1814. A Brief and Violent Intersections of Paths
After his brief meeting with their Lordships, lasting until close to midnight, Colonel Richard Shawcross retrieved his portmanteau from Sprott, the adjutant, and went over to the open-fronted shed that he was directed to, to re-acquaint himself with the horse that was now his.
It was Colonel Stephens’ horse, Khan—kept apart from the others—in the dim light there. Stephens had also given him his saddle and pistols. It had been two years since Richard had last seen the horse. He would have liked to have thanked his old Colonel for such an unusual and welcome gift but they had just missed each other. Richard had been going into his meeting, and Colonel Stephens had been on his way to his ship to embark. The horse was his now, on condition he kept it in England and took care of it.
He had quickly read Colonel Stephens’ note to him in the candle light in Sprott’s cubicle at the side of the main gate:
I just saw you disembark, but you were whisked away before I could speak with you. I almost didn’t recognize you; a sergeant, no less. I am sure there is a good reason for your self-demotion, apart from likely sending Caruthers into the trees. I thought you were Skerritt at first. Up to your old tricks again I see.
I leave within the hour. I doubt I shall see you before then.
The Generals and their lordships have need of me abroad again. They would rather I died abroad and shared in the coming victory, than out of the glory and safe at home, and they pleaded convincingly for my re-joining in the action and would not be persuaded of my incapacity. What they think I might contribute now from what will soon be my sick bed, I do not know. But as Nelson said; ‘England expects…’ and it is my duty in her time of need, even to the point of death, as it was with him. What better way for a soldier to die, and at my age? Blaze of glory and all that. You know what I think of that twaddle.
I learned you were here until tomorrow, so you are no doubt heading home until then. You were a god-sent opportunity for me and a welcome surprise and opportunity. My horse, Khan, which you looked after as well as you looked after me at one time, is now yours, and freely given. You are the one man who deserves him. Yes. As unbelievable as it might seem, I freely give him to you. Better that, than have him returned to my home to be neglected or sent off to the knacker’s yard after he kills some ham-fisted bruiser who thinks to ride him. You know him well, and his history and interesting character.
Look after him. Fortunately, I know that you will. You love him as I do, and please do not think of taking him with you when you re-embark tomorrow, though I know you would not do that, even if you could. You solved that awkward problem for me at least, of what to do with him. Sprott knows of his character and knows not to try and keep him here.
My pistols, and all else with him are yours also. May we meet again in a better life than this one, but not too soon.
Survive this my boy, for I will be unlikely to.
Sic transit Gloria.
Remember me occasionally when you are on him.
Stephens was a good commanding officer who would be sorely missed.
Richard spoke softly to the horse before he got too close, hearing an answering gentle rumble from the horse almost immediately.
“Do you remember me boy? I think you do.”
He brought a lantern closer and hung it up before he reached out and smoothed the horse’s neck, feeling reassured that he was not about to have a fight on his hands. Khan must have heard him earlier, and remembered him. He went closer, maintaining contact all of the time, and then breathed into his nostrils.
“I hope so, or we will have a merry go of it. I well remember that habit you have of getting rid of anyone you did not want on your back, and setting out to kill them.” He chuckled at the strange humor of that thought. “I also still have your teeth marks on my chest and arm from our first encounters. However, I hold no grudges for that.” He felt the horse nudge at him in a sign of recognition as well as acceptance and probably found some well-remembered familiarity in the none-too-fresh smells of the uniform. “Good. We shall get on well together, you and I. I am sorry I do not have some sugar for you, or an apple, but I will, next time. I had better warn my father’s stable lad about you and your desire to kill every dog in range of your feet, and maybe him too, at first, if he thinks to ride you since he will have to look after you for some time while I am away.”
He examined the horse briefly, running his hands over him, before he saddled him up in the dim light, then replaced the horse’s rope halter with a bridle. The horse seemed as keen to leave that unfamiliar place as he was. Colonel Stephen’s own guns were in their holsters by the saddle. No doubt they were loaded. Richard was glad to get those, along with the horse. He strapped his own light portmanteau behind the saddle, along with his hat, which he did not wear lest he aggravate a recent head wound.
Once they were out of the shed into the dark courtyard, Richard mounted without any ruckus from the horse, though they had gone beyond any likelihood of that already, and left the barracks, and the city. He was gratified to see that the horse did remember him, and rather than get rid of him as he could be counted upon to do with most prospective riders, had responded to knee pressure and the gentle touch of his feet, as he had been trained to do. As they left the compound, Richard touched his forehead to the adjutant, who saluted him back.
“Goodnight, Sir. Good luck on that one. Damned near took my hand off after Colonel Stephens left. At least you solved the problem of what I was to do with him. Wouldn’t let me anywhere near him.”
“Goodnight, Sprott. Luck has nothing to do with it when it comes to this horse. Trust, does. Provided he knows you. I wish all of my problems were like this one. The best horse in the city. And a gift too.”
Richard was well-known, correct uniform or not, and he rode off through the gates into the fog that had rolled into the city from the river as he lengthened his stirrups a notch. If they had need of him to embark before noon tomorrow, Sprott would know where to find him.
He would have just the one night at home, and then would be embarking to return to the peninsula in about twelve hours or so when the ship he was to take was scheduled to leave with the falling tide. That same tide would take the offensive refuse and most of the stench with it from the city; at least until the returning tide brought it back in again in a never-ending cycle that was the shame of the city. Samuel Johnson might wax eloquently about London to James Boswell, writing;
‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’
However, Shakespeare described it better and more honestly; ’The rankest compound of villainous smells that ever offended nostril’. He would be glad to leave the river with all of its noysome stench behind him.
His mother and sister would be pleased to see him, but he was not sure if his father would be there. The last he had heard, his father had been fighting in the Mediterranean aboard his ship, the Cicero, and may still be there, though the French fleet was no more. He looked forward to spending a night in a comfortable bed for a change, eating in comfort and served better fare than he had come to expect. He also had inherited a superb horse from his old Colonel, who would not have known what to do with it if he had not seen Richard when he had.
The streets were ill lit, and the shadows deep, and even more threatening at that hour of the night than they usually were, but were familiar to him. As well as the pervadingly foul stench from the Thames, there had been the equally unwelcome sulphurous smell of coal fires, with their smoke and soot held close to the ground, and trapped in the now acrid fog that had rolled in with the rising tide. It made his eyes sting, threw a chilling cloak about him that ate through to his skin, and weighed down his spirits. When he returned to the continent with whatever their Lordships decided to send back with him on the next tide, he would find out where Colonel Stephens was located, and thank him for the gift of his horse.
He realized that he might present a strange appearance when he got home with his uniform and features speckled with small black spots of wet soot. He could see barely fifty feet in any direction in the fog, but he knew exactly where he was. There was even the same dog that he’d remembered from years earlier, barking in a characteristic way in some yard close by. There were few carriages about at that hour that were not hurrying to the safety of home. He saw fewer of them, but could hear them through the deadening fog. There were a few brave pedestrians; handkerchiefs or scarves held close up over their noses, scurrying off to their beds. Even those few that there were, diminished in number as he left that area of the city with its taverns, still noisy with life. Cats and dogs were in fine form, either announcing his presence, or intently fighting for various scraps tossed their way. Others were stalking the multitudes of vermin that still outnumbered people in the city.
As the taverns emptied, there could be seen the last gentle assignations of the evening in the darkness outside of the tavern, as some lady of the night accepted a few coins in exchange for her taking a flyer; lifting the front of her skirt, leaning back against the wall, and renting out her fore-room for a few minutes in a three-penny upright, as some eager client plowed a furrow in her loose-fitting little garden, before she too headed off to some other assignation, while her satisfied customer went off home to whatever cold comfort awaited him there.
Eventually, the only sounds to be heard were from his horse’s hooves on the cobbles, and echoing from the closely confining buildings with their black windows, like mournful eyes implacably surveying the empty street. Eventually, even those lingering sounds were soon deadened by the fog also, and those empty black eyes of the windows, a few with ruddy candle or firelight glows behind their murky, grime-encrusted visages, disappeared behind him to be replaced by others. There was some comfort to realize that the further he got away from the river and rose to some height above it, the thinner the fog would become. The overpowering stink from the river would also fade, though the weak street lighting became more sporadic too. He had no fear of his journey being interrupted by anyone. He was mounted, and well enough armed; more than ready for trouble and could easily take care of himself. War had taught him how to do that well, if not much else. It was a dangerous lesson for a young man—already inclined to be violent when necessary—to have learned.
He was aware that somewhere in the fog ahead of him there was a carriage, also heading out along the same street toward an outlying part of the city. He could hear the metal of the wheels on the cobbles; the brisk clatter of hooves; and then even the creaking of the harness as he drew closer. He seemed to be catching up to it. He noted—where there was light enough to see—that the fog still swirled in eddies where the carriage had just passed into the all-enveloping darkness and choking fog ahead of him. He hoped it would soon clear.