Authors: Blair Bancroft
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Tarleton’s Wife Copyright © 2008 Blair Bancroft
Edited by Helen Woodall.
Cover art by Dar Albert.
Electronic book Publication December 2008
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.
To my mother, the children’s book author Wilma Pitchford Hays, who first taught me the value of diligent research and that sometimes our characters take over and decide their own fate.
The retreat to La Coruña was one of the lowest moments in the history of the British army. Also one of the most dramatic and, in the end, triumphant. The army plucked off the shores of La Coruña by an armada of British ships returned to the Peninsula less than four months later and formed the vanguard of the Allied army. Under the command of Arthur Wellesley—later, the Duke of Wellington—the Peninsular army demonstrated that Napoleon Bonaparte could be defeated.
Of the many accounts of the Peninsular War, I am particularly indebted to Sir Arthur Bryant for his excellent account “Retreat to Corunna” in
The Fire and the Rose
. No author could make up anything as dramatic as the words he records from a British officer’s diary about the baby born in a bullock cart.
I am also indebted to the Sarasota County library system for providing so many excellent texts on herbs, most particularly a compilation of rose folklore by Rosamund Richardson called
The workers’ rebellion, which became generally known as the Luddite movement, did indeed begin in Nottingham close to the time of this story. The great fear of a French-style revolution in England prompted ruthless suppression of the workers’ efforts to survive the agricultural and industrial changes of that time.
The war against Napoleon was thought to be over in April 1814 but the following winter Napoleon escaped from exile on the island of Elba, re-formed his armies and came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Wellington’s combined Allied troops in the world’s most famous battle at Waterloo, Belgium.
Knowing what we do of the sense of duty of our main characters, we can safely assume they were among the many who returned from retirement to end Napoleon’s reign at Waterloo. And knowing what we do of their ability to survive, we can also assume they lived long, though certainly lively, lifetimes in Lincolnshire.
Terence O’Rourke is a character from another book and, given his strong personality and his position with Tobias Brockman’s empire, there was no way he could be kept out of the Nottingham area at this particular moment in history.
Bryant, Sir Arthur. “Retreat to Corunna,”
The Fire and the Rose
. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
. London: Piatkus, 1984.
January 1809, Northern Spain
“Major! Major!” Lt. Avery Dunstan burst into his major’s room after a token scratch at the door. Slamming it shut behind him, he leaned against the door, gasping for breath. Relief lit his youthful features at the sight of Nicholas Tarleton.
“I’ve already heard,” snapped the major who had been savoring one of his few moments of comfort and privacy since the army left Salamanca in November. “The transports have been sighted.”
“Yes, Sir!” the lieutenant agreed with enthusiasm, diverted from his mission. “And battleships. Even
, they say.” His hazel eyes sparkled in a face which had softened from exhausted soldier to the eager, boyish face of a young man who had barely reached his majority. “It looks like we’re really going home, Major.”
With an effort Major Tarleton kept his roughhewn features immovable. There was no room for emotion until they were well out to sea. “Not without a fight, Dunstan. Soult’s caught up and pushed our rearguard off the heights. Their artillery will pound us while we load the troops and keep it up while we try to sail out of this damnably narrow harbor. Two hundred and fifty ships gives them a devilish large target.”
The young man’s eyes suddenly widened, all thoughts of French heavy guns gone on the instant. “Oh, Lord, Sir…how could I forget? Must have left my head back in the mountains. You’ve got to come right away, Sir. The Colonel’s wagered Miss Julia!”
“God’s truth, Sir. Knows there’ll be a battle tomorrow. Says he’s been given his notice to quit. Has to provide for Miss Julia. Staked her at faro, Sir. Right now, Sir!” The lieutenant’s voice rose in pitch as he attempted to impress the major with the seriousness of his errand.
Abandoning his efforts to compile a legible casualty list from notes scribbled on the army’s nightmare journey through the Spanish mountains, Major Nicholas Tarleton unfolded his six feet, two inches from the small table where he had been sitting. His forest green uniform hung loosely over a naturally lean body painfully reduced by a month of near starvation. His matching rows of silver buttons gleamed in the candlelight, a pristine and startling contrast to his stained and tattered jacket. Grimly, he buckled on his sword, checked his money belt and strode purposefully toward the door, leaving Lieutenant Dunstan to follow in his wake.
Major Tarleton, thoroughly enraged by yet another city where the Spanish had closed their doors in the faces of the army which had come to rescue them from the French, had commandeered the home of a wealthy banker as regimental headquarters. Two flights down from the modest room he had chosen for himself, Nicholas Tarleton forced his way through a crowd of officers, silent spectators to the drama unfolding at a marquetry gaming table set up in the middle of an elegant salon.
Gold silk brocade and burgundy velvet made a strange contrast to the battered tatterdemalion officers. In spite of the multitude of human bodies and a fireplace well stoked by men who had thought never to be warm again, the room was chill and damp. Behind the velvet draperies the windows were nothing but shattered panes of glass. As was true of every other window in the city of La Coruña. The day before, the commanding general Sir John Moore had issued his men new guns and fresh ammunition, then ordered the demolition of the four thousand barrels of powder remaining in the city. Powder which could not be left behind for the French.
Major Tarleton did not miss the obvious signs of relief exhibited by the officers who quickly stepped aside as they noted his presence. One of his captains grabbed Tarleton by the arm. “Colonel’s got the bit between his teeth, Major,” he whispered, nodding toward the four men seated around the gaming table. “You know how naught else matters when he’s at play. But tonight he’s gone off completely. Queer in the attic. Cold must have addled his brain. He’s certain he’s to die tomorrow and has to find Miss Julia a protector. Keeps going on about marriage but I doubt anyone’s taking him seriously.” The captain’s grip tightened. “You’ve got to do something, Nick. Can’t let Sedgwick have her.”
If Nicholas Tarleton thought it odd that in a roomful of men officially designated officers and gentlemen, the rescue of his colonel’s only child was to be left to him, he did not say so. The British army had just made a three hundred mile, ignominious, undisciplined, headlong retreat through the mountains of northern Spain in the dead of winter. All along the frozen route the French army followed, snapping at their heels. When they finally reached the port city of La Coruña, half Britain’s evacuation armada was missing. Exhausted but appalled by their far-from-exemplary behavior, the troops—with their backs to the sea—had rallied. There would be one last fight.
In Colonel Francis Litchfield’s regiment, however, there would be little need to regroup, for foot soldiers, cavalrymen or officers to duck their heads, refusing to meet the others’ eyes. Not a soldier in Colonel Litchfield’s troops had been shot or hanged during the past month’s ordeal. The few transgressors who had broken ranks for wine, women or a loaf of bread had suffered nothing worse than the major’s black looks and a swift kick from their sergeants. Colonel Litchfield’s regiment marched onto the coastal plain in neat columns, their heads held high, rifles clean and at the ready. And from General Sir John Moore to the youngest drummer boy, all knew it was Major Nicholas Tarleton who got them there.
His men might have faith, Nicholas thought. He only wished he felt as confident.
One glance at the table and the major saw the situation was desperate. Colonel Litchfield held the bank. The only positive thing that could be said about two of the three men seated with him was they could afford the undoubtedly high stakes the colonel expected against a wager of a virgin of good family.
Nicholas was inclined to disregard Lieutenant Richard Prentice. The younger son of a wealthy merchant, he was known to be much taken with Miss Litchfield and was likely playing knight errant. He was, however, hopelessly outclassed. The other gamesters would swallow him whole.
Captain Miles Bannister was the type of cardsharp fathers warn their sons about. He never attempted to hide the fact he supplemented his army pay with his winnings at the gaming table. His skill was legendary, going well beyond that needed to fleece gullible young officers. Nicholas knew Bannister was dangerous, though the captain was not noted for more than a passing interest in the ladies.
Playing for the sport of it, was he
? the major wondered. Bannister contemplating marriage, or even an arrangement of a more casual nature, seemed doubtful.
The greatest threat was the fourth man at the table, his red coat gleaming in a solid sea of rifleman green. He outranked the major in civilian life as well as the military and his pockets always appeared to be bottomless. Lt. Colonel Arthur Sedgwick, commander of an infantry battalion, was the son of an earl, a toy soldier whose only claim to high military rank was his ability to buy his commission. At one point on their agonizing trek to La Coruña, the major had seen the colonel being carried across an icy river on the back of one of his men. Sedgwick was also a womanizer of the first magnitude and equally adept at cards. If he won Julia Litchfield, he would seize his prize without the slightest qualm of conscience. Marriage was not a possibility. Colonel Sedgwick had a wife and three children in Dorset.
A slight movement in the shadowed corner of the room behind the gaming table caught the major’s eye.
Bloody hell! It wasn’t possible. Litchfield couldn’t possibly be allowing the girl to witness this travesty
Even the four gamesters, deep in play, did not fail to notice the major as he strode past them. A painful wave of relief swept Lieutenant Prentice, who was all too aware he couldn’t hold out past another round. The faces of the other three, consummate gamesters all, remained immobile. Not by so much as a flicker of an eyelid did they mark the major’s determined passage across the room. Inwardly, their reactions were remarkably varied.
Arthur Sedgwick’s fingers tightened around his cards.
Nicholas the Noble! Come to spike his guns.
Well, he’d see about that. Tarleton had every opportunity to pursue the chit and everyone knew he’d pointedly ignored her. But charge to the rescue, he surely would. Ramrod straight
Nicholas. The man was just too bloody good to be true. Then again, she wasn’t the major’s type. Tarleton liked milk-and-water misses, small and soft and sweet. Julia Litchfield was anything but. Queenly, that’s what she was. Arthur Sedgwick liked a woman who filled his arms. One with plenty of spirit. Hell and damnation! If Saint Tarleton won her, he wouldn’t know what to do with her.
Captain Miles Bannister was not the marrying kind. If he were, he mused, a man who lived by his wits could do far worse than Julia Litchfield, who was as clever as she was statuesque. An independent minx was Julia. Kindhearted. Never put on airs. She’d nursed him through a bad bout of fever after he was wounded in Portugal.
Vimeiro. Now that was a victory Banister recalled with satisfaction. They’d marched into a liberated Lisbon through a hail of cheers and flowers and beautiful women. Young General Sir Arthur Wellesley was the man of the hour. They had all been absolutely certain nothing could stop their push against the French.
Until politics took over. A negotiated peace returned twenty-five thousand French soldiers to France to fight another day. And in British ships, by God! An infuriated General Wellesley, having just won Europe’s first battle against Napoleon, resigned his commission and returned to his post as Irish Secretary.
After the furor died down, the British army moved into Spain at last, under the command of Sir John Moore. Even without Wellesley, Miles Bannister recalled how confident they had been, how certain they would triumph. And now, here they were with their backs to the sea and sixteen thousand Frenchmen determined they’d never make it home.
Miles Bannister considered his cards. When viewed realistically, this game didn’t make much sense. By tomorrow night Julia Litchfield would likely have a protector who spoke French. Then again…he’d never been one to give up without a fight, whether it was war or cards. Or women.
Captain Miles Bannister was, therefore, even more relieved to see Major Nicholas Tarleton than was Lieutenant Prentice. Bannister had greatly feared he was going to have to sacrifice himself to some archaic smidgin of honor he hadn’t known he possessed.
Colonel Francis Litchfield was highly pleased with himself. Smoked out the high-and-mighty Nicholas Tarleton, had he? It was about time. What did a father have to do to make a man see what was right under his nose? Night after night, for nearly a year Tarleton shared their supper. The foolish girl had cooked and cleaned and mended while love—bloody hell,
—shone in her eyes and all she’d gotten in return from Major High-and-Mighty Tarleton had been an occasional casual smile and a thank-you. No better than he might have tossed to one of the scrawny dogs following in their wake.
So he hadn’t asked the major to stand guardian to his daughter. To be truthful, since the boy inherited that estate from his aunt, he seemed above the touch of a colonel who lived on his army pay and the few bits and pieces he had managed to acquire during his long years in India. Oh, yes, Nicholas Tarleton was quite above Colonel Litchfield’s touch.
But a very good catch.
If he played his cards right…
Only a remarkably sharp eye might have caught the nearly fanatical glint of determination far back in Colonel Litchfield’s shadowed eyes.
In better times Julia Litchfield had a queenly bearing which attracted instant attention. At five feet eight inches, she could meet most of the regiment eye to eye. No one but a lover, however, would call her beautiful. Her skin, weathered by the sweltering heat of India as well as the icy winds of Spain, would never be described as porcelain. Her classic oval face was marred by a determined chin. Nor was her nose quite long enough to balance either the chin or her generous lips. Her ears had an annoying tendency to push their way through the mass of her rich brown hair. Lively eyes—the clear blue of a midsummer sky and framed by a thick fringe of brown lashes—were her best feature by far. Outsiders, with some condescension, deemed her a woman with “countenance”. Those who knew her best saw not her face but her charm and ready wit and her enormous zest for life.
None of which were apparent at that moment. She had been reduced to chattel, a creature with no rights. A stake in a so-called game of honor.
Julia had not taken her eyes off Nicholas Tarleton from the moment he burst through the phalanx of onlookers. She had been sitting there as one dead, her lively intelligence dulled by shock, her body, weakened by the terrible trek through the mountains, beyond any emotion but helpless resignation to her fate. And then she saw him…and her heart began to pound.
Nicholas might… Surely he could… Oh, dear God, let him do something!
As the major stood on the edge of the crowd, it seemed to Julia as if the candles in the elaborate wrought iron chandelier cast a halo over the dark blond thatch of hair which straggled in unkempt wisps to his collarbone. His face was as lean and angular as his body, his gray eyes piercing, mouth thin-lipped, cheekbones high, his nose strong enough to rival Sir Arthur Wellesley. There was, in fact, nothing pretty about him. And no one cared a whit. He was strong and dependable, sometimes ruthless, frequently kind. His men loved him.