Morning, and as he took a short step forward with his right foot on the dew-sodden grass, James Keane’s sword caught the early sunlight and gleamed bright and sudden in the dawn. Moving just his right forefinger and his thumb, Keane made the tip of his blade trace a tiny circle in the air around the heart of the man who stood six yards opposite him. The man he had vowed to kill.
They were ready now, but neither man was inclined to make the first move and the razor-sharp edge of Keane’s sword cut the air with a hiss as he took it away from the target and cut down to the left, suggesting a move he might make. As he did so he stared into his opponent’s eyes and smiled. Keane came back en garde and stood, rocking gently on the balls of his feet. Then the referee called to them and at once both men moved towards each other until their blades were close enough to touch.
Keane shivered in his shirtsleeves, knowing that the very slightest movement of the wrist would make the blade move in a sweeping circle and, if he were not careful, open up his guard to a sudden riposte by his opponent.
He caught the other man’s eyes again. Just for an instant. And realized almost too late what was about to happen. The other man, whose name was Simpson, lunged, and Keane, just managing to anticipate him, drew back a fraction to avoid the blade but at the same time extended his own arm so that it flicked up and caught the man on the face, cutting his cheek. The man yelled and stepped back and Keane smiled.
Somewhere he heard the referee speaking: ‘A hit to Mister Keane.’
Keane, fired up now, stepped forward again and by instinct attacked around his opponent’s blade. He knew that Simpson must be hurting now, fighting through the pain, and that he must act fast to capitalize. His blade turned the other and like a flash he was in, the point scoring a hit against the man’s chest. Not deep enough to kill but hard enough to wound.
Again Simpson shrieked and stepped back and Keane recovered. He looked to his left for an instant. Saw his second, Tom Morris, smile at him and realized his mistake as Simpson double-stepped towards him and pushed his blade aside to cut through his shirt and into his chest, cutting open his left breast. Keane sprang back, conscious of the blood now flowing onto his white shirt. Damn, that was not the way he had planned it. He brought his sword up again to the en garde, confusing his opponent and hiding the pain. Both men were tiring now, but Keane had seen the weakness in his enemy. The slightly dropped right shoulder, the trailing blade.
He made ready to strike, but as he did so his mind filled with what had brought him here. An argument over a card game. Idiotic, really. Nothing to speak of.
But he did not regret it. Simpson had been a foolish oaf and to question his honour for a card game was a foolish way to lose one’s life. Of course Keane cheated. Well, didn’t everyone? But the fact was, this time he had not cheated. That was the point. Wasn’t it?
He brought up his sword and again turned it through the air as if to strike to the right, and then, as Simpson brought his own blade across to parry left, Keane aimed for his arm. A flesh wound would suffice now. And then he would offer quarter and the man would accept and honour would be satisfied.
But as he did so Simpson came forward at a rush and before he could stop, the man was hard upon him. But more than that, he had run onto Keane’s blade. Keane felt the cold honed steel sink deep into flesh then grate against bone and then through deeper elements, and he knew that it was done.
He stepped back, pulling his blade as he went, and watched as Simpson’s body slumped to the ground.
Then Morris was at his shoulder.
‘James. James. Quick. We must get away from here. Come. Now.’
And so, in what seemed an eternity, they turned and left as fast as they could go, slipping on the wet grass and making for the light though the clearing, towards the horses and away from the two men crouching over the body of the man who had been Lieutenant Greville Simpson.
At a thousand yards the figure of a single soldier appears as no more than a dot shimmering on the horizon; a regiment of men as a solid block of black. As they draw closer, though, it is possible to make out the detail. At six hundred yards you begin to see the individuals who make up the column bearing down on you. By four hundred yards arms become visible, and upright muskets tucked hard against shoulders. But on this fine May morning it was not until they were at two hundred yards that the sun caught the bayonets of the French. Standing in his position in the valley below a small Portuguese town, Keane knew to wait. And wait.
Keane looked at the advancing Frenchmen. A hundred yards. He could see their shakos now with the brass eagle plates and the tall, bobbing yellow plumes of the voltigeurs above blue uniforms and the white cross-belts. And behind them the mass of the column. Drums beating, colours flying, beneath a bronze eagle. He could hear their shouts too, half drowned by the insistent patter of the drums. He spoke again. Calmly, precisely. ‘Take aim.’
One more look as they drew closer. Seventy-five yards. Until he was able, he fancied, to smell the bastards’ garlic breath and look into their eyes before they died. Then, ‘Fire.’
Eighty muzzles flashed into life, fizzing and cracking as hammer fell on flint and flame and smoke spouted from eighty barrels. Keane looked on and watched as the French were hurled back, men falling and jumping, plucked by the musket balls to dance like marionettes. He saw their second rank walk over the bodies of the first, trampling the fallen, dying voltigeurs as they dragged themselves through the dry grass, now stained red.
The commands were given again but they were not needed. Keane’s men knew what to do now. This was their time. The wad was bitten, the ball spat down the barrel and rammed home. Then the carbines were at the shoulders again, and again they cracked out and through the clouds of white smoke that filled the field and choked the throat. He watched more Frenchmen fall, and as he looked on the column stopped. He had known it would. Ten years of war had taught him to expect nothing less of the British soldier. The French were changing now, moving from column into line, desperate to loose off a volley. But it was too late. Keane’s men were already loaded. The third volley in less than a minute crashed out and the French officers died where they stood, even as they shouted at their men. And then it was over. Keane saw a colonel topple from his horse and then the bastards were turning. Another volley hit them as they went, and the eagle fell, to be gathered by a fresh pair of hands and hurried to safety in the rear. Keane’s men gave a cheer. One of them, wiping the gunpowder from his mouth, turned to him, smiling. ‘They’re running, sir.’
‘That they are, Thomas, but they’ll come again before the day’s out. Won’t they, sarn’t?’
‘They will, sir, If I know they Frenchies. They’ll be back just as soon as they can.’
Keane smiled. ‘And we’ll see them off again, shan’t we, lads?’
Another cheer, and then a cough from behind him. Keane turned to see the figure of a senior officer, wearing the navy-blue frock coat favoured by many of the staff. He recognized him at once as Major Grant, of the 11th, a man already renowned for his bravery throughout the army, and wondered what business he could have here, in the firing line.
‘You are relieved of your command. Forthwith.’
Keane looked at him and his heart sank. This was it, then. All that he had been dreading.
‘You’re to come with me, Keane, at once. To the commanding general.’
‘To General Hill, sir?”
‘No, Keane, to General Wellesley. He commands now.’
Keane despaired. It was worse than he had thought. He had imagined that General Hill might have got to know that he had taken part in a duel, particularly as it had resulted in the death of his adversary, a brother officer. He did not regret it. Simpson had been a foolish oaf and it had been a stupid way to lose his life. Keane might have been cheating. Well, didn’t everyone sometime? It was just unfortunate that Simpson had moved when he did. Keane had been aiming for his arm but the devil had moved. He wondered what had gone through the man’s mind. Had wondered since it had happened. Whatever the cause, Simpson was dead, and he, it would seem, was in trouble.
He did wonder, though, how the devil Wellesley, newly arrived in Portugal, had come to learn of the matter with such speed, and why had he taken the trouble to take Keane out of the fight in such a manner for such a matter. And to send a staff officer to do it. He could only suppose that he must be used as some sort of example. As a warning from the new commander that, whatever General Craddock and General Hill might tolerate, he would not put up with such behaviour in his army.
Keane cursed himself for his stupidity. To have been called out in a duel and to accept had been expressly against the general’s orders. And what was more, the offence that had provoked the duel – to be found cheating at cards – was almost as bad. Well, to have been accused of it. The conduct of officers was expected to be seen to be exemplary. Even if that were not always the case. Perhaps there was still a chance.
He thought fast. ‘But sir. We are engaged with the enemy.’
‘No, lieutenant, as a matter of fact, you are not. You have just seen them off. Very creditably, as it happens. But that is of no matter. The French are merely bidding us a good morning. They have sallied out from their lines to see what we are about and have been given a sound hiding. Your sergeant is quite able to see them off should they come again. Which they won’t.’
He smiled at the sergeant who nodded, stony-faced, wondering what was going on, and why his officer had been ordered out of the line.
Keane too turned to his sergeant. ‘Don’t worry, Sarn’t McIlroy. I’ll be back soon. Captain Hannan is in command. Take orders from him until I return.’
He turned to catch up with Grant, who, although already a few paces off, had overheard his comment. ‘I’m afraid, Keane,
your return may not be for some time. If ever.’
If ever? Keane blanched.
‘Sir, may I enquire as to why I am being summoned by the general?’
‘No, Keane, you may not. You will find out soon enough. Now where’s your mount?’
In the saddle, cantering along the route that would take them back to the headquarters at Coimbra, Keane had more time to think.
All along the allied line the French were pulling back. It had not been a big attack. A brigade at most, sent far in advance against their own to the south of the coastal town of Aveiro. Grant was right. The French were simply trying their strength. Toying with them and seeing that theirs was not an attack in force, they would run back to their lines and let the British do the same. It had been a mistake, Keane knew, for Hill to have pushed forward before Wellesley’s arrival, and what was more it had been, he thought – for all the fact that they had won the day – another example of wasted effort and wasted lives. He hoped that the new general would not make the same mistakes.
And he knew too, to his bitter satisfaction, that whatever his own fate he would not be the only officer to be disciplined that day. Hill had overstepped the mark.
Wellesley had a reputation for caution. The advance into Spain which would surely come would be made slowly and with care. But now it seemed that Keane was destined to take no part in it. He cursed again and dug his boots into the flanks of his horse.
They rode fast and in silence towards the rear of the brigade lines. And all the time Keane felt more apprehensive of what his fate might be.
He had arrived in Lisbon with the battalion in March, a full month ahead of Wellesley, and a high time they had had since then. The city’s jails, it was said, had never been so full, and other buildings had been requisitioned. Sir Arthur Wellesley must surely have wondered at the state of his command. Some, like Keane, had shipped out fresh from home, but other battalions and squadrons had been there since before poor Sir John Moore’s fighting retreat to Corunna last year. You could tell them apart from the new arrivals. Thinner, with their scarlet coats turned to a dirty brick red and their shoes in scraps, they were more inclined to question authority and more often disinclined to obey it.
It was a long ride back to Coimbra, made all the longer by Keane’s trepidation. They stopped after twenty-five miles beside a stream, Grant allowing his horse some water. Keane wondered if now the colonel might give him some inkling as to the truth of his situation, but no sooner had he begun to speak than Grant pre-empted him. ‘Mount up. We must make good time to be there by sunset.’
And so it was as the sun was sinking that at last the town came into view, its great citadel with the Bishop’s palace and the churches rising high above the river Mondego. Almost Wellesley’s first action had been to move the army here. After having divided into three divisional columns, he had marched out of Lisbon and made camp below the town, on the route that must take them from the capital to Soult’s stronghold at Oporto.
As they rode up, the lines came quickly into view. The few proper tents, brought by fortunate officers, stood out amongst the crudely improvised shelters of the men. It was as if a town had sprung up overnight, thronged with thousands of men in coats of scarlet, blue and green and all their hangers-on, who now, even as the muskets blazed, went about their business in the dimming light, moving among the campfires with the focused and mindless purpose of a colony of ants.
The moon shone down from a cloudless sky and the evening was filled with the scent of citrus flowers and lavender, and other, baser smells: woodsmoke, sweat and gunpowder.
Keane brought down his hand heavily against his thigh, swatting a large black fly that had landed on his white breeches, then regretted it, for it had left a bloodstain and the talk in the mess was all that the army commander liked his officers well turned out. Ordinarily it would have worried Keane, but now he was acutely aware of the far greater mess he was in.
It was hard to believe that barely thirty days ago he had been in Cork, waiting to board the ship that would bring him here with 20,000 other men of the army and all their horses and followers.
Since their short halt on the journey Grant had said nothing, had not so much as reined in his horse. Now, as they dismounted and tied up, he was still silent. Keane knew that it was too late now to ask: all too soon he would discover his fate. As they walked up the final slope of the hill where Wellesley had made his temporary headquarters, Keane wondered what the general would be like. He had not been in Spain the previous year for the debacle that had resulted in Wellesley’s being summoned home in disgrace for allowing the French army to escape. But then the general had won a famous victory at Vimiero and had been cleared by the official enquiry, and now he was back and in command of the army. It was strange, he thought, how such disaster could quickly be followed by triumph. But then, that was war for you. The slightest chance could make a hero of any blackguard and the slightest piece of bad luck reduce the finest of men to a ruined, bloody corpse. And Keane knew that, this time, for once fate had dealt him the poorer hand and it was his turn to suffer.
Wellesley, as was his custom, while having commandeered the Bishop’s palace as his own, had also made a field headquarters beneath the shade of a tree on a rise in the ground that afforded him a good view of the surrounding country. Around its base he had posted a mounted troop from the Blues, and it was to one of their officers that Grant touched his hat as they reached the foot of the small hill. The general was standing with a group of three or four officers around him at a table in the shade of the tree, with a map of the region spread out before him.
Grant approached him. ‘Lieutenant Keane, sir.’
Wellesley said nothing but motioned to one of his staff and whispered something. Grant coughed, quietly. The General did not look up, but nodded sagely and slowly traced a line with his forefinger down the map.
They waited and watched as Wellesley scribbled his signature at the bottom of a sheet of parchment in his notebook, then tore it away and handed it to an aide. Only then did he look up, and when he did so it was straight into Keane’s eyes.
Keane had never met Wellesley before. Yet here at once he knew the nature of the man. The thin beak of a nose, the tight lips set in a lean jaw, and above all, the eyes.
‘Lieutenant Keane, is it?’
‘This is a bad business, Keane. Rotten bad.’
‘What do you suppose that I should do with you?’
‘I don’t rightly know, sir. Not my place to say, sir. I suppose that I shall be cashiered – at best.’
Wellesley said nothing, but looked down at another piece of paper on his desk. ‘You’re from Ireland.’ He paused, thoughtful for a moment. ‘The Inniskillens. Ten years’ service. Egypt, Alexandria, Malta, Maida.’ He looked up, frowning, ‘Quite a career to date, Keane. Yet you remain a lieutenant?’
‘Yes, sir. I’m afraid so.’
‘And now this. Accused of cheating in the mess and called out by a brother officer and then to have killed him. You know that I have forbidden all duelling.’
‘And that gambling is a vice on which I frown. And moreover to be found a cheat. It’s too bad. There’s nothing else for it. What do you say, Grant?’
‘Yes, sir. I agree. All in all, I’m quite convinced that Lieutenant Keane is the right man for the job, sir.’
Wellesley shook his head. ‘God forgive me, but I’ve been persuaded by Major Grant to give you a reprieve. Against all my better judgement, I’m gazetting you captain. Effective as of now. On my staff.’
Keane was dumbfounded for a moment. Then he found his voice. ‘Thank you, sir. What can I say?’
‘Say nothing. As far as I can see you are a consummate rogue. Do not implicate yourself further or I may change my mind. Say nothing until you hear the real reason that I’ve called you here. I’m looking for someone with particular skills, Keane, and Major Grant here seems to be of the opinion that you might be the man.’
Keane said nothing but wondered what Grant might have seen in him. The general continued. ‘How well do you ride?’
‘Tolerably well, sir. I hunted at home.’
‘Good. That’s something. And you speak French.’
‘I attended the Lycée in Paris as a boy. My mother’s sister was resident there for a while and it was felt that I might benefit—’
‘A little, sir. Yes, enough to get by.’
Wellesley nodded. ‘And Grant tells me that you’re considered something of an artist in the mess. Is he right?’
Keane smiled. ‘He is kind, sir. I like to think that I can capture a likeness. Nothing more.’
‘Can you capture the likeness of a place?’
Keane nodded, ‘Yes, sir. I do draw landscapes. And any buildings that take my fancy. In fact I’ve just completed a drawing of—’
Wellesley smiled to silence him. ‘Fine, that’ll do. You are a good shot?’
‘Since my youth, sir. I shot partridge at home on the farm.’
‘And Frenchmen these last ten years. And you’re fit? I can see by the look of you that there’s little flesh on you.’
It was true, thought Keane, he was in good condition. He had never been unfit and ten years’ soldiering had ensured that his body was nothing more than muscle, sinew and bone.
‘I was brought up in Ireland by my mother, sir. My father being dead, I had to do his work on our farm. And that of others.’
Wellesley stared at him. ‘And my sources tell me that you have a way with words too, Keane. That you are able to talk your way out of any situation.’
‘I do hope so, sir.’ He paused. ‘Not this one, though.’
‘No, not this one. No amount of lie and bluff will help you now. Were you cheating at cards, Keane?’
‘On my honour, no, sir. Lieutenant Simpson was mistaken. It was he who slighted me and on my being challenged, sir, I had no alternative but to accept.’
‘You are aware that Lieutenant Blackwood stands by the word of Lieutenant Simpson, who is, of course, no longer able to speak in his own defence.’
‘I protest at Lieutenant Blackwood, sir. It was I who was insulted.’
‘That was not what I asked you. Nor did I ask you to implicate Lieutenant Blackwood, whose father I have known since we were boys. I asked whether or not you were a cheat. But as it is universally accepted that you are a liar, then I imagine we shall never know the truth. You are a convincing liar, though, Keane. That much I can see to be true.’
He looked at Grant.
‘It seems, Colquhoun, that you may indeed have been right.’ He turned back. ‘Welcome to the staff, Captain Keane.’
Keane smiled and bowed. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘And now I am dismissing you from it.’
‘You heard me aright. From now on, Keane, you will be my eyes and ears. You will report to me or to Major Grant here, directly. You will also take orders when appropriate from Captain Scovell.’
As if on cue, like an actor in the wings another officer, who had been standing silently behind Wellesley, made his way forward and smiled at Keane. He was younger than Grant and less weather-beaten.
Wellesley went on, ‘Captain Scovell here will be in command of several units similar to your own, yet not all of them, it would seem, will be possessed of your particular capabilities or qualifications.’ He smiled at Grant and then looked back to Keane. ‘We face an enemy of whom we must have the measure, or we shall fail. Marshal Soult is at Oporto with some twenty thousand men. Marshal Ney is in Galicia and Marshal Victor at Merida with yet more again.
‘I need to know everything. Everything, Keane. I want you to get yourself behind the French lines and find out anything you can. Draw pictures of any fortifications, or indeed any buildings which might be of use to us. I want their plans, their troop numbers, ammunition stocks, morale. What the commander had for breakfast. And I don’t care how you do it. And if in the course of your work you have any opportunity to disrupt their operations and delay or forestall them, then do it. Oh, and you shan’t be going alone. You’ll have a platoon. A troop, if you will. A company, perhaps. You are at liberty to choose who you will from the ordinary soldiers of the army.’
‘From all regiments, sir?’
‘All regiments and all arms, Keane. Infantry, cavalry, artillery. The choice is yours. But if you want my advice, don’t look too high. Cutthroats, murderers, thieves: take your pick, the army’s full of rogues. I dare say you’ll understand them all very well. One in fifty of our brave fellows comes to the colours to escape the law. Major Grant? I’m finished with Captain Keane. Good day and good luck, captain.’
Keane gave a bow and, turning, walked away, feeling both elated and terrified. ‘Captain Keane.’ Grant was hard behind him. ‘A word, Keane.’
‘This is a rum do. But the general has it in his head, so it can’t be helped. If you want my opinion you’ve less chance than a man on the gallows. But get the right men behind you and you’ve more likelihood of not being killed quite so soon. You’d best start with the Lisbon jails. And you’ll need to choose carefully.’ He laughed.
‘You’ll need men with a variety of skills. A picklock would be useful to you, and a thief who can climb. At least one of them would have to be fluent in Spanish and another in French. They might need to look swarthy to pass for either. You might need a forger, and they’ll all need to ride. We’ll supply your mounts, and do try not to wear out the poor beasts, or lose them. Even though they’re sure to be useless nags, all of them. We do not have a limitless purse for your activities, vital as they are.’
‘You mean that I should recruit from the jails, sir?’
‘I’m in deadly earnest. We’ve three of them full in Lisbon already and others filling up. Damned smart work by the provosts. Though I dare say they had their hands full. Filthy place. All drink and bad women. You won’t be lacking in material. Take your officer though from where you will. You’ll need an officer with you, Keane. To keep you sane.’
‘What uniform do we wear, sir?’
‘Well, only you can decide on that. If you want to avoid detection, of course, you should perhaps not wear any. But remember that if that is the case and you are caught you will be shot or hanged on the spot for a spy. I would advise that you keep some article of uniform somewhere about you for that purpose. You and all your men. I prefer to travel in full uniform, myself.’
‘You go behind the lines, sir?’
This was something new to Keane. Scouting patrols he was aware of, and the fact that some officers had been selected to gather information on the enemy. A job that few would have wished for. But an officer attached to the staff riding into enemy territory to gather information? He had never heard the like.
‘Frequently. It’s most exhilarating. I know you’ll rise to it, Keane. Best life in the world for a soldier. Whatever anyone may say. And now you had better go and find your colonel and tell him your good news. I dare say he’ll be upset at losing you, Keane. You may direct him to me should he need to be convinced. See you in Spain, my boy. And you had better find yourself a billet for the night. You’ve a long journey ahead of you back to Lisbon. I would suggest you put into a mess. Try the artillery.’
Leaving Grant behind, Keane walked slowly back through the lines in search of a billet.
His head was still reeling from all that had happened. He had gone to the general expecting to be drummed out of the army and had been rewarded instead with sudden promotion. And then this. He was not sure what to make of it. Certainly it was better than being cashiered and disgraced or court-martialled for murder. And it was promotion, but to what must surely be one of the most detested jobs in the army. He supposed that he ought to be thankful for it, but he knew in his heart that his job was to remain in the firing line with his men. But it was, as Wellesley had said, a position that might have been made for him.
Keane knew that he could lie. And lie damn well. He’d become good at it while still a boy. In Ireland, when circumstances had reduced his family to penury and he had been forced to steal his neighbours’ sheep to make ends meet. In truth his letter of commission – a complete surprise – had come, he thought, in the nick of time. It had been paid for by an anonymous friend of whose identity he remained unaware, and although his mother had begged him not to take it, not wanting to lose her son, Keane could not help but go. And so in the autumn of ’98 he had become a soldier.
He had spent the last ten years as a company officer, learning to drill men in line and column. Teaching them to stand as he did and take the shot and the musket volleys before they loosed their own and sent the French to hell. Ten years of it. He thought back on the men he had known and lost. On the wounds and the times he had cheated death.
Well, he would do Wellesley’s dirty work, and do it well. Providence had rewarded him in kind and now he knew he must make the most of this chance he had been given. And he knew too that, when the opportunity arose to rejoin his battalion, he would be sure to take it. The true glory of any war lay on the battlefield and Keane had made a promise to himself that if any glory and honour were to come out of this war, then he would surely have his share. That and whatever worldly riches he could take by any means. He was no common thief. But if any chance of booty presented itself, then Keane knew that he would take it. And one day, when all this was finished, he would return to County Down a rich man and damn those who had cursed him for a wastrel.
And he would keep his uniform, as Grant had advised, with its canary-yellow facings and with the castle of its home town on its brass buttons. Even with his stained breeches. He wondered when he would be able to pay for them to be cleaned.
From his daily pay of five shillings and threepence it would mean a sixpenny deduction, and that, after all other mess expenses, would leave him in lack of funds. Such was the lot of an impecunious officer. His new rank of captain would certainly double his pay. But when, he wondered, would he see any of that? They all knew that one of Wellesley’s problems was with the payroll.
He would keep too the curved sword of the light company, his company, that clanked and rattled at his side. The ivory-hilted sword he had been given after the battle of Maida by a grateful commander and which had seen him through ever since, sending many a Frenchman to meet his maker.
What really angered him was that he knew he would miss his men. In particular his sergeant, George McIlroy, with whom he had been through so many close calls and who had taught him much of all he knew about soldiering. It had been McIlroy too who had thrust his bayonet high as the battalion had stood against the French dragoons on the beaches of Flanders nine years ago, parrying the sabre slash that would have ended Keane’s young life.
With the French sent scuttling back to their own lines, the army was preparing to move. Wellesley intended to flush them out from the town and now that he had seen their strength, Keane knew, he would not delay.
In the meantime, those men who knew that at any time now they would be in the thick of the line of battle were doing their best to complete their tasks before the order came to move. While some shaved, others fed on stirabout or simply gathered up their meagre effects. Women, wives – common-law and otherwise – sat with their infants while other children ran about playing among the piled muskets. One of the women, up to her elbows in water at a tub, called to him as he passed: ‘Hello, ducky. Need yer breeks washed? Take ’em off and give ’em here.’
Ignoring her, he walked on and with a heavy heart went in search of friends and a good bottle of wine.
The streets of Coimbra were not unlike those of Lisbon. Beautiful yet vile. Most of the townspeople had retired inside for the night, although here and there at the cafes men sat playing dice and backgammon. While the rank and file had been confined to the camp down in the valley, the better class of British officers had, as was their custom, chosen to make their temporary homes in the houses of the town. He had been told by Grant that the finer houses were on the upper part of the hill and so he climbed now in search of a mess that might offer him some hospitality. The artillery had been a good suggestion. He had never found their hospitality wanting and there was even a chance that an old friend might be here.
At length, close to eight o’clock, at the end of a cobbled street near to the palace, he found a merchant’s house, simple and with a single balcony. Outside, an artilleryman armed with a musket stood guard. Keen nodded to him and entered, hoping for a welcome.
What he found was beyond anything he could have wished for.
For there, sitting on a chair in the entrance hall outside the mess room proper, he found the man whom he could call his oldest friend in the army. Wanting for money like himself and thus still a lowly lieutenant, Tom Morris of the Royal Horse Artillery was nevertheless a legend on the battlefield. The man who had killed twelve French alone at Alexandria and who at Maida had single-handedly rallied the 78th. At present, though, he was content to be sitting outside the mess sipping a glass of madeira and playing with his dog, a terrier named Hercules.
Seeing Keane, he leaped from his chair. ‘James? What news? They say you were called to see Wellesley?’
‘Well then, what news? Why did he ask for you? They say you’re appointed to the staff.’
Keane nodded. ‘Yes, that’s right. And removed from it.’
‘Removed? How “removed”? How’s that?’
‘I’m to be given a command.’
‘James, what luck! What are you to have? A company? Is it with the 27th? Not the Devil’s Own, the 88th?’
Keane shook his head.
‘With whom, then? It is promotion?’
‘Yes, I am to be promoted captain.’ He paused. ‘I’m to be an exploring officer.’
Morris frowned. ‘Oh. I see. How then can you have a command?’
‘I’m to have a platoon. Or rather, a troop. We are to be mounted. We operate behind the enemy.’
Morris shook his head. ‘I am sorry for you, old friend. That’s not real soldiering.’
‘Yes, I know. I had wondered whether I might still be welcome in any mess, or indeed quite to what part of our military family I now belong.’
‘Don’t talk such rot, James. Did Wellesley know of the duel? And Simpson?’
‘Oh yes. He gave me no respite on that count. D’you know Blackwood’s father is an old friend of his?’
‘I say, that’s bad luck. But he still promoted you.’
‘Yes. I’m still attempting to fathom it out. It is not what I would have wished, Tom, but it is what I must do, it seems, if I am to survive in this army. I thought I would be cashiered, on account of Simpson’s death. But this. Promotion, for God’s sake. With a captaincy.’ He laughed. ‘Now you must call me ‘sir’. Come on, let’s celebrate. But no fuss.’
Together they entered the mess, which contained a dozen officers. Finding a soldier-servant, Keane managed to get a bottle of the local wine left behind by the French. Morris walked across to one of the drums, which had been laid in the mess as was the custom, and before Keane could stop him was thumping on it with his fist, silencing the room.
‘Lieutenant Keane has expressed his desire to buy a drink for every officer present on the occasion of his captaincy.’
There was chorus of hurrahs. Several of the officers, two from his own regiment, clapped him on the back. Another, though, in the dark-blue uniform of an officer of the Light Dragoons, approached him more slowly.
‘Well done, Keane. Well, well. This is a surprise. When I heard you had been called for, I presumed the worst: that the commander meant to ask for your sword.’
‘No, Blackwood. I’m promoted. I didn’t expect your congratulations.’
‘Sorry, did I offer them? My mistake. Tell me, Keane, to what regiment you might be gazetted captain? The Guards?’
‘No. As a matter of fact, I am to be close to the general. An exploring officer.’
Blackwood laughed and repeated the words, slowly. ‘Exploring officer. Well, that’s better than I could have wished. Of course I expected nothing more from you, Keane. It seems fitting that you should end up playing the spy. It is not a gentleman’s work. But then you are not—’
Morris spoke. ‘I’ll thank you to hold your tongue, Blackwood.’
‘Why should I, Mr Morris? We all know his position. It is only he himself, it seems, who does not. Besides, lieutenant, I have no quarrel with you.’
Keane snarled, ‘But you do have a quarrel with me. Hold your tongue, Blackwood.’
‘Or what will you do? You have already refused my challenge. You kill my friend but you would not dare to call me out, now that you are become Wellesley’s lapdog.’
‘You’ll regret that, Blackwood. In another place.’
‘Perhaps I shall find you first, sir. But I’ll take your drink, Captain Keane. Very generous of you. I know how much it must mean to one with such a meagre purse.’
Morris put a hand on Keane’s shoulder and led him away. ‘Let it go, James. He’s not worth it. His time will come. Such an officer is the first to fall when the French are his enemy. Either from their fire, or more likely a bullet in the back.’
Keane smiled. ‘You’re right. He’s not worth it. Thank you, Tom. As always you cool my temper. Although I think you have done yourself no favours here with Blackwood and his cronies.’
‘It’s of no matter. Besides, I’d have done the same for anyone. But in your case and with him, it was a real pleasure, James.’
He paused. ‘A toast. Captain Keane.’
Both men drained their glasses and then Morris spoke again. ‘I can’t help but admit, though, that without your company in the mess I shall feel a little awkward.’
Keane looked him in the eyes. ‘Come with me, then.’
‘Come with me. I’m at liberty to recruit whosoever I will. I need a lieutenant and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have. I know it might not be the most honourable of roles, but I can guarantee any amount of diversions. Accept?’
Morris shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I hadn’t thought.’
‘Yes, of course. If you need me, of course I’ll come with you. I’ll have to talk to my colonel. But if it’s at Wellesley’s orders—’
There was a sudden commotion from the other side of the room. They looked across and saw Blackwood among his friends. He had gone red in the face and was spitting on the floor where he had already regurgitated the contents of his glass.
He pointed at Keane. ‘Keane, this is your doing. Trying to poison me. You saw it, all of you. He tried to poison me.’ He spat more wine onto the floor. And opening his eyes, found himself staring at the highly polished boots of the adjutant of the 23rd Light Dragoons, Blackwood’s own regiment. Blackwood straightened up and wiped his mouth as the adjutant spoke.
‘Lieutenant Blackwood, what are you doing, sir? You are a disgrace to the mess.’
Keane and Morris turned away, stifling their laughter as Blackwood tried to speak. ‘He tried to poison me, sir.’ Blackwood pointed at Keane.
‘Who? That officer? How could he? Don’t be absurd.’
Keane, looking appropriately concerned, shook his head. The mess steward stepped forward, close to Keane. He spoke with a Scots accent, ‘Must have been a bad barrel, sir. Sometimes gets that way. In the heat, major. Shall I pour another glass for the lieutenant, sir?’
The adjutant shook his head. ‘No, I think he’s had enough.
Mr Blackwood, you will excuse yourself. Attend me at regimental orders.’
As Blackwood hurried from the room on the heels of the adjutant, Keane noticed an area on the right sleeve of the mess steward’s coat where the scarlet had not yet faded to brick red. Three chevrons.
Keane looked at him. He was a huge man, with brown eyes and a mop of dark hair set above a face that looked as if it might have collided with an artillery limber. ‘Don’t I know you?’
‘Couldn’t say, sir.’
‘I do know you. Sergeant Ross of the 42nd. You saved the colours at Alexandria. What the devil are you doing here? And where are your stripes?’
‘Broken to the ranks, sir. Thieving. Though I was only taking back what was rightfully mine. My French medal, sir. Got in Egypt. Private MacGregor claimed he won it at cards, sir. But it wasn’t won. He thieved it. So I just took it back. He never knew. Would have been fine an’ all, if his missus hadn’t taken a fancy to me. I won in the end, though. Put him in the frame, sir. In the hulks now, he is. That’ll teach him.’
‘I hope it was worth it, Ross. Whatever your revenge was.’
‘Worth every minute, sir. Though I can’t deny I do regret losing my stripes.’
Keane swirled the wine around in his glass and took a sip. ‘What was it exactly that you put in Lieutenant Blackwood’s wine?’
‘Just some vinegar, sir. Well, that and perhaps a pinch of baking soda. Old trick. Couldn’t let him leave with the upper hand over you, sir. Not in my nature. Old Egypt and all that.’
‘Thank you, Ross. I hope you don’t suffer for it.’
‘No matter, sir. Worth it just to see him choke.’
Keane smiled at him. ‘What would you say if I offered you your stripes back?’
‘I’d ask you kindly, sir, not to tease an old soldier.’
‘No, Ross. Really. I can do it. On the highest authority. You’re wasted here and I can use a man like you. What do you say? Will you come with me and Mister Morris here? Though I’m not sure where we’re going.’
Ross grinned. ‘For my stripes back, sir, I’d follow you to Bonaparte himself, right through the gates of bloody hell.’
Keane laughed. ‘That’s settled, then. Though I don’t think we’ll be going that far, sarn’t. Will we, Mister Morris?’
Morris smiled and shook his head. But in his own mind, Keane was not quite so sure.
Excerpted from Keane’s Company by Iain Gale. Copyright © 2013 by Iain Gale.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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