It was a sweltering night in northern Spain and Lord Wellington’s officers were enjoying a well-earned rest after the exertions of the previous day’s battle. Now that the French had been driven back to a safe distance, they finally had time to relax and take in their surroundings.
Sitting around a fire on the shore of a small lake, they passed around the bottles of wine they had liberated from the enemy and entertained each other with stories of their daring victories and narrow escapes. Coats and sashes were discarded with abandon, and many of them removed their boots and stockings and wandered down to the cool water to relieve their aching feet.
As De Lancey sat watching Fitzroy Somerset regale the assembled company with tales of his alleged escapades, many of which would have been quite impressive had they been remotely true, a plan began to hatch in his head. He nudged Grant and whispered something in his ear, causing the major to choke on his wine and fake a coughing fit to hide his mirth.
For the next hour, the two of them listened with rapt attention to Somerset’s incessant boasting, greeting each of his exaggerated claims with a “Huzzah!” and making sure his glass was always full.
Nobody noticed that they were taking only the smallest of sips from their own glasses or thought it strange when first Grant and then De Lancey made their excuses and departed from the merry throng.
The other officers gradually drifted off and made their way back to their quarters, but Somerset did not appear to notice that he no longer had an audience. He carried on talking and raising his glass to the empty space around him, his head nodding every now and then as the effect of the heat and the alcohol became inevitable.
He did not react when a small red squirrel appeared out of the trees and bounded over to where he sat propped against a large boulder, and he barely registered when the creature began to unfasten the buttons on the legs of his breeches with its tiny paws, although he did make a couple of half-hearted attempts to swat it away when it turned its attention to the waistband.
Its job done, the squirrel scurried back into the woods and a few minutes later a handsome red fox emerged from the very same spot. The fox crept stealthily over to Somerset and began tugging at the bottom of his breeches. It worked slowly and methodically, alternating between one leg and the other until it had managed to pull them down as far as his knees.
Somerset woke with a startled snort and glanced around, but the fox had sensed his movement and disappeared behind the boulder. He immediately fell back into a drunken stupor, muttering to himself, “What a peculiar dream,” whereupon the animal finished divesting him of the breeches and made off with them into the night.
The next morning, De Lancey was up bright and early, suggesting to Lord Wellington that as it was such a beautiful day this would be the ideal time for him to take a stroll around the camp and have a few words with the men. Always happy to congratulate his troops on a job well done and provide a boost to morale, his lordship agreed wholeheartedly and they set off at a leisurely pace, discussing the French army’s likely next moves as they went.
As they approached the main body of the encampment, they came upon Major Grant, who saluted briskly and fell into step alongside De Lancey, adding his observations to the conversation and casually steering their route towards the site of the previous night’s festivities.
Somerset was lying where they had left him, unconscious and trouserless in the shade of the boulder.
“Well!” exclaimed Lord Wellington. “What in God’s name has been going on here?”
“My Lord.” De Lancey glanced at Grant and looked away quickly to prevent himself from breaking into a grin. “Perhaps you should return to headquarters and let us deal with this.”
“I shall do no such thing.” Wellington was indignant. He nudged Somerset’s prone form with the toe of his boot.
“Somerset!” His voice echoed across the still water of the lake. “What is the meaning of this?”
Somerset’s eyes shot open and he jumped to his feet, apparently unaware of his state of undress until he noticed the expression of disgust on his commanding officer’s face and glanced down at his bare legs.
Wellington raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain yourself, man?” he snapped.
“My Lord,” Somerset stammered, “I have no idea.. . I mean I was just...”
As Wellington continued to stare at him with a burning intensity, he felt a familiar sensation beginning to percolate in his groin and groaned to himself, “not now.”
“Did you say something, Lieutenant Colonel?”
“No, sir! I mean yes, sir. I was just remarking on the stunning view, sir.” Somerset attempted to divert Wellington’s attention by indicating the vista behind him but it was too late. Although his shirt was long enough to preserve his modesty under normal circumstances, it could do nothing to hide the obvious signs of his arousal.
He turned beet red and glared at Grant and De Lancey as if he knew they had something to do with his predicament but could not for the life of him figure out how they had accomplished it, but they kept their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon and showed no indication of complicity.
Wellington retained his composure but he was clearly having trouble processing the sight in front of his eyes. “I’m afraid my tour of the camp will have to wait until later, Colonel,” he said to De Lancey. “This incident has put me in a most disagreeable mood.”
He turned on his heels and strode off, admonishing the unfortunate Somerset as he passed.
“I pride myself on allowing my officers a certain degree of latitude in how they conduct themselves but this is beyond the pale. Sort yourself out, man, and report to General Stewart at once for disciplinary proceedings.”
Grant and De Lancey continued to stare straight ahead and somehow managed to hang on until Wellington was out of earshot before they let their obvious glee get the better of them, prompting Somerset to turn and flee as fast as his naked legs would carry him.
De Lancey threw an arm around Grant’s shoulder and tried to catch his breath between the convulsions of laughter that shook his body.
“At least,” he gasped, “he remembered to stand to attention.”