The Private Misadventures of Nell Nobody
My name was once Eleanor Buccleuch. My family called me Nell, but you must never call me that. To you, my name is Ned. Ned Buckley.
Nell Buccleuch is dead. I have buried her someplace I hope no one will ever think to look.
Someone is searching for me, you see. If I ever go back to England, it will be in a coffin.
* * *
After nearly two weeks of being bashed about by waves off the coast of Corsica, my mess and I disembark at St Fiorenzo on 7 February 1794. Jack Mackay has been violently seasick for so long that I wasn’t sure he was going to live to see dry land.
We were never intended for marines, but there weren’t enough of them in the Mediterranean, so here we are. We’ve been on the Tartar frigate since November. Back in England, we had been part of a rifle detachment.
The boat carrying us ashore wallows in the rough sea. I’d never expected to go to sea for any longer than it took to travel to Gibraltar. I don’t know what the others expected. I never asked them.
Behind me, Mackay retches again. We have heard it so often that none of us really take any notice. It isn’t as though there’s anything we can do for him.
We bivouac on a nasty strip of beach, whilst the officers in charge try to decide what to do with us. Did they not have a plan in place before they dumped us here? They might have figured it out whilst we were being blown all the way to Elba; they had plenty of time.
I am soaked and frozen, and my messmates must be, too, but the relief of finally being off that damned ship overcomes any tendency to be sullen. That, and the anticipation of action. Tom Sharpe wipes his wet hair out of his eyes and grins at me.
Eventually the command overcomes their inertia, and we begin to inch forward. Ordnance, supplies, and canvas get offloaded and dragged into position, in preparation to attack the forts at St Fiorenzo. This is what the army does, and there is nothing particularly momentous about these preparations; but to me it feels almost like the advance of the Roman Legion. Not that, with approximately 1400 of us, we are anything even remotely approaching legion. Far from it.
This is my first siege. No; actually, this is my first real military engagement. My nerves and sinews feel as though there is a vibration coursing along them, not unlike the way the ground trembles when a group of horsemen thunder past. It is not anxiety, exactly; I know what that feels like. I think this is excitement. We are about to put the rifle and artillery drills of the past year to the test.
I read in one of my father’s books that the great General Wolfe told his troops at the Plains of Abraham, ‘The officers and men will remember what their country expects from them, and what a determined body of soldiers, inured to war, is capable of doing against five weak French battalions mingled with disorderly peasantry.’ I cannot say that I have any idea what it feels like to be ‘inured to war,’ but I am about to find out how I react under fire. If a bullet finds me, or a cannonball rips off my head, then, like Wolfe, I have nothing more to worry about.
The six of us in my mess form a rifle squad that gets sent ahead of the foot soldiers and artillery to cover their advance. It is not like fighting in close order; we do not advance in lines. We move as a loose unit, and we move fast. Under the command of Will Fowler, our acting corporal, we are practically autonomous.
To protect our artillery piece, not only do we have to try to take the French by surprise but draw their fire as well. It’s a race from one position to the next.
We were trained to target their officers. I quickly learn that there is an element of demoralisation that affects the line regardless of who gets shot. If men are falling all around you, their rank ceases to be of much significance.
Will Fowler signals us to move. We sprint across uneven ground; my heart pounds to the rhythm of my feet. Behind us, I hear the line open a volley, and a field gun bellows. I am only remotely aware of all this. My only objective is getting to our next position.
Just as I am about to reach the stand of trees that is our goal, I see Billy Baxter hit the ground ahead of me. He flips over his own shoulder and lands on his back, and I have to dig in my heels to keep from running over him.
He rolls and gets back on his feet as I grab his rifle. Something whines past me.
‘Go! GO!’ Baxter shouts. The French have sighted us.
He can’t run. He tries to put weight on his leg and staggers.
It is only about twenty yards to the trees. I shove his rifle at him and drop to one knee. ‘You go—I’ll cover you!’
I see the man who fired at us. He is reloading his musket as quickly as he can. He withdraws the rammer and sockets it smoothly home.
I sight down the length of my gun. As the French soldier brings his Charleville to his shoulder, my finger tightens on the trigger. The Frenchman takes aim, and I fire.
I saw his eyes. He knew that I had him; I was just a split second ahead of him. The barrel of his gun jerks skyward as his body spins away, a bullet in his left shoulder.
I run like mad.
Billy Baxter did not get shot. ‘My foot landed in a bloody hole,’ he tells Fowler.
Jack Mackay and Tom Sharpe are firing from a shallow rise in front of us as the gun crews advance. Bertram is reloading at the edge of the copse.
‘You stay here and harass them from the trees,’ Fowler tells Billy. ‘We’ll collect you on our way back. Buckley, you’re with Bert. Good shooting.’
The guns are established and dug in for the night. The army has managed to push the French back a few hundred yards towards St Fiorenzo.
‘D’you think you’ve killed any of them?’ Jack asks, as we sit near the cooking fire in the darkness. The days are not that bad, but it gets cold at night. I am glad of my wool blanket.
‘I’ve not really thought about it,’ I tell him. ‘I know that I’ve hit some of them. Does the idea bother you?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He pulls his blanket closer around his shoulders. ‘It’s war. We shoot at them; they shoot at us. Some of us are bound to die, so it stands to reason that some of them will die, too…’
‘Yes,’ I say.
We let the subject drop.
* * *
It has been twelve days. I record in my journal, ‘Today marks the fall of St Fiorenzo. One of the French frigates in the harbour is burning, and the navy has taken the other into its fleet. The French are fleeing into the hills. We have done it!’ Twelve days that passed in a blur of powder and smoke. I saw some men wounded, but no one killed, and my mess survived unscathed, apart from Baxter’s turned ankle. We’re set to pursue the French over the hills towards Bastia, propelled by the momentum of victory.
It doesn’t exactly work that way. On 23 February, we reach the summit, and there we halt. We wait, whilst the officers confer. And then, inexplicably, we are told to retreat. We return to St Fiorenzo to sit on our hands for the next three weeks.
We’re finishing our evening meal when the officers appear. The sun is sinking, and the mosquitos are starting to buzz. Billy Baxter slaps at one on the back of his hand and his palm comes away smeared with his own blood. ‘Shit,’ he says in disgust.
The two officers are looking at our mess and talking between them. I recognise Captain Clark. I haven’t seen him since Gibraltar. Our mess went to the Tartar, but Captain Clark was on the Agamemnon. He is talking to a man who I realise, with a start, is Lieutenant Colonel Villettes.
Tom Sharpe pokes me with his elbow and nods in their direction. ‘They ‘as lookin’ at you, Neddy.’
‘No, they weren’t,’ I retort, but my gut clenches. What would these officers want with me, unless someone has guessed my secret?
For the first eight weeks after I joined the 69th, I said very little. I drilled, and mustered, and followed orders. And I observed.
I had no sisters. I have one brother, and we were very close until he was sent away to school. I learnt a great deal of unladylike things from, and alongside, Arthur. We remained close even after his marriage, until our world began to come apart at the seams.
I remember riding from Surrey to Brighton with Arthur when we were both in our teens. I was riding astride, in breeches, and had a borrowed saddle that did not fit me. When we stopped for the night, Arthur observed with amusement, ‘Nell, you walk like a man!’
‘You try riding with that horrible saddle tomorrow,’ I snapped. But remembering that experience reminded me how to walk ‘like a man.’
I cannot say how successful I have been at becoming a chameleon, but I have seen no indication that any of my messmates suspect me. That does not mean that someone else does not.
‘I think they are, Ned,’ says Jack Mackay softly. He is the quietest of us all, except for Bertram, who rarely says anything at all, so he doesn’t count. Jack’s eyelashes are long and pretty, and if I were still who I used to be, they would make me jealous.
Captain Clark strides towards our fire. We all jump to attention. ‘Edmund Buckley.’
‘Sir.’ I try to keep my voice steady. It wants to waver like marsh grass in a breeze.
‘Come with us, Buckley.’
My messmates don’t dare look apprehensive, but I can feel it. Each one of them is wound as tight as a watch spring. I clench my jaw and step forward.
Captain Clark looks at my companions. ‘Relax, men. He will come back to you on his own feet.’
Meaning they do not intend to beat me… or drum me out of the army. He leads me away from the others.
Colonel Villettes greets me with, ‘Captain Clark tells me you write a fair hand.’
‘Yessir.’ I try to remember when Captain Clark had seen anything that I had written.
‘And you are trained with artillery.’
‘I was on an artillery crew until they reassigned me to a rifle unit, sir.’
‘You’ve been on HMS Tartar.’
‘There is someone we want you to meet.’
Captain Clark and Colonel Villettes lead me down to the bay. There is another clutch of officers standing on the mole, all red coats except for one. I recognise Lieutenant Colonel Moore and General D’Aubant, among others. Clark isn’t taking me there, is he? He is.
The other man is obviously a naval captain. His dark blue coat sports gold lace that gleams in the setting sun, and his fair hair creates a glowing nimbus around his face where it emerges from under his hat. He and the others are having an animated discussion, but the navy man is more animated than the rest. There’s an energy about him that fairly vibrates, compared to the army officers. The other thing that sets him apart is how much smaller he is than the army men. He can’t be very much taller than I am, and he is as slender as a reed.
Clark and Villettes march me straight for this group of officers. My heart wants to climb into my throat.
One of the army officers gestures in our direction with his chin, and the navy captain turns around.
Villettes steers me into this knot of men and addresses the captain. ‘Captain Nelson, this is Edmund Buckley. We think he will serve you well.’
I feel like a suspect horse being offered at auction. Everyone is inspecting me critically.
Captain Nelson has a startlingly boyish face, with a long nose and a rounded, narrow chin. With the sun behind him, his hair is almost as bright as the lace on his coat. His lively blue eyes meet mine, and I sense a quick mind behind them.
‘Mr Buckley,’ he says. His voice is rather thin, and higher than I expected. There’s a hint of a drawl in the way he says ‘mister’. He indicates that I should come with him with a jerk of his head. ‘Walk with me.’ Without looking to see if I am following, he stalks off in the direction of the town. I glance at Clark and Villettes, then hurry to catch up.
He slows his pace a little when I reach him. He looks over at me. ‘Edmund Buckley.’
‘Do you not like “Edmund”?’
‘No one ever calls me that, sir.’
‘Well, I do not intend to call you that, either. I shall call you Mr Buckley.’
‘Yessir.’ He could call me Guy Fawkes if he wanted to. I’m not going to argue with him.
‘My first name is Horatio. But I am not inviting you to call me that. I am only called that by my family.’
‘Nosir. I mean, yessir.’
‘Those gentlemen,’ he says, referring to the officers on the mole, ‘think that I need a liaison to handle communications between themselves and me. I agreed because we are going to be at Bastia, and most of them intend to stay in St Fiorenzo. I will need you to bring dispatches and so forth to them here in St Fiorenzo, because I am going to be too busy to come here myself.’ He stops walking and looks me up and down. ‘Have you seen action, Mr Buckley?’
‘I fought in the siege of St Fiorenzo, sir. As a rifleman, although I trained with an artillery company initially.’
‘Perfect,’ says Captain Nelson. ‘I don’t expect this will take very long, perhaps no longer than it took to take St Fiorenzo. Then you should be free to return to your rifle company.’
‘Very good, sir.’ We’re a squad, not a company. Not even a unit. But it isn’t my place to correct him, and I’m sure he doesn’t care.
‘Go back to your camp and get your kit. Bring it back here, then you will come with me on Agamemnon’.
The Wounds of Woe
I look at the numbers swimming in the columns of the account book and sigh vexedly. I close my eyes, but when I open them again, the numbers still will not stay stationary.
‘What is the matter, Nell?’ Nancy St Clair, my business partner, sets down the sheer cotton chemisette she is hemming. ‘Are you unwell?’
‘I do not think so, Nancy. I think there must be something the matter with my eyes. Perhaps I need spectacles. I cannot seem to follow the entries across the page; the numbers go in and out of focus. It gives me a headache, and it makes me feel distinctly queasy.’
‘How long have you been feeling this way, Nell, dear?’
I consider. ‘For several days, I guess. I am not sure when it began. I have experienced the same difficulty with fine stitches. I do not think that I am ill, but I cannot name the problem.’
She smiles mischievously. ‘I think perhaps I can.’
‘Oh, can you indeed?’ I challenge her fondly. Nancy is more than just a business partner. She is the sister I never had. ‘Well, then, Miss Physician, what is it?’
‘I do not think the entries are the problem. Rather the reverse.’ When I start to protest, she says, ‘Let us look at the symptoms together. Would you characterize them as malaise?’
‘That seems to be as good a word as any.’
‘Has your appetite changed recently?’
‘I do not know if I can say that; it is more that I have had no appetite at all. The only things I have found appealing are apples.’
Another wicked smile. ‘When was the last time Lieutenant Anson was here? It was the last week in May, was it not?’
‘You know perfectly well, Nancy, because I took the day off from the shop, as he was only here overnight. I still feel a bit guilty about that. But do not think that I am pining for him; I never have before.’
‘Oh, pooh, Nell. I did not begrudge you a single minute. But count, silly girl. This is the seventh of August. Eight weeks.’
It dawns on me what she is inferring. ‘Oh, no. No, Nancy, that is impossible.’
‘Is it? Have you looked at yourself? You are radiant. Apart from being a bit interestingly pale, your eyes are brilliant, your breasts are fuller, your arms are rounder, and I would wager that if you could see yourself from behind, your bottom and hips would be curvier. You are decidedly embonpoint. Mr Gardener was looking at you with unabashed admiration yesterday.’
‘Mr Gardener has no business looking at me at all,’ I retort, but there is no heat in it. I am too bemused to be indignant.
‘When did you last have your courses?’
‘Before the accident,’ I reply firmly. ‘That is why it cannot be what you are suggesting. The doctors have told me that I can no longer conceive.’
‘I do believe that the doctors are wrong, my dear.’
‘Nonsense,’ I say; but even as my head denies it, my body remembers… and it knows that she is right.
* * *
1 August 1797
My Dear Mrs Anson,
I write to you on behalf of Admiral Nelson. It is with the deepest regret that I must inform you of the death of Lieutenant Scott Anson at Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 24 July 1798. He was a good and noble officer, and a credit to His Majesty’s service.
Admiral Nelson was wounded in the siege and has lost his right arm as a result of his injuries. He must return to England; and he bids me send you his blessing and deepest regard. He regrets exceedingly that he cannot write to you personally at this melancholy time. He prays you will remember happier days.
Yours most respectfully, John Castang
I gasp and clutch the back of the chair before sinking into it, my eyes still on the letter. I read it again, and then a third time. My brain does not want to accept the information it imparts.
There has never been a Lieutenant Scott Anson. But I fear that I have lost the one person most dear to me in all the world.
* * *
Henrietta Bowling pours the tea and hands the cup to me. ‘It was a fitting memorial service. I am sure that you would have wished to have had his body to inter, but that is neither here nor there,’ she remarks practically. ‘We all end up in the same place in the long run.’
I sit ensconced upon one of her old-fashioned Rococo armchairs, in her tiny sitting room adorned with luxurious ornaments, gifts from a lifetime of admirers.
‘You are bearing up well, my dear. But do not be afraid to lean on your friends. What good are we to you, otherwise?’
Mrs Bowling is my landlady, but she has become a friend as well. Once a celebrated beauty, she is reputed to have been the mistress of an admiral, although everyone is rather coy about which admiral it was. She is now more formidable than beautiful, even though she is barely five feet tall. And she has reached the stage in her life when she speaks her mind with cheerful impunity.
‘You are not the first woman to bring the child of a dead man into the world, nor will you be the last. Do not do anything rash and remarry just so the babe will have a father. The child will not know differently for several years.’
I have become accustomed to her directness.
‘Has the Admiralty contacted you regarding his pension?’
Since Lieutenant Anson never actually existed, he did not have a pension. I am not sure how to address this deficiency, so I reply simply, ‘Not yet.’
What I will receive, although Mrs Bowling does not know it, is the pay due a widow’s man named Edmund Buckley. Ned Buckley also met his demise at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
So much to mourn. I look down at my lap, where my gently rounding belly is disguised beneath fashionable widow’s weeds, and wonder what happens now.
* * *
I rest my infant son on my shoulder and regard the solicitor stoically. He is a dusty-looking individual in an old-fashioned wig and a fading black coat. Incongruously, he wears a dandy’s figured-silk waistcoat in silver stripes, and lace ruffles. It might make me inclined to like him, except for the fact that I am sure he has called me to his office to turn me out of my home.
Ned nuzzles my neck and twines his tiny fist in my hair. I rub his back gently. He is a quiet baby, apart from the frequent episodes of colic that make him miserable. I am prepared to bargain, beg, and stonewall this lawyer in order to remain in our two rooms until Ned is just a little older. I am not worried so much about finding other accommodations, as I am about disrupting my baby’s life. It is bad enough that he has lost someone else who loved him.
The solicitor shuffles pages on his desk and produces a sealed envelope. He clears his throat several times, as if his voice is something he only takes out of storage on special occasions.
‘Mrs Anson, I have before me the last will and testament of Henrietta Bowling of Gibraltar. It is very concise.
‘Mrs Bowling, as she styled herself, has disposed of her property, and the entire contents therein, in bequest to you. This is the freehold.’ He lays a document on the desktop and slides it across to me.
I am certain I did not hear him correctly. ‘To me?’
‘That is what it says here, Mrs Anson. “Having no known living relative…,”‘ ‘ he pauses and clears his throat again, ‘“… and they having had no interest in it, nor any entitlement to it even were they still living; I do hereby give and bequeath my entire property to my tenant, Mrs Eleanor Anson, widow, of the same address.” It is duly witnessed, and was prepared by myself upon 28 February of this year.’
Only a month before she died. She did not tell me that she was ill, and I was too preoccupied with Ned to see it. She had even rocked him and soothed him during his bouts of colic in the depths of the night. Grief threatens to undo me.
The solicitor clears his throat once more and raises his face to me, and I see desolation in his eyes. I realise with a jolt that he is as grief stricken as I. He sees the recognition on my face and drops his eyes to his papers again before speaking softly.
‘I loved her,’ he admits frankly. ‘We were together for twelve years. I never knew why she picked me.’
‘Mr Winter… I am so sorry. I did not know.’
He makes a choking sound, and for a moment I am horrified that the man is going to cry in front of me, before I recognise it as a rusty laugh.
‘No one did. I asked her to marry me many times. She told me she was not the marrying kind.’
He picks up the envelope and offers it to me. ‘This letter is addressed to you alone. I received a similar one. She did not want any emotional farewells. Take it home and open it there.’
I accept the envelope and slip it and the freehold into Ned’s basket. ‘Mr Winter. Will you… is there anything of hers that you would like to have? Please come and take whatever you like; she had more things than I know what to do with.’
He shakes his head. ‘I have those things which were important to me already.’ He bows his head and looks at me over the rims of his spectacles, an effect that makes him look both shy and earnest. ‘She asked me to look after you and the baby. I suppose you have inherited me along with the property.’
A tear slips unbidden down my cheek. I bite my lip and compose myself before telling him, ‘Then you must know that my home will always be open to you, Mr Winter. I trust Mrs Bowling’s wisdom implicitly. And I am bewildered and humbled by her generosity.’
‘There was a side to Henrietta that few people were privileged to see,’ he murmurs. ‘She guarded it carefully.’
‘I hope you will tell me more about her. I was only just beginning to know her.’
‘She adored you,’ Mr Winter says.
* * *
‘My dearest Nell,
If you are reading this, then I am dead.
I have always wanted to write that! Forgive me my theatrical turn, my dear.
I am leaving this house and all that is in it to you. There is no one else likely to lay claim upon it. It was given to me, and I am giving it to you.
Elwood has been instructed to give you the freehold. He has kept it for me for many years; but should he decide to retire now that I am gone, it should be in your possession. I would suggest that you find a reliable solicitor to look after your affairs, as Elwood has always looked after mine. Regardless of whether he continues to practice law, go to him should you need anything, and he will see to it. He may not look like much, but he is a formidable opponent and will be your champion.
Look after Elwood for me. I do not want to see him dissolve into dust, as he is likely to do without supervision. Remind him that it was my dying wish that he buy himself a new coat.
My greatest regret is that I will not get to see darling little Edmund grow up. Remember what I said, my dear. Do not remarry in haste. A great love affair can never be replaced with a mere substitute. Wait for the right man, who will love Ned as his own. I have no doubt that he will grow up to be a man of character and accomplishment like his father.
Forgive me for choosing not to tell you about the cancer. Elwood knew, but he was the only person apart from the physician, who since he could do nothing for me, was dispensed with. Do you like that? ‘I dispensed with the physician.’ I suppose it would have been wittier if I had said I dispensed with the apothecary. But that would be untrue. I have had a very good relationship with the apothecary. Laudanum is my friend.
I plan to slip away quietly when all the world is sleeping. I have not told Elwood; I do not want him to agonise over my decision. I am only expediting the inevitable. He and I will meet again.
As, I trust, will we, my dear girl.
I am off to meet my Maker, from whom no secrets are hid. Thank goodness He knows all of mine already. I will not need to recount them all.
Yours most affectionately,
I sit by the fire in one of the slightly ratty wing chairs, Ned in one arm and Mrs Bowling’s letter in my other hand. The letter is a powerful echo of its writer and makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
As is my habit when I nurse my son, I have taken off my gown and dressed in the old woollen banyan that once belonged to Admiral Nelson. It is warm and comforting, and sometimes I imagine I can still smell the scent of its former owner, a subtle hint of lavender and bergamot.
Ned has finished feeding and has fallen asleep against my breast. I lay aside Mrs Bowling’s letter and carefully shift him to my shoulder, rubbing his little back and hoping the milk does not disagree with him tonight.
At seven weeks old he is starting to lose the helpless look of a blind puppy, but he is not as round and rosy as I am told he should be. He still has dreadful episodes of colic that make me ache for him, and sometimes he vomits the milk back up after feeding. Mrs Castillo, the baby nurse, has told me it is not unusual, and I should not worry unless he begins to do it regularly.
His father was subject to bouts of indigestion, too.
One-Eyed Jack, my cat, comes into the room from prowling Mrs Bowling’s apartments. Actually, ‘apartments’ is probably too grand a word for the three small rooms upstairs, each one filled with things that I will have to sort through and find owners for. The very thought is exhausting.
Jack was once a ship’s cat, and he possesses the character of a pirate—which is ironic, since it was a Royal Navy ship that he belonged to. He is territorial and possessive, and suspicious of newcomers, so I was apprehensive about his reception of Ned. I was astonished when, a week after Ned’s arrival, Jack decided to share my lap with the baby and curled up beside him, purring. It calms my son to hear Jack purr, and it did not take me long to realise that before he was born, when Jack used to sit against my belly and purr, Ned was hearing him.
Jack plunks himself on the hearth rug and regards me critically, then lifts a leg behind his ear and begins grooming his ankle. ‘Exhibitionist,’ I tell him. He ignores me.
Long after I am sure that Ned is deeply asleep, I continue to hold my son. He is the bridge between a life that is past, and one that is just beginning.
You might be tempted to say that I have the luck of the Devil and as many lives as a cat. Whether that is true I cannot confirm, because I’m only on my third life. And as to luck… well, it was not always so.