The Custom of the Army (Page 10)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(10)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

His brother’s warning kept recurring in the back of his mind—“Don’t follow him into anything stupid”—but it was much too late to think of that, and, to block it out, he challenged one of the other officers to a whistling contest. Each party was to whistle the entirety of “The Roast Beef of Old England,” the loser the man who laughed first. He lost, but did not think of his brother again.

Just after midnight, the big ships quietly furled their sails, dropped anchor, and lay like slumbering gulls on the dark river. Anse au Foulon, the landing spot that Malcolm Stubbs and his scouts had recommended to General Wolfe, lay seven miles downriver, at the foot of sheer and crumbling slate cliffs that led upward to the Plains of Abraham.

“Is it named for the Biblical Abraham, do you think?” Grey had asked curiously, hearing the name, but had been informed that, in fact, the cliff top comprised a farmstead belonging to an ex-pilot named Abraham Martin.

On the whole, he thought this prosaic origin just as well. There was likely to be drama enough enacted on that ground, without thought of ancient prophets, conversations with God, nor any calculation of how many just men might be contained within the fortress of Quebec.

With a minimum of fuss, the Highlanders and their officers, Wolfe and his chosen troops—Grey among them—debarked into the small bateaux that would carry them silently down to the landing point.

The sounds of oars were mostly drowned by the river’s rushing, and there was little conversation in the boats. Wolfe sat in the prow of the lead boat, facing his troops, looking now and then over his shoulder at the shore. Quite without warning, he began to speak. He didn’t raise his voice, but the night was so still that those in the boat had little trouble in hearing him. To Grey’s astonishment, he was reciting “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

Melodramatic ass, Grey thought—and yet could not deny that the recitation was oddly moving. Wolfe made no show of it. It was as though he was simply talking to himself, and a shiver went over Grey as Wolfe intoned:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike the inevitable hour.

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” Wolfe ended, so low-voiced that only the three or four men closest heard him. Grey was near enough to hear him clear his throat, with a small “hem” noise, and saw his shoulders lift.

“Gentlemen,” Wolfe said, lifting his voice, as well, “I should rather have written those lines than have taken Quebec.”

There was a faint stir and a breath of laughter among the men.

So would I, Grey thought. The poet who wrote them is likely sitting by his cozy fire in Cambridge, eating buttered crumpets, not preparing to fall from a great height or get his arse shot off.

He didn’t know whether this was simply more of Wolfe’s characteristic drama. Possibly—possibly not, he thought. He’d met Colonel Walsing by the latrines that morning, and Walsing had mentioned that Wolfe had given him a pendant the night before, with instructions to deliver it to Miss Landringham, to whom Wolfe was engaged.

But, then, it was nothing out of the ordinary for men to put their personal valuables into the care of a friend before a hot battle. Were you killed or badly injured, your body might be looted before your comrades managed to retrieve you, and not everyone had a trustworthy servant with whom to leave such items. Grey himself had often carried snuffboxes, pocket watches, or rings into battle for friends—he’d had a reputation for luck, prior to Crefeld. No one had asked him to carry anything tonight.

He shifted his weight by instinct, feeling the current change, and Simon Fraser, next him, swayed in the opposite direction, bumping him.

“Pardon,” Fraser murmured. Wolfe had made them all recite poetry in French round the dinner table the night before, and it was agreed that Fraser had the most authentic accent, he having fought with the French in Holland some years prior. Should they be hailed by a sentry, it would be his job to reply. Doubtless, Grey thought, Fraser was now thinking frantically in French, trying to saturate his mind with the language, lest any stray bit of English escape in panic.

“De rien,” Grey murmured back, and Fraser chuckled, deep in his throat.

It was cloudy, the sky streaked with the shredded remnants of retreating rain clouds. That was good; the surface of the river was broken, patched with faint light, fractured by stones and drifting tree branches. Even so, a decent sentry could scarcely fail to spot a train of boats.

Cold numbed his face, but his palms were sweating. He touched the dagger at his belt again; he was aware that he touched it every few minutes, as if needing to verify its presence, but couldn’t help it and didn’t worry about it. He was straining his eyes, looking for anything—the glow of a careless fire, the shifting of a rock that was not a rock … Nothing.

How far? he wondered. Two miles, three? He’d not yet seen the cliffs himself, was not sure how far below Gareon they lay.

The rush of water and the easy movement of the boat began to make him sleepy, tension notwithstanding, and he shook his head, yawning exaggeratedly to throw it off.

“Quel est ce bateau?” What boat is that? The shout from the shore seemed anticlimactic when it came, barely more remarkable than a night bird’s call. But the next instant Simon Fraser’s hand crushed his, grinding the bones together, as Fraser gulped air and shouted, “Celui de la Reine!!”

Grey clenched his teeth, not to let any blasphemous response escape. If the sentry demanded a password, he’d likely be crippled for life, he thought. An instant later, though, the sentry shouted, “Passez!” and Fraser’s death grip relaxed. Simon was breathing like a bellows but nudged him and whispered, “Pardon,” again.

“De f**king rien,” he muttered, rubbing his hand and tenderly flexing the fingers.

They were getting close. Men were shifting to and fro in anticipation, even more than Grey—checking their weapons, straightening coats, coughing, spitting over the side, readying themselves. Still, it was a nerve-wracking quarter-hour more before they began to swing toward shore—and another sentry called from the dark.

Grey’s heart squeezed like a fist, and he nearly gasped with the twinge of pain from his old wounds.

“Qui etes-vous? Que sont ces bateaux?” a French voice demanded suspiciously. Who are you? What boats are those?

This time, he was ready and seized Fraser’s hand himself. Simon held on and, leaning out toward the shore, called hoarsely, “Des bateaux de provisions! Tasiez-vous—les anglais sont proches!” Provision boats! Be quiet—the British are nearby! Grey felt an insane urge to laugh but didn’t. In fact, the Sutherland was nearby, lurking out of cannon shot downstream, and doubtless the frogs knew it. In any case, the guard called, more quietly, “Passez!” and the train of boats slid smoothly past and round the final bend.

The bottom of the boat grated on sand, and half the men were over at once, tugging it farther up. Wolfe half-leapt, half-fell over the side in eagerness, all trace of somberness gone. They’d come aground on a small sandbar just offshore, and the other boats were beaching now, a swarm of black figures gathering like ants.

Twenty-four of the Highlanders were meant to try the ascent first, finding—and, insofar as possible, clearing, for the cliff was defended not only by its steepness but by abatis, nests of sharpened logs—a trail for the rest. Simon’s bulky form faded into the dark, his French accent changing at once into the sibilant Gaelic as he hissed the men into position. Grey rather missed his presence.

He was not sure whether Wolfe had chosen the Highlanders for their skill at climbing or because he preferred to risk them rather than his other troops. The latter, he thought. Wolfe regarded the Highlanders with distrust and a certain contempt, as did most English officers. Those officers, at least, who’d never fought with them—or against them.

From his spot at the foot of the cliff, Grey couldn’t see them, but he could hear them: the scuffle of feet, now and then a wild scrabble and a clatter of falling small stones, loud grunts of effort, and what he recognized as Gaelic invocations of God, his mother, and assorted saints. One man near him pulled a string of beads from the neck of his shirt, kissed the tiny cross attached to it, and tucked it back; then, seizing a small sapling that grew out of the rock face, he leapt upward, kilt swinging, broadsword swaying from his belt in brief silhouette, before the darkness took him. Grey touched his dagger’s hilt again, his own talisman against evil.

It was a long wait in the darkness; to some extent he envied the Highlanders, who, whatever else they might be encountering—and the scrabbling noises and half-strangled whoops as a foot slipped and a comrade grabbed a hand or arm suggested that the climb was just as impossible as it seemed—were not dealing with boredom.

A sudden rumble and crashing came from above, and the shore party scattered in panic as several sharpened logs plunged out of the dark, dislodged from an abatis. One of them had struck point-down no more than six feet from Grey and stood quivering in the sand. With no discussion, the shore party retreated to the sandbar.

The scrabblings and gruntings grew fainter and abruptly ceased. Wolfe, who had been sitting on a boulder, stood up, straining his eyes upward.

“They’ve made it,” he whispered, and his fists curled in an excitement that Grey shared. “God, they’ve made it!”

Well enough, and the men at the foot of the cliff held their breaths; there was a guard post at the top of the cliff. Silence, bar the everlasting noise of tree and river. And then a shot.

Just one. The men below shifted, touching their weapons, ready, not knowing for what.

Were there sounds above? Grey could not tell and, out of sheer nervousness, turned aside to urinate against the side of the cliff. He was fastening his flies when he heard Simon Fraser’s voice above.

“Got ’em, by God!” he said. “Come on, lads—the night’s not long enough!”

The next few hours passed in a blur of the most arduous endeavor Grey had seen since he’d crossed the Scottish Highlands with his brother’s regiment, bringing cannon to General Cope. No, actually, he thought, as he stood in darkness, one leg wedged between a tree and the rock face, thirty feet of invisible space below him and rope burning through his palms with an unseen deadweight of two hundred pounds or so on the end, this was worse.

The Highlanders had surprised the guard, shot their fleeing captain in the heel, and made all of them prisoner. That was the easy part. The next thing was for the rest of the landing party to ascend to the cliff top, now that the trail—if there was such a thing—had been cleared. There they would make preparations to raise not only the rest of the troops now coming down the river aboard the transports but also seventeen battering cannon, twelve howitzers, three mortars, and all of the necessary encumbrances in terms of shell, powder, planks, and limbers necessary to make this artillery effective. At least, Grey reflected, by the time they were done, the vertical trail up the cliffside would likely have been trampled into a simple cow path.