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The General In His Labyrinth

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Upon the publication of the memoirs of that legendary courtesan, Harriette Wilson, there occurred an unprecedented uproar over her revelations of the private habits of several of the great and good (indeed, the greatest and best) of English society. Her opinions and accounts of the Duke of Wellington, in particular, caused a very great deal of clandestine amusement (the 1830s were a delicate time for the public expression of Britain's baser feelings about her venerable and extremely capable Defence Secretary, who also happened to be Commander for life of her Armed Forces). None in polite circles could look him without thinking of the Wilson revelations for weeks to come.

Mme Wilson's long (long) acquaintance with his Grace stretched back into the preceding decades, well before the Napoleonic invasion and the taxing campaign that culminated in the glorious and bloody battle of Shoeburyness, after which a seeming dearth of spirits had assailed the Duke for an inordinate amount of time. The condition was doubtless exacerbated by the sad end of his wedding engagement to the Hon. Kitty Pakenham, sister of the Earl of Longford. Miss Pakenham – now the Hon. Mrs Gilbraith Cole – had set the Duke free in order to marry her former fiancé, the second son of the Earl of Enniskillen. On that subject, word had never yet issued from any corner of the love triangle. But Wellington's mood had been dark in those days, and his appetites slim. So slim, quoth Mme Wilson, that even his favoured subject of polite conversation, the tactics of managing rifle regiments (literary criticism is silent on the metaphorical elements of Mme Wilson's style), was treated with a curious lack of ardour. "It is my poor heart, Harriette," was all he said to her when pressed on the cause of his melancholy. It was almost to be granted, Mme Wilson remarked, that he had one.

 

~~*~~

 

They had met in the middle of the greatest war of their lives. It was grim, but not shocking, that the first time Wellington heard Jane Roland laugh was many months into their acquaintance. He stood under an open window in Dover, his attention half-focused on that haranguing beast Perscitia describing advanced notions of town planning in her grating, know-it-all honk to the human builders, and caught it without really listening; her laughter, a deep golden swoop, touching down on the green beneath his feet and rising in a wave to his head; the Admiral, amused by something in the meeting with her aides de camp. The first time Wellington heard Jane Roland laugh, his mouth went dry with yearning.

Every subsequent instance provoked an intense and prolonged irritation.

They met in her office that morning, and she laughed at his proposal of a peerage as recognition of services rendered to the nation. It would have offended a saint, but the only thing worse than being laughed at by an unnatural Amazon of a woman was the thought of the rest of the buffoons at the Admiralty with their constant scheming and insinuations, bereft of a single voice in sympathy with Wellington in their midst. He ground his teeth and growled at her, and stayed and drank another cup of tea.

He understood clearly, at this juncture, the reason women made terrible soldiers. They would fail no due tests of courage or intelligence, nor yet a great many measures of strength (Wellington had observed Roland's felicity with sword and firearm). To gentilesse and honour they proved themselves about as committed as any specimen of man Wellington knew. No, it was the creatures' tendency to distract. Wellington wrenched himself away from London to the Admiralty outpost in Gibraltar, where he argued rudely and decisively in favour of allied action on the Peninsula sooner rather than later. In doing so, he spent a month in the company of the highly competent and extremely female Captain St Germain, and was halfway back to Britain before it occurred to him that their acquaintance had thoroughly disproved his stance against the monstrous regiments of the Aerial Corps.

He imagined Roland in her office, reading one of his dispatches. He had good reports from his reconnaissance teams. Perhaps some of them would make her smile again. The thought made his ribs ache.

She was not one of life's gigglers, he would grant her that. Those were serious days for soldiers, and Roland was one of the best Wellington had met. She had an entire wing of the armed forces to reconstruct, without her most valuable assets at its centre. She did not laugh when the Kazilik took flight with her captain on her back, ostensibly on her way to Australia. But neither did the departure of the Allegiance cause her to curl so much as a corner of a lip – a tough, leathery-looking lip, but shaped somewhat like a bow – to express a very private distress. Under any circumstances, Wellington would have accused her of nothing less than the very worst judgment, but he had understood at once that there was more to the madman Laurence than his suitability for cannon fodder. To be a man Roland thought worthy was no mean task, and Wellington had already been forced to revise his opinion of Laurence twice or thrice. The last time had been the other day, arguing with Roland over the details of her responsibilities to the House of Lords, when the scarred curve of her face had lifted in a smile, open and intimidating, and Wellington's heart had stopped altogether, the damned fool of an organ.

It behove a duke to be gracious. He asked her to dance at the Admiralty ball, prepared to excuse inevitable, if inconvenient gracelessness. She turned out to acquit herself admirably, in spite of every indication to the contrary. Her shoulders, unlike her face and neck, were unmarked and creamy. They mocked Wellington in their beauty. She did not laugh when he retreated to the balcony to smoke three cigars in rapid succession and ignore his junior officers' attempts at conversation. He heard her again, though, as she strolled along the balustrades with Sanderson. It was an honest laugh; a ringing, heartfelt laugh. It carried no note of art in it, nor yet of coarseness. Wellington smoked another cigar in hapless fury. They danced again; she chuckled as he stepped on her toes.

He made his token protests beneath Harriette's balcony as she, no doubt puzzled by his newly distant behaviour, turned her attentions to some other fellow. A charming girl, Harriette, and much given to disarming, ladylike coquetry. It soothed the spirit to stand under her window at two in the morning, knee-deep in a gutter roaring with the rain, and assume the pleading aspect. She did not, to his relief, acknowledge him. It was much easier than what transpired with Kitty, who had grown ugly in the decade they had been apart; thinned and paled by the rigours of wartime, and the strain of breaking an engagement with the fellow Cole, all to keep her childish promise to Wellington. They in turn had been betrothed, Wellington renewing his once-spurned proposal out of a sense that of obligation to the way things were meant to be. It was the sort of thing Laurence would do, Wellington thought vehemently. But it took many mornings sitting by her side in the parlour of the Longford home in London, she sewing in silence, he scouring the newspapers for every last whiff of gossip, innuendo and suspicion cast upon their Lords the Admiralty (the better to savour it) before he remembered that he was not on a prison ship bound to Australia, and with good reason.

"My dear Kitty," he said, astonished at how loud his voice seemed among the sounds of reconstruction echoing in from the streets outside. "My dear Kitty. I beg your pardon; there has been a grave mistake."

She had looked at him and smiled, tired and amiable. "I thought so," she said, before burying her face in her hands and letting out a sob. "I hope we are all very happy, Arthur."

The sobbing irritated Wellington. It discomfited him to such a degree that he was through the gates of the London covert and almost at Roland's office, where she was stationed while she liaised with the Admiralty (he imagined her sweeping through the entrance halls in neat, sober skirts and hats, a seeming friend or relation conducting any order of business on behalf of an officer), before his natural sense of proportion reasserted itself. It was one thing to break off an advantageous, longed-for engagement with the daughter of an earl. It was quite another to charge it to the account of Jane Roland, a woman whose very existence was a slap in the face of the foundations of the state.

The account, Wellington thought, of a woman so thoroughly lacking in the traditional accomplishments and deficiencies of women, that he had had no qualms about pressing upon her the honour of serving as Britain's Admiral of the Air. A woman Wellington needed to transform the battle against Bonaparte.

"Why, Wellington," Roland said, and he turned to face her, striding towards him from the direction of the officers' cabins. Her handshake was brief and friendly. "You have quite surprized us. Frette ran up to tell me you were here. What is the matter?"

It was a moment in which Wellington might have risked everything. He might have offended her, or imposed on the odd comradeship that they had allowed for themselves. He might have changed the course of his remaining lifetime. He might verily have changed all Europe's. He might have ignored, or upheld, every dictate of good sense or gentle taste. He may have importuned the only ranking officer in the entire armed forces of the Isles he could depend on to outdo him in the field, without there existing the slightest earthly hope that she would ever publicly outstrip him.

He fell almost to his knees.

"Portugal," Wellington said to her. "The Peninsula. Damn it all, Roland; a chance to finish what we started."

Roland raised an eyebrow, and then snorted. Wellington's heart thumped again, as though it really would have encompassed what Wellington felt, had it but known how.

 

~~*~~

 

When, I say, this faithful lover, wrote Harriette Wilson in the most-read memoirs of her time,

... when Wellington sends the ungentle hint to my publisher, of hanging me, beautiful, adored and adorable me, on whom he had so often hung - Alors je pends la tête! - Is it thus he would immortalise me?

It was said that the lady Wilson had offered to edit all instances of his name occurring in her text for the sum of two hundred pounds, but the Duke's rage perished the thought. "Publish and be damned!" he was reported to have thundered, and Harriette Wilson obliged. Thus it was that the world came to know of what might have been called a friendship between 'Mr. General' and the courtesan, had she been even slightly charitable in her assessment of his Grace's manners and conversation, and even slightly discreet about his assignations with herself and the young ladies of her acquaintance, several of whom the General had, in the years after Waterloo, liked to dress in an approximation of the green-and-gold uniform of the 95th Rifles as he took them riding out of London.

No one canvassed the Hon. Kitty Cole, née Pakenham, for her opinion of the Wilson diaries. It was not a subject one touched upon in gentle and sensitive company. Most members of the Forces assumed a dignified silence whenever civilian conversation touched upon the books, out of respect for their Commander, although an anonymous feuilleton in The Times reported that shipments of several copies had made their way around the world, reaching so far as the Temeraire embassy in Jalalabad, and that fascinating Mr Tharkay's expedition in the Himalayas (The item suggested that the efforts of Vice-Admiral Iskierka had a hand – talon – in both instances). It may be safely assumed, however, that the gentlest of Wellington's friends had read them before the year was out; Queen Charlotte herself was reported to have mortified his Grace by alluding to it in his presence during a private audience granted to him and Prime Minister Roland.

Word was that the Prime Minister, quite mercilessly, had laughed.