Authors: Winston Graham
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas
It was near midnight when they had finished eating, and as a soldier led Ross through the lines many men were already asleep - or at least they were lying down wrapped in their cloaks. They were all, it seemed, fully clad; no one bothered to take greater ease knowing the day ahead. Groups lay on elbows or squatted, quietly talking. McNeil had mentioned Agincourt, and Ross remembered the play he had seen at Drury Lane in which the king went round visiting his soldiers on the night before the battle. Remarkable that this Scottish soldier should be able to quote a line or t
wo. There had been a Cornishman,
Ross remembered, in that play. No, no, the king had been mistaken for one by calling himself Leroy . . . Did Shakespeare suppose
was a Cornish name?
It was more than half a mile, and Ross was limping by the end of it. He rode a horse longer than he walked these days. Then it was an asking and a questing, a seeking among dark and sprawling figures, the thumb jerked, the finger pointed. Ross's escort moved like a small Scottish ferret from group to group. At last a man sat up and said:
'Yes, I'm Poldark. Who wants me?'
'One of your own blood,' said Ross. 'Who else?'
There was a startled oath, and a thin man scrambled to his feet. He had been lying, his back propped against a tree, his scabbard across his knees. He peered in the uncertain starlight.
'By the Lord God! It's Uncle Ross!'
'Geoffrey Charles! I never thought I should have the good fortune to meet you in this way! But I'm conceited enough to believe that no other person with such a name exists in the British army!'
'By God!' Geoffrey Charles embraced his kinsman cheek to cheek, voice and tone light with pleasure, then held him by the biceps in a firm examining grip. 'It is too
Just when I was thinking of home - here, with the snap of a finger, as out of a magic bottle, comes the person I remember best of that motley crew - and, with one exception, value most highly! God save us! It can't be possible!'
Ross explained his presence.
'Then should you not go at once to Wellington instead of frittering your time discovering an unimportant nephew? Go and see Old Douro and then when he is done with you, I shall be happy to talk!'
Ross hesitated, unwilling to explain the precise nature of his presence here, uncomfortable indeed that, stated in a few sentences, it might not commend itself to his nephew at all.
'Geoffrey Charles,' he said. 'I am sent here for the value of my observation rather than my communication, and I suspect General Wellington has not a little on his mind tonight. What I have to say to him will not help him win or lose the battle in the morning and can be as well said after as before.'
'You are staying?'
'Of course. Wouldn't miss it. Can you use another sharpshooter immediately under your command?' 'My command,
mon Dieul C'est ne pas y c
'Well, I see you are now a captain. And that, since I have so long been a civilian, gives you a seniority I'd be willing to accept.'
Geoffrey Charles snorted. 'Uncle, you do yourself no sort of honour, since I understand you have been in and out of a number of scrapes during the last ten years! To say nothing of your membership of that talk-house in Westminsterl However, if you wish to be by my side in any little action which may take place to dissuade the French from climbing this escarpment. . . well, I'll be happy to accommodate you!'
'Good, then that's settled.'
'You've seen the French encamped below?'
'Colonel McNeil gave me the opportunity.'
'So you'll appreciate that there could be at least a chance of your
being able to deliver your message to Wellington?'
'It's a risk my conscience will entitle me to take.'
Ross was by no means sure that he would be welcomed by the General. He had a letter of authority. But Wellington had a very personal and clear line of communication with the Foreign Secretary, who happened just at the moment to be his brother, and he might well suspect this semi-military civilian unexpectedly visiting his headquarters of being here on behalf of other members of the Cabinet who thought less well of him. It was not far from the truth, though the thinking was not Ross's own.
They had squatted together by now on the soft pine needles beneath the trees. A batman brought them a hot drink that passed for coffee, and they sat chatting easily together like old friends.
They had not seen each other for four years, because Ross had been himself abroad when Geoffrey Charles returned after Corunna. Ross was startled at the change in his nephew. When he had last seen him Geoffrey Charles was a young cadet, eager, full of fun and high jinks, drinking and gambling his small allowance away, always in trouble and always in debt. Now he looked lean and hard, all the puppy fat gone, face sun-tanned and keen, handsome in a rather hard-mouthed way that only the army or fox-hunting can produce. A campaigner who by now had seen more war than Ross had ever seen. Not so much like his father as he had once given promise of becoming; perhaps the thin line of dark moustache made a difference, as indeed did the indentation in the jaw.
'Well, well, my dear life and body, as Prudie would say! I should never have supposed you were so well disposed to me after our last meeting, Uncle! Are you rich?
It was never in the character of a Poldark to become rich, however much fate might favour him. Yet you met my urgent needs like a lamb. And they were not small! You got me out of a scrape! Indeed, had you not so helped me I might never have seen Spain and Portugal but have been dismissed the army and spent salut
ary years vegetating in Newgate!
'I doubt it,' said Ross. 'You might have suffered some loss of preferment; but in time of war even England cannot afford to let her young officers go to prison for the sake of a few guineas.'
'Well, had the worst come to the worst I suppose I should have swallowed my pride and asked Stepfather George to bail me out. All the same, your generosity, your forbearance, allowed me to escape the moneylenders without that humiliating experience.'
'And now it seems you must have mended your ways -Captain Poldark.'
'Why do you suppose that, Captain Poldark?'
'Your preferment. Your grave appearance. Four years of very hard soldiering.'
Geoffrey Charles stretched his legs. 'As for the first, that was easy, men do not make old bones in the Peninsula, so one is given a place as it becomes vacant. As to the second, my gravity, if you observe it as such, is largely due to the fact that I am wondering how to compose a letter to Aunt Demelza if her husband comes to hurt under my command. As to the third, four years of soldiering of any sort, as you should know, dear Uncle, does not breed mended ways of any sort.
It encourages one in unseemly
behaviour, whether with a woman, a bottle, or a pack of cards!'
Ross sighed. 'Ah, well. I shall keep that from your relatives.'
Geoffrey Charles laughed. 'But I'm not in debt, Captain. In the most singular way. Last month before this damned retreat began the regiment had a donkey race; there were high wagers on all sides, and I, fancying my moke, backed myself heavily and came in a neck ahead of young Parkinson of the 95 th! So for the first time for twenty-odd months I have paid off all my debts and am still a few guineas in pocket! No!
Twas lucky I won, else I should have been gravelled how to pay!'
Ross eased his aching ankle. 'I see someone has been chipping at your face.'
'Ah yes, and not so engagingly as yours.
I could not imagine you without your little love-token, it so becomes you. I lost my bit of jaw on the Coa in July; we had a set-to in front of the bridge. But it could have been worse. The surgeon gave me the piece of bone to keep as a lucky charm.'
The night had worn on, but they dozed only now and then, still exchanging the occasional comment, the quip, the reminiscence. As dawn came nearer they talked more seriously about themselves, about Cornwall, about the Poldarks.
Geoffrey Charles had taken the death of his mother hard. Ross remembered him as a pale-faced youth calling to see him in London one afternoon and saying that this happening, this loss, had changed his attitude towards his future. He was no longer content to go to Oxford, to be groomed pleasantly for the life of an impoverished squire
in the extremest south-west of E
ngland. To be under the tutelage of his stepfather, whom he disliked, for the sake of his mother, whom he deeply loved, might be acceptable. The former without the latter was not. He wanted to make his own way in the world and felt he could ask no more favours of Sir George Warleggan. His immediate wish was to leave Harrow as soon as he could and join the Royal Military College at Great Marlow as a cadet. Ross had tried to persuade him otherwise; he knew enough of the army himself to see the difficulties of a young man without personal money or influence; he also knew Geoffrey Charles's already expensive tastes and thought his nephew would rind the life too hard. Although three years at Harrow had toughened him, he had been much spoiled and cosseted by his mother when he was younger, and some of that influence still showed.
But nothing would change his mind. It seemed to Ross that the real driving force was a wish to distance himself from Cornwall and all the memories that Cornwall would revive. He had to keep away, and distaste for his stepfather was only a partial reason. So the thing had gone ahead. It had meant a good deal of correspondence with George - which was difficult - but at least they had avoided a meeting. George had been quite generous, offering his stepson an income of
a year until he was twenty-one, thereafter to be raised to £500. Geoffrey Charles had wished to spurn it; Ross had bullied him into a grudging acceptance.
m not thinking solely of myself in this,' Ross had said, 'in that the more you receive from turn the less you'll need from me! But George - George owes something to your mother - and your father - and it is elementary justice that he should discharge it.'
'To ease his conscience?'
'I have no idea what will ease or disarray his conscience. To take this allowance from him would seem, as I say, a form of elementary justice in the widest sense. If it eases his conscience I am happy for his conscience. But it is much more a matter of an equitable arrangement arrived at for all our sakes. Certainly it would have pleased your mother.'
'Well, if you feel that way, Uncle Ross, I suppose I'd better fall in.'
So in that bitter February - bitter in all senses - of 1800. In time, of course, Geoffrey Charles had recovered his high spirits. He had taken to his new life with a will - even during the year of temporary peace - and George's allowance, which came to him fully in 1805, had not prevented him from running into debt, so that Ross had twice had to bail him out of dangerous situations - the last time to the amount of £1000. However, it had not impaired their relationship.
es yawned and took out his watch, peered at it by the light of the stars.
'Just on four, I think. In a few minutes Jenkins should be round with another hot drink. We should break our fast before dawn because I suspect they will be at us in the first light. Before that I want to introduce you to a few of my friends.'
'I cut no pretty sight in this civilian suit.'
'I've talked often about you to my closest friends, Anderson and Davies. In your own quiet way you have become quite a figure, y'know.'
'Well, judging from letters I sometimes get from England. Your name crops up now and then.' 'Letters from whom?'
'Never mind. Incidentally, you have scarce told me anything of Cornwall.' 'You haven't asked.'
Not from lack of interest
. But sometimes, when one is bent on the business of killing, a whiff or so of nostalgia is not a good thing.'
'Tell me about Wellington.'
'What d'you want to know that you don't already know? He's a cold
fish, but a great leader and, I
believe, a brilliant soldier.'
'It's not the general opinion in England.'
'Nor always among his own men. Even here there are Whigs enough who see no hope of defeating Napoleon and greet each withdrawal we make with a nod as if to say, "I told you so.'"
"The English,' Ross said, 'are weary of the long war. The distress in the North and the Midlands is acute. The government seems to spend as much thought to putting down revolution at home as to defeating the French.'
'The English,' said Geoffrey Charles, 'frequently make my bile rise. When we got home after Corunna we were treated as if we had let our country down and run away
They spoke of John Moore with contempt, as if he ha
d been a bungler and a weakling!
I dare say if he had not died they would have had him up for a court martial!'
'Many are arguing different now,' said Ross. 'Defeat is never popular, and it takes time to judge all the circumstances.' . 'They sit on their fat bottoms,' said his nephew, 'your fellow MPs do, swilling their pints of port and staggering with the aid of a chair from one fashionable function to another; they issue impossible instructions to their greatest general; and then when he dies in attempting to carry them out they rise - they just have strength to rise - in the House and condemn him for his inefficiency, at the same time complimenting the French on their superior fighting skill!'
'It's said that Soult has put up a monument to him in Corunna.'
'Well, of course, one military commander appreciates another! That is an act of courtesy that the English cannot pay to their own - if he should happen to die in defeat instead of - like Nelson - in victory.'
Ross was silent. This son of his old friend and cousin, Francis, a rake and a failure, whom he had sincerely loved (by a woman he had also loved) had grown and changed in mind as well as body since they last met. Ross had always had a softer spot for Geoffrey Charles than could be justified by the relationship. This meeting confirmed and strengthened it. He could hear Francis talking; yet the sentiments were more like his own.
'And Wellington,' he prompted again. 'As against Moore?'
The younger Captain Poldark rubbed fretfully at his injured jaw. 'Old Douro is a great man. His troops will follow him anywhere. But Moore we loved.'
The batman arrived with another cup of steaming coffee.
'So, as we're in the mood now, tell me about Cornwall. You say my favourite aunt is well.'
'On the whole, yes. Sometimes of late she suffers from a blurred vision but it passes if she spends an hour or two on her back.'
'Which she will not willingly do.'
'Which she does not at all willingly do. As for the children
Jeremy is now but an inch shorter than I. But I believe most of that growing took place a while ago. When did you last see him?'
'I did not return to Cornwall after Corunna. I was so angry that our retreat - and Moore's generalship - should be looked on in the way it was looked on that I threw out the thought of going down there and having to justify what in fact needed no justification
So, it must be all of four years - Grandfather's funeral, that was it. Jeremy must have been about fifteen. He was as tall as I then, but even thinner!'
'He still is.'
'And his bent, his way in life?'
'He seems to have no special wish to join in the war,' said Ross drily.
'I don't blame him. He has a mother, a father, sisters, a pleasant home. I trust you don't press him.'
'If this struggle goes on much longer we may all be forced to take some part.'
'Levee en masse,
like the French, eh? That I hope will not happen. But I would rather that than we gave in to Napoleon after all these years!'
Ross cupped the mug, warming his hands on the sides while the steam rose pleasantly into his face. Something was rustling in the undergrowth and the younger man stared at the bushes for a moment.
'We have many noxious things round here,' said Geoffrey Charles. 'Snakes, scorpions
And then: 'If we negotiate with Napoleon now it will only be like last time over again - another truce while he gathers breath and we give up our overseas gains. I know this campaign is unpopular, but it's vital to keep it in being. Is it not? You should know. The government is so weak that one loses all confidence in it. If only Pitt were back.'
'I think the government will persist while the old King lives.'
'That's another hazard. He's seventy-odd, and they say he's recently been ill.'
The sound of drums made rattlesnake noises distantly
from the French camp.
'And Clowance?' asked Geoffrey Charles, as if aware that time was growing short. 'And your youngest, little Isabella-Rose?'
'None so little now. Neither of them. Clowance is almost seventeen and becoming somewhat pretty at last. Bella is eight, and very dainty. Quite unlike Clowance at that age, who was something of a tomboy. Still is.'
'Takes after her mother, Captain.'
'Indeed,' said Ross.
'And Drake and Morwenna?'
'Bravish, though I've not seen them for a year. They're still at Looe, managing my boat-building works, you know.'
'It was a good move, getting them away, and I'm grateful for the thought. They had too many memories around Trenwith. Dear God, to think at one time I intended to settle down at Trenwith as a country squire and to employ Drake as my factor!'
'You still may do the first, if this war ever finishes.'
be done about this Corsican, Uncle. It's appalling to think after all this time the fellow is only just turned forty. The trouble with genius - whether good or ill - it starts so young. Have they any more children?'
'Who? Drake and Morwenna? No, just the one daughter.'
A messenger came hurriedly through the dark, picking his way among the sleeping figures. He passed close by them but went on and into the tent fifty yards away.
'Message for Craufurd, I suppose,' Geoffrey Charles said. 'I suspect we should break our fast now. That drum-roll is spreading down in the valley.'
'I have not much ammunition
said Ross. 'I could do with a mallet also, for I had not expected to fire as much as I now hope to do.'
'I'll get Jenkins to get them for you. We don't have such things, but the
th are close by. Thank God, we're well equipped as to firelocks and the like. And a fair supply of ball for the cannons.' Geoffrey Charles sat up and massaged his boot where his foot had gone to sleep. 'And while we're about it, about this talk of bullets, perhaps I should inquire after the health of a man who certainly deserves one, though he'll take good care never to come within range . . . I'm speaking, of course, of Stepfather George.'
Ross hesitated. 'I've seen him once or twice in the House of late, but we avoid each other, and altogether it's better that way. Nor do I often see him in Cornwall. I hope the days of our open conflict are over.'
'I haven't see him since '06, when Grandfather died. The same day, no doubt, I last met Jeremy. It was misty-wet and a very suitable day for a wake. George looked a thought pinched then, growing old perhaps before his time.'
'He took your mother's death hard, Geoffrey.' 'Yes. I'll say that for him.'
'As we all did. You know I was - more than fond of your mother.'
'Yes, I did know that.'
'Although I'd seen little enough of her since she became Mrs Warleggan, she left - a great gap in my life. Her death - so young — left some permanent emptiness. As I know it did with you. But George surprised me. For all that occurred, all that happened in the past, I can never think anything but ill of him; but his sorrow and
at your mother's death was surprising to me. Perhaps I shall not ever think quite so ill of him again.'
He has certainly not remarried.'
'I have to tell you,' Ross said, 'that since Mr Chynoweth's death Trenwith has been neglected. As you
know, after your mother's death, George made his permanent home at his parents' place at Cardew, but he maintained a small staff at Trenwith to look after your grandparents. I don't imagine he visited them more than once a month, just to see things were in order. When your grandmother died I believe nothing changed. But after Mr Chynoweth went George virtually closed the house. The new furniture he had bought for it in the 'nineties was all taken away to Cardew, the indoor staff disappeared. So far as I know, much of the grounds are overgrown. The Harry brothers live in the cottage, and I suppose see to the house and grounds as best they can. Harry Harry's wife may do something too, but that is all.' 'And George never comes?'