Towards the end of September 1810, Wellington had positioned his army at the convent of Busaco on a long, high ridge stretching ten miles north from the Mondego River. The ridge rose steeply to a height of 300 metres in some places and the men had spent the last two days venturing back and forth over the edge, repelling the attacks of various enemy divisions. Although the French had clearly underestimated the strength of the position held by the British and Portuguese infantry and were suffering heavy casualties, they did not seem at all inclined to give up.
Amidst the chaos of the battle, Major Colquhoun Grant could just about hear De Lancey shouting orders, urging the men to fix bayonets and charge once again at the advancing French. Grant had only recently been appointed to Wellington’s personal staff and was not yet sure what to make of the brash young Colonel under whose command he found himself.
He did not particularly enjoy this kind of close-quarters engagement, preferring to be out on his own watching the movement of the French troops or mingling with the locals to discover information that might prove useful to the British Army. De Lancey, on the other hand, seemed to relish the heat of battle and could often be seen laughing as he charged headlong into the fray or returned from a particularly bloody sortie. All of which served to underline Grant’s impression of him as somewhat reckless and impetuous. Not to mention his taste for bawdy songs and tendency to make lewd comments at the most inappropriate moments. However, Grant could see that the man was a damn good soldier and he had clearly earned Wellington’s trust, so that was good enough.
Suddenly he realised that he could not hear De Lancey any more. In fact, he could not hear much at all other than the screams and groans of the injured and dying. The French guns had stopped firing and it became clear that Massena had called off the assault. The order was given to return to the convent, presumably as a precursor to falling back behind the Lines of Torres Vedras - the massive system of defences that the army had spent the last year constructing to prevent the French from reaching Lisbon. Grant could not deny that he felt a certain sense of relief. He had seen enough bloodshed in the last few days and welcomed the thought of wintering behind the Lines in an unassailable position.
However, it seemed Wellington was not quite done with this battle yet. As soon as Grant reached the convent, he was ordered to go back out and assess the situation. Although he agreed that it was important to discover if Massena had left behind any spies or injured men who might provide valuable intelligence about the Marshal’s plans, he thought that it was a bit much to expect him to gather such information with his stomach empty and his uniform in such an untidy state. Nonetheless, he set off back the way he had come.
He made his way carefully down the steep slope, seeking cover wherever he could find it until he reached the woods at the base of the escarpment, and then proceeded to follow the line of the ridge, stopping every now and then to watch and listen for any signs of a residual French presence.
During one such pause, he heard a faint whimpering from one of the gullies that cut into the rocks to his left. Thinking it to be an animal that had got caught in the crossfire of the earlier battle, and being the kind of man who could not bear to see any creature suffering unnecessarily, he decided it was only right to put the poor thing out of its misery. As the possibility of French survivors prohibited the use of his firearm, he drew a small but sharp knife out of a sheath on his belt and flattened himself against the rock at the entrance to the ravine, hoping that the whole affair would be less drawn out and taxing if he could catch the animal by surprise and did not have to chase it down before delivering the fatal blow. He peered around the corner to find out what manner of creature he was dealing with and found himself staring down the barrel of a musket.
“Good lord, Major!” exclaimed De Lancey. “What in God’s name are you thinking, sneaking up on a man like that? I could have blown your damn head off!”
Grant balked at this unexpected discovery. Despite his reservations about De Lancey’s character, he was sure that the one thing the man was not was a coward. Indeed, to find the Colonel here looking for all the world like he was hiding from the French was such a shock that he barely registered the gun pointed at his head. But as De Lancey lowered the weapon, Grant saw the blood stained rags tied tightly around his left thigh and realised that the expression he had mistaken for fear was in fact a reflection of the excruciating pain that the wound must be causing.
“Do not just stand there making a target of us,” snapped De Lancey, “get in here and for Christ’s sake take off that coat. You might as well be inviting them to find us.”
Still stunned, Grant did as he was ordered, squeezing into the narrow space and propping himself against the rock opposite De Lancey. In hindsight, it would probably have been a better idea to remove his coat first, as it proved exceedingly difficult to execute the manoeuvre in the confined space, especially as he had to take extra care to avoid knocking against De Lancey’s injured leg, but he eventually managed to extricate himself from the uniform, fold it up and place it on a ledge that jutted out from the rock. This elicited a look of disdain from De Lancey, “Must you always be so damned neat, Major?” he asked with a snort of derision.
“There is no need to lower one’s personal standards just because one finds oneself in an adverse situation,” replied Grant rather haughtily, making it abundantly clear that he did not think De Lancey’s personal standards could actually get much lower.
Before De Lancey could come up with a suitably sarcastic retort, Grant’s trained ears picked out the sound of French voices on the wind and he raised his hand to signal that they should be silent. The voices were getting louder and De Lancey instinctively shifted his position to try and blend in with the rock, letting out an ungodly howl as the pain shot through his leg. Without thinking, Grant clapped one hand over the other man’s mouth to stifle the cries and grasped his arm with the other to steady him. De Lancey gripped his arm in return with such ferocity that Grant feared he might cry out himself and give away their position.
De Lancey’s eyes were squeezed shut, his breath coming in ragged gasps and his jaw clenching and unclenching as tears ran down his face and over the back of Grant’s hand. They stayed like that for what seemed an eternity until the voices eventually started to fade and De Lancey’s breathing began to return to normal. His eyes opened and he gave a small nod to indicate that he had himself under control, so Grant relaxed his hand slightly, allowing himself to feel the hot breath on his palm as he scanned De Lancey’s face for signs that the pain was about to return. He was fully expecting to be admonished for manhandling a superior officer in such a fashion but found that he did not care so very much - his sense of duty and the same instinct that had urged him to go looking for a wounded animal in the first place now prompted him to do whatever it took to ensure De Lancey’s safety, even at the expense of his own career.
What he did not expect was the look of gratitude in De Lancey’s eyes as he managed to gasp “Thank you, Major.” Now that the immediate danger was over and night was falling, the combination of pain, exhaustion and cold seemed to drain the energy from his very being, leaving him pale and shaking, his hand still weakly grasping Grant’s arm.
Grant gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile, retrieved his coat from the ledge, unfolded it and placed it gently around De Lancey’s shoulders. He was almost hoping for a snide remark about the blood stains that might get on the coat or the presumption that his action would make any difference in their present situation but De Lancey simply leaned into his chest with a shuddering sigh and a faint moan. This was too much for Grant, who wrapped his other arm around to join the one that was still resting on De Lancey’s shoulders, murmuring “we must get you warm, it will not do for you to freeze to death after all this.” De Lancey showed no sign of protesting so Grant held him as close as he could, stroking his hair and whispering “shush now” until the shaking subsided.
His senses were overwhelmed by the scent of De Lancey’s damp hair, mingled with the earthy aroma of the wet leaves on the floor of the gully and the tang of blood that remained in the evening air from the previous day’s battle, and when the clouds parted and a shaft of moonlight illuminated the scene he could not help but gasp in astonishment at the sight of the face looking up at him. He knew that the flushed cheeks, wide eyes and slightly parted lips were merely symptoms of De Lancey’s current condition but some part of him was subconsciously interpreting them as signs of arousal and his own body was reacting accordingly - a response that he had never even suspected himself of possessing.
He managed to tear his gaze away from De Lancey’s upturned face, cleared his throat and tried to sound as if he were simply doing his job. “Perhaps I should go out there and see if the way is clear for us to attempt a return to camp.”
“No,” said De Lancey, though it was more of a question than an order, “I am sure they will come looking for you in the morning and I want to be absolutely certain that we get back safely.”
The lascivious grin that Grant had so despised only hours before appeared on his face and Grant found that it was not at all displeasing when it was so obviously directed at him.
“After all,” De Lancey continued, glancing down at Grant’s crotch and then back up at his face with a wicked glint in his eyes, “I must make sure you are properly rewarded for saving my life.”