Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Gardener’s House

Judith Arnopp

When I was a lad I had a nursemaid, Cora. She was a grim faced Scott with slapping hands and a virulent tongue but when I was hurt or sick she lifted me onto her lap to cradle me against her bosom. Throughout my infancy she became a haven from childhood terror, her personal scent of starch and syrup of figs synonymous with love. Years later, near Brussels in 1815, I sheltered beneath a dripping hedge and, while the other men dreamed of a soft bivouac in the arms of a warm and willing whore, I thought of Cora and the safety of my nursery.

It had been a hell of a night, starving hungry, with no hope of food, we retreated through sodden fields, impeded by rain and French snipers. Stray cannon balls fell sporadically, demolishing the earth, blowing up my friends, scattering us. We marched on, some of us losing our boots in the muck but with bloody feet we ploughed on until it was too dark to see.

Although the skies suggested otherwise it was mid-June. The rain trickled down my neck and seeped into my boots making me as miserable as hell.  I was captain of the 52nd Oxfordshires and that night we could neither keep dry nor warm ourselves. The fire produced only sulky flames and an awful lot of smoke while our feet, sunk in glutinous mud, ached with cold.  One of the chaps had an umbrella, a woman’s one with a frilled edge and we’d all jibed him about it earlier in the day but now there was not one among us would not have sold his mother to be as dry as he. 

The faces of my fellows were lit only by the glow of their cigars. We squatted on sheaths of straw to keep out the worst of the mud and, although I longed to straighten my stiff legs, I was reluctant to move for I knew that the few inches of ground beneath my arse was the driest spot left in the whole God-forsaken world.

Further along the hedge someone began to sing a song about a sailor and a mermaid.
‘Sing something drier, mate,’ some wit yelled from the ranks and, after a few moments he began again, this time the disturbing words of The Minstrel Boy.  We sat quietly listening.
 The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
In the silence that followed a staccato of coughs attacked my neighbour, Jack Mullins. ‘Not long til mornin’ now, sir,’ he said. ‘Me blood is froze. I hope we see the sun today.’
I looked toward the pinkening skyline and saw that Jack was right; dawn was approaching.

The next day the sun shone down so hot that the mud dried into a crust on our faces and in our hair.  It was hard to believe we had ever been cold or wet in our lives and some of us even began to complain about the heat. We spread our tunics on the hedge and gulped down a hurried breakfast before firing our muskets and rifles to ensure they were dry and clear of mud. Soon after that the French guns began, devastating the lovely morning. 

The bright skies darkened with smoke and all natural sounds were obliterated, no birdsong, no rustling breezes, just din and death and disaster. I had fought alongside Wellington all across the peninsular but I’d never heard such noise, or seen such sights as I saw that day. It was as if hell had vomited all of its horrors onto the once green slopes of Hougoumont. 

As the Frenchies marched toward us we formed the familiar tight square, muskets screaming, bullets flying, our targets obscured by drifting, acrid smoke.  I didn’t aim my weapon but just closed my eyes, firing round after round, trying not to notice my comrades falling about me. Quickly, we tightened the square, closing the gap, reforming over the dead and dying. We just kept shooting, no time for thinking, no time for fear. Aoon the French we had killed began to pile up, forming a protective barrier through which the living could not pass.
But still the big guns continued, igniting the house and barns that we were supposed to be defending.  Cannonballs landed among us in a nightmare of blood and screaming as we reformed our ever-diminishing square until, inevitably, throughout the afternoon we were driven further and further back toward the farmhouse. 

From within the barn we heard screams of terror. Mullins, his face white beneath the blood and the grime, wiped his streaming eyes. ‘That’s our wounded, that is, sir, they’re burning alive, God help ‘em.’ He coughed, trying to disguise his sobs.
‘And God help us, Mullins.’
I turned back to the field, shouldered my rifle and killed another Frenchie.

We were driven against the burning walls and had to retreat back from the west gate. I stood up and screamed at my men to take cover in the gardener’s house. We were fighting hand to hand, swords clashed, bayonets sank into yielding flesh, musket butts crashed into skulls and, all the time, cannon balls hailed down. Bent double, we leapt over dead men, slipping in the trailing guts of blasted horses, clambering over broken cannon wheels and abandoned carts.  

I led them past the burning windows of the big farmhouse, the blazing carcass of the stables scorching us, sizzling the hair on our heads and then we burst through the door of a small house.  I slumped against a wall, the breath ripping in my throat and my men crashed in after me, taking immediate positions at the windows. I took out my flask, the welcome burn of gin restoring my mind, kindling my courage. My chest heaved. I wiped a sleeve across my brow.  There were just twelve of us left and a good few already wounded.

A sound from below the stairs. The men froze as I shouldered my gun and got up, stalking across the room to kick open the door. A civilian, late forties and a small girl cowered among buckets and brushes. The girl’s eyes were huge, her pupils dilated, her father held her tight against him, mouthing a prayer. He babbled something in French; he was the gardener, they’d left it too late to get away.
‘Stay there,’ I said and kicked the door closed again.

They were everywhere, filthy blue clad Frenchman running in the yard, bayoneting those of us that had fallen beneath their artillery. I ran my tongue about my mouth, summoning saliva, lifted my gun and took my position near the door. With shaking hands, I waited. The din outside increased as the big guns improved their range, cannon balls landing, shaking the house, blowing out the windows. We maintained a steady volley of fire but, step by step, moment by moment, they grew nearer until I could see their filthy faces, their shredded uniforms and blood-matted hair.

A great scream and a figure burst through the door, leaping into the air, legs flying. Time slowed to reveal the cold hatred of my enemy suspended above me. I saw fear; I saw blood; I saw my killer. A woman in a nankeen jacket and baggy trousers, her long tangled hair running like blood over her shoulders, a torn tunic, a glimpse of breast, a gaping mouth, stretched cheeks, her bayonet as remorseless as her pity.
I curled before her, put up my hands to shield my head. ‘Cora!’ I whispered, the name a hopeless prayer.
  I opened my eyes and saw nothing.  After a moment I remembered the wild Frenchwoman, the flash of her blade, the snarl of her red mouth.  I did not think I was dead.  I blinked but saw only darkness, heard only silence.  My throat was parched. I tried to cough but only managed to croak.
A light touch on my arm, a soft voice, the gleam of a candle.  She smelt of starch and syrup of figs and, sliding a strong arm beneath my head, she held a cup to my lips. Water.  When I had taken enough I tried to put up a hand to signal her to stop but, to my horror, I saw that my arm was no longer there. 
She rustled away, brought the candle closer and let me see the shattered remains of my body and, when my tears came, she took me onto her starched bosom and let me weep.