Captain the Honourable John Thomas Blunt was in a foul mood, morose and irritable. Rain had fallen since dawn and his new pelisse quite ruined by the thick coating of malodorous mud it had acquired following an unfortunate slip whist passing through a farmyard; Blunt hoped it was mud anyway. But it was not the soiling of his pelisse, nor the incessant rain that had dampened Blunt’s spirits; rather it was the unhappiness of his lot as a gentleman who had quite properly purchased his commission and subsequent promotions, and who looked forward to purchasing further promotion as soon as he had served the requisite time in his current rank. Now, blast it, the mess was half-full of ex-rankers, terrible fellows with no table manners and uncouth accents. Perhaps he should have joined the cavalry like dear pappa had wanted, but Tom Blunt had heeded the stern advice of his friend and old fag-master, George Brummell, ‘Green is the very colour for you, Tom, and you would be most ill-advised to even think of red or blue for a jacket or, Heaven forfend, trousers.’
So the 95th it had had to be (the 5/60th Foot were far too full of Germans with their horrible efficiency and rather mad stares). And so here he was, the very model of a dashing young rifle captain, forced to share his mess with the illegitimate offspring of butchers and fishwives and who knew what else.
Here to break Blunt’s glum reverie was Second Lieutenant Valentine Moon slithering and splashing across the road to the tree beneath which Blunt sheltered. Blunt would always remember his first encounter with young Moon beneath the new-fangled gas lamps near the old Dog and Bell. Moon was looking pretty blue.
‘Bad news, sir,’ said Moon, wanly. ‘You know Old No . . . I mean The General . . . went ahead earlier? No sign of him back yet.’
Blunt’s heart sank even lower. The General had always shown himself very friendly towards the aristocratic Blunt, but was notorious for showing little affection for the common soldiers, who nonetheless regarded him as a kind of talisman – they’d never been beat when Old Nosey, as they vulgarly called him, was on the field.
‘Thank you, Moon, go and get yourself some breakfast. There’s some cheese that Rifleman Wallace found lying about in that farmhouse we passed.’
Moon perked up noticeably. He had a great fondness for cheese, consuming so much of it that Blunt often thought he must be made of the stuff. As his lieutenant went to eat, Blunt called for his serjeant, Alan Fiddler – ‘Kid’ the men called him because of his formidable expertise in the Noble Art
‘The General’s got himself lost, serjeant. Round up the men. We must go and find him.’
‘Aye, sir.’ The Presbyterian Scot caught Blunt’s glum expression and made a sympathetic face, ‘Dinna fret ower yon yin, sir; there nivvir wis a Frog yet who’d fetch yon. Aye, ye’ll no fickle Auld Nosey; he’ll like be bidin’ doon the wa’.’
Blunt, having taken some time attempting to digest the somewhat perplexing Caledonian idioms, decided to overlook his serjeant’s rather overly familiar way of referring to The General. One had to tread carefully around a man who’d once floored the Game Chicken and sparred with the mighty Cribb himself.
As always, Solomon Grundy was the first man to report. He had been married last Wednesday, as Blunt recalled – Grundy’s had been the highest bid for some drab of a Portuguese camp-follower – and it would be his birthday on Monday. Blunt had overheard some of the the men wishing they could a special pudding to mark the occasion, they’d ‘duff him up proper given half a chance’. It was amazing how considerate some of the lads could be considering their dreadful manners and uncouth speech. In twos and threes, the rest came up, forming in two ranks. Not much spit and polish in evidence but clean weapons and dry powder could be guaranteed.
Five minutes later they were on the march, Moon munching his cheese. The sun came out and the men began a chant.
‘Where are we going?’ Grundy would sing.
‘Fuexu!’ the rest would roar lustily.
Fuexu was indeed the first village that they’d come to once they were over the Rio del Cocina Laga. Blunt didn’t know much Spanish, but he was pretty sure the men weren’t pronouncing the name of the place properly.
They went at the quick march, doubling five paces then marching five, then doubling again. Whenever they did this, Blunt always wished his boots weren’t quite such a snugly fashionable fit. Pinched toes didn’t encourage a manly gait. Within the hour, they were swinging into Fuexu, up the hill where the great stone church stood gazing imperiously over the village – and there on the other side of the hill was The General. The remains of his breakfast – chicken it looked like from the bones – was strewn carelessly at his feet, and he stood pointing down the road, his very nose quivering with the excitement Blunt recognised so well. Nosey barked a curt greeting, which Blunt returned rather breathlessly. The men cheered.
The French were coming! And his old dog had sniffed them out again!
Next, the Battle of Fuexu!