Grant smiled ruefully as he entered the Duke of York inn on Magdalen Street. He had been worried when De Lancey had not shown up for their lesson that afternoon but now he saw why. A large table in the centre of the main room was occupied by a group of officers from the 17th Light Dragoons and they had clearly been there for some time. He tried to catch De Lancey’s eye but his friend was deep in conversation with another young man and did not appear to notice him.
“Lieutenant Grant?” A booming voice cut through the general chatter that filled the room and he turned to see a rather large fellow dressed in the style of a country gentleman holding out his hand in greeting.
“Mr. Hickey, I presume,” he said, trying not to cringe at the limpness of the man’s handshake.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir!” Hickey looked Grant up and down. “Why, you are the very image of your brother - perhaps even more dashing, if I may say so.”
Grant was not in the humour to make small talk. “I believe you have a package for me, sir?”
Hickey seemed rather put out by his abruptness but handed over the parcel he had been holding under his arm. “Perhaps you would care to join me for a drink?” he gestured towards a table in the corner. “I am sure Walter would like to know how you are getting along in the army.”
Grant glanced over his shoulder at the Dragoons, several of whom were now looking in his direction, nudging one another and sniggering, and decided it would be wise to take his leave before they got even more inebriated and started picking fights with the locals.
“That is very kind of you, sir, but I must return to the barracks. You may tell Walter that I am well.”
As he passed the table, he felt his foot catch on an obstacle. He stumbled and almost lost his balance entirely, provoking a roar of laughter from Major Wilson, who had extended a leg for the express purpose of tripping him up.
“What have you got there, Grant? More books?” Wilson was a particularly odious little man who took pleasure in the misfortunes of others and never missed an opportunity to mock Grant for his studious nature.
“I expect we will all be saluting you once you have finished reading that lot. Indeed, I cannot for the life of me understand why you aren’t at least a lieutenant-colonel already with your towering intellect.” The men around him found this amusing of course, they all knew full well that Grant did not have the means to purchase a promotion and was unlikely to climb that high up the ranks.
De Lancey kept his eyes down and took another drink from his glass. He hated this. Hated having to ignore his friend for the sake of some stupid honour code, hated the culture of entitlement and prejudice that forced him to do it, and - most of all - hated himself for being such a coward.
Colonel Oliver De Lancey had called him into his office earlier. “I am speaking as your uncle, William,” he had said, “and I hope I do not need to raise this matter as your commanding officer.” He had proceeded to lecture De Lancey about the amount of time he was spending with Grant, warning him that people were talking about it in a way that could “bring the regiment into disrepute” and even have him brought up on charges if it were believed in certain quarters.
What really galled him was not the implied accusation but the fact that the men of the regiment he had idolised as a boy would turn on one of their own. He had almost challenged his uncle to pursue the matter through official channels just so he could have the satisfaction of seeing the look on Wilson's face but he knew that such an act of defiance would effectively end his career.
So he swallowed his pride and laughed along with the others and took a long draught of his wine to drown the guilt at the hurt and confusion that crossed Grant’s face.
Grant knew he should not react but he was fed up with being treated like this and the sight of De Lancey joining in with the laughter was the final straw.
“Yes, Sir.” he looked Wilson straight in the eye. “I would offer to lend them to you but I fear some of the words may be outside the limits of your vocabulary.”
The silence that fell over the table was broken only by the sound of glasses being put down in haste as the men braced themselves for their leader’s reaction.
Wilson had turned a peculiar shade of purple and he seemed about to explode with anger but then a sly grin came over his face.
“Would you like to hear some of the words in my vocabulary, Lieutenant? What about conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman? No? Shall I simplify it for you? How about lewd behaviour? Or are they calling it sword practice these days?”
De Lancey almost choked on his wine. He had told no one except the Colonel about their lessons and he was sure his uncle would not have gone back on his word. He looked around the table and the expression on Captain Fletcher’s face said it all – he must have been listening outside the office and run straight to Wilson to tell him what he had heard.
He wanted to reach out to Grant, to reassure him that he had not betrayed his trust and certainly had never implied any kind of improper behaviour on his part, but the words would not come out.
Grant stood frozen to the spot, the shock of finding out that De Lancey had broken his promise and learning that the men had been gossiping about him compounded by the need to admit to himself that the scandalous act they were talking about had in fact crossed his mind on more than one occasion. He could feel his face burning and tears stinging his eyes as he made for the door.
“There is still the matter of your insubordination, Lieutenant.” Wilson called after him. “We will deal with that when we return to the barracks.”
Grant lay awake in the darkness; the fear of what Wilson was planning seemed insignificant compared to the pain of De Lancey’s betrayal. Had it been a joke to him all along? Had he gone back to his regiment after their lessons and entertained Wilson and Fletcher with stories of Grant’s attempts to master the sabre? Had he noticed the way Grant sometimes looked at him and laughed about it over a bottle of fine wine with his fellow officers?
When Wilson and his cronies burst into the barracks, the other officers of the 11th Foot who shared the accommodation with Grant dutifully filed out into the yard. They had offered to stand up for him but he had declined, realising that their involvement would only make things worse for everyone concerned. Grant got up from the bed and stood to attention. He knew this was not official and he was tempted to refuse to comply but he understood this was the way things were done and just wanted to avoid any further trouble.
“Drop your trousers and bend over.” Wilson took off his sword and detached the sling belt from the scabbard, swinging the leather strap though the air with a sadistic grin.
“Who wants to go first?” his cast his eyes slowly over the men. “I would choose Captain De Lancey, but I fear Grant would enjoy that too much.” The men sniggered and Wilson gave a crack of the strap, showing off for the benefit of his audience.
“Fletcher. I will let you have the honour.” He handed over the sling belt. “Hold him down, De Lancey.”
De Lancey walked over to Grant with his eyes fixed on the ground, taking hold of his shoulders and holding him in position over the end of the bunk. Grant thought he heard a whispered “sorry” but he refused to turn his head to see if it was any more than his imagination.
The men took turns with the belt, delivering six strokes each with differing amounts of conviction and force. Grant closed his eyes and tried to keep his breathing steady, determined not to make any sound that would add to the Major’s satisfaction. He remained perfectly still as the belt raised angry red welts across his exposed flesh but he felt De Lancey flinch every time a blow landed and the grip on his shoulders tighten when Wilson took over at the end and put all his strength into the final six.
“Perhaps you will think twice in the future before casting aspersions on the character of a superior officer.” The Major turned on his heel and led his men out of the room.
After that, Grant vowed that he would never allow anybody to make a fool of him again. He kept to himself even more than usual and avoided the Mess at the times when he knew the 17th would be there. When he saw De Lancey approaching him in the yard, he turned and walked away; when he found notes in a familiar hand slipped under his door, he burned them without reading them; and when he heard that the horsemen would be leaving the garrison in a few weeks’ time, he breathed a sigh of relief.
On the morning of their departure, he went for a walk to avoid all the pomp and ceremony associated with the sendoff of such an esteemed regiment. With his mind on other things, his feet followed the route they knew best and he found himself in the clearing he had been avoiding for the last few weeks. He sat down by the tree stump where he had first seen De Lancey and could not help recalling the time they had spent there. That grin, that mischievous chuckle, the pride in De Lancey’s eyes when he got the moves right - it had seemed so real, surely it could not all have been a lie?
Listening to the sound of drums and bugles fading into the distance, Grant sighed and cursed his own stubbornness. He should have said farewell. De Lancey was going off to a war that had claimed so many lives already and the thought of seeing that name on a list of the injured and dead was almost too much to bear.
He leaned back and felt something hard digging into the nape of his neck. Reaching behind him, he discovered that there was an object wrapped in wax paper wedged between the two parts of the tree stump. He managed to free it from the narrow gap and immediately recognised the familiar weight of a light cavalry sabre in his hand.
He untied the strings and opened the package to reveal a gilded hilt with a leather grip and a shining blade engraved with three words: Sing Your Song.