'Yes, Captain Rawson.'

Daniel was taken aback. 'You know who I am?'

'Everybody in the 24 ^th knows who you are, sir,' said the drummer with a sense of awe in his voice. 'On my first day here, I was told about some of your escapades.'

'And when was that, Tom?'

'Two weeks ago.'

'You've only been with us two weeks?

'Yes,' said Welbeck, sourly, 'and it's a fortnight too long. Tom ought to be at home, looking after his mother, instead of coming here to be butchered by the French.'

Hillier stiffened defensively. 'I'm not afraid of a fight, Uncle.'

'You can't kill anyone with a pair of drumsticks.'

'Strictly speaking, he can,' Daniel put in. 'Drums are vital instruments of war. Because they can be heard above the noise of battle, they're ideal for issuing commands. You know that as well as anyone, Henry. There was a time, many years ago, when you were merely a drummer boy.'

'That's why I joined this regiment,' Hillier explained. 'I wanted to follow my uncle's example. I've always looked up to him. I may begin with a drum but I hope to carry a musket in time.'

'More fool you, lad!' said Welbeck, scornfully.

'You couldn't have picked a better man on whom to pattern yourself,' Daniel observed. 'Henry Welbeck is the finest sergeant in the whole British army.' He winked at his friend. 'He's also the kindest and sweetest.'

Hillier smiled nervously. 'That's not what I've heard, sir.'

'Then you heard right,' said Welbeck. 'Look for no kindness from me, Tom, and expect no sweetness. Harsh words and a kick up that scrawny arse of yours are all you'll get from me or from any half-decent sergeant. We're here to mould recruits into good soldiers not to mollycoddle them. Your mother did you no favour, sending you here.'

'Mother tried to stop me joining the army.'

'Then you should have heeded her.'

'Why did you defy her?' asked Daniel.

'I've thought and dreamt of nothing else, Captain Rawson,' said Hillier, face igniting with pride. 'I love the sound of drums when a regiment is on parade. It stirs my blood. Back in England, I had a life of boredom on our farm. There's nothing heroic in doing all those chores. I want to see action on the battlefield. I want to fight against the French. I want to serve Queen and country.'

'Wait until the first musket ball whistles past your ear,' warned Welbeck. 'You'll change your mind then. Wait until you've filled your breeches with terror at the sight of an enemy attack. You'll forget all about Queen and bloody country.'

'I think the lad's got more backbone than you give him credit for, Henry,' said Daniel, tolerantly. 'A willing volunteer should be nurtured. Welcome to the regiment, Tom,' he added, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. 'I'll leave you and your uncle alone to become more closely acquainted.'

'I don't want a closer acquaintance!' insisted Welbeck. 'I joined the army to get away from my family. As far as I'm concerned, they don't exist.' He glowered at Hillier. 'Did you hear that?'

'Yes, Uncle,' said the drummer, backing away. 'I'm sorry. Forgive me for intruding.'

After bidding them farewell, he turned on his heel and walked disconsolately away. Daniel watched him go.

'You're being very cruel to the lad, Henry,' he said.

'Tom needed to be told the truth.'

'He's your nephew!

'Yes,' said Welbeck, 'and that's what unnerves me. He reminds me of all the things I've struggled to put behind me.'

'Try to see it from his point of view.'

'He's a drummer, Dan. He doesn't have a point of view.'

'Tom is a callow youth, chasing his ambition. He's alone in a foreign country, cut off from his family and friends. He deserves a little guidance from his uncle. Is that too much to ask?'

'Yes, it is.'

'Even you are not that hard-hearted, Henry.'

'I don't want him here.'

'Why ever not?' said Daniel.

'Because he's a responsibility — Tom is someone I ought to care for, Dan. As soon as I do that, I know I'm going to be hurt. Let myself grow fond of the lad,' said Welbeck, ruefully, 'and what will happen? He'll be shot to pieces or trampled to death by a cavalry charge at the Lines of Brabant and I'll be the one who has to write to his mother.'

'You could at least be civil to the lad.'

'He has to respect my rank. Tom has to look at me as an army sergeant and not as a relative of his. If he were my own brother, I'd treat him the same way.'

'Blood is thicker than water, Henry.'

'It can be spilt just as easily.'

'Encouragement was all that Tom was after.'

'Well he won't get it from me,' said Welbeck, firmly. 'I'd never encourage anyone to join the army. It's a dog's life and my nephew will soon find that out — if he manages to stay alive long enough, that is. When he sees how many French regiments are defending the Lines of Brabant, he'll wish he stayed at home on the bloody farm.'

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was nothing if not a supreme strategist. Having lost the initiative in the Moselle valley, he knew that he had to regain it swiftly in the Low Countries. First, however, he was obliged to have a council of war with his Dutch allies. Seated around a table in his tent, they did not show great confidence in his plan. They believed that the Lines of Brabant — a series of strongholds, ramparts, palisades, redoubts and trenches running all the way from Antwerp to Namur — were an insurmountable barrier. To cross anywhere along its seventy-mile extent would, in their opinion, be to court certain defeat and heavy losses.

As usual, the general who led the opposition to Marlborough's proposal was Frederik Johan van Baer, Lord of Slangenberg, a proud and resolute man of sixty. He stood out from his colleagues for a number of reasons, including the fact that he was a staunch Roman Catholic in an avowedly Protestant army. From the very start of the war, he had been a thorn in the side of the commander-in-chief, questioning his every move, delaying his campaigns and refusing to acknowledge the victory at Blenheim as Marlborough's crowning achievement. It made for frosty relations between the two men.

'I dislike the idea intensely,' said Slangenberg, stroking his beard with aristocratic disdain. 'It's fatally flawed and will not deceive the French for a moment.'

'I believe that it will,' countered Marlborough. 'You prevented me from forcing the Lines two years ago and it was a costly mistake. I mean to break through them near Leau. Marshal Villeroi will then be drawn to that sector, allowing your forces, General Slangenberg, to find an easy way through the weakened defences near the Meuse.'

'It will not work.'

'My feint will deceive the French.'

'It would not deceive a child,' said Slangenberg, snapping his fingers. 'Marshal Villeroi will stay where he is and we'll find ourselves up against his strongest battalions. It's a foolish plan.'

Marlborough stifled a sigh and exchanged a glance with Adam Cardonnel. Councils of war were invariably a contest between British boldness and Dutch caution. To Marlborough's consternation, those contests were often lost and some of his most daring projects never outlived discussion. Another strategy now seemed in danger of being overruled. Fortunately, Marshal Overkirk, commander-in-chief of Dutch forces, came to Marlborough's aid.

'It's a sensible plan,' he claimed, 'and well worth trying.'

'You've always argued against an assault on the Lines in the past,' said Slangenberg, pointedly, 'and rightly so. Geography favours the French. Where they've not built fortifications, they have natural defences of mountains,

Вы читаете Drums of War
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату