Marlborough as a hero, though praise was tempered with criticism of the high number of casualties among their regiments. On his return to England in December, he was greeted by cheering crowds and honours were heaped upon him.

When 1705 dawned and the campaigning season neared, there was justifiable optimism in the air. It was felt by many that Marlborough would build on the success of Blenheim, achieve other startling victories in the field and bring the War of the Spanish Succession to an end on terms dictated by the Allies. Optimism, however, was short- lived. The first setback occurred during the voyage to the Netherlands in April. Caught in a squall, Marlborough's yacht ran aground on the sandbanks of the Dutch coast. He had to endure a gruelling four-hour pull in an open boat against wind and tide. There were moments when it looked as if the elements would destroy a man who had survived fierce battles against the finest army in Europe. He was fortunate to reach dry land alive. The ordeal left him with a fever and a pounding headache.

There was worse to come. When he reached The Hague, he found the Dutch army unready to take the field and unwilling to fight far beyond its immediate borders. Always thinking ahead, Marlborough had arranged during the winter for his supply depots to be fully stocked so that his army never had to forage while on the march. To his dismay and fury, he discovered that the depots were half-empty owing to neglect, corruption and betrayal. Instead of being able to nourish his army's advance up the Moselle, his depleted stores were a huge problem. There were few opportunities to forage in the stark countryside and unseasonably cold weather was another distinct hazard. Marlborough complained bitterly that they were much more afraid of starving to death than of the enemy.

The loss of Huy, a citadel on the Meuse, had forced him to abandon his bold scheme to strike across the French border and he had to lead his entire army north. He did so with great reluctance but Marshal Overkirk — the one Dutch commander in whom he could confide — was desperate for reinforcements. It was almost two years since Marlborough had captured Huy from the French and it had both strategic and symbolic importance for him. It could not be left in enemy hands. Though the fortress was soon retaken, Marlborough remained depressed.

'We were out-manoeuvred, Adam,' he admitted.

'Circumstances conspired against us, Your Grace.'

'Fearing an attack up the Moselle valley, the French diverted us by attacking Huy. They knew that General Overkirk lacked the numbers to defend it. We simply had to retire in order to rescue them. Yet another plan of campaign was wrecked. With enough money, men, horses, artillery and commitment from our allies, I could bring this war to a satisfactory conclusion by the end of the summer.'

'It's not destined to be the summer of 1705,' noted Cardonnel, sadly.

'Nor any other, I fear. How can I attack the French where it will really hurt them when I'm trapped in the Low Countries?' He gave a weary smile. 'I'm sorry to rant on like this, Adam,' he went on. 'You know the difficulties we face only too well. Nothing can be gained by endless protestation. Forgive me.'

'There's nothing to forgive, Your Grace.'

Adam Cardonnel was extremely able and intensely loyal. He was the son of Huguenot refugees who had fled from the atrocities in France that followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes twenty years earlier. Sickened by the persecution, he had vowed to fight against the all-conquering army of Louis XIV; and Cardonnel's mastery of French was a potent weapon. Marlborough relied heavily on him and his secretary was never found wanting. The captain-general of the British forces was a striking figure even though he was now in his fifties. He was known for his grace, natural authority and infinite charm. Only close friends like Cardonnel were allowed to see him in blacker moods and to know his innermost feelings.

'We must be satisfied with more modest gains this year,' said Cardonnel. 'It's foolish to hope for another Blenheim every time we take up arms.'

'I know, I know,' said Marlborough, shaking his head. 'We must be patient. The trouble is that patience requires time and I'm fast running out of it. Most commanders have retired before they reach my venerable age.'

Cardonnel was about to point out that Marlborough looked far younger than he really was when he was interrupted by a noise outside the tent. A guard entered.

'There's a French prisoner who insists on seeing you in person, Your Grace. He says that he has something of great value.'

'Has he been relieved of his weapons?'

'He handed them over when he arrived in camp.'

'Then let's see the fellow.'

The guard withdrew for a few moments then entered again with a blue-coated trooper who wore a neat moustache and pointed beard. The prisoner bowed and released a stream of French, gesticulating with both hands as he did so. Marlborough was mystified but Cardonnel burst out laughing.

'I hope that you understand the rogue, Adam,' said Marlborough, 'because I could only translate one word in ten.'

'He was deliberately teasing you, Your Grace,' explained Cardonnel. 'Ask him to introduce himself and you'll understand why.'

'Captain Daniel Rawson, at your service,' said the prisoner, doffing his hat.

'Is that you, Daniel?' asked Marlborough, peering at him. He let out a cry of recognition. 'By Jove, I do believe it is! Since when did you join the Royal-Carabinier regiment?'

'It was a temporary enlistment, Your Grace. Luckily, the man who loaned me this uniform was close to my own height and build. I'll be happy to tell you the full story. First, however,' he added, reaching into his right boot to extract something, 'here are some dispatches sent to Marshal Villeroi. I had the good fortune to intercept them on the way.'

'Tell us how,' said Marlborough, dismissing the guard with a flick of his hand and taking the missives from Daniel. 'Are these from King Louis himself?'

'They're copies of his orders,' said Daniel. 'I had to deliver the originals. I broke the seals on them, noted their contents then sealed them up again with care. Only by handing them over in person to Marshal Villeroi could I be certain of being entrusted with his reply.'

Cardonnel was amazed. 'You went straight to the heart of the French camp?'

'It seemed a shame to waste this uniform.'

'And you have Villeroi's reply?'

'In his own fair hand,' said Daniel, fishing it out of his other boot and holding it up. 'He's expecting it to be opened in Versailles and not here.'

'You took a terrible risk, Daniel.'

'It was all in a good cause, sir.'

'This is wonderful,' said Marlborough, reading the two copies before passing them to his secretary. 'Villeroi has orders to retire to Tongres and adopt a defensive attitude. It was ever thus — defend, defend, defend. That's all they do. Bringing the French to battle is more difficult than passing through the eye of a needle with a herd of camels. What was the marshal's reply?' He took the sealed dispatch from Daniel and opened it, translating it as he ran his eyes over the looping calligraphy. 'He congratulates the King on the wisdom of his decision and promises to abide by it. Villeroi is far too circumspect to do anything as rash as to mount a major attack.' After giving the dispatch to Cardonnel, he turned his attention to Daniel. 'You promised us the full story,' he went on. 'When I sent you into enemy territory to gather intelligence, it never occurred to me that you'd bring back a haul like this. I congratulate you.'

'Did you undertake the enterprise alone?' asked Cardonnel.

'No, sir,' replied Daniel. 'I had the assistance of a young lady.'

Marlborough laughed. 'There's no surprise in that, Daniel,' he said. ’You're the scourge of the fairer sex. You have a tradition to maintain. Dressed like that, you could win over any woman.'

'Oh, I had a full beard when I persuaded this one to help me and I was disguised as a peasant at the time. It was only afterwards that I became a trooper in a French regiment. I shaved off most of the beard and kept what you see now.'

Daniel gave them a lengthy account of his adventures on the other side of the French border. Listening intently, Marlborough and his secretary were torn between amusement and admiration, smiling at the comical elements in his tale and struck yet again by his bravado. Daniel Rawson had patently enjoyed every moment of his escapades. He was now ready for more action.

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