The Street Philosopher
The Street Philosopher
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First Published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2009
Copyright © Matthew Plampin
MAP © John Gilkes, 2008
Matthew Plampin asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780007272433
Ebook Edition © MARCH 2009 ISBN: 9780007310043 Version: 2017-05-04
For my father, who kept on about it.
It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artistinterested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring backword from the men who are fighting to those who want thewar to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message,but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousysouls.
Paul Nash, Letter from Passchendaele,
Kitson’s well-worn boots crunched through the shingle as he walked down towards the shore. It was a cold, unwelcoming afternoon. The sky was low and slate-grey, and the waters of the bay churned with a heavy swell. Sea birds croaked dismally as they hung, wings outstretched, on the brisk wind. Most of the men who filled the landing zone were in uniform, but there were enough ragged-looking civilians among them for Kitson to stride past without remark. Reaching a small rise in the stony beach, he paused to scratch his beard and take stock of the scene around him.
On this, the third day of the invasion, it was the turn of the Earl of Cardigan’s Light Brigade to disembark. Kitson pulled a pocketbook and pencil from his shabby, faded frock-coat. Squinting, he peered out at the rows of troop transports and frigates anchored in the deeper waters, and attempted to make out their names, jotting down those he could see. There were so many vessels in the bay that the horizon was obscured by a dense forest of masts, funnels and rigging. The echoing blasts of their steam horns drifted over to where he stood scribbling intently into his book.
Flotillas of long rowing boats were ferrying soldiers from the transport ships. Teams of blue-jacketed sailors, seemingly impervious to the cold, waded out into the surf to drag the boats’ prows up onto the beach. Landing planks were thrown down, and hussars poured out, their scabbards held over their heads to avoid any chance of a freak spray or splash rusting the blades within. Against the dull, washed-out tones of the afternoon, their uniforms seemed intensely colourful, a vivid combination of rich blacks, glowing reds and acid yellows. The blue-jackets stared as the cavalrymen calmly returned their sabres to their belts and strolled slowly inland as if the Crimea were already theirs. Kitson scanned the crowds of plush busbies and brocade-encrusted jackets, noting the regiments for his report.
The breeze changed direction, and a faint, inhuman shrieking reached the correspondent’s ears. He stopped writing mid sentence. A bone-white horse was dangling over the side of one of the larger iron-screw steamers, suspended from a small crane. Leather straps were fastened around the creature’s torso, its legs hanging limply down as it cried out in terror. Beneath it, rocking precariously on the waves, was a crude raft, made from several rowing boats lashed together. The squat black form of an artillery piece already sat awkwardly upon it, tied down with rope; the makeshift platform was unbalanced by its weight, and tipped drunkenly with the rise and fall of the sea.
After a short, tense descent, the horse’s hooves touched the raft. Several sailors reached out at once, unfastening the straps and patting the beast’s neck and muzzle reassuringly. The horse slipped on the shining planks, but was quickly on its feet again, nostrils flaring as it snorted with distress. Already, the next was on its way down, a chestnut this time, whinnying loudly as it came; and before long, three warhorses stood upon the raft as it floated unsteadily beneath the overcast sky.
Disaster was so inevitable, and so familiar, that the blue-jackets greeted it with weariness rather than alarm. One of the horses became tangled up in the cords holding down the gun and, immediately panicking, started to kick and flounder, screaming as it did so. The others promptly reared up, shaking off the men who tried to settle them, adding their voices to what was soon a piercing chorus. With a sharp whipping sound, straining ropes started to snap. A second later the gun toppled overboard, pulling the horse caught up in the ropes after it. Both vanished instantly into the murky brown-green water. The raft lurched upwards on the side where the lost gun had stood, causing the two remaining horses to fall, and then slide off messily into the sea.
Back on the beach, Kitson winced and made a quick entry in his pocketbook.
A few other rafts, similarly troubled, bobbed and span among the looming iron-clads. Some of the transport captains, seeing the mayhem below, had decided to dispense with any attempt at conveying the horses to shore and were simply having them pushed from the deck, leaving it to the beasts themselves to find their way to the beach. Kitson watched them tumble down the sides of the tall ships into the waves, legs kicking wildly, landing in an explosion of foam. He tried to trace the dots of their heads as they swam for the shore. Some of them he lost; others didn’t seem to be moving at all, so slow was their progress. His eyes started to ache with the effort.
Blinking, Kitson remembered the telegram, which he’d tucked inside the pocketbook’s front cover. He pulled it out. The crumpled piece of yellowed paper bore terse words from O’Farrell back in London, shouted out in mechanical script: Illustrator Robert Styles STOP Lands Eupatoria sixteenth SeptemberSTOP HMS Arthur STOP. It had arrived about three weeks earlier, at the telegraph office in Varna. Cracknell, predictably enough, hadn’t been impressed.
‘Men dropping dead from bloody cholera all around us, not a drop of decent brandy for five hundred bloody miles, a bloody great war about to commence, and what does our editor send out to his brave correspondents? A bloody illustrator!’
Kitson had muttered his concurrence. Inwardly, however, he’d been intrigued, and pleased that the London Courier’s reporting team was to be enlarged. After months spent following Richard Cracknell through the brothels and slums of Constantinople, and then trailing behind him across the meadows of Bulgaria, Kitson had come to feel almost as if he were a manservant rather than a junior reporting partner. The thought of a peer, an equal, had a distinct appeal–and what was more, this Mr Styles, as an illustrator, a professional artist, would surely be a man of some culture. He’d know about the successes and failures of the Academy Summer Exhibition, at least. Kitson longed for such conversation in a manner he wouldn’t have thought possible half a year earlier.
Before him, the waiting hussars yelled encouragement as horses started to reach the shore. Kitson looked up from the telegram. The blue-jackets in the sea were attempting to get hold of the dazed animals before they could stagger out of the water, but the men were inexperienced, and allowed many to escape. Once on the beach, the horses shook their manes, looked quickly about them, and then bolted. One, a grey, charged by close to where Kitson stood, hooves clattering through the stones, eyes wide with fear, water streaming down its sea-darkened flanks. Several hussars gave chase, raising their arms in the air, whistling shrill signals that, on this occasion, the highly trained horse failed even to notice.
The stiff breeze knocked off one of the cavalrymen’s busbies. Cursing, he left the pursuit and strode crossly to where it lay amongst the pebbles.
Seeing his chance, Kitson tucked away the telegram and turned over a fresh page in his pocketbook. ‘Excuse me, trooper, but might I enquire as to your orders? D’you know when are we to move upon Sebastopol?’
The hussar was a tall corporal with a thick blond moustache, dressed in the blue overalls of the King’s Royal Irish. He snatched up the busby and brushed it roughly with the back of his hand. Then he looked at Kitson, irritation written plainly on his face. ‘What?’
‘I’m from the London Courier,’ Kitson explained. ‘We are reporting on the campaign.’
‘And why the devil would you be doin’ that?’
Kitson met the man’s hostile stare with a brief, amiable grin. He had been asked similar questions many times before, in the same suspicious tones, and had a standard response. ‘Why, so that the British public might read of the heroism of their troops, of course, and the progress of their noble undertaking, thereby easing—’
The hussar was not listening. ‘I cannot be seen conversin’ with the likes of you,’ he interrupted impatiently, tugging the busby’s golden strap under his chin. ‘Now get out the damned way.’
His shoulder struck hard against Kitson’s as he sprinted off after the errant horse, which was now somewhere amongst the piles of supplies that covered the rear of the landing zone. Kitson staggered, losing his footing for a moment, and dropping his pocketbook as he waved an arm to steady himself. As he stooped to pick it up, the telegram fell from beneath its cover. Caught by the wind, the slip of paper curled away across the stones, rising up into the air. For a moment, Kitson considered giving chase; but then just watched it go.
The H.M.S. Arthur, one of the older frigates in the bay, was anchored a good distance from the beach with her sails rolled. As her passengers were non-military, she had been allocated only two longboats, making the disembarkation painfully, tediously slow. In addition, the ship was taking on cholera cases for immediate transport back to Scutari. Every longboat from the Arthur, after it had been pulled up on to the stones and disgorged its civilian cargo, then had to be loaded with pale, moaning soldiers, each one bound to a stretcher, before it could sail back. Like every other operation that day, lifting the sick up to the ship once they reached her was made many times more difficult by the swell. At least two had been lost to the waves.
The invalids were receiving a great deal of attention from those leaving the Arthur. The majority were soldiers’ wives who had been camped out with the army throughout the miserable summer in Varna, but left behind when the invasion force had set sail for the Crimea. Rows of anxious faces, framed by grimy bonnets, poked over the deck rail, both hopeful and fearful that someone familiar might be among those being carried aboard so precariously. They gasped when the sailors stumbled, and they wailed when men went into the sea; but they’d already seen far too much death that year to be badly shocked.
Kitson approached the cholera cases awaiting evacuation. They were laid out in lines across the shingle like rotten railway sleepers. He looked at the soldiers’ stained uniforms, streaked with vomit and faeces, their waxy, agonised faces, their rigid limbs that poked out awkwardly from under their blankets like snapped branches, and felt nothing but relief that he had so far managed to escape infection. This cold-hearted reaction would have shamed him six months earlier. Like the soldiers’ wives, however, like everyone on the campaign, he had grown somewhat hardened against the misery of others.
He picked his way around to where the disembarked wives had gathered in a large crowd, huddled against the wind, shawls drawn in close around them. Many were calling out names at the invalids, in the slight hope of eliciting responses from them. The only able-bodied men present were the servants of the few officers’ wives who had been obliged to travel aboard the Arthur, standing alongside their mistresses, a little apart from the grubby spouses of the common soldiery. There was no one present who might conceivably be Mr Styles. Kitson perched on a coil of thick navy rope and lit a cigar, settling down to wait.
Before long, another longboat scraped up on to the shore. Drab civilians piled over its sides, many not waiting for the landing planks in their eagerness to walk again upon dry land. As they dispersed, drifting off into a maze of crates, sacks and assorted pieces of military machinery, Kitson noticed a man vault athletically out of the boat. He threw a leather folder and a canvas bag to the ground, and turned quickly to offer his arm to a slender young woman who was stepping on to the top of a landing plank, holding up the hem of her skirts before descending with practised grace. The poise and careful courtesy of this interaction appeared entirely out of place in that dreary, chaotic afternoon. As Kitson watched, the man retrieved his belongings and the pair started in his direction, the lady’s gloved hand in his elbow, their heads lowered against the breeze. A group of sailors heaved a large mahogany trunk from the longboat, puffing as they rushed it inland, overtaking the strolling couple. After thirty yards or so, they set it down with a groan; the black chest was so heavy that it sank several inches into the pebbles. Rubbing their sore palms together, the blue-jackets promptly returned to their boats.
There were some distant screams as a warhorse leapt from the foam close to the soldiers’ wives, trampling several of the cholera cases as it galloped off into the landing zone. The pair, who had by now reached the chest, both looked around to find the source of this sound, giving Kitson his first proper sight of their faces. He caught his breath: the woman was Madeleine Boyce. Grinding out his cigar on the navy rope, he got to his feet and walked towards them.
Mrs Madeleine Boyce was a lady of considerable reputation. Although only a shade above twenty, her fame as a beauty was already well established. That afternoon, as ever, her clothes were immaculate; a grey silk dress with a dark blue bonnet and cloak, unostentatious but radiating quiet expensiveness. Her cheeks bore the slightest flush from the sharp sea wind and the cold spray it carried. A few strands of dark hair had escaped from under her bonnet, and trailed across her cheek. Seeing Kitson approach, she smiled warmly.
‘Mr Kitson! What a pleasant surprise!’ Her voice, even when raised against the bustle of the beach, was soft, with the light accent of a Frenchwoman who had been among the English for many years. She gestured at the activity around them. ‘How extraordinary all this is!’
Kitson returned her smile, marvelling at her relaxed demeanour. Does she have the faintest notion, he wondered, of the difficulties her presence here will cause? ‘It is remarkable, Madame, truly remarkable, what wonders can be achieved by our modern armies. Why, King Agamemnon himself would gape with awe at the sight before us today. That so many thousands of fighting men can be landed, and in so short a time, quite amazes the mind.’
He glanced at her companion. The fellow was young also, a number of years younger than Kitson himself, certainly no more than twenty-two or -three. His wide, guileless face was clean-shaven, his skin tanned and unlined, his posture straight–this was no veteran of the staging post at Varna. He wore a black velvet jacket that was not only unsoiled, but also reasonably new and in good repair; a soft, broad-brimmed felt hat in a deep shade of green sat upon his head, and long, light brown curls were tucked behind his ears. The leather folder, now under his arm, was plainly an album of drawings and sketches. There could be no doubt who he was. Kitson had located Mr Styles.
‘Allow me to introduce myself, sir,’ the young man said, extending his hand, ‘Robert Styles. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Kitson. Mr O’Farrell assured me that you would be here to meet me, even if Mr Cracknell was indisposed.’
Kitson took Styles’ hand. The skin was oddly smooth against his own callused palm. Standing there, exchanging pleasantries with a fashionable lady and an artist, he was struck by a strange, momentary sense of familiarity, as if his old life in the salons and picture galleries of the Metropolis had somehow followed him to the shores of the Black Sea. ‘Welcome to the Crimea, Mr Styles. May I say how glad I am that you are joining us, sir. Your efforts will doubtless enrich our coverage of the coming conflict enormously.’
Styles smiled nervously. ‘I only hope I do not disappoint, Mr Kitson. Much faith has been placed in me, it seems.’
‘You are too modest, Mr Styles,’ interjected Mrs Boyce gently. She met Kitson’s eye. ‘He is a man of true talent, Mr Kitson. Whilst we were on board the Arthur, he took several studies of me, all quite excellent.’
‘Really, Madame?’ Kitson looked at the illustrator. Styles was blushing fiercely, intensely pleased by Mrs Boyce’s praise. It was clear enough what had transpired between them. Madeleine Boyce conquered fellows like this Styles without even properly realising that she was doing it. Kitson almost cursed aloud: here was yet another complication to consider. So much, he thought, for my optimism about the arrival of Mr Styles. ‘Is that where you first met one another, may I ask? On the Arthur?’
Styles nodded. ‘The vessel made a stop at Varna, sir, and Mrs Boyce came aboard. We were introduced soon after.’
‘Indeed, Mr Styles. What serendipity.’ Kitson turned back to the officer’s wife. She had removed one of her gloves and was idly studying the exposed hand. ‘Well, I must say that it is good to see you again so soon, Madame. We poor Courier scribes were resigned to meeting you next upon English soil.’ He cleared his throat pointedly. ‘Mr Cracknell will be especially gratified, I’m sure.’
Suddenly self-conscious, Mrs Boyce pulled her glove back on. ‘And how fares your good senior? He is well, I hope?’
Styles was listening very closely, his brow furrowed. Our young illustrator is no fool, thought Kitson. He saw the change that came over her when I mentioned Cracknell’s name. ‘He perseveres, Mrs Boyce, in his usual manner. His, ah, inexhaustible passion for our task continues to inspire all in his orbit. Myself in particular.’
She smiled at this reply–not the confident smile that charmed and dazzled so many, but a genuine, involuntary expression of deep delight. Kitson looked away.
A small mule-cart was weaving slowly through some Commissariat tents pitched at the rear of the landing zone, heading in their direction. It was driven by a stout infantry sergeant, with a private sat at his side. The brass regimental number on the front of their shako helmets was just visible: these soldiers were from the 99th Foot.
‘I see that your escort approaches, Madame,’ Kitson observed, unable to keep a note of relief from his voice. ‘The Lieutenant-Colonel will be most pleased to learn that you have arrived without mishap.’
The dreamy smile vanished. Mrs Boyce inclined her head stiffly in reluctant acknowledgement of her husband’s existence.
‘And we must leave you now, I’m afraid,’ Kitson added apologetically. ‘There are duties we must perform, and certain facts of our present situation with which Mr Styles here must be familiarised. I feel sure, however, that we will encounter one another again in the near future.’
Farewells were exchanged–rather hastily, as Kitson wished to avoid being caught conversing with Mrs Boyce by one of her husband’s non-commissioned officers. It would be reported, various assumptions would be made, and trouble would surely follow. He was starting to feel that trouble was something with which the nascent Courier team was already too familiar.
Madeleine watched the newspapermen walk away across the stones, taking care to give the cart a wide berth. A minute later, the modest vehicle pulled up close to where she stood. The squat brown mules were shaking their heads and braying, unsettled by the sounds of the teeming landing zone.
‘Mrs Boyce?’ said the sergeant. ‘We’re ’ere t’collect you, ma’am.’ She nodded absently. The two soldiers climbed down from the cart and started towards the chest.
Turning away, Madeleine gazed inland, past the beach to the farmlands beyond. ‘Je suis ici, Richard,’ she whispered, ‘je suis ici.’
More cholera cases were being carried down towards the sea from the camps, bound for the Arthur. Kitson and Styles pressed themselves against a row of ammunition crates to let them pass. The men already seemed beyond all help, flies clustering around their mouths and eyes in black knots. The illustrator felt a clammy nausea close around him. He was not yet used to such sights.
The new colleagues walked on through a copse of short, small-leafed trees and out into a broad expanse of farmland. An undulating quilt of lavender and wheat stretched away to the horizon, dotted with farmhouses, fruit orchards and wide-bladed windmills. A few rays of sunlight broke through the clouds, dappling the landscape beneath. Soon the diseased soldiers were left behind, and Styles began to recover himself. The Crimean countryside was a welcome change indeed from the open sea, and seemed remarkably peaceful. Even the mass of white military tents pitched off to the east looked like the site of an enormous fair. Red-coated infantry drilled in long lines, the shouts of their sergeants mingling with the jaunty tunes of regimental bands, and the clanking of countless pans and kettles.
Styles asked whether they might stop for a moment, so that he could take in this sight properly–perhaps even make a quick sketch. Kitson continued to stride on ahead at some speed, however, with no sign of having heard him. Hands in his pockets, he was staring down at the ground, entirely absorbed in private thoughts. The illustrator didn’t repeat his request. He was determined not to prove an annoyance. Kitson’s heavy beard and dusty, discoloured clothes seemed to rebuke him for his late arrival on the campaign, for the months of hardship he had missed–and to demand that he demonstrate his suitability for the task that lay ahead.
Thomas Kitson, also, was someone with whom he felt he had a deep kinship. During the course of his briefings at the London Courier, Styles had heard a good deal about the junior correspondent. More than two months after Kitson’s departure, the magazine’s offices on the Strand still hummed with talk about the unaccountable fellow who had abandoned a promising career in art criticism to follow Lord Raglan’s Army. He was exceedingly knowledgeable, these gossips said, and had been expected to rise to the summit of his profession before long–yet he had decided to risk everything, his very life included, to chase after battles with the notoriously unpredictable Richard Cracknell. The verdicts of his former colleagues were harsh–they theorised that Kitson, in the last years of his youth, had developed a craving for glory, for a reputation that anonymous reviews of picture-shows could never bring him. Either that or he had received some sort of hard, disorientating blow to the head.
But one powerful voice had been raised in Kitson’s defence, sending his detractors scuttling for cover: that of old Mr O’Farrell, the Courier’s editor-in-chief. ‘The man of whom you speak so dismissively can summon forth images with his pen that none of you wretched inkhorns could ever hope to match,’ he had snapped. ‘He desired a challenge, a subject of import, of weight, well away from the vapid commonplaces of Metropolitan conversation–and I was not prepared to deny him it!’
This outburst had heartened Styles enormously. This was his wish as well–to witness something great, something that would make him more of a man and more of an artist. He, too, had met with his share of opposition, from fearful relatives and uncomprehending friends, all looking at him in utter mystification when he told them of his contract with the Courier. Hearing O’Farrell speak of Kitson in this manner had made him believe that his decision was justified, that he was off to perform a noble task with like-minded souls. Yet here he was, out on the campaign at last, in Mr Kitson’s company no less, and they had barely exchanged a word beyond their initial greeting. This was not how he had envisioned his first hour as a member of the Courier team.
The two men started along a narrow mud track, and the silence stretched until Styles could bear it no longer. ‘May I ask where we are heading, sir?’ he said, loudly and a little plaintively. ‘I’d assumed we’d be going straight to camp in order to commence our duties, but we seem to be heading in the very opposite direction.’
Kitson pointed towards some nearby chimneys, just visible over a bank of brush to their right. ‘Mr Styles,’ he began, a touch of amusement in his voice, ‘you will soon discover that our foremost duty as Mr Cracknell’s juniors is not to draw or write but to secure the Courier’s provisions. We will find what we need over there.’
‘Does the army not provide for us?’
This prompted a sarcastic laugh. ‘The army, my friend, can hardly provide for its own. On the first night here the soldiers had no tents, let alone sufficient rations–and this was in heavy rain. Sir George Brown, commander of the Light Division, was obliged to take shelter under a cart. We newspapermen are a long way down the list of priorities.’ Kitson waved a thin forefinger in the air. ‘The first lesson of life on campaign, sir: make your own arrangements!’
The track wound around a low hill to bring them before a large manor house with a walled yard. It was a smart residence indeed, built from even blocks of pale stone. Heavy shutters, painted dark green, covered every window; the house’s owners had clearly left to escape the approaching war. The wide, cobbled yard was fringed with outbuildings and stables, somewhat cruder in style but all coated with a creamy whitewash that made them glow warmly against the surrounding hedgerows.
Kitson headed confidently across the yard. A handful of peasants stood behind carts and barrows that had been arranged to form improvised market-stalls, upon which a small selection of produce from the surrounding fields had been laid out for purchase. These peasants resembled the Arabs Styles had seen at Constantinople, but with a touch of the Orient about their eyes. All were male, and most were bearded; they wore mud-stained smocks made from sackcloth and canvas, and brimless fur caps upon their heads. Every one of them was watching the Englishmen closely. A couple made observations in a guttural language Styles was pretty sure wasn’t Russian.
‘Crim Tartars,’ murmured Kitson. ‘The original inhabitants of this peninsula, here long before Catharine the Great took it under her dominion. They are serfs, effectively. They’ve taken to congregating outside this place–the seat of a squire, I believe, or the Crimean equivalent–with whatever wares they can scrape together. The French Commissariat has been coming over here to purchase food for their senior officers, but these fellows will happily sell to us as well.’ He took out some coins and jangled them together in his palm. ‘They are careful to keep their distance from the camps, though. The private soldier on campaign is not known for his courteous dealings with locals.’
‘Did they not think to flee?’
‘It would seem not. Some are no doubt hoping that their Russian masters will be defeated, and they will be able to reclaim a portion of this land for themselves. Others, the more loyal ones, are standing guard.’
The illustrator looked about him at the ramshackle market and the shuttered manor house. ‘Guarding what, sir? Nothing of any value has been left behind, surely?’
Kitson approached a stall and began inspecting some misshapen loaves. ‘You would be surprised, Mr Styles. The rich men of the Crimea left their homes in some haste. Ancient volumes, pictures, objects of virtu–all have been ferreted away in the slight hope that the storm of war will leave them unmolested.’
He bought one of the loaves with a large copper coin. As he took the money, the stall-holder nodded to the Courier man as if in recognition. ‘I have tried to draw attention to this matter, but I’m afraid that Cracknell isn’t particularly interested, so nothing will come of it. Our good senior is many things, Mr Styles, but he cannot be called a man of culture.’
Mention of Cracknell’s name caused Styles to remember Mrs Boyce’s singular, unsettling smile back on the beach. It was unlike any look of hers he had seen before–and he had studied her closely, with a devoted eye. ‘What is Mr Cracknell really like, Mr Kitson?’ he asked suddenly. ‘So much is said of him back in London. The most unsavoury stories …’
Kitson chuckled. ‘Don’t believe all that you hear, Mr Styles. Richard Cracknell can be somewhat … provocative, it is true, but he is an accomplished correspondent, and a man possessed of a truly fearsome determination. We are fortunate indeed to be with him. He wishes to take this unprecedented chance to experience war at first-hand, and wring everything out of it that he can.’
‘And how did you both come to be acquainted with Mrs Boyce?’ Styles tried to keep his voice level. ‘Why were you so surprised to see her here?’
The correspondent headed for another stall. Upon it was a wicker basket stuffed with scrawny, clucking chickens. ‘Mrs Boyce has a rare beauty, does she not?’ Kitson’s expression was unreadable.
He has detected my attachment, Styles thought quickly; and despite his casual tone, he disapproves. This is why he was so quiet after our meeting. He has been biding his time before delivering his admonition, trying to catch me off-guard, to chide me as if I were an infatuated schoolboy. Styles felt a defiant anger well up inside him. He would not disavow his feelings, nor would he apologise for them. He loved the divine Mrs Boyce with all his soul. They were fast friends, confidantes even, and he was certain that in time they would become much more–regardless of what Mr Kitson might think about it.
He could not deny, however, that Kitson’s familiar conversation with Mrs Boyce back on the beach had disturbed him a little. Kitson was no rival, of that Styles was certain; his manner, coolly polite to the point of irony, had indicated this clearly enough. Something disquieting had been there, though–a sense of shared history between Mrs Boyce and the Courier correspondents, an earlier chapter Styles was not party to. He had to know more.
‘She does indeed,’ Styles replied forcibly. ‘Beyond any other I have seen.’
Kitson made no reaction to this bold declaration. He pointed out a bird to the stall-holder. The Tartar plucked it from the basket, wrung its neck with practised efficiency, and then exchanged it for two more of the correspondent’s coins.
‘She was to be sent home, you know, by her husband.’ Kitson’s tone was matter-of-fact. ‘Due to the danger of disease. God alone knows how she managed to change his mind. I only hope that her presence here doesn’t prove too problematic.’
Styles frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
Kitson tucked the chicken into a capacious pocket. Its scaly feet stuck out, still twitching spasmodically. ‘She told you of her husband, I take it? Of how things stand between them?’
Over the course of the voyage from Varna, Mrs Boyce had spoken of her husband at great length. Styles had heard of every trouble visited upon her by Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Boyce–who, by his wife’s account, was a despicable, prideful boor given to all manner of senseless cruelty. Intoxicated by the intimacy that had developed so rapidly between them, Styles had sworn to himself that he would free her, that he would bring this precious lady the happiness she so richly deserved.
Kitson regarded him doubtfully. ‘One must be very careful, my friend, in trying to build an acquaintance with Mrs Boyce, no matter how, ah, innocent it might be. Countless young gentlemen, you understand, have lost themselves in those ebony eyes, nurtured torturous dreams of lying in the tresses of that luxuriant, perfumed hair, and so forth.’ He paused, the slightest suggestion of a smile on his lips. ‘The Lieutenant-Colonel is famously zealous in dispatching his rivals. They say that he has even shot several of them, in duels or elsewhere, to convince them to desist.’
Styles studied Kitson’s face again. Was this a warning? Or was it mockery? Either way, he decided that he would hear no more. ‘Are you trying to frighten me, Mr Kitson? Because if so, I must state that Mrs Boyce and I—’
‘Mr Styles,’ Kitson interrupted firmly, ‘enough games. There are some things you should know about Madeleine Boyce.’
But before he could say any more, a ripple of apprehension ran through the Tartar stall-holders gathered in the yard. They began to talk urgently, gesturing beyond the wall. Styles heard the sound of several score of boots marching in time, approaching the farm at a steady speed. The Courier men turned together to face the gate, their conversation forgotten.
‘Damn it,’ Kitson muttered. ‘Soldiers.’
There was a hard bark of martial instruction, and the first line of an infantry company wheeled into sight. Guided by their corporals, the square of redcoats advanced to the centre of the yard and stamped to attention. The faces beneath their shakos were sallow and lean, and menacing in their impassivity. A sergeant-major appeared behind them, three silver chevrons shining on his arm. Walking slowly towards the manor house, a hand on the hilt of his sword, he made a careful, contemptuous survey of the stalls. Seeing Kitson and Styles, he paused, narrowing his eyes. Kitson touched the brim of his hat with a forefinger. The sergeant-major did not reciprocate.
Styles noticed the soldiers’ regimental numeral. ‘The 99th. Isn’t that Boyce’s regiment?’
Kitson nodded. ‘And best avoided by us Courier men if at all possible. Come, we should buy what else we need and be gone.’
The correspondent made for a hand-cart piled with flaccid wineskins. Its owner managed to pull one out and exchange it for the remaining four of Kitson’s coins without once taking his eyes off the redcoats. Slinging this latest purchase over his arm, Kitson indicated that they should make good their escape. Before they had gone more than a few feet, however, two mounted officers entered the yard, riding across the cobblestones at a canter. Cutting in front of the soldiers, they came to a noisy halt at the manor house’s door, climbed down from their horses and tethered them to a stone water trough.
Kitson was watching them with great curiosity, no longer in such a hurry to depart. ‘Captain Wray and Lieutenant Davy,’ he noted wryly. ‘Old friends of the Courier. I wonder what they could possibly be doing out here?’
The two officers were now conversing intently, consulting a scrap of paper and looking up at the house. Captain Wray was a slight man with a long nose, a sharp, pinched look and a set of whiskers that gave him the unfortunate appearance of a rat wearing a ruff. Lieutenant Davy was taller and somewhat younger, his adolescent countenance all but obscured by a profusion of angry pimples. The sergeant-major marched over to them and made a brief report; the pockmarked Lieutenant glared at Kitson and Styles with open enmity.
‘A–a reconnaissance mission, perhaps?’ Styles suggested uneasily.
Kitson raised an eyebrow but did not reply.
Wray glanced at them with lordly boredom and then turned back to Davy. ‘This is the place, Lieutenant,’ he announced loudly in a high, lisping voice. ‘I am sure of it.’
The Captain pulled open the manor house’s grand double doors and walked inside, with Davy following close behind. At this, the alarm of the Tartars in the yard became more vocal. Several stepped forward, as if to pursue the officers into the building. Seeing this, the sergeant-major faced the company and gave the order to present arms. The soldiers’ abrupt movements, and the synchronised raising of their long-barrelled rifles, successfully checked the stall-holders’ bravery–for the moment, at least.
Styles was growing nervous. The atmosphere in the yard had become charged with violence; it was like being in a tavern seconds before a brawl. He looked quickly at Kitson, hoping for guidance. The correspondent, entirely calm, was moving the sloshing wineskin from one shoulder to the other so that he could take out his pocketbook. Styles suddenly perceived that this unkempt, sardonic fellow, for all his loaded pronouncements and enigmatic expressions, was the same Thomas Kitson whose laudable example had given him such encouragement. I must not quail, the illustrator thought; I must prove myself equal to that which I have taken on. He took a steadying breath and adjusted his hold on his drawing folder, which was growing slippery in his sweating palm.
Several tense minutes passed. The sergeant-major brought his men back to attention whilst the Tartars grumbled amongst themselves. Affecting a new interest in the produce on the carts, Kitson moved slowly towards the open doors of the house, keeping his distance from the soldiers. Styles was attempting to follow suit when the shutters of one of the upper windows were suddenly thrown open. He caught a glimpse of Lieutenant Davy, looking back triumphantly into the dark room.
‘It would seem that they have found what they seek, Mr Styles,’ said Kitson quietly.
A moment later, deep inside the manor house, there was a loud crash and the sound of boots rushing down a flight of stone stairs. Wray paced quickly through the double doors and over to his horse. He was holding an object in his arms, something weighty and awkward, half-wrapped in a length of sackcloth.
Davy emerged directly after him; and behind the Lieutenant, attached to him in fact, came an elderly Tartar, who was gripping on to the gold braid on Davy’s shoulder and shouting angrily. This sight drew some disrespectful sniggers from the company of soldiers, which provoked the Lieutenant to turn furiously on his aged assailant and give him a hard shove. The Tartar reeled, losing his hold on the officer’s uniform, and fell heavily against the stone water trough. Davy then unbuckled his sword and, leaving the blade in the scabbard, he stood over the old peasant and began to beat him with it. The sword cracked against the Tartar’s skull and thumped across his back. Davy’s blemished face contorted with the effort. He showed no intention of stopping, even as the man at his feet began to bleed.
An impulse to intervene came upon Styles with unexpected force. All but running across the yard, he tried to grasp Davy’s arm and restrain his next blow. Without even pausing to see who he was, the Lieutenant struck him full in the face with a balled fist. Styles staggered back and fell onto the cobblestones. The soldiers exploded into laughter.
‘Eyes front!’ yelled the sergeant-major, his face turning as crimson as his coatee. ‘Eyes front, damn you!’
Dazed and acutely embarrassed, Styles propped himself up on an elbow and tenderly touched his face. His mouth was hot, the lip split open; he could taste blood on his teeth, and feel its warmth smeared across his chin. He looked around for his bag and drawing folder. Both were on the ground not far from where he lay. Then he saw Kitson, standing in the middle of the yard, addressing Captain Wray–who was by now mounted on his horse, ready to depart.
‘Good afternoon, Captain Wray,’ called the correspondent cheerfully. ‘A fine day, is it not?’
‘Well, if it isn’t the blasted bog-trotter’s lackey,’ drawled Wray, regarding Kitson coldly from up on his saddle. ‘What the devil are you doing out here?’
Kitson smiled. ‘I might ask you the same question, Captain. I don’t recall hearing that the Light Division had been assigned any duties away from the camp. Could you enlighten me on this point? For the readership of the London Courier?’ He was holding his pocketbook ready, his pencil poised, as if in the very act of reporting.
‘None of your business, and none of your bloody readers’ business either!’ came Wray’s curt retort. He looked to his Lieutenant, who was still panting with exertion as he refastened his sword to his belt. ‘Get to your horse, Davy, we must be off.’
Kitson, however, would not release him so easily. ‘And what is that you have there, Captain?’ he inquired. ‘Forgive me, but it looks rather interesting–valuable, even. Can I ask why you have removed it from this fine house?’
Styles peered again at the object Wray now had balanced before him on his saddle. Some of the sackcloth had slipped away, revealing that it was a statuette of some kind, cast in terracotta, about a foot high. Wray and Davy had stolen it from the farmhouse; the elderly Tartar, its custodian, had been trying to stop them. The soldiers were looting.
Wray stared at the horizon, refusing to answer. His horse paced impatiently beneath him, tossing its head.
‘Only,’ Kitson continued with fearless breeziness, ‘the readership of the Courier–for whom you evidently hold such an immense regard–would be quite fascinated to hear of any antiquities discovered in the Crimea by Her Majesty’s Army–of how they were saved for posterity by the forces of enlightenment, so selflessly snatching them from the darkness of barbarism.’
A grin crept across Styles’ bloody face.
Wray sighed irritably, seeing that he had been out-manoeuvred. ‘Oh, very well, you damned grubber. Here is your blasted antiquity.’
The Captain unwrapped the statuette fully and held it out at arm’s length. It was of Saint Catherine, rendered in the flamboyant style of the Italian Baroque. The saint was posed dramatically atop her broken cartwheel, her russet limbs arranged as if she was about to launch herself heavenward. Even from the ground, Styles could see that it was a piece of some quality.
And then Wray let it drop.
The brittle sound of the Saint Catherine shattering on the cobbles echoed around the yard. It was followed by a string of hoarse exclamations from the elderly Tartar, who was trying unsuccessfully to rise from the ground; whether these strained noises were curses or lamentations Styles could not tell. With a self-satisfied smirk, Wray wheeled his horse around and commanded that the company be taken back out to the road. The sergeant-major snarled an order, turning the soldiers smartly towards the gate.
Kitson put his pocketbook under his arm and clapped a round of slow, derisive applause. ‘Oh bravo, Captain Wray, bravo!’ he shouted. ‘Oh, well done, sir! You have surely triumphed! You bested me there, and no mistake!’
Wray did not even look around. Moving ahead of the company, he spurred his horse and was gone. Davy leant over to spit at the correspondent’s feet, hissing a few vicious obscenities before riding after his Captain.
As soon as the soldiers had left, the Tartars rushed to help the old man, sitting him on the side of the trough and mopping at a long cut on his brow. A stout woman, her hair bound under a black headscarf, rushed from the farmhouse and threw her arms around his neck, sobbing loudly. Davy’s victim would not be comforted, though; shaking off the woman and rising to his feet, he hobbled over to the remains of the Saint Catherine. Seeing that there was no hope of repair, he gave the shards a despairing kick, scattering them across the yard.
‘You see now what I was referring to earlier, Mr Styles.’ Kitson was standing over him, writing materials stuffed in one pocket, chicken legs poking out of the other. His precise state of mind, once again, was hard to divine; but he did not seem unamused by their encounter with the officers of the 99th. ‘Items like that statuette should rightfully be protected, stored well away from rapacious brutes like our Captain Wray.’ He offered the illustrator his hand and pulled him upright. ‘How is your lip?’
‘Sore enough. But I shall live.’ Styles regarded his comrade with intense admiration. ‘You–you did a fine thing there, Mr Kitson. You bore witness, sir–you stood in the path of wrongdoing.’
Kitson shook his head. ‘You exaggerate, Mr Styles. I failed. The statuette was smashed, and these unfortunate people most foully abused.’ He turned towards the elderly Tartar, who was now clutching at his ribs and grimacing in pain. Immediately the weeping woman was beside him, embracing him protectively, her expression indicating that she viewed the Courier men as entirely complicit in Wray and Davy’s depredations.
‘But you at least gave them pause, sir,’ Styles insisted, ‘whereas I plunged in like a hot-headed booby and caused only laughter.’ A little ashamed, he wiped his bloody chin on his sleeve. ‘We will be reporting this incident, though, won’t we? Telling Mr Cracknell, at least?’
Kitson smiled ruefully. ‘Mr Styles, your enthusiasm is refreshing indeed to a jaded soul such as myself. Questions do occur to me, I must admit. Who, for example, directed them to this house? They were certainly acting under another’s instructions.’
‘And what do you think, Mr Kitson?’
To Styles’ dismay, Kitson simply shrugged. ‘What does it matter? No one cares, Mr Styles, as Mr Cracknell would be the first to tell you. There is nothing we can do. Far more is at stake out here than art, my friend. Between here and Sebastopol, the Russian Army is preparing to repel our forces with all their might. I think our generals can be forgiven for being rather more interested in that, don’t you?’
Styles could hardly disagree. Feeling bruised and thoroughly defeated, he picked up his bag and folder, nodding dumbly when Kitson proposed that they head back to camp. As they walked from the yard, he noticed that his black velvet jacket was covered in pale dust. Its left elbow, also, had been scuffed bald against the cobbles.
Kitson cast a sideways glance at the illustrator and brushed at his shoulder. ‘Ha! What a mess! We shall make a war correspondent of you yet, Mr Styles!’
The night sentries maintained that the mist out by the northern barricades was so dense that it was as if Almighty God had reached down from Heaven and rubbed out a bit of creation with His divine thumb. It was cold out there too, and quiet; a deathly graveyard hush after the ceaseless bustle of the camp. This was where the Russians would come from, it was reasoned, if they were to come at all. Every man who stood watch there half expected to see the enemy at any moment, arrayed in their thousands, marching towards him from out of that eerie grey void. Like some red-coated vision of the damned, they coughed, cursed, and scratched miserably at persistent rashes acquired in the whorehouses of Constantinople, staring always at the thirty yards of open ground between them and the edges of the mist.
Yet on the third night, when someone did appear, for several long seconds they froze up altogether. This man was running fast, his cheeks flushed and his black hair awry, a cap of some kind clutched in his hand. Greatcoat flapping around his knees, he didn’t stop or slow down, or even look in their direction. He kept on going, swerving slightly to run roughly parallel to their line, his arms pumping back and forth, his boots pounding through the wet grass. This had to be a Russian spy, of which the sentries had been promised there was a whole devious legion, making a break for his own territory.
The soldiers’ firing, when it began, was erratic at best. The spy was a difficult mark, moving quickly, and they hadn’t been ready for him. Every bullet went wide; some swore, as they lowered their miniés, that they could see a grin spreading across the villain’s face. Then a burly corporal pulled himself up to his full height and swung his rifle’s stock expertly against his shoulder. The end of the barrel fixed on the running man and followed him along for a few yards; then the shot rang out, the man stumbled, and was down. There was a cheer, and laughter, and several hearty slaps to the corporal’s broad back. The first kill of the campaign!
The laughter faded abruptly as the man got up, his feet slipping in the dew, and set off again, at much the same pace as before. Some started to reload hurriedly, tearing at the paper cartridge packs with their teeth. Others started clambering over the barricades, attaching their bayonets, intending to give chase. It was suddenly clear that the spy was heading for a large thicket of wiry bushes a short way to the east. The soldiers shouted to each other, trying to head him off; but he was too fast.
‘Come on, you idle dogs!’ he cried as he went. ‘That the best you can do?’ And then he dived into the bushes, and was gone.
‘Raise the alarm!’ ordered an excited major, freshly arrived on the scene. ‘Full alert! At once! Back to the pickets!’
The soldiers obeyed, and the alarm was raised; but those who had heard the escaping man’s taunt knew that if this really was an enemy spy they pursued, it was one with a distinctly Irish-sounding accent.
After crashing through the undergrowth to the open ground on its other side, Cracknell turned to check that he wasn’t being pursued. Past the bushes, all that he saw was the billowing greyness of a thick sea fog, blowing in from the bay. The bastards are quick enough to fire from the safety of their barricades, he thought with a triumphant sneer; but giving chase, well, that is another matter entirely.
Panting from the effort of his dash for safety, Cracknell pushed his cap back on his head, and mopped his brow with a stained twist of handkerchief. Somewhere inside him, he knew that it had been mad folly to try to creep back into camp from the north. But he felt not even the faintest tremor of guilt for the tumult he had caused. The sensation of the bullets slicing through the air so close to him, tugging at his clothes even, had been monstrously exhilarating. And now, off in the distance, the bugles were sounding a piercing reveille across the shadowy fields. Torches were being lit, and a multitude of soldiers were stumbling from the lines of white, conical tents, buttoning up jackets and readying rifles with anxious haste. That it was all in his honour made Cracknell’s chest swell with a perverse pride. He drew a battered silver hip-flask from his coat pocket, raising it towards the agitated camp before taking a long swig. Then he carried on his way at a considerably reduced pace, one hand pressed against a stabbing stitch in his side.
The Courier tent was pitched at the very edge of the camp, close to a shallow, brackish pond. As he approached it, Cracknell dropped to his haunches, keeping to the shadows. Kitson stood in the light of an oil lamp, the triangles of his shoulder-blades clearly visible through his frock-coat. His junior was talking about the alarm–about how there’d been one the night before that had amounted to nothing, and how such scares were to be expected, given the situation. Cracknell took another gulp from his flask, chuckling softly. Our Mr Kitson’s becoming quite the weathered field operative, he thought. What change can be wrought by expert guidance and a few months’ privation!
He turned his attention to the focus of Kitson’s little lecture–the illustrator. The boy was nodding along, plainly determined to put a brave face on the possibility of an enemy attack. And yes, Cracknell admitted grudgingly, he was handsome, as Maddy had said, in a bland sort of way; but Christ, so callow! Was O’Farrell deliberately trying to make his life as hard as possible? First an art correspondent, of all bloody things, now a youth so fresh-faced he looked as if he’d just been released from double Latin!
A large wineskin was passed between them. Cracknell stayed still for a moment or two, listening. Their conversation suggested that a rapport of sorts had been established. So much the better, reflected their senior. It will ease my burden if they’re watching out for one another. Just as long as they don’t forget who’s in charge.
Then the illustrator happened to glance up–straight into Cracknell’s eyes. He began stammering and pointing. Before Kitson could look around, Cracknell propelled himself forward, charging into the lamplight towards his reporting partner. He was the heavier man by some distance. They collided, tumbling together into the dirt.
Kitson fought to disentangle himself. The illustrator stood to one side, fists clenched, petrified by uncertainty and incomprehension. Cracknell, now lying on his back, shook with laughter.
‘Mr Cracknell!’ Kitson exclaimed breathlessly as he climbed to his feet. ‘What in God’s name—’
Cracknell lit a cigar, holding a match to its tip and sucking with relish. ‘Just testing your reflexes, Thomas!’ His accent, usually mild, had been thickened by drink. ‘Have to keep you on your toes, my lad! How will you face the Bear if you can’t manage the more good-natured assaults of your leader? Eh?’ He chortled throatily around his cigar, puffing out small jets of smoke.
Kitson, rubbing at a twisted elbow, did not look convinced. ‘I suppose, then, that I am expected to thank you for the service?’
With a final loud laugh, the senior correspondent hauled himself up, removed his cigar and took another healthy swallow from his flask. As he smacked his tingling lips, he realised that the young illustrator was staring at him in a manner he did not wholly appreciate. Cracknell smoothed down his wild black beard and made a brusque introduction. Then he noticed a small, dark discolouration at the side of the boy’s mouth.
‘Is that a bruise I see there, sir?’ he asked with gruff, slightly menacing good humour.
The illustrator glanced at Kitson. ‘It is, Mr Cracknell. A lieutenant saw fit to strike out at me after–’
‘A lieutenant?’ Cracknell grinned. ‘You work damned fast, my friend! Why, it took me weeks to be struck in the face by an officer, yet you have achieved it in a matter of hours! A fellow after our own hearts, eh, Thomas?’
Kitson nodded in dry agreement.
‘To be perfectly frank with you, though,’ Cracknell went on, inserting the cigar back between his teeth, ‘I don’t quite see the point of your presence here, myself. The Courier’s foreign correspondence is about words, mine and Kitson’s–the combined efforts of Britannia’s two greatest descriptive minds. We are not the Illustrated London News. We do not, in my view at least, need anything as crude as images to convey our experiences.’ He tapped off an inch of ash. ‘But I have been overruled by my editor. Here you are, Smiles, here you bloody well are, and we shall make the best of it, by God!’
The illustrator looked confused, uncertain whether he had just been endorsed or denounced. ‘I–I thank you, Mr Cracknell. Excuse me though, sir, the name is Styles–S, T, Y—’
Cracknell waved Styles quiet with a meaty, indifferent hand. ‘There is much fodder in this place, is there not, for your work? Grand panorama and so forth?’ Styles lifted up a leather-bound folder, opening his mouth to speak, but Cracknell did not require an answer. ‘You join us late, of course, but that is no loss. The most memorable scenes Varna had to offer were of hundreds of soldiers, felled by cholera long before they could see battle, being buried in ditches–and somehow I don’t think this was quite what that hopeless old muff O’Farrell envisaged when he signed you up.’
The senior correspondent retrieved the wineskin, dropped when he had tackled Kitson, and hefted its sloshing weight. He smiled approvingly; they had made a good inroad into its contents. If there was a man of spirit and courage who was impervious to the robust charms of liquor, Richard Cracknell had certainly never met him.
‘No, young Smiles, this is where the real drama will be staged,’ he went on, ‘here in the Crimea. This peninsula, y’see, has a rich strategic value. It is the promontory from which the Russian Bear exerts its baleful influence over the Black Sea. Thirty miles in that direction,’ he pointed off into the night, ‘lies the mighty fortress-port of Sebastopol; and over yonder,’ he swung his arm in an expansive arc, ‘across the waves, is poor Turkey, Europe’s helpless invalid, ailing and weak–and bound to the British Lion by sacred bonds of honour.’ Cracknell’s excitement was mounting. ‘The Bear has been swiping at this feeble bird of late, snapping at it hungrily–so we will go to Sebastopol and we will knock it down. We have let this Bear grow too hale and hearty, Mr Smiles, and altogether too large, and must now give it a good whipping to remind it of its place! Isn’t that so, Thomas?’
‘It is, Mr Cracknell.’ Kitson had heard all this before, of course, and there was the usual trace of flippancy in his manner. ‘The Lion will, ah, whip the Bear. To rescue the turkey.’
Cracknell’s eyes misted over with alcohol-fuelled passion. ‘A great adventure awaits us, my friends. We shall see the glories of war up close and true, and we will deliver them to the great British public. A more splendid mission is hard to imagine.’ He drew the stopper from the wineskin with a flourish. ‘Let us drink to this team of ours! Let us drink to all we three shall achieve!’
After a long pull of the rough rustic wine, Cracknell lobbed the skin to the illustrator. When they had all partaken, the senior correspondent straightened his lapels, suddenly businesslike. ‘Now, gather yourselves. The camp is abuzz, and we must investigate this alarm on behalf of our readers. There is no time to lose.’
Setting off at a vigorous pace, he led his subordinates back around the pond and into the long, foggy avenues of infantry tents. Everywhere, dark shapes were streaming past stretches of pale canvas, stumbling and jostling as they went. The chilly air hummed with shouts, questions and curses. Torches were evidently in short supply; and when one eventually came into view, weaving through the crowds, it revealed only grim turmoil. Cracknell threw away the butt of his cigar and tried to get his bearings. Over to the right, he spotted a makeshift signpost tacked to a pole beneath a naval lantern. It stood at a rutted, muddy crossroads, with arrows pointing off in every direction. He elbowed his way towards it.
Kitson arrived to his side. Cracknell saw alertness and energy in the junior correspondent that mirrored his own exactly. My protégé is keen for proper experience, he thought. He wishes to demonstrate that he has left his time in the Courier’s more effeminate regions utterly behind him–that he is fit for manly duty. And his chance surely approaches.
‘This is chaos, Mr Cracknell!’ said Kitson. ‘If the Russians were to attack now, we’d surely be swept back into the sea!’
Cracknell grinned. ‘Indeed, Thomas! I’m beginning to think this invasion may have lost the element of bloody surprise, aren’t you? Well, all the better–it will be a solid fight, with armies meeting on the open field. Glory, my friend, and a swift resolution.’ He clapped his hand on Kitson’s bony shoulder. ‘Do you have a report for today?’
‘I have, sir–the disembarkation of the Light Brigade.’ He hesitated. ‘Also, I feel I should tell you that Mr Styles and I had the misfortune to encounter the grenadier company from the 99th, commanded by none other than Captain Wray. It was then that his Lieutenant, Davy, struck our illustrator about the face. They were looting, Mr Cracknell. Wray destroyed a valuable statuette in front of me, in fact.’
‘Is that so!’ Cracknell had returned his attention to the signpost. ‘Hardly surprising. I trust you made no mention of this incident in your report. We don’t want to puncture the patriotic spirit at this early stage with tales of how soldiers actually behave, now do we?’
‘I had assumed that this would be your view. What about yourself? Did you manage to speak with Lord Raglan?’
Cracknell shook his head. ‘No, our esteemed commander-in-chief eluded me once again. But I found ample diversion in another quarter.’
The senior correspondent looked again at the illustrator, who was attempting, rather hilariously, to act like a consummate, focused professional, to whom the seething camp was no great thing. He remembered the expression on Maddy’s face a few hours earlier, naïve yet sly both at once, as she’d talked about the boy. Cracknell and Madeleine had been lying in each other’s arms in her husband’s tent, their clothing in disarray, and suddenly she had been filled with a burning desire to discuss the Courier’s latest addition, whom she had apparently befriended on the boat from Varna. ‘Oh, he’s so talented,’ she’d said, ‘and so handsome! And Richard, I do believe he’s a little in love with me…’ Cracknell, familiar with her tactics for eliciting the declarations of devotion to which she was quite addicted, had merely reached for his cigar case.
Now the young dolt stood before him, with no idea of what was coming. Cracknell took out his flask and emptied it with a flourish. He always enjoyed moments such as these–the moments directly before the delivery of a felling blow. ‘By some odd coincidence, I too had a run-in with the 99th this afternoon. Let me tell you both of it.’
As Cracknell commenced his tale, Kitson remembered with stunning abruptness that he had not imparted his warning to Styles.
Soon after leaving the Tartars’ market, they had uncorked the wineskin and started to drink. The confrontation with Wray and Davy had fostered a natural sense of solidarity between them. Styles, plainly unused to alcohol, had begun to talk with great warmth of Kitson’s personal importance to him–of how learning of the junior correspondent’s principled renunciation of the Metropolitan art world had sealed his own commitment to their current mission. This revelation had made Kitson uneasy. Never entirely comfortable with the regard of others, he’d barely recognised himself in Styles’ admiring account. That someone had actually gained inspiration from him, and sought to follow him, seemed nothing short of ridiculous.
In his awkwardness, Kitson had quickly changed the subject, prompting the illustrator to tell him instead about the life he’d left back in England. Predictably enough, Styles was an aspiring painter, trained at the Royal Academy schools; they had in fact skirted around the same social circles, and had a small group of mutual acquaintances. Styles had held forth at some length on the desperate insipidity of these people, and the horrible, complacent myopia of London society in general. Kitson could not help smiling at this tirade. He had said similar things himself no more than a few months earlier.
The illustrator had been quieted only by a row of cholera dead, about a dozen of them, laid out beside a low hedge on the outskirts of the camp. The drone of insects had thickened the air, and as they passed by a large bloody rat ran from beneath what had recently been a lance-corporal. Styles, his face suddenly a flat grey, had handed Kitson the wineskin, insisting that he was perfectly fine but could drink no more at present.
Watching the illustrator trying vainly to dampen his horror, Kitson had felt a sudden sense of responsibility towards him. I am a significant part of the reason he’s here, he’d thought, in these extraordinary circumstances; were it not for my apparently shining example, this impressionable young artist might well have lost faith in his plan to follow the army to war. This realisation had annoyed him. Such a burden was unwelcome–but it could not, in good conscience, be set down or ignored.
Already, however, Styles had been failed by Kitson’s inattention. The unpleasant truth about Madeleine Boyce had not been revealed–and Kitson knew that this was a lapse for which the illustrator would now surely suffer. Cracknell rapped one of the arrows on the signpost with his knuckle, upon which ‘1st Brig, Lt Div’ was printed in crude black letters, and started to walk in the direction it indicated. His pace was more relaxed than before; he adopted the manner of a strolling raconteur, talking loudly and heedlessly, despite the extremely sensitive nature of what he was revealing.
‘Whilst hunting Lord Raglan,’ he began, ‘I chanced upon Major Maynard. You remember him, Thomas? A veteran of the Sikh Wars, Smiles–an India man only recently transferred to the 99th Foot. Not a great friend of Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce, I think it’s fair to say. Theirs is the all-too-common enmity that exists between professional soldiers who’ve actually worked their way up through the ranks, and those damnable gentlemen-officers who owe their rather more rapid ascendancies to the advantages of privilege and wealth. At any rate, Maynard kindly informed me that Mrs Boyce had landed, quite unheralded, and was on her way over from the beach.’
A few more casual enquiries–made in the interests of the London Courier, of course–had revealed that the Lieutenant-Colonel had been summoned to meet with his divisional commander and would not be back for some hours. As a result, when Madeleine Boyce pulled back the flap of her husband’s tent, Richard Cracknell was seated within, a bottle of champagne filched from Boyce’s own personal supply at the ready. ‘Her shriek of joy, my lads, as she rushed into my arms, damn near raised the camp.’
Kitson glanced over at the illustrator. He was walking with his head down, his face lost in shadow.
Cracknell pressed on relentlessly. It was obvious that he had guessed Styles’ infatuation, and was acting to stamp it out in his customarily brutal fashion. ‘I’m sure that I don’t have to tell a pair of young bucks such as yourselves how it can be when lovers are reunited. Suffice to say that we lost track of time completely. Next thing I bloody know, Boyce is outside, shouting for a servant to bring his supper. And the bugger’s damned close–almost at the tent. So, Maddy pulls on her petticoats, stuffs the empty bottle in a trunk and tries to order her hair. I tug on my boots, gather together my clothing, steal a final, delicious kiss–and then squirm out under the back, like a hound digging its way under a bloody fence!’
Over at the barricades, there was a solitary rifle report, ringing through the darkness and echoing faintly against a distant, unseen cliff-face. Several thousand heads turned, accompanied by a great rush of muttering. Officers and sergeants yelled for information, attempting to ascertain whether anything definite had been seen.
Cracknell, unperturbed by this interruption, continued with his lurid story. ‘So there I was, in the middle of the camp–not so very far from here, in fact–all but naked. And quite, quite drunk into the bargain. Maddy, bless her, can’t take much, so I’d sunk most of the champagne myself. And worst of all, there was a gaggle of junior officers, right there before me, reaching for their swords. Chased me right out into the fields, the blighters did. And then, all of a sudden, they bloody well gave up. A few oaths and they were gone, just like that.’
‘You were out in open country, Mr Cracknell?’ Kitson asked, unable to restrain his curiosity. ‘In which direction?’
‘To the north-west,’ came the insouciant reply. ‘Towards Sebastopol.’
‘Did you see any sign of the Russians, sir?’
Cracknell shook his head. ‘No, Thomas, I did not. Evening was closing in. My only desire at that point was to return here, to my fellows, and find myself a drink. I ran back to the barricades with all the speed I could muster.’ He nodded nonchalantly at the restless camp around them. ‘Attracted a fair bit of attention along the way.’
There was a pause. Kitson blinked incredulously. ‘You caused the alarm, Mr Cracknell?’ The senior correspondent’s behaviour, as he had learned through a succession of practical jokes and grandstanding confrontations, could be disruptive indeed; but this was well beyond the scale of his usual japery. ‘This little patch of bedlam is all your handiwork?’
Cracknell grinned, rubbing at his bulbous, drink-reddened nose. He shrugged in unrepentant admission. ‘The men certainly need the bloody practice, I tell you. Although they managed to snag me, look!’ He broke off to fumble with his greatcoat, as if searching for something. After a few seconds, he held up the right side and poked his finger through a neat bullet hole. ‘Ruined, and four pounds it cost! I’ve a good mind to bill the fellow responsible.’ He started to laugh again, wiggling the finger from side to side. ‘Look at that, Mr Smiles!’
Styles looked up sharply, not at Cracknell’s coat but straight into his eyes. ‘Styles,’ he spat with naked loathing. ‘My name is Styles, damn you.’
Swiftly interposing himself between them, Kitson put an arm across the illustrator’s chest and forced him back a few paces. Styles’ face was flushed; he was smarting painfully both from the disappointment itself and the elaborate spite with which it had been conveyed. He strained hard against Kitson’s arm, seemingly eager to lunge at Cracknell and do him an injury.
Kitson gripped the black velvet jacket, taking hold of it with both hands. Their boots, pushing in opposite directions, slipped a little on the muddy ground. ‘Mr Styles,’ he said, his mouth close to the illustrator’s ear, ‘I must beg your forgiveness. I did mean to tell you earlier, but—’
Styles shook him off with considerable vehemence. ‘Don’t trouble yourself on my account, Kitson!’ he growled, clearly determined to show no weakness. ‘Don’t suppose that I need your damned protection!’ He had been halted, though; he took two confused steps that led him in a small semi-circle, so that he faced back the way they had come.
Kitson looked around; Cracknell, well satisfied with how things had gone, was striding onwards, his mind already on other matters. ‘Not my intention,’ Kitson replied disarmingly–and somewhat dishonestly. ‘Not at all. I swear it.’
Styles gave up on his wrathful display, sighing heavily and shutting his eyes. ‘Forgive me,’ he mumbled, splaying his fingers against his brow, now more ashamed than angry. ‘It is nothing. The error is mine. I–I see now that it was before me all the while.’
‘Your attitude does you credit, Mr Styles.’ Kitson gave the illustrator’s shoulder a companionable pat. ‘And you are best out of this business, believe me. It will bring those involved nothing but difficulty.’
Styles responded with a couple of halting nods. He was biting hard on his lower lip. The junior correspondent wished that he knew his new colleague better, so that he could tell whether this display of mature-minded acceptance was genuine.
‘I think that we shall go back to our tent and get some rest.’ Kitson craned his neck, trying to locate their senior amongst the host of soldiery that trudged around them. ‘I’ll inform Mr Cracknell and then we’ll—’
Up ahead, painted upon a whitewashed board suspended above the shako helmets and undress caps, was a large black ‘99’. They were entering the camp of the 99th Regiment of Foot, the Paulton Rangers–from which Cracknell had fled semi-clothed only a couple of hours earlier.
‘Good Lord,’ Kitson exclaimed. ‘Surely not.’
He hurried forward to the sign, and caught sight of Cracknell approaching one of the larger tents, of the sort reserved for senior regimental officers, which had been pitched a short distance away from the main avenues. Before it, around a lamp set upon a barrel, were arrayed Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce and his staff. They were conferring urgently, like participants in some dramatic biblical scene from the school of Caravaggio. Their coatees were darkened to the colour of port, and the dense patterns of gold braid on their cuffs and epaulettes glinted in the lamplight as they pointed off into the gloom.
And then, without a moment’s hesitation, Cracknell of the Courier swaggered before them.
‘Have them flogged,’ Boyce was saying coolly, adjusting his cocked hat. ‘If they are so drunk that they cannot rise from their tent, let alone lift a rifle, then they must be flogged. Before the entire regiment, at first light.’
Captain Wray saluted and was about to go back to his company when his eyes flickered to the side, and a look of absolute disgust twisted his previously expressionless features. Boyce followed his gaze. Mr Cracknell, the despicable Irish war correspondent, was sauntering casually into their lamp’s nimbus.
The Lieutenant-Colonel drew himself up to his full height, glowering fiercely at his adversary. He was a tall, athletic man of forty-five, his neat oval face adorned with a magnificent moustache that was the pride of his existence. Thick and dark above his narrow mouth, it tapered to two sharp silver points, both of which stuck out from his nose at precisely the same angle. It required a daily half-hour of careful maintenance. But the result was worth it–a moustache so perfect, so forbidding, that it inspired awe and respect in equal measure. Boyce liked to think of it as a symbol of sorts, an example to the men of the importance, and also the possibility, of keeping up appearances in their current trying circumstances.
It was an indication of his wrath that, as he faced the Courier man that night, he forgot his moustache completely. The Lieutenant-Colonel was not stupid; he knew that something had begun back in Constantinople. The blasted Irishman had been drawn to his wife like a fat, hairy fly to a piece of perfumed meat. Throughout their stay in that cramped, broken-down, filth-caked city Boyce had been dogged by the feeling that every time he entered Madeleine’s private rooms, someone else, someone male, had just left them. In the fields of Varna this feeling had grown stronger; whenever he returned to his tent, there had been the rustling of canvas covering close escapes, guys swinging in the wake of recent passage, and strange, conflicted expressions on the faces of his men. And now, after a few days without this feeling, it had suddenly returned in force when he had greeted his wife that afternoon.
She’d been all innocence and light, of course, claiming that her state of undress was in expectation of his arrival. This had been said so earnestly that Boyce had almost checked his laughter; he honestly couldn’t recall the last time they had been intimate with one another. Probably late one night, back in Chelsea, when he’d come home from the barracks full of brandy, shown the little minx the back of his hand, and then exercised his conjugal rights without delay. Hardly roses and poetry, he had to confess; but he was her husband, damn it, and a man of action.
As he searched the tent, throwing furniture this way and that, he heard a scuffling commotion outside. The Lieutenant-Colonel emerged to be told that several of his subalterns had run off in pursuit of an intruder. When they finally returned, they were lined up and ordered to explain themselves. Lieutenant Francis Nunn, the oldest and best-born among them, declared that they had chased what they believed to be a Russian spy out of the camp. Gently stroking his moustache, Boyce looked Nunn in the eye. The boy could only meet his gaze for a second or two, before staring out over his shoulder. It was quite plain that he was lying, both to protect Mrs Boyce and to save his commander from embarrassment, but he wouldn’t change or enlarge on his story. Boyce didn’t need to hear it, though. He knew that it had been Cracknell.
And now the foul knave stood before him, the horrible, stout little paddy. It made his dishonour all the more acute to think that this wretched specimen was setting the cuckold’s horns upon his head. Boyce was convinced that Madeleine had responded to the fiend’s advances in order to cause him the greatest possible humiliation. He felt as if his anger would split him open.
‘What the devil is this rogue doing here?’ he roared. ‘Get rid of him, damn it!’
Gathered around the lamp was Arthurs, the 99th’s quartermaster, and Nicholson, its surgeon, both of whom were somewhat the worse for drink; Boyce’s adjutant, Lieutenant Freeman, who was beginning to look decidedly unwell; and several field officers, including Captain Wray and the Majors Fairlie and Maynard. Of this group, it was Wray who ordered two private soldiers from the shadows and gestured for them to seize hold of the newspaperman.
‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ said Cracknell in his snide, insinuating manner, sidestepping the privates with practised expertise. ‘My colleagues and I are merely passing by, doing our duty to the British people and investigating the alarm. We happened to find ourselves close to your camp, and wondered if you could perhaps enlighten us. Are the Russians attacking? Is battle to be joined this night?’
Another civilian scurried up behind him. Boyce dimly recognised this new arrival from Varna–he was the Courier’s other correspondent. Although a thin, shabby figure of a man, he still had significantly less of the clown about him than the Irishman.
‘You there,’ the Lieutenant-Colonel called imperiously, ignoring Cracknell altogether. ‘Be so kind as to keep your blasted mick under control. We allow them in the army on the condition that they don’t ever speak. I suggest your paper adopts the same policy.’ His officers–all except Maynard, Boyce noticed–guffawed at this cutting remark.
‘Do excuse our senior correspondent, sir,’ the journalist replied with a reasonable approximation of humility. ‘He is merely excited beyond measure by this great and noble enterprise–and is especially eager for sight of the enemy. As are we all.’
The Irishman barely tried to suppress a disrespectful snigger. His junior glanced in his direction; the collusion between them was plain. Boyce realised that this must be the same correspondent Wray had blamed for ruining the mission he had been given that afternoon; and indeed, the Captain was staring daggers at him right then. The fellow was not the gentlemanly face of the London Courier, as might have been hoped. There was obviously no such bloody thing.
Boyce felt the last of his patience evaporate. ‘You are aware that the Russians read everything you publish, aren’t you?’ he bellowed. ‘That all the sensitive information you so thoughtlessly reveal about this army goes straight to Moscow, and is then wired on to the generals at Sebastopol? That having you two blackguards here compromises us all? Why, if it were my decision, your kind would be sent back to England on the first—’
He was interrupted by the all-clear, the sharp notes cutting through the chatter of the camp. When the torrent of shouted orders began a moment later, there was a palpable relief to them. Quartermaster Arthurs let out a gasping huzzah, so glad was the old sot that they had been spared a night-time attack.
‘No Ruskis tonight, then,’ Cracknell announced, rubbing his hands together. ‘D’you know, I think we’ll go and have a jaw with your brigade commander. Sir William is bound to know what’s what. You have quite enough on your plate, what with restoring order to your errant regiment.’ The vile Irishman paused archly. ‘And your lovely young wife having just arrived with us from Varna.’
Do not rise to it, Boyce instructed himself strictly, do not rise to this bald provocation, he is trying to make you seem a weak fool in front of your men–do not rise to it. Almost of their own accord, his fingers found the hilt of his sword and wrapped around it as tightly as they could.
‘Enough of this idiocy.’ He turned away. ‘See them off, this instant.’
In the corner of his vision, Boyce noticed the departing correspondents meet with another civilian, a tall man in a black jacket, plainly part of their hateful little band, who had been lurking on the margins. Dear Lord, he thought bitterly, how many of them are there? Cracknell repeated his impudent intention to call on Sir William Codrington, waved a mocking, theatrical salute–and then was gone.
The men of the 99th looked to their commander. ‘Any man of this regiment,’ he said slowly, ‘seen consorting with that rapscallion in any way will face the lash. Regardless of rank. Is that clear?’
Amidst the general affirmation, Major Maynard had a query. ‘But surely, Lieutenant-Colonel, it is our responsibility to ensure that the press—’
But Boyce was in no mood for the plebeian Maynard and his caveats. Speaking over the Major in a loud, weary voice, he instructed the field officers to return to their NCOs. Then he retired to his tent.
No candle or lamp burned inside. In the dim blue half-light Boyce could just make out the central pole and the small table set at its base, but nothing else. He stood near the flap, calming himself, checking his moustache. She was awake. He could hear her breathing, and the faint rustle of her clothes; he could sense her alertness, her watchfulness. She had been crouched at the tent’s entrance, he guessed, listening to the exchange outside, and had then thrown herself into a shadowy corner when she realised that he was approaching.
Boyce cursed his decision to bring her out to the Crimea. It had been pride, plain and simple. She had been going back to London, her passage booked and paid for. Then, aboard the steamer that had borne him across the Black Sea, he’d fallen into conversation with some old acquaintances of his from the Artillery Division. They’d opined that no married officer of good breeding would even think of leaving his spouse behind at this stage in the campaign. To do so, they had declared contemptuously, was to bow to silly modernising talk–behaviour quite beneath a gentleman. Someone, Boyce couldn’t even recall who, had asked after the enchanting Madeleine, wondering whether she was following them to the Crimea. Indignantly, he’d replied that of course she was, in a few days’ time when it was safe; and then sent word of this change of plan back to Varna as soon as he was able.
He should have known that the degenerate Irishman would be on her the instant she landed. But he could hardly send her away again now. Such a prompt reversal would be the talk of the camp, and an admission of defeat by a truly unworthy foe. No, she must stay. The campaign would surely be a short one, at least–it could only be weeks before the Russians ceded the peninsula. He would simply have to be vigilant. That such vigilance was at all necessary, however, infuriated him beyond measure.
‘You bring me such disgrace, girl, such dishonour, that I would be forgiven almost anything I did to you,’ Boyce said quietly, into the darkness. ‘Were I to blacken your eye, who could possibly think ill of me? Or perhaps if I loosened a tooth?’ He swallowed. ‘I could break your damned jaw, you wretched slattern, and no one would—’
Boyce thought he heard her whisper his name imploringly; but then, a fraction of a second later, Lieutenant Freeman called for him with uncharacteristic vigour. He swept back outside, ducking under the canvas. Close to the lamp was a horseman in a shell jacket and gold-laced forage cap. It was Captain Markham from the divisional staff.
‘Sir George’s compliments, Lieutenant-Colonel,’ said Markham briskly. ‘Lord Raglan has sent down his commands.’
Boyce nodded, straightening the front of his coatee.
‘All regiments are to strike tents at daybreak and assume full marching order.’ The Captain’s horse paced beneath him. ‘We are moving on Sebastopol.’
‘The epithet “unforgettable” is employed all too readily in ourexcitable times, but the sight of our Allied Army–British to theleft, French to the right, Turks to the rear–as it advances acrossthe landscape of the Crimea warrants its use without reservation orfear of hyperbole.’
Kitson tried to clear his throat. It was uncomfortably tight with thirst, and his tongue felt like it had been tacked to the roof of his mouth with viscous glue. Putting this from his mind as best he could, he jotted ‘too much?’ in the margin of the page before him and continued reading.
‘A short distance back from the great cliffs and ravines that distinguishits coastline, this peninsula bears a marked resemblance tothe Downs of our own homeland. Grass as smooth and green asthat of any racecourse covers softly undulating plains, whose surfaceis broken only by clusters of pale rocks. The columns–fully fourmiles long, from tip to tail–flow easily across this terrain, theimmense stripes of red and blue glittering with steel as they marchgallantly onwards to meet their foe with colours flying. Our LightBrigade has been assigned flanking and reconnaissance duties, andthe Earl of Cardigan’s men dash back and forth across the fieldswith a brave, impetuous energy. Spirits among the soldiery are high,as well they should be; sight of any senior officer, British or French,brings forth as mighty a cheer as—’
Someone was shouting his name. Kitson laid his pencil flat against the pocketbook, sat up and looked over the side of the supply cart in which Styles and he had lodged themselves. Directly beside this vehicle tramped the left-most column of British infantry, an amalgamation of the Light, Fourth and First Divisions. This vast formation, so solid and resolute that morning when Kitson had started his account, was growing slack as ever-larger numbers of men slowed and even stopped, overwhelmed by fatigue, disease and the fierce afternoon sun. Across a bloated river of shakos and field packs, he saw Major Maynard, who stood waving atop a gentle rise on its opposite bank.
The Major, accompanied by a corporal, had been helping a pair of his private soldiers leave the line. Both were evidently succumbing fast to cholera. A strange silence had descended upon the army, allowing Kitson to hear Maynard instruct the two invalids to rejoin the regiment at camp that night, once they had recovered themselves sufficiently to walk. The officer then set off down the rise and straight into the column, pushing his way through to Kitson’s supply cart. He was a thickset man of about forty with a greying beard and a routinely frank expression. Drawing level to the cart, he placed a gloved hand on to its side.
‘Mr Kitson, d’you seek your senior?’
Kitson grinned at the clear suggestion in Maynard’s voice that this might well not be the case. After the clash with Boyce, and a subsequent (rather desultory) attempt to speak with some of the more senior officers, Cracknell had vanished. He had not shown himself at the Courier tent–even as dawn had arrived and his juniors had set about dismantling it and then dragging it down to the beach to be loaded on to a transport vessel. ‘I suppose so.’
Maynard chuckled. ‘Then the word is that he’s right at the front of the column, harassing the 11th Hussars. They say that Cardigan is ready to run him down.’
‘Why am I not surprised, Major?’
‘That was quite some performance he gave last night. He’s developing a real talent for aggravating my commander, isn’t he?’ The Major stopped smiling. ‘That’s maybe something you might wish to discuss with him, Mr Kitson–being the more rational of the Courier’s correspondents.’
‘Faint praise if ever I heard it. And I’m afraid that he would heed me less than anyone, Major. All we can do is to endeavour to keep them well apart, and hope this campaign is over as quickly as is being predicted.’ Kitson turned over a page in his pocketbook and readied his pencil. ‘With that in mind, may I ask your opinion on the rumours that Russian forces have been sighted around the Heights at the mouth of the Alma valley–interposing themselves between us and Sebastopol?’
Maynard eyed him wearily and opened his mouth to reply. A loud smashing sound nearby distracted him; some thirty yards back from the column, a group of lancers, splintered off from the Light Brigade, were kicking in the door of a squat peasant cottage, half-hidden in a thick bramble bush. They pulled at the shards with their white-gloved hands and piled inside. Kitson hoped that its inhabitants had abandoned it and fled to safety, well out of the army’s path. Some of the marching infantrymen looked over without much interest.
‘The noble 17th,’ the Major muttered disapprovingly. ‘Such robbery is a shameful part of army life, Mr Kitson, as I’m sure you’ve discovered by now. A part that I for one hope the scrutiny of the press might help to discourage.’
Kitson remembered the statuette and Cracknell’s cursory response to the story of its destruction. ‘My hope also, Major, but there is scant interest in such matters, and a delicate balance must be struck between—’
Maynard, glowering at the cottage and the horses tethered outside it, was not listening. ‘I shall stop them.’ He removed his hand from the cart’s side and straightened his cap decisively. ‘Whether they’ll heed an infantry officer–well, we shall see. Good day to you, Mr Kitson.’
The column swallowed Major Maynard back up again and the supply cart trundled on, leaving the lancers and the cottage behind. Kitson glanced around. Styles was perched on a barrel at the other end of the cart, still sketching absorbedly. Loath to interrupt him, Kitson flicked back the page in his pocketbook and looked again at the paragraphs he had written that morning. Something about their triumphal tone was unsatisfactory. He tapped his pencil against his thumbnail; and then noticed Styles’ drawing folder, tucked between two crates not far from where he sat. It occurred to him that neither he nor Cracknell had actually inspected the illustrator’s work yet–a lamentable oversight indeed. He reached for the folder and unlaced it.
Top of the pile was a loose, urgent recollection of the exchange that had occurred before Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce’s tent the night before. It depicted the moment Cracknell appeared before the officers of the 99th. Styles had captured perfectly the contrast between the senior correspondent’s careless pose and the startled rigidity of those he confronted. The drawing was animated yet unmannered; accurate yet unfussy; balanced yet dynamic. Kitson drew in a deep breath. He’d been wondering why exactly O’Farrell had been so keen to hire this Mr Styles, given his evident inexperience–and here was the answer. Robert Styles was a man of true ability, of genius even, far beyond the hack illustrators who were usually employed by the Courier. Put an artist of this calibre in front of momentous events such as those unfolding in the Crimea, and something of significance was sure to result.
The correspondent leafed through the pile, his smile broadening; there were studies of the minarets and towers of Constantinople, of groups of people huddled against the rail of the H.M.S. Arthur, of the landing zone drawn from the sea. All were similarly expert. Then he came to one that made him stop.
It was a portrait of Madeleine Boyce. She was seated in a deck-chair, one hand raised to shield her eyes from strong sunlight. She appeared pensive, as if contemplating something away in the distance. The scene had been treated informally; it showed a young woman, fashionably dressed, relaxing on the deck of a ship. Yet the image was infused with a beauty that entirely transcended this mundane setting. It was plainly a work born of a lover’s ardour. The man who had drawn it, Kitson realised, would not give up on its subject as easily as Styles had seemed to do the evening before. There was more to come regarding the Courier’s illustrator and Mrs Boyce.
Kitson closed the folder and got to his feet. Arms extended slightly to keep his balance in the rocking cart, he made his way to its rear. ‘Mr Styles,’ he called, ‘ready yourself. We must move to the front to find Cracknell. They say he is up there somewhere, badgering the cavalry.’
He reached Styles’ side and saw the vista laid out before him. In the wake of the columns was scattered a multitude of spent and dying soldiers, shed from the advancing army like dusty red petals. This was what the illustrator had been drawing with such furious concentration: not magnificence, not glory, but suffering and ignominious death. The sheet in front of him contained studies of collapsed, cholera-ridden men, doubled up in agony or lying insensibly in pools of smoky shadow. Kitson stared hard at Styles for a moment. Ashamed by the vulnerability he had displayed the previous day, the illustrator was trying to cauterise the tender part of his soul by pressing it against that from which it had so naturally recoiled.
‘Come,’ Kitson said abruptly, handing over the folder. ‘We have to go.’
They jumped from the cart and began to walk quickly up the line, their light packs and relative freshness enabling them easily to outpace the exhausted infantry. Without slowing, Kitson lifted his pocketbook and put several heavy pencil strokes through the morning’s paragraphs.
Slowly, as Kitson and Styles worked their way along the column, the landscape around the Allied Army began to change, the wide, smooth plains rumpling up into a series of ridges and hollows. They passed several burning farmsteads, the trails of black smoke mirroring those issuing from the fleet steaming along to their right, out on the shining expanse of the Black Sea. This was not the work of mere looters–its purpose was obliteration, done to deny the invaders shelter and sustenance. The Russians were not far away.
The vanguard of the vast army was marked by a concentration of the richly coloured flags and banners that were dotted throughout the columns, and a large block of mounted officers that included several senior generals from the French and British forces. Kitson’s thirst, however, was now so intense as to confine his interest solely to locating Cracknell and obtaining something to drink. All in the British ranks suffered as he did; the correspondent grew increasingly mystified as to why no provision had been made to supply this basic want. The young illustrator, too, started to complain about his parched lips and throat. Kitson, his manner entirely serious, assured him that Cracknell would be waiting for them just past the next ridge, cradling a huge stone jug of water. He warmed to this notion, adding bunches of luscious grapes to the picture, and succulent Crimean melons, and ripe peaches too, all heaped plentifully at their senior’s feet. Styles could not help laughing at this unlikely vision.
The real Cracknell, however, continued to elude them. He was not bothering the cavalry, as Maynard had reported; a short distance inland, reconnaissance squadrons of scarlet-trousered hussars were galloping across the ridges entirely unimpeded, whooping and whistling as they went. Nor was he trying to speak to the generals. There was no sign of him anywhere. Their little quest was starting to seem hopelessly misguided.
Suddenly a febrile tremor ran through the mass of infantry. Hundreds of soldiers broke from a fatigued plod into a run. The few who still wore their packs shrugged them off; they surged between two low hills, entirely ignoring the protestations of their officers. The Courier men, buffeted by charging bodies, tried vainly to work out what was going on. Had artillery been sighted? Were these men running for cover–were Russian cannon about to be loosed? Unable to resist the human tide, they were carried along for fifty yards or more, past the hills and into a shallow valley, before being shoved to one side. The cause of the disruption was revealed. A small river, little more than a stream, was dissolving the infantry column as if it was made from dry sand.
Styles yelped in panic. ‘By Jove, Kitson, they’ll drink it all up!’
Kitson gave him a withering look. ‘Mr Styles, not even the British Army could drink up an entire river.’ He looked at the redcoats fighting to get at the trickle of muddy water–and was sorely tempted, for all his high-minded scorn, to rush down and join them. ‘We must bide our time.’
It was then that he noticed a familiar, stocky figure, standing atop a moss-spotted rock–the only person in that valley who seemed indifferent to the river. Cracknell had a telescope up to his eye, and was studying something with keen interest.
Kitson smiled, relieved to have finally tracked down their leader. He nudged Styles with his elbow. ‘Look at that, Mr Styles. As cool as if he was at the Epsom Derby.’ Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted out Cracknell’s name.
The senior correspondent lowered the telescope immediately and turned towards them. His face broke into a wide grin, and he yelled something back that could not be heard over the commotion down by the river. He started to point insistently.
This gesture directed his juniors to a company of horsemen, riding along the crest of the valley’s opposite side. They wore bearskin caps and embroidered kaftans bound at the waist by thick leather belts. Their long beards were brushed into sharp, two-pronged forks. Each had a barbed lance in his hand and a musket across his back. They were like nothing Kitson had ever seen before–irreducibly alien, like characters from a fantastical novel set in exotic eastern lands–and they were close, no more than a hundred yards away. Somewhere behind him, the Allied buglers began to sound. The men in the river looked up, falling quiet; a good number started to hurry back to their regiments.
The horsemen remained in full view for a few more moments, trotting on with deliberate insouciance, returning the scrutiny of the soggy redcoats. Then they spurred their mounts and were gone.
Cracknell’s voice thundered throughout the valley. ‘Cossacks, Thomas!’ he cried excitedly. ‘The enemy!’
The short, guttural howl was alarmingly loud, and seemed to come from directly below Kitson’s window. He started, dropping his pen, which then rolled across the threadbare rug and under his desk; he’d been pacing the attic’s meagre length in his shirtsleeves, trying to relieve the constricting ache in his chest whilst reading through the afternoon’s work. Before he realised fully what he was doing, he’d rushed from his rooms, down three flights of stairs and out through the tenement’s peeling doors.
Princess Street was shadowy and quiet, with only a couple of small tradesmen’s carts progressing along it. To his right, Kitson could see the brightly illuminated thoroughfares of the warehouse district, still heavily populated by both pedestrians and traffic despite the hour. The faint haze of factory exhalations, ever present in Manchester, hung about the street in silky drifts tinted orange by the distant gaslight.
Kitson listened for the sound again. A large crowd of spinners started up the street, clearly just released from their labours, strands of unwoven cotton still clinging to their rough clothes. He guessed that they were heading across town towards the concert rooms and drinking dens of Deansgate. Several already had bottles in their hands, which were being passed round with aggressive, determined merriment. After a burst of hard laughter, they began to belt out a bawdy song. ‘She’s a rum-lookin’ bitch that I own to,’ they roared, ‘an’ there is a fierce look in ’er eyes…’
Slipping into a side alley, Kitson walked along the tenement’s wide brick flank until he stood under his window. Back on Princess Street, the spinners strode noisily by; and then a gurgling moan came from somewhere up ahead, further down the alley. Kitson went towards it. Away from the neat grid of commercial streets around Piccadilly, of which Princess Street could just be considered a part, Manchester soon crumbled into a ramshackle maze of winding passages, interspersed with foul-smelling doorways and grubby, impassive casements. Where there were lights, the even yellows and oranges of gas were replaced by the glaring white-green of lime, lending a spectral pallor to the few who passed beneath them.
It took Kitson some minutes to locate the source of the moan. A man wrapped in a cloak lay sprawled in the corner of a stinking, unlit yard. It was too dark to see any more than this. He approached the stricken man slowly, crouching down and stating that he was there to help. The man merely whimpered in response. Relying on touch, as he had been taught, Kitson took the man–who was narrow-shouldered and light, and easily moved–in his arms and began to examine him. It had been many months, years in fact, since Kitson had performed such ministrations, yet he found that he had forgotten nothing; the medical procedure was still deeply impressed upon his mind. Feeling the glimmer of a long-lost confidence, he quickly discovered a metal object jutting out of the man’s side, something like a long nail with a catch of some sort at its end. There could be no doubt–this man was in serious danger, and had to be taken to a hospital as soon as possible. Kitson rose slightly to lift him, hoping to get the man to an alley where help could be obtained more easily.
This adjustment caused the uncomfortable pain that had been lingering in his chest all day to intensify abruptly. He gasped, his hand going instinctively to the deep scar on his ribcage. Beneath the scored skin, his lungs rattled as they tried haltingly to draw in sufficient air. The man, meanwhile, was reaching for the object in his side. Too late, Kitson went to stop him–just as he succeeded in wrenching it out.
Blood spurted from the wound, splashing hotly on to Kitson’s thighs. Its sickening metallic tang filled his nostrils, smothering completely the sense of purpose that had brought him into the yard. As he reeled, gagging helplessly, a half-heard voice spoke his name. It was unnervingly close, almost at his shoulder; he turned, but saw only blackness. Another voice called out, high with fright, from somewhere past the fallen man. Several others joined it a second later. They were talking in Russian.
Kitson tensed. The stones of the yard began to vibrate beneath him, faintly at first, but with a gathering, horrifying rhythm. A ripple ran through the fetid puddle at its centre. There was a dull rumbling, then a thud, and the sound of a shutter smashing; and then he was once more in the ruined suburbs of Sebastopol, a heavy artillery bombardment underway all around him. Others were nearby, his old colleagues–he could hear their boots, scrabbling frantically through the rubble. Several pistol shots were fired in quick succession. Brick dust, thrown up by a collapsing wall, made him cough hard. In the thick, soupy darkness, the body lying before him seemed to blur and shift, becoming someone else altogether. Kitson stared disbelievingly at this dreaded form, tears coursing across his cheeks and chin; and his guilt pressed down on him like a slab of icy granite, crushing him slowly beneath its weight.
With a violent shudder, the stabbed man barked out a single flat syllable, an awful, involuntary sound dredged up from deep within him. Kitson squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, swallowed down the bile that was burning his throat and fought to recover his reason. Variations of this waking nightmare had visited him before, on countless previous occasions, but it had not manifested with such disorientating vividness for some time. He blinked until he was firmly back in the present, wiped his wet face with trembling hands and forced himself to consider the person slumped before him.
Anonymous once more, the poor fellow had fallen silent and was apparently unconscious. Kitson had experience of such wounds; he knew that unless it was staunched right away, the victim would surely bleed to death. Ignoring the cramp that still bit at his chest, he struggled out of his waistcoat, screwed it into a tight ball and, guided by the flow of blood, pushed the wadded material hard against the injury. Then he turned his head and shouted for help with all his strength.
Moments later, to Kitson’s enormous relief, a thin shaft of lantern-light fell across the alleyway outside. This lifted the darkness a little and enabled him to make a proper survey of the yard. It was choked with refuse, broken crates and rotting sacks heaped everywhere. Against this drab, mouldy backdrop, two objects stood out. A large parcel, freshly wrapped, had been dropped near the yard’s entrance, and a velvet-covered hatbox stood in the puddle. Both bore the mark of one of the city’s finest tailors. The story here was plainly a familiar one; a wealthy gentleman, pressed for time, had foolishly decided to chance the back streets.
Footfalls echoed out in the alley. Kitson, still holding his waistcoat against the wound, considered the hatbox again. Dirty water was slowly saturating the fabric, climbing darkly up its sides. It struck him as strange that the man’s assailant hadn’t bothered to take these new clothes. They would be quite valuable, certainly worth the while of any street criminal.
An elderly woman in clogs and bonnet appeared in the yard. Seeing Kitson and the wounded man, she gaped in horror. ‘Goodness, what’s ’appened ’ere? Murder?’
Hurriedly, Kitson explained that a serious assault had taken place–that the victim had been stabbed but lived still, and needed to be taken to the Royal Infirmary with all haste. Impressed by the efficiency of his speech, and the education evident in his diction, she bustled to his side. He indicated where the wound was, and asked if she would hold the waistcoat over it whilst he secured some fresh dressings–thinking that he would have to tear off one or both of his sleeves.
The woman consented, then bawled, ‘John! Walt! Tamper’sYard!’ at the top of her voice.
Kitson stood, stretching his muscles. It felt as if he’d been hunched on the ground for hours, not minutes. His side remained acutely sore, and his limbs shook; the events of the past quarter-hour had left him exhausted.
Two sturdy workmen arrived, flooding the yard with light and causing shadows to leap and duck across its soot-stained walls. One was the same age as the woman, and held the lantern in his hand. The other was like a younger version of the same man–plainly his son. Seeing Kitson, they took a step back, the lantern-carrier muttering an oath. Kitson glanced down at himself. He was covered in blood. His trousers were black with it, his shirt and hands shockingly bright.
‘This ’ere’s the doctor,’ said the woman authoritatively from the yard’s floor. ‘We’ve got to get this poor shaver to Piccadilly. Come on, John, look lively! Bring that light over!’
Then the stabbed man started to speak. ‘Do not let me die here,’ he whispered. ‘Not in the gutter. I–I beg you.’
The voice, lisping its way through clipped Etonian vowels, was jarringly familiar. Kitson froze. ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘Impossible.’ How could he possibly be here, in Manchester?
‘Who did this dreadful thing to you, sir?’ the old woman asked. ‘Was it robbers?’
‘A cripple,’ came the weak reply. ‘Most horribly disfigured. I thought I–but…’
John was moving forward with his lantern. ‘We’ll tek ’im that way, Rose,’ he said gruffly, pointing off into the night. ‘T’Mosley Street. Not far.’
‘Bless us!’ the woman–Rose–exclaimed as she peeled back the man’s cloak. ‘’E’s a soldier!’
Compelled to turn around, Kitson caught a flash of a scarlet infantry coatee and an inch of braid; now all but certain, he bent down and turned the man over so that the lantern shone directly on to his face. Sure enough, there was that long fin of a nose, that narrow, protruding chin, those ridiculous whiskers. His patient was Captain Wray of the 99th.
Their eyes met. Even through the stupor induced by his wound, Wray clearly recognised Kitson. His lips, blue through blood loss, twisted into a frail sneer that expressed more fear and mystification than it did contempt.
Kitson stood back up and walked from the yard. He leant heavily against a damp-swollen doorframe and crossed his arms. So this was why he had run from his rooms, from his work, and searched through some of the city’s grimmest corners; had knelt in filth, and used his own waistcoat as a dressing; had strained his chest in ways that might take weeks to mend, and stirred up old ordeals which he had toiled so hard to contain. To save Captain Wray. To save that detestable villain–that killer. He shook his head incredulously, almost too stunned to be angry.
‘We’re going to lift ’im, doctor,’ Rose called. ‘Carry ’im t’Mosley Street. Will ye follow, sir, and bring our lantern?’
More than anything, Kitson wanted to get away from Wray. The thought that he had the man’s blood cooling on his hands disgusted him. Yet he found that he couldn’t deny this good-hearted woman’s request. It was not right that they should lose their lantern as a result of their misguided kindness. He resolved that he would follow them to Mosley Street and then leave, abandoning Wray to his fate–which, as he knew all too well, was still uncertain at best. It was no less than the brute deserved.
Collecting himself, Kitson watched from the alley as John and Walt took hold of the officer and then heaved him up between them.
‘’Ow about tha’,’ remarked Walt with some satisfaction. ‘Light as a child.’
Rose still pressed Kitson’s waistcoat hard against the wound. ‘Come, sir,’ she prompted as their ungainly group lumbered by. ‘Our lantern, if ye please.’
‘Very well,’ Kitson replied evenly. ‘I’ll be directly behind you.’
At the sound of his voice, Wray let out a strangled groan. ‘Keep him away,’ he slurred, waving a finger vaguely in Kitson’s direction. ‘The damned Courier…’
Rose quieted him, telling him that the gentleman he pointed at was a doctor, and his saviour no less, not the wicked cripple who had done him such a nuisance. Then she began proclaiming their approach like a particularly stentorian town crier, in an effort to summon others to assist them–making any further discussion quite impossible.
As Kitson went back into the yard, he noticed something lying on the ground close to where the lantern had been set down. It was a thin metal spike, almost like a stiletto, covered in a sheen of blood–the weapon used to fell Wray. He paused to examine it. The catch at its end, he now saw, was a locking ring; and at its point, the triangular spike had been fashioned into the narrowest of blades. Captain Wray had been stabbed with a British infantry bayonet.
The lamplighters had just finished their work on Mosley Street, affording Jemima James a clear view of the crowd that burst excitedly from a side alley, quickly flooding the pavement and overflowing into the path of the early evening traffic. It was comprised of working people, in jackets of canvas and fustian; Jemima sat up, imagining at first that a disturbance of some kind was spilling over from a back-street pot-house. But no–she soon saw that this crowd were working together, towards a unified and compassionate purpose. They bore a man between them, lifting him up almost to shoulder height. He was a soldier, and no private of the line; the gold on his uniform suggested a captain at least. His face, beneath some outlandish military whiskers, was all but white, and an elderly woman was pressing a bloody rag against his side.
Jemima rose to her feet. Her face was now so close to the office window that her breath misted on its surface. ‘Dear God,’ she said. ‘Be quiet for a moment, Bill, and come see this.’
Somewhat piqued, her younger brother stopped his story (an inconsequential piece of gossip to which Jemima had hardly been listening), crossed his arms and pointedly did not get up. He sat surrounded by boxes and parcels, the fruits of a long afternoon spent in the city’s finest dressmakers, milliners and tailors. Jemima had endured many hours of solemn, tedious debate over the merits of ribboned flounces, pagoda sleeves and the like, longing all the while to be back in her rooms at Norton Hall, out of her corset, deep in a book or periodical. Bill, however, loved these expeditions. That day, he’d even arranged his own appointments so that he could attend hers as well, and had been a terrible pest throughout. She simply could not be trusted, he’d declared, to select something suitably of-the-moment for the Exhibition’s opening ceremony, which was sure to be the event of the season–and if she looked dreary and widow-like before Prince Albert, he would never forgive himself. It had been an outright clash of wills, resolved only by uneasy compromise.
Jemima considered Bill. He was sprawled in his chair, glowering back at her. As usual, his clothes were of the very best quality, and included precious dashes of taste and individuality, like his purple silk necktie and the faint navy stripe in the grey of his trousers. Not for the first time, Jemima wondered what their father honestly made of this dapper son of his, who had no profession yet spent so much of his time in town, and who at twenty-six years of age had never once been linked to a member of the fairer sex.
‘I am going outside,’ she announced, ‘to find out what has happened, and who that poor man is.’
This succeeded in prising Bill from his seat. He crossed the office, glancing at the commotion in the street. ‘Is that really wise, Jem? It is Saturday evening, y’know. The mills will just have let out, and the liberated operatives will be debauching in their usual boisterous manner.’
‘Your intimate familiarity with the habits of the labouring classes never ceases to astonish, William.’ Jemima retied her bonnet. ‘I’m sure that we will be quite safe on Mosley Street.’
Bill, checked by this oblique reference to his more clandestine pursuits, swiftly changed tack, arguing instead that the carriage would be there for them at any minute. They could hardly afford to be wandering off into the city when Father would surely be expecting them at dinner. Jemima ignored him, knowing he would follow anyway.
Mosley Street, unquestionably one of Manchester’s finest, was home to a number of the city’s most august businesses and banks, as well as several prominent cultural societies. The facing rows of grand buildings, many fronted with columns and marble, blocked out all sight of factory chimneys. The crowd bearing the injured officer had come to a halt before the shadowy portico of the Royal Institution. Some began calling loudly for the police–rather unnecessarily, as every constable in the vicinity was already converging upon them with all speed. The victim was set down on the pavement; Jemima watched as the constables tried to reach him through the thickening circle of onlookers. There was a ragged clamour of voices as a dozen different accounts of the attack were delivered at once. After a few seconds of this, a short bulldog of a police sergeant shouted sternly for silence, and then began methodically to extract what solid information he could, devoting much of his attention to the old woman who still tended to the officer’s wound.
All traffic along the street had come to a halt. Jemima took this opportunity to cross, with her brother a step behind her.
‘By Jove,’ muttered Bill as they drew near. ‘I believe I know that fellow. Saw him in Timothy’s only a couple of hours ago, in fact, having a new dress uniform fitted for the Exhibition’s opening ceremony. He’s from the 25th Manchesters–a major. Name’s Raleigh, Raymond, something like that.’
The sergeant conscripted a dray that had stopped close by to convey the injured major up to the Infirmary at Piccadilly. As the driver began shifting aside the crates that were stacked in his vehicle to make room for his passenger, the major was lifted again. Under the sergeant’s careful direction, he was moved slowly to the rear of the cart, past where Jemima was standing.
Finding a last reserve of strength, the major made a feeble attempt to squirm free. ‘Get that blackguard away from me,’ he croaked desperately. ‘Keep him away, damn you!’
The sergeant had noticed Jemima; she was conspicuous on the fringes of that humble crowd. He now shot her an apologetic glance. ‘Excuse the language, ma’am. He’s in a state o’ considerable confusion. Sure ye understand.’
Jemima looked around. ‘Who could he be referring to, Sergeant?’
The policeman jerked his head towards a jacketless man sitting on the pavement, well apart from the main throng. ‘Gent over there–but the poor cove’s got it all backwards. That’s the doctor what saved him, stopped him breathing his last in Tamper’s Yard.’ The many hands bearing the major knocked him inadvertently against the side of the cart. He squealed in agony and released a further stream of profanities. The sergeant patted his arm. ‘Easy, there, easy!’
Impulsively, Jemima decided that she would meet this heroic doctor. He was propped against a lamppost at the corner of Bond Street, staring down at his hands. They were shining with water; he’d plainly just been washing them at the pump that stood nearby, to clean off the major’s blood. A rusty lantern stood at his side. As she approached, she realised that he was talking in a harsh, low voice, as if admonishing himself.
‘Excuse me, doctor,’ she began, feeling a little awkward. ‘Permit me to introduce myself. I am Mrs Jemima James.’ She hesitated. ‘I am told that your intervention prevented this man’s death. A noble act indeed.’
He looked up sharply, his face hard and lean in the gaslight. ‘It was not noble, madam,’ he replied. ‘And I am no doctor.’
Immediately, Jemima’s interest was roused–this man had just saved a life, and yet seemed not only angry but strangely ashamed. She smiled disbelievingly. ‘Surely you have medical experience of some kind, though? How else could you have treated the major over there with such skill and success?’
‘He is a major?’ The man’s tone was faintly hostile.
Jemima nodded, studying him. ‘So my brother tells me–from the 25th Manchesters. And he is in your debt.’
The man pulled himself upright. Jemima saw that his shirt and trousers were stiff with drying blood. ‘I did little enough, in truth. The major may die yet.’
He was silent for a moment, as if contemplating this bleak fact. Jemima noted that he had not denied her conjectures. She glanced at his boots, always the best indicator of wealth; they were inexpensive and a long way past their best. Perhaps he was once a medical student, she thought, obliged to abandon his studies due to lack of funds.
The man moved back from the edge of the pavement, smoothing his hair and straightening his ruined shirt. There was pleasing angularity to his features, interrupted only by deep crescents beneath the eyes, etched into the skin by want of rest. When he spoke again, his initial terseness was gone.
‘You must excuse my attire, Mrs James, and my manners. It has been a trying evening.’ He looked past her to the cart bearing the wounded officer, which was preparing to start up the street towards Piccadilly.
Jemima perceived that he was considering flight. ‘Tell me, sir,’ she said quickly, thinking to halt him, ‘if you are not a doctor, then what are you?’
‘I am a newspaperman.’ He made a shallow bow. ‘Thomas Kitson, madam. Of the Manchester Evening Star.’
Bill appeared breathlessly at Jemima’s side. He congratulated Mr Kitson for his efforts, shaking his damp hand before speculating briefly on the identity of the assailant. Then he informed Jemima that he was going up to his club to tell Freddie Keane and the rest of the chaps about the attack. Jemima tried to contain her irritation; this was typical of Bill. He would now stay out all night, roaming the very same streets he had been voicing such caution about ten minutes earlier–leaving her to endure their father alone. It had happened on countless previous occasions.
‘Mr Kitson,’ she said brightly, ‘would you do me the honour of taking some refreshment in my father’s office across the street? You must be in need of fortification after your labours, sir, noble or not. There is brandy, isn’t there, William?’
The deal had been proposed. Bill furrowed his brow, but he was not about to object. He nodded, mumbling an affirmative. Mr Kitson tried to protest, but was too tired and too courteous to disappoint her. After accepting Jemima’s invitation, he went to the cluster of working people close to the cart–not to check on the injured officer but to point out the location of the rusty lamp to a couple of workmen. It was most extraordinary. He seemed to be actively avoiding the man he had saved, as if he had some personal objection to him. Jemima could not account for it.
Bill walked Jemima and Mr Kitson back to the office, leaving them with the desk clerk. They sat before the window, Mr Kitson moving a chair next to the one Jemima had occupied earlier. The clerk, watching their bloodstained guest very closely, poured a tumbler of brandy and brought it over, setting it on the wide sill. Mr Kitson picked up the glass, hesitating when it was close to his lips. It was clear that he still found something about his hand profoundly distasteful. He had washed both quite thoroughly at the pump, but had evidently not managed to clean them to his satisfaction. Swallowing the liquor in one swift gulp, he put the glass back down and muttered an apology for his hastiness.
Jemima knew little of the Evening Star, but she felt that this man could not be a representative example of its staff. He had no real accent, for example–one would surely expect a correspondent from so modest a publication to be a Lancashire man from the lower middle classes, with the speech to match. I’d stake my library, she mused, on Mr Kitson being a recent arrival in our city. Adopting a cordial tone, she began to inquire politely about his situation.
He proved an agreeable if somewhat opaque conversationalist. He’d been in Manchester only since the end of the previous year, as she’d guessed. Other things about him, however, were more surprising.
‘I am the Star’s society writer,’ he revealed. ‘A street philosopher, I believe it is called in these parts.’
‘A street philosopher?’ Jemima didn’t try to hide her amazement. ‘A professional gossip, you mean? The spy who lurks on the margins of our parks and theatres, labelling everyone who passes him with some acidic, facetious sobriquet? Surely not! I mean–you must excuse me, Mr Kitson, but you hardly seem the type.’ As a rule, Jemima tried to keep well clear of any publication that vaunted such writing as part of its appeal. It tended to be facile in the extreme, tawdry and vacuous, concerned only with fashion, scandal and money. And it was proving increasingly hard to avoid.
He appeared unperturbed by her reaction; there might even have been amusement in his eyes. ‘You flatter me with your doubt, Mrs James, but it takes more expertise than you might realise. There are important lessons to be learned, you know, from the living panorama of the modern city–lessons in the ever-shifting chances and changes of life.’ He turned his face away from the window as the major’s dray rolled past, a chattering crowd trailing behind it. ‘Besides, I was in urgent need of a position, and it was the only one available.’
Was this a mordant joke, or in earnest? Jemima found that she could not tell. ‘Are you working now, Mr Kitson? Can I expect to feature in the next edition of the Star?’
The smile was a brief one, and obviously infrequent. ‘No, madam, I’m afraid that I have other responsibilities at present. My paper has no dedicated art correspondent, you see, so they have assigned me to cover the Exhibition.’
This disclosure made Jemima immediately impatient. The Art Treasures Exhibition was widely held to be the finest undertaking ever to be staged in Manchester, the city’s answer to the Great Exhibition of 1851. A vast display had been gathered from the private picture collections of the country, and then assembled in a modish iron-and-glass structure at Old Trafford, on the outskirts of town–well away from the grime of the factories. Charles Norton, Jemima’s father, was on the ninety-strong committee of local luminaries who had brought this thing into existence, and she had been made to listen to his boasting and self-aggrandising on the subject for the better part of a year. The building was to be opened in three days’ time, with all the pomp and splendour that the rich men of the city could procure. The trip to town for new clothes had been Jemima’s final trial before the occasion itself.
‘The Exhibition,’ she intoned heavily, dragging the word out to its constituent syllables. ‘Do you concur with the general chorus of opinion, then, Mr Kitson, and believe that it will be a magnificent triumph?’
‘I do, Mrs James, very much so.’ He paused. ‘But you, I think, do not.’
Jemima sat up in her chair. ‘I simply look around me, sir,’ she responded with some energy, ‘at the slums of Salford, and Ancoats, and elsewhere, and then at the glorious Art Treasures Exhibition, and the many thousands of guineas that have vanished into it, and I cannot help but think that if the masters of the Cottonopolis were really interested in the benefit of all, as they so frequently say, they would realise that an art exhibition is a long way down the list of things that our urban poor require.’
‘I must say, madam,’ Mr Kitson murmured, ‘that for the daughter of a labour-lord, you are quite the radical.’
This was the first indication he had given that he knew who she was, and in whose premises he sat. ‘So I am told. Often by the labour-lord himself.’
He smiled again. Mr Kitson and I are forming quite an acquaintance, Jemima thought. She willed further delay upon her coach, thinking that she could happily sit exchanging views with this man for the rest of the evening. Something, at least, had been salvaged from a tiresome day. Across the room, the clerk cleared his throat loudly and turned over a page in his ledger.
The Star’s street philosopher began to offer his own opinions on the Exhibition. As he spoke, his ironic nuance fell away and was replaced with warm conviction, making Jemima feel frostily cynical by comparison. For him, the Exhibition was the first in a tradition, the harbinger of a new age: a popular art exhibition, staged for the country at large. Gone would be the days of art being solely an attribute of privilege. With this exemplar, he claimed, the exclusive galleries of old would have an egalitarian counterpoint, and the fruits of mankind’s finest endeavours would be available to all.
Jemima was familiar with this position, and frankly thought it a little idealistic; but had never heard it outlined with such eloquent sincerity. ‘You feel strongly on this subject, Mr Kitson,’ she observed. ‘One might reasonably infer that you had been forced to spend time in these exclusive galleries you so despise.’
This dispelled Mr Kitson’s enthusiasm completely. He stared down at the office’s elaborately tiled floor. ‘I was an art correspondent on a London paper before I came to Manchester,’ he admitted. ‘I attended countless exhibitions–every one closed to the broad mass of society.’
‘A London paper? Which one?’
Mr Kitson did not look up. ‘The Courier.’
Now Jemima was intrigued. This man had left one of Britain’s most prestigious journals, famous for the global scope of its correspondence, to write for the Manchester EveningStar, which was barely known even in the next county. ‘Why, I take the Courier myself! I have probably read your work, Mr Kitson. I shall have to search through my old issues as soon as I arrive home. May I ask why you left?’
He became evasive, volunteering only that he had become fatigued with life in the capital and the vagaries of the London art world. There was something in his manner that made Jemima realise that this man had fled to Manchester. But what could be so bad as to make one look for refuge in the nation’s workshop, writing street philosophy for a penny paper? There was an explanation here well beyond the fatigue that Mr Kitson claimed–although he was certainly a man on whom fatigue had preyed.
Jemima peered back into the room, at a row of framed prints on its far wall. ‘Do you know, I believe there are some illustrations from the Courier in this very office. From the Russian War–the opening stages of the campaign, before the paper’s coverage became so controversial, and—’
Mr Kitson sprung to his feet, startling Jemima and the desk clerk and almost knocking over his chair. He strode over to the prints and made a rapid survey of them, stopping before one that depicted the battlefield of the Alma.
‘Mrs James, why on earth does your father decorate his sales office with such images?’ The question was almost accusatory. He did not turn from the picture as he asked it; his earlier curtness had returned with his distraction.
Jemima remained quite calm. She directed a restraining glance at the clerk, who seemed ready to fetch a constable. ‘For all your familiarity with Manchester society, Mr Kitson, you street philosophers clearly know little of our city’s business affairs. Charles Norton’s meteoric rise is one of the great tales of the town. And the late war played a crucial role in it.’
She rose from her seat, arranged her shawl around her shoulders and crossed the office to stand beside him. His eyes shone as if filmed with tears; his face was impassive, though, and he was gripping one hand with the other to stop them from shaking. They looked at the Courier print, at the hillside strewn with the dead, and she told him how her father had found his fortune.
Two and a half years ago, at the start of 1855, Charles Norton had been the master of one of Manchester’s smallest foundries–the continuing survival of which was a source of some wonderment to the city’s community of businessmen. When he had been approached by William Fairbairn of the mighty Fairbairn shipbuilding and engineering company and asked if he would be willing to travel out to the Crimea to conduct a preliminary survey for a personal project of his, Charles had been in no position to refuse. The favour of the Fairbairns meant much in Manchester, and there was a clear implication that further work might result from this expedition. Whilst there, however, in a decidedly uncharacteristic demonstration of charm and initiative, Charles had befriended several remarkably senior figures in the Quartermaster-General’s department. The result of this surprising gregariousness was a sudden flow of contracts for the Norton Foundry.
‘First there were spikes for the Crimean railway; then heavy buckles for horse artillery; then more buckles, this time for the cavalry, many thousands of them; then, after the war, buckles for the police, for fire engines and coal carts, for cabs and coach-makers and hauliers of all descriptions. The Foundry has enjoyed a late flourishing, expanding to more than ten times its original size. Strong, affordable Norton buckles on every saddle, belt and harness in England–that is my father’s stated goal.’ Jemima smiled wryly. ‘Last year Punch christened him the Buckle King.’
Mr Kitson had managed to tear his attention from the print, and was suppressing his agitation by listening to her account with an absolute focus. ‘That I saw,’ he said.
Jemima’s smile faded. ‘Of course, a price was exacted for all this good fortune.’
The street philosopher looked at her inquiringly.
‘My husband, Mr Kitson–Anthony James. He died of cholera at Balaclava.’
Her companion flinched, the fine web of lines around his eyes tightening. ‘I am sorry, madam. I was aware that you had lost your husband, I confess, but I had no idea that…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Please accept my apologies.’
Jemima waved this away. ‘You were not to know, Mr Kitson. The circumstances of Anthony’s death are hardly common knowledge. And I have received enough apologies, sir, and enough pity, to last me several lifetimes. The truth is that my husband was quite determined to go, and would not hear otherwise. He was my father’s immediate subordinate at the Foundry, and considered his presence on the expedition vital to its success.’ Her voice quickened slightly. ‘There was a great fashion for it, do you not remember, amongst a certain type of gentleman. They rushed out to the Crimea with a boyish zeal, hungry for adventure, as if it was all nothing but larks.’
Mr Kitson said nothing.
Bridles jangled outside, followed by a coachman’s cry; a lantern flashed across the office window. The carriage had finally arrived from Norton Hall. The desk clerk, no doubt looking forward to solitude, darted out of the door and began berating the coachman for his tardiness. Their time together was fast expiring.
Jemima sighed, putting a hand to her brow. ‘Oh, do forgive me. I sound as if I am still mired in events well over two years past.’ She looked at him. ‘I have very much enjoyed our conversation this evening, Mr Kitson.’
He inclined his head. ‘As have I, Mrs James. My thanks again for the kind invitation.’
The clerk and coachman entered the office; the latter tipped his cap and then they began loading Jemima and Bill’s packages onto the carriage. Bill’s absence, being far from unusual, was not queried.
‘Will you be attending the opening ceremony on Tuesday, sir?’
‘I would be there, madam, even if my employer did not require it of me.’ His eyebrow raised a fraction. ‘I take it you will be going also, despite your reservations?’
‘Like yourself, Mr Kitson, I am obliged to attend, but on pain of disinheritance. What of the ball that evening, at the Fairbairn house–the Polygon? Will you be there as well?’
He hesitated, as if unable to remember. Jemima regretted having asked; it did seem improbable that a society writer from the Evening Star would be welcome at such a gathering.
‘No matter,’ she said lightly. ‘I shall look out for you in the Art Treasures Exhibition. Farewell, Mr Kitson.’
The carriage pulled away. Jemima settled back into her seat, watching Mr Kitson leave the office and cross Mosley Street. The stains on his shirt had dried to a muddy brown. He stopped on a corner and cast a last look at her carriage; then he stepped away into the shadows, hunching his shoulders against the evening’s chill.
Jemima’s mind teemed with questions about her enigmatic new acquaintance. What lay behind his attitude towards the man he had saved, his strange reticence about his time at the London Courier, and his extraordinary reaction to those prints? That this street philosopher bore a burden was plain to see, for all his sardonic detachment. The carriage left Mosley Street, rocking as it wheeled around across dung-caked cobbles of Piccadilly. Jemima looked out at the winding lines of gaslights and the people milling beneath, her thoughts turning to the bundle of old Couriers that she had packed away at the back of her wardrobe. She would find answers.
The study door closed with a deep click. Charles Norton, proprietor of the great Norton Foundry and employer of close to a thousand souls, dropped his hand from the moulded brass door-handle to the key that jutted out beneath, and turned it decisively. He then walked along an expansive bookcase to the window. In the darkness, he could just see the two gaslights mounted at the end of his drive. Back in the room, the visitor shifted position, with a slight suggestion of impatience; on the window pane before him, the black silhouette of a shoulder moved before the lambent reflection of the study fire.
‘My thanks, Mr Twelves, for coming out to Cheetham Hill at this hour. I would not have summoned you if it was not urgent.’
There was a short silence. Then, slowly, the visitor drew in his breath. ‘I’m sure that is the case, Mr Norton.’ His voice was low and nasal, with a heavy Mancunian accent. ‘And besides, midnight is not so late for one in my trade.’
Norton turned around. Twelves stood before the massy desk that dominated the study. He was tall and powerfully built, clean-shaven with close-cropped hair. Every piece of his clothing bar an over-starched shirt was black, or at least had been when first purchased. He held a battered stew-pan hat in his hands, and was regarding the labour-lord before him as if all his wealth and accomplishment were nothing–as if he were naught but a fat old fool not even worth the kicking.
‘You enjoy something of a reputation, Mr Twelves. Men I trust have told me that you handle the matters set before you with both professionalism and discretion. My expectations are high indeed.’
Norton paused, allowing for a polite interjection, for an earnest assurance that he would not be disappointed. Twelves said nothing. He frowned at the man’s brazen impudence. The very last thing he needed was yet another truculent employee.
‘A business associate of mine was attacked earlier this evening,’ he continued, a little briskly, ‘in the centre of the city. He—’
‘The soldier,’ Twelves interrupted flatly. ‘Found off Mosley Street just after eight. Major Archibald Wray–one of Colonel Bennett’s men. Admitted to the Infirmary.’
Norton paused again, impressed despite himself by this parade of information. ‘That is correct, yes.’
Twelves shrugged. ‘Even odds on ’im lasting the night is what I hear. They say the attacker was a cripple–a hideous twisted thing, like old King Richard or summat from a fairy tale.’
This is a colourful fellow indeed, Norton thought as he took the note from his desk. It had been written in a strained hand, the pen strokes scratched across the paper, and in one corner there was a smeared, bloody thumbprint. The author had managed only three slanting, wobbling words: Kitson is here.
He showed it to his visitor. ‘Wray sent me this. From his hospital bed.’
News of the assault, along with the note, had been brought to Norton at around ten o’clock. He had been dining alone, his daughter having retired early with a headache, his son having stayed on in town like the dissolute popinjay he was proving himself to be. After half an hour’s anxious deliberation, he had sent for Mr Twelves.
The investigator glanced down but did not take it from him. ‘Ye do not know who Kitson is, then, Mr Norton.’ This was not a question. ‘But the fact that the Major wrote this in what might well be ’is last moments on Earth rightly concerns you. Per’aps Kitson’s this cripple, per’aps he’s not. But either way, he’s important–and you need to discover who he is, what he wants, and most of all how he can be dealt with.’ Twelves sounded distinctly bored by his own summary of the situation.
Norton nodded. ‘I must stress again the need for discretion, Twelves. Very few people are aware of my connection with Wray, and I would keep it that way. I cannot chance any interruption to my affairs, not now.’
The investigator took out a notebook and began jotting things down in an economical hand. ‘Aye, the timing is rather poor, an’t it, Mr Norton? The eve of your Exhibition, with the Prince Consort coming to town, God save ’im.’ Twelves turned a page. He continued to write for a moment before snapping the book shut and returning it to his pocket. ‘We will find this Kitson for ye. I guarantee it. My comrades and I are like the mighty Argus. Once we turn our attention to a subject, nothing whatsoever escapes our gaze.’ He spoke matter-of-factly, without pride. ‘And once we ’ave ’im, Mr Norton, what then?’
The labour-lord blinked, running a hand through his white whiskers. ‘I don’t follow you.’
‘Our Mr Kitson, I would wager, is bad news for the Norton Foundry. Running up against a man such as yourself, well, that makes ’im like a second Ajax, don’t it, defying the lightning. And the end result will surely be the same.’
Norton scowled at his visitor uncomprehendingly. This Twelves, he was fast coming to realise, was something of an autodidact–that insufferable breed of working-class man who insists on flaunting his limited, self-acquired learning at every possible opportunity. Which was all well and good, but Norton could not see exactly how this precious learning had served him. His profession, if it could properly be termed thus, was by any yardstick a shameful way of earning a crust.
‘He will be brought down,’ Twelves enlarged, ‘down low. It could ’appen sooner rather than later, if ye catch my meaning, with nothing about it that’d attract any attention to speak of. Manchester can swallow a man like you wouldn’t believe.’ He picked at his hat’s narrow brim with a fingernail. ‘Why postpone the inevitable, Mr Norton?’
Somewhat taken aback by this proposal, Norton sat heavily in the leather-bound chair behind the desk. He reached for a silver paper knife and began pressing its point against the palm of his hand, trying to disguise his alarm at how casually murder had entered their discussion. ‘I… applaud your enthusiasm, Mr Twelves. For now, though, just discover what you can.’
Twelves, taking this equivocation as weakness, eyed him with cool, contemptuous pity. ‘As ye wish, Mr Norton.’ He put on his hat. ‘Ye will hear from me soon. A good night to ye, sir.’
The investigator left. Charles Norton stared up at a display case of shining buckles mounted on the study wall, seized by a constricting sense of foreboding that threatened to suffocate him where he sat.
Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce rode the line on a black mare, the points of his moustache jutting out into the clear midday air like a pair of tusks, waiting for the order to advance.
‘Look at that cunt,’ muttered Private Cregg, scratching at his sweat-darkened armpit. ‘Just look at ’im. Thinks ’e’s king, gen’ral and pri’ minister all rolled up inter one. God on the bleedin’ throne.’ He paused to spit a sour pellet of well-chewed tobacco through a gap in his blackened teeth. ‘The cunt.’
‘Aye,’ agreed those who crouched or sat around him, ‘the cunt.’ They were careful to keep their voices down. The officers of the 99th, although deaf to complaints about the lack of decent rations and shelter, had remarkably good hearing whenever anybody had a bad word to say about the Lieutenant-Colonel. Dozens had been flogged raw for such indiscretion. Dan Cregg, however, wasn’t bothered by the lash. They’d done him three times already since the day they set sail from Old England, and would do him as many times again, most likely. He’d erred countless times in his life, and considered his stubborn refusal to learn from these experiences to be bold, manly defiance. He would name things as he saw them, by God, and to hell with them all.
Coming to the end of the 99th, Boyce wheeled his mare about and started back again. Cregg squinted, lifting up his gun as if preparing to fire. ‘It’d be so bleedin’ easy,’ he sneered. ‘Bam! And one less toff cunt in the world, drinkin’ up all the brandy.’
There was a low, nervous chuckle. Cregg could be trouble, but today his comrades welcomed his disrespectful talk, if only as a distraction from the scene that stretched out before them. A wide, gently sloping plain, dotted with small copses and the occasional vineyard, led down some two miles to a hamlet of crude stone houses and barns. Behind this, fringed with trees, was the narrow, brownish River Alma. Rising up abruptly on its opposite bank were the Heights. To the men of the 99th, who were mostly from the south of England, these heights seemed positively mountainous, a daunting climb indeed; but climb them they must, for up there, like a dark burn across the soft green hillsides, was the enemy. The soldiers found their eyes returning to the massed ranks of Russians time and time again. For nearly two weeks they had been kept in constant expectation of an enemy attack; and yet here the bastards were, dug well into the perfect defensive position, waiting patiently in the warm sunshine. The redcoats swallowed hard, wiping their clammy palms on their trousers.
It was towards his own men, however, and not the Russians, that Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce’s gaze repeatedly wandered. Like him, they were in full dress uniform; squirming and complaining, as the common soldier was so wont to do, tugging gracelessly at their tight tunics, and the leather chin-straps of their shakos, but smart and correct. Boyce had the junior officers well trained. Any attempt by a private to undo a button, or take off his helmet, would immediately be halted, and the miscreant’s name taken for punishment.
If only the same rules could be applied to the other ranks, he thought angrily, as his eye snagged on the solid figure of Major Maynard, who stood at the edge of the 99th’s battalion with a telescope in his hands, scanning the Heights. Boyce had made his desire for dress uniform quite plain at the regimental briefing that morning. And his own costume, from the shining leather of his boots to the plump ostrich feather bobbing on his cocked hat, perfectly demonstrated the sartorial magnificence available to the field officer prepared to invest in his wardrobe.
Yet Maynard’s attire was mixed and decidedly well-worn: a shell jacket, dull boots, threadbare trousers, and a plain undress cap. The overall effect left one in no doubt about his plebeian origins. He looks exactly like what he is, the Lieutenant-Colonel thought–the son of a costermonger, who has wormed his way into Her Majesty’s Army like a fat maggot into an apple, instead of purchasing his place like a gentleman. Boyce directed his mare towards the unfortunate Major, his fury mounting.
Madeleine watched the heated exchange between the two officers from the side of a low hill, just behind the main body of the Allied Army. Her husband, who was some distance from where she sat, seemed merely a little scarlet-faced doll, gesticulating with his tiny arms. With a sigh, she raised the gold opera glasses that lay in her lap. The cool metal touched briefly against the top of her cheek, just below the eye; and there Nathaniel was, glaring at poor Maynard as if confronting a child-murderer. Their argument was short-lived. Nathaniel rode away suddenly, cutting the Major off in mid-sentence.
A large group of officers’ wives were sitting close to Madeleine, their backs straight as plumb lines, their noses lifted high in perpetual disdain. They cast frequent glances at her, their faces showing a mixture of supercilious curiosity and cold dislike. Beyond them, on the top of the hill, were the British generals and their aides, of whom there seemed to be a great many. Madeleine had no idea who any of them were, besides Lord Raglan, and that was only on account of his missing arm. That limb, as she was regularly reminded by Nathaniel, was lost at Waterloo, to a French cannon-ball. He would say this in the most accusatory manner, as if it was somehow her fault; but all she knew about the battle of Waterloo, besides the fact that Wellington’s men prevailed and the French were soundly beaten, was that it took place a very long time ago. You could tell this, in fact, from a single look at the British commander-in-chief. Drawn and withered, and clearly exhausted, Raglan was an old man. His voice, which drifted down the hill occasionally, was demure, gentle, frail even. That is not a leader’s voice, Madeleine thought.
She did not know what to make of this day. She understood, of course, that there was to be a great battle. All around the hill on which she sat, there were soldiers, many thousands of them, the British in red to the left, the French in blue to the right–allies now, united against a common foe. Beyond the French Army, out to sea, was a flotilla of battleships, ominously still, their cannon trained on the Heights. Heavy guns were being carted up behind the infantry, to pound the distant redoubts and earthworks within which the Russians lurked. Surely, a voice inside her protested, this was to be a terrible thing. Surely very many men would be killed. Surely Richard, who was down there somewhere, doing his duty to the Courier and the British public, was in terrible danger.
But spirits on that hillside were high. The other wives were talking amongst themselves with calm assurance, even laughing from time to time in the nasal, strangulated manner of English ladies. They were not behaving at all like women who, in a few short hours, might be widows. They discoursed at length on the Russian Army, how it was nothing but a disorganised rabble, a rag-tag assemblage of half-starved peasants, criminals and savages, marshalled by a degenerate aristocracy, all corrupted by their perverted religion. They confidently anticipated that this miserable band would crumble before the hard steel of British resolve; that victory would be both easy and fast. Madeleine looked out at the vast allied force, and made herself believe it.
The golden opera glasses, to her frustration, offered only a partial view of the battlefield. She could survey the allied armies, and even follow the winding white roads that ran over the plain before them, through the farms, and the pretty little village on the river’s edge. But the hills beyond, and the Russians upon them, were only a brown blur. Cursing softly in French, she turned the small focusing wheel as far as it would go in both directions, pressing her forefinger against the tiny teeth that had been cut into it. It moved smoothly, but no image could be found.
Spotting her difficulty, an aide-de-camp from Raglan’s staff came down the hill to her side. He was in his early twenties, slightly built, and dressed in a Hussar’s uniform, his round, freckled face half hidden by a busby at least a size too large for him. Introducing himself as Captain Lichfield, he insisted that she borrow his army-issue telescope. ‘And may I also suggest, ma’am, that you employ it to take a look at the nobles of Sebastopol, up in their pavilion near the tallest peak, having a jolly old picnic?’
Madeleine smiled warmly. She knew Lichfield’s type well: the gauche young officer, so eager to please. ‘How kind of you, Captain.’ She extended the telescope, the sections sliding neatly into place. ‘They watch the battle for amusement, do they, these nobles?’
‘Oh yes, ma’am. A very popular Russian pastime, I’m told. I daresay they must be expecting to triumph.’ Lichfield’s uneasy chuckle was cut short by a terse summons from the top of the hill, calling him back to his duties. He bowed, and was gone.
Madeleine lifted the telescope up to her right eye; and there, under a striped canvas awning close to the summit of the Heights, was a gaily costumed group who appeared to be having something of a party. She could even make out the champagne flutes in their hands, and the laughter on their faces. It was a celebration, mounted in clear expectation of victory–a Russian victory.
Fearfully, Madeleine lowered the telescope a couple of inches. She suddenly found herself staring into a battery. The blunt brass snouts of the cannon poked through the earthwork defences. Behind them stood line upon line of grey-coated infantry, their muskets at the ready. They did not look half-starved, or corrupted, or disorganised. Indeed, they seemed to have much the same sense of grim, regimented purpose about them as the Allied soldiers.
Madeleine’s vague alarm turned rapidly to tight, hot panic. She had to find Richard. She had to warn him, and convince him to come back with her, back to safety. Searching for civilians among the redcoats, she settled the telescope upon a series of black and brown backs, groaning aloud with each fresh disappointment. It is hopeless, she thought, tears stinging her eyes.
She considered jumping to her feet and running down the hill, but reason held her in place. Such action would give her away completely. It would be obvious that it was not Nathaniel she was looking for. And this, in turn, would give him proof of what he already suspected. Madeleine knew only too well what would happen then. She would be cast aside, reviled by society. That in itself did not frighten her. Life as an outcast with Richard would be better than any kind of life with Nathaniel; but they must be prepared. The war would be a short one, Richard said. They must be patient.
Calming herself, Madeleine wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and then looked down at her husband through the telescope. He had drawn his sword a few inches from its scabbard, and was twisting the points of that wretched moustache while looking at his reflection in the blade. How she hated him. She still ached dreadfully from the reprisal he had inflicted two days previously, following his humiliation by Richard in front of his men. He had forced himself upon her with terrifying violence, spitting foul words about how he would ruin her for the Irishman, and beat her all out of shape; afterwards, as she lay bleeding and bruised on the floor of their tent, it had felt as if he’d succeeded. As always, Nathaniel had been careful not to mark her face, neck or forearms. Madeleine’s appearance, once she was dressed, gave no indication of what had been done to her. This was her marriage–an unspeakably cruel ordeal, to which she had been consigned by a weak father flattered to have been approached by a well-born Englishman.
The notion sprung into Madeleine’s mind, seemingly unbidden, that the coming battle might well provide the solution to all her troubles. Nathaniel was a conspicuous figure indeed, sure to attract the attention of those Russian riflemen. She gasped in shock, never having suspected that she was capable of such thrillingly brutal calculation.
Then she spied Richard, sauntering past the base of her hill towards the 99th. He was grinning broadly, a cigar stuck in his mouth, his faded jacket flapping open in the mild autumnal breeze; and she knew at once that it was worth enduring Nathaniel to be near him. Here at last was a man who was not in the least frightened or intimidated by her husband, who could see past the uniform, and the family name, and the legion of menacing lackeys to the worthless wretch cowering beneath. Her Richard was a truly brave soul, a man of robust warmth and plain-speaking passion. He would rescue her.
Madeleine leapt up excitedly, waving and calling out his name, all thoughts of Nathaniel gone, and any sense of discretion momentarily forgotten. But he carried on his way with no sign of having heard.
Kitson and Styles sat together on a low dry-stone wall, the Courier team’s designated meeting place, a short distance behind the First Division. Both had spent a sleepless night listening to soldiers’ songs and the distant barks of hungry dogs; and then a hot, tiresome morning watching the armies perform their countless preparations. The thought of what was to occur that afternoon, however, made any fatigue impossible. Both stared out at the valley before them with raw-eyed attentiveness.
Kitson attempted to keep them calm with light-hearted conversation. Discovering that they shared an interest in the French realist school, he was telling the story of how he had managed to meet Monsieur Courbet in Paris eighteen months before.
‘We finished up in a gaming house close to the Sacré Coeur,’ he said, ‘where the great man proved himself something of a card player. He took all my money, then my hat, and finally my boots. I’m certain that he would have taken more, but I slipped from my chair to the floor, quite drunk, and could not be stirred to play another hand.’
Styles’ laugh was a little too loud. His gaze did not stray from the valley for a second; his legs twitched with a surfeit of nervous energy.
As usual, Cracknell managed to catch them entirely by surprise. He threw himself to the ground at the base of the wall, its rocks shifting slightly with the impact. ‘I’ve been over with some French officers,’ he declared gleefully, ‘talking of this and that. Drinking their coffee. Bloody good it was too–some leagues beyond the muck brewed up by our boys. But then, in my experience, all things French have a certain quality to them. Wouldn’t you agree, Styles?’
Kitson checked his pocketbook and writing materials, wishing that Cracknell would refrain from his teasing for that one day at least. Styles looked away, seeming to ignore him; but Kitson could tell that a store of resentment was being built up, one that would eventually lead to retaliation.
But he could not dwell on this now. For all his annoyance at Cracknell’s continued harrying of the illustrator, he was relieved to see that the senior correspondent was confident–exuberant, even–at the prospect of the coming battle. As the inevitability of combat had slowly impressed itself upon him, Kitson had felt a keen desire for guidance. After months of delay, he was to see his first major action as a war correspondent for the London Courier–yet he found that he had not the least idea how to perform this task.
Cracknell, though, clearly suffered from no such anxieties. Lighting a fresh cigar, he called the Courier team to order and adopted an easy, business-like tone. ‘Now, my lads, the French are pretty certain that they’re taking the right flank. Apparently there’s a coastal path that the Russians have neglected to defend. A back door left unlocked, if you like. What of the British plan, Thomas?’
Kitson readied his pocketbook. ‘I have a complete list of the divisions, Mr Cracknell, and of the battalions in each, and have made a note of their current positions–but as to the strategy they are to follow, I could discover nothing, nothing at all. It seemed almost as if there isn’t one.’
The senior correspondent chuckled. ‘This is Raglan we’re talking about. Wellington will always be his master in matters of warfare. The Bear up a hill, John Bull lined up in front of it–Kitson, old fellow, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just marches the poor bastards straight towards ’em, to weather the fire as best they can.’
Kitson hesitated. ‘Surely not.’
Cracknell shrugged, unconcerned. ‘We shall see, shan’t we?’ He got to his feet, tapping off some ash and squeezing himself between his subordinates; Styles promptly moved another six inches along the wall.
‘Can I ask how we are to, ah…’ Kitson took a steadying breath. ‘How will we conduct ourselves, sir, once the fighting starts?’
Cracknell grinned mischievously. He turned towards the illustrator. ‘Tell me, young Styles, if you were preparing a painting for the Academy, a scene from Shakespeare–from Hamlet, say–would you choose to present the protagonists, the Prince and his whole unhappy family, as one might see them from the front row, in all their terrible splendour? Or from the top of the upper circle, as no more than little dots scampering around the stage like trained fleas?’
‘From the front row, of course.’ There was a hard, competitive edge to Styles’ voice. Kitson realised that he was determined to prove himself equal in courage and dedication to Cracknell–equal to the man who had won the heart of Madeleine Boyce. This was a troubling development. Their expedition on to the battlefield was being warped into a contest of daring.
Removing the cigar from his lips, Cracknell pointed at the illustrator in triumph. ‘Exactly, lad–exactly. And that is how we shall position ourselves in order to depict this battle. In the very front row.’ He leant around to deliver a firm pat to Kitson’s shoulder. ‘We want the truth, my friends, and the truth we shall obtain. Are we agreed?’
‘We are,’ Kitson replied, trying to suppress his uneasiness. ‘Wherever you lead us, sir, we shall endeavour to follow, with our pens at the ready.’ Styles nodded in mute agreement.
Cracknell was satisfied by this display of allegiance. ‘I’m glad to hear it. And you must not fall prey to fright, d’ye hear me? The British Army, on the field of battle, is highly methodical; Christ, it’s almost mechanical. These men have their formations and tactics seared on to their brains. They run on rails, and I know what to expect. We’ll be quite safe. It’s just a matter of staying alert, that’s all.’
A bugle sounded, some distance away. The time was upon them. Kitson stood, and looked over at the sea of waiting troops. The officers were gathering together, conferring and pointing. Another bugle echoed the first, and then another; then a host of them, all making the same call. Slowly, the army climbed to its feet, the many thousands of boots rumbling like a great landslide as they stamped in the dust. Sergeants shouted for attention, whilst officers moved to the front of their battalions. Kitson felt a cold shiver of nausea. Inside him, behind the valiant certainties so forcefully elicited by the senior correspondent, lurked something else, something uncomfortably insistent and full of doubt; something that might well be fear.
This would not do–he had to keep hold of himself. He had his responsibilities, and not just to the paper. He looked over at Styles. The illustrator was holding his drawing folder in both hands, looking down at his boots with his felt hat pulled low over his eyes. His bottom lip was protruding slightly, an oddly child-like mannerism.
‘This is it, my fine fellows!’ cried Cracknell, leaping eagerly from the wall. ‘This is it, by George! Think of the glory, of the work we shall produce! The Bear is to be soundly rebuked for his blundering incursions into helpless Turkey–and we will be here to see it! This will be the making of us all, you mark my words! Come, we must get ourselves forward.’
As Styles strode wordlessly towards the soldiers and out of earshot, Kitson signalled to Cracknell that he wished to speak. The senior correspondent paused, listening with a tolerance his junior knew would be but momentary.
‘Whilst I don’t for an instant question the wisdom of advancing with the attacking divisions, Mr Cracknell,’ Kitson began carefully, ‘I do find myself wondering what would happen should we be separated from our forces in the thick of the fighting. Do you think there is a significant risk of capture, or of—’
‘Is that fright I see there, Kitson?’ Cracknell broke in, his voice harsh. ‘Are you choosing this moment to show a womanish side? You’re not going to let us down, I hope–myself, or young Styles there, or Mr O’Farrell back in London, who trusted you, an art correspondent, with this vital task?’
‘No, Mr Cracknell,’ Kitson replied firmly, ‘my will is strong, I assure you. My concern is primarily for Mr Styles. He has only been with us for two days. I am worried that he is not ready, and deserves our protection.’
Cracknell’s bright flash of scorn faded quickly to patronising amusement. He wrapped a conciliatory arm around Kitson’s shoulders. The junior correspondent could smell the liquor on his breath, and see the shadow of dirt behind his ear. ‘Ha! Uncle Thomas wants to look out for his best lad, eh? Well, no harm in that. You’re alarmed, man,’ he continued soothingly, ‘and it’s an alarming situation, to be sure. Perilous indeed, as you say–the guns, the Russians, vermin like Nathaniel Boyce leading our own. But you need to have a little faith,’ he jabbed Kitson’s collarbone with his finger in emphasis, ‘in the resourcefulness of your senior.’
He pulled back his jacket to reveal an object within, poking awkwardly from his inside pocket. At first, looking past Cracknell’s smirk, and the solid roundness of his belly, Kitson could not identify it. He could see a handle of polished walnut, hard and shiny amidst the grimy folds of Cracknell’s clothes, from which stemmed greased metal mouldings, delicate parts carefully fitted together. Was it a tool of some kind? A new model of telescopic device, perhaps, which might enable them to hang back from the worst of the fighting?
But then he saw the chambers, and the long tube of the barrel, jutting down through Cracknell’s jacket towards the small of his back. It was a revolving pistol.
Ten thousand men, four divisions of line infantry, marched across the plain towards the Russian guns. Music from a dozen regimental bands mingled together to form a dense martial cacophony. The battalion from the 99th was advancing at the centre of the Light Division, arranged into two long rows with its colours raised. Boyce, riding out in front, looked back over his troops with pride. The hours of drilling on the parade ground were showing their worth. Not a single private was out of place–more than could be said for some other parts of their division. He permitted himself a dry smile. Finally, after almost twenty years of service, he was leading men into battle. The Russians must be quaking in their boots, he thought, at the discipline, at the courage on display. What a glorious sight they must be!
The line approached a sturdy fence running across their path. Standing close to it, on the corner of a small crossroads, was a crude fingerpost. It had been whitewashed all over; even the names on the signs had been obscured.
‘Lieutenant-Colonel!’ someone shouted. ‘A word, sir!’
Boyce sighed. It was Major Maynard. Trust him to spoil the moment. ‘What is it, Mr Maynard?’ he replied impatiently, urging his mare over the fence. She cleared it effortlessly.
‘The signpost, sir! It’s been whitewashed!’ There was alarm in the Major’s voice. The soldiers marching behind Maynard, who were listening intently, all swivelled their eyes towards the white wooden fingers.
‘Well of course it has!’ snapped Boyce, wheeling around. ‘They don’t want to offer us directions to Sebastopol, do they? Honestly, man!’
Maynard glanced at the long row of attentive faces behind him, and then rushed forward, ducking through the bars of the fence and running up alongside his commander’s horse. ‘No, sir, with respect, I really don’t think that’s it,’ he said forcefully.
Boyce felt his earlier fury return. Why his superiors sought to torment him by placing this dullard in his regiment was completely beyond his capacity to understand. And his wretched voice, with those horrible twanging vowels–it was, quite unmistakably, the voice of a commoner. ‘Then what, pray, is it, Maynard?’
The line met the fence. It creaked as it went down. Soldiers flowed around the fingerpost.
‘Artillery, sir. It’s for their artillery,’ Maynard answered. ‘To indicate the limits of range.’
Boyce scoffed, and started to ride on. ‘Oh, what absolute rot! Honestly, Maynard, I sometimes think—’
The report of the cannons rolled around the valley. A dozen white smoke-jets leapt from the midst of the Russian redoubts. The black mare started to rear.
Styles froze. There was a split-second pause, and then a shrill whistle, followed by a heavy thud, and shouts from the ranks before him. These were not shouts of distress, however, but of warning; the cannon-balls were hitting the grass some fifty feet in front of the line, and then bouncing towards it. The soldiers could see the shot coming, and step smartly to one side.
Recovering himself, he watched a ball roll away, smoking, across the plain. Some among the redcoats began to yell abuse at the Heights, mocking their enemy’s marksmanship. Cracknell trotted on ahead, waving for his colleagues to follow. Styles was at his side in seconds, determined not to let the senior correspondent get ahead and thus have an edge when the time for valour arrived.
As they fell in a few yards behind the soldiers, he looked the Irishman over, and wondered for the thousandth time what the divine Madeleine Boyce could see in such an empty cad, such an arrogant, self-aggrandising buffoon. It made no sense at all; and the worst of it, the part that made him truly sick, was the certain knowledge that despite the fact that she was being pawed by this scapegrace, freely consenting to it, enjoying it even, he loved her still. He loved her more than ever, in fact, with an aching intensity that felt as if it would send him screaming across the valley, straight towards the Russian guns.
But he was also quite certain that he was worth ten Cracknells. And this battle, he thought, gritting his teeth, is my great chance to prove it to her.
A ball whipped past him, so close that a gust of hot, bitter wind blew across his face. It seemed to be travelling much faster and higher than the two-score shots that had come through the 99th so far, and prompted a fearful spasm; a couple of feet to the left, and his campaign would surely have ended right there.
To his relief, this spasm did not linger. There was, in fact, a bizarrely jocular atmosphere to the advance that made his momentary loss of self-possession seem entirely unwarranted. The soldiers continued to joke and laugh whilst their bands played on gaily. The reports of the enemy cannon were distant and grand, like rolling drums, and their shots, including the one that had come so near to him, were still spinning away harmlessly. It was easy to convince oneself that all was well, that careful plans were being skilfully executed, and would lead to swift victory.
Kitson, who had been lagging, finally caught up with them, a hand on his hat like a man struggling through a gale. He seemed to be experiencing serious disquiet; his eyes were darting around furiously, trying to look in several directions at once. Could it be that the junior correspondent, having come this far, did not have the nerve for the challenge ahead–that he had reached the limits of his endurance?
Cracknell turned to them, beaming. ‘You see?’ he shouted cheerily over the noise of the marching army. ‘What did I tell you? All quite mechanical!’
Kitson, plainly unconvinced, crouched down as low as possible whilst Cracknell did the complete opposite, pulling himself to his full height, and then stretching and craning in order to see as much as he could. Keen to align himself with the brave, Styles did the same. He caught sight of Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce, out in front atop his black horse, surveying his dodging men with distaste, yelling at his sergeants to enforce the regimental line.
Then came the sound–metal striking flesh, tearing through it in an instant, like a butcher cleaving a rack of ribs. All laughter among the soldiers stopped abruptly, as if a door had been suddenly slammed on a room full of merriment, and an astonished scream took its place.
Boyce’s voice rose above the cannon-fire, somewhere up ahead. ‘Leave the wounded for the bandsmen! Leave them where they fall, I don’t care what rank they are! Keep steady! Press the advance!’
Another shot hit the 99th. Styles saw a red spray arc briefly above the soldiers’ shakos, and a wet ball slide into the grass behind them. The band stopped playing and left the advance. Their sergeant, a flute in his hands, stared dumbfounded at the smattering of broken bodies that lay in the wake of the line. Some of the injured writhed and wailed, others lay motionless and silent. Several were clearly dead, their skulls caved in or organs horribly exposed. Close to the Courier men was a corporal, his left leg sheared off just above the knee, a creamy substance oozing from the white shard of bone, mixing with his blood. He was trying to sit up, puffing frantically.
It was happening too quickly, far too quickly. Thinking to take stock for a moment, Styles came to a halt; and found himself staring dumbly at this corporal’s wound, drawn in by the savage colours, the cruelly attenuated form, the hideous, pulsing rawness of it. His stomach cramped painfully, and sweat sprung out across his brow, but he could not look away.
A hand closed on his shoulder. It was Kitson. He was facing the sergeant, who still stood resplendent and useless in his richly embroidered bandsman’s uniform. ‘Aren’t you going to do something?’ he demanded angrily.
The sergeant started, as if shaken out of a trance. He rubbed his brow with his sleeve, and hung the flute on his belt. ‘Orders are to carry ’em back. Fer–fer transport out.’
‘Back where? Out where?’
The sergeant just shook his head. Hesitantly, the band members approached the wounded and began to drag them back towards the Allied camp. The corporal, gripped under each arm and trailing fluids, started to sob piteously, but after a few yards fell into unconsciousness.
‘Come, Styles,’ muttered Kitson. ‘We must stay focused on our task. Mr Cracknell won’t wait for us.’
Styles nodded, trying to right his stumbling spirits. Such sights were part of battle. Cracknell was up in front, just behind the army, a dirty black blemish on a row of glowing red, jotting something in his pocketbook. They were a good distance closer to the Russian cannon now, the balls cleaving the air above them with wallowing roars. As they arrived at the senior correspondent’s side, a private further down the line was struck full in the chest and flung back violently through his fellows. Immediately, an officer began shouting for his men to fill the hole and keep to their places. The voice, high and lisping, sounded familiar; Styles stole a quick glance above the multitude of shining black shakos to see Captain Wray, waving his sword at his soldiers as if threatening them with it, cursing them vehemently for their cowardice.
A shell cracked overhead, a painfully sharp, ringing noise; and several soldiers below were dashed bloodily to the ground. Styles could see several mounted officers conferring ahead of the advance, displaying themselves to the enemy guns with studied nonchalance. An order was given, bugles calling along the line, and the massive force came to a halt. The redcoats lay down under the Russian fire, trying their best to bury themselves in the coarse Crimean grass. Styles realised that someone was tugging at his sleeve. Kitson was pulling him towards a small copse of silver-barked trees just behind the rows of stationary soldiers, in which Cracknell was already stowing himself. Another shell burst, closer and lower this time, throwing up clods of earth. The illustrator was dimly aware of blood-soaked grass, slippery under his feet; then he was lying on his belly in the heart of the copse. The soil beneath him felt cool through his shirt. He could hear the trills of birdsong in the branches above, even over the barrage. The birds must be trapped, he thought, too frightened to take the risk of flight across the battlefield.
Styles peered out through the undergrowth. Officers continued to ride the line, their heads high as if inviting death; shows of courage that even managed, in places, to coax embattled cheers from their men. Gulping down some smoky air, he took out a sheet of paper and a pencil. But he could not draw. His body, his thoughts and his emotions all seemed to be completely beyond his control. He could feel his limbs beginning to tremble. You can endure battle, he tried to tell himself. You are no coward. What are a few shells, some blood, and a spot of cannon-fire? You have to show Mrs Boyce that you are a better man than Richard Cracknell. You have to show her. These thoughts ran through his head over and over again, like an incantation intended to firm up the mind and steady the nerves. Yet still he could not draw. At that moment, his many years of artistic training, of study and tireless application, were utterly lost to him.
Kitson had positioned himself upright, behind the thickest trunk. All signs of his earlier anxiety were gone. He now seemed, to the quailing Styles, an enviable exemplar of composure. Notebook out, he was asking Cracknell the reason for the halt.
The senior correspondent checked something inside his jacket; then he climbed warily to his feet and pointed towards the far side of the valley, in the direction of the sea. ‘Over there, look! The French are attacking. I should think that Raglan is waiting for them to take the coastal heights before continuing the British assault. All strictly by the book, my friends!’
Styles peered over at these heights. Above them, shell-fire was creating a constellation of drifting, star-shaped clouds. Tiny blue figures swarmed over the river and up into the foothills, breaking formation as they dashed forwards. Russians had descended to meet them, and Styles could see a vicious tangle of bodies where the two sides clashed. The dead dropped on to the steep hillside and rolled away from the fighting, their limbs flailing as they tumbled towards the river.
A series of shells exploded above the copse, deafeningly loud, shredding the soldiers closest to it and smashing several of the trees to splinters. Kitson and Cracknell were knocked to the earth, winded, landing alongside Styles. All three were splattered with sap and viscera. Looking up at the sky in terror, the illustrator saw dark shapes shooting away in every direction, so fast the eye could barely discern them. He thought at first that this must be the scattering of shrapnel; but then realised that it was the birds, finally forced to take flight into the iron-filled air.
On the low hill two miles back from the river, Madeleine watched as a group of Cossack horsemen rode into the empty village by the Alma. Each one wore a fur hat and a long green kaftan, and was carrying a burning torch. A few moments later, thick smoke began to belch from the quaint thatched cottages, soon engulfing large parts of the British line.
This was a dire development. Even with the help of Captain Lichfield’s telescope, her hopes of locating Richard, of assuring herself that he was safe, had now dwindled away to nothing. She realised suddenly that the time had come. She had to act.
Lichfield himself was over at his horse, a large bay tethered thirty yards or so from the summit of the hill. He was stowing some papers in a saddle-bag. Madeleine waved to him, and he hurried over obediently.
‘Captain, I must get closer,’ she said, wrinkling her brow in pretty vexation. ‘We are too far away here. It is all too far away.’
This was met immediately by a chorus of disapproving noises from the wives behind them. ‘I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs Boyce,’ said Lichfield, mildly surprised. ‘Quite out of the question. Surely you can still see well enough from here?’ He nodded at his telescope, which lay in her lap.
Madeleine shook her head. ‘The smoke.’ She gestured with vague impatience. ‘It makes it impossible to see.’ She rose. ‘I must be closer. Here is no good. No good at all.’
Lady Cathcart, senior amongst the wives, spoke up in a hard, pitiless voice. ‘Look here, you little fool, don’t think we don’t know what you’re up to. The very last thing your husband requires at this moment is you running out to him on the field of battle like some swooning adolescent. Now, we’ve endured your simpering nonsense all day. A little decorum may not have a place amongst your people, but you should know that amongst the British it is considered quite paramount.’
The other wives nodded, murmuring their agreement. ‘Quite paramount, indeed,’ echoed one piously.
Lichfield shrugged, smiling weakly, attempting to appear as one who was entirely sympathetic, but whose hands were very firmly tied. ‘You must remain here, Mrs Boyce.’
Madeleine decided promptly on another course of action. She gave a heavy sigh. ‘Then I shall return to camp,’ she said quietly, lifting a limp hand to her brow. ‘I fear it is all too much for me. Do not worry, Captain, an escort from my husband’s regiment is nearby.’ She handed Lichfield his telescope, bade him a sad farewell and started down the hill.
After proceeding a short distance, Madeleine stopped and turned around. The other wives had forgotten her already, returning their attention to the battle; whilst Captain Lichfield was back at the generals’ side, receiving some lengthy instructions. The path to his horse was clear.
Madeleine’s crinoline obliged her to adopt an awkward side-saddle. The bay, more accustomed to carrying hussars, shifted beneath this strange rider, snorting in bewilderment. She patted its neck soothingly, and urged the horse around the hill, away from its owner and towards the sound of the guns.
They soon arrived at the post road to Sebastopol, a dirt track that ran behind the advance at a rough diagonal. An artillery officer, seeing a lone woman riding in the direction of the fighting, called out to her in alarm. He rushed over in an attempt to take the bay’s bridle, but was easily outrun.
Madeleine didn’t know precisely what she would do once she was on the battlefield. She imagined finding Richard, pinned down by enemy fire, and galloping to his rescue. Having escaped the fighting, they would then escape the war, and her husband with it, running away together to somewhere they would never be found. She realised that actually bringing this wonderful flight about would be most difficult. Richard could be anywhere in that vast, chaotic valley. And there were other dangers–if Nathaniel were to see her out there, he would guess her purpose immediately. Yet Madeleine knew with a terrible certainty that if Richard were to die, she would die also. If there was a chance that she could save him, then she must act or be forever damned. She resolved to brush aside all her fearful doubts and simply respond to events as they unfurled, whilst keeping her object always in mind. Trotting towards the battle along the post road, she felt full of strong, clear-headed determination.
Despite the heavy screen of smoke, the cannon-fire up ahead seemed to be growing ever more intense, as if the gunners were attempting to compensate for the fact that they were firing blind by firing twice as often. Units of British horse artillery had joined the fight, rolling up close behind the lines of infantry. Even at a mile and a half’s distance, the sound was quite overpowering. Madeleine wondered how anyone could stand it for more than a couple of minutes. And the landscape, so picturesque only two hours before, had been thoroughly despoiled by the passage of the army. Fences, hedges and trees had been blasted away, and soft green fields trampled to mud.
She cleared a low rise in the plain. Before her, at least sixty badly wounded infantrymen had been laid out along the sides of the road, flailing and thrashing in their agony. Bandsmen and a handful of civilian orderlies weaved amongst them, binding wounds as best they could with lengths of lint, and passing around canteens of water.
Too late, Madeleine tried to avert her eyes. The bay grew restless, unnerved by the smell of warm blood, lifting its hooves and shaking its head. Then a private, bleeding heavily from the midriff, began to screech in agony as she passed, a horribly high-pitched sound, his legs pedalling against the mud as if he were working a treadmill. The horse started, tossing its mane; then it stepped around the wounded man, leaving the post road and heading towards open ground. Madeleine pulled at the reins as hard as she could, but the animal ignored her completely.
She considered calling to the orderlies for assistance, but something made her hesitate; and before she could change her mind, the bay had quickened its pace to a canter, and she was forced to devote all of her energy to remaining in the saddle. Madeleine flung her arms around the horse’s thick neck, and the bay and its helpless rider charged off into the battlefield.
Squinting, Kitson looked out from what remained of the copse. Close by were the soldiers of the 99th, gripping their rifles tightly. They had been lying down under fire now for over an hour. Every one of them was drenched with sweat, and flecked with dirt and blood. Their eyes, milky white in their grimy skin, were staring ahead, alert for incoming fire. The riverside village had all but burned to the ground, and the curtain of smoke was gradually being drawn away by the breeze, revealing their foe. The Russian fortifications, studied close up, seemed virtually impregnable; steep, dark walls of earth behind which bristled a multitude of musket barrels.
A mounted messenger was galloping along the line. He pulled up next to two senior officers; Kitson recognised Sir George Brown, the General in command of the Light Division, and Sir William Codrington, the Major-General who led Brown’s first brigade.
‘Here we go, my lads,’ murmured Cracknell, spitting on the ground. ‘This is it.’
The buglers began sounding the order to advance a moment later. Wearily, the soldiers got up once again, the officers taking their places in front of the long ranks. Raising himself on to his elbows, Kitson surveyed the ground before the army, stretching down to the banks of the River Alma. A significant proportion of the 99th, he saw, would be advancing through a vineyard, alongside the smoking ruins of the village.
‘Hardly parade ground conditions, are they?’ the senior correspondent said, noting the direction of Kitson’s gaze. ‘Be interesting indeed to see how they manage this one.’
Kitson did not reply. He was finding Cracknell’s zeal for war increasingly unsettling. Neither had he fully recovered from his dismay at the sight of that revolver. It seemed to imply the horrible possibility that Cracknell’s ambitions were not rooted solely in the journalistic sphere; that he might seek out a confrontation with the enemy, and attempt to win glory for himself through the spilling of blood.
Boyce remained in clear view, Captain Wray by his side, conferring heatedly with Major Maynard. Before long, the sturdy Major was dismissed, and sent back to his position on the line. He drew his sword as he walked back towards the ranks, swinging it from left to right as if attempting to ease stiff shoulders. He did not look pleased.
The Lieutenant-Colonel then turned his horse about, stood in his stirrups and addressed his soldiers. ‘You men, you’re about to go into action. Do not fire until you are ordered. Do not leave the line, for any reason–if you do, you’ll taste the lash. You have taken the Queen’s shilling, every last one of you, and you will honour your debt to her. I will make sure of it.’ The bugles started to sound once again. Boyce raised his voice higher. ‘Now, to battle! Advance!’
Cracknell shook with laughter as the army moved off. ‘Good Lord, Boyce really knows how to put some fire in his troops, don’t he?’
The enemy barrage picked up, pounding into the advancing redcoats. Kitson clenched his fists as tightly as he could and surveyed the assault. In the centre of the line, an exploding shell cut down five men as if they were made from straw.
‘Looks a bit hot down there at the moment,’ Cracknell said, lighting a cigar. ‘I think we’ll make a brief pause–allow them to cover a bit of ground before we pick up the pursuit once again.’ He drew out his pocketbook and opened the cover. ‘Let’s get something down. Observations and the like. While they’re still fresh in the mind.’
Kitson nodded and tried to work, but was unable to compose more than fractured notes. A minute or so passed; Cracknell asked for another word for ‘unstoppable’.
‘Inexorable,’ Kitson yelled back over the guns.
‘Aha.’ Cracknell made a correction. ‘Of course. I knew that you were on this campaign with good reason, Thomas.’
Kitson smiled mirthlessly and carried on writing.
There were shouts, and the blasts of NCOs’ whistles. The senior correspondent closed his book, got to his knees and looked down towards the river. ‘Come, gentlemen. It is time for us to follow.’ He heaved himself up, and started out on to the battlefield, stepping through the ragged, barely recognisable bodies that fringed the copse as if they were nothing more than fish heads in the gutters of a city market.
Kitson edged over to Styles, who had not moved. The illustrator had a piece of paper before him, on which he had succeeded only in making a crude study of a dismembered foot. ‘Mr Styles,’ he said, ‘we are leaving.’
Styles quickly packed away his drawing equipment. He looked profoundly scared. Kitson found that he was strangely reassured by this, and liked the illustrator all the more for it. Fear was the only sane reaction to their current circumstances, and formed a welcome contrast to the unflinching bravado of their senior. Taking Styles’ arm, he helped him to his feet. ‘This way–towards the vineyard. Be sure to keep your head down.’ Together, they ventured from the copse.
A heavier trail of corpses marked the path of the advance, bodies crumpled on the ground as if they had been dropped from a height, cast aside by some enraged giant. The loose stone wall surrounding the vineyards had been knocked down, swept away by the force of the line, its rocks kicked amongst the vines by the soldiers’ boots. Clearing the remains of the wall, they ducked under the canopy of leaves. Cracknell was nowhere to be seen. The red tunics of the soldiers could just be glimpsed up ahead, moving through the closely planted vines. These provided little shelter from the Russian bombardment, shrapnel having torn through branches and men alike. The two Courier men stumbled across a ghastly slick of disgorged innards; Styles fell dizzily to his knees, retching so hard he lost his balance. Kitson leant over him, placing steadying hands on the illustrator’s shoulders.
Cracknell pushed through the vine leaves next to them. ‘And what’s keeping you two, may I ask?’ he demanded. A second later, he noticed the sheet-white Styles. The senior correspondent swore. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ His eyes widened. ‘Holy Christ, he hasn’t been hit, has he?’
‘No, Mr Cracknell, I believe he’s—’
Cracknell’s interest immediately diminished. ‘Then what? A fever?’ He turned away, checking the progress of the advancing troops. ‘Surely he hasn’t been around the miasmas of the camp for long enough to have contracted cholera?’
Kitson shook his head. ‘No, sir, it is not that either.’ He cleared his throat, bracing himself for a ferocious reaction. ‘It is for the best, I think, if we pause again, to recover our bearings.’
The senior correspondent was not listening. His attention was given over entirely to the battle. ‘Did you hear that, Thomas?’ he asked, raising a forefinger. Kitson looked around vaguely, unable to make out any individual sounds in the hellish clamour that enveloped them. ‘Muskets! They’re within musket range–they must almost be at the river! Come, we must get closer!’
‘A pause, sir, that is all I ask, so we—’
Cracknell stared at his junior in utter astonishment. ‘A pause? What the devil are you talking about, man? We have to keep up! We have to know, don’t you understand?’ His irritation was growing with his impatience.
Kitson’s careful detachment, straining throughout this exchange, started to give way. This was the ugly reverse of Cracknell’s inspiring idealism and frequent invocation of camaraderie: a savage disdain for those he believed were failing or opposing him. The journey between these two attitudes seemed to be a short one indeed. ‘You misunderstand me, Mr Cracknell,’ he responded, as calmly as he could. ‘I merely wish to do what is in the best interests of the Courier and its correspondents.’
The senior correspondent heard none of this. ‘Oh, do what you will!’ He got to his feet, and started towards the Alma. ‘I, at least, intend to do my duty!’
Boyce cleared the vineyard. A shrapnel gash on the mare’s side was bleeding on to his left boot, and quite spoiling its shine. He’d tried wiping it with a rag, but this only served to make the problem worse. None of the annals of war, he reflected bitterly, told one that battle was such a confoundedly dirty business.
The musket-fire from the enemy positions started like a summer rainstorm. One, then two, then six shots; and then a downpour, the balls pinging off stones, tearing through vine leaves, and slapping into the mud with hissing plops. Boyce’s unlucky mare caught one in her haunch, neighing in distress as she spun around, looking for her assailant. The Lieutenant-Colonel struggled to rein her in, his eyes fixed on the Russian redoubts. What an uncivilised horde, he thought. Their fire is utterly uncoordinated–haphazard, even. They have no conception of the basic codes and systems of combat. As he watched, a loose gang of them appeared above a crude parapet directly in front of him, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards up the hill. He could just make out their spiked helmets, and enormous dark moustaches, which were both untrimmed and unwaxed–could there be any plainer indication of their savagery? They did seem awfully close, though, all of a sudden. For the first time that day, Boyce became worried for his safety, and wished that his miserable troops would get the hell out of that vineyard.
Slowly, they emerged, in a rough semblance of the line, to be raked by the Russian muskets. Lieutenant Davy, who bore the regimental colours, was shot in the eye. His body folded neatly earthwards, the flag fluttering down after him. The men behind raised their miniés, and started to shoot back.
‘Hold your fire!’ Boyce yelled. ‘Hold your fire, damn you! Wait for the order! Sergeant, take the names of those men! Lieutenant Nunn, the colours!’
The other battalions of the Light and Second Divisions were arrayed along the gentle slope of the riverbank on either side of the 99th Foot. Marshalled by their officers, they manoeuvred around each other and then plunged into the Alma. Boyce held back until the crossing was well underway, and then urged the mare forward; she leapt in gladly, as if believing that the waters would offer refuge from the battle. The river was cold, and surprisingly fast-flowing. Bullets, shells and shot from the enemy positions were beating the water to foam, and kicking up brown plumes of silt. Riding out to the middle, Boyce tried his best to enforce the line.
And then he saw him, like a sleek black vole, scurrying along behind the ranks of the 99th, and gingerly stepping out into the Alma. That blasted Irishman, the dishevelled paddy reporter, the one who Madeleine was, was–well, he couldn’t even bear to think of it. What the devil was he doing here, Boyce wondered, in the thick of battle, at the moment of glory, soiling it with his despicable presence? He waited until the wretch was out of the shallows, and then spurred his horse towards him.
The mare, her eyes bulging with pain and confusion, almost ran the correspondent down. He was knocked to one side, stumbling headlong into the water. Surfacing, he flailed about in an effort to reclaim his cap, which had fallen off and was now floating away.
‘Explain yourself, cur!’ snarled Boyce over the thunder of the guns.
Cracknell, having seized the lost cap, pulled it back on. ‘Why, Lieutenant-Colonel Boyce,’ he grinned, ‘fancy us meeting here! D’ye have a word on the battle for the LondonCourier?’
‘You will fall back!’ Boyce cried, pointing furiously in the direction of the vineyard. ‘You will remove yourself from the field, this instant!’
Staying mostly submerged, Cracknell’s grin grew yet wider. ‘I’m a civilian, Boyce,’ he replied tauntingly. ‘You can’t give me orders, y’know!’
‘You compromise us all, you damnable rogue—’
A shell smacked enormously against the surface of the river, detonating an instant later. Boyce’s horse bore the brunt of the blast, a large fragment ripping open her throat. With a choking, rattling whine, the mare sank down, her blood gushing into the Alma. Boyce, blown from his saddle, found that he was caught up in its tattered remains. Muscles screaming in protest, he fought dazedly to prevent the dying horse from collapsing on top of him and pushing him beneath the surface.
Cracknell leapt backwards through the water, his legs paddling as he tried to propel himself as far away from the explosion as possible. The notion of coming to Boyce’s aid did occur to him; he wasn’t the sort to let a man die in front of him simply because they weren’t the best of friends. But the stricken officer had attracted the attention of the enemy’s riflemen, and bullets were flicking at the water all around the carcass of the mare. Sorry, Boyce old fellow, he thought as he lunged away through the bloody current towards the opposite bank, it’s just a mite too risky.
The senior correspondent was finding the experience of battle extremely invigorating. He’d seen action before, of course, during his famous tour of the North Americas; he’d witnessed the Texas Rangers exchanging fire with the Mexican Army, and skirmishing with Comanche braves. But that was all as nothing next to this. Being there, in the heart of it, made him feel almost indescribably good, as if the fire of life crackling within him had been pumped up to a roaring inferno by a huge pair of celestial bellows. He could swear that his vision and hearing were sharper. Nothing escaped his notice; he felt powerful, completely in control, ready for whatever lay in store.
The loss of his subordinates did not overly concern him. They would either learn, and harden, or they would be left behind. Seeing them so reduced, bold young Styles especially, had proved to Cracknell that they had no hope of ever matching his mettle and resilience.
At the mercy of a treacherous river bed, many of the soldiers around him had slipped over on to their backs, or fallen forwards down unexpected slopes into deep water. Packs and uniforms, heavy enough on land, became unmanageable when waterlogged, and several privates were being dragged under by the weight of their gear. Others were rendered immobile, cursing breathlessly as they splashed and floundered, left for the Russian snipers to pick off at leisure. Unencumbered, Cracknell was making rather more rapid progress. For a moment, he considered offering assistance to some of the more beleaguered cases; the shout of orders from the shore, however, made him realise that to get thus involved would be to miss the next stage of the attack, and so he left events to take their natural course. One could not, after all, afford to be overly sentimental about the private soldier on the field of battle.
Leaving the water, he staggered up the riverbank through a light fall of musket-fire.
‘Over ’ere!’ called a voice somewhere ahead. ‘Oi, cock, over ’ere!’
Grasping at this sound, Cracknell weaved towards it, flopping down under the lip of a long rocky ledge some ten yards beyond the Alma. Several companies of redcoats were hunched there, awaiting their instructions. They were, he saw, from the 99th; it was one of these men who had called out to him.
It soon became clear which one. ‘These bastards can’t shoot for bleedin’ toffee, can they, cock?’ shouted a sallow, sunken-featured fellow who crouched close to where he lay. Incongruously cheerful, he turned to the man next to him, who was praying under his breath, and poked him in the ribs. ‘Only time you’ve got to worry is when they’re not bleedin’ aimin’ for you! Eh, pal?’ The praying man did not react. His garrulous comrade returned his attention to Cracknell. ‘You’re one o’ those newspaper blokes, ain’t you?’
Cracknell, panting hard, looked up at the soldier and gave a quick nod. He took off his cap and flicked it against the pale stones of the bank, darkening them with a heavy spray of river water.
‘Well, be sure to mention of Private Dan Cregg in yer tellin’ o’ the battle, Mister Reporter, as a right bleedin’ brave an’ upstandin’ soldier!’ This obvious untruth drew a snicker from the men around them. Cregg leant forward and prodded Cracknell with a dirty forefinger. ‘Did I really see the Lieutenant-Colonel take a ball back there in the river with you, cock?’
Cracknell, still too breathless to talk, nodded again.
‘Ha!’ Cregg slapped his palm against the stock of his minié. ‘Serve the bastard right! Serve him bloody well right! Bleedin’ Boycie–got what ’e deserved, an’ no mistake!’
‘Enough of that talk, Cregg! D’ye want yet more punishment, man? D’ye enjoy it, perhaps?’
Major Maynard was striding along the row of crouching soldiers. Sight of him brought Cracknell immediate cheer. Maynard was a solid cove, and a soldiering man through and through–the very fellow for this situation. Laudatory phrases began to form in his mind.
‘No, sir, Major!’ replied Cregg with a crooked smirk.
Maynard squatted down next to Cregg. He was about to speak to the soldiers when he noticed the sopping, panting correspondent stretched out amongst them. ‘Mr Cracknell!’ he cried out in surprise. ‘How the devil did you get so far forward?’
With some effort, Cracknell sat up, spat out some thick mucus and reached inside the wet flap of his jacket for his cigar case. ‘Grit and–and determination, Maynard,’ he replied haltingly. ‘Yourself?’ He opened the case, releasing a trickle of water and a handful of mashed tobacco.
There was a crashing salvo of cannon-fire somewhere above them. The Major ducked, a half-smile on his face. ‘I’ve heard you boast long about your commitment to your task, Cracknell, but that, I suspected, was brandy talking. I see now that I misjudged you.’
Cracknell, casting the cigar case away with a frown, felt his strength returning. ‘Shame on you, Major, for ever thinking such a thing! Now, do you have a comment about the progress of the battle?’
Before Maynard could answer, something happened further along the line that sent a murmur of animation through the soldiers. Cracknell turned around to look. Major-General Codrington had eased his grey Arab charger up on to the ledge, and now shouted hoarsely, ‘Fix bayonets! Get up the bank and advance the attack!’
As the men unhooked the long blades from their belts and started attaching them to the barrels of their miniés, Maynard began firing out questions. ‘The Lieutenant-Colonel is down, yes? Where is Major Fairlie? Captain Pierce? Does Lieutenant Nunn still have the colours?’
‘Major! I say, Major!’ It was Captain Wray, perhaps the most obnoxious of Boyce’s creatures, pushing his way purposefully through the soldiers. Cracknell had crossed paths with him on several memorable occasions in Varna and Constantinople. Seeing the Courier man, Wray turned furiously to Maynard. ‘What in God’s name is that blackguard doing here?’
‘You have left your company in the middle of an engagement, Captain,’ Maynard said sternly. ‘This had better be good.’
Cracknell let out a low snigger. Military authority, for once, was on his side.
Wray’s eyes bulged out amusingly from his plum-coloured face. ‘I only wished to say, Major, that we should dispatch some of our skirmishers to discover the fate of the Lieutenant-Colonel, and lend him whatever assistance they can.’
Maynard’s brow darkened. ‘A respectful tone is called for, Captain Wray, when addressing a superior officer–you would do well to remember that. And you are fully aware of our orders. We cannot break the battalion at this time. Return to your post–we must press the attack.’
As the chastened Captain retreated, scowling at Cracknell as he went, Maynard rose and looked over the 99th. ‘Here we go, my lads,’ he said, his voice loud but calm. ‘We’re to proceed up this here hill. Now these Russians will learn exactly who they’ve been firing on this day.’
Cracknell was left lying on the stones as the redcoats got numbly to their feet. Some began striking at the ledge above them with their rifle stocks, knocking loose rocks and earth in an attempt to make it more scaleable. He glanced along the line. The 19th and 23rd were already on the bank, advancing up the Heights behind Major-General Codrington in open order, their bugles sounding.
Then Major Maynard appeared atop the ledge, his cheeks flushed. ‘Advance, men!’ he cried, waving his sword like a semaphore flag. ‘Forward the 99th! Forward the Paulton Rangers!’
The Courier man reached for his pocketbook, thinking to make a record of this stirring scene. Like the cigars, however, it had been utterly destroyed by the waters of the Alma. Several fine passages, including a masterful account of that morning’s preparations that he had penned whilst visiting the French camp, were lost. Cracknell let the book fall to the ground, where it landed wetly, spreading open like the wings of a dead duck. Ye Gods, he thought, I need a bloody drink.
The senior correspondent had been gone only a minute or so when Styles recovered. After wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he pulled his felt hat back decisively on to his head and declared himself ready to continue.
‘My apologies, Mr Kitson,’ he said, ‘it will not happen again, I swear it. We must find Mr Cracknell.’
Getting up, they made their way out on to the shell-blasted riverbank. The Alma was clogged with dead, floating face down, bobbing steadily towards the sea. On the other side of the river, beyond the advancing Light Division, loomed the rough crenellations of the Russians’ forward redoubt. Kitson could see that the men inside were working with urgent speed, trying to tilt their cannon so the barrels once again faced the approaching British. Musket-fire continued, somewhat ineffectually–the enemy’s accuracy was thankfully poor. Styles, keen to atone for his momentary lapse, had taken the lead; raising his folder of sketches above his head, he plunged into the Alma and started to stride through the waters.
The cannon-fire from the forward redoubt began just as Kitson reached the river. It was immediately clear that it was different somehow. Instead of a string of deep, low bangs, followed by the sonorous howl of the iron balls, there was now a more ragged, loose sound, like something being dynamited, and its pieces being thrown in all directions. Then the shout went up–‘Grape!’
Kitson suppressed a powerful urge to run for cover. He fixed his eyes on Styles’ black jacket, and was wading up behind him when a second round of grapeshot was fired. Three privates from the leftmost company of the 99th were caught by it; their pulverised bodies were swept back over the ledge, almost into the Alma itself. Fragments of metal and flesh splashed all around. Without thinking, Kitson ducked underwater, his hands scrabbling through a ridge of smooth pebbles as he tried to force himself down as deep as possible. He surfaced a few seconds later to the sound of anguished, rasping shrieks, coming from somewhere up on the hillside.
Styles had vanished. There was no trace of him on the gore-strewn riverbank, or in the Alma itself. Knowing he could not linger, Kitson left the water, stumbling a few steps before falling heavily on the stones. He crawled behind the shattered remains of a waterside willow and checked himself for injury, quickly confirming that, besides a few paltry cuts, he was unscathed. As he recovered his breath, he wondered if by some deadly chance Styles had been struck down by grapeshot and then dragged beneath the water by a hidden current. This would account for his companion’s sudden disappearance; it would also mean that he had certainly perished. Kitson wiped the grit from his eyes and gazed back dismally over the ruined valley.
Something pale flashed in the corner of his vision, floating in the shallows. It was a sheet of paper, bearing a loose sketch. Styles’ folder had been dropped nearby, in amongst a cluster of large stones at the water’s edge. Landing on its spine, the folder had fallen open, and was slowly spilling its contents into the bloody Alma. Cracknell’s first Crimean confrontation with Boyce, the collapsed soldiers from the march, Madeleine Boyce on board the H. M. S Arthur–all were being carried away on the red river.
Despite Madeleine’s best efforts, the bay would not be controlled. She believed herself to be a good horsewoman, having ridden regularly throughout her youth. Never before, however, had she attempted to traverse a landscape like the charred and bloody one she found herself in that afternoon; and never before had she been atop such a horse. The bay’s hide was very dirty, and as Madeleine stroked his neck, she could see her gloves blackening with grime. She murmured softly in both English and French, but nothing seemed to be working. Indeed, the beast was becoming more agitated by the moment.
After a short distance, the horse had turned towards the coast. It took Madeleine a few minutes even to think of becoming worried. She had brought disobedient horses to heel on plenty of occasions. It gradually became apparent, however, that the bay was not going to stop, or slow, or pay any attention to her whispering and caressing whatsoever. What worked on pampered ponies was proving completely ineffective on this brutish warhorse. She looked down at his flanks. They were scarred and scabbed by frequent spurring. He probably can’t even feel my hand, she thought, a bud of fear bursting inside her. The British line, the 99th, Richard, were all being left behind. She was now heading into French territory.
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