Image courtesy of Luc Van De Weghe
Leo had had the good fortune to pass the night in a shared tent with straw for a pillow and a blanket to cover him. Against the din of thunder and driving rain, the murmurous sounds of coupling infiltrated his shallow sleep, the tender attentions of those redoubtable wives and sweethearts who had followed the drum and knew not what the morrow would bring.
He awoke at the first hint of dawn, braced in every sinew and nerve and obscurely elated. Three hours earlier, he had received a message from Uxbridge who headed the whole of the British cavalry, that the Prussians were on the way and Wellington was making a stand.
Sunday June 18th, 1815. Today the world’s future and his own would be decided. He had a reckless urge to tempt fate or God, or whatever it was out there that presided over the destinies of men, to arbitrate in the question of his own worth. His past had been dogged by a deep-seated conviction of moral inequality which hitherto had brought all his best endeavours at close relationships to nought.
When the camp fires were lit, his batman brought hot water for shaving. Leo snatched a clean shirt from his saddle-bag, singing snatches of airs from The Marriage of Figaro in a tuneful tenor voice.
Swirling mist dissolved over the battered fields of barley, wheat and rye, grown nearly as tall as a man. An opal light shone about the horizon, tinting the walls of the Château Hougoumont to the west of the valley with violet, rose and gold. The building was garrisoned by British Guards, Hanoverians and Nassauers. He could see them moving about the woods and blossom-bereft orchards making ready for the day.
And while he stood in contemplation, savouring the rare sweetness of the air, soon to be corrupted by the stench of sulphur, blood and smoke, he was filled with a certainty that the fortress would hold, come what may.
Across the chequered plains behind him, the Waterloo church bell chimed for Mass.
At quarter past eleven, Napoleon, fired with a fatalistic courage, clapped on his bicorn and grasped the reins of his grey charger, Marengo.
Slowly he rode down from the French lines with a marvellous show of bravado and traversed the hollow towards Hougoumont. Every muscle in the Allied camp tensed. During those moments he was an easy target but honour forbade them to exploit the opportunity. Suddenly a volley of cheering broke the stillness. Infantry began to pour down the slopes, batteries of cannon were drawn up at his rear.
“Gentlemen,” the Duke cordially addressed his staff under the elm tree, “it is about to commence. If the Prussians come up in time, we shall have a long peace. And if they don’t, please God the result will be the same.
”The almighty rumble of discharging cannon heralded the opening of the battle which would spare mankind from tyranny.
By half past one, all the legions of hell had broken loose and still the Prussians did not come. Explosions of rocket fire, highly inaccurate, lit up the field. Palls of acrid smoke stung the sinuses and parched the throat. Dying men fell down upon dead, impaled upon lances, butchered by sabres, their screams lost in the whine of shot and bursting shell.
Some distance away, the Earl of Uxbridge saw what was happening and immediately ordered his waiting cavalry, tightly packed to charge. “Now! In with you, my lads!” The Household Brigade, the Blues, the Lifeguards and the King’s Dragoon Guards took the hedges like steeplechasers and in a vast rolling wave of red and blue and flashing steel bore down on the astonished French, many of whom, sooner than fight hopelessly, lay down and feigned death. Matchless in courage, if not always in discipline, the rum in the veins of the British cavalry and the corporate pounding of hoofbeats intoxicated them to a pitch of ecstacy so that, rising up in their stirrups, they milled through the French infantry, sabres flailing, driving them back, fighting hand to hand as they went, and did not hear the trumpet’s recall. “Strike at the neck!” Leo exhorted his men. “Make use of your spurs!” On they pursued, right up the opposite slope and past the enemy lines to be set upon and scattered in turn by a savage horde of lancers and Kellermann’s famed cuirassiers.
Galloping down from Mont St. Jean and sweeping through the valley, the reedy wind upon his face and an edge to his sword and his senses, Leo knew a timeless moment of apperception. Scenes from the past shimmered up before him and were gone. He knew the transience of pleasure and pain, of life itself, and the tarnished vault of heaven unfurling in a soft iridescence to disclose the resolution of all conflict. Eternal peace.
His terrified mount reared. There was the grinding clash of steel upon steel, the searing fulgence of a cuirass splattered with blood, a quintessence of pain, fading, ebbing away. An Armageddon of brute legs and hooves.
Lieutenant-Colonel Penrose slumped into the mire.
All afternoon fugitives from the embattled plains beyond the Forêt de Soignes flocked into Brussels, bewildered peasants, panic-stricken hussars fresh from the unimagined horrors of Waterloo. As fast as they came, civilians fled. Chaos piled upon chaos and many knew not where to turn.
In the Rue Ducale, they passed a third day in suspense. Mr Fenton strongly favoured leaving for Ostend. Mrs Peachum might have acquiesced had it not been for the younger women who would not countenance so base a betrayal of their loved ones. Kate could not eat. Tense and listless, she sat down at the General’s escritoire and composed a letter to the Stewarts in London, telling of her sorrow at their dual bereavement and how fond she had been of Fiona. She thanked them for their goodness and said how happy her term with them had been. She supposed she ought to have written earlier, but it had seemed prudent not to open up that chapter of her life. She mentioned that she had seen Lord Penrose in the Place Royale riding off with his regiment, “as though,” she said, “he had some score to settle with life.”
She folded the page firmly and decided not to commit it to the post until matters were resolved.
Around two o-clock, when the party came in from an airing along the Allée Verte, Kate went to her room to change her footwear. Her red morocco shoes were soaked from the drenched grass. Far away, the sporadic rumbling of cannon could be heard. Wringing her hands, she went to the window and sighed wretchedly for all the prayers she could not articulate. The little pink and white Louis Quinze clock chimed the quarter hour. Suddenly, something smote at the core of her being. She was steeped in black and bitter melancholy. Oh God, do not say his hour has come! Instantly, she was down on her knees in impassioned supplication. She prayed as she had never prayed before, unclenching her body in the most positive act she could perform.
When a degree of calm had been achieved, she went into the salon and tried to persuade her hostess that Anne and herself ought to be doing their patriotic duty by tending the injured rather than filling their time with pointless tasks. “For,” said she, “I have never in my life been so unoccupied and never so in desperate want of occupation. What is stitchery when men are giving life and limb for us!”
The General’s lady was horrified. “My dear, how full of restless energy you are! The tents of the wounded are no fit place for a lady of delicate sensibilities.”
“Dear ma’am,” Kate implored, “often I have waited upon the sick in my father’s parish. I may suppose that many a lady of rank is less qualified than I…”
“Child, child, you allow your heart to govern your head. Are the sick of your father’s parish to be compared with the horrendous casualties of a battlefield?”
Kate glanced towards Anne in a plea for support.
“Tis very pretty in you, Miss Hanslope, to be sure,” interjected Mr Fenton, “but Pammie’s in the right of it. Saw a fellow once, had his claret tapped at a meeting of the Four-in-Hand Club. Devilish business!”
His sister scowled at this singularly crass comment and turned to her niece’s impetuous friend. “Pray forgive the admonition, but….”
“Aunt, you underestimate our courage,” Anne said. “I should dearly like to help.”
“Well!” breathed Mrs Peachum on a shuddering note of outrage. “It seems that I must yield to pressure. Fitzroy, oblige me by pouring a generous measure of the General’s sherry wine!”
Nothing could have prepared either Kate or Anne for the hours of harrowing toil which followed. Again and again, they had to brace themselves to continue. They vowed they would not prove to be vapourish females. What was their suffering beside the gruesome afflictions of the soldiers stumbling past the Namur Gate with bandaged heads, contused eyes and lacerated limbs, ragged uniforms hanging about them caked in mud and congealing blood? The girls ran back and forth to the chemist for supplies of lint, hartshorn, smelling bottles, witch hazel, emollients, anything which might bring relief to the ailing men. They listened to the last incoherent messages of the dying, received tokens destined for loved ones back in England. They knelt in the dust and sponged and dressed wounds, seeing bowl after bowl of clear water incarnadined. Kate hated with a passionate hatred, the tyrant who had done this to her countrymen, who had slain myriads in a ruthless pursuit of his own grandiose ideals. Fighting for composure, she prayed for grace. Her chest ached with a fiercely repressed desire to weep. Would she ever eradicate the primeval stench of blood from her nostrils?
As nimbly as they worked, more victims arrived. Tilt-carts of wounded constantly rattled into the city, jarring the agonised men aboard them, prostrated on straw and swigging dregs of gin and rum to dead their pain. Word that Napoleon was on the doorstep spread fast. In the face of such devastation, it was hard to disbelieve it, despite the testimony of a courageous young Rifleman who described how he and his comrades had stood their ground when Count d’Erlon’s troops came at them and how the Household and Union Brigades had launched a simultaneous counter-attack and swept across the valley in a thundering diagonal. “Slashed ‘em to ribbons,” he boasted. “Cut ‘em down to a man!”
As evening approached, Kate's own troubles vanished. She became enured to the sights around her. She was numb through and through.
She was ministering to a lancer who had had a musket ball and a good deal of splintered bone removed from his ribs, when she was jolted out of her absorption. Straining to support the man while he took languid sips of water, she chanced to look up as two harassed orderlies passed by, a stretcher between them. The soldier upon it, covered in a horseblanket, would not have merited a second glance had it not been for the remnant of filthy scalloped lace dangling from the tattered coat across the foot of the stretcher.
“My petticoat! Oh God, it is Leo!”
Forsaking the poor lancer, she hurried to the stretcherbearers and nervously pulled back the cover. The iron went out of her.
Recognition flickered over the beloved, cadaverous face. He gazed up at her through narrowed lids, gazed but barely focused. His shirt was gashed. His shoulders and chest were swaddled in red-stained bandages. She saw to her horror that his right arm had gone.
“Been to the sawbones, ma’am,” explained one of the men, not without sympathy, “in the farm cottage at Mont St. Jean. Poor devils are queueing for the blade.”
“Where...are you going?”
“To the Hôtel de Ville, ma’am. That’s where the Colonel put up.”
Kate’s hands flew to her trembling mouth. She could stem the tide of tears no longer. He was alive! Leo was alive! “T-take him,” she stammered, “please take him to number 49, Rue Ducale, General Peachum’s apartments. Ask them to send for his valet. I will come presently.”
from MY MOTHER BIDS ME, A Novel of Jane Austen's England on the Eve of Waterloo
Last in a sequence of three posts which began here