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Authors: Allan Mallinson

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London, seven months later, 22 April 1828

Acting Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Hervey, officer commanding the detached troop of His Majesty’s 6th Light Dragoons in the Cape Colony, and acting commanding officer of the Corps of Cape Mounted Riflemen, rearranged his bones as he got down from the Rochester mail. The Canterbury turnpike was a fine, fast road, which served only to make the occasional pothole more jarring, though from Deptford, where it became a mere municipal affair, not evenly made or mended, the jolts had come with greater frequency and severity. His travelling companion, Captain Edward Fairbrother, also of the Mounted Rifles (the lieutenant-governor at the Cape, his old friend Sir Eyre Somervile, had insisted that Fairbrother should accompany him on account of his wound and the remittent fever), looked distinctly qualmish, for the coach’s rolling action had at times been pronounced – though not as bad as the packet’s rolling off the Azores, when even Hervey, whose sailing-stomach was strong, had been prostrated for two days. Yet despite heavy seas they had made the passage from Cape Town to the Medway in just short of six weeks.

Fairbrother, his indisposition notwithstanding, was as arrested by the sights and sounds of the metropolis as Hervey had been that day, thirteen years before, when first
he
had come to London – and by this same route. Southwark High Street, narrow, towering, inn-lined, had been all mid-morning bustle, so that the captain of Mounted Rifles had fancied he might be in Shakespeare’s London; or even Chaucer’s, for Hervey had pointed out The Tabard (though nowadays it was called The Talbot). And London Bridge, no wider than that high street but just as teeming and looking every bit as antique, had afforded him two sights as inspiring as might be: downstream the Tower of London, and all the evidence of the capital’s maritime commerce; upstream, but a stone’s throw from the mail, the new London Bridge, its massive, graceful arches not yet complete but already as sure and solid as anything he had seen – certainly these late years in Africa. Here was security, confidence, investment, and increasing wealth. Here was the future.

‘We may take a paddle steamer down the river later this week, if there’s time,’ Hervey had said in answer to his wide-eyed enquiries.

Fairbrother had liked that. And then in Lombard Street, where the mails drew up at the General Post Office, he was wholly taken by the crowded, purposeful activity, both wheeled and pedestrian. Never had he seen its like, not even in Kingston when a slaver filled the wharves with its black cattle. He shook his head slowly. ‘I begin to understand, my friend.’

‘Understand what?’ replied Hervey absently, seeing down what little baggage the mail would carry for them (Private Johnson would bring the bulk of it by stage later in the day).

‘The great enterprise.’

Hervey thought he understood, but elucidation he would leave until another time. He had his own preoccupations for the moment. He wanted above all to know the particulars of the Royal Navy’s engagement in the Ionian, what
The Times
was calling the Battle of Navarino Bay. The first report – the only one he had seen, and that in South Africa – spoke of a great many ships and a great many casualties. He had not the least idea whether his old friend Sir Laughton Peto’s ship had been engaged, however, for he knew that Peto had first to make passage to Gibraltar to take up his command, and that the journey thither, and thence to Greek waters, was with sail an unpredictable business.

It was his intention therefore, as soon as he and Fairbrother were established in the United Service Club, to go – this very afternoon – to the Horse Guards and ask his friend Lieutenant-Colonel Lord John Howard, assistant quartermaster-general, to give him sight of the official despatches (a month’s worth of mail and
Gazette
s had been adrift still when he left Cape Town). He might even learn something about the wretched board of inquiry. That was the true imperative for his recall to London. He did not relish it – far from it – but it were better that he grasp the nettle than be stung with it at the hands of some malefactor. There were always those who would see the army as a cruel instrument of repression. He had rather liked Shelley – admired him, even – when they had spent those days together in Rome a decade before (God rest his soul – for Shelley most assuredly possessed one, whatever he himself had professed . . .), but he abhorred the poet’s disliking of the army, and bridled even now at his invention of that word ‘liberticide’ and its appellation to the unlooked-for, and thankless, duty of aid to the civil power.

He had thought there would be no inquiry. That had been his understanding when Lord John Howard had prevailed on him to withdraw his report on the incident at Waltham Abbey. Before the Africa commission, while in temporary command of his regiment, the 6th Light Dragoons, he had found himself embroiled in a savage little affair at the royal gunpowder mills. Home Office spies had discovered a plot in which an armed body of Irishmen working on a nearby navigation were to break into the mills and carry off a quantity of powder. Hervey’s dragoons had foiled the attempt, and with considerable execution, but the business had troubled him, for the actions of the Irishmen – drunk, most of them – had not suggested any serious enterprise. He had smelled fish (a parliamentary bill for Catholic ‘emancipation’ was the cause of much agitation in certain Tory quarters), and he had submitted a report implying as much. However, his friend had persuaded him to withdraw it, for an inquiry would have required Hervey’s presence in London, and the appointment at the Cape therefore would not have been his.

This compromising had further troubled him, and still did. It had not been his habit to temporize, although these days he knew that stiff-back honour rarely profited anyone – or for that matter the cause of honour itself. But in the week before leaving the Cape for what his old friend the lieutenant-governor called convalescent and matrimonial leave, a summons had arrived from the Horse Guards to attend a court of inquiry into the whole affair of Waltham Abbey. Hervey feared not that such an inquiry would heap opprobrium upon him (except, did
any
soldier emerge from aiding the civil power with an unblemished record?), rather that the affair would detain him in London and bring him unwelcome attention. The first he did not want, for entirely personal and family reasons, and the second he could most definitely do without, for his aspirations to command of the 6th Light Dragoons remained, even if the odds grew longer by the day, and any less-than-entirely favourable findings would do nothing to advance his suit.

The strangest intelligence had come with that summons too: the Duke of Wellington was now prime minister. Following the death of Mr Canning, and the resignation of his successor Lord Goderich, the King had asked the duke to form a government, which he had done, dutifully though not without difficulty. Hervey had learned all this on the Rochester mail from a pair of particularly loquacious attorney clerks. His informants had been unable to tell him, however, who had taken the duke’s reins at the Horse Guards, though they were able to confirm that Lord Palmerston – for all his support of Canning and his contrary stance now to the ‘high Tories’ – remained at the War Office, which news pleased and troubled Hervey in turn since thanks to Lord John Howard he had some acquaintance with the minister. But it was Palmerston who had ordered the court of inquiry.

There was a line of hackney carriages outside the post office. Hervey engaged one, tipped a boy to transfer their baggage, and bid the driver take them to the United Service Club.

Fairbrother at last fell silent as they drove along Poultry and Cheapside, and then by way of St Paul’s, Fleet Street and the Strand to St James’s, wholly transfixed by what he saw, a juxtaposition of grandeur (new and old alternating – conjoined, indeed) with dereliction of a kind he had not seen; yet a lively dereliction, not a waste, the noise and the vigour of it all beyond his former imagining.

‘So much is torn down and built each time I come,’ said Hervey as they passed yet another demolition site, scene of scaffolding and cranes straining to replace with new before the old was even wholly reduced. ‘The new London Bridge was nothing when last I crossed the old one. And downriver they are driving a tunnel from one side to the other.’

Fairbrother shook his head in amazement.

‘I must tell you again, though, the United Service you will not find more than passing comfortable. A new club is being built,’ (Hervey smiled as he realized Fairbrother must picture all London abuild) ‘and the committee has spent very little on the existing premises as a consequence. It is a pity we shan’t be able to try the new ones.’

Fairbrother turned to him but momentarily. ‘My dear fellow, it is excessively good of you to put me up at your club, no matter what its condition. I hope it occasions
you
no discomfort.’

Hervey frowned. ‘As I have told you before, you mistake matters if you once think otherwise.’

Fairbrother turned his gaze once more to the building work on the Strand. He did not think that he did mistake matters; he rather thought that Hervey did. He admired the lieutenant-colonel –
his
lieutenant-colonel, indeed – of mounted rifles (and major of light dragoons); in truth he had not met his like. But his previous association with British officers did not predispose him to believe that Hervey was at all typical of his caste. Oh, to be sure, the officers of his former corps, the Royal African Regiment, were not out of the top drawer; half of them could not have passed for gentlemen save for the badges of rank which proclaimed them to be so. But it was not merely they: Lord Charles Somerset, the previous lieutenant-governor at the Cape, had never deigned to receive him, and his son, Colonel Henry Somerset, had never troubled to disguise his contempt – except, of course, of late (saving a fellow’s life put even a Somerset under a powerful obligation to be civil). It was true that the present governor, Hervey’s old friend Sir Eyre (and Lady Somervile), had received him at the Castle with the greatest courtesy; no, with the greatest
warmth
– but this he was inclined to attribute to the Somerviles’ time in India, where a dark skin (not that his own could be accurately described as dark) was no impediment to society if the native were a gentleman. For the rest, he would reserve his judgement.

‘See here,’ said Hervey in an effort to be aptly cheery as they passed Charing Cross. ‘This part is called the Bermuda and Caribbee Islands, though I’m not sure why. They say it is all to be pulled down, and a vast
piazza
made of it in memory of Nelson.’

Fairbrother peered indifferently at the slum-jumble about St Martin’s church. No decent planter in Jamaica (in which category he firmly placed his father) would thus house his slaves (in which category he could not deny had been his mother). But then, he imagined that the inhabitants of these crowding tenements were not so gainfully employed as plantation slaves.

‘They are what you call rookeries?’

‘I don’t know that they are rookeries – I think the term is applied more to the tenements in the old city – but they are noisome, for sure. Over here,’ (Hervey smiled ruefully) ‘not so very far away, is where the King lived when he was regent.’

Fairbrother turned his attention to the other window. In a minute or so the building site that was the old Carlton House came into view.

‘And there is the new United Service Club. Or
will
be. Not long now by the look of things; the glaziers have made a beginning.’

The hackney swung into Regent Street, and Fairbrother could only marvel at the change that a mere hundred yards brought: from dereliction to royal palace, and now to a street as graceful as any he expected to see. The carriage turned right into Charles Street and pulled up in front of four Corinthian columns, which marked the entrance of the United Service Club.

A red-waistcoated porter whom Hervey did not recognize advanced at once to the kerbside. Hervey paid the driver, nodded to the club servant, who began taking the baggage from the hackney’s boot, and then he and his friend made their long-looked-for entry to ‘the Duke’s Own’.

‘Good morning, Thomas,’ he said quietly at the lodge.

The hall porter looked up. ‘Why, Colonel Hervey, sir! It
is
good to see you. We are expecting you, of course, sir.’

Hervey was relieved, though he did not show it. The United Service’s servants, loyal and delightful as they were, had no more reputation for efficiency than any other club’s staff. And although he had sent an express immediately on disembarking, the day before, he could not then be certain that rooms would be available. ‘And my guest, Captain Fairbrother.’

The hall porter glanced at Fairbrother, and perfectly maintained his smile of welcome. ‘Of course, sir. There are two excellent rooms on the west side.’

‘Capital, Thomas. Are there letters for me?’

‘I will look, sir.’

Hervey nodded. ‘We shall take coffee the while.’

‘Very good, sir. Mr Peter is on duty.’

Hervey gave Fairbrother a look of ‘I told you it would be thus’ as they made their way to the United Service’s principal public room.

In the coffee room they met Major-General Sir Francis Evans, who had been the general officer commanding the Northern District when the Sixth had been sent to the Midlands to suppress the Luddite violence (where Hervey had distinguished himself in the most trying of circumstances). That had been a decade and more ago, and the intervening years had made him even more crabbed in his aspect.

Hervey bowed. ‘Good morning, Sir Francis.’

The old general narrowed his eyes. ‘Hervey?’

‘Yes, General.’

‘Hah! By God, sir, I must say your exploits are vastly entertaining.’

Hervey’s brow furrowed. ‘General?’

‘Can’t open
The Times
these days without reading your name – castles in Spain, powder-mills in Hertfordshire, wilds of Africa . . .’ (Hervey shifted a shade awkwardly.) ‘How are you, my boy?’

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