Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
They began the drive home slowly and in silence but had only gone a couple of miles when Steven said, “Please stop the car.”
She looked at him anxiously but did as he had asked. She sat quietly, saying nothing.
“There’s a beach near here, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Would you mind if we went there for a walk, I think I need some fresh air.”
They drove to the beach and parked overlooking the sea. He got out of the car and she joined him. He took her hand and they walked along the sand, with the wind off the sea whipping at their clothing and hair.
“Do you want to talk about it, Steven?”
“Caterine, I don’t know what’s happening to me. In the last few weeks, since coming to Wales, I seem to be getting sucked into the past. I know it is all my own doing, because no one is forcing me to read the books or go to Waterloo or anything like that. Sometimes it’s like I am under some kind of spell, and I don’t know how it will all end. It seems as if Dr John and I are becoming the same person. Both our brothers died in battle, and then our wives are both called Maria. Finally, they both die, in our arms, as it were, and we couldn’t help them. Does any of that make sense to you.”
She hesitated before replying. “Steven, I have never told you this before. All my life I have had this feeling, no, more than that, I have been able to see into the future. Not always, and not for everything, but many, many times. It frightens me. It frightened my husband. He wasn’t able to deal with it and we split up. To answer your question, yes, it makes some kind of sense. There are many things which happen that are not explainable. Me with the future, and now you with the past.”
They stood on the beach, as the early evening began to steal in from the east, and the weak Welsh sun drifted lower in the sky towards Ireland. They held each other’s hands, and he pulled her slowly towards him and they held each other. It was becoming cold on that Welsh beach, and each of them was warmed by the physical presence of the other. The wind caused Steven’s eyes to water. At least, that was what he told himself.
“I didn’t know your father would die, most people like me cannot foretell death, for which I thank God. But when he did, I knew you would come, and I knew we would become lovers. I knew we would both feel the past in Waterloo, which is why I didn’t really want to go. I really didn’t want to be there. I have enough trouble with living with the present and the future, without the past as well. But I didn’t want you to go on your own.”
She looked deep into his eyes in that unblinking way of hers, seeming to stare right through to his soul. “And I know what you are going to say in a moment or two.”
“Do you? What am I going to say?”
“That you love me.”
“I love you.” He said it simply and without passion. It was a statement of fact, confirming what they both knew.
“I am not in love with you, Steven, not yet, but I think I might be some day. I know that too.”
He pulled her closer to him and kissed her fiercely. “Yes, I know. It isn’t necessary for someone to love you in return. It is not the law, but it doesn’t stop me loving you. I love you whether you will ever love me or not. I didn’t want to and I tried not to, but you don’t choose who you fall in love with. I think I will love you until the day I die.”
She touched his lips with her index finger, cold against his skin. “Hush do not talk of death. We have too much living to do.”
He pulled her to him again. “All right, but I still love you. I hope you will love me, one day.”
“I will tell you when it happens.”
He let go of her right hand and they retraced their steps across the sand. “What are we going to do?”
“Steven, if you stay with me.” She pulled her jacket around herself, and Steven folded his arm around her shoulders.
He interrupted her. “If we stay together, I hope you mean.”
She inclined her head. “Yes, it is what I meant to say. If we stay together the past will always be with us, intruding on the present, and dragging us back. And probably the future will be doing the same thing. If you want to avoid that, I must leave you. I look into the future and can’t see the sun, just blackness. Sometimes I think I am some kind of sorciere. I do not know the word in English.”
“Witch,” he said softly, kissing her mouth gently. “You are a witch. All women are witches. I don’t want to lose you, petite sorciere. I want you for as long as you will stay, forever if that’s how it is. Whatever the price, I will pay it whether it is in the past or the future, or now.”
She wriggled closer to him and put her face against his shoulder. “D’accord. We have a deal. Let’s go home, I believe we forgot to leave out any food for Tigger.”
They drove home in silence, and Caterine put on a CD of an American female singer, with a voice of staggering purity and feeling.
“Eva Cassidy.” She put her right index finger to her lips. “Just listen.” He did, and as they arrived home, ‘Danny Boy’ was spreading its magic over them.
The last sweet notes died away as they sat in the driveway. “That’s beautiful,” he breathed. “Astonishing! I would love to see her in concert.”
Caterine opened the driver’s door and stopped, half in and half out of the car, the interior light making her eyes seem translucent. “You can’t do that, I’m afraid. She died in 1996 from cancer. She was only thirty-three.”
He got out heavily. “Another voice from the past.”
Caterine pressed the remote locking device, and the Peugeot flashed its lights. “Perhaps it shows that not everything from the past is bad or threatening. Eva’s voice is one of hope and beauty and love.”
Tigger had not been fed, and he wasted no time in letting them know about his grievances. Fortunately, most of a cat’s grievances are easily rectified, and he was soon with his head in his dish. He did sulk for the rest of the evening, and when Steven rubbed his ears, Tigger slashed the offending hand with his paw.
Steven glared at the cat and at Caterine. “Did you foresee he was going to do that?”
She shook her head in amusement. “No, darling, I’m afraid not. Has poor baby hurt his hand? Come here and Mamam will kiss it better.”
It took Steven several days to get back to the journal again. He needed the time to rationalise what had happened, and while his mind was furiously engaged on this exercise, he went into the garden, and cut and mowed, carried and dumped, dug and filled until his limbs ached.
The physical exercise freed his brain to seek out explanations for the apparently interlinked coincidences. John’s brother, Harry, and his own brother, Arthur, had both been soldiers, and death was the risk that soldiers ran if they fought in a war. John’s wife had been German, and Steven’s own wife of Italian parentage, and Maria was a common enough name in Europe. Many men were near to their wives when they died, in childbirth, after traffic accidents, or from disease, if the husband was a doctor.
Perhaps Caterine was a bit ‘fey’, as the Scots would say, but a number of people are. She knew what he had been going to say on the beach because she looked in his eyes and correctly interpreted what was in Steven’s mind. All very simple, when you applied logic to it. And the way he felt at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte? Simply overcome by the atmosphere of the place, and what he knew had happened there. The voices? An overheated imagination. He was a rational man, for God’s sake, a man once paid to use rational logic to solve crimes. Furiously he dug the spade into a flowerbed.
In his mind he knew he was like a horse rider who had been thrown, and that he had to get back on the horse again, or he never would. Caterine did not disturb him but carried on with the work she needed to finish for the University. Eventually, on the third evening after their visit to Aberystwyth, he took out the journal and sat on the settee with Tigger by his side.
Caterine looked up from her writing. “Are you two talking again?”
He nodded gloomily. “Yes, I think he has forgiven me.”
“You are going to read?”
“Yes, it’s about time I got back to it again.”
“Do you want me to switch off the music?”
“No, that’s OK. Do you have any more of that Eva Connolly?”
“Yeah, the lady with the great voice.”
“I’m sure I can find some.”
The singer’s warm tones drifted around the room. Steven read the journal, his right hand gently stroking Tigger’s head, while Caterine worked at the computer. It was, Steven reflected, a scene of complete domestic bliss, and one he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams only six weeks earlier. He thought he knew what he was doing here. Caterine was younger than he was, attractive, even beautiful. He loved her and felt lost when she was not around. But what about her? What did she get out of all this? She had no claim to the house, or to his father’s possessions, or even to him, Steven. She was a mystery, but, he reflected, women had always been a mystery to him. What he did know was that he needed her at this moment to keep him keep his sometimes-tenuous grip on life and reality. It had to be enough, at least for now.
His eyes scanned the page at which he had finished reading several days earlier, and he took care not to reread the sections which had so shocked him. Dr John related his sadness in ‘the long dark night of my soul’, as he arranged the funeral of his beloved wife, and of his despair for his own, and the future of the two small boys. Despite servants, and his work, John could find no peace in India, and blamed himself for Maria’s death. “If I had not come here, she would still be alive in England, and not sleeping alone in the European Cemetery in Calcutta.”
No one could dissuade him from this viewpoint, and the sad, lonely man grew sadder, and even more lonely. Finally, he decided to return to England with the boys, “before they are forced to join their mother in the red soil of India.” He served notice on the East India Company, and settled all his affairs, before taking ship on HMS Swan. He was able to secure employment as ship’s doctor; the previous holder of that office having died. On the final evening in Calcutta he walked down to the cemetery and knelt at Maria’s grave, prayed for her soul and asked her forgiveness. The tears rolled down his cheeks, splashing on the grave, as yet without a permanent headstone, as the eastern night took its short farewell.
Steven stopped reading. He knew the agony which John was going through, and he had never felt closer to his ancestor than he did at that moment. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and was aware of Caterine’s eyes on him. He did not dare look up at her. He knew that if he did, he would burst into tears.
The journey home was long, but much quicker on a vessel of the Royal Navy than on a merchantman. John was able to employ a Mrs Emily Griffin, the childless widow of a sergeant in the army of the East India Company. Her husband had succumbed to the same plague which had taken Maria, and it helped both of them for her to care for John and Arthur. They called in at Madras, an event that in earlier, happier times John would have enjoyed. The depth of his depression was now so that he was most reluctant to leave the ship. Steven was reminded with a shiver of his own depression in the weeks and months leading up to his juvenile attempt at suicide.
There followed the long days beating down past the tip of India, and the hot airless weeks running alongside the east coast of Africa. They pulled in at Cape town, recently taken by the British from the Dutch, who had little choice but to cede the small port which they called Kaap Stad.
It was my first occasion to visit Africa, and the experience was most interesting. While Mrs Griffin cared for the boys, I went ashore in the naval cutter. We had anchored in the bay, where many other vessels, both Royal Navy and merchantmen, swung at anchor in the breeze. The town was small but tolerably pleasant. Most of all it was dominated by the great mountain overlooking the town. The English called it Table Mountain and the Dutch, Tafelberg. I determined to climb this flat-topped hill, which I estimated to be in the region of 3000 feet.
This feat I achieved on the following day in the company of my guide Ismail, a small, wizened man of Malay appearance who spoke continuously in a stream of almost unintelligible English, mixed, I suspect, with much Dutch and the Lord knows what else. The hill may have been flat at the top, but it was most certainly anything but flat on the ascent, as I discovered. The view from the top made the four hours climb most worthwhile even though it confirmed that I was no longer the man who had served his King so well in the Peninsula. The weather was clear and the spring sunshine a most welcome aspect to the day.
The view was truly staggering, and I regretted that my sons were too young to have benefited from the occasion. The whole of the Cape of Good Hope, it appeared, stretched out before me, the coast lapped by the blue waters of the Atlantic, their breakers white against the sand of the beaches. A type of large grey rabbit ran around free on the summit, unafraid, it would appear, of human intrusions.
Back in Capetown, I wandered the small town and noted the wondrous mix of peoples. There were the British, many in the red coats of the Army, the Dutch in their farmers’ black, the many smaller people of Malay appearance, and the larger Negroes, much blacker in appearance than the Indians with whom I had so recently been working. The smells and sounds were, however, reminiscent of the Calcutta bazaars.
Back on board the Swan it was time to continue our journey home. The short break in the Cape had served to remind me once again how sorely I missed my dear Maria, whose active and enquiring mind would have found so much to enjoy in this small outpost of our Empire. I regret to say that I slipped into a most distressing depression, a well the depth of which I had never had to plumb before. This condition lasted until we reached St Helena, and caused much pain to my two young sons, and threw a most grievous burden on the unfortunate Mrs Griffin. Without the most willing assistance of that dear lady I surely would not have made the journey to England without throwing myself into the ocean. I carried out my duties as doctor to the ship’s company but was grateful to Almighty God that the health of crew and passengers remained passably good throughout, so that my services were required infrequently.
Steven stopped reading for a moment. Increasingly he came closer and closer to John, sharing from intimate experience the man’s despair and the thoughts of suicide which had occupied his mind. He presumed that John had considered the welfare of his boys in not carrying his thoughts into action. Steven could only reflect that cowardice had forestalled his own efforts.
I stood for many hours on deck as we closed on St Helena, and a most inhospitable outlook it presented. The island, as far as the eye could see, was shrouded in cloud which descended almost to the sea, and from which only the occasional mountain peak could be seen. The weather was as bleak as the view and I was forced to wrap my overcoat tightly around my body. John and Arthur stayed with me a time, but soon tired of the sport and went off with Mrs Griffin
Again, Steven could feel the stiff Atlantic wind whipping off the sea, and then salt spray on his lips.
I thought much about the man detained here as a prisoner, a man, who for many years held much of Europe in his hand, and against whom only England stood out firmly all the while. I could not envisage this detention myself, and I was merely a simple doctor, not a commander of armies and ruler of peoples. The rational side of my brain reminded me that Buonaparte had been given a chance before on Elba, a chance he had squandered to the detriment of Europe and Great Britain. He deserved no further opportunity to repeat his deprivations.
We lay a little distance offshore of Jameston harbour, a matter which apparently aroused great excitement in the hearts of many of the islanders, hundreds of whom gathered to observe the comings and goings of our vessel. Captain Ikin, our ship’s master went ashore to pay his respects to Sir Hudson Lowe, the Governor, and to the senior naval officer on the island.
I stood at the railings with my small sons at my side watching the various activities of a variety of people, engaged both in gainful employment and in simple sight-seeing. As many small boats approached the ship as left from her. In one I observed an Army officer, resplendent in his red jacket. He came up the gangway and addressed himself to the officer of the deck, who turned towards me and pointed. I recognised the facings on the officer’s jacket, those of the 66th Regiment. He came up to me and saluted.
I smiled a little. “McCann certainly, surgeon-major no longer, I fear.”
“Captain Nicholls, sir, 66th Regiment. I was in the Peninsula and saw you on many occasions with the KGL.”
“Indeed, they were hard but happy days, Captain Nicholls. I regret I do not recall you.”
“As my memory serves me, you were always fully employed, sir. I also knew your brother Harry. We fought together at Albuera, the Nivelle and Orthes. That was the last time I saw him.”
“Yes, Harry died at Toulouse.”
“Indeed, sir, I was much distressed to learn of that at the time.”
“And I also, captain. Please call me doctor, as I am no longer an officer in His Majesty’s service. What can I do for you?”
“I have an invitation for you, doctor, from Sir Hudson Lowe, the Governor.” He handed over a small envelope.
I held the envelope unopened in my hand. “You must be mistaken, captain. What business would Sir Hudson have with me, a poor doctor?”
“I believe it would be in that very capacity, sir, as a medical man. Do you speak French or Italian?”
“It was one of my late wife’s accomplishments that she taught me to speak passably well in both French and German. Alas, I know nothing of Italian.”
Nicholls looked at little John and Arthur, clinging to my jacket, and both looking solemnly at the splendidly uniformed soldier. “I am sorry, doctor, I did not know that your wife had died. She was well known, and much admired in Spain and Portugal. My condolences, sir. May I advise Sir Hudson that he may expect you at eight? I will arrange a carriage.”
“I am delighted to accept his invitation and will remain in ignorance of its intent until I meet with the Governor.”
Nicholls saluted smartly and bent to ruffle the hair of the two boys. “A bientot, then, Doctor McCann.”
The fingers of my right hand went automatically to the tip of my non-existent hat. “And you, captain, and you.”
I stood for several minutes at the railings and then turned the envelope over in my hands and broke the wax seal. It was addressed to Surgeon-Major McCann, Kings German Legion. Dear God, the KGL was long gone, its brave fellows dispersed to all corners of Europe. I then remembered that I had failed to send news of Maria’s death to Heinrich and resolved to dispatch something on arrival in England. The last I had heard of him he had been a Colonel back in Hanover.
“Come along, boys. It’s time for bed.”
I dressed, putting on my military uniform for the first time in many years. After some thought, I pinned my Waterloo Medal to my breast. I had earned it, by God, being wounded on that dreadful but glorious day. There had been much talk from the Peninsula veterans that they should have been equally honoured, and that sentiment was one in which I was in total accord. However the Government had declared that such an award was not their intention.
I spoke to Mrs Griffin. “How do I look?”
“Quite splendid, doctor, and very handsome.”
I kissed her hand. “Madam, you are too kind.”
I went on deck, saluted the officer of the day and climbed uncomfortably into the small jollyboat. Nicholls waited at the dockside. He again saluted.
“Evening, major. I notice you are wearing your medal. I envy you, sir, it is a mark of honour. I wish I had been there myself.”
“I wish I had not been there, Captain Nicholls, it was a slaughterhouse.”
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