Captain Colquhoun Grant looked out over the streets of Roseau and wondered if he should try to return to the barracks.
The regiment had moved from Martinique to Dominica the previous year and he had become accustomed to the routine of life in the island’s capital. Aside from the day-to-day tasks associated with the command of his company, his duties consisted mainly of trying to maintain discipline among men who had too much time on their hands in the unrelenting heat and humidity and frequently overindulged in the local cheap rum.
He spent much of his own free time sitting in what shade he could find, reading and sketching the dramatic grandeur of the rugged mountains and dark green tropical forests. He found that the focus required for drawing helped to prevent his mind from wandering into painful territory and although he could not entirely stop hoping for news from De Lancey, he was almost beginning to believe his own words about their separation being for the best.
He had been on his way to meet the new man they were expecting from the Quartermaster General’s Department when the French had attacked the previous day and had remained in the town in case he was needed to assist in the defence of the harbour, but with the exchange of fire between the French ships and the British guns continuing unabated he was starting to think he would be of more use back at the fort.
As he leaned out to close the window, his attention was caught by a sudden flash of light and he realised with horror that a piece of cotton wadding from one of the cannon had landed on the wooden shingled rooftop of a nearby house and set the building alight.
Grant ran down the stairs and onto the street, where he found a scene of total chaos. The fire had taken hold with astonishing speed and people were panicking and running in all directions to escape the flames.
He tried to make his voice heard above the cacophony of shouts and screams and had managed to get the attention of the soldiers who were arriving on the scene, urging them to form a bucket chain to bring water from the nearest well, when a young woman came running up to him and grabbed hold of his arm.
“Sir, please, my children, they are in that house. I could not reach them.”
Grant pulled his neck-cloth up over his face and dashed into the burning building, searching through the smoke until he found the children huddled together in a doorway.
He picked up the smallest in one arm and held out his hand for the others, but they were too terrified to move. Realising how frightening he must look, he knelt down in front of them and lowered the neck-cloth so they could see his face, reassuring them with soft words, “it is alright, come with me,” as he led them to the relative safety of the street.
“Oh thank you, sir.” The woman gathered the children into her arms and Grant was about to turn his attention to the fire-fighting efforts when the little girl looked up at her and asked, “what about the other man, mother?”
Grant bent down to her level and tried to appear calmer than he felt. ”What other man?”
“The kind man with the red coat like yours, sir.” She pointed at his chest with a dirty finger. ”He helped us get down the stairs but he did not come out. He said his name was William”
Grant felt his blood run cold but shook his head and told himself not to be ridiculous. There must be dozens of soldiers with that name on the island and besides, De Lancey was with the 45th on the other side of the world.
He dipped his neck-cloth in a passing bucket of water and tied it around his face again before heading back into the house.
Although he could barely see his own hands in front of his face through the smoke-filled air, he managed to make his way through the door where he had found the children and caught sight of a flash of red under a pile of debris at the foot of the burning staircase.
He could see that the man’s leg was trapped under a fallen beam and as he moved closer he recognised a familiar belt in the form of two lion heads joined with a snake clasp.
“Oh God!" He fell to his knees beside the prone form. “Please God, no.”
De Lancey opened his eyes and blinked.
“William!” The relief was overwhelming. “Thank God! What on earth are you doing here?”
“I was on my way to meet you actually. Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General De Lancey, at your service.” The laugh that rose in his throat at Grant’s astonished expression turned into a hacking cough as he inhaled a lung full of smoke.
“I don’t suppose you could move this damned thing off my leg, only I would rather like to get out of here before we are roasted alive.”
Grant put his arms around the end of the beam and tried with all his strength to lift it but it would not budge.
He was still trying to shift it when De Lancey cried “Watch out!“ and he looked up to see a burning plank hanging precariously out of a hole in ceiling above them.
Without thinking, he threw himself forward to cover De Lancey’s body with his own as the plank toppled over the edge and landed on his back, burning through his coat and shirt and searing the skin beneath before he managed to shake it off.
He remained in that position for a few seconds as he caught his breath then raised himself up on his elbows and looked down at De Lancey with a wild grin on his face.
“That was a close call.”
“A close..?” De Lancey tried to push him away, fearing that the pain of the burn on top of his previous injuries had sent him quite mad. “For God’s sake get out of here before it all comes down!”
Grant just smiled and shook his head, his eyes now filled with a calm resolve.
“No. I am not leaving you. Not again.” He lay down next to De Lancey and reached out to take his hand, interweaving their fingers and making it very clear he was not going to let go.
Too weak too argue, De Lancey brought Grant’s hand up to his lips and kissed it softly as he slipped into unconsciousness.
De Lancey woke with a start and was relieved to find he was in a well-appointed room in what he took to be one of the forts he had seen on the hillside and not in the garrison hospital, which he had been told was a place of death and should be avoided at all costs.
The nurse who was attending to the dressing on his leg glanced up at him. “Good morning, sir, it is good to see you awake.”
“Never mind me.” His head spun from the effects of the smoke as he tried to sit up and lever himself out of the bed. “Where is Grant?”
The nurse gently placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. “The officer who was with you?”
“Yes. Is he….?”
She smiled reassuringly and patted him on the arm. “Do not worry, he is in the room next door. If you wish, you can go in to see him when I have finished with this bandage.” She sighed and rolled her eyes as he tried to get up again. “So it would be in your best interest to let me get on with it.”
Grant was standing by the window, the fresh dressing on his shoulders visible through the slit in the back of his nightshirt, and he did not look around when he heard the door open.
“I know we managed to chase the French off.” De Lancey hobbled over on his crutches. “But the sight of their retreat cannot be that interesting.”
“It is not the French I am looking at.” Grant gazed in wonder at the iridescent colours of the flowers in the forest surrounding the town and the golden rays of the early morning sun reflected on the azure sea beyond as if he were noticing it all for the first time.
As De Lancey shifted his position on the crutches to try and see what it was that was so enthralling, he lost his balance and instinctively grabbed onto Grant’s waist to steady himself. He cursed himself for his clumsiness and was about to apologise but instead of pulling away like he expected, Grant leant back into his embrace.
“Look at it William. It is so beautiful.“
De Lancey laughed. “I do not know what medicine they are giving you but I would certainly like some.”
“It is not the medicine.” Grant turned to look at him. “I do not know exactly what it is, but for the first time in years I feel alive.”
His smile was radiant and there was a wicked glint in his eyes as he lifted De Lancey’s hand from his waist and moved it lower.
“Oh!” De Lancey gasped in delight. “Indeed you do!”
Discarding the crutches, he rushed to the door and stuck his head out into the corridor. ”Nurse!”
She appeared out of the next room with an armful of bed linen and a concerned expression and it was all he could do to keep a straight face. “We have some important business to discuss. I would appreciate it if you could ensure we are not disturbed for the next hour.”
“Of course, sir.” She frowned slightly at his surprised grin as Grant moved around behind him to ensure he was hidden by the door and slipped a hand under his nightshirt.
“Actually,” he called after her as she walked off briskly down the corridor, “make it two.”