It could be said that Jonathan Strange discovered the truth about Lord Wellington by accident. In the late summer of 1812 the army was quartered outside Madrid, and one evening in August Strange was in his room conjuring visions in a basin at the request of Lord Wellington, in an attempt to gain any further knowledge on the French positions. With him was Captain Whyte, taking notes in his field journal. So far the visions had not turned up any precise information, as although Strange could see French soldiers, their strength and their state clearly it was impossible to determine their exact position; nor could he catch sight of a map or dispatch in the French marshal’s headquarters to give him an indication of where they might be or planned as their next movements.
After two hours of gazing solid Strange rested back in his chair, letting out a deep, weary sigh and rubbing his hands over his face. Whyte stopped his scribbling, put down is notebook, stretched his cramped fingers and looked across at Strange, his own face as drawn as the magician’s. After the incident of the Neapolitan soldiers (a terrible incident finally resolved only a few days ago) the captain had become a great friend of Strange, and quite often enjoyed watching the man work, or simply sitting in his company and conversing. Deep in his heart Whyte toyed with the fancy that one day he might also become a magician, under Mr. Strange’s instruction; but as this was a wish that went contrary to the wishes of Mr. Norrell or could not be considered in any way a respectable wish for a young gentleman with excellent prospects, he kept his enjoyment of magic to spectating only. To Whyte magic was wondrous, and it was a view which not even the resurrected Neapolitans had been able to shake. Now, in the small room on a summer’s evening, he looked at Strange with some concern.
“Isn’t there anything else you can do? Is there no way to get a more general view – like an eagle’s hovering above – which might give you a better idea of their position?”
“It is not. Leastways, not that I have yet found; I am sure it must be possible somehow. But as I have told Lord Wellington, and continue to tell him, visions are not a reliable source of intelligence. Well, no, what they show is reliable, but it is rarely what you are looking for.”
Whyte nodded, gazing down at the few much crossed-out pages he had created within the last two hours. He had heard this from Strange before, and had seen first hand just how a vision being too precise was a disadvantage.
“Perhaps if we try again in half an hour?”
Strange shook his head.
“It will make no difference.” He removed his watch from his waistcoat pocket and directed a glance at the dial. “And in another hour I suspect all I shall see is Frenchmen sound asleep, which is of no use or interest to anyone! I do not know why he insists on my trying when he knows, when I have told him so many times it is futile.”
Whyte knew the ‘him’ Strange referred to was Lord Wellington. It was accepted, these days, whenever any officer associated with Headquarters referred in exasperated tones to ‘him’ that they were talking about Lord Wellington.
“But does he know? You are able to do such wondrous things; he expects if he pushes men hard they in turn shall push themselves to do the impossible.”
“It is a policy that has worked in his favour many times,” Strange admitted, rubbing the back of his stiff neck. “But not on this occasion. I am not afraid of failing him, as others are, when he asks for the impossible. My career does not depend on his favour, as does yours, and I have done him – am still doing him – service enough in other fashions.”
“I don’t think anyone doubts that, Strange,” said Whyte, who privately noted that he was singularly unwilling to fail Lord Wellington in any aspect of his duty.
“I hope not. But perhaps it is time that Lord Wellington knew the futility of visions? Why don’t we demonstrate its best use and its weaknesses in a way that would be clear to him?”
“Let us watch him in a vision, and then report back to him personally on his movements.”
Whyte’s face fixed in an expression of horror.
“But we cannot do that!”
“I see no reason why not.”
“But we can’t!”
“On the contrary, there is nothing theoretical or practical in the magical sense to stop us.”
“Strange, aside from that, we cannot go spying on Lord Wellington. It would not be the act of gentlemen.”
“Oh, it is the morality that concerns you? In that case no, you are right, we must not.”
They considered a moment longer, then looked at each other again. Whether out of some innate sense of boyish mischief or a desire to have some small revenge on their chief it was decided.
Muttering incantations Strange redrew the lines across the surface of the water, focussing in on Madrid, then to the east of the city where the army was quartered, then to the Headquarters building where they were now. Strange looked up once again at Whyte, exchanged a conspiratorial smile, then tapped the surface of the water with a flourish to bring the vision into Lord Wellington’s chamber.
It was then that something very odd happened. The vision began to form anew, the outline of a figure seated at a desk appearing – but then just as it appeared the water gave a violent shudder, the vision faded abruptly and the two men were left staring into an empty basin of water. Whyte blinked in astonishment.
“What was that?”
“I am not sure.” Strange frowned in confusion. “It has never happened before…”
He hid it well, but Whyte knew Strange well enough to know that he was worried; and yes, Jonathan Strange was very worried indeed. Because he had felt something. It was not often that Strange felt things whilst performing magic, and on the rare occasions when he did he never informed Mr. Norrell, as he was certain Mr. Norrell would not approve. Such a notion was too much like the Raven King’s magic – too fanciful, too wild – something which did not belong to the modern Science of English magic. Yet felt something he had. It was an influence; tangible, like an invisible hand pushing him away from Lord Wellington’s room and then dashing the vision to pieces.
“But it is magic, I am sure of it,” he finished.
It was Whyte’s turn to frown.
“Magic? But how can that be? You are the only magician in the Peninsula!”
“I would have thought so. Nevertheless, someone has cast a spell over Lord Wellington.”
“Perhaps it is Mr. Norrell?” the captain hazarded.
Strange shook his head.
“No, it did not feel like Norrell’s magic, nor mine – not like any sort of magic I have ever known. It is a different magic.”
An expression of alarm appeared on Whyte’s face.
“Do you suppose the French have found a magician at last? I know Bonaparte has been searching for years without success, but if he has found one –”
“I must see His Lordship immediately,” Strange said abruptly, rising from his chair and crossing the room, collecting his coat from a peg behind the door on his way. “If I hurry, it may not be too late.”
Though oddly enough, Strange reflected as he made his way through the house to the C-in-C’s chamber, he was not as fearful for Lord Wellington’s life as he might have been; because despite not recognising its origin the magic had not felt malicious… Yet it was strong, very strong.
When Strange found Lord Wellington he was in his quarters, seated at his desk working as the vision had suggested he would be. On entering the small room Strange studied his chief intently, but there seemed no outward change in appearance or character, no alteration of expression or speech; Lord Wellington appeared as he always did. However, on raising his head from the papers on the desk Strange instantly recognised the look of displeasure on the general’s face.
“Ah, Merlin. I am glad you are here, as you have saved me sending someone to fetch you. You have been spying on me, which is something that I object to in the strongest terms.” The general’s blue eyes glittered with cold fury. “Although until now I had thought I need not say such a thing to you.”
Lord Wellington’s fingers drummed impatiently on the surface of the desk.
“Never mind how, Strange; all you need know is that I will be aware of it should you try to watch me again – and so it would do you little good to try. You understand me?”
“Yes, my lord, but… if you knew, then it must have been you that turned the vision away.”
A momentary silence hung over the room, in which Lord Wellington dismissed the aide standing next to his chair with a curt gesture of his hand. Once the young officer had gone Strange began his questioning in earnest. He had never read of ways to protect oneself from the sight of a vision – had not found one mention of it being possible, even in fairy stories. It had definitely been magic, but no magic that he had ever encountered before.
“I did not know you were a magician, my lord!”
“I am not.”
“There is a magic in existence,” said Wellington, leaning back in his chair. “That is so old, so much a part of the fabric of the world that it has been reduced to the status of stories and rumour; it is nothing more than folklore.”
“Yet you know it?”
“I have use of it.”
“It is none of your concern, and you would be advised to leave it, Strange. It is not your job to ask questions of me.”
“Maybe not, my lord, but it is my job to regulate, understand and perform magic and, forgive me for saying so, tonight I have encountered a magic I cannot regulate or understand. I am duty-bound to investigate it, in case it should prove dangerous.”
“I can assure you that it is not dangerous.”
“But how can you be sure, my lord? By your own admission you are not a magician, so who are you to judge correctly whether this magic is a threat or not? Unless you are secretly a magician or a fairy. So unless I am to write to Horse Guards and Whitehall, expressing my grave concerns that the Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty’s forces in the Peninsula may not in fact be a man at all, but a fairy changeling –” Lord Wellington’s face went white with fury. “– I would advise you confess to me all that you know.”
Lord Wellington’s lips were pressed together in a thin, angry line – but Strange knew his man well. Lord Wellington was bound to have two reactions to this ultimatum; the first, and his gut reaction, would be to say “Do your worst!” and ride out the consequences. He would not be Lord Wellington if he did not. The second, however, and the more cautious was that the general would take the magician into his confidence. This was the most likely, as despite his huge successes against Napoleon’s marshals, Lord Wellington, or to be more exact Lord Wellington’s family, had many enemies at home, anyone of which would leap at the chance any mention of personal eccentricity presented to do widespread damage to the brothers Wellesley. Which, though would not lead directly to Lord Wellington’s dismissal, would cause him considerably more difficultly; more than he endured even now. On one hand he risked small scale exposure, and on the other losing the war. Knowing Lord Wellington as he did Strange put his trust in the general picking the lesser evil; and thankfully he was right. Having glared at the magician continually for almost a minute, Lord Wellington finally gave a stiff nod of agreement.
“Sit down, Strange,” he said. When Strange had seated himself on the opposite side of the desk Lord Wellington set down his pen on the page in front of him with deliberate calm; then leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the desk. “I am going to reveal to you a secret, and it is a secret that you would do well to keep to yourself.”
“I understand, my lord.”
“Not even Mr. Norrell must know of it.”
An odd expression flitted across Strange’s face.
“Especially not Mr. Norrell, my lord.”
“Good.” Lord Wellington waited a heartbeat before he continued. “Have you ever wondered, Strange, how it is that in battle I have never been injured?”
“No, sir,” Strange replied, somewhat puzzled. “In all honesty I had not really noticed your good fortune.”
Indeed the fact had never drawn Strange’s attention at all, though he had some idea that he had been dimly aware of it; but now that he thought of it, it did seem somewhat unusual. Lord Wellington liked to lead from the front; he was often getting into scrapes by wandering too close to the Enemy and his Staff despaired at the unnecessary risks he took. Surely, the magician reflected, he must have been injured at least once? Yet try as he might he could not recall a single instance of Lord Wellington receiving a wound on the battlefield.
Seeming to follow his train of thought, Lord Wellington gave a humourless smile.
“Well, that is hardly surprising; it is not often remarked upon. Odd, isn’t it? And odder still that you did not notice. Why do you suppose that might be?”
“A spell of concealment?” Strange hazarded a guess. “Yet if that is so I do not understand, my lord; what have you to conceal?”
“Little things that happen now and then, Strange. Harmless, but it would soon become inconvenient if someone were to start linking them together. Awkward questions would arise, questions to which I could provide no satisfactory answer, and people would jump to conclusions; the sort of conclusions I do not wish them to reach.”
“But why should they not, sir?”
Wellington sighed, and again avoided answering the question by asking another.
“Have you ever looked at my sword, Strange?”
“No, sir, I cannot say that I have.”
Lord Wellington indicated his sabre lying on a chair near the door.
“Look at it now, and be sure to look closely. If you are the sort of magician I think you are it should tell you everything you need to know.”
So Strange rose from his seat and went over to the chair, picking up the sword in his hands and studying it closely. At first glance it appeared to be a normal, if rather plain, sabre; a flat gold hilt and a light, slender curved blade. Yet as he looked again, he found out that, no, he had been mistaken. It was in fact not a sabre but a broad sword, long and heavy, with an ornate silver hilt, richly decorated with scroll work and set with deep blue sapphires. Etched into the blade were words in some ancient language – not quite Latin, not quite English, French or Welsh – yet there was one word, a name, which he could work out; Artúr.
At that moment some idea clicked into place in Strange’s head, like the final turn of a key in a lock. Calmly he sheathed the sword, placed it widthways across the desk between himself and the general, then raised his eyes to meet that intense blue gaze; the same blue as the sapphires that adorned the sword’s hilt.
“Well?” Lord Wellington asked, and Strange perceived in the general a rare hint of anxiety. The magician gave him a brief smile.
“I think I understand now, my lord.”
The method of interrogation was interesting; answering a question with another question, and forcing Strange to find his own replies. And yet it seemed unthinkable to point out to the general that he had in fact not answered any of the questions. Because he had, in a way. Another kind of magic? No, just a skill.
“It leads me to a logical conclusion, sir,” said Strange quietly. “All things considered; yet at the same time it is a conclusion that makes me fear for my sanity.”
“Quite. And we cannot have men fearing for their sanity, can we?”
“It is not a desirable state of affairs; no, sir. But I suspect that you would like to hear my conclusion all the same and how I came upon it, however queer it may be.”
Lord Wellington gave an infinitesimal inclination of his head, indicating that Strange should continue. The magician lowered his eyes to the sword once more, picking it up again, turning it gently in his hands, studying it closely.
“It is a fine blade, undoubtedly old – so old that I would not dare put an age on it. It is forged with great skill by a master craftsman; one might almost say it is princely weapon. It also bears the name 'Artúr', which is your name, sir, for all it is not the accepted way of spelling it; and I see that the name is not new, but has always been part of the design and is as old as the blade itself.”
The first part of his reasoning thus explained, Strange paused to draw breath and reorder his thoughts.
“From this I would suppose that the man this was made for lived a long, long time ago, and was not any ordinary man. There was a king before John Uskglass; a king who knew powerful magic, whose sword protected him from physical harm, and it is said will return when England is in dire need.”
At this point the magician dared to raise his eyes from the sword’s hilt to gauge the reaction of his chief. Interestingly Lord Wellington’s face bore an expression of studied calm, as if he were merely hearing the day’s report of the baggage movements.
“It is a prophecy that the southern English hold dear to their hearts,” Strange continued. “Even if few truly believe in it anymore. Yet it is not beyond possible. And for speculation’s sake, does the prophecy specify what the danger shall be, or how he shall return? No, it does not. He need not be royal, this supposed man, for what use would being royal make him? The nature of kings has changed dramatically since the days of legend where kings have not fought in battle for well over half a century – and to be honest with you, sir, a king today would make a poor leader on the battlefield should the nature of this danger be warfare. No, he need only be in a position of authority; a field commander, perhaps. Any greater authority would render him ineffective and distract him from his purpose.”
He handed the sword to Lord Wellington, and immediately it became a simple sabre once more.
“I would not like to say ‘certain’, as it is not the sort of thing one likes to be certain about.” The wry smile twitched at the corner of his mouth again. “And in this case, my lord, it would be better for all concerned if I were very much uncertain in my conclusions.”
Wellington smiled in relief.
“Thank you. For a moment I feared that I had misjudged you, Merlin.”
Strange shook his head, bewildered.
“For once, my lord, I find myself wishing that you had.”