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PORTUGAL, MARCH 1812
THE AIDE-DE-CAMP’S BOOTS CLATTERED ON THE WOODEN stairs as he hastened toward the commander in chief’s private office at headquarters in the town of Elvas. Outside the door, however, he slowed, adjusted his stock, pulled down his tunic, smoothed his hair. The Peer didn’t look kindly on untidiness, and he had a savage tongue when he chose.
“Enter!” The command rasped at his knock, and he pushed open the door. There were three men in the large drafty room—a colonel, a major, and the commander in chief, standing by the fire blazing in the hearth to combat the damp chill. It had been raining for five days, a relentless, drenching downpour that made life hell for the infantry digging trenches around the besieged town of Badajos just across the Spanish border.
The aide-de-camp saluted. “Dispatches from intelligence, sir.” He placed a sheaf of papers on the desk.
Wellington grunted acknowledgment and moved from the fire to glance through them. His long, bony nose twitched in disgust. He glanced up toward the two officers beside the fire. “The French have taken La Violette.”
“When, sir?” Colonel, Lord Julian St. Simon held out his hand for the document Wellington was proffering.
“Yesterday, apparently. Cornichet’s men surrounded her band of ruffians outside Olivenza. According to this, they’re holding La Violette in a military outpost outside the town.”
“How reliable is this?” The colonel’s eyes flickered over the dispatch.
Wellington shrugged and shot an interrogatory glance at the aide-de-camp.
“The agent’s one of our best men, sir,” the aide said. “And the information is so fresh, I’d lay any odds it’s correct.”
“Damn,” muttered Wellington. “If the French have her, they’ll wring every scrap of knowledge out of her. She knows how to navigate every goddamned mountain pass from here to Bayonne, and what she doesn’t know about the partisans in the area isn’t worth knowing.”
“We’d better get her out, then,” the colonel drawled as if it were a foregone conclusion, replacing the dispatch on the table. “We can’t allow Johnny Crapaud to have information we don’t have.”
“No,” agreed Wellington, stroking his chin. “If La Violette’s already shared her knowledge with the French, then we’ll be at a significant disadvantage if she can’t be induced to give it to us too.”
“Why do the French call her that?” inquired the major. “The Spanish call her Violeta, too.”
“It’s the way she works, as I understand it,” Colonel St. Simon said, a sardonic note in his voice. “Or rather, plays … the proverbial shrinking violet. She’s always to be found hiding behind the activities of the large partisan bands. While the French army is concentrating on guerrilla activities, the little violet and her band are flourishing in the background, causing merry mayhem where least expected.”
“And feathering her own nest while she’s about it,” Wellington remarked. “She’s said to have no time for the armies of either side, and while she’ll assist the Spanish partisans, she expects to be paid for her help … or at least to be put in the way of a little profitable pillage.”
“A mercenary, in other words,” the major said, with a grimace of distaste.
“Precisely. But I gather the French find even less favor with her than our good selves. At least she’s never offered to help the French, for any price.” The commander in chief kicked at a falling log in the hearth.
“Until now,” observed the colonel. “They may be offering her the right price at this moment.” He was a big man, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, with a pair of startling blue eyes beneath bushy red-gold eyebrows. His hair was a thick mane of the same color, an unruly lock flopping over a wide forehead. He carried himself with all the natural authority of a man born to wealth and privilege, a man unaccustomed to questioning the established order of things. A cavalry officer’s pelisse was cast carelessly over his scarlet tunic, a massive curved sword sheathed in a broad studded sword belt at his hip. He surged with a restless energy, seeming too big for the confined space.
“I’ve heard it said, my lord, that the name also comes from La Violette’s appearance,” the aide-de-camp ventured. “I understand she resembles the flower.”
“Good God, man!” The colonel’s scornful laughter pealed through the dingy room. “She’s a ruthless, murdering bandit who, when it suits her whim, chooses for a price to put her dubious services at the partisans’ disposal.”
Discomfited, the aide-de-camp shuffled his feet, but the major said briskly, “No, St. Simon, the man’s right. I’ve heard it said, also. I gather she’s a diminutive creature who looks as if you could blow her away in one puff.”
“Then she’ll not hold out long once Major Cornichet starts his gentle persuasion,” Wellington declared. “He’s a vicious, arrogant brute with a taste for interrogation. There’s no time to lose. Julian, will you take it on?”
“With pleasure. It’ll be a joy to balk Cornichet of his prey.” The colonel was unable to hide his enthusiasm for the task as he clicked his booted feet and his spurs jingled. “And it’ll be most satisfying to put an end to the games of this shrinking violet. She’s played too long, enriching herself at our expense.” A look of distaste crossed the aristocratic features. Julian St. Simon had no time for mercenaries. “I’ll take twenty men.”
“Will that be enough to storm an entire outpost, St. Simon?” the major inquired.
“Oh, I don’t intend to storm it, my friend,” Colonel, Lord St. Simon said, grinning. “Stealth and trickery—a little guerrilla warfare of our own, if you take my meaning.”
“Then go to it, Julian.” Wellington offered his hand. “And bring back this flower so we can pluck her petals ourselves.”
“I’ll have her here in five days, sir.” The colonel left the room, currents of energy seeming to swirl in his wake.
Five days was no idle boast, as the commander in chief was aware. Julian St. Simon, at twenty-eight, had been a career soldier for ten years, and he was known as much for his unorthodox methods as for his invariable success. It was held as a fact of life in the mess that St. Simon never failed at a task he set himself, and his men would follow him into an inferno if he asked it of them.
Excerpted from "Violet"
Copyright © 1995 Jane Feather.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
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