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The old Colonel died at five minutes to three, on the morning of January the nineteenth, 1879.
His son, Adam, who had been taking a turn at sitting up with him for almost a week now, did not witness the death. He was dozing in the armchair beside the leaping coal fire and the cessation of the long, rasping breaths alerted him in the way a sudden change in sound pattern had broken his bivouac sleep in his campaigning days. He rose without haste, massaging his thigh where the support straps of his artificial leg had chafed during the long vigil, lifting the old man's hand and waiting, aware of the contrast between the stillness of the room and the tumult outside, where the wind soughed in the stripped branches of the avenue beeches, as though the Colonel's spirit had taken flight among them, rejoicing in release from the withered old carcase on the bed.
After a few moments he released the hand, closed the eyes, and gently pressed the jaws, remembering, as he did this, that he had performed the same office for a score of men young enough to have been the old man's great-grandsons. But that was long ago, at Balaclava, Inkermann, Cawnpore, and Lucknow, places and occasions rarely remembered in the last two decades.
Even now hefelt more relief than regret. The dear old chap, who looked so small under the blankets, had been dead to him, and to everyone else at Tryst, since the night in June last year when those lively young sparks of the Sixteenth had brought him home after his collapse at his final Waterloo anniversary dinner in Apsley House. They were hardly more than boys, the aides of paunchy, mottled, bewhiskered old veterans attending the dinner as guests, but they had handled the old man with reverence and this, Adam supposed, was understandable. To them he would be a museum piece for only that week; The Times had reminded them that the Colonel had served under Old Beaky, the Iron Duke, twenty-eight years dead, and was, moreover, the only man sitting around that table who had helped to drive Ney's storming party down the steep escarpment at Busaco, in September 1810. He had thus attended more than fifty Waterloo dinners and was a legend in his own right.
Adam paused a moment, wondering whether to summon the male nurse they had engaged and then wake Henrietta and tell her the news, but he decided against it. It was not a moment for family clamour. He preferred, for the time, to marshal his own thoughts and walked stiffly to the window, lowering the sash an inch or two to freshen the air of the sick room, letting his mind explore his relationship with the old man, a very unusual one, he would say, especially over the last twenty years, when it had been that of a father and son in reverse. But it had suited them both since the latter had turned his back on the Swann military tradition and gone into trade.
The old man had been very happy down here, pottering about in the sun and the wind, spoiling and being spoiled by a flock of grandchildren, by Henrietta and all the servants, who thought of him as a family heirloom embodying the prestige of an era that seemed to Adam as distant as Agincourt. Born soon after the storming of the Bastille, he had taken the field at eighteen and spent the next seven years riding and fighting for his life in Portugal, Spain, Haute Garonne, and Flanders, hectored by men whose names would forever be associated with the Iron Duke-"Farmer" Hill, Tommy Picton, Sir Joseph Cotton, red-headed Crauford, darling of the Light Brigade, and a hundred others. A splendid company, no doubt, but as irrelevant as mediaeval pikemen in an age of breechloading rifles, the Gatling, and four-funnelled ironclads capable of projecting twelve-inch shells.
He retraced his steps to the bed, still flexing the muscles above the joint in the leg and staggering a little on that account. The coals in the grate shifted, the pendulum of the small French clock spun under its glass dome, and outside the wind gusted breathlessly across the bleak winter landscape. He looked down at the rigid, angular features, trying to see the old man as he had been all those years ago, a pink-cheeked, curly-haired lad, with brown, laughing eyes, cantering through the passes of the Pyrenees in pursuit of that wily old rascal Soult, beating the dust from Johnny Frenchman's knapsack all the way from Torres Vedras to Toulouse. Four years it had taken them, six if you counted the two abortive campaigns, but the Colonel had found his pot of gold in the first French town they had captured. Not loot or promotion, but a pretty brunette, dispensing cakes in a pastry cook's kitchen, one of the French mademoiselles who welcomed the English dragoons as liberators. And that was odd in itself, for pot-bellied Bonaparte was now even more of a legend than his rival, the Duke, and was regarded by many as a martyr to British bureaucracy after he had died on an Atlantic rock, denied the title of Emperor. But time had put that right. Adam himself had seen Napoleon's splendid tomb at Les Invalides.
The train of thought led him, logically enough, to Waterloo, and his glance moved from his father's face to his right hand, marking the bluish stumps of the two truncated fingers, the result of a wild slash by a French cuirassier who had died a moment later, struck through the throat by his nimble little opponent. After that nothing very much, or nothing to fill the history books. Service on a few fever-infested islands; half-pay retirement; a young wife to mourn and a troublesome son to rear; tranquil years in late middle age beside Derwentwater with his crotchety old sister, Aunt Charlotte. And, in the long evening of his life, twenty years in the Kent countryside, reproduced in a hundred of his laboured watercolours, three of which hung in this room, conflicting oddly with other trophies that hung there: the sabre, the dragoon's helmet in need of a polish, a posed photograph of a Waterloo dinner, and the telescope through which the old man had once watched Marshal Soult ordering his outposts across the Bidassoa.
Well, as he had indicated to Tybalt when the telegram arrived, the old chap could count himself lucky. How many of his contemporaries had lived to see a granddaughter in her bridal veil? How many had been given the chance to grow old gracefully in pleasant, comfortable surroundings, with a dozen women to wait on him and a tribe of children to listen to his stories? Not one in twenty, Adam would say, with bitter personal experience of war wastage. Possibly not one in a hundred when you thought of the slaughter at places like Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, and Waterloo, or the ransom of a thousand wet nights in Spanish bivouacs and long stretches of service in murderous tropical climates.
He squeezed the maimed hand, tucked it under the bedclothes, and drew the sheet over the face. "I hope to God I'm half as lucky," he said aloud and stumped from the room, seeking his own quarters.
Henrietta wept when he told her, and thirteen-year-old Giles, who had been a close confidant of the old man, turned pale but said nothing, slipping away to commune with himself in the winter woods while they discussed funeral arrangements. Stella, eldest of the brood, would not know until they sent word to Courtlands, her new home across the county border, whereas Alex, the eldest boy, would be unlikely to learn of his grandfather's death for weeks, for God only knew where he was at the moment, with his unit poised to cross the Tugela and slaughter Zulus. The younger children, taking their cue from George, now sixteen, assumed lugubriously pious expressions that failed to conceal their secret relish at being the centre of attention at a military funeral. Adam noticed their sternly repressed exuberance and smiled grimly. It was the prerogative of the very young to feel smug in the certainty of immortality, but he had looked for tears from Henrietta. She had never made the least secret of her belief that, but for the good offices of the old man, she would have been denied the splendid fulfilment of the last twenty years. Adam, left to himself, she said, would have handed her back to her father after her flight from home in a thunderstorm, despite the truculent showing he made at the confrontation when Sam Rawlinson had appeared with a writ. He had not been in love with her then and had no thought for anything but his improbable dream of a nationwide waggon service. But the old man had enlisted with her the moment Adam ushered her over the doorstep, a scared, bedraggled fugitive in a tattered, cageless crinoline, and in the end Sam had taken himself off grumbling and swearing, cutting her out of his will and leaving the reluctant White Knight no alternative but to marry her and found a family here in Kent. There was more than that to their relationship, as Adam well knew, although he had never exhumed that ridiculous involvement with that popinjay Miles Manaton, who had come so close to raping her on the islet in the river that ran within sight of Tryst. Luckily for everyone the Colonel had been on hand that day, had mounted her on his skewbald, packed her off home, and briefed her on a story to explain her disarray and hysteria. And afterwards, intercepting Adam at the yard, he had spoken up for her so that the whole stupid affair had passed effortlessly into limbo. Adam, remembering all this when he saw the glitter of tears in Henrietta's eye as she bent over the bed and kissed the old man's brow, thought: "She's regretting him a damned sight more than she would her own father. Now why should a woman with her lust for life carry a grudge down the years, for it's clear she's never really forgiven Sam for trying to barter her for a piece of wasteland adjoining the old devil's mill in that foul little town where I found her." He said nothing, however, except a word or two of perfunctory comfort about the old man's death in life since his stroke and perhaps she shared his relief. What man in his senses wanted to survive as a hulk?
They buried him in Twyforde Green churchyard three days later, where the Swann family was, as the younger children had anticipated, on show for everybody in the county. A sober-faced row of them, occupying the full length of the second pew, the front pew having been surrendered, by protocol, to the officer commanding the Colonel's old regiment, and the dragoons of the Sixteenth who travelled over from Hythe to see the doyen of their regiment accorded the honours due to a man who had lost two fingers at Waterloo.
Military display did not impress Adam Swann. It never had much, not even when he was a serving officer himself, and now that part of his life was as far behind him as his boyhood. He did not begrudge the old man his colourful requiem, with six scarlet-coated troopers as bearers, and the reigning Colonel and Adjutant as pallbearers. It flattered Henrietta, who still cherished the conceits of her youth concerning soldiers, and it obviously impressed the younger children, who listened far more attentively to the military chaplain's windy eulogy than they listened to sermons delivered from the same pulpit during their Sunday church attendance. For himself he found his mind ranging on other, irrelevant subjects. Whether or not to take Tybalt's advice and sink more money into the Dublin branch; whether Lawyer Stock was right or wrong to urge the purchase of a fleet of Swann coasters to haul goods by sea as well as road; whether John Catesby, his northern manager and a fervent trade unionist, would cross the floor and manage Sam Rawlinson's mill, now that the indefatigable old rascal had made another fortune on the stock market, based on his holdings in the Suez Canal Company.
"Our brother-in-arms, privileged to shed blood at the most famous engagement in history ..." The florid old chaplain droned on and Adam, hunched in his pew, his gammy leg at an awkward angle, spared a speculative thought or two for his eldest son Alex, who had rejected the offer of a junior partnership in the most prosperous haulage firm in the country to play soldier with Lord Chelmsford and his legions in Zululand. And he only eighteen, the age when the old man and a score of long-dead Swanns had ridden off to the wars. He wondered if the presence of so many uniforms in the little church would promote anxiety in Henrietta for her eldest and favourite son, away seeking his baptism of fire, but thought it very unlikely. She was still extraordinarily naïve about soldiers and what was expected of soldiers once the bands had stopped braying. Nothing he had ever told her about war had succeeded in moderating her girlish obsession for scarlet and gold, for the swagger and glitter that she had found so attractive in that idiot Miles Manaton until he grabbed her and tried his damnedest to peel the drawers from her backside. An incident like that would have induced most women to look beyond the uniform at the man inside, but it had not taught Henrietta anything very significant, or why would she have urged him to let Alex sail off to Natal in October, the moment he was offered a commission in some tinpot local levy?
"Did his duty by Queen and regiment ... upheld the honour of the flag on foreign fields ..."; the mottle-faced, port-punishing old chaplain was clearly enjoying himself so that Adam, catching up on sleep, rose rather jerkily when the final hymn was announced and everybody fumbled for hymnbooks. He shot a half-mischievous, half-rueful glance at his wife but she avoided his eye. She looked preoccupied, he thought, so the old man's long-awaited death had been a shock after all. Well, he fancied he knew a way to restore Henrietta to her customary high spirits before another dawn and promised himself that there would be no mourning the far side of the bedroom door. A few hours in his arms, a little flattery, a shared joke or two, and she would be herself again, with the pleasant rhythm of their lives restored. There was, he assured himself, very little he did not know about Henrietta Swann, née Rawlinson, the artful little devil he had plucked from a moor all those years ago, and this despite the successive layers of camouflage she had donned since he had saddled her with a family and installed her in a mansion standing in an estate of eighty acres. She could persuade most people, no doubt, that she was gently born and liked to observe the proprieties. He knew better.
For once, however, he was wrong about her, as wrong as he could be. Henrietta Swann, standing demurely beside husband and children, trilling out the verses of the familiar, full-blooded hymn, was not, as it happened, thinking of the old Colonel, the occasion, or the obligatory proprieties it demanded of her. Instead she was trying hard to arrive at a conclusion concerning the marriage of her daughter Stella, now standing three children away from her, and sharing a hymn-book with her well-bred, impassive husband, Lester Percy Maitland Moncton-Price, heir to Sir Gilbert Moncton-Price, Bart., of Courtlands, in the county of Sussex, whom she had married quietly and quickly late the previous summer. Quietly, because at that time the old Colonel was expected to die at any moment; and quickly because Lester had been a serving officer when they became engaged and was anticipating a posting to the Cape to join his unit.
Excerpted from THEIRS WAS THE KINGDOM by R.F. DELDERFIELD Copyright © 2009 by R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission.
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