The King’s Man
The light of the emerging dawn softly illuminated the taut, boyish features of the youth who sat by the window of the small garret. Clad only in his nightshirt, David stared unseeing over the familiar landscape that stretched to the distant rolling hills. He had not slept. Thoughts of what was to come had rendered sleep impossible and for the hundredth time he wondered what lay ahead.
A sound from the kitchen below brought him back to a sense of his surroundings and he stood, his spine rigid. Today he began his life in Wellington’s army. Today he became the king’s man.
His stomach lurched and he raked his fingers through his thick, gold-blond hair, a familiar gesture when he was distracted. It had been easy to take the king’s shilling, to become infected with enthusiasm, but now the reality of his leaving turned enthusiasm to disquiet. He looked about the small room as the early-morning light touched all that was familiar to him, all he loved, bathing it with its gentle glow, and he wondered whether he would ever see it again.
William, his younger brother, who shared the narrow bed with him, murmured in his sleep but did not wake and David heaved a sigh of relief. He wished no repeat of the previous evening’s eager questioning that had raised images he did not dare contemplate.
He heard his mother, Ann, take water from the outside pump and knew that she would be preparing the morning meal, but he was not eager to break his fast. She had wept when he had proudly told her of his enlistment and said that at sixteen he was too young to go to war. He had scoffed at her concerns, claiming that even younger boys, boys who had lied about their age, had enlisted. He would not be left behind when his contemporaries were so eager to join the fight against Napoleon.
With an air of decision, he removed his nightshirt before quickly replacing it with his well-worn breeches and shirt. Soon, he reflected, it would be the uniform of The Royal Surreys’. Shortly he would be one of many. He knew all was not glory and his hands shook slightly as he fastened the buckle at his knee. He didn’t know if he was prepared, ready for the lives he must take in Wellington’s quest.
The shadows shifted as the sun began fully to rise. In the distance he heard the fife and drum summoning the recruits and he knew that he must go. There was no time now for farewells.
The recruiting sergeant had said they were to meet in the village square from whence they would begin the march to the barracks, some thirty miles away. He knew he couldn’t bear it if his mother were to witness their departure. He would say his farewells now so that she wouldn’t see his uncertainty.
Pride sparked and he straightened, pushing back his shoulders. Head held high he left the safe confines of the garret, prepared to meet his fate. Today he was The King’s Man!
It was a laborious task for her to read and she traced each word with a work-worn finger. Ann knew not why she felt this overwhelming compulsion to take the small, ragged journal from its place of safe-keeping, but as soon as her youngest son had left the cottage at daybreak, she had sought it out.
The journal had been returned to her by the family of Thomas Murray, a soldier who had lain in a convent on the Belgian border where several of the wounded soldiers from Wellington’s army had been cared for after the Battle of Waterloo.
She had received no word of David since he left to follow the drum some five years ago. This battered and torn journal was now her only connection with his life. It had been found in Thomas Murray’s effects when they had been returned to his family after his death. Realising her need to be aware of David’s fate, Mrs Murray had ensured that it was returned to her. She assumed that David had also died in that convent, so many miles away, and the journal was all she had of her beloved son.
The entries were erratic. Sometimes it had been months before the young soldier had committed his thoughts and deeds to paper but she devoured each page, her mind’s eye seeing, although not fully comprehending, each scene he depicted. An emerging maturity showed as his almost childish hand changed to a bold script over the years, his outlook becoming that of a man. At times, he used verse to portray his emotions, a talent she hadn’t known he possessed.
She read the opening entries, smiling at her son’s obvious pride in his posting.
9th August, 1810 : Lisbon I can’t believe my luck. Along with Patterson and Murray, I am to be transferred to General Craufurd’s brigade, the 95th Rifles. We change our red coats of the Royal Surreys’ to the green of the Rifles and swap our ‘Brown Bess’ for the more accurate Baker rifle. We are informed that we will be taught to fire three rounds a minute. Imagine, three rounds a minute! Up ’til now, I have only managed two at best.
25th September, 1810 : Almaraz We marched for 12 hours and bivouacked amongst a clump of trees at the roadside. Provisions failed to arrive, and much to our surprise, Craufurd relaxed his rules and allowed us to shoot a small flock of turkeys that were found rooting around the groves. Some of the riflemen took advantage of the situation and used it as an excuse to lark about, but I was too exhausted to join their games. However, we all fell to with enthusiasm once the unfortunate fowl had been roasted. Craufurd is furious that the army’s commissaries fail to supply his men.
29th October, 1810 : As we approached Campo Maior, the baggage mules found it difficult to negotiate the steep terrain. The mules that pulled a cart containing General Craufurd’s belongings and his personal supply of wine, refused to descend a steep incline, whereupon one of my fellow riflemen jumped on the back of the lead animal and drove the beast forward. The mule and its fellows bolted down the road, throwing the rifleman clear before gathering speed and finally hurtling over a precipice. They were dashed on the rocks below.
Craufurd ordered the rifleman flogged but luckily Colonel Beckwith, Commander of the 1st Battalion, who is opposed to flogging, countermanded the order and gave a verbal admonition instead. Craufurd much resented his interference and the tension between the two officers is very apparent.
We are camped here in Campo Maior for the next two months as Wellington plans no further campaigns until December, but we are to practise our marksmanship and improve our reload time. Patterson boasted himself a fine shot but when put to the test he proved no better than the rawest recruit. Murray, on the other hand, proved an excellent marksman and was commended upon his skill. He is to take part in an inter-divisional competition which has been arranged to revive the men’s spirits. Bets are being heavily placed on the outcome but I am not tempted. I have but one shilling in my pocket and care not to wager it. We are often called upon to pay out our own coin for necessities when the supplies are not forthcoming, which is frequently the case. We regularly go hungry but at least now that we are not on the march, we are able to supply game from the surrounding area to supplement our meagre rations. Two of the officers, Smith and Kincaid, have a trio of excellent coursing dogs who supply rabbits and such for their pot.
Ann turned the pages, choosing to read but a selective few for, as the war intensified, the entries became less frequent and their content more disturbing.
14th April, 1812 : Badajos Yesterday, Patterson was flogged! Tied to a wheel spoke and flogged! Dear God, the men have gone mad and run amok. They loot and plunder. Wellington is incensed with the disorder and has ordered floggings and firing squads. Patterson’s was a minor crime, which at any other time would have been overlooked, but Picton ordered him flogged. When all is brought to order, we move north toward Salamanca.
She came to the final records of her son’s life.
15th June, 1815 : Brussels The officers, along with the Iron Duke himself, attend the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball and men from Gordon’s Highlanders are ordered to dance for the assembled company whilst we are left to kick our heels. Rumours abound and tension runs high.
At last, orders have arrived. Bonaparte is on the move and we are to break camp. Word has it that we are to intercept the enemy at Quatre Bra. Failing that, it is rumoured that we head toward Waterloo. The weather is foul but we are forced to march.
17th June, 1815 : Three miles north of Waterloo The rain does not stop and there is mud everywhere but we are camped on the high ground which will work well in our favour. It is rumoured that the Little Emperor’s cannons cannot find firm ground and become bogged down, which bodes well for the morrow’s encounter.
Murray gave his watch into my keeping that I might return it to his family should he not return from the fray and I have placed it, along with my own, into the hands of Payne the surgeon. He is a good and honest man who will serve us true should we fail to survive the encounter. The men are restless as is always the way before a battle and many will remain wakeful throughout the night. No matter that I am now a seasoned campaigner; I too, find it hard to reconcile my thoughts.
However, it was the final, undated entry, written in an almost illegible scrawl that always broke Ann’s heart.
A tangled wreck my body lies,
My eyes scarce able to behold the skies
I long to see.
For with war in this day and age
When bayonets gore and cannons rage,
A Shako trodden in the mud,
A A sabre covered with drying mud,
Are familiar sights.
Waterloo a victory might be,
But is this body a victory to me?
I think not!
Who will love a mutilated carcass?
Who will spare it one caress?
Not you I think!
Tears welled in her eyes and, closing the journal, she rose and gazed unseeing through the window. She stood thus for what seemed an eternity when a movement caught her eye and she brought the street into focus. She was used to seeing the wounded return and, as she watched, a cart halted in the village square and three campaigners alighted, each one bearing the ravages of war. One, seeming more able than the others, aided his one-armed companion, who was obviously exhausted by the journey, to slump against the wall. The third soldier, who bore the rank of sergeant, adjusted the crutch he used in lieu of the right leg that had been amputated just below the knee, and turned slowly to survey the square. It was then that she saw the filthy rag that covered his right eye and her heart went out to him. He was so young. Despite his rank, she realised that he could be no more than one and twenty – the same age as her son would have been.
He shaded his remaining eye, the better to see against the unusual brightness of the winter sun, and slowly pivoted in her direction.
The breath caught in her throat. Although much taller and broader than memory served, the sergeant’s features were achingly familiar. She stood transfixed, scarce daring to believe what her eyes told her as fact, that this was indeed the son she had believed dead. Suddenly, eyes blinded with tears and without conscious thought, she was running across the square.
15th December : 1816 I have not had the heart to commit my thoughts and deeds to paper, but today, Major Fitzwarren has restored my faith in mankind.
A sporting curricle halted outside the cottage and a fine gentleman I scarce recognised as Major Fitzwarren alighted. Imagine my surprise when he strode to the door and demanded of my mother that he speak with me.
Once we had expounded the lamentable aftermath of the wars and the ensuing unemployment of the returning men, we came to the reason for his visit. He was in need of a manager, someone to whom he could entrust the day-to-day running of his estate. He said that he remembered how the men had responded to me, how they had rallied to my call on the battlefield. He needed such a man, one he could trust to hold his interests secure.
I laughed and asked if he had not noticed my injuries. That there were far more able men who would suit his needs. How could a half-blind cripple fill such an obligation?
His reaction was not what I expected. “I had thought better of you,” he scoffed. “Obviously you are not the man I thought you. The sergeant I knew would not have let the small matter of the loss of an eye and a portion of leg divert him from entering my service. I had thought you capable of a challenge. Obviously I was wrong.”
When put so baldly, how could I refuse? If the Major had such faith in me, how could I doubt my own capabilities?
25th April 1817: I was on my way to the stables to ask for the gig so that I might visit the outer farms when a small boy of about 3 hurtled from the stable and almost knocked me over. When I remonstrated with him, he cried that his mamma was in the chicken and he must go to her
“Your mother’s where?” I asked, fearing I had not heard the child right.
“In the chicken,” he repeated, fighting off my restraining hand.
A groom came to my aid, “‘Tis the new housekeeper’s son,” he laughed, “and his mother is in the kitchen. You may know of her husband, Sergeant Phillips. He was with the Surreys but was killed at Waterloo.”
I replied that I vaguely remembered Phillips but had not known that he was married. He had never spoken of a wife.
Whilst we were deliberating the matter, the child made good his escape to join his mamma in the ‘chicken’.
I often saw the boy in the subsequent days and he appeared fascinated by my leg, or rather, the lack of the lower portion of that limb. He made it his business to follow me but did not speak until I called him over to me one morning and asked if he would like to visit the granary with me. He could not scramble into the gig quickly enough, although I found it necessary to haul him the final few feet and onto the seat beside me.
Once we were moving, he chattered non-stop and, although I could not always grasp his words, we managed famously.
However, when we returned to the stable yard, it was to become the centre of much commotion. Apparently Mrs Phillips had ordered the whole estate searched for her recalcitrant son and was in floods of tears at his apparent disappearance.
In my eagerness to please the child I had not anticipated such a furore when I allowed Harry (as I now know the boy to be named) to accompany me, and was quite taken aback when Mrs Phillips ran into the yard and began to scold both her son and me alike. I was also taken aback by her youth. Sergeant Phillips had been a good 15 years older than me, but his widow was scarce my own age (and a very pretty girl she is too).
I made my escape as speedily as this damn leg would allow. I had not missed the look of pity when her temper cooled and she finally took stock of me. Harry would have run after me, but to my relief, his mother quickly caught him by his collar.
I must now avoid the house whenever possible and keep to the estate office where I know she will not venture. I must discourage the child in future. It will not do that he should keep company with me.
I have seen Mrs Phillips from a distance. When her work and the weather allow, she plays with her son in the kitchen garden. I sometimes sit in the window of my office where I know she will not see me and watch them at their fun. She is very patient with him and seems no more than a young girl herself as they laugh and play their games. Harry is so like her and their closeness is apparent for all to see. I often find myself laughing with them.
Today, Mrs Phillips invaded my sanctum. She bought me a cake and, as the day was warm, a bottle of her lemonade.
I found it difficult to hide my embarrassment at this gesture of kindness and remained behind the desk so that she should not see my awkwardness. I wish not to invoke her pity.
She did not tarry, for which I was grateful, but the room appeared devoid of light when she left.
16th May 1817 : Sally comes almost every day now. She brings me offerings of pasties and pies as well as cakes and biscuits. One could almost suspect her of cosseting me, but I must not become accustomed to her visits and come to rely upon them for she will soon tire of my company. We talk now, and she shares the little incidents of her life with me. Harry sometimes accompanies her but mostly she comes when he takes his nap and she is able to slip away whilst one of the maids looks to him.
I dare not admit how much I have come to look forward to her company. I try to school myself not to expect her but I cannot prevent the searing disappointment when she does not come.
The major came to the office today just as Sally was about to leave. I expected a reprimand for taking her away from her duties, but once she was gone, he waved aside my apologies with a knowing smile and a teasing jest.
26th June 1817 : The Major returned from London today and immediately ordered me up to the house. I had thought he wished to speak to me on matters of the estate and was totally unprepared for the reason for my summons
Without saying a word to me, the Major has been seeking information about false limbs and has found a surgeon who, through his work with war casualties, has designed a leg with moveable joints – a vast improvement to the peg that is currently available. He has arranged for me to visit - to see if I would be a suitable candidate for such a limb.
I was much taken aback and whilst grateful for his concern felt compelled to point out that the purchase of such a limb was beyond my means. Such niceties were reserved for the rich alone and even though he paid me well, any monies not essential for my immediate needs were sent to my mother.
To my amazement, he assured me that I would not be called upon to find the necessary capital. He had arranged for his man of business to settle all costs involved.
There then ensued a battle of wills as I could not, in all conscience, accept such generosity. Had he not already provided me with a position and given me the self-worth I had despaired of ever feeling again?
In his usual manner, he brushed aside my concerns and refused to be swayed upon the matter – even going so far as to threaten dismissal if I did not comply with his wishes. I am to go to London as soon as is practicable.
9th September 1817 : I can’t believe the difference. No longer do I need the support of a crutch as I go about my duties. It is sufficient that I use a stick, and that is only when my leg is weary. The ankle joint allows me much more freedom than I ever thought possible. I have even tried riding, but that is a skill I have yet to acquire.
My success with the leg has emboldened me to ask Sally to walk out with me and she (amid much teasing from the maids) has agreed. I have fared no better, such have been the sly looks and giggles that have been cast my way that I have been thoroughly put out of countenance.
22nd November 1817 : A hope has seized me and will not be put aside. So close have Sally and I grown that I am to her as any other man and she sees not my disfigurement. Harry has become as a son to me and already he treats me as a father. If I shall have my way, I soon shall be so in fact. My Sally brings me light and joy and, God grant me courage, to this I must hold, for I would take a wife.
24th December 1817: It is Christmastide, a time for rejoicing and I have more than most to celebrate. Much to my delight, my days as a bachelor are numbered and I am a very happy man. Not only do I acquire a wife but also a son. I am to remove from my rooms above my office as I am now the proud owner of a large cottage on the estate, given to me in anticipation of my nuptials, by Major Fitzwarren.
Before the Yuletide festivities began, I took Sally to meet my mother who, as William has taken a wife, now lives alone. The two set up an immediate rapport and when we were returned from the visit, Sally suggested that Mother should come to live with us and I readily agreed – but not just yet. I will have my sweet Sally to myself a while longer.
I will write not more in my journal. There is no more to say.
I have my heart's desire and cherish every day.
My Sally's brought me courage and hope for years to come
And the unexpected treasure in the joy of her son.
© Hazel Statham June, 2006