Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
Whether she thought about it or not he couldn’t say, but if she did, she did not share her thinking with him, and Steven grew more and more frustrated. Having got the idea into his head he was anxious to go ahead with it and did a lot of research about driving distances, flight times, hotels and so on. In his father’s mountain of books, which he was still faithfully sorting out and cataloguing, he found a guide to the battlefield which he studied closely. He became totally familiar with the twin battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny on 16th June 1815 leading up to the great battle on 18th. He knew all about the rain and the consequent delay in starting the hostilities that worked in favour of the Anglo Dutch Army and to the detriment of the French.
He did not mention the matter again to Caterine, or she to him, and he made up his mind to go alone. He still retained some hope she would agree to come. In truth, she often puzzled and annoyed him, and at such times he wondered what it was he saw in her. This was one of those times. It had seemed that they had been embarked on an adventure together, an adventure which seemed to be fading. He made a list of monuments, churches, and sites to be visited and got several hotel brochures which he carelessly left on the kitchen table. He was studying these at breakfast one rainy morning when the postman called. Steven returned, a bundle of damp mail in his hand, to find Caterine apparently disinterestedly examining the hotel information.
“Are you going to Waterloo?”
“When are you thinking about, when are you going, I mean?”
“Probably next week sometime.”
They went about their work until lunchtime when Caterine suddenly said, “Is the offer still open for me?”
He knew what offer she meant but decide to be obtuse; God knows she had been difficult enough. “What offer is that, then?”
Her lips pursed and she scowled a little. “To go to Waterloo, of course.”
He was not prepared to let her off the hook just yet. After all she had left him dangling for over a week. “Oh, I thought you didn’t want to go.”
“I never said that.”
“That’s true, but you never said you did, either. You never said anything.”
She made no reply but folded her arms across her chest and her lips tightened some more.
He decided he had pushed his luck far enough. “I would be delighted if you came.” Steven smiled inwardly. ‘That’s fifteen all’, he told himself, but still felt that she had won somehow.
They were going for four days. He had arranged to hire a car from Avis at Brussels Airport, and they had booked two rooms in a hotel at Waterloo. He had been uncertain if she was expecting him to ask for separate rooms, but he had decided that if they slept in their own rooms at home, that should apply elsewhere. Nevertheless, he did wonder about it. He felt it was easier to allow Maria’s shadow to lean on his shoulder at times like this. He was also afraid that if he made some move, and she rejected it, the little shelter he had found, unexpectedly, in Hay, would be shattered. He did not want to run that risk. He had not enjoyed the week they spent apart. Somewhere down the road, the future beckoned to him. He didn’t know what that future might hold, but he knew what the past had been like, and even though he was unsure of the road, Steven was content to let things happen at their own pace. Or not happen at all, he grunted to himself.
Gradually, in his own mind, a plan was developing. Increasingly, in the last few days, he had come to talking things over with Dr John. The good doctor never commented on these discussions but was a useful sounding board off which to bounce opinions. The Met was not interested in him and he, sure as God, was not interested in it. He didn’t want to end up with pills and whiskey again, so, an embryonic idea was growing. Complete his father’s book that’s what he would do. Use his detective skills to solve Napoleon’s death, murder or natural causes. And Caterine? He had no control over that part of his life but hoped very much that she would be part of it. It might prevent him trying to top himself again. On the other hand, if things went wrong, it might give that project further legs.
The drive from Brussels airport was very short, just down the street as Steven remarked, as they pulled off the main road into the car park of the Grand Hotel, about fifteen minutes’ walk away from the Centre Ville. They had dinner in the hotel restaurant, having strolled the length of the long main road and found nothing that attracted them from a culinary viewpoint. There had been a quite grand fish and chips shop, run, apparently, by a M. Parmentier, but she had turned up her nose at his jesting suggestion that haddock and fifty penn’orth of chips would suffice.
“Les Anglais,” she remarked scornfully.
Caterine chatted in French to the hotel waiter. Steven understood only the odd word.
“Happy to be speaking French again?” he enquired, his soupspoon halfway to his mouth.
She sniffed and returned her laden spoon to the bowl. “They don’t speak proper French here, you know, they are Belge.”
“They weren’t that sure what they were in 1815 from all accounts.”
In bed he lay on top of the covers and read the journal up to the Battle of Toulouse in 1814. Increasingly he felt drawn closer and closer to John McCann. After Madrid, Wellington attempted to take Burgos, and failed. On 19th October, the British and Portuguese began to withdraw to Portugal, pursued by the relentless French. This retreat developed into a repeat of that to Coruna, nearly four years earlier. Hundreds of Allied soldiers died, as discipline crumbled, and drink took over. Every morning as the long cold wet march began yet again, they passed the inebriated forms of what had been fighting soldiers. They suffered dreadfully from the cold and want of food.
Disease ripped through the columns, with dysentery a scourge. Late in November, the tattered ranks reached Portugal, out of reach of the French. Wellington blasted his officers as being to blame for this dreadful episode. John McCann and his wife were too busy to notice, both engaged in trying to restore to health the sick in the General Hospitals. They had an important ally. Dr James McGrigor had arrived in January 1812 as Inspector of Hospitals. At about the same time, John met Dr George Guthrie who had acquired the reputation of one of the finest Army surgeons in the Peninsula. He remarked to Maria that with two such men in the Army at the same time and in the same place, the health of the soldiers could only improve.
John McCann had a busy winter, as the wounds and diseases of the Army threatened to deprive Wellington of his soldiers. James McGrigor quickly set to, upgrading the levels of sanitation, hygiene, diet and medical care in the British hospitals. He found a willing disciple in John McCann. As 1812 became 1813, the health and morale of the Peninsular army improved, and as reinforcements came in from England and from the Portuguese Military Schools established by William Carr Beresford.
John and Maria celebrated their second wedding anniversary, and the good doctor thanked God for His benevolence in giving His poor servant the gift of such a perfect wife.
“Lucky man,” Steven said out loud, as he turned on to his left side.
We left Portugal on 22nd May 1813. It is said that my Lord Wellington raised his hat as he crossed the frontier, and saluted that country with these words, ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again.’ One month later, at Vittoria, we attacked the combined forces of King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan, and routed them utterly, capturing a huge quantity of stores and booty. It is said that even the King’s chamber pot was liberated by the brave fellows of the 14th Light Dragoons. Our casualties were moderately severe, but once again the French suffered more, and after attending to our own men, I assisted the French surgeons in their heavy tasks. In many regards their practices are superior to our own and it sometimes appears to me that it is only our age-old antipathy to our cross-channel cousins that precludes our copying them. They are brave fellows, and it was now the Duke’s policy to send these noble Frenchmen back to their own lines after they had done their best for their soldiers. My brave Maria, with her excellent French, was beside me all the time, and comforted many of them in their pain. Once again, thanks to the Almighty, my dear brother survived without injury.
The Allies pressed on into the Pyrenees where in July they suffered a setback, as Marshal Soult surprised and drove back the British and Portuguese. Harry McCann was part of the 4th Division under Lowry Cole who were thrown back from the mountain pass at Roncevalles. They stopped in front of Pamplona, and at Sorauren stood waiting, without Wellington. The KGL was not present, but later Harry wrote to his brother describing the hour when the Duke, promoted to Field Marshal after Vittoria, arrived:
“We waited in line, not knowing when the French would attack, and, upon my word, brother, by no means convinced that we would prevail, after the mauling we had received at their hands in the mountains. Away to the left of the line we heard a low rumble, like thunder, which grew in volume by the minute. Then we made sense of the clamour. It was, ‘Douro, Douro, Douro,’ getting louder and louder. It was our Portuguese comrades, welcoming the Duke back amongst us. Then the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish joined in,’ Arty, Arty, Arty!’ I was shouting with the rest of them. He was back, and we were going to succeed. Every man from General officer to private soldier, we all knew it, and, by God, I am sure Soult and his people also heard, and also knew it’
And they did succeed and swept the French back into the mountains. On 7th October 1813, Wellington crossed into France, a journey that had taken from August 1808. For over four years Harry and John McCann had accompanied the Duke on his journey. San Sebastian had fallen after a siege, and Burgos given up by the French. The two brothers were present at the Battle of Nivelle in November, which was the last battle in which they fought together. As he read Steven had the strangest feeling that he was there, climbing the hills with John, feeling the cold and hunger, and sleeping on the ground wrapped in a cloak. He could hear the gunfire, smell the cordite even feel the thread held in his mouth as he prepared a wound for stitching. The warm, sickly sweet smell of blood filled his nostrils as he busied himself to his work, the screams of the wounded and dying in his ears.
He shook his head to clear it and got out of bed to get some water. “Blimey, old son, you’re going off your rocker.” But he read on.
John and Maria celebrated their third wedding anniversary together with Harry, Heinrich, Juanita and Harry Smith at a small restaurant overlooking the harbour in St Jean de Luz, in the southwest corner of France, close to the Spanish border, where Wellington had set up his headquarters. The Duke pushed east in pursuit of Soult and was victorious at the battles of the Nive and Orthes. Bordeaux, long considered a Royalist city, grew a forest of white cockades and surrendered without a shot. The final battle of the war was fought at Toulouse in April 1814. Harry was present. In taking Mount Rave, the 4th Division came under heavy fire, and Brigade Major Harry McCann died with a French musket ball through his brain. The supreme irony was that the Emperor had abdicated four days earlier, and Toulouse was an unnecessary battle.
“Oh, God.” Steven put the journal across his chest and closed his eyes. He felt he was being sucked bodily as well as emotionally into the nineteenth century. First, both John and himself sharing the name Maria as their wives, and now John’s brother, dying in battle, just like his own brother, Arthur. “Oh my God.”
He slept badly that night, with the return of the old familiar nightmare of Maria dying in the flames of their car. This time, however, he could not see her face, and her screams for help were in German. The men holding him back were all in Army uniforms of the Peninsular Army. In the background, his father, and Arthur in his Welsh Guards uniform, watched his struggles and laughed. In the background a grinning Ken Livingstone sat in the driving seat of a London bus.
Where was she? Where was Caterine? But there was no Caterine. No succour, no help, no relief. He awoke slippery with sweat, his cries burbling incoherently in his throat. He wondered if he was going mad, and if the truly mad knew that they were mad.
At breakfast, Caterine looked at his face. “You did not sleep well?” It was a statement more than a question.
“No.” There was no point in denying it; the evidence was there in his face.
“Do you want to tell me?”
“Tres bien. The scrambled eggs are good. Did you read John’s account of Waterloo?”
“No, I am saving that. I want to read it here, where it happened.”
He reached out and touched her arm. “Caterine, I am sorry. I was rude a moment ago. I am feeling strange, like I have been here before. I don’t always understand things myself.”
“It’s all right, Steven.”
“Did you know that Dr John’s wife was called Maria?”
She looked up, wide-eyed. “No, I didn’t.”
“And his brother was killed at Toulouse?”
Her mouth dropped open. She shook her head.
“My wife was called Maria, and my brother was killed in action, and here I am at Waterloo, where John was.”
She looked at him for long seconds. “I am with you now.” She took his hand, the bad one, and squeezed it ever so gently. In that moment the closeness they had shared innocently before returned and he knew it was not only the past which was pulling and calling to him. At moments like these he felt Maria’s breath on his cheek and emotionally he withdrew, frightened by a future he could not foresee and haunted by a past he could not forget.
“Thank you, I appreciate that.” It was an inadequate remark; he knew that and fancied that she did too.
Later in the morning, they drove to Ligny and then to Quatre Bras. At Ligny he studied his guidebook. “Napoleon attacked the Prussians here on 16th June.” He swept his arm vaguely around the desolate scene of rather muddy fields.
She huddled into her rain jacket against the drizzle. “Who won?”
“I suppose the French did,” his reply sounded reluctant.
“So, we did win something after ‘Astings?”
Steven looked at her. He knew she could say Hastings perfectly well and was trying to be provocative. “Yes, but it was only partial. Blucher lost about 16,000 men and Napoleon about 12,000. The French didn’t, or couldn’t follow up, and the bulk of the Prussian Army escaped.”
“And where was your namesake, M’sieur Wellington?”
“You know all of this as well as I do, perhaps better. Let’s get in the car and go to Quatre Bras.”
Perhaps because it had been a British battlefield, Steven felt more of an atmosphere at the crossroads than at Ligny. There was a misty greyness hanging, shroud like, over the place, reducing visibility and deadening the road noise of the few cars which passed.
“Ney and Prince Jerome came along that road, from the south. There were only a few Allied troops here to begin with, Dutch and Brunswickers, and if Ney had chosen, he could probably have broken straight through, probably got all the way to Brussels. Wellington fed men into the battle all day, as they arrived, and Ney never ever plucked up quite enough courage to attack the Duke with everything he had.”
“Why not?” It was ridiculous, they were both almost whispering.
“I think because Ney had fought him before in Spain and knew what he was capable of. It’s also believed that Ney wasn’t the man he had been before Russia. In today’s terms he was probably shell shocked.”
“Was John here?”
“Yes, was your great, great ancestor, Jean-Francois?”
“No, he was with the Emperor at Ligny. What did Dr John say?”
He reached into the front pocket of his jacket and took out the journal, which he had protected carefully in plastic wrapping. “Here, read it.”
I returned to the Continent in May, with, it seemed, another War inevitable. I abandoned temporarily my studies to become a physician. It was with a heavy heart that I landed alone at Ostend, as my dear wife was now pregnant with our first child, and we neither of us had any desire for our first born to be orphaned before his birth.
“Steven. She was pregnant when he was here. She must have been terrified.”
He nodded and Caterine returned to her reading.
My appointment was as Deputy Inspector of Hospitals with the KGL Infantry, and I had the rank of Surgeon Major. There was much to prepare in the last part of May and the early weeks of June.
On the 16th June we heard the news of the battles at Ligny and at Quatre Bras. At one in the afternoon, although the KGL was not engaged, I led a team of surgeons and a wagon train down the Brussels road to Quatre Bras. I arrived after six in the evening when the fighting was all but finished. The evidence of a frightful slaughter was everywhere, and we were much engaged for the rest of the evening and night.
At perhaps two, or maybe three in the morning, I was thus occupied in the midst of much blood and the cries of brave men. The Duke himself entered the hospital tent and motioned me to him. We stood outside the tent flap, Wellington in his cloak, but hatless, myself in my blood-stained apron.
He offered his hand.
I protested.” My Lord, I canst not take your hand, I am stained with the blood of many.”
The Duke took my hand, nonetheless. “It is the blood of many brave men. Doctor McCann, I would wish to meet with you again in more accommodating circumstances. How is your wife?”
“She is well, my Lord, and with child.”
The Duke smiled and shook my hand again. “Let us hope to God, doctor, he never grows up to be a part of such as this. As you may know, I have two sons of my own.”
I made to reply, but he stopped me. “Doctor, do you have sufficient transport to move our wounded?”
“Not all are yet treated, my Lord, but I believe we can manage with what we have. If there is more fighting on the morrow, I fear we will be overwhelmed.”
The Duke rubbed his chin wearily. “I know not, Doctor, whether we must fight on the morrow. Much depends on how Blucher has fared at Ligny, and I have not yet heard. I believe it would be prudent were you to remove as many wounded as you can at first light. I cannot answer for Marshal Ney’s intentions, but I would hope to give you several hours start on the Army.”
“I will, my Lord.”
The Duke took my hand again. “Thank you, major,” and turned away. It was the first time he had used my military rank.
At first light we dispatched as many of our brave fellows as we could and sent a rider to Brussels to arrange more wagons and carts. I slept for an hour or so, before resuming my bloody work. It was around nine in the morning when Wellington returned. He had shaved and looked remarkably fresh after his disturbed night.
“Doctor McCann, I have news for you and you alone. As I feared, old Blucher has had a dammed good licking, and the Prussians are falling back on Wavre. We must do the same, to protect our left flank and to deprive Bonaparte of his sport. I commend your actions in removing so many of the wounded already. You should now transport as many of the remaining as you can to the hospitals at Mont St Jean and Waterloo. I can give you four or five hours and will follow, if not attacked by Marshal Ney. I will stop Boney at Mont St Jean. Can you do that?”
“If you require it of me, my Lord, I will transport them all the way back to England.”
Wellington smiled. “Thank you, Doctor McCann, Mont St Jean and Waterloo will do for now.”
Caterine looked round at Steven, reading intently over her shoulder. He kissed her lips gently. She looked at him in that direct way he had come to know so well but made no protest. “This brings it closer, no?”
He kissed her again. “It does, it certainly does. We might even be on the site of the hospital. The Allies held the crossroads, so, he could have been right here.”
They both shivered, and he put his arms around her. “It’s a strange feeling, being here. Your ancestor just up the road to our left, with Napoleon, and mine here with the Duke.”
She nodded her agreement. “I have never wanted to come here before. I didn’t really want to come this time either. Waterloo is not a good place for the French. But now,” she put her arm around his waist. “But now, I am glad I have come. You see, Dr John survived Waterloo. Bertrand did not. He died with the Guard when they made that final attack.” She hesitated. “Steven, I sometimes get feelings, strange feelings, of things that will happen. I feel I have been here before. I feel scared.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go back to Waterloo and see if we can find somewhere better than that fish and chip shop.”
And they did, a charming little restaurant, just over the road from the Grand Hotel, with soft lights and a warm atmosphere, and a bust of Napoleon.
“I thought you lost here,” he whispered to her. “You had better tell M. le Patron, he doesn’t seem to know.”
“Shut up, Steven.”
Over dinner they conversed easily and closely, sharing parts of their lives which had been secret before.
“Were you happily married, Steven”
“I think so. Pretty happy, more than average I’d say.”
“It must have been terrible for you when your wife, Maria died.”
“It was horrendous, ghastly, indescribable. And I was driving, of course. And I have this permanent reminder of that day.” He lifted his hands.
“But you were not to blame, were you?”
“So, the Crown Court said. The other driver got twelve months in prison. He’s out now, but she’s still dead.”
“You had no children?”
There had been a time, only a few weeks before when he would have resented these questions. Now he didn’t think he did. “No. To begin with, we were happy with just each other, didn’t need anyone else. When we wanted to start a family, we found out she had a problem with her ovaries. They couldn’t produce healthy eggs, apparently. We did think about adoption, IVF and that kind of thing, but never got around to it.”
“Did you love her?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Do you still?”
“That makes it hard for other ladies then to compete, to compete with a ghost?”
“Maybe, but there has never been another lady until now.”
She looked down at the table. Perhaps he had said too much, presumed too much. He continued hurriedly, “And you, and Philippe, what happened?”
Caterine looked up again. Her eyes looked wet.
“Don’t cry, please don’t,” he thought, “I couldn’t stand it.”
She didn’t. “We met in Nantes when we were at University. We were both very young, too young really. I never really loved him.”
“But what happened?”
“You know, I think, that sometimes I get,” she struggled for the word. “I get visions.”
“What, like you see the Virgin Mary?”
“It is not funny Steven, it is terrible, frightening.”
“Sorry, what kind of visions?”
“Where I can see the future.”
“That is scary.”
“I saw that Philippe would have an affair with my best friend.”
“Christ, what did you do?”
“I told him. He had the affair and then left me for her.”
The realisation, glimpsed before, came to him that he was no longer falling in love with Caterine. He was in love with her. He was unsure of her feelings and much too insecure to probe. In any case, as always, just when their closeness and the wine pressed him to say something, Maria appeared at his shoulder, and the moment receded. He rationalised this, explaining to himself that Caterine was a dozen years younger, and he had possible criminal charges hanging over him. He was also a man who only weeks before had tried to kill himself. Not much of a catch then.
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and privately self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019