It had rained for a week solid. Drill and training had been conducted in sodden misery, and after two hours of desperately bad bayonet training with the twenty new recruits to the light company, Sergeant Michael O’Reilly was looking forward to a drink, a meal and dry clothing. He was stomping towards his barracks when the voice of his officer made him swear under his breath.
“Sergeant – a word.”
O’Reilly turned and stomped back to the long two storied building where the officers mess was situated. Lieutenant Wheeler was standing in the doorway looking pleasantly warm and dry. He stood back to let O’Reilly pass him, a grin on his face, and then led the way into the office at the back. Officially the office belonged to the commander of the 110th. Colonel Dixon was seldom in barracks, and when he was, he tended to conduct most of his business from the comfort of an armchair in the officers’ mess, while Major Johnstone, who commanded the first battalion and actually did most of the work was currently in London. Lieutenant Wheeler seated himself behind the desk and the Sergeant stood to attention, dripping on the floor and saluted.
“At ease, Sergeant. I’d ask you to sit down but you’re a little wet.”
“I am, sir. Had a good afternoon yourself, have you?”
Wheeler laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s foul, isn’t it? Be nice to get back to India, get some sunshine, eh, Sergeant?”
“Apart from the monsoon season, of course, sir,” the Irishman said. He liked Johnny Wheeler better than any of the other officers of the 110th. Wheeler was in his late twenties, old for a lieutenant, and with no money to purchase a promotion. O’Reilly had served under him in Flanders and India, and knew that he was a good steady man in a fight and had a good working relationship with his men.
“I’ve been introducing myself to our two new officers,” Wheeler said.
“Oh bloody hell!” Michael said gloomily. “Not more of them!”
Wheeler laughed. “Now, now, Sergeant, be an optimist. I know we’ve not had much luck…”
“Sir, what worries me is that one of these baby faced twats is actually going to stick around long enough to get shipped out to India with us!” O’Reilly said. “We’ve had four of them in six months and every bloody one has been about as much use as a eunuch in a whorehouse and has either sold out or transferred out in a matter of weeks!” He thought about it. “In fact I’m fairly convinced that Ensign Rogers actually was a eunuch.”
Wheeler smiled. “Sergeant, the light company isn’t the easiest command, and the fact that our Captain is still stuck in India ill and our Major is struggling to staff the rest of his companies doesn’t help. And a lot of them just want to wear a red coat and impress the ladies, so they’re not keen to be told the regiment they just bought into is about to go to India and will probably be expected to fight there.”
“Well they should join the bloody militia then. Have these two been told that yet?” Michael enquired.
“They have. They’re both twenty-one, purchased directly on to lieutenants’ commissions, which is fair enough given their age, both been to Oxford…”
“That’s useful!” the Sergeant said with heavy irony.
“They’re old friends from childhood, which might work in our favour because if one stays they’ll probably both stay. Both have just done around eight weeks basic training with Sir John Moore down at Shorncliffe, which is much better than any of the others have managed. So they can run drills and training. Don’t know much about their background yet although I’ve a feeling they’re local. Both are going to live in barracks – their choice. They’re up there now unpacking. Neither has brought a valet.”
“Probably means they’ve spent all their money on their commissions then,” O’Reilly said. “What do you want me to do, sir?”
“Get yourself cleaned up and go and introduce yourself. Give them the tour and answer any questions and then let them get settled and I’ll see them in the mess for dinner with the rest of the officers. We’ll start them on drills tomorrow.” Wheeler grinned. “And they can take the early drill. I’ve earned a lie in.”
The Sergeant laughed. “Yes, sir.”
“And Sergeant – try not to frighten them off, will you? I am getting bored with going through this process.”
“Do they seem easy to frighten?” O’Reilly asked.
To his surprise the lieutenant gave the matter serious thought. “Swanson is really pleasant. Interested, keen to learn and I think I could get to like him.”
“And the other one?”
“Paul van Daan. Says his father was Dutch, mother English. I can’t make him out yet.” Wheeler shrugged. “Something about him.”
After two days, Michael O’Reilly, who had seen officers come and go, agreed with Lieutenant Wheeler. He found Lieutenant Carl Swanson a pleasant easy-going youth with a taste for hard work and an ability to ask intelligent questions, which the sergeant found refreshing in a new officer. It was clear that their training at Shorncliffe had not been wasted. Both seemed competent and reasonably confident with the men. They were on the parade ground each morning for early drill, and neither seemed to resent taking advice and instruction from a non-commissioned officer, so it was hard for Michael to pinpoint what he found irritating about Paul van Daan.
He was a good-looking youth, clean-shaven with fair hair cut shorter than was fashionable, and a pair of penetrating deep blue eyes. The 110th was a relatively new regiment and commissions were fairly inexpensive so Michael had assumed that both the new officers were short of money but he revised that opinion quickly. Mr Swanson might have needed to watch his finances, but Paul van Daan had something of the natural arrogance of the very well born or very wealthy. The fact that he did not trade on it was almost more annoying. In terms of his behaviour in barracks it was hard to fault him. He was taller than the average and physically very fit and strong. Michael’s previous experience of young officers was that they found the long hours of physical training with the men very difficult to start with, but Paul van Daan took everything in his stride.
“What do you make of him, Sergeant?” Lieutenant Wheeler asked, at the end of the first week.
“Which one, sir?”
Wheeler looked at him sternly and Michael laughed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “He’s certainly not much like any new officer I’ve come across before. There’s something slightly different about him. I mean he seems just as pleasant and polite and eager to learn as his friend. With Mr Swanson I think it’s real. With Mr van Daan – I don’t know.”
“I’ve got a feeling they’re going to stay.”
“So do I. And that’s a good thing, because we need officers. They’re both grown ups at least, not some pasty faced seventeen year olds.” Michael hesitated. “I have a feeling he’s tougher than he looks,” he said finally. “But let’s wait and see.”
He took himself out that evening, and shared a meal and a few drinks in the convivial atmosphere of the Boat Inn down by the canal, a popular tavern with the regiment. His fellow NCOs moved on early, and O’Reilly thought about joining them. It was a while since he had wasted his money and a few enjoyable hours at Carrie Megson’s house, and he was aware of a nagging sense of wanting a woman. On the other hand, it was money he could put to other uses. He sat on at the Boat trying to make up his mind, and suddenly realised that the two men who were seated at the table in front of him were his two new officers.
Michael sighed and got up. Army traditions were rigid on the subject of NCOs and enlisted men socialising with officers, and he could not go and join them although for a brief moment he realised he wished that he could. He was interested in the fair young man with the pleasant baritone and the eyes, which looked as though they were used to scanning bigger horizons, and he would have liked to have shared a drink and got to know him better. But it was definitely time to leave. He heard laughter, and realised that it was the first time he had heard Paul van Daan really laugh. It was surprisingly infectious. Michael stood watching him, smiling despite himself. He realised he was resisting how much he could probably get to like Paul van Daan, because the difference in their stations made actual friendship impossible. And then the man looked up and saw him and waved him over.
“Sergeant. All alone?”
“I was with some of the lads, sir, but they’ve deserted me in search of women!” he said lightly.
“Not in the mood?”
“I could be. Not sure if I need a lassie or a new pair of boots more.”
Paul van Daan laughed. “A difficult choice,” he said gravely. “You could join us.”
“I can’t, sir. Not the done thing.”
“No, I know. It’s a pity, though.” Paul nodded towards the bar. “We were just admiring the girl behind the bar. What’s her name?”
“Sally. Sally Crane. Yes, she’s a pretty lass.” O’Reilly was amused. Sally Crane had a complicated relationship with his fellow sergeant and friend, Rory Stewart. For two years they had shared a bed whenever Stewart was in barracks, although Michael knew very well that this did not stop Stewart finding other diversions when he was posted abroad, and he had heard rumours that Sally also kept herself well entertained. Rory was home at present, and there was little chance that Sally would show an interest in this arrogant boy. “Give it a try, sir.”
“You sound sceptical.”
“Sally is a law unto herself. Honestly I’d take yourself off to Carrie Megson’s if you’ve got the urge. Her girls are nice and clean and they like the officers.”
“You seem very sure about this lass.”
Despite himself O’Reilly smiled. “You’ll not get far with her, sir. Most of us have tried. She’s awful choosy.”
“Married?” Paul asked.
“No. I think she has an understanding, but she’s her own woman.”
Paul van Daan grinned. “That’s what I like to hear, Sergeant. I’ll let you know how I get on.”
The grin was infectious. Michael O’Reilly, world-weary cynic could feel himself resisting the pull of the boy’s charm. “She won’t do it for money, sir,” he said.
“If I paid her, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge,” Paul said. “Good night, Sergeant.”
He got up and walked to the bar. O’Reilly stood by the door watching him for a while. He was leaning on it, talking to the girl. She continued to clean the glasses, throwing back an occasional remark. She did not seem overly impressed.
“Care for a wager, Sergeant?” Carl Swanson said quietly beside him. He too was watching his friend.
“I’d be fleecing you, sir.” “Then we’ll make it a small one. Just for fun. A shilling says that when she goes up to bed she’ll take him with her.”
O’Reilly laughed. Despite his initial reservations he liked Carl Swanson. “Not unless he’s planning on holding her down, sir.”
“Good God, don’t say that to him. He takes a very poor view of rape, Sergeant.”
“I’m glad to hear it, sir. I do myself. But I’m going to take your wager, even though I should know better than to gamble with an officer. Because Sally Crane is not going to give it away to your lad, no matter how pretty he is. She eats pretty young officers for breakfast.”
“I rather imagine Paul would enjoy that,” Carl said placidly and it was so unexpected that O’Reilly laughed out loud. He looked sideways at the young man.
“I hope you stay, lad,” he said. “I could work with you.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. You off?”
“I am. Shouldn’t be here drinking with the officers. But I’ll make sure I get a report from Charlie as to how he gets on.” Michael hesitated. “What makes you so sure? You don’t know her.”
“I don’t need to,” Carl Swanson said, amused eyes on the girl at the bar. “I’ve been watching him in action since he was around sixteen, and you need to believe me, Sergeant, if he’s made up his mind that she’s going to bed with him, then she is. And don’t ask me how he does it, because I’d pay to know. I’d make it more than a shilling, but I’d be robbing you.”
Michael shook his head and looked over at Paul van Daan again. He was still speaking to Sally, smiling at her. Michael watched him for a moment. “Do him good to get a set down from her. Is he always this full of it?”
It occurred to him as he said it that he probably should not have spoken that freely to an officer he did not know well, but Carl Swanson laughed aloud.
“All his bloody life. And you’re right, it would. But it’s not happening tonight, Sergeant. Still waiting to meet the lass who tells him where to get off.”
“We’ll see. Goodnight, sir.”
Michael turned to go. Suddenly he heard a girl laugh. He turned back and looked across at the bar. Sally Crane had put down her cloth and was resting her chin on her hand, leaning forward to give Paul van Daan a clear uninterrupted view down the front of her dress. He was not looking in that direction. He was looking into her eyes and smiling, and she was smiling back as if he had just said something that pleased her enormously. After a moment she moved away, and then came back with a bottle and two cups. She placed them on the bar between her and the young officer and poured. Then she sat down and picked up her cup. He did the same. O’Reilly looked across at Carl Swanson. He was laughing and holding up a shilling, which he then slid back into his pocket.
“Still no,” Michael said.
Carl reached for his drink and looked across at the couple sitting talking at the bar. “I give her less than an hour,” he said. “Night, sergeant.”
The moment stayed with O’Reilly. He was happy in the regiment, having come to it as so many Irish did, in desperate times. His father had been a schoolmaster, and he had been a student of classics in Dublin when he became involved with the rebellion under Wolf Tone. As the uprising collapsed and Michael found himself at twenty, a hunted man, he had slipped quietly over to England and found a recruiting party for the 110th. A commission had never been an option, and he had seldom regretted it.
He rose quickly to the rank of sergeant and found it easy to move between the bulk of uneducated and illiterate soldiers and the commissioned officers, who made shameless use of his intelligence and education without ever wondering how he came to be serving in the ranks. Being Irish made him all but invisible to most of them and it suited him. After more than four years of service he had developed the NCOs fine contempt for the incompetence of many of the officer class who acquired their commissions and promotions by purchase. There were exceptions. He liked and respected the quiet competence of Johnny Wheeler and thought it a shame that he was unlikely to rise much higher in the ranks. But he would not have considered Wheeler a friend. There was an unbridgeable gulf between officers and men and Michael O’Reilly had never before regretted it. Laughing with Paul van Daan in the inn on the previous evening he realised with some surprise that it bothered him that he was unable to sit and share a drink with the boy, only a few years his junior, who was beginning to look as though he was going to remain with the regiment.
Both officers were on the parade ground early the following morning, and he watched without interference as Paul van Daan took the lead and put the light company through a gruelling drill, moving them from line to square and back. He was unusually meticulous, Michael thought, taking them back through the manoeuvre long after most officers would have been satisfied. Michael watched the steady blue eyes as the men ran the drill yet again, and felt an unexpected jolt of satisfaction. He realised that he passionately wanted this man to stay and to go to India with them in two months. He would like to see what Paul van Daan could achieve on a battlefield. He would either get himself killed really quickly or he would be an officer to be proud of and Michael wanted to see which it would be.
He found no opportunity to ask about Van Daan’s attempt to bed Sally Crane, although he was fairly sure that she would have sent him away. The lad was good looking and definitely had a way with him, but Sally was too experienced to fall for his charm. He reminded himself to ask Charlie when he was next at the Boat, how the evening had ended, and then forgot about it as three wagon loads of new uniforms and supplies came in and Lieutenant Wheeler kept him in the office for the next two days dealing with bookkeeping and paperwork.
He was checking off the last of the new bedding on a list when suddenly his lieutenant got up from the desk.
“Sergeant, what is going on out on the parade ground?”
Michael had been vaguely aware of the rising noise. “Bayonet training, sir. Mr van Daan is supposed to be running it.”
He got up to go to the door. The men had been paired off and were running through the basic movements using wooden bayonets. He had looked out earlier and it had been going smoothly. The young lieutenant had obviously paid good attention to his lessons on the south coast. He had paired up each new man with an experienced soldier and he, Lieutenant Swanson and Sergeant Stewart had been doing the rounds of the men, commenting and correcting. By now O’Reilly was fairly sure that the light company had found its new officers. It was still early days, but they were workers. There had not been a single morning when he had arrived for early drill on the parade ground and found either of them absent or late.
But something had gone badly wrong now. Rory Stewart had been demonstrating a drill using a real weapon. The Van Daan lad was still holding the wooden replica he had been using earlier. What had happened, Michael had no idea, but Stewart was steadily advancing on the younger man, his face grim and set, and Van Daan was backing up, parrying quickly. Around them the men had all stopped to stare. Carl Swanson called out to Stewart to stop, and the Scot ignored him. Michael stared in horror for a moment, as Lieutenant Wheeler yelled an order to Stewart. The sergeant did not appear to even hear him.
“What the bloody hell is he doing?” Wheeler demanded, spinning round in search of a weapon. “Has he gone stark staring mad?”
“Sally Crane,” Michael whispered. He was temporarily frozen to the spot. “Oh dear Christ, this is my fault. Stewart is going to kill him.”
“Not on my bloody parade ground he’s not!” Wheeler said. He had located his pistol and was loading it fast. Michael ran out onto the parade ground, shouting again at Stewart. The Scot did not even look round. He lunged suddenly and Michael was nowhere near close enough to reach him and the point thrust directly at the boy’s throat and Michael closed his eyes in horror. And then there was an agonised yell, and he opened them again because it had been the broad Scots of Stewart’s voice that shouted.
Paul van Daan and the Scot were both on the ground. As O’Reilly watched, Paul got up. Stewart lay there, clutching both shins in agony. Van Daan tossed aside the wooden training tool and picked up Stewart’s bayonet, which he had dropped. Astonished, O’Reilly realised that the boy had waited until Stewart was close enough to reach him, and then dropped onto the ground and hit him across the legs with the wooden bayonet. He must have used considerable force, as Stewart seemed unable to get up. Paul van Daan stood over the Scot and pointed the bayonet directly at his throat and O’Reilly caught his breath. There was a completely new expression on his face and he no longer looked anything like the laughing boy from the tavern.
“Get up,” he said. His voice cut across the parade ground. Stewart did not move.
“Sergeant Stewart. Unless you want this bayonet stuck straight through your upper arm I suggest you get to your feet double quick and shift your arse into the gaol where you will remain until I find out what the hell is going on here, because you just tried to murder me on my own bloody training ground and that has put me in a bad mood. You have a count of three! And please don’t think I’ll hesitate. When you were farting around barracks in India I was fighting the French on a warship under Nelson, and I promise you that if I put you down, you’ll stay down!”
Stewart scrambled to his feet. Paul van Daan jerked his head. The Scot limped towards the gaol block. Behind him, Michael heard Lieutenant Wheeler let out a long breath.
“What in God’s name just happened?” he asked.
Michael did not reply. Carl Swanson, after a quick glance at his friend, was giving orders to the men to stand down, in a pleasant unemotional tone. Wheeler lowered the pistol and stood watching as training ended and the men dispersed to other duties. Carl walked over to the two men.
“Well that was unexpected,” he said mildly.
Wheeler lifted his eyebrows. “Yes,” he said. “I have the oddest feeling I’ve been taken for something of a fool, Mr Swanson.”
“Not deliberately,” Carl said. “It’s a somewhat difficult story and he’s a very private person. You’ve not told us much about your background either yet, Johnny. These things take time. None of us were expecting this, let’s face it.”
There was something about the younger man’s immovable calm that both amused and impressed O’Reilly. He wondered suddenly how much of his young life Carl Swanson had spent pulling Paul van Daan out of trouble and smoothing the storms he created.
“No. Is he all right?” Wheeler said.
“Well he’s pissed off. Which is never a good thing.” Carl looked around. Paul was coming back across the empty parade ground. His blue eyes were stormy.
“Sergeant O’Reilly, a word,” he said peremptorily, and jerked his head towards the office. Wheeler looked as though he would have liked to intervene, and then stopped himself. Michael did not blame him. The new lieutenant might be very young but he was giving the impression of a man who knew exactly what he was doing. Michael, still puzzling over what he had heard, followed Paul through. Paul sat down at the desk and Michael stood to attention in front of him. There was a long silence. Then Paul said:
“Well? What the hell was that about?”
“I don’t know, sir. Didn’t see how it started.”
“It started with a perfectly normal training exercise and ended with one of my sergeants trying to put a hole in me, Sergeant. Don’t piss me about, I’m not in the mood. I’ve been here for two weeks now, and Stewart hasn’t shown any signs of being a homicidal maniac before. And when I just looked across at your face on that parade ground, you looked bloody horrified! You know what that was about.”
The sergeant wondered at what point Paul van Daan had found time to study his facial expressions. “Sir – Rory’s a good man. I know he’s in serious trouble. But…”
Johnny Wheeler had entered the room behind him. He gave a snort of derision. “Sergeant, he’s due a hanging! He just tried to murder an officer in front of the entire light company! You don’t seriously think any other verdict is possible here?”
“He’ll have to go for trial, but Christ, there are over a hundred witnesses…”
“What was it about, Sergeant?” Paul van Daan said quietly.
Michael looked down at him. Impossible suddenly, to think of him as a boy. He took a deep breath.
“Sally Crane,” he said.
Paul looked at him for a long moment. “Excuse me?” he said.
“I’m guessing,” Michael said, aware that both Wheeler and Carl Swanson were staring at him, “that two nights ago down at the Boat Inn, you had rather more success than I expected you to with Sally Crane.”
Paul van Daan studied him for a long time. “Under normal circumstances,” he said, “I would tell you at this point to mind your own bloody business, Sergeant. Because who I go to bed with in my off duty hours is nobody’s business but my own – and hers. But yes, I remember laughing with you about it. And yes, I spent the night with her. In fact, I spent two nights with her.”
Michael watched the blue eyes. Realisation came suddenly. Paul van Daan stood up. “Are you telling me,” he said, and the tone of his voice had changed completely, “that you stood in that tavern two nights ago and laughed with me about that girl and it didn’t occur to you to mention that she was involved with one of my sergeants?”
“It didn’t occur to me that you stood a cat in hell’s chance of her saying yes!” Michael said.
“How the hell would you know? And what possible reason could you have…oh!” The blue eyes were icy. “It was intended to take me down a peg or two, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir.” There was nothing else Michael could think of to say.
Nobody spoke for a moment. Then Paul van Daan turned away. “Piss off, Michael,” he said. “And stay away from me for the rest of the day. I want to punch you and I’m aware that you can’t punch me back, so best not put temptation in my way.”
O’Reilly stared at him. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m going to speak to Rory Stewart. What the hell else can I do?”
“What happened out there, Paul?” Carl asked. His friend grimaced.
“We were demonstrating increasing speed. He was holding back. I made an off colour remark about his manhood to get him moving. Completely harmless – but not coming from a man who had just spent two nights in bed with his girl. Christ, he must have thought I knew and had said it deliberately.” He looked again at O’Reilly, then turned and walked to the door. Michael could not resist asking.
“What?” There was nothing encouraging about Van Daan’s tone.
“When I was watching you out on that training ground the other day, I had a sudden thought that this wasn’t your first time in the army. Or in command. What was it you just said to Stewart?”
“Not army. Navy. Two and a half years. I was a petty officer when I left. A sergeant, in effect.”
“You were a common seaman, sir?” O’Reilly said in disbelief.
“Lower than that, Sergeant. I started as a pressed man. And believe me, after that, there’s nothing that your light company is going to throw at me that will worry me even slightly. Although carry on the way you’re going and you might well piss me off! And you should know that I am an officer who likes to share the pain!”
He stalked out, closing the door firmly behind him.
When he had gone, Johnny Wheeler sat down. “I don’t see how we can avoid a charge,” he said. “Whatever the reason…”
“You can’t charge him if Paul won’t give evidence,” Carl said quietly. “And he won’t. You were an arsehole, Sergeant. Especially since Stewart is supposed to be a friend of yours.”
“I was,” Michael said. “Do you really think…?”
“I really think he’s likely to punch you. And if you forget yourself and try to hit him back he’ll do it again. Do I think he’ll let Stewart hang because of your stupidity? No. Although the mood he’s in right now I don’t fancy your chances much.”
Johnny Wheeler sighed. “Christ. I can’t wait to get to India with you lot! Mr Swanson, there’s brandy in the cupboard behind you, get it out, will you? Sit down, Sergeant. And will somebody for the love of God tell me how I’ve ended up with Paul van Daan in my light company? To think I was worried at what they sent me before! What’s the story, Mr Swanson?”
“Have you heard of the Van Daan Shipping Line?”
“Of course I have. They provide a lot of ships to the board of transport. Troops and military supplies to South Africa, India and the West Indies. We’ll probably sail on one of their transports to India. Bloody hell, you mean he’s…?” Wheeler broke off and stared. “He has to be loaded!” he said. “What the hell is he doing in this regiment living in barracks?”
“His choice. Admittedly he’s good with his mess bills, and the uniform and horses are of the best,” Carl agreed, amused. “His father was Dutch, started off as a clerk with the East India Company and ended making a fortune in trade and marrying a viscount’s daughter. Two boys and a sister who died. Paul is the younger. I’ve known him all my life. They’ve a country estate not that far from here, and my father is the local parson. We grew up together.
“His mother died with his sister when he was ten. Smallpox. He’d been her favourite and his father thought she’d spoiled him. He was clever – bookish, musical, all the things Franz despised. When he was fourteen his father decided that he needed toughening up. So he apprenticed him to one of their ships for the voyage to the East.”
O’Reilly whistled. “A tough life for a well bred lad, I’d have thought. And did it make a man of him?”
“More than they planned. The ship was wrecked and one lifeboat made it out. The survivors were picked up and dropped off in Antigua. All of them were picked up twenty minutes later by the press gang, and he spent two and a half years in the Royal Navy before his father even realised he was still alive. We all thought he’d gone down with the ship and a pressed man doesn’t get shore leave or access to writing materials.”
“You might say so. When he came back to England he’d changed, as you can imagine. Franz sent him to Oxford, and I was bound there myself. My father wanted to make a parson of me, and Paul’s father hoped he’d go into the law. Their relationship was not good. He enjoyed Oxford, but the law was not for him and he was never going to go home to work with his father. Hence the army. I came along for the ride.” Carl gave a slight smile and took a drink of the brandy. “Unlike Paul I need to earn a living. For a pressed man he did well in the navy. Rose to be a petty officer. Fought under Nelson at the Nile, and in a number of other skirmishes.”
“There was a moment out there on that parade ground when I thought he was going to use that bayonet on Rory Stewart,” Wheeler said quietly.
“And if he’d needed to, he would have.” Carl glanced at Michael and gave a slight smile. “Don’t be fooled by the boyish charm. He’s been killing men since he was fourteen.”
“That’s probably longer than I have.”
“Very possibly, Sergeant.” Carl looked at Wheeler. “I’m sorry. I think he should have told you from the start. But it takes him a while to open up to people. He’s not one to get drunk in the mess on the first evening and tell you his life story. He likes you. He’d have told you when he was ready.”
Wheeler smiled slightly. “Oddly enough I’m beginning to think I could get to like him too. But Carl, with his money he could have bought into the best cavalry regiment in the army, what the hell is he doing with us?”
Carl Swanson smiled slightly. “His choice, Johnny. He wanted light infantry.”
“He could have gone for the rifles. Or the 43rd or 52nd.”
“He could. Beyond my purse, though.”
“I see. Loyalty like that is rare.”
“I thought he was dead earlier,” Wheeler said candidly. “He was bloody quick.”
“He takes some killing.” Carl looked across at Sergeant O’Reilly. “Let’s hope you show similar resilience, Sergeant because until he calms down, you’re in trouble.” Suddenly he grinned. “And by the way, you owe me a shilling.”
Paul van Daan walked into the gaol block and paused to take a deep breath before going down the row to the cell where Rory Stewart was confined. He was furious with O’Reilly for putting him in this position, the more so because he was aware that he liked the man and had begun to let his guard down with him. He was also irritated that Lieutenant Wheeler had found out about his somewhat chequered past in such a public manner. He supposed that Carl would explain, but Johnny ought to have heard it from him. It was a bloody mess, and all over a girl in a tavern and his impulsive decision to take up O’Reilly’s challenge. He might not have known that she was involved with Rory Stewart, but he had known she was involved with somebody, and it hadn’t stopped him talking his way into her bed. It was typical of him to act first and think later when it came to a woman and it was not the first time it had got him into trouble.
Stewart was lying on his back on the wooden bench, which was the only furniture in the cell. He looked round at Paul’s approach but did not move. Paul nodded to the guard who hesitated and then unlocked the cell.
“Thank you,” Paul said quietly. “Wait outside, will you?”
“Sir – I should stay.”
“He’s not going to attack me, Private. And if he does, I probably deserve it. I’ll be fine.”
The guard nodded and left, closing the door behind him. Paul walked into the cell. He seated himself on the cold ground with his back against the wall.
“Sergeant Stewart,” he said.
“I’m guessing it should be Private Stewart now, sir,” the Scot said.
Paul laughed. “Sergeant Stewart,” he said again. “I owe you an apology. If I had had even the faintest idea that she was your girl I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of her, I swear to you. Although that probably doesn’t help that much right now.”
Stewart turned his head to stare. Then he sat up and looked at Paul. “I just tried to gut you with a bayonet on the training ground in front of the entire light company and you’re in here apologising to me?” he said.
Paul grinned. “For Sally. Not for almost breaking your legs and threatening to stab you. You deserved that.”
“Who told you?”
Stewart shook his head miserably. “I’m sorry, sir. Can’t believe I was that bloody stupid, I just went mad. But whatever you did, she let you. So it’s not you I should be angry with.”
“No. But I was there, being a smart arse as usual, and you can hardly go after her with a bayonet. At least, I’d rather you didn’t. We actually would have to hang you for that.”
“I can’t see how you can get away with not hanging me anyway, sir. When Major Johnstone gets back he’s going to hear about this…”
“He’s going to hear that you got drunk on duty and made an arse of yourself and that I gave you a thump as a result and put you on latrine duties for a month. Which I’m afraid I am going to do. I’ll argue against demotion, but if he insists then you’ll have to put up with it. I’m sure you can earn those stripes back in India. And you do need to learn to control your temper better.”
Stewart sat quietly for a moment. Finally, he said:
“Thank you, sir.”
“For what? Rory – this bit is actually none of my business. But if she’s got you so worked up you’re trying to kill people over her you need to have a conversation with her about it. Because you two need to agree the rules here. I doubt I’ve been the only one.”
“When I’m away we both do what we like,” Stewart said. “But when I’m home, she never…when Charlie told me, to start with I thought you’d forced her.”
“No wonder you were pissed off.”
“No, I knew you’d not, when he said you’d been with her last night as well. But Christ, sir…”
“Has it occurred to you that this might be more to do with you than me?” Paul said quietly. “She’s a lovely lass, Rory. Have you talked about making this official?”
“Didn’t think it worthwhile, with me being away so much.”
“Well she let me pick her up in a bar full of men who were going to tell you about it,” Paul said, getting up. “So I’d say she’s trying to tell you something, Sergeant. Better get yourself over there and find out what. Make it official or end it, makes no difference to me. But you can’t go around killing every man she decides to sleep with. As far as I’m concerned this is done with. But just for the record, you ever point a bayonet at me again you’d better be prepared to use it a bit faster than you did, because next time I’m not pissing about with counting.”
Stewart got to his feet and saluted. “Yes, sir.” He hesitated. “Thank you. I’m not sure most officers would have taken it this way.”
“No.” Paul looked at him and unexpectedly his sense of humour revived. “Mind, most officers would probably have been a bit more careful whose girl they went after in a tavern. Let’s call it even, Sergeant. Now get out of here. I want my dinner and a drink.”
He watched Stewart leave. Into the darkness he said:
“You can come out now, Michael.”
The Irishman stepped out of the shadows. He was smiling slightly. “Sir. I notice there were a few things you missed out there.”
“He’s your friend, Michael. You want to tell him you encouraged me to fuck his girl for a bet, that’s your business.”
“If I’d done that to Carl? Christ, no! I’d chalk it up to a moment of stupidity and leave it alone. He’s been hurt once. Why make it worse?”
“Good advice, sir.”
“I’m full of it today.” Paul studied the thin dark face thoughtfully. “You were bloody lucky, Michael. I suspect a fair few officers would have sent him for trial whatever the cause of that.”
The Irishman looked steadily back. “I know that, sir.”
“And what were you going to do then?”
There was a very long silence and then Michael O’Reilly took a deep breath and told the truth. “Open that door and get him out of here, tell him to run. That’s why I was listening. Sir.”
Paul was silent for a moment. He was still angry but he also wanted to laugh. “You’ve got bloody balls, Sergeant, you know that.”
“You ever put me in a position like that again, and I’m going to cut yours off, are we clear?”
“Yes, sir. I am sorry,” Michael said.
Paul eyed him thoughtfully. “This how you normally deal with new officers, Sergeant?”
Michael could not help smiling. “New officers aren’t normally much like you, sir.”
“I’ll just bet they’re not. Are we done here? Because I actually do want that drink.”
“I had you completely wrong, sir.”
“You were looking for a stuck up little twat, Michael, so that’s what you saw. I’m sure by now Carl has told you the rest.”
“Yes. It explains a few things that have been puzzling me. You should probably have told Mr Wheeler before.”
Paul turned to look directly at him. He had intended to leave this until later, but he was still angry enough with the Irishman not to care. “Are we sharing secrets, Michael? Because I’m very sure that you’re not the amiable Irish bog trotter you’re pretending to be and I’m wondering how much of that you’ve shared with Mr Wheeler or Major Johnstone?”
O’Reilly laughed softly. “And if I were to tell you that I’d been mixed up in Wolf Tone’s rebellion a few years back, sir, and needed a new name and a new career, would that send you to make a report to the Major before we sail for India?”
Paul looked him over. “It might,” he said. “If I wanted to lose my best sergeant. Now let me get changed and then you can buy me that bloody drink. I have decided to ignore the rules about not drinking with the enlisted men, now that I have embarked on a career of sleeping with their women! And not at the Boat Inn, I think. Let’s leave Stewart to sort out his own love life, shall we?”
O’Reilly fell into step beside him. “They are not going to like this, sir,” he said.
“They’ll get used to me, Sergeant. Where are we going?”
“We can go to the Red Lion, sir. Although it can get a bit rough at times.”
“That’s all right, Michael. Giving someone other than you a punch might make me feel better, and keep you a lot safer.”
O’Reilly looked at him, beginning to laugh. He wondered just how far Paul van Daan’s extraordinary informality would go, and on impulse, he said:
His officer did not blink. “What?”
O’Reilly looked at him. “Welcome to the light company,” he said. “I’ve a horrible feeling that all of my past sins against young officers are about to come back and bite me in the arse.”
“Cheer up, Sergeant,” Paul said drily. “At least I’ve not killed anybody yet. But there’s time.”