only reached the end of the large Tagus estuary.
We found shelter for ourselves and our horses in a large barn and the troopers broke down some of the stalls for firewood to make a blaze to warm us up. It was then that Downie and Butterworth started to argue over the route. Both had hand drawn maps, which were by no means identical. On both, the Tagus bent north east like the curve of a bow. Butterworth wanted to follow the river on the grounds that we could not get lost and there would be a lot of settlements along its banks where we could get food and shelter. Downie was for crossing the river on the nearby ferry and taking the ‘bowstring’ route directly to Alcantara.
‘The Tagus spends much of its course in a steep sided valley,’ he insisted. ‘We will spend ages trying to negotiate side streams and rivers, which after all this rain will be in full flood. My route will be much easier.’
‘We don’t know that,’ countered Butterworth. ‘The area you want to cross is blank on both our maps.’
In the end Downie won, mainly because he was an officer and stated bluntly that he was going the way he had chosen and ordered Butterworth to follow him. I did not have strong feelings either way but the experience led to a valuable life lesson, which I will pass on for what it is worth. When dealing with maps containing blank spaces, never trust the navigation to an optimist. They will always imagine that smooth roads and plentiful supplies fill the space, which is never the case. There is a reason some spaces on the maps are blank; it is because people rarely pass that way and most folk will normally choose the easiest route. In my considerable experience of blank spaces on maps, they normally contain impassable mountains, pitiless deserts, impenetrable forest or jungles full of hostile tribesmen. None of these were in Portugal of course, but what was there was just a dangerous.