Posted on 2010-10-09
"O'Malley!" Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam snarled then grumbled, shaking his head like an angry bear. Working at his desk in his command tent, he had been bellowing for his batman for at least fifteen minutes. "O'Malley! Where in bloody blazes is the man?!" Absorbed with casualty lists, supply losses, war office missives and formulating his responses, the colonel carelessly knocked the remaining tobacco from his pipe bowl onto the dirt floor and stuffed the still smoldering tube into his pocket.
"You called me, colonel?" A rough, broad faced Irishman entered at a run, his sleeve wiping hot sauce from his chin. He skidded to a stop, saluted, and snapped rigidly to attention.
"Where in hell have you been?!"
"Dinner, sir. With the wife, sir. En-chee-laidees is what she made, and bloody good they were too, sir."
Fitzwilliam eyed the man narrowly, trying to ignore the gnawing, grumbling, hollow hole crying out within his own stomach. "Huh. Do I appear as if I am at all interested, sergeant?" He handed a thick leather pouch to his batman then began searching through the papers strewn about his desk, lifting up the odd book, pushing aside the rolled maps. "I need you to run that monthly report over to Field Marshall Wellesley's runner immediately; it's already two days late and I've decided to say it's your fault. We can't blame that idiot Huffington any more since he's dead, poor sod, and Captain Hunter is going on leave tomorrow to get married. Besides, you haven't been censured yet this month, have you? Hmmm? No, I thought not. You will take the bullet for the regiment, won't you O'Malley, there's a good fellow. By the way that's a direct order."
O'Malley snapped off another fine salute. "And quite a honor it tis, sir! Thank you, sir!" The big Irishman stood proudly erect, his gaze directed toward the back wall of the tent, his lips twitching as he clicked his heels smartly together. "And may I say, sir, that I think you're a superior gentleman and a fine officer. Sir. No matter what the rest of the regiment says. Sir." Fitzwilliam and O'Malley had been together for ten years, had settled into a sort of close comradeship that spanned across class and heritage; a friendship unthinkable outside of the army.
"And you're a black hearted bastard who doesn't deserve the fine woman you have."
"That's a fact, sir."
"Where's my pipe?"
"Beg pardon, sir… but… yer pocket seems to be smokin' a wee bit there. I could just…" Venturing closer, the sergeant made a feint to slap the colonel's pocket then hesitated, thought better of it, and backed away again. O'Malley was a big man, a former drunken brawler, boxer and horse thief, but he was no fool - the colonel bested him by at least three stone in weight and two inches in height. He was also strong as an ox.
"What? Oh, @#$%&." Fitzwilliam snatched out the smoking pipe then stared inside his pocket, lifting out the offending weed. "Thank you, Pat. You are dismissed, sergeant." The colonel resumed his frustrating search among the strewn documents.
"By the by, colonel… " O'Malley relaxed his stance, grinning rakishly down at Fitzwilliam as his beloved commanding officer rummaged through the mess, finally assisting him by first holding the lantern, then the water pitcher. "Colonel, sir, yer 'laundress' is here again… " he spoke in a sort of confidential half whisper. "Lottie Longstreet. Aye. I put 'er in the last tent so's the two of you can do the wash in a bit of privacy, if you get me drift, sir." When Fitzwilliam didn't look up or acknowledged the statement, O'Malley continued, his voice growing a bit louder, his manner a bit bolder. "I would never suspect she wrestled professionally; no one could. Well, they wouldn't dare, would they? Not with those arm muscles of 'ers bulgin' like that. I've heard tell she's a grand scrubber too, sir. If you know what I mean, sir."
Having found the letter for which he was searching Fitzwilliam folded it and began stuffing it into its packet. "Excellent, I haven't enjoyed a good scrubbing in weeks," he muttered.
O'Malley began to laugh and then snorted, laughing more now attempting to contain himself. He replaced the lantern and the water pitcher onto the desk and leaned over, suddenly laughing uproariously, placing his hands on his knees. "Gor'on witch chew!" he garbled. Finally gasping for breath, he ended up coughing and sputtering after uttering that insensible phrase.
He then stood abruptly back to stiff attention the moment he became aware of Fitzwilliam's pinioning glare. "Sir! Yes, Sir!""
"'Gor on witch chew?'" Fitzwilliam's palms rested flat on his desk as he sincerely scrutinized his batman. He shook his head. "What the hell are you saying, man? It's like we don't even speak the same language at times; you may as well be American for the amount of sense you spew forth." His batman nodded his complete agreement just as Fitzwilliam's stomach rumbled again. "Damn I am hungry and it's your fault somehow, I know it is. Get out. Go on – oh, Pat, could you ask Juanita to send over a few of those escadandoes or whatever they are called."
"She's already got it all prepared for you."
A quarter hour later a shadow fell across Fitzwilliam's desk as he read one of a dozen dispatches he had received that afternoon. "O'Malley, you're in my light. Did you bring the enchilafees? I'm famished." When there was no response, the colonel looked up.
"Well damn me! Darcy! What in bloody hell are you doing here?"
Fitzwilliam Darcy had been amazed at the magnitude of this military camp that surrounded one small city in southern France, his first sighting being from the top of a ridge looking down on a veritable ocean of soldiers, fifty thousand men strong, the allied army of the Sixth Coalition stretched out across the plains and hills and on into the horizon. Several thousand campfires flickered and smoked, around which men talked, women cooked, children played and dogs barked. There was music, singing; in some places groups danced, in other places soldiers marched, horses were groomed.
On the horizon the sun was beginning to settle into the earth. Night was approaching.
Initially accompanied by a group including some old Oxford classmates, Darcy soon broke away from their tour and was directed to a section of the sloping hilltop where his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, along with his regiment of five thousand men, awaited orders from their general and commander. It was the beginning of Spring, 10 April, 1814, and Napoleon Bonaparte was cornered far away in the north of France, his Imperial Army was scattered, and the allied forces were at last poised for victory - the long and brutal Peninsular War coming to an end. There was only one French town here in the south offering its resistance to the immense occupying army that sat in its shadow.
The city of Toulouse.
"How in blazes did you get in here? And more importantly, why?" Fitzwiliam rounded his desk to clamp hands with his young cousin, and then pulled the two year younger man into a rough embrace. "By God, but it's grand to see you." They had been closer than brothers all their lives even while their personalities and outlooks were as different as night and day. "You look like hell."
"And how typically ill bred of you to say so." Grinning sheepishly, Darcy tossed his hat and gloves onto a table and turned toward his cousin. "I was in the neighborhood so I thought I'd drop in…No, actually I saw Freddie Adams and several others in Brussels. He said they were coming here to be present for the end of the war, assured me it was the place to be, so I tagged along. Beresford's family is here, The Duke of Haddon, the Duke of Richmond and others – in fact I was told several different groups have already left from London." The two men suddenly began to push, jab, and shove each other roughly, scrapping like puppies in a field. They stopped just as suddenly as they started. "Is it true? Is it over?"
"Who knows for certain? Napoleon is in the north, we are in the south; his army is dispirited, in chaos - I'm waiting for word like the rest; we rarely know what Wellington will decide from day to day lately."
"Well I am impressed Fitz; I had no idea you were entrusted with so much responsibility. Are they that desperate?"
Fitzwilliam laughed outright. "More than likely. But seriously, you do look like @#$%&,, brat. Didn't you bring that pompous valet with you?"
"No, I left Barlow home. I'm traveling light, feeling rather restless these days." Darcy was eying his cousin's worn out uniform coat as he spoke. "But you! You have the gall to claim I look bad - ha! Look at you! This jacket is a disgrace; it should be burned."
"As a matter of fact I tried that earlier; the damn thing is too filthy to blaze." Fitzwilliam motioned Darcy to a comfortable chair then rested himself on the edge of his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well? Is everything all right? How is Georgiana? No lingering effects of the Wickham debacle, I hope?"
'Not a bit. She's shifted her tender regards to her friend Julia's younger brother, Lord Philip. He's fifteen. However, I've learned a valuable lesson with this, Fitz. I make certain we talk each day, really talk. I'll not take for granted that everyone has her best interests at heart."
At that moment Pat O'Malley entered the tent carrying a tray filled to overflowing with wonderfully smelling home cooked food. "I'm afraid my wife is half in love with you, colonel… " His face broke into a broad grin when he spied Darcy. "Mr. Darcy! Didn't know you'd be obligin' us with your presence today."
Darcy stood to shake the sergeant's hand. "Good to see you, Pat. How is that dear wife of yours?"
"Fat and sassy, sir, and aren't ye kind to be askin'?"
"You do see how well I am protected here, do you not Darcy? You come strolling in past sentries and guards; discipline is failing. Tell me Patrick just why I don't have you reassigned somewhere useful, like India or the Crimea?"
"I've no idea, sir, I can only hope. Would you like some enchilderoes, Mr. Darcy. I've some lovely tortillas too. "
Finally alone and at leisure, the two old friends ate heartily of the tortillas, enchiladas, patatas fritas; even a plate filled with magdalenas left over from breakfast was consumed with gusto. Laughing at old memories, they relaxed and enjoyed the comfort that comes from being with family. Fitzwilliam poured out the last of what was to be the first of many bottles of claret for the evening and raised his glass in salute to his cousin. After they both downed their drinks, he looked across at Darcy with concern. "So, man, I am ready now; why are you here? The last time you visited me at the front was five years ago to tell me my mother had passed. If it is bad news tell me quickly. Is my father ill?"
"No! Oh Fitz! Heavens! No, if your father were ill, or for that matter anyone from the family were ill, you know perfectly well we would not be laughing - gossiping about family and friends like two old women." Darcy straightened his cuffs and passed a hand down the front of his cravat for a better, more subdued look. "At least I wouldn't be the one behaving like an old woman..." As he mumbled his mouth twitched in humor.
Fitzwilliam leaned forward and gently slapped the back of his little cousin's head. "Show some respect for your elders, brat. All right then what problem has brought you over two hundred miles from London to France? You have a tension about you that I've not seen in a long while, if ever. Darcy, is Pemberley flooded?"
"No! God, were you always this morbid?! There is nothing wrong, you idiot, no one is ill or maimed or decapitated." Darcy hesitated for a moment in a kind of quiet and private rumination. "I wouldn't be adverse to Reverend Collins being throttled within an inch of his life…here's an interesting aside - he sends his greeting. I think he's a bit put out you're still alive though as he's been practicing your eulogy for years. You know how Aunt Catherine abhors sloppy presentation from him."
"Well, tell him to keep a good thought, we're not out of the woods yet and don't change the subject, Darcy; out with it. What is the matter? Is it a woman? Aha. I thought as much – all right, all right, after I thought about everything else I admit. Well. Must be pretty damned serious. Who is she and what is her particular physical deformity that has her reduced to considering you for romance?"
"Very nice, thank you very much. I'll depart now and not bother you again." However, instead of leaving he slumped farther down in his chair. The silence continued for several moments as Darcy squirmed a bit under his cousin's steady gaze. Suddenly he raked his hands roughly through his perfectly groomed hair. "Bah! I met her while at Bingley's new residence. You heard he's let a manor house in Meryton? No? Well, here's the latest on dit. Bingley's let a manor house at Meryton, Caroline is acting as his hostess, and he is in love with a highly unsuitable woman from a horrid family. Believe you me, the mother is ghastly and the father is like a ghost, wanders in and out, half the time you don't even know he's in the room until he's left and shut the door. And three of the remaining four sisters are either giggling camp follower types or sermon givers. They live in a revoltingly small house where pigs are probably allowed to roam unattended throughout the living quarters to chase the chickens." He emitted a great sniff of derision. "Disgraceful."
"Three of four sisters are unacceptable?"
Darcy again could not meet his cousin's gaze.
"You may as well tell me, Darcy. I can out drink you easily. I'll have you admitting to all sorts of ugly secrets before dawn. You'll tell me eventually. We both know this."
"Well…I do admit I rather fancied one of the sisters, but…Oh God, Fitz, their position is so beneath ours - it is just intolerable! The father may be a gentleman but with no relations to speak of, nothing to recommend him…or them… I swear they live hand to mouth, with the mother throwing her daughters into any man's path…completely hopeless… hoydens all of them.. "
"Turned you down, did she?"
"Flat as an en-chee-laidee."
Suddenly they began to laugh, then to howl. A second bottle of claret was opened as the men laughed raucously and slowly the painful, humiliating memory began to fade. Darcy rubbed his eyes, loosened his cravat and sighed. His hands laced behind his head and he leaned back. "I even thought to impress her at a ball Bingley gave for that backwoods town but was soundly rebuffed. She hates me. At least I retained some of my self respect and backed off but Bingley, poor darling. He is besotted with the older sister; could not comprehend that the connection would be highly unsuitable. Besides, she all but ignored him. I talked him into removing himself to town where Caroline is keeping an eye on him, but the poor man is heartbroken."
"He's damn lucky you kept your head - stopped the poor sod from some future embarrassment I'll warrant."
"I've saved the more damaging evidence for last – the whole family has also befriended Wickham."
"Say no more. Good God, you don't need that crowd then. Bloody hell, I thought I'd heard the last of that randy buck... "
"Colonel, I've a message for you – from his nibs." O'Malley peered into the tent, his gaze riveted to his commander's, the tension in the room simmering. He stepped inside and handed the missive to Fitzwilliam.
"Dammit!" Fitzwilliam softly muttered as he read. He looked up and sighed. "We are going in."
"Whatever does that mean?" asked Darcy. "In where?"
"In a moment, Darcy. Pat, tell him we'll be ready at dawn."
"Shall I spread the word, Colonel?"
"Yes, although I'm certain the word is already spreading faster than we could do it. Half the rum rations tonight, Pat and make certain Henson and Debault have their orders also. Tell them to meet me here before dawn."
Fitzwilliam poured out the last of the wine for himself and his cousin. "Wellington wants to attack, Darcy, Arthur is angry and wants to fight. Toulouse is a lone hold out and Arthur's irritated, tired of waiting for word of Napoleon."
Darcy was confused, and worse he was frightened for his cousin. "How can this be? It's over – the war is over, Fitz; everyone says so. We're just waiting to march into Paris… I thought. You cannot mean you'll attack in the morning just like that. What good could it do? How could you be ready?"
"Oh, we're ready; we've gone over this for days. I can tell you exactly what will happen. I'll stand with General Hill on the west; Beresford will have the unfortunate job of dragging cannons through the mud from two days of rain…" Grunting and shaking his head, he raised himself up from his chair and moved over to arrange his maps. "Pat, tomorrow see to it that the women and children are in their usual places, well behind the lines and secured as best as possible. You can go to Juanita now. I won't need you any more tonight."
"Yer lady's waiting in 'er tent, sir…"
Fitzwilliam grunted. "@#$%&. I forgot about her." He reached into his pockets and brought out some coins. "Here give her these and tell her I may not be able to join her. I have unexpected company." Rolling up all his directives and orders he tied them with a leather strip and placed them on the side of his desk. "… Unless, of course, you would be interested in her sister, Darcy? Oh, she's a lovely girl, stout, very energetic, wears an eyepatch…"
"What a charmer. Well, hard as this will be for you to believe, I think I'll say no tonight, Fitz; I'm exhausted. But don't disappoint your lady on my account." Darcy studied his cousin carefully, the heaviness of responsibility already settling about him. "I'm going to sleep. May I bunk in your tent? Good, thanks. You go and enjoy yourself. I'll stay for the battle tomorrow, however, if I may."
"Yes, if you like - there will probably be an area on the ridge where civilians can watch. Are you certain about tonight, Darcy? Perhaps you would like to meet another of her friends? Lovely girls, each and every one, and very friendly."
"Does Wellington know about all these women?"
"And how do you imagine I met half of them?"
They strolled through the camp toward the officer's tents, the men saluting or calling out to the Colonel. A little boy of about four was atop a draft horse, his father gently leading them in a circle. A veteran of nearly seven years, the soldier had lost his arm from the elbow down at the Battle of Ciudad Rodrigo. "Look at me, sir!" the child called out. "I'm going to be a soldier too, like papa, and fight for King George. May I, please?"
Fitzwilliam hesitated, but only for a moment. "We would be proud to have you, son." He then saluted the future recruit.
"Colonel," the boy's father called out. "A few of the men are enjoying a bit of the rum ration you gave out – that's where we're headed now. A bit of jaw jabber to relax the new lads before tomorrow. Won't you and the fine gentleman join us? We'd be that proud, sir."
"What do you say, Darcy?"
Darcy swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. "I'd be honored. Thank you." He had been moved to near tears during their walk, watching the camp as children innocent and unknowing of what was to come ran and laughed. He had listened to the calls of greetings, the lone man singing in the distance and the music somewhere that had rang out joyously before now softened with nightfall. Distant campfires where families gathered surrounded him. How many of these men would be lost tomorrow? "Honored, indeed."
The two cousins sat on the only two chairs available, the privileged positions within the center of about twenty of the scruffiest, wildest looking men Darcy had ever seen; ruffians and thieves, every one. But, they were also lovers and husbands, fathers, friends, soldiers and countrymen. They had fought together, many of them for ten years now.
This ragged, rough and tumble, unscrupulous band of brothers had helped save Europe from the delusional ambitions of a mad Frenchman.
Darcy leaned forward, forearms on his knees, straining to better hear the men describe to him a particularly gory battle from the early days of the Peninsular War. The rum they were drinking was only cheap rotgut but it warmed the night and fueled the feeling of camaraderie around the campfire. Fitzwilliam, his ever present pipe dangling from his mouth, was smiling at something one of his sergeants was describing.
"Give us a song, Davie," called out one huge Welsh private. He proudly pushed forward his little boy, a lad of about seven and with the face of an angel. The men around the campfire jostled the blushing child, laughing and teasing him as he shyly came forward, then they grew quiet as the pure, clear, voice rang out:
"Hark, now the drums beat up again,
For all true soldier gentlemen,
Then let us 'list and march I say,
Over the hills and far away.
O'er the hills and o'er the main,
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain,
King George commands, and we obey,
O'er the hills and far away.
No more from sound of drums retreat,
While Marlborough and Galway beat
The French and Spaniards every day,
O'er the hills and far away…"
It was only a few hours until dawn before the two cousins finally returned to their tents, Darcy to Fitzwilliam's, and Fitzwilliam to another, smaller. more discreet tent at the end of the line. Darcy chuckled to himself as he watched his cousin inanely smile down into the face of a full figured young woman, his battered red coat already off and tossed into a corner, his head tilting for a kiss. As the tent flap slowly lowered on the view she was already raising her arms around his neck.
That was good; his cousin would have some moments of pleasure before the storm.
As Darcy stretched out on the cot he tried to sleep but instead stared straight ahead of himself, feeling helpless, haunted by memories. How would they all fare this day? Who would survive the butchery to come? Word had leaked out quicker than the official announcement, as Fitzwilliam had predicted it would. and the mood had gradually turned bitter sweet for some, melancholy for others. They had all faced adversity before, had stared death in the eye and survived. Perhaps they all could one more time. He assured himself his problems were dreary and ridiculous by comparison.
Slowly, however, the memories of the brave men, the happy innocent children, the camp women, slowly drifted away one by one. To his dismay he found he was left again with his own problems and he berated himself as selfish. But he still could not shake it. Shake the one memory alone, the most haunting of all, the one memory he had traveled all these miles to extinguish, the one he was always so desperately trying to avoid. He sighed and closed his eyes, whispering her name over and over again until the dawn.
During the Battle of Toulouse, 11 April, 1814. the Allied Army of the future Duke of Wellington suffered four thousand, five hundred fifty eight casualties while the French casualties numbered over thirty five hundred. The French commander Soult held Toulouse during that day of bloodshed but finally decided to withdraw from the city at nine in the evening after detecting yet another allied cavalry approaching.
The following morning, 12 April, 1814, city officials handed over the city to the Allied Army. The battle of Toulouse was over.
Sadly, however, the battle, the deaths, the bloodshed, had been for nothing.
That afternoon, 12 April. 1814, Wellington received word that Napoleon had abdicated four days prior.The End