“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 2

Apologies for being a day late, but I couldn’t access the blog yesterday. So here is Part 2 of Comedy Walcheren 1809. (For disclaimer and further context, see Part 1.)

***

[After the fall of Flushing, August 1809]

flushing_after_bombardment

Flushing after the bombardment, from here

COOTE: Right. That went swimmingly. Shall we send in some commissioners to negotiate the surrender of the city? I thought, since the siege was my responsibility, we might send in two members of my staff.

 

CHATHAM: The Admiral’s going to have to send someone in too, isn’t he?

COOTE: I’m afraid it can’t be helped. He’s chosen Captain Cockburn.

CHATHAM: Well, we can’t let him get one over on us. We need a full colonel.

COOTE: …. but I haven’t got any full colonels on my staff.

CHATHAM: Then we’ll have to send in one of mine. Colonel Long will do.

Robert_Ballard_Long_(1771-1825)

Robert Ballard Long (wikipedia)

COOTE [staring at him]: But … but I was in charge.

CHATHAM: So we’re agreed, I’ll send in Colonel Long.

[Sound of running from a distance; gets closer and closer and closer, until…]

STRACHAN [breathless]: I’M HERE! Did I miss anything?

CHATHAM: Ah, Sir Richard. I trust your boat isn’t too damaged.

STRACHAN: Ship. And I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

CHATHAM: Of course you don’t. [BROWNRIGG looks meaningfully at CHATHAM] [Long pause] [CHATHAM looks like he’s struggling with himself, then says, through gritted teeth] You and your men did a splendid job.

STRACHAN [beaming]: Thanks, Johnboy.

CHATHAM: Now we’ve sent our commissioners, and we wait to find out what terms the French will accept to surrender.

COCKBURN: Admiral. My lord. The city has surrendered. Here are the terms.

CHATHAM: Excellent. The entire garrison is becoming prisoners of war; we can take possession of the city as soon as they have evacuated.

STRACHAN: And then do we press on to Antwerp?

CHATHAM: Have you got my men and ordnance supplies through the Sloe Passage yet?

STRACHAN: …………… Oh goodness, is that the time? I really must be off; appointment in Batz, don’t you know. [Runs off at full speed]

CHATHAM [calling after him]: I suppose not, then.

COOTE: Here are the orders of the day for tomorrow, when the French will march out of Flushing and pile their arms. [pause] After that, my lord … you are going to South Beveland, yes? And on to Antwerp?

south beveland

South Beveland

CHATHAM: Well, those are my orders.

COOTE [visibly excited now]: Oh, I can’t wait to lay siege to another city!

CHATHAM: You’re not going. You need to stay here and garrison Walcheren.

COOTE: But you said—

CHATHAM: You said you wanted to be in charge here, yes? Well, now’s your chance.

COOTE: If you say so, sir. [whispers as he retreats] Bastard.

STRACHAN [coming back in]: What’s his problem?

CHATHAM: Indigestion. Got your ship off that rock yet?

STRACHAN: You’re never letting me live that down, are you?

CHATHAM: No. So. Are my men through the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Wow. I really keep forgetting these meetings with Sir Home Popham. Really must get a better grip of my schedule. [zips off]

[Next day, outside Flushing]

COOTE: Men! Salute! [Men salute] [COOTE consults watch] Where is he? It’s eight o’clock already.

BROWNRIGG: Did you really expect him to be on time?

COOTE: I mean, the French are over there waiting. It’s getting hot.

BROWNRIGG: You did say seven in the morning, General.

[Men still salute; starting to look a little constipated now]

COOTE: Oh for goodness’ sake, at ease. I don’t think he’s coming any time soon. Are you sure he’s coming at all?

BROWNRIGG: Here he is now.

[CHATHAM and his suite turn up, crisp and fresh. Everyone else glares at them, dripping with sweat.]

CHATHAM: Well, where are the French? What are you waiting for?

COOTE: I can’t imagine.

CHATHAM: Let’s get them marching, then. We haven’t got all day.

[French march out. Rather ragged. They lay their arms at CHATHAM’s feet.]

COOTE: Well, that’s them gone. [hopefully, to CHATHAM] Are you going now, too?

CHATHAM: Yes, as soon as I—

COOTE: I’ve already packed your bags.

CHATHAM:—that’s kind.

COOTE: And loaded them up. In fact, I sent your baggage train out of Middelburg yesterday. It’s waiting for you at Arnemuiden.

CHATHAM: You really shouldn’t have bothered.

COOTE: No, no, I really, really wanted to help. Shall I have your horse saddled?

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone going to South Beveland for a day or so. A letter’s just come from the Treasury. They’re refusing to send us any more money to pay the troops.

[COOTE slopes off, cursing]

CHATHAM: What? Let me see that. [Snatches letter off BROWNRIGG] ‘Dear General Brownrigg, No, you can’t have any more money. We haven’t got any. Take it off the local population—you’ve conquered them, after all, and they should be expecting it. Now get on with it, I feel I’ll have grown a beard before Flushing finally falls. Yours sincerely, Huskisson.’ Argh, the fool! Fetch me my writing desk.

Im1894OurRail1-Huskisson

BROWNRIGG: Certainly, sir.

CHATHAM [writes]: ‘Dear Mr Huskisson, the island of Walcheren has surrendered to us, and we really shouldn’t set a bad example by taking all their gold, especially when they have to feed us and keep a roof over our heads. The men haven’t been paid for a week and are starting to get restless. Please send us some money before they mutiny, and furthermore you’re an idiot. Sincerely yours, Chatham.’

BROWNRIGG: Looks fine, sir. Well done.

CHATHAM: Right then, I’m off to South Beveland. Not that we can go far; the ordnance supplies are still stuck in the Sloe. What in the name of all that’s holy is the Admiral doing?

BROWNRIGG: …. I did hear a rumour—

CHATHAM: What?

BROWNRIGG: Nothing of significance. Only … only I heard someone say Strachan had asked Lord Rosslyn if he’d consider sending the troops on South Beveland under his command on to Antwerp…

CHATHAM: WHAT?!

BROWNRIGG: I know, he should have asked you first.

CHATHAM: THIS IS A BLATANT USURPATION OF MY PREROGATIVE AS COMMANDER OF THE FORCES!

BROWNRIGG: Yes, I know, but—

CHATHAM: I SHALL NEVER SPEAK TO THE MAN AGAIN!

BROWNRIGG: You might have to.

CHATHAM: WHY?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re engaged in a joint concern with him. He’s also standing right behind you.

STRACHAN: Hey, Johnboy, Sir Home Popham says we probably ought to move it before the 30,000 French reinforcements headed for the Scheldt basin make it here. Could you—

CHATHAM: HANDS OFF MY TROOPS!

STRACHAN: … I haven’t touched them?

CHATHAM: NOBODY IS GOING TO ANTWERP WITHOUT MY SAY-SO. NOT EVEN LORD ROSSLYN’S MEN.

STRACHAN: …. Ah. About that—[CHATHAM brushes past him, almost knocking him over] Bastard.

BROWNRIGG: Well, you did try to go over his head and press on to Antwerp without him. What did you expect?

STRACHAN: We could be here all year if I waited for him.

BROWNRIGG: He’s on his way. How are the transports in the Sloe?

STRACHAN: Dear God, I have another appointment. How do I manage to forget about so many of them? [Disappears]

COLONEL LONG: General Brownrigg, we have a problem.

BROWNRIGG: What, another one?

COLONEL LONG: Er, this one’s a biggie. Take a look at these sick returns. [Hands BROWNRIGG a paper]

BROWNRIGG: So what? We always have some sickness on campaigns. This weekly report suggests sickness is a little higher than usual, but nothing we can’t handle.

COLONEL LONG: That’s not a weekly sick return. That’s the sick since yesterday evening.

sick list

Johnny on the Sick List, Thomas Rowlandson (from here)

BROWNRIGG: Seriously?! [Looks at document] [Stares at it some more] [Long pause] Shit.

COLONEL LONG: That’s the same thing I said.

BROWNRIGG: Keep an eye on it. It may be nothing.

[Next day, on South Beveland]

CHATHAM: Well, this is nice.

BROWNRIGG: Here are Lord Rosslyn and Sir John Hope.

ROSSLYN: Welcome to South Beveland, Lord Chatham. Happy to report absolutely zero chance of our getting to Antwerp now. Thirty thousand Frenchmen between here and the city. To press on would be madness. Plus, we’re starting to get a lot of sick.

expedition birds eye view antwerp

CHATHAM: That many? Nobody’s sick on Walcheren.

BROWNRIGG: Um.

CHATHAM: You mean you knew about this? How long has this been going on for?

BROWNRIGG: A few days, I think.

CHATHAM: May I see your sick returns? [ROSSLYN hands them over] These aren’t so bad. I mean, 300 since the beginning of the campaign is—

ROSSLYN: Three hundred today, my lord.

CHATHAM: Today?!

ROSSLYN: Yes. We’ve had pretty much that many sick every day for the last week.

CHATHAM:

BROWNRIGG: Erm. And on Walcheren.

CHATHAM:

STRACHAN [dashing up, breathlessly]: Here I am! I heard you wanted to see me, Rosslyn, old boy? Are we going to Antwerp then? I—hello, what’s he doing here?

CHATHAM: My word, is somebody talking?

STRACHAN: He seems to have gone deaf. JOHNBOY CAN YOU HEAR ME

CHATHAM: I think it may be the wind.

STRACHAN: Must have been the bombardment. Has that effect on some people, loud noises. Bursts their eardrums. I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE YOUR EARS CLEANED OUT

BROWNRIGG: Strachan, just leave it, he’ll be fine.

ROSSLYN: What is it, Admiral?

STRACHAN: Now he’s here [points at CHATHAM, who flinches], I guess we’re all going up to Antwerp now? Eh? Eh?

BROWNRIGG: And the ordnance supplies in the Sloe?

STRACHAN [proudly]: They’re all here. Look! They arrived this morning. I guess this means we’re ready, yes? [silence] [longer silence] [STRACHAN looks worried] Yes?

BROWNRIGG: Now here’s the thing. You know when we last spoke of taking Antwerp, before Flushing fell?

STRACHAN: Of course.

BROWNRIGG: When there weren’t nearly so many French in the Scheldt basin?

STRACHAN: Yes, but—

BROWNRIGG: Nor was sickness tearing through the army at an alarming rate?

walcheren_sick

Evacuation of Suid-Beveland, 30 August 1809 (from here)

STRACHAN: I heard rumours about that, but aren’t we—

CHATHAM: NO. No, we bloody well are not.

STRACHAN:

CHATHAM: Our men got stuck in the Sloe and we missed our chance. You bastard.

STRACHAN: Well, if you’d hurried up with the siege of Flushing—

CHATHAM: I bloody well would have done had you got your BLEEDING ships through the BLEEDING Deurloo and into the West Scheldt!

STRACHAN: Well, if Lord BLEEDING Chatham had taken adverse wind into account—

CHATHAM: I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE ABOUT WIND!

BROWNRIGG [to ROSSLYN]: I rather preferred it when they weren’t talking.

STRACHAN:—what did you expect us to do, pull the boats down the river on a piece of string?

CHATHAM: I EXPECTED YOU TO GET ME TO SANDVLIET YOU FOOL

STRACHAN: WELL I CAN’T CONTROL THE WEATHER—CAN YOU?

CHATHAM: I’LL SHOW YOU WEATHER IF YOU COME ANY CLOSER

BROWNRIGG [hastily]: My lord, I think you should go and have a rest. Admiral, perhaps … a walk? In the fresh air? [The naval and army commander leave the room; BROWNRIGG looks at ROSSLYN] Jesus Christ.

ROSSLYN: I know. As though sickness wasn’t enough, eh?

[Later]

LONG: General Brownrigg, the latest Gazette has just come in.

gazette

BROWNRIGG: Oh splendid. I wonder what—BUGGER

LONG: What is it?

BROWNRIGG: Did you read Strachan’s letter?

LONG [reads]: ‘I wanted to keep going on to Antwerp, but the generals were all against. I had the fleet ready to take us there and the army said no.’ Oh my god.

BROWNRIGG: He’s trying to play the army off against the navy.

LONG: And pin the blame on Lord Chatham.

BROWNRIGG: Has His Lordship seen this?

LONG: Are you going to tell him?

BROWNRIGG: Maybe you should.

LONG: You’re QMG.

BROWNRIGG: You’re Adjutant General. You deal with the correspondence.

LONG: You usually do the letters home, though.

BROWNRIGG: I’m senior to you. I order you to tell him.

LONG: You bastard. [enters CHATHAM’s room] Your Lordship?

CHATHAM [writing; doesn’t look up]: Yes?

LONG: The Gazette has arrived.

CHATHAM: Mmhmm.

LONG: There’s a really nice bit in it reprinting your last dispatch. [pause; really fast] And Sir Richard Strachan’s written a letter blaming the failure of the campaign on the army and exonerating the navy from all responsibility. [more slowly] And some stuff about the fall of Flushing.

CHATHAM: Very good, I—hang on, what?

LONG: It’s not as bad as it sounds—

CHATHAM [reading]): No, it bloody is as bad as it sounds.

LONG: I’m sure he didn’t mean it. The Admiral—

CHATHAM: —is a dead man. BROWNRIGG! [BROWNRIGG hurries in] Have you seen this?

BROWNRIGG: It’s not as bad as it looks, my lord—I’m sure he didn’t mean it—

CHATHAM: Get the Admiral in at once! And get rid of the awful echo here!

BROWNRIGG: I had already thought to summon him, my lord, but nobody can find him. I got a letter from him saying he wasn’t feeling well and had gone off to get some fresh air. I hope he hasn’t got the prevailing fever.

CHATHAM: I really hope he has.

BROWNRIGG: And, er, sir, I—

CHATHAM: What now?

BROWNRIGG: These newspapers came from home too.

[CHATHAM reads in silence] [his face changes]

BROWNRIGG: They’re not very complimentary, are they?

CHATHAM: This one actually calls for my court martial.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sure you’ve had worse.

CHATHAM: This one calls me an indolent, effete idiot unfit for public business.

BROWNRIGG: My goodness, those journalists are scamps.

AN00079358_001_l

Just one example of a print showing a sailor (far left) complaining Chatham’s army directly caused the failure of the expedition (From here)

CHATHAM: If there’s any more bad news, tell me now, because I think I’m going to burst a blood vessel, so we might as well make my death a clean one.

BROWNRIGG: Well, there is … one thing. Apparently the Duke of Portland’s had a stroke.

CHATHAM: He’s resigned over ill health?

BROWNRIGG: No, he recovered. But then Canning found out the expedition was over and said Portland had promised to fire Castlereagh from the War Department if the campaign failed. Castlereagh found out. They both resigned. There was a duel.

CHATHAM: Please tell me one of them died. No. Better. Please tell me they both died.

BROWNRIGG: Castlereagh shot Canning in the—erm. The thigh?

CHATHAM: Not quite as good as if he’d killed him, but my day is looking up.

BROWNRIGG: Unfortunately they took the government down with them. Portland left office.

CHATHAM: Who replaced him?

BROWNRIGG: Spencer Perceval.

CHATHAM: Bugger. He hates me. [Pause] Please find me the Admiral. I need to shout at someone.

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, my lord, I really can’t—

CHATHAM: STRACHAN!

POPHAM [comes in]: I’m afraid he’s not here, my lord. He’s ill.

CHATHAM: How sad. Is it the wrong wind again?

POPHAM: No, he’s just ill.

CHATHAM: Conveniently so. Tell him if he wants a proper illness, I’ll gladly break both his legs for him.

POPHAM: I’ll be sure to pass on the message.

[CHATHAM exits]

STRACHAN [poking head out of a vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

POPHAM: Soon. He sails tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Good, because it’s a bit cramped in here.

464487583

Yet another print showing Strachan (far left) blaming Chatham for the expedition’s failure

[Next day]

CHATHAM: Come Brownrigg, time to say farewell to this place. We have had good times here, have we not? Glory, victory, and memories to last a lifetime. Oh—who’m I kidding? The place is a disease-ridden dunghole. Sir Eyre Coote, have fun without me. [Runs up gangplank and disappears]

COOTE: Thanks for nothing. [Turns back] Now, all we have to do is survive until we get called home, and all will be well.

[Stares at troops. As he watches, several fall down on the spot]

COOTE [brightly]: Here’s the intrepid warrior, facing certain death from disease on a godforsaken island with 16,000 men, half of whom are already ill. What could possibly go wrong?

STRACHAN [distantly, from vase]: Is it safe to come out yet?

 

“Comedy Walcheren” 1809, part 1

Now before you yell at me at once, some context. Bear with me.

I wrote this after finishing The Late Lord. I felt like an emotional punch-bag; it turns out writing a biography and getting into someone’s head is an all-consuming thing, particularly when the story you’re telling is quite depressing in parts. ‘Comedy Walcheren’ was intended as a kind of exorcism to get rid of the demons I had invited into my head, effectively by laughing at them.

It’s not meant to be serious, and I hope I have been respectful of a topic that isn’t, frankly, very amusing. But it also seemed to me that the whole Walcheren debacle had elements of farce to it — and I really, really, really needed to laugh.

I’m told this has good bits, so I have decided to release it into the public domain (inspired by my good friend Lynn Bryant’s recent blog on the battle of Tenerife, which was very much written in the same spirit).

So here it is … enjoy. And please don’t kill me. (Further warning: mostly written in English, but also contains some … mild Anglo-Saxon)

***

COMEDY WALCHEREN: PART 1

[Scene: London, 1809]

external-content.duckduckgo.com

Lord Castlereagh

CASTLEREAGH: So lads at Horse Guards … if I were to suggest joining Austria in the Fifth Coalition by organising an expedition to the Scheldt—nothing fancy, let’s call it a coup de main—with the aim of taking Antwerp and destroying the French and Dutch fleet at Flushing, what would you say?

COLONEL GORDON: Frankly, I’d say you were nuts.

CASTLEREAGH: But do you think it’s impossible?

ALEXANDER HOPE: I wouldn’t say impossible, exactly, but—

CASTLEREAGH: Wonderful. I knew you’d love the plan. Commander-in-Chief, when can we have—oh, 20,000 men ready?

GENERAL DUNDAS: I thought you said it was ‘nothing fancy’?

CASTLEREAGH: That’s precisely what I said, yes. Better make it 30,000 to be sure.

GENERAL DUNDAS: You’ll need to move quickly, or the French will just pull all their ships upriver.

CASTLEREAGH: We’ll be a blur. I’ll expect my 40,000 men by June. [To LORD MULGRAVE] I say, I don’t suppose you can provide me with 600 ships, can you?

fortifications_antwerp

MULGRAVE: What in the name of all that’s holy are you going to do with 600 ships?

CASTLEREAGH: Take Antwerp. Do you have them?

MULGRAVE: You know Antwerp is up a very narrow river and heavily guarded by the French, don’t you?

CASTLEREAGH: Possibly heavily guarded by the French. We’re not too clear on that bit. So. Six hundred ships?

MULGRAVE: I’ll see what I can do. Who’s commanding the military bit?

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. [To LORD CHATHAM] You up, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Of course I’m up. What’s the matter? Need another 40,000 muskets we haven’t got to send to Portugal at short notice?

chathamturner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

CASTLEREAGH: Not this time. I was thinking … you know that expedition we’re planning? We need a commander for it. Nobody else wants to do it  I can’t find anyone else to do it Will you do it?

CHATHAM: Will I what?

CASTLEREAGH: Oh go on. It’ll be easy, maybe even fun.

CHATHAM:

CASTLEREAGH: Do I really have to remind you that you haven’t done a bally thing since the Helder Expedition in 1799? Tick tock tick tock, and all that.

CHATHAM: Oh all right. Dammit.

CASTLEREAGH: Good man. It’ll be fine. The defences of Antwerp are very weak. At least they were in 1794.

CHATHAM: Fifteen years ago?

CASTLEREAGH: Look, the French have been a bit busy elsewhere. I’ve heard they’ve done nothing to Antwerp since then.

CHATHAM: Who told you that?

CASTLEREAGH: Sir Home Popham. Here, let me introduce you. Popham, this is Lord Chatham. Tell him how easy it will be to get to Antwerp.

POPHAM: Hi! Oh, it’ll be easy. But you need to move quickly.

CASTLEREAGH: Oh, Chatham’ll move quickly. Won’t you, Chatham?

CHATHAM: Whatever.

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham

POPHAM: Excellent. I have a cunning plan. We take our 40,000 men and divide them into three forces. One goes to Cadzand and disables the batteries there. The other lands on Walcheren and masks Flushing from the land, while the navy completes the blockade by sea. The last lot go ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP up the West Scheldt to Sandvliet. The navy follows them, covering them to Antwerp. It’ll take a week at most: the French’ll never know what hit them.

CHATHAM:

POPHAM: I know, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? I amaze myself sometimes.

CHATHAM: So who’s commanding the naval bit? Surely not Captain Fancy-Pants here?

POPHAM: Hey!

CASTLEREAGH: Good question. Hold on… [to MULGRAVE] Who’ve you picked?

MULGRAVE: Sir Richard Strachan.

CASTLEREAGH: OK…… although he’s never done anything like this, has he?

MULGRAVE: Doesn’t matter. He’s been off Holland for ages. Knows the waters really well. Er. The bits we’ve been able to get to, anyway. Plus he’s impulsive, and speed is of the essence. Who’ve you picked?

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

CASTLEREAGH: Lord Chatham.

MULGRAVE: Lord Chatham?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: LORD CHATHAM?

CASTLEREAGH: Yes.

MULGRAVE: The guy’s never been on time to a cabinet once in 20 years and you want to send him on a pre-emptive raid to Antwerp?

CASTLEREAGH: It’s a foolproof plan.

MULGRAVE: It had better be.

[Later]

CASTLEREAGH: Chatham, this is Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan, Lord Chatham.

CHATHAM: Hello.

STRACHAN: Hi!

CASTLEREAGH: So the 40,000 men and 600 boats are ready. Are you ready?

464487583_detail

Sir Richard Strachan (detail from “The Grand Duke of Middleburg”, caricature, 1809)

STRACHAN: Yeah!!!!! All ready to go!

CHATHAM: Whatever.

STRACHAN: Oh come on Johnboy, this is going to be SO MUCH FUN. Let’s go get ’em!

CHATHAM: Don’t call me Johnboy ever again. [To General BROWNRIGG] General Brownrigg?

BROWNRIGG: Yes?

CHATHAM: You’re my Chief of Staff, right?

BROWNRIGG: Sure am.

CHATHAM: Why have I got all this paperwork?

BROWNRIGG: Well, you’re—

CHATHAM: Deal with it please. I need a nap. No wait, hang on a moment. Here comes Sir Huge Plopham.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: Whatever.

POPHAM: Hey guys! Are you ready to go? The wind has finally changed and Sir Eyre Coote has arrived from Portsmouth.

Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century. [By Archibald Forbes, Major Arthur Griffiths, and others.]

Sir Eyre Coote, from Wikipedia

COOTE [out of breath]: I’m here!

STRACHAN: About bloody time. Are we going yet?

CHATHAM: Yes, we can go now.

CASTLEREAGH: Er guys….

CHATHAM: What?

CASTLEREAGH: I hate to say this, but… er… there’s been some bad news…

CHATHAM: What’s up?

CASTLEREAGH: The Austrians have been heavily defeated at Wagram. They’re out of the war.

CHATHAM: Bugger. Now what?

CASTLEREAGH: Keep going. Your victory will help keep Austria in the war, most probably.

[At sea]

STRACHAN: So we’re FINALLY underway. I can’t wait to engage the French on the open seas.

CHATHAM: What makes you think they’ll come out to find us?

STRACHAN: Of course they will. Why would they stay holed up behind Antwerp, where they’re safe?

CHATHAM: Why indeed?

STRACHAN: Exactly.

CHATHAM: This boat moves a lot.

STRACHAN: Ship. They do that.

stormatsea

Storm at sea, from here

POPHAM: Admiral, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a storm starting up… pesky south-westerly wind.

CHATHAM: Any way to stop this boat moving so much?

STRACHAN: Ship. And no. Didn’t you learn anything when you were First Lord of the Admiralty?

POPHAM: We can’t land at Domburg. I could try and get the fleet into the Roompot…

STRACHAN: Sounds like a fine plan. What’s the Roompot?

POPHAM: Oh, it’s a sheltered area to the north-east of the island.

STRACHAN: Fabulous. Let’s do it.

POPHAM: We’d have to get through the Veere Gat, though. It’s a pretty narrow channel but I think I can do it.

Annotation 2020-02-24 143205

Map of the 1809 Walcheren expedition drawn by Martin Brown

CHATHAM: Won’t we end up on the wrong side of the island? This is the East Scheldt. We’re supposed to go down the West Scheldt, remember?

STRACHAN: I’m sure we can get from the East Scheldt to the West Scheldt. Isn’t there a passage between them, Popham? Between Walcheren and South Beveland?

POPHAM: Yes, the Sloe. But—

STRACHAN: There you go then.

POPHAM: But the Sloe is very—

STRACHAN: Popham? Just do it.

[Some time later, on Walcheren]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View towards Middelburg from the dyke above Zouteland Bay

COOTE: Here is the intrepid warrior, landing on the enemy shore, about to deal the French bastards a stinging blow round the—

CHATHAM: Hello.

COOTE: Aaargh! What the hell are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be sailing down the West Scheldt to Sandvliet!

CHATHAM: Change of plan. Where are the Frogs then?

COOTE: The enemy are falling back on Veere. We’ve taken Fort Den Haak.

CHATHAM: Jolly good. Reorganise the rest of the men into four columns.

COOTE: ………….. I’m meant to be in charge here.

CHATHAM: Fine. I’m just waiting till Strachan can get his ships into the West Scheldt. Don’t worry, I won’t get in the way. Carry on—I’m off to bed.

COOTE: Yes sir. [To BROWNRIGG] What the actual frick is he doing here?

BROWNRIGG: He told you. He’s waiting for Strachan to get his ships into the West Scheldt.

COOTE: How long will that bloody well take?! While he stays here on the island I’m outranked!

[Outside the town of Veere]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Veere, by the canal

GENERAL MACKENZIE FRASER: Popham! Bring your boats round, won’t you? We could do with some extra ammunition…

POPHAM: Righto!

[Huge explosions]

STRACHAN: Popham, what’re you doing?!

POPHAM: General Mackenzie Fraser asked me to—

STRACHAN: I don’t care what he asked you to do! Stop it at once!

POPHAM: But I—

STRACHAN: AT! ONCE!

POPHAM: Okay, okay, don’t burst a blood vessel.

STRACHAN: CHATHAM!

CHATHAM: Yes?

STRACHAN: MY GUNBOATS!

CHATHAM: What about them?

STRACHAN: YOU ORDERED THEM TO BOMBARD VEERE!

CHATHAM: Did I?

STRACHAN: STICK TO SOLDIERING AND LEAVE MY BOATS ALONE!

CHATHAM: Ships.

STRACHAN: THESE ONES ARE BOATS!

CHATHAM: Look, I’m sorry.

STRACHAN: DON’T DO IT AGAIN!

CHATHAM: Bastard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Middelburg Abbey

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham, the capital, Middelburg, has surrendered. Sir John Hope has taken South Beveland, and Fort Rammekens has fallen, opening the Sloe Passage. All Walcheren is ours except Flushing.

CHATHAM: Excellent. General Coote, start building six batteries around Flushing. [To BROWNRIGG] I think I’ll leave Coote to get on with it and stop here in Middelburg. It’s rather nice here.

BROWNRIGG: It’s still four miles from Flushing.

CHATHAM: Oh, don’t fret. Once Lord Huntly has landed on Cadzand and disabled the French batteries there, we don’t need to care about Flushing. Strachan will get his ships down the West Scheldt in no time.

[Off Cadzand]

HUNTLY: Bugger me, this wind is blowing rather strong!

OWEN: No way we can land in this wind, my lord!

HUNTLY: Fine. We can land my 2,000 men tomorrow.

OWEN: ……….. Two thousand men? You mean 600, no?!

huntly

Lord Huntly (wikipedia)

HUNTLY: What?

OWEN: I only have boats for 600.

HUNTLY: ………… Will Lord Gardner lend you some?

OWEN: Gardner!

GARDNER [distantly]: What?

OWEN: We need some boats!

GARDNER [distantly]: Bugger off! They’re mine!

OWEN [to HUNTLY]: How many men can you see on Cadzand?

[HUNTLY gazes through telescope.]

HUNTLY: I’d say about 1,800, and those are the ones I can see. [Short pause] Screw this. Let’s land on South Beveland instead.

[Back on Walcheren]

BROWNRIGG: Lord Chatham! Lord Huntly has failed to land on Cadzand.

CHATHAM: Damn. We won’t be able to get the ships down the West Scheldt now.

STRACHAN: Don’t fret. We’ll get them through the Sloe.

CHATHAM: Yes, about that—

STRACHAN: Never mind that now, here comes Sir Eyre Coote.

COOTE: The French are getting reinforcements into Flushing from Cadzand and the navy can’t stop them!

STRACHAN: Look, look, don’t worry. We’ll block the French reinforcements.

flushing_map

Map of the siege of Flushing, drawn by Martin Brown

COOTE: Now would be good!

STRACHAN: Can’t do now. Sorry. I’ll get round to it when the wind changes, okay?

COOTE: Look! More just came in!

STRACHAN: Calm down. It’s just a couple of thousand.

CHATHAM: Coote, you’re just going to have to get on with those batteries. It’s been nearly a week.

COOTE: YOU get the sodding engineers to get a move on!

CHATHAM: All right then. I will.

COOTE: ………… I’m going to go and sulk. [slinks off]

CHATHAM: Right then. Colonel Fyers is in charge of the engineers. Colonel Fyers. Report, please.

FYERS: We’re pretty much done, sir. So long as it doesn’t rain, we can open today in a couple of hou— [ENORMOUSLY LOUD THUNDERCLAP] [rain drums off the ground] —bugger.

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Vlissingen Harbour

COOTE: Lord Chatham, the rain’s washed away several of our batteries. I don’t think we can start till tomorrow now.

BROWNRIGG: Erm. My feet seem to be getting wet.

CHATHAM: Probably just the rain.

COOTE: Oh yes, I forgot to mention. The enemy’s cut the dykes. It’s OK, we can open the sluices at Middelburg. But you might want to wear tall boots for a while.

BROWNRIGG: A chair, your Lordship.

CHATHAM: Thank you. [climbs up]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Watch out—I’m coming through!

CHATHAM: What? [Loud cannonade] [cannonballs whistle through the air] [much shouting and chaos] What the hell was that?

BROWNRIGG: I think the Admiral just cut off the Flushing communications and has entered the West Scheldt, sir.

CHATHAM: About bloody time.

STRACHAN [rushes up]: Did you see that? The Frogs never saw that one coming!

CHATHAM: Neither did we.

STRACHAN: Never mind that. What’s happening? Flushing surrendered yet?

CHATHAM: The batteries open tomorrow.

STRACHAN: Tomorrow?! What have you landlubbers being doing all this time? Playing chess? Eating turtle? Having long naps?

COOTE: Actually, y—

Robert_Brownrigg

Sir Robert Brownrigg (wikipedia)

BROWNRIGG [swiftly cutting in]: Admiral, we really need Flushing to surrender quickly, so if you wouldn’t mind using your ships to aid the land batteries from the sea-side when we open fire…

CHATHAM: Strachan, get your boats ready. And tell Sir Home Poophead we will probably need his gunboats, too.

BROWNRIGG: Sir Home Popham.

CHATHAM: That’s what I said.

[Next day, off Flushing]

FYERS: Ready the batteries. Fire!

[Loud explosions]

CHATHAM [squinting through telescope]: I say, what a fine spectacle!

BROWNRIGG: I’m sorry, your lordship, what was that?

CHATHAM: I said it was a noble spectacle. Don’t you think?

[screams and explosions]

BROWNRIGG: Erm.

CHATHAM: Where are the ships? They don’t seem to be doing anything.

BROWNRIGG: I think it’s the wrong sort of wind again, sir.

CHATHAM: Ah. The wrong sort of wind. [Sighs; raises voice] Strachan!

STRACHAN [distantly]: Yes?

CHATHAM: Would you please do something?

STRACHAN [distantly]: Trying! Wind!

CHATHAM: Would you like a tablet for that?

COOTE: Here come the ships now.

CHATHAM: Ah, that’s better.

[Explosions get louder]

CHATHAM: Good heavens. I think they’re shouting ‘uncle’ now.

BROWNRIGG: There goes the church.

CHATHAM: Can’t be long now. What’s our friend the Admiral doing? [Trains telescope on sea]

bombardment_vlissingen_2

BROWNRIGG: The naval vessels are giving it full pelt.

CHATHAM: He is doing rather well, I admit. He’ll be insufferable tomorrow.

BROWNRIGG: He’d better be careful; his flagship is rather close to the shore. If he doesn’t steer clear, he’s going to run agr—

[Extremely loud crunching noise]

STRACHAN [distantly]: Bugger! Would someone mind giving me a push? Just a little one?

[CHATHAM says nothing but smiles, ever so slightly]

COOTE: Lord Chatham. The city has surrendered.

CHATHAM: Excellent! Call off the guns. And would someone mind throwing Sir Richard a rope?

[Part 2 can be read here]

Short Story: The Arabian

tumblr_mftkvywA6K1rk0xtlo1_500

Grey desert arabian, from  here

The Late Lord was published exactly a year ago today (11 January). To commemorate the occasion, I am putting up a blog post (gasp!) to publish a short story I wrote six months or so before the book was published, for my own enjoyment. The Arabian is based on an episode that occurred during Lord Chatham’s governorship of Gibraltar, in September 1822; it’s mentioned briefly on p. 188, but it’s the sort of thing that I felt needed a longer treatment — hence this short story.

I must apologise for any horse-related errors — a friend read it through and picked me up on several idiocies, which I have corrected, but, while I am very definitely a Chatham person, I am not a horsey person at all.

Enjoy!

***

The Arabian

 

The morning gun woke Stokes just before five. The report shook the glass in the windows of his tiny room, then rolled away into a silence broken only by the crying of seagulls and the sound of the sea. From the nearby Governor’s quarters came three distant words, uttered in clipped, aristocratic annoyance:

‘That bloody gun.’

Silence re-established itself. Stokes knew from experience he would not hear that voice again for at least another six hours. He rolled out of his narrow cot, slipped Sophia’s miniature over his head, then went into the small adjoining room where his batman waited with hot water and a razor.

Stokes was at his desk at seven, the reports from the garrison neatly stacked by the inkstand. Beside them were the latest communications from the Town Major and the Captain of the Port. Laid out on the centre of the table was the leather-bound Orderly Book, already opened to the first crisp, empty page. Stokes consulted the hastily-scribbled notes his clerk had left for him, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write.

Head Quarters, Gibraltar, 2d. September 1822

General Order No. 1. The 26th Regiment will be prepared to evacuate the Cooperage Barrack immediately on the arrival of the 43rd Regiment, when four companies of the 64th will move from their present Quarters into that Barracks…

While Stokes opened letter after letter, copied their contents into the ledger books and composed formulaic responses, the Governor’s Cottage began to wake up around him. Footsteps creaked up and down the stairs, and a hum of voices intruded on Stokes’s awareness. Outside, drums beat the tattoo as the night guard at Europa Point was relieved, and a regimental band launched into a rendition of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A ship coming into the Bay fired its gun to warn the garrison of its approach, followed a few moments later by the deeper reverberation of Europa Point’s battery in acknowledgement.

The door opened, and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson came for the Governor’s correspondence. Stokes barely looked up from reaching for the pounce pot. ‘Lord Chatham is awake?’

‘Awake, dressed, and ready for his letters.’ The aide-de-camp held his hand out for them; Stokes obliged. Wilson flicked through them swiftly.

‘No dispatches from the Colonial Office,’ Stokes said helpfully. ‘One communication from Tangiers, and I’ve left it at the top.’

‘His Lordship will be grateful for that.’

‘If it will save him the trouble of reading the rest, I daresay,’ Stokes remarked, and immediately regretted the words. Wilson raised an eyebrow and changed the subject.

‘His Lordship wished me to ask if the American horse had been brought ashore yet.’

‘You mean the Arabian.’ Stokes kept his voice neutral. The Arabian had been purchased in Tunis by an American captain, whose ship was re-provisioning in Gibraltar on its way back to New York. Lord Chatham had insisted on having the horse brought ashore to see it race, but then Chatham, in Stokes’s opinion, never gave a thought for the inconvenience of others. ‘Mr Sweetland said he would be landed tomorrow.’

‘His Lordship wishes someone to report back when he is ashore. I believe you are carrying dispatches to the Lieutenant Governor. Will you go?’

‘Of course.’

‘Excellent. Lord Chatham will see you this afternoon as usual.’

The next few hours passed swiftly. The sun rose higher in the cloudless sky. Stokes loosened his stock and opened the window. The Rock shimmered in the heat. Stokes pulled out the locket that hung round his neck and opened it. Sophia’s cream skin and golden hair gazed at him, her mouth curved into the faintest smile as though to say: I am waiting for you. But Sophia was on the other side of the sea, and Stokes was in Gibraltar, chained to five isolated square miles of jagged Rock. He tucked the locket away, stared for a few moments at the tiny British flag hanging limp from the flagpole at O’Hara’s Battery, then returned to his desk to sharpen yet another pen.

At three he stood outside the Governor’s drawing-room, the day’s out-letters in one hand. Despite being perfectly on time, he could tell from the absence of orderlies that His Lordship was not yet returned from his morning ride. Stokes had only been Military Secretary three months, but those three months had been sufficient to see that everything here – the morning and evening guns; the inspections; the parades; the arrival and departure of the packet boats – worked like a military metronome. Everything, that is, save for the Governor. Lord Chatham’s habits had not changed in the twelve years since he had become notorious for commanding the disastrous Walcheren campaign, when his inactivity had contributed to the destruction of his army from disease. He drifted in and out of Gibraltar’s military and civil routine at his own pace, always good-natured but remarkably disengaged.

It was half past the hour before the sound of the guard presenting arms alerted Stokes to Lord Chatham’s return. Stokes stepped away from the map depicting the Great Siege just as Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson and Captain Taylor came upstairs followed by two Spanish servants carrying trays of wine and water. The aides barely gave Stokes more than a nod as they passed. A few minutes later the Governor himself appeared, wiping his hands on a towel. His long face was sheened with sweat and reddened from the sun, but, despite the exercise, His Lordship still gave the impression he would much rather be anywhere but here. Looking at Chatham’s melancholy, rather bored expression, Stokes fought a swell of contempt. He wished he could know, even for a moment, a fragment of the thoughts passing through the Governor’s mind. If he were able to at least respect the man, he suspected his exile from home, and from Sophia, would be less difficult.

‘Stokes,’ Chatham said, in response to the secretary’s bow. ‘What have you for me today?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, my lord.’

‘Well then, let us get to work.’ Chatham handed his towel to Captain Taylor, folded his tall frame into the chair by the desk, and passed a hand across his forehead with a groan. ‘Dear God, it’s hot.’

And so it went. The first time Stokes had waited on Lord Chatham he had been so tense he had forgotten to eat breakfast. Now he barely needed to think about what he did, because every day was the same. First came the dispatches for the local consuls, which Chatham read before signing next to Stokes’s pencilled cross. Then came the court martial reports, and the general orders to the various regiments for the day. Chatham worked in silence; Stokes had quickly discovered His Lordship was not over-fond of small talk. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away, punctuated by the sound of marching and drumbeats from outside. Stokes shifted his feet and wondered whether he would have time for a walk before dinner.

‘A fair few visitors from Morocco,’ Chatham observed. The sound of his deep, cultured voice shook Stokes out of his reverie.

‘They have all been through quarantine.’

‘Good.’ Chatham signed a few more papers and lapsed back into silence. Stokes returned to thinking wistfully of his next meal.

After leaving Lord Chatham, Stokes went for his walk along the cliffs. Behind him the batteries remained a sign of Gibraltar’s military status as the guardian of the Straits, but before him was the broad, glittering expanse of the sea. A faint breeze disturbed the turgid air and brought a salty scent to his nose. The low and stately Atlas mountains of Africa pierced the haze across the Straits. The sight distracted him, and the strange golden hills made him think less of home. Less of Sophia. What was she doing now? Was she thinking of him too?

He came back to the Governor’s Cottage just as the heat began to draw off into the coolness of evening, when the shadows lengthened and the Rock glowed red in the setting sun. Stokes heard his name as he entered his office, bracing himself to receive the evening dispatches and finish work while the light persisted. He turned to face Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson.

‘Mr Stokes,’ Wilson said. ‘His Lordship would like to see yesterday’s return from the Captain of the Port a second time.’

‘Certainly.’ The aide waited while Stokes rooted through the papers until he found the list of vessels that had successfully completed their period of quarantine. He handed it to Wilson. ‘His Lordship is working late.’

‘Does that surprise you?’

In fact it did – Stokes had formed the impression Chatham stopped thinking about his official concerns after dinner – but he said, ‘I am in no hurry for the papers to be returned.’

Wilson was on his way out. At Stokes’s words he turned and closed the door behind him. ‘You do not like His Lordship, do you, Stokes?’

‘He has never been anything but kind to me,’ Stokes stammered. It occurred to him that, though most of the garrison spoke jokingly of His Lordship, he had never seen Chatham’s aides-de-camp behave with anything but respect and even affection. Wilson looked down his nose.

‘Were you at Walcheren?’ the aide said at last. Before Stokes could answer, Wilson corrected himself. ‘No, of course not. You’re far too young for that.’

‘I am a secretary,’ Stokes said, with as much dignity as he could manage. ‘My duties do not take me on active service.’

Wilson’s duties, however, clearly had. Stokes’s eyes lingered on the man’s weather-beaten face and the jagged white scar running from chin to cheek. On parade days Stokes had seen the Waterloo medal on Wilson’s chest. He had never understood how men like Wilson could lower themselves to serve men like Lord Chatham, but even as the thought registered he felt a swell of shame, as though his disrespect for Chatham somehow reflected on Wilson, too.

‘In that case,’ Wilson said in clipped tones, as though he had read Stokes’s mind, ‘I suggest you pay more attention to your duties and less to garrison gossip.’

Stokes’s cheeks flamed. ‘I am sorry. I meant nothing by what I said. I only noticed His Lordship seemed out of sorts today.’

Wilson gave him a strange look. ‘Do you not know the date?’

‘Of course I do.’ Stokes had only written it out several dozen times at the head of all the letters and orders he had drafted on Chatham’s behalf. ‘It is the second of September.’

‘Today would have been Lady Chatham’s sixtieth birthday.’

‘Lady Chatham has been dead for over a year,’ Stokes said, in genuine confusion.

‘Is it any wonder, then, that Lord Chatham should miss her this day more than any other?’

Stokes blinked. The idea that the Governor might be missing his wife had never even occurred to him. He knew Chatham’s coming out to Gibraltar had been delayed by Lady Chatham’s illness and death; he knew His Lordship had still been in full mourning when he had finally arrived. But Stokes had never felt the Governor longed for anything other than to return to England, or to be left alone. Chatham had never once spoken of his wife in the three months Stokes had known him. Stokes, who never stopped thinking about his Sophia, had always found that significant. ‘I see.’

‘I am not certain you do,’ Wilson said, and turned his back before Stokes could respond.

 

*

 

The next day Stokes again stood by the Governor’s desk as Chatham signed the day’s orders, and tried not to stare in too obvious a fashion. Did His Lordship seem more melancholy than usual? Was Lord Chatham thinking about his wife at that very moment, and did it bring him pain? Was that why he remained permanently detached from the garrison, as though he were not fully present – as though a part of him remained at his wife’s graveside in London? Lord Chatham’s heavy-lidded blue eyes flicked up and Stokes hastily looked away.

When business was over Chatham said, ‘I thank you for sending me the Captain of the Port’s account last night. It seems the Arabian is to come ashore today.’

Stokes had almost forgotten about the racehorse. How typical of Chatham to fasten on that, amidst the accounts of plague on the Barbary Coast and political unrest in Spain. ‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You will accompany me with the rest of the staff to the race tomorrow,’ Chatham said. It was not a request. Stokes bowed.

‘Of course.’

Chatham dismissed him with a wave, visibly suppressing a yawn. Stokes felt a burst of irritation. At least it will be a holiday, he thought as he mounted his horse to ride into town.

A heat haze rose off the grey brick fortifications as Stokes crossed the drawbridge and entered the fortress. The guards posted to the southern gate saluted him as he passed. As a civilian he had found this odd the first time he had experienced it, but now he barely registered the sound of hands slapping against wood and metal as the men smoothly presented their arms. Gibraltar’s cobbled streets, lined with colourful houses packed between the looming Rock and the bastions fringing the Bay, were full of people going about their business. Europeans in sober woollen coats rubbed shoulders with Spanish women in bright red cloaks. Stokes had to concentrate to guide his horse through the throng of dark-faced Moroccans, Jews with caps and long curls, and red-coated soldiers marching to their duties. Stokes often wondered what Sophia, who had never been anywhere more alien than Covent Garden Market, would make of it all. The air was heavy with the scent of sea salt and spices, and reverberated with the sound of street cries, drumbeats and all the languages of Babel.

The Convent stood empty, its tiny windows tightly shuttered against the heat, waiting for the cooler weather and the Governor’s return to the garrison. Closer to the waterside, the heat was more bearable. Evening was drawing in by the time Stokes accompanied Lieutenant-Governor Don’s aide-de-camp, Captain Waller, to the New Mole. The Bay bristled with the masts of ships at anchor, enormous warships casting shadows over tiny, patched boats from the Barbary Coast. The first evening gun fired from the signal bastion as Stokes stood on the narrow quay stretching out towards the Spanish lines and watched a flatboat approaching from the American frigate moored a mile or so offshore, away from the treacherous rocks close to the harbour. As the boat approached, Stokes could hear a high-pitched neighing that suggested the approaching horse was not entirely happy with its predicament.

‘Oh dear,’ Captain Waller murmured as the boat approached the Mole.

It took time to bring the Arabian ashore. The horse sidled and ducked as the sailors and grooms in the flatboat tried to fasten him into the sling, and squealed in fright as he was winched back onto solid ground. Stokes had no idea how long the horse must have been cooped up aboard ship, but he was certainly making up for it now, skittering from side to side. Stokes watched as the grooms calmed him down until he quieted and stopped swinging his hindquarters about in an effort to break free.

Even to Stokes’s untrained eye he was a fine horse. He was small, but built almost entirely of lean, trembling muscle, his sinews standing out like cords. Pale grey in colour, he had a handsome dark mane and legs and a proud, offended look in his intelligent eyes as he pawed at the ground, raised his head and pulled half-heartedly at the bridle. The thought popped into Stokes’s mind, unbidden: You don’t want to be here anymore than I do.

‘Where are we to take him?’ one of the grooms asked in a pronounced American drawl. Stokes stopped staring at the horse.

‘His Lordship has made a stall in his own stables available for the Arabian. It is behind the Convent in Secretary Lane.’

‘He’ll be glad of a rest,’ the other groom said, stroking the Arabian’s nose fondly. ‘It’s been a long journey.’

Stokes returned to the Governor’s Cottage just as the last evening gun heralded the curfew. The sun was low on the horizon and a breeze shifted the turgid air from the direction of the sea. As Stokes dismounted he saw Lord Chatham’s junior aide, young Captain Taylor, coming towards him. ‘Mr Stokes. Is the Arabian safely ashore?’

‘You may tell His Lordship it is.’

‘He will be grateful for the news,’ Taylor said. Stokes did not know the man well; he had kept his distance, knowing Taylor to be Lord Chatham’s great-nephew, and indeed there was a faint family resemblance in the shape of the face and the proud set of the nose. The young man added, with naked curiosity, ‘Was it a handsome horse?’

‘Very much so.’

‘His Lordship has chosen a horse to run against him. He is very much looking forward to tomorrow’s race.’

Stokes had no doubt Chatham was looking forward to the leisure time. He felt immediately ashamed of himself at the thought, and the memory of his previous day’s conversation with Wilson rose in his mind. The question formed itself in an instant, and before he could stop himself he had blurted it out. ‘What happened to Lady Chatham? Why does Lord Chatham never speak of her?’ The aide stared in astonishment. Stokes felt himself blush. ‘I am sorry. That was out of order.’

‘No,’ Taylor said, at length. ‘Those of us who work closely with His Lordship have a right to know.’ He went silent, as though picking his words.

‘I know she was ill for many years,’ Stokes prompted.

‘Yes, she was. But…’ Taylor looked Stokes in the eye. ‘Not physically.’

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Stokes’s eyes widened. ‘Oh.’ Embarrassment vied with curiosity; curiosity won. ‘How did she die? Did … did she…?’

‘No, she did not,’ the aide said curtly. ‘In some ways it was worse. She was recovering; it was a miracle, because nobody had expected her to.’ Taylor paused; he seemed suddenly older than his twenty-three years. ‘Until her maid put too much laudanum in her barley-water.’

‘My God,’ Stokes said, hollowly. He could think of nothing else to say. ‘I am sorry.’

‘We all were,’ Taylor said. ‘We all were.’

 

*

 

The race day dawned with the morning gun. The glowing purple sky heralded a continuation of the same hot, cloudless weather Gibraltar had been enjoying for some time. Stokes worked quickly through his routine tasks, aware he would not have time to devote to them later. At one the Governor’s staff were all ready and assembled on horseback in the courtyard behind the Cottage. Somewhat to Stokes’s surprise, the Governor himself was only a few minutes late, wearing a handsome scarlet dress uniform coat with elaborate gold frogging. His steel grey hair was pulled back into an elegant queue, and the eagerness on his face made him seem younger, and happier, than Stokes had ever seen him. He mounted his horse from the block unaided, with the litheness of a man half his age, and called across to his aides,

‘Let us enjoy the pleasure of the turf, even though we are so far from home.’

After an hour’s riding they arrived at the racetrack in the Neutral Ground, a mile-long gravelled track cut from one side of the narrow peninsula to the other. Stokes had been mildly surprised to find horse-racing was not unknown here, as the terrain seemed so unfavourable to it, but the British had some time ago informally expanded into the flat band of unclaimed land between the Rock and the Spanish lines at La Linea. Here were the temporary wooden huts and shelters occupied by many of the people of the town during the hottest months of the year, when the fear of contagious disease was at its highest. Behind them, the Rock rose up from the plain with silent, monumental grace.

News of the race had travelled. There were English-born merchants in top hats and tails, Spanish gentlemen in embroidered coats, and Gibraltar’s usual mix of Europeans, Jews, and Moors, each easily distinguishable by the clothes they wore. Ladies promenaded on their husbands’ arms, sheltering under parasols or, in the case of the Spanish women, hiding behind lace veils. The regimental bands played jaunty tunes. Stokes picked out ‘British Grenadiers’, ‘Heart of Oak’ and, after a group of local women promenaded past, a spirited version of ‘Spanish Ladies’.

The moment the Governor appeared the band struck up ‘God Save the King’, and all the soldiers on duty lining the track presented arms with perfect precision. Waiting for Lord Chatham at the finishing line were Lieutenant Governor Don and a group of American naval officers. They turned, gold braid glistening in the afternoon sun. Chatham dismounted and the rest of his staff, including Stokes, followed suit. General Don made the introductions. ‘Captain Jacob Jones, your lordship. The Arabian is his.’

Jones, a spare, grizzled man with a weather-beaten face, removed his hat and bowed. ‘Your excellency. I am glad of this opportunity to see my horse run.’

‘As am I,’ Chatham said, removing his own extravagantly-feathered hat. Stokes was accustomed to seeing the Governor going through the motions on parade as though he would rather be elsewhere: he was surprised to see the enthusiasm in the cold, distant blue eyes. ‘My Weathercock has not been out for many years. I am certain your young Arabian will give him a good race, and may the best horse win.’

The horses arrived, walked over at a gentle trot by their grooms. Lord Chatham’s was a large chestnut, his sleek flanks quivering in the afternoon sun. He towered over the Arabian, who was clearly not pleased with the competition. He held his grey head up proudly as though to make himself seem larger, flicked his tail and pulled at his bridle impatiently as though to say: I want to run now. I can win.

‘A magnificent beast,’ Chatham observed to Captain Jones as the horses rode past the cheering spectators. ‘Eighteen months old, you say?’

‘Just so.’

‘He has presence for a colt of his age.’

The horses took some time to arrive at the starting line, about a mile away. Stokes could see them, distantly. He could not so much make out the horses themselves as he could the movements at the end of the track through the shimmering haze: the milling of the crowds, the clouds of dust and the glare of sunlight off metal fastenings. By the edge of the track Stokes saw Chatham call over Taylor. The aide handed the Governor a telescope; Chatham opened it and trained it on the start line.

The sun shone down relentlessly, with not a single cloud to impede it. Heat from above warred against the cool rising from the sea, and the sound of waves beating the shore travelled sluggishly through the heavy, humid air. Sea salt mingled with earthy dust coated the back of Stokes’s throat; he discreetly wiped a thread of sweat off his brow and gladly accepted a glass proffered by one of the Governor’s servants. To his astonishment, the Governor – who regularly complained about the heat, and who often took days to recover from the exhaustion of public parades – looked as sprightly as though he were by the track at Newmarket. Stokes saw him laughing at a comment from one of the American officers. The sight of it made him realise he had never seen the Governor laugh before.

‘His Lordship is in good spirits,’ Stokes remarked to Taylor, as the aide passed by. Taylor shrugged.

‘Of course he is.’

Stokes did not see why it was so obvious, but he had to admit he was fascinated by the transformation in the Governor. The habitually bored expression on Chatham’s face had completely dropped away, and when pistol shot from the other end of the track signalled the start of the race, the glint in Chatham’s eye as he traced his telescope on the start line was full of intensity. The Governor’s enthusiasm was infectious. Even though he had never been fond of racing, Stokes felt his heart pounding as he fixed his gaze on the horses and raised a hand to shield his eyes.

The Governor’s narrow shoulders were rigid, his gloved hands perfectly steady as he held the telescope. His cheeks were red in a way that owed nothing to the heat of the sun.

‘Weathercock in the lead,’ he observed to Captain Jones, who also held a telescope. ‘By at least half a length.’

Stokes could now clearly hear the thunder of hooves. The cheers were getting closer. He could see the shape of the horses, the grooms perched high on their backs. After a few moments Stokes could distinguish one horse from the other: the Arabian’s small, lithe frame moving with sinuous grace, its little legs beating the ground at a tremendous rate, alongside the much larger Weathercock. Chatham gave a cry.

‘He’s catching up.’

‘Look at him run,’ Captain Jones exclaimed. The Arabian, having spent so long aboard ship, had more work to keep up with the bigger horse, but there was something so determined about the way he moved, black tail streaming behind, that Stokes would have been completely won over even if he had not already been championing him. He felt slightly ashamed for not backing the British horse, yet one glance told him the Governor, too, was more interested in the Arabian than in the progress of his own animal.

Chatham lowered his telescope, his face bright. ‘Remarkable,’ he said. ‘Truly remarkable.’

The horses were nearly alongside now, so close to each other their legs were a confused blur of activity. Their hooves shook the ground and the scent of competition filled the air. Around Stokes everyone began to cheer. The Governor pulled off his hat and waved it, huzzaying loudly with no thought for the audience around him. Not that anyone was watching; all eyes were on the two horses, heads stretched out, nostrils flared, long tails flying behind them.

And then it was over. The horses crossed the finishing line, Weathercock a head in the lead. The grooms reined them in as best they could. The Arabian squealed when his groom yanked on the bridle, more out of frustration, Stokes thought, than pain or exhaustion. A hundred or so more yards and the Arabian would have pulled past, Stokes was certain of it.

‘Remarkable!’ Chatham shouted again. He turned to Captain Jones and pumped him by the hand. ‘I have never seen anything like it!’

The horses stood by the edge of the racetrack, quivering flanks streaked with sweat. Soldiers hurried forth carrying buckets of water to wash the horses down. Chatham led Captain Jones over, Stokes following close behind with the rest of the staff. Having expended all its energy in the run, the Arabian’s head hung down with exhaustion, but at their approach he looked up and began to fidget. Weathercock turned his head towards Chatham and gave a soft whinny of welcome. The Governor reached up and stroked his nose fondly; the horse snorted and nuzzled his coat.

‘Congratulations, your excellency,’ Captain Jones said. ‘It appears your English horses are still capable of holding their own against Arabian stock.’

‘Weathercock did well, I admit,’ Chatham observed, rubbing the horse’s forehead. His gaze, however, was on the other animal. ‘But he is six years old, and has not spent the last few months on a ship.’ The Governor turned to the Arabian. The horse was perfectly still, its black eyes on Chatham. When the Governor came closer and reached out a hand the Arabian whinnied loudly and pulled its head away, twitching its ears.

‘Hush,’ Chatham said. ‘Hush.’ The Arabian continued to pull at his reins, but the Governor moved gently closer, whistling through his teeth, pulling off his gloves and edging forwards with exquisite patience. To Stokes’s amazement, the Arabian did not move as Chatham’s hand made contact with his neck.

‘Easy,’ Chatham murmured, running his hand along the horse’s sweat-streaked flanks. The appreciation on his face as he moved around the horse was obvious; he stroked the Arabian’s nose for a moment, then bent over and ran his hands delicately down the horse’s forelegs. Stokes expected the horse to protest, but to his surprise he just stood there. It was as though the Arabian knew Chatham was impressed, and was flattered by the attention.

Stokes glanced across at Wilson and Taylor, but the two aides looked as though they had expected nothing less. This behaviour from the Governor, though entirely new to Stokes, was clearly something they were familiar with, and had seen many times before. He turned back to Chatham with new respect.

‘Splendid forequarters,’ Chatham observed, straightening slowly and whistling again as the Arabian started back in alarm. ‘The shoulder is particularly fine. He will bring you much credit, once he has matured.’

‘Weathercock is no less admirable,’ Captain Jones said. Chatham smiled and turned back to the English horse, which nickered and nibbled at his golden sash as though in protest at having been ignored.

‘My Weathercock is the pride of my stables. He was a gift from Lady Chatham; she chose him for me herself, when he was barely older than your Arabian.’ It was the first time Stokes had ever heard Lord Chatham speak his wife’s name. An expression of sadness came over his face, as though the memories had taken the shine off his enjoyment. ‘How she would have loved to have seen him run today.’

As though he sensed his master’s melancholy, Weathercock nuzzled at his lapel. Chatham lowered his head; his hand on Weathercock’s mane stilled. He said nothing, but for the first time Stokes understood exactly what the Governor was thinking about.

 

*

 

The next afternoon Stokes waited on the Governor as usual with the dispatches. Chatham had just come in from his morning ride and was still mopping his face with a handkerchief. He stopped when Stokes came in and held out a well-manicured hand for the papers.

Stokes watched the Governor as he worked. Chatham wore the same closed, distant expression he always did, but this time Stokes fancied he saw signs of the emotion the impassive mask was meant to hide. Little wonder Chatham felt the need for such a façade, with everything he had experienced over the last few years and the way in which nearly everyone – including Stokes – held him in contempt. He was like the Arabian, forced away from home to perform endless repetitive duties on foreign soil, against his desire and inclinations. No wonder he cultivated a sense of detachment; no wonder his aides were protective of him. Stokes began to feel ashamed of his own preconceptions.

‘Did you see the race, Stokes?’ Chatham asked, after a time.

‘Yes, my lord. It was most diverting.’

‘The Arabian did well,’ Chatham said. ‘I have rarely seen a horse run with so much energy. I was quite captivated.’

‘Your horse performed admirably too, sir,’ Stokes said. Remembering Chatham’s words the previous day, he added, on a whim, ‘I believe Lady Chatham would have been proud of him.’

Chatham’s pen stilled. He glanced up sharply and for a moment Stokes thought he had overstepped the mark. Disappointment welled up and he braced himself for the reprimand, but the muscles in the Governor’s jaw relaxed. ‘I believe you are right.’

He returned to the papers. Stokes decided it was high time he stopped talking. To his surprise the Governor looked up after a handful of documents and peered at Stokes as though trying to remember something. ‘You came out in the spring to relieve Major Marshall, did you not?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are to be married upon your return to England?’

A strange tingle raced up Stokes’s spine, as it always did when Sophia came into his thoughts. ‘I am. To Miss Blake.’

Chatham looked at him for a moment, an unfathomable expression in his eyes. Then he smiled, and Stokes realised how rarely he had seen the Governor bestow genuine smiles on anyone. ‘It cannot be easy coming so far when you have someone waiting at home.’

Sophia’s portrait around Stokes’s neck was warm against his chest. He put his hand to where it lay, resting his fingers lightly against the lapel of his plain civilian coat. Then he saw something he had never noticed before. On the wall behind Chatham’s desk, swallowed up among the many engravings of the Bay, was a miniature of a woman with the powdered hair and enormous hat of the previous generation. She gazed out of the gilded frame with a mysterious smile, her blue eyes bright with youth and love. Stokes did not need to ask who it was; the pang of pity that lanced through him took him by surprise. Like Chatham, he wanted nothing more than to climb aboard the first available ship and leave Gibraltar for good. But he had Sophia eagerly awaiting his return, whereas Chatham would never see his wife again.

There suddenly seemed to be an extra presence in the room, bending over Chatham as he sat at his desk, arms resting lightly on his shoulders. The impression was so strong Stokes could feel the power of Chatham’s loss surging through him like electricity. He saw the pain behind Chatham’s detachment, indelibly etched into the older man’s features, and wondered how he could have missed the fact that Chatham longed for his lost love as much as Stokes did himself.

‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘but serving here brings its own reward.’ And he meant it.

The Diary of Colonel Thomas Carey, 27 February 1810

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Image from here

And now for something (not entirely) completely different… I wrote this short fiction piece as a guest post for another blog a couple of years ago. I had hoped to put it up yesterday (27 February), as the anniversary of the event in question, but it took a little while to find the document.

Those of you who’ve read The Late Lord will know Thomas Carey was Lord Chatham’s military secretary at Walcheren. I’d much like to know more about him.

Oh, and I didn’t make any of this up.

***

Lord Chatham was called up again to appear before the Committee. He had been dreading it very much; certain members of the Committee had previously fastened upon His Lordship’s explanatory narrative of his conduct, which he had delivered to the King without submitting to the Secretary of State for War. This action the opposition to government supposed to be unconstitutional.

I saw His Lordship after breakfast. He had eaten nothing; I suppose he could not. “Will they mention it again, do you suppose?”

I had no doubt they would, but I said only, “I understand from Mr Huskisson the intention is to examine matters of strategy today.”

In the afternoon I accompanied His Lordship to the House. He was called almost immediately to the Bar, where a chair had been set up for him beneath the galleries, as before. The tiny chamber was full to bursting. The Chairman, Sir John Anstruther, settled his spectacles on his thin hooked nose and began.

I watched from the lobby. I could not see Lord Chatham’s face but I could tell from his stiff shoulders he was uncomfortable. Still, the questioning began well enough.

“At the start of the expedition, did Your Lordship believe Antwerp might be taken by a coup-de-main?”

“Might Antwerp have been taken by assault?”

“Did Your Lordship confer with your general officers on the adviseability of advancing on Antwerp?”

His Lordship answered all of them, rather curtly, but sensibly. And then the strange gentleman rose, on the left of the empty Speaker’s chair. He looked like he had slept in his clothes. I am fairly certain, from the slurring of his words, that he was drunk.

“I know Antwerp could have been taken by two men and a blunderbuss. Was Your Lordship not aware?”

A silence. My Lord looked across at the gentleman who had spoken. The Chairman coughed and said, “Are there any more questions?”

“Two men and a blunderbuss,” the man repeated, then added, “playing the penny whistle.”

Someone laughed. Lord Chatham shifted visibly in his chair. He took a sip from the wineglass he kept under his chair to wet his dry mouth during the questioning.

“Next question,” the Chairman said, firmly.

“Maybe three men, if one had a wooden leg.”

“Will you be quiet?” Sir John shouted.

I fear it was a mistake.

“God Damn me, sir,” the drunk man said, rising unsteadily to his feet and waving a finger, “I have as much right to be heard as any man who is paid for filling the place he holds.”

The silence was so deep I could hear my own heartbeat. Every man on the Treasury Bench looked as though they were wondering if they had heard aright. The opposition was blank-faced. One of the men standing next to me leaned forwards and muttered to himself, gleefully, “And I thought this would be dull.”

“I fear that language is unparliamentary,” Sir John Anstruther said at last. “Gentlemen, I think the Committee ought to interrupt its proceedings to allow the Speaker back to the chair. He will, no doubt, wish to name this gentleman.”

As I understand, naming a Member of Parliament involves entering their name into the Journals for to record poor behaviour. This gentleman, however, remained ufazed. “You need not be diffident, Sir. My name is Jack Fuller.”

Open laughter now. But when the Speaker returned and ordered the man to withdraw, he refused. The Serjeant at Arms came forward with two assistants to remove him; and then Jack Fuller threw a punch, missed his target, and struck the Member for Wool Downs in the back of the head, knocking him off the bench with a cry.

“Take this man into your custody, Serjeant,” the Speaker called.

Eventually Mr Fuller was carried from the chamber, calling back over his shoulder, “Two men I say! Did you hear me, my lord? Two!”

“Any further questions?” Sir John Anstruther said loudly, when the Speaker had retreated once more.

I hoped the questions would be kind, for I knew Lord Chatham’s nerves were under considerable strain as it was, but unfortunately the first person to stand was Mr Whitbread, from the opposition bench. “When you submitted your narrative to His Majesty, my lord, did you enter into any correspondence with him?”

I had hoped the subject would not come up. I closed my eyes. Lord Chatham replied, tensely, “Merely a cover letter. I have no copy.”

“Did you–” Mr Whitbread began, but he was interrupted. Someone pushed past me roughly, reeking of brandy. It was Mr Fuller. He rushed back into the Chamber, shouting, “You have no authority to take me away! Who do you think you are?”

For once Mr Fuller had perfect timing, and I was almost glad for Lord Chatham’s sake that the course of the questioning had been stalled. He stood and swayed, jabbing his finger at the empty Speaker’s chair. “Where is he? Where is that insignificant little fellow in the silly wig?”

“Serjeant!” Anstruther bellowed.

Before the Serjeant could appear Fuller put his head down and rushed at Sir John. Unfortunately Lord Chatham’s chair was in Fuller’s path. His Lordship had to dive out of the way in alarm; I would wager he would much rather have been fighting the French on Walcheren than facing this mad beast.

The Serjeant-at-Arms ran in with his assistants, and started to chase Jack Fuller round the chamber. Four Messengers followed. Mr Fuller picked up Lord Chatham’s vacant chair and waved it at them.

I do not know how long it took them to catch the man; he was surprisingly nimble for a man in his cups. With the assistance of several gentlemen of the House they eventually managed to draw him out. I could hear him shouting as they dragged him down the stairs to the Serjeant’s chamber: “I only wanted to ask a question!”

“Lord Chatham may withdraw,” Sir John Anstruther said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. “The Committee will now adjourn.”

His Lordship found me in the Lobby. His face was white and I think, had he not had that glass of wine to support him, his legs may well have collapsed beneath him.

“I think that went well,” I said, aiming to encourage him.

He merely looked at me, and did not reply.