Amidst the backdrop of Napoleonic War raging across Europe, soldiers seek distraction from the horrors of the battle field. Major Grant is an officer of the British Army serving under Wellington in France. An officer, a gentleman and a connoisseur of female bottoms, Major Grant finds himself unusually captivated by a mysterious woman…..
I sailed on the Sunday evening tide as planned. In my pocket I held a piece of delicate lace that had once been the trim of her under gown and somewhere far from here she may be holding a small book that had been purchased on a whim at Christmas. Our night together would stay with me over the coming weeks, despite the horrors of war. We had enjoyed each other for what we were, married and bound by our own convictions. It would be easy to fall in love with her, so very easy. Yet to take such a large step would create problems. To know her better would increase the bond between us, to share secrets would only magnify our desire to a size that others would notice. We had made no plans to see each other again for fortunes of love and war are fickle, to which guarantees cannot be made. Our only promise to one another was that, should circumstances prevail, we might enter each other’s arms again one rainy day.
The rain, the mud and the concussion of the heavy guns. Combined they created a scene from Dante’s Hell. Men crying for their mothers and other turning to god for the first time in their miserable lives. Smoke hung across the landscape, depressed my the moisture in the air. It resembled death’s cloak, oppressive and all consuming. Those of us who were not dead witnessed the fragility of life, with each passing life the day became darker. Death by death, darker and darker. At times one became focussed on an activity just long enough for the noise to fade and a silence descend around you. Horses cantering to their designated form up points, jittery and wide eyed. They too knew death was around them, they could smell it. Forming a line, my cavalry about me, we walked he horses forward to attain our formation. In the distance the enemy’s heavy guns we yet oblivious to presence. Gaining speed we looked to one another, brother soldiers, for comfort that all would be well. “Prepare to charge!” Came the order and a cold line of sweat ran down my back. The speed of the horses increased and we drew our swords. Finally came the order, “CHARGE!”
From where I lay, the fine dust that hung in the cold air of the barn captured invisible rays of sun. A sudden grunt and a large bellow of rising steam caught the finger-like rays. I watched it twirl and carry away like the smoke I had watched as a child from my grandfather’s pipe. I smiled.
It was dark and the sound of many feet caused me to wake. I now noticed the smell, was it there before? I recognised it immediately, the smell of death, decay and despair. There was another smell, cooking, yes it was definitely cooking. Roast meat, for sure, yes roast meat; I smiled and slipped way again knowing she would be waiting.
Wide awake, and pain raked my body, pains shot down my leg and my foot felt that it was surely on fire. “Damn your eyes man, do you not recognise an officer’s uniform when you see one!” More heavy footfalls and hands about me, the pain was unbearable, but then she was there again.
“Colonel Grant? Colonel, can you hear me?” I moved my head in acknowledgement. “Thank the Lord.” Said the voice. “Get his uniform off and bring me hot water and a bottle of olive oil from the crate.” I tried to cry out when the pain returned but only fell back into her arms. It was like being trapped in an ever-decreasing tunnel. The pain would not allow me a moment’s respite. My mind was repeatedly throwing still images of her, faster and faster until I could see no more. She never spoke.
“Bloody hell man! Are you still lying around?” I opened my eyes. A red blur slowly started to form a shape. “I said, why are you still lying around?” I smiled and said, “Good day Sir.” The figure before me was Colonel Brook. “Well about time too, the war’s over and so are most of the bloody parties.”
Over the course of the morning I was told that I had been wounded, fell, and my position over run by the French. I had been left for dead near a burnt out barn with the other lifeless men and not discovered for many days after the battle was over. “Damn lucky the French didn’t rob you of your uniform my boy, we were burning the dead and your Colour Sergeant saw the red of your tunic amongst the bodies.” My stomach lurched. “What condition do I find myself in?” I asked. “You took a blast from canister shot and nasty knock on face. Nothing to worry about my boy, the ladies does love a scar sir, does love a scar!”
I had been lucky, very lucky. My open wound had attracted an infestation of maggots and those disgusting of creatures had spared me, in their macabre fashion, from death. I returned to the safety of Belgium, and with the on set of spring a letter arrived dated one week after my departure from England. The envelope had been addressed to me with the rank of Major scored through and replaced with ‘Colonel’ in rough script. The letter had obviously followed me to France and back to Belgium as my field promotion was yet to be placed on orders. I did not open it. It had waited for me this long to return and her neat, copper plate writing told me that Eleanor was the author. The content would not be good news for she would not risk sending a private letter with the possibility of my death in battle. Her letter would be opened and the contents turned from heart felt words to public gossip, more so now that she had a relationship with the battalion in the school.
I took a stroll the following day in an orchard and sat amongst the bees who were busy with their collections. Taking the letter from my pocket and turning it in my fingers it struck me what a desperate situation I had placed myself. The contents of this letter would, without any doubt in my mind, change what plans I had made on returning to England. I considered not opening the letter at all letting fate decide my path, as it would have done had I not received the letter at all. I awoke some time later by the fall of rain from a single cloud that was passing overhead. Its top was of a brilliant white and the base a dark grey. I lay in light falling rain and watched the cloud slowly change colour as the rain left it. For a brief moment a rainbow appeared and then was gone. The heavy envelope had protected it from the rain, for the letter was dry to the touch as I eased it from sleeve. On a single piece of paper rested a paragraph of words. There was no return address and no signature. It read
“I have returned to Italy under my physician’s instructions. I am in the company of only 3 people. My location can be found in class. I trust and hope this finds you well.”
Why had she gone to Italy under her physicians instruction, was it she that was ill or the children? Where was her husband? How would I find her in Italy by looking at her classroom? I put the letter down and watched the large cloud again changing shape. I must make haste to England by securing a place with the returning Army.
(“Up the Guards and at Them.” Said at the Battle of Waterloo and quoted in a letter from Captain Batty of the Foot Guards in 1815)