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Authors: Allan Mallinson

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'Take a seat, Hervey,' said General Campbell, evidently finding the room rather too close and opening the collar of his jacket.

Hervey found himself admiring the tartan lining of the lapels, evidently the general's own, for it was well known that he had commanded an English regiment. There was no doubting it: Campbell had the crack. In battle, men followed officers like him.

'Captain Hervey?'

'General?'

'You appeared distracted.' 'My regrets, sir.'

The general frowned, but benignly. 'Gentlemen, Captain Hervey is the only man in the division to have any experience of fighting the Burmans. You may find his counsel of assistance, therefore.'

Hervey stood up.

'No, no; sit at ease, Hervey. Give the brigadiers time to reflect. But in any case, you shall place yourself at their disposal as they contemplate their plans.'

'Very good. General.' He turned to the brigadiers. 'At your service, gentlemen.'

Neither McCreagh nor Macbean looked to him as though they would be eager to engage that experience.

'Is there anything you would say here and now?' asked the general.

Hervey wished he had a few minutes to marshal his thoughts. Before Waterloo, by a happy accident of the chase, he had found himself riding beside the Duke of Wellington, who had asked him what he thought Bonaparte's design would be. There had been no alternative but to answer at once and he had done so, to the duke's approbation. But that was with the carefree confidence of youth - and the assurance that the duke was merely sporting with him. 'Sir, my experience of the Burmans is very limited, and I am not sure what general principles may be drawn from it. I should say that they are not fighters as good as the Sirmooris or Rajpoots. They can be deadly enough when at close quarters, but I observed they were reluctant to close with us. I judge, however, that they would be ferocious adversaries in the way of the Spanish
guerrilleros
.
And I know, by accounts I have a regard for, that they are most active in stockading and entrenching.'

'This much reluctance to close we have witnessed already, I should say,' said the general, looking at the brigadiers.

They nodded.

Hervey nodded too. 'But I say again, sir, they have a reputation in developing an assault, akin to how we would go about a siege. They are prodigious builders of these stockades, and they dig holes in which their men conceal themselves very cunningly. They can advance upon a position very surely.'

'Is this how we shall find them in the jungle?' asked Colonel Macbean.

'I cannot say for certain, Colonel, but I would suppose that would be their practice. And if you should find them so, then it would indicate they are intent on fighting.'

The nodding of heads said the logic was sound.

Hervey felt encouraged to develop his appreciation further. 'But I must add,' he began, and with a distinct note of caution, 'I believe the Burman may be in want above all of generalship. There is, perhaps, no telling how much better would their fighting men be if led well. And they do have one general, at least, of repute—'

'Maha Bundula,' said General Campbell.

Hervey nodded. It was the first time the general had given any intimation of prior knowledge. 'Just so, sir.'

'He is by all accounts in Assam,' said the quartermaster-general.

Hervey was encouraged. Here indeed was evidence that the expedition was not entirely blind to the significance of what the enemy might do.

'Then we must hope he is tempted here,' said

Campbell, most emphatically. 'The defeat of their best general would indeed be the likeliest way to bring about a surrender.'

Hervey raised his eyebrows before he could stop himself. Why Campbell supposed he was the superior of Maha Bundula he could not imagine, especially with the evidence of the past two weeks before them. Yet he could still admire the gallant confidence. It might yet get them to Ava. But he greatly feared the cost.

'Is there anything else, Hervey?'

'No, sir. I shall try to recall those details which might be of help, and communicate them directly with the brigadiers.'

'Very well, gentlemen,' concluded the general, picking up the bayonet once more. 'Let's be about it. But make no mistake. We shall be sitting out the best part of the rainy season here, and it will be far from pleasant.'

In his quarters, a well-made brick affair which had been the rice store of the
myosa
-
the 'town-eater' - the official whose duty it was to extort the most revenue he could from the citizens of Rangoon, Hervey sat down to a breakfast of biscuit and coffee. At least here, though, he was free of the plague of mosquitoes. And plague they had become. He had bought a good quantity of oil of citronella in Calcutta, which he burned in the lamps on the table and by his bed, and no mosquito seemed inclined to linger. But he knew now he would have to calculate very carefully the rate at which he could use it. 'Far from pleasant,' the general had said. They were, to all intents and purposes, besieged in Rangoon, if not exactly by the Burmans - yet - then certainly by the monsoon. How long would it be before the siege was lifted, or they themselves broke it? The rains would continue until the end of September, and during that time there would be nothing to stop Burman reinforcements coming south by river. Meanwhile, the sick rate in Rangoon - even once the Royal Navy had begun provisioning them - would rise, for the air would soon be corrupted by swamp and stagnant water.

He had written at length to Eyre Somervile the evening before, and now he would have to write a postscript. He calculated that operations could not begin in earnest before October at the earliest, for until they were able to clear the forts the flotilla could not navigate the Irawadi. And so the Burmans would attack first, being in the position of greater strength. The only thing Campbell could do was keep making spoiling attacks to disrupt the preparations. But they would be costly. Hervey was certain nothing would be decided before November. The citronella would be long used up, but by then it would be the least of his cares.

Corporal Wainwright came in. 'I'm sorry I could find nothing better than biscuit, sir,' he said, tucking his shako under his arm.

'I doubt even Johnson could find better,' said

Hervey, frowning and motioning to the other chair. 'And
he
would not scruple to forage in the general's own kitchen!'

'I heard the Eighty-ninth had beef last night, sir.'

'Indeed?'

'A regular ox-roast I heard it was.'

Hervey was sure there had been no rescinding order. 'Corporal Wainwright, I cannot imagine the officers would allow—'

'All the officers were dining together - a regimental day, or something.'

Hervey smiled. 'But not on beef.'

'I should imagine not, sir.'

'Mm. Well, if you have half a chance of buying any then take it. I'd be pleased to part with a fair few rupees for a plate of something other than maggoty biscuit.'

'Sir.' Wainwright tried not to smile; they had been under pain of the lash not so much as to lay hands on a beast up until now. 'The word is we're to go after them, by the way, sir - the Burmans.'

'And it is right, which is why you found me already about at reveille. I was copying orders for two hours.' He pushed away the remains of the biscuit porridge. 'The Madras brigade's to beat into the jungle to find where they have gone. The other brigade's to attack upstream and clear the stockades.'

Wainwright looked pleased. 'Do we go with them, sir?'

'We do, I hope. I shall want you to go to the Thirty-eighth and find out when they are to begin. They have orders to take a stockade about two leagues north. I intend going with them, but I'll first have to ask leave of Major Seagrass.'

In the event, the interview with the military secretary proved an unusual exchange. By nine o'clock it was raining again, a steady downpour of the type that cruelly tested the builder's art. The
myosd
had built his rice store well, and Hervey remained dry while others in more exalted positions found themselves dodging leaks and inundations. Major Seagrass was abed complaining of cramps and a sore head when Hervey reported to him. His quarters were almost adjacent to the general's, but water dripped with the regularity of a ticking clock onto the floor near his head, and mosquitoes hovered like wasps about a fallen plum on an English summer's day.

Hervey assumed at once that Seagrass's indisposition would rule out his own hopes of slipping away from the headquarters to join the Thirty-eighth, but he was surprised to find instead that the major did not in the least object - although his manner of reasoning was startling. 'Go on, Hervey,' he moaned, hardly opening his eyes. 'You may as well be killed in the cannon's mouth as sickening and dying in this place!'

Hervey was appalled at the self-pity. Could a man sicken quite so quickly? He looked down at the plump outline of the military secretary concealed beneath the grey blanket, and he sighed. How was it that men were appointed to commands and to the staff who were so manifestly incapable? There was another way of looking at it, of course; and perhaps he ought not to be quite so contemptuous of Seagrass's words, for the major knew as well as he that sickening was not a soldier's business. Perhaps he was only lamenting his disability. In any case, Hervey himself had no intention of either sickening or succumbing to the cannon's roar. He took his leave, summoned Major Seagrass's servant to his quarters and sent him back with a phial of citronella.

Hervey cursed himself and everything as he hastened to buckle on his sword and bind his pistols with oilskin. It was barely an hour since reveille, but the Thirty-eighth had been quicker off the mark than he fancied even his own troop would have been.
Liffey's
boats were already on the water and pulling through the deluge as if it were nothing but a spring shower. He ought to have known it, he muttered, fastening closed his lapels: men who had been cooped up for so long would be off at their quarry like hounds on to a hare.

The door flew open. 'Sir, the Thirty-eighth—' 'Yes, Corporal Wainwright. I've just seen for myself. Are you ready?' 'Ay, sir.'

They ran all the way to the river, slipping and sliding in the mud, drenched within a couple of minutes. Corporal Wainwright began hailing the boats. There was no one else about in that rain, so their object must have been plain enough, and it was not long before a cutter began pulling towards them.

The boats were packed with the Thirty-eighth's biggest men, the grenadier company, and there was scarcely space for one more, let alone two. But the grenadiers looked happy enough that an officer in another uniform - from the staff indeed - thought their enterprise worthy.

The grenadier captain was welcoming. 'It would not do for a dragoon to be overtaken by foot,' he said, smiling and holding out his hand. 'I am Richard Birch, sir.'

'Matthew Hervey, sir. And very pleased to join your ranks, though I fear my coat a little conspicuous in so much red.'

'I should worry not, Captain Hervey, for I have no doubt we shall all look the same within minutes of scrambling ashore.'

Seeing the colour of the grenadiers' belts, Hervey could only smile ruefully; the white pipeclay had run off onto their jackets and trousers, and even the red dye was not holding fast. 'I freely confess that your alacrity took me by surprise, though. It was but a few hours ago that the general gave the brigadier his orders.'

Captain Birch smiled. 'The colonel has had a company under arms since we landed. It was my good fortune that it was the grenadiers' turn for duty today.'

Hervey nodded. Even so, he thought, it was smart work.

'The rest of the battalion will follow. Our intention is to test the strength of the stockade and to try to take it by surprise.' Captain Birch had to raise his voice against the beating rain and the sailors' oar work, and his resolve seemed all the stronger thereby.

Hervey had no doubt that Birch's company would carry all but the most determined resistance before them - if they could make headway enough to reach their objective: so strong was the current that the sailors were red in the face despite the cooling drench. If ever they had need of the steamship to give them a tow it was now, but Commodore Peto had said he would not risk
Diana
until he was sure the banks were clear of cannon, and the river of fire boats.

Captain Birch's little flotilla was not without resource, however. The naval officer in command, one of
Liffey's
lieutenants, had as good an eye for water as Hervey prided himself he had for ground. As they reached the point of the big bend that hid Rangoon from further observation upstream (and, as Hervey observed, vice versa), and where the oars could shift no more water in that swollen flow, he signalled for the boats to turn full about and for hands to pull hard for the slack water by the left bank.

BOOK: The Sabre's Edge
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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