Authors: Winston Graham
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas
The Stranger from the Sea
A Novel of Cornwall 1810 to 1811
When the seventh Poldark novel,
The Angry Tide,
ended in December 1799 it seemed as though this saga which had delighted millions on TV screen and printed page must die with the century. But time is proof against mere calendar change and lives continue whether chronicled or not. So when in
King George III became mentally ill and a Regency was proclaimed, Poldarks and Warleggans were affected by this national event and by the Regent's unexpected decisions regarding the prosecution of the war with France.
It is at this turning-point that a new generation takes the centre of the stage in the persons of Jeremy and Clowance, children of Ross and Demelza.
Their concerns of head and heart, and the presence in all their lives of an enigmatic stranger from the sea, unfold against a background which ranges from Wellington's lines in Spain to a Midsummer Night in Cornwall, from a ball in London to a brush with the Preventive men.
As the new generation moves forward into the industrial age, Winston Graham fills in the past, portrays the present, and hints at the future as only a master storyteller can.
This edition published 1982 by Book Club Associates by arrangement with William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.
© Winston Graham, 1981
Printed in Great Britain by Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd, Bungay,
On Thursday, the 25
th October, 1810, a windy day with the first autumnal leaves floating down over the parks and commons of England, the old King went mad.
It was an event of consequence not only to the country but to the world. Among those it directly affected were four Cornishmen, a merchant, a soldier, a diplomat and a doctor.
Of course it was not the first time: twenty-two years earlier he had gone insane for a long enough period to bring the legislative affairs of the country to a standstill. Again in 1801 and in 1804 there had been short periods of aberration, enough to give rise to anxiety on the part of his doctors and his ministers. To begin with, this latest attack seemed little different from the others. Except that he was older, and nearly blind, and that his favourite daughter was dying
The first symptom was that he began to talk. All through the
day - non-stop - and most of th
e night too. One sentence in five was rational, the rest were irrelevances strung together like rags on a kite, blowing as the wind took them. He addressed his sons: those who like Octavius were dead he thought alive; those who were alive - and there were many of them - he thought dead. He laughed aloud and crawled under the sofa and was brought out with the greatest difficulty.
The Whigs tried unsuccessfully to hide their gratification. The Prince of Wales was devotedly of their party, and if he became Regent he would at once dismiss the Tory mediocrities who had clung to office for so many years. The long sojourn in opposition was nearly over.
Napoleon too was gratified and made no greater attempt to hide his pleasure. The Whigs were the party of peace: those who did not secretly admire him were at least convinced that it was futile to wage war on him. They agreed with him that he could never be beaten and were anxious to come to terms. They would be his terms.
y four weeks before the King's illness, three horsemen were picking their way down a stony ravine in the neighbourhood of Pampilosa. The second in line was a middle-aged man, tall, good-looking if a little gaunt, wearing a riding habit and a cloak of good quality but well worn and of no particular nationality; the two others were younger, small, wiry, ragged men in the uniform of the Portuguese army. There had been a road, a dusty track, since they set out in the early morning from Oporto, but lately it had deteriorated and become so overgrown that one only of the two soldiers could pick it out among the scrub oak, the cactus, the boulders, the rotted trees. He led the way.
As dusk began to fall the older man said in English to the man behind: 'How much farther?'
There was talk between the soldiers. 'Garcia says the Convent of Bussaco should be but three leagues or so distant now, senhor.'
'Will he find it in the dark?'
'He has never been there, but there should be lights.'
'If it has not been evacuated. Like all else.'
'At the request of your general, senhor.'
They rode on, the small sturdy horses slipping and sliding down the rough descent. All the way they had come across deserted farmhouses, burnt crops, dead animals, overturned ox-carts, the trail of evacuation and destruction. There had been corpses too, teeming with flies, usually old people who had collapsed in flight. But it was clear that the countryside was not as deserted as it seemed. Here and there foliage stirred; figures appeared and disappeared among the olive trees; several times shots had been fired, and once at least the balls had flown near enough for discomfort. The peasants were fleeing from the invader but many of the men were staying behind to harass him as best they could. The
or militia men, were also in evidence; in woollen caps, short brown cloaks and threadbare breeches, armed with anything from butchers' knives to old blunderbusses, and riding wild ragged ponies, they arrived suddenly in clouds of dust or wheeled against the skyline blowing briefly on crescent-shaped horns. Twice the Englishman had had to produce his papers, in spite of his Portuguese escort. He did not fancy the fate of any stragglers of the invading army. But then the behaviour of the invading army had invited every sort of retaliation.
It was a mild September night but no moon. A few mist clouds drifted across the spangled stars.
They reached a dried-up river bed beneath a cliff, and the leading soldier dismounted and cast about him like a bird dog seeking a new scent. The Englishman waited patiently. If they were lost they could sleep well enough in their cloaks; a night among the stunted chestnut trees would do no one any harm, and they had food and water to last.
Then a bent figure emerged from behind a clump of aloes. Indistinguishable as to age and sex, it approached cautiously and there was whispered talk. The soldier turned and said:
'We are closer to the convent than we thought, senhor, but it will be necessary to make a detour. The French army is directly ahead of us.'
There was a pause.
'Which way ahead of us?'
'West, senhor. They are a great host. They have been pursuing the English all day. This man advises keeping to the river bed for half a league, then crossing between the hills to the Bussaco ridge. The French artillery are in the valley.'
The Englishman fumbled in his pouch and found a coin to give to the stunted figure who had saved them from stumbling into the enemy lines. Since he had a fair appreciation of the value of his own freedom, the coin was a large one, and the ragged shadow was suitably overcome, and went off bowing backwards into the darkness that had hatched him. In the present chaos, the giver reflected, when civilization had broken down, a plug of tobacco might have been more valuable.
The riders followed the advice they had been given, moving all the time very cautiously among the great boulders, lest the warning turned out to be more general than precise. Ever and again the leading soldier would halt his horse and listen for the tell-tale sounds that might warn them they were running into an encamped enemy. It took an hour to reach the turning to which they had been directed. It was a moot point whether to stop there for the night, but clearly the greater distance they could put between themselves and the French, the safer they could rest. The idea of reaching the convent at Bussaco was dropped; it seemed likely that the French would already have occupied it.
As the evening advanced a cool wind got up off the sea, which was only a few miles distant, and the riders made better use of their cloaks. They began to climb, first among hillocks, then diagonally up and across a sharp and rocky ridge. As they reached what appeared to be the top, with the gorse and heather waist high around them, the leading soldier again stopped. They all stopped and listened. A very peculiar sound, like a wail; it could have been women's voices keening, but was not. It could have been some sort of flute - a shepherd piping to his flock - but it was not.
The horses came up with each other. The two soldiers argued together. The one who spoke English said:
'We must turn farther north, senhor. That is the French.'
said the Englishman. 'I do not believe that is the French.'
'Let us see for ourselves.'
'No, no! We shall be captured! We shall be shot down!' 'Then wait here,' said the Englishman. 'Or follow me but slowly, fifty paces behind. Then if I am wrong you can still see to your own freedom. The French will not follow you far at night.'
'And for yourself, senhor?'
'I have an idea what this — noise - is.'
He edged his way across the heather towards a rocky bluff that could be discerned in the dark because it cut off the stars. His escort came after him at a distance. They had gone some quarter of a mile when they were halted by a challenge. The Englishman reined in his horse and stared at a solitary figure holding a firelock directed at him. Then he saw three other men part hidden behind bushes, their guns also at the ready.
He said sharply, in English: 'Friend. Name Poldark. From Oporto with despatches. And Portuguese escort.'
After some moments the first musket was lowered and a stocky bonneted figure came slowly forward.
'Let's see yer papers.'
The Englishman dismounted and fumbled in his pocket, produced a wallet and handed it over. Another of the soldiers appeared with a shaded lantern, and they bent over it together.
'Aye, sir. That would seem in order-r. Who would ye be wishing to see?'
'Who's your commanding officer?'
'General Cole, sir, o' the division. Colonel McNeil o' the battalion.'
'What are you, infantry men?'
'Second Battalion, Seventh Fusiliers. Sergeant Lewis.'
'I'll see your colonel.'
The two Portuguese soldiers had also dismounted and their white teeth glinted in the dark as they were greeted by their allies. They walked their horses along the ridge of the escarpment and were soon among a mass of soldiery taking their ease, talking, chatting, but cooking nothing, the few fires being sited so that they should be little seen at a distance.
'My escort were greatl
y alarmed at the noise they heard,' said Poldark presently. 'What were your pipers playing?'
Sergeant Lewis sniffed. 'It was some old Scottish lament. It comforts the men to listen to the wistful music now. Tomorrow's morn we shall all be more martial.'
They came to a clump of tall cedars. Their great trunks had been used to support a temporary headquarters where tables had been put up and a lantern burned. Lewis disappeared, and returned with a tall man who came forward and then stopped, stared and swallowed.
he said. 'So it's Captain Poldark himself! I should never have supposed that there were more than two of that name!'
The other had stopped too. Then he laughed. 'So it's the same McNeil! Well, I'll be hanged!'
'Which you never were,' said McNeil; 'fortunately for your pretty wife. However much some folk thought you deserved it!'
They shook hands after a fractional hesitation. They had never been friends, because twenty years ago they had been on opposite sides of the law. But they had respected each other and come to a mutual understanding, and indeed to a certain wary liking.
Well, it was all far behind. In a cross-fire of conversation they exchanged news. Captain Poldark had landed at Oporto, not with despatches as he had claimed but on a special mission as observer on behalf of the government. When he reached Oporto he was told that Wellington had been retreating with his army for three weeks and that he would be better advised to re-ship to Lisbon and make his contacts there. But by the time this was discovered the sloop on which he had come had sailed and he had decided, against all advice, to ride overland.
He did not elaborate at all on what his mission was and Colonel McNeil did not press him. After exchanging polite news about Cornwall - the Bodrugans and the Trevaunances, the Teagues and the Trenegloses - they strolled a hundred yards to the edge of the bluff, from which they could see the whole of the Mondego Plain. A great company of glow-worms had come to inhabit it. Everywhere the lights twinkled.
'The French,' said McNeil laconically.
'Aye. Wellington decided today to go no farther, so we have encamped up here and watched the army, the host, rilling up the valley below us. Columns of dust have been blowing across the plain and into the foothills all day. The odds, of course, are not more than two to one against us; but of our forty thousand half are untried Portuguese. Ah, well, tomorrow will show
It was five to one at Agincourt, was it not.'
'Well, yes. But here we have no pompous beribboned knights to confront but an army of revolutionary France forged by a genius.'
'No doubt it will be a harder fight, but all the better for that. When do you ride on?'
'Not tomorrow, if this is happening.'
McNeil looked at his companion. Ross Poldark was dressed as a civilian, perhaps for a greater degree of safety traversing a country at war. But then he had no reason to be a soldier, having long since taken on a new cloak of respectability; indeed become a Member of Parliament. Now he was getting up in years, grey at the temples, no fatter, but more lined. He was of the lean kind that feed their bellies with their discontent. 'You intend to stay?'
'Of course. I have a rifle. An extra gun can hardly be despised.'
'Did not Henry say, "The fewer men, the greater share of honour"? All the same,
believe we can spare ye a wee bit by the way.' McNeil screwed in his greying moustache and laughed. It was a subdued guffaw compared to the noise Ross remembered.
'Are we lying so quiet to deceive Massena into thinking there are fewer of us than there really are?'
'Aye. I do not think he knows our Second or Fifth Divisions have caught up with us yet. That will be pleasant - to surprise him. It is always pleasant to have some good troops up your sleeve.'
Poldark pulled his cloak round him as the night breeze blew some fog off the sea.
'And you, McNeil. When we saw you in Cornwall you were a captain in the Scots Greys. This change to a line regiment
McNeil shrugged. 'I have neither money nor i
nfluence, Poldark. At the best I
could have become a major had I stayed with my old regiment. Here - in the - the crucible of the Peninsular war I have already made the most important step - though as yet only a Brevet Colonel. But in the natural wastage of war I shall expect soon to have my rank confirmed.'
They stood silent, looking down on the diadem of lights, while more mist drifted in and dispersed among the sharp hills and the tall trees. McNeil took it as a natural expectation that the wastage should not include himself. Ross Poldark, equally naturally, welcomed the risks of battle that for him offered no preferment except the possible preferment of death.
Ross said: 'One thing you said, Colonel. Perhaps I misheard you. Did you say - did I hear you say that you
could not suppose there were more than two of my name?' ·You did.'
'Why not one? Who else is there?
I misunderstand you, then?'
'You do not at all. There's a Poldark in the Monmouthshires. I saw his name but the other day in the commissary lists.
thought once to seek him out but you'll appreciate we have not had much time on our hands!'
Ross eased the foot that now often pained. 'Is he in this army?'
'He must be. The 43rd are part of Craufurd's light division. They should be immediately on our left.' 'Far?'
'Half a mile. Do you wish to see him? Is he a relative?'
'Then I'll get a man to go with you after supper. I take it you'll sup with us first?' 'Gladly.'
They had supped off cold food and the night was quiet, except for the scraping of the cicadas and the soughing of the wind. Once or twice the keening of the pipes grew out of the dark, a dree sound, mourning as if for the slaughter on the morrow, yet quietly stirring, both a lament and an incitement. Down below in the plain the roll of drums sounded. It was as if the French were making no secret of their power - the power that had decimated all the other armies of Europe - so that the knowledge might seep into the minds and hearts of their opponents and sap their courage before dawn broke. The English knew there would be a battle tomorrow, for Wellington had said that this was as far as they would retreat - and what Wellington said he always meant. But the French could not know whether the army encamped on the slopes above them might not have done the wise thing and slipped away before morning, leaving no more than a rearguard to delay their advance. It had happened often enough in the last few years. The British victory at Talavera last year was the exception, not the pattern.