An arm’s reach away, several officers chatted low by an open doorway, a makeshift officer’s gathering where maps were kept hidden and orders chosen. That was what the youth wanted now, a glimpse into his superior’s minds. With envy and resignation, he walked by, careful not to forego the salute expected of him. Another uniformed man approached him, purpose in his steps.
“Might I ask what a Lauder has need for ‘round there aways?”
The young Alexander Lauder, heir to the Earl of Edrington smiled briskly at his fellow.
“I would wager the same as yourself.”
“No use chomping at the bit, my lord. They’ll tell us nothing ‘til we can already smell the news.”
“I assure you, I can already.”
“Can’t be half as strong as the horses.”
Nathaniel Aderlay, a robust man whose build was broad for even a warhorse, laughed at the sternness in the Alexander’s gaze. He clapped an arm over the lord’s leaner frame and shook the shoulder.
“There is good ale to be had and time will see you out there. Just you wait.”
“There are maps, Aderlay.”
“There are women, Lauder, and God bless them all!”
Alexander smiled, amused in spite of himself and the informality of his companion.
“Perhaps we’ll toast our glorious officers.”
“Holed up, that lot.”
“Over the maps I presume I’m not intended to notice?”
“To hell with the bloody maps, my lord! We’re fine enlisted men in the Queen’s Bays, the 2nd Dragoon Guards. Nothing like a tailored uniform to win yourself some company with. None out there, man. Not even a poor bastard dressed as a woman. You’ve my word on that.”
“As to the location of ‘out there’, might I inquire about your predictions?”
Alexander eyed his companion, who swung open the door of Dorchester’s homeliest inn. It was a small town with humble lodgings, and this particular establishment was one the lord would not have chosen for himself. A man of the English countryside who bore its lilt on his tongue was undoubtedly less accustomed to the company of an earl’s eldest son, and the young lord surmised that Aderlay was not a man of much thought outside few subjects. Those few, however, Alexander valued. Nathaniel Aderlay was a man whose belt had a wider girth by ten years; he had five years of service to speak of, and little modesty when he did. Such ill-guarded talk was what Alexander sought now.
“Come now, man. You must have some thoughts.”
He selected a somewhat distant table, which afforded the most privacy with so little choice and within an inn brimming with cavalrymen.
“Like all men do.”
“A good cut of lamb. Perhaps a stout.”
The Coronet folded his hands and watched for the approach of the innkeeper.
“They’re mapping the movements of the Prussian and Hessian forces. England is subtly growing the ranks, and while France fancies a Republic, Paris is a bloodbath by no other virtue than the French themselves.”
“We’ll be at war; soon enough, I say.”
“Before spring, I would wager. We seem to be the last to join the soiree.”
“Before spring, you say?”
“If not by the new year.”
Aderlay gave a cumbersome nod, face laden with thought. Alexander tugged at the sleeves of a coat that had never seen battle. “I do wonder about the air in Portsmouth.”
Aderlay bellowed. “Leavin’ us already for the navy, are you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alexander scoffed. “Men crowded for weeks on ships that haven’t left the harbour? Nothing to envy at all. I merely referred to the Admiralty.”
Even as the laughter waned, Aderlay’s eyes sparkled with a hint of permanent chuckle.
“I know your mind, but there’s a good an’ lofty reason why we don’t know theirs. You’ll be trouble for them yet.”
“Mark me, sir: we will be in France before winter sees its end. I want to know where.”
“Before Plough Sunday, perhaps. Perhaps not. You’ll know same as all the men on the eve before we march.”
Alexander knew the man would give him no more, and so they, like all their red-jacketed fellows, drank to quell an itch none could hope to scratch. The nights were cold, but there was drink, and the lord abandoned pondering the fates of England for hearthside stories shared amongst men.
He was awoken at an early hour, startled by an insistent sergeant who urged haste. Alexander could not recall when or how he had boarded a ship, but the floor so heaved beneath him that he swayed astonished until the sergeant tugged him straight by his shirtsleeves.
“You had better wet your face at the basin there, but do hurry up. The Colonel is waiting.”
Alexander shuffled to the squat bowl on the table. The water was cold, and a splash of it sobered him some. He patted his face with the nearest cloth, but was dismayed to find it had been his crumpled cravat. “Mister—”
“Hawthorne. Come now, man. I expected to fetch you, not to dress you.”
Sergeant Hawthorne held Alexander’s coat open, the red cloth somewhat dirtied from its night spent on the floor. Once on, the young ensign briskly scrubbed at its sleeves and held out his blotted cravat.
“Mister Hawthorne, have you a spare?”
“Oh, and an iron on the fire to press it with!” The Sergeant laughed coarsely. “Pull yourself together. You’ll go as you are and be a lesser drinker for it.”
With clumsy fingers and solemn disappointment, Alexander buttoned and buckled as they walked. They left the inn to the chill of dawn, squinting against the pale light. Sergeant Hawthorne sighed loudly and extended his cocked hat.
“Make sure it’s off your head when you stand in front of your officers.”
The young lord nodded silently, hastily tucking the cap beneath his arm. He had forgotten his own. He felt a fool; vanity had made him a sharply dressed young man in the social circles entertained on the Edrington Estate. Now he walked as an ill representation of his name, and berated himself within his mind for sporting so unsightly a state in peacetime. He found it difficult to muster his pride, and instead bowed his head. It did not help that the solid stone beneath his feet seemingly roiled. In watching the ground to steady his steps, he also hid a deep grimace.
They reached two solid oak doors, an infantryman beside each. With a nod, they opened the doors, while Alexander fumbled the cocked hat to his head. He entered, looking back over his shoulder when Hawthorne did not follow. The man was gone, and the doors shut. Alexander turned toward the officers before him and his borrowed cap slid—far too large for his crown—over his eyes. He hastily removed it, and stood unnaturally straight.
Colonel Thew rose from his desk, open palms leaning heavily on the wood to support his broad frame. Every inch of him was hard. Angled and worn, his face spoke of war. Even the Colonel’s long-healed scar was sharp, a thin line that tore from the bridge of his nose beneath his brow and pulled the left eyelid tight. It gave him the illusion of madness, the eye always kept wide, but Colonel Thew was known for being cool-headed, methodical, and swift. He looked over Alexander and leaned against the polished desk, clearing his throat.
The young nobleman nodded respectfully. “Sir.”
The Colonel straightened, and Alexander instinctively glanced at the charts on the desk before resuming eye contact with his superior. Colonel Thew raised his chin, looking down his sharp nose.
“So thirsty for battle?”
Alexander stiffened, and his head pounded at the body’s sudden jolt. It did not help that his eyes watered from the sunrise that had begun to stream in the windows, for the image of his Colonel wavered from it. Even his mouth tasted foul, but he held his posture.
“Does it make you ill then, Lauder?”
“I daresay you look it.”
Alexander swallowed. An apology was on his tongue, but he thought better to hold it. It was better to divert the conversation elsewhere.
“While not seasoned in battle I… I am accustomed to its parts through the stories of my father. He spoke of Cherbourg in France, Villinghousen in Germany, and what it meant to serve beneath General Cornwallis in the Colonies.”
“Foot Guard Battalion. Scots Guards.”
Colonel Thew studied his subordinate, and while his one eye could not narrow, it pierced nonetheless by the strength and authority of the Colonel’s gaze. Alexander shifted when he heard the man mutter his family name in a succession.
“Accustomed to the parts of war.” Colonel Thew clasped his hands at his back. “Very well then. Step forward, sir.”
“Tell me what you make of these.”
The young lord glanced at the desk. “They are maps, sir.”
“Yes, yes. Very well, but what do you make of them? I am not the first to notice that you tend to dawdle and stare where there are charts present.”
What already made Alexander feel ill from a night of too much drink was expounded by his nerves as he looked down at the maps made hazy by his sight. Damn my eyes, he thought, and studied the paper and its markings carefully. At least the northeasterly border of France was clear enough, as well as the countries that touched there and extended further east. There, the borders grew more frantic within the Austrian Netherlands and the various states of the Holy Roman Empire. Alexander traced a red line that lead from Metz to Sainte-Menehould.
“The French, there…”
Another line of blue swept through Longwy and Verdun, and then turned back.
“…and the Prussians, there.”
The two lines intersected at Valmy, then scampered eastward. The Rhine chased south and east, and the marked lines of the two armies followed its curves while another red line aimed for Frankfurt. Alexander did not know what comprised them completely, but he could make enough of the writing that marked the columns of each side. The French were numerous, a combination of two newly-raised groups under separate command that combined to 47,000 men. The allied Prussian and Hessian forces were a smaller 35,000 but Prussian Hussars and Hessian Dragoons were cavalry to be feared. The French now pursued the embarrassing retreat of those forces, who undoubtedly had fled far into the German states.
Alexander’s fingers traced back to Valmy, lingering over the change in course prior to the battle of the Prussians.
“What else, then?”
The combination of the press in the Colonel’s voice and his nauseous state made Alexander hesitate, but his mouth spoke to fill the wretched pause he had taken, and did so hastily.
“I don’t know what in God’s name the Prussian Duke was thinking.”
He kept his head down and eyes on that map, worried he would vomit if he saw his commanding officer’s face. The Colonel was silent, and so the young lord’s tongue wagged to explain himself.
“He—the Duke. The Duke of Brunswick was closer to Paris than the French, and by the looks of the geography, he was well-covered by wood. The first army he engaged was bound to send for reinforcements, if the news of that commander’s defeat did not automatically rally another to his aid. Yet by the Prussian’s movements, Paris should have been the target, not the ragged Republican force. Yet he moved to ride behind them, engaged them, and then moved to take their reinforced position near Sainte-Menehould with the other French commander.”
“What purpose had the Duke of Brunswick not to engage the French?”
The thought came to Alexander, clear and level, piercing his haze like the dawn.
“Perhaps the Duke had no knowledge of how little time there was. If the reports are true, however, France declared themselves a republic the day after the Duke’s defeat. That allied army’s failure secured that the remnants of the French monarchy have no crown to return to. It wasn’t to be an engagement, sir. It was an invasion.”
The Colonel nodded solemnly. “Where is the founding for your theory in those charts?”
Alexander breathed, and thought carefully. “The curve, there, where the Prussians turned from Paris to go back east.”
“That is hardly founding enough for proving it was an invasion.”
“They had already captured two forts, neither of which is known to be heavily fortified, yet both lead toward Paris.”
“Is there no strategy in capturing fortifications while they are weak?”
“There is no strategy in circling so largely with a highly skilled cavalry if the mere purpose of their force was to pursue the French troops. A commander should always take a fort when it is weak. By that same advice, why not take Paris, while it is plunged in chaos?”
“You mean to say that the Prussian and Hessian allied force intended to restore the monarchy alone?”
“No, sir. They must have—they had a small number of French Royalists.”
“These Royalists are marked where?”
Alexander swallowed. “They are not marked…specifically, sir.”
“Yet you would say they were there.”
“Yes sir, lead by the Prussian Duke.”
The Colonel cleared his throat and walked behind his desk. “You’ve not convinced me.”
Alexander looked down at the charts, blinking at them. Against what judgment may have stopped him were he sober, he spoke boldly.
“What purpose would the Prussians have to march on Paris without French Royalists? Unless the Prussian Duke of Brunswick was making sport of this GeneralDumouriez, I cannot see the Duke’s plan as anything less than marching to Paris. An invasion without the French Royalists would be folly. They would be few, but any amount of logic would deem them necessary.”
Alexander blinked. “Sir?”
The Colonel ignored his question. “What of the allied forces’ defeat?”
“I think it unexpected, sir.”
“Indeed. It was highly unexpected.”
“We will soon be at war with the French Republic?”
“We are not at war yet, Lauder, but the French have taken Frankfurt. Perhaps the Republican army is not so ‘ragged’, as you called them.”
The Colonel eyed him accusingly, and Alexander remembered his uniform.
“Forgive me, sir.”
“You have impressed me, and so I will overlook your presentation. Such a sorry affair,” Colonel Thew sighed tersely. “Effective immediately, you will be expected to serve as a Captain of the 2nd Regiment of Dragoon Guards. Your duties begin after you are dismissed, and you will ready your Troop for parade by the trumpet. Your promotion to Lieutenant has henceforth been active since the first of March this year, though you will not see it in your pay.”
Alexander stood agape with shock, but thrust his shoulders back and raised his head to assume a posture more befitting of a newly appointed Captain. “I humbly thank you, sir!”
Colonel Thew’s rugged mouth turned, and Alexander thought it perhaps a short crack of a grin. It was just as soon gone. “See the Quartermaster for your epaulette. Sober up, and write your father. The Honourable Colonel Lauder of the Scots Guards will no doubt want to hear the news from his own son.”
“Yes, sir. I will, sir.” He paused. “You know my father then, Colonel?”
“Indeed I do, Captain Lauder. Dismissed.”
Alexander saluted and turned to leave, the cocked hat under his arm shaking. The doors were closed behind him.
Colonel Thew took his seat behind the desk with a grunt of agedness, and that weary sound called another officer. From behind a privacy screen, a blonde officer of the 51stRegiment of Foot emerged. The Colonel harrumphed something akin to a laugh.
“I’m sure this is exactly what you had in mind when you travelled from Gibraltar.”
The officer grinned. “Garrison duty even in the tropics loses its charm. Tell me, Colonel, who was that?”
“Robert Lauder, the Earl of Edrington’s eldest. The Earl was a good military man, but has since he lost his leg.”
“Representative of a Scottish Borough in Parliament. Yes, I know him. The son looked three sheets to the wind, or at least still suffering from it.”
“Yet he still had something of a clear mind.”
“Well, Mister Moore, I’ve just promoted him twice and he hasn’t fought a day in his little life. I pray to god I haven’t made a mistake.”
“I’d like to see such a mind in the field.”
Thew shook his head and frowned, though there was a friendliness there that Moore knew and marked with a wider smile and a laugh. “We’ll all be fighting soon. The boy was not wrong.”
“Try not to make pickings of my men before the damned war, Mister Moore.”
“An infantryman cannot be taught to charge on horse, but a cavalryman can be taught to march and fight on foot. Strategy may be taught, but only the talented can wield it, or so they say.”
“Lieutenant-Colonel or not, I still out rank you and I intend to keep my best.”
“You consider that green-colored young man your best?”
“God above, of course not. But damn me, he could be made into one if he keeps his head.”
Lieutenant-Colonel John Moore sat and chuckled.
A R Lauder of 2nd Dragoon Guards to the Right Honble. Earl of Edrington
It gives me great pride to have occasion to write you, as this letter bears great news. I humbly request that you tell my two dear sisters, young George and Mother that I have been granted captaincy of a Troop within the esteemed 2nd Dragoon Guards. I suspect my progression – while not taken without great appreciation and humility – also bears a warning that you may know already if my news does not foretell it now. I assure my enlistment during peacetime was, even now, the only worthy choice as a King’s man, and while I wish you no pains or disappointment, I will see my duty through the war England must join. Our march from Exeter to Dorchester followed the King of France and his flight; while my time here has been well utilized, it will soon end. Colonel Thew has made little effort to hide our station’s preparations for a man of superior rank; this lauded man will see us to France before winter’s end.
After months of idleness and little duty, this place grows in the numbers and talk of men. I have been urged to make haste in seeing my company prepared; my lieutenancy was made active since our leave from Exeter, granted only at dawn on this day of my commission as captain. I am relieved to report the horses are docile beasts and I reason they will answer to my command regardless of their riders’ intentions. Perhaps they know my mind; I will see to it that the men know it better, and quickly. I believe I will find it probable before long strong command a necessity – I pray I hear word of new reports before long. Glancing at the maps of those higher ranked than myself is not likely welcomed or becoming of a man in my station.
I humbly beg to hear from you and wish to know how my dear sisters and Mother fair in my absence. I eagerly await news from Berwickshire, if not a modest tale of young George’s role as now eldest son presently on the estate. I will pray for your good health as well as theirs; it is my worry mother’s will falter if she is told of what I believe to be our fine country’s mind.
I must still my pen. We are called to ready for parade by trumpet, and my epaulette requires a few stitches more. I haply endure the tedium of sewing for more matters of this nature. I leave to my Troop.
I have the honour to be –
Your son –
Captain A. Lauder
Alexander set the letter aside without a seal. He would see it off tomorrow, and he had good reason to hurry. His fingers rushed through a few more crooked stitches before he slipped on the coat. It had been tediously re-groomed, his whole uniform, but the coat was buttoned just as hastily as that morning while he left the inn to gather his Troop of men and ready for parade. Once retrieved from the stables, he mounted his horse—a fine, Andalusian Bay—and rode until one of his sergeants met him on the road.