The Company and The Crown
The stone that the builders rejected . . .
He lay on the ground in the stables, curled in a fetal position like a beaten dog, wishing he were dead. He didn’t know which of his torments was most unbearable—his humiliation and loss of dignity at being savagely horsewhipped by his father; or his broken spirit as he wallowed in a sense of utter worthlessness; or the searing physical pain from the multiple lashes delivered with a grown man’s full force, which had lacerated the skin on his back and shoulders and hips and ripped his shirt, drenching it with blood.
Every fluid that could emanate from the human body befouled his person—blood ran freely from the lashes on his back; he had urinated down his legs after the first lightning streak of pain coursed through his nervous system; by the time the sixth lash descended on him, he had defecated in his pants; spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed for mercy; snot exploded from his nose and mixed with the tears that streamed freely from his eyes; and the sour sweat of fear exuded from every pore of his body.
Stephen de Villiers had been beaten to within an inch of his life—and, given the way he felt now, death would have been a relief.
__________ o __________
Sir Phillip de Villiers strode into the gray stone mansion through the back door, slamming it shut so violently that the glass panes rattled as though they would break, threw his riding crop on the long, narrow oak table in the hall, and stormed up the banistered back staircase, swearing just above his breath.
Lady Margaret, struggling valiantly to maintain her composure and wringing her hands in terror, managed to croak plaintively, “What did you do to him?”
“I hope I beat him to death—the shameful coward! A disgrace to my name, the whimpering little swine,” he said, breathing heavily from his recent exertions.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked, terrified of his next move.
“I’m going to wash off the stench of cowardice and dishonor that has soaked my clothes and rubbed off on my body,” he snapped, continuing his angry ascent up the stairs.
“Where did you leave him?” she whimpered hesitantly through her sobs.
“On the floor in the stables—crying like a servant girl.”
She waited for him to enter his chambers on the floor above before she stole out the back door to minister to her son.
The sight that greeted Margaret’s eyes would have broken any mother’s heart—but this boy especially, her favorite, who bore her features: the full, red lips of her father’s family; the wide, expressive, dark-blue eyes; and the soft, light-brown hair that curled in profusion around his almost girlishly handsome face. The cold hand of fear clutched her heart as she looked down at him lying lifeless at her feet. She knelt, cradling his head to her bosom, and was relieved to see him open his eyes and let out a heart-wrenching sob.
“Please leave me alone, Mother,” he choked out. “I’m sorry I cannot be what he wants me to be—I’m better off dead.”
“That would break my heart—I’d die with you. Him and his damnable family honor,” she said, weeping helplessly through her tears, and she cursed the day her family was so flattered that he had signaled his attraction to her. She remembered how lucky her parents said she was to be the object of his attention—one of the de Villiers—The family with the proudest tradition in the county, going back over a hundred years. It had all sounded so noble and patriotic then, when she was young, but this was the price to be paid for that remarkable honor—this boy, the love of her life. This was the harsh outcome of what had sounded like a high-minded, romantic notion at that time, now reduced to the reality of personal terms. This was the boy who was to be sacrificed on the altar of that proud and noble tradition—her second son.
She remembered the day he was born and the satisfaction with which Phillip had gazed down at his newborn child, gratified that he had produced a second son to carry on the family tradition. The tradition that the second son of the mainline de Villiers family would die honorably in the service of his king and country had started with serendipitous, noble happenstance for the first few generations, but that honorable tradition had somehow transformed into a macabre expectation that went beyond the bounds of humanity and common sense. In previous generations it had seemed appropriate to the martial nature of the family, its status in the governance of the country, the tradition during that period that someone in every prominent family would serve in the military, and the turbulent history of the previous century.
Somehow Margaret could not believe that previous second-son de Villiers were eyed from the moment of their birth with that expectation. She had to believe that those had been careers of personal choice, voluntarily embraced by de Villiers men with full knowledge that they would serve with honor—that they would be willing, though not necessarily required, to give their lives for their country. Indeed, many such de Villiers men had survived for many years, enough for them to marry and have offspring of their own before the risk inherent in their way of life eventually caught up with them, and they succumbed in battle.
Phillip, on the other hand, had a merciless, twisted view of this noble tradition. He seemed to want it to be so. Fortunate enough to be the eldest son, born to carry on the family name and fortune, he did not have to live up to that burdensome expectation himself. In his generation, that banner had been picked up and carried with extraordinary panache and bravery by his younger brother, Stephen, who made the family sacrifice with singular flair and spectacular result at a battle in the woods of New York, along the Great Lakes in the Americas. He had won the Medal of St. George for valor—awarded posthumously to his grieving mother. It was for this brother, and in his honor, that Phillip’s second son was named, and from the earliest age it had been drummed into him that he was expected to live up to the high standard set by his namesake.
Margaret remembered vividly the day twenty years ago when, in a special military honors ceremony, the king had presented awards for bravery to those troops who had served the Crown in distant lands. Remembered the commendation that was read aloud for Stephen’s bravery, along with the additional royal gratitude for the long tradition of de Villiers men who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Remembered the king presenting the medal to Stephen’s stone-faced mother, struggling valiantly to hide her grief and appear to be brave and proud. Remembered how proud she, Margaret, had been to bask even indirectly in the family’s glory, all the while carrying in her belly the baby who would one day be asked to live up to that expectation. In her youth and naïveté, she did not comprehend the full significance of what that would mean to her. Remembered Phillip, so proud and handsome in his own uniform, leaning over to her as his mother received the medal and whispering, “If you are carrying a son, we will name him Stephen.” Remembered the surge of pride she had felt as she nodded in agreement—what a wonderful honor it would be to bear that noble name! The irony of it was too much for her to bear.
It wasn’t until her son, Stephen, was about seven years old that the scales began to drop from her eyes. It took the earnest entreaties of a troubled seven-year-old boy to ram the harsh reality of those cruel expectations through to her consciousness. It took his tales of a domineering father giving him a tour of the antechamber of the ancient family manse, which housed the portraits of each second-son de Villiers, proudly displayed, along with the calligraphic citation of that ancestor’s heroic sacrifice, and pointing out to him the space that had been reserved for his own portrait when the time came. It took the nightmares that recurred for several years afterward, resulting in a mentally traumatized child who woke up at night, whimpering in terror that a charging dragoon had slashed his throat with a saber or that he had been slain in a hail of bullets from a phalanx of musketeers, to drive home the personal nature of the dreadful fate that had been planned for this beautiful little boy. How could she have been so oblivious as not to have realized this sooner? It was then that she had resolved to do whatever was in her power to thwart Phillip’s devilish plan.
Phillip hadn’t always been so. She remembered the early years when he was a dashing young captain in the king’s regiment in Buckinghamshire who had swept her off her feet. She remembered how gallantly he had courted her, how much he had loved her, and she could tell that that passion had not cooled. He had been more fun-loving then, full of life and well respected by his community. He and his younger brother, Stephen, were in the same regiment, and they were an inseparable duo at all the regiment’s social events. What joy the three of them had had together that year, before they were married! Stephen was one of those rare souls who always seemed happy, no matter what the occasion. He had accepted his grim destiny with cavalier relish and lived with carefree abandon as a result. He enjoyed everything in his eventful life to the fullest, yet it never seemed excessive. Everybody wanted to be with him and to be like him, and no one was with him more than his brother Phillip. Their relationship was an exemplar of sibling camaraderie. Stephen entertained their friends with an easy manner, always drawing a round of hearty laughter and an extra round of drinks at the pub by claiming that, as the current second-son of the proud line of de Villiers, he was destined to go out in a blaze of glory, earning medals for valor and remembered forever with honor, while Phillip was sentenced to plod forward in a long and dutiful career that would eventually earn him his marble cross in a forgotten cemetery, and fifty years from now when Phillip’s name came up, people would say, “And who was he?”
Based on the reports they heard from Stephen’s commanding officers and his fellow soldiers in his regiment in America, his behavior there lifted the spirits of the entire force. It wasn’t mere swaggering bravado, but courage of the highest order in the face of enemy fire. Everybody there knew his story and what was expected of him and marveled that he never once shrank from the task. It wasn’t that he recklessly sought death; he was never careless. It was just that he truly did not seem to be afraid of it. He was fearless in battle, and his courage was contagious—his troops loved him, and he never put anyone down for not displaying the same bravado; he just encouraged them by his sterling example. He gave the impression that he believed he led a charmed life and paid no heed to the curse on the second son of each de Villiers generation that hung over him.
Ever since Stephen was killed in America, Phillip embraced his responsibility to provide the means for the next generation to carry on the de Villiers’s tradition, and, since the birth of his second son, that sense of responsibility gradually grew into a single-minded obsession that the younger Stephen grow up to be every bit as courageous as his uncle. Phillip watched in dismay as, year after year, his younger son failed to display the desired characteristics. The more Phillip regaled his son with tales of his uncle’s courage, with graphic and gory details of the battlefield mayhem in which his namesake was embroiled, in order to inspire his son and stiffen his spine, the more young Stephen quailed, as his vivid imagination transported him into the middle of the action, and he recognized instinctively how woefully inadequate he would be in that situation. The more Stephen shrank from what Phillip saw as his destiny, the more his father was determined that he would step up to it. It was after one of those frustrated exchanges, when Stephen was seventeen years old, that Phillip used his influence to enroll him in a private military academy, which specialized in preparing well-born youths for entrance into the armed forces of the Crown.
It took only six months for the military academy to give up on Stephen. Phillip de Villiers was advised that the academy was displeased with Stephen’s performance and wished to discuss his continuing attendance in person with Phillip. The meeting did not go well. Their assessment was that Stephen was singularly unsuited to a military career and, in their words, “cringed from the prospect of battle.” It was their expectation that he would be a liability to the morale of his comrades in the face of the enemy and that he would bring dishonor on himself, his regiment, and his family, were he to be placed in such a situation. The academy would not damage its reputation by recommending such a candidate for military service. Stephen was expelled.
Phillip knew that it had taken singular courage for the director of the academy to come to this decision and that it would not have been done unless they had exhausted every means to achieve a successful outcome. Phillip’s high social status, his powerful position in the War Office, and his reputation for ruthlessness would have given the director significant pause about confronting Phillip, so the decision had not been reached lightly. All these rationales raced through Phillip’s mind as he sat in the high-backed leather armchair in the director’s walnut-paneled office, whose walls were adorned with awards and military commendations for the success of the academy and its graduates through the hundred-plus years of its existence. Even though Phillip bristled at the insult to his family, he knew deep inside that his worst fears about his son were confirmed—the boy was a coward.
Phillip took out his fury on Stephen in the stables, but it was not to end there. He was done with his son. He turned his Machiavellian mind to devising merciless punishment for Stephen and trying to save his family name. He left the family seat and was gone to London for three days, leaving Margaret to tend to the savagely beaten boy. When he returned, he had cast the die for Stephen’s future.
__________ o __________
Stephen and Margaret were summoned into Sir Phillip’s study. He was standing behind his desk when they entered the room. The heavy velvet drapes were drawn open, allowing light to pour into the walnut-paneled study from a bank of three tall windows, illuminating bookshelves filled with the classics and scholarly, leather-bound tomes. The walls were lined with specially selected portraits of Phillip’s favorite relatives—his brother Stephen, of course, in the most prominent position. Medals and other honors awarded to the de Villiers family through the decades hung in glass-paned frames above the family portraits. The view through the windows was of manicured gardens and pools that stretched for two hundred yards, where they gave way to lush fields and meadows that made up the family estate, completing the impression of wealth and power that emanated from the room.
Phillip silently waved his wife and son into the two chairs in front of his imposing mahogany desk. He himself remained standing, as they nervously complied. The three leather panels embedded in the top surface of the desk, with their borders sporting an elegant, repeated pattern of a rose with a branch of leaves and thorns on either side, embossed in gold, were clear of all extraneous objects except for a bound leather folio containing some papers and an inkwell with a quill pen beside it. Everything about the setup was intended to intimidate—and it did.
Gone from Phillip’s demeanor was the fury of four days ago. It had been replaced by the terrifying calm of merciless power. Unhurriedly, he paced around his desk, his large athletic frame silhouetted against the windows, muscles bulging against the back of his tweed jacket. It looked as though had he chosen to tense and flex the muscles of his back, he would easily have ripped the seams of the garment. He exuded a physical power that was a force to be reckoned with. He stood menacingly above Stephen. He did not inquire about the lashes on Stephen’s back, although he could see from the lad’s uncomfortable posture as he sat forward, unable to lean against the padded leather back of the chair, that the wounds were probably still raw. Nobody spoke.
Eventually, Phillip began—innocuously enough. “Have you heard of the East India Company?”
Margaret and Stephen both nodded silently.
“What do you know about them?”
“They’re merchants, traders—they bring goods like silk and cotton from the Far East and sell them here in England. I’ve seen their headquarters in London,” Stephen said hesitantly.
“Yes,” Phillip confirmed, and Stephen’s and Margaret’s hopes rose, because the tone of his voice was not menacing. “But they are much more than that,” Phillip continued. “They also have a sort of pseudo military group, more like a police force deployed in India to protect the interests of their commerce. Their purpose is not like that of our forces in the Americas and in Canada, where my brother served. There, England’s purpose is colonization and governance. In India, England’s purpose is strictly commerce, and consequently military action is significantly less deadly than in the Americas.”
He paused to let this information sink in. He saw the relief in both Margaret’s and Stephen’s faces that so far he had not threatened further harm, and he decided to dispel that hope immediately.
“You have brought more shame on this family than any de Villiers ever has, and I cannot forgive it. My inclination is to send you to the battlefront in America and Canada in whatever capacity the military will have you. The fighting is intense against the French and Indians, as we fight for control of that continent. Since it appears now that you are unfit to be an officer, you would have to be an enlisted man. I have the power to do that, you know—like that!” He snapped his middle finger against his thumb for effect.
He paused again, relishing the terror in Stephen’s eyes and the anguish in Margaret’s.
“But for your mother’s sake,” he continued, “I have decided on a different course. You must still be severely punished—but it will not be a sentence of death.” He paused again.
“You cannot be permitted to continue to besmirch the de Villiers name,” he thundered, watching them shrink from the sound of his rumbling baritone as he paused to gain control again. “I have decided to disinherit you,” he said in a lower voice, snapping the words through his teeth, as he tapped the leather folder on his table.
“You will no longer be my son. You will no longer bear the de Villiers name. My lawyers have drawn up the papers for you to take a new name,” he continued, once again tapping the leather folder indicating that the requisite legal documents resided therein.
“I have an old colleague in the paramilitary arm of the East India Company, and I have prevailed on him to accept you as a junior officer in his command under your new assumed name. Nobody will know of your connection to the de Villiers except you and him. Keep it that way. They sail for India in two days. After two years of service there, you will have an opportunity to find a job in the commercial arm of the organization. You have a first-class education, speak like a gentleman, and have the manners for genteel company. You should be able to parlay those assets into a good job in that far corner of the world, and it is my sincere wish that you make something of yourself there and never return to England.
“I will personally take you to the port of Southampton tomorrow to be inducted into the service to make sure you do not try some last-minute dodge to escape your duty. Remember also, that if you attempt to escape after you are sworn in, they will treat you like a deserter and will hunt you down and shoot you. Considering what you have done, you are getting off lightly.”
Phillip de Villiers had not sat down through the entire interview. Now he strode to a side door, opened it, and ushered in the lawyer who had taken care of the family’s business for his entire career. The old man came in, drew a chair alongside Stephen, and then, opening the folio, gave him the papers to sign—first, the papers disinheriting him, then the papers establishing his new identity, and finally, his commission papers with the East India Company. His business concluded, the old gentleman bowed gravely to Stephen and wished him “Godspeed.” He then bowed to Lady Margaret and, with a grim face, left the room.
__________ o __________
Phillip was not about to risk the possibility that Stephen might try to run away. He ushered Stephen to the top of the mansion to a small suite that in an earlier generation served the family as a sort of prison where they had once kept an addled old relative under lock and key. The lockup was solid and impregnable, and the only person permitted to visit Stephen for the next day, until his escort to Southampton, was his mother, Margaret. Phillip was the only person who held the key.
__________ o __________
The two men stood silently beside the pier, observing the regiment boarding the awaiting ships. Sir Phillip broke the silence.
“Your job is to make sure he never comes back.”
Major Saunders stared hard into Sir Phillip’s eyes for a long time, divining the exact meaning of those words. Eventually he said, “There is only one way to be sure of that.”
“Precisely,” was the rejoinder, delivered between clenched teeth.
“That may not be easy. After all, this is 1756, the feudal era is long gone; there is the law, even in that part of the world. You just can’t make a man disappear without arousing suspicion—especially a soldier,” the major demurred, after a long and considered pause.
Phillip de Villiers glared at him with eyes as cold as ice. “I don’t want him to disappear. I want him dead.” His voice cracked like a whip.
That’s what Major Dudley Saunders had needed to confirm about the initial ambiguous order. What must the boy have done to deserve this merciless punishment—he didn’t dare ask. The man in front of him was not one to be trifled with. He sometimes wielded his power at the War Office with the crushing force of a bludgeon, sometimes with the finesse of a rapier, but always to deadly effect, if he was crossed. Everybody in the military knew of his reputation. Everybody knew of the de Villiers legend. Everybody knew and revered the story of Stephen de Villiers. But Phillip’s name was muttered with fear and distaste.
This was dangerous ground—the major had to be sure of all aspects of his contract; this was the life of the son of a powerful man in the Crown. He didn’t want after-the-fact recriminations about the manner in which he had executed de Villiers’s orders. He pressed further.
“He could run away—India is a big country.”
With some asperity, Sir Phillip snapped, “What do you do with deserters?”
“We hunt them down, court-martial, and execute them in front of the regiment,” the major answered promptly.
“That will do.”
The heartlessness of the answer sent a shiver through the major. Another long pause ensued as the officer wrestled in his mind with the task ahead.
“What if he serves his time, then takes an honorable discharge, and either stays on in India with the East India Company or returns home?”
“Good God, man!” expostulated Sir Phillip. “Do I have to spell it out for you? You have been specially selected because of your recent battlefield experience to form part of a core group that will strengthen the military arm of The East India Company. A strategic decision has been made at the highest levels of the government that there is going to be a vicious dogfight over the untold riches of the vast subcontinent of India as the Mughal Empire slowly crumbles. The French, the Dutch, Portuguese and Maratha’s, to name only the largest factions, are all going to be scrapping over it. We want the lion’s share, and are willing to put our fighting men in there to protect our commercial interests. Do you think I don’t know that?”
“That is highly classified information, sir. Only a handful of people know it.”
“Pah!” said Phillip with disgust. “Who the hell do you think I am? I was one of the architects of the decision.”
“I meant no disrespect, sir,” said Major Saunders quickly, now even more afraid of the power of this terrible man.
“Your regiment consists of battle-hardened troops,” Phillip continued. “You will be the tip of the spear in the campaign that is to start upon your arrival in India. Is that not so?”
“Yes, I believe it is,” acknowledged Major Saunders.
“Within weeks you will be in the battle of your life with the French, the Bengalis, and the Marathas. Make sure my son is in the thick of it. The enemy will take care of the rest.”
There, it was finally out, thought Major Saunders grimly—the man was indeed as villainous as he suspected.
“How do you wish me to inform you when it is done?” asked Major Saunders after a long pause, now getting down to the logistical details.
“His induction papers say that the law firm of Goodling and Paltrow are to be informed. They will contact me. To be doubly certain that there is no mistaken identity, due to battlefield confusion, send me the gold necklace that he wears around his neck with a scapular medal on it. It was a gift from his mother—some Papist charm to protect him from harm. He will never take it off as long as he lives. You can send that to the law firm with the rest of his effects and the military notice confirming his death. I will be sure then that it is he. Of course, all this will be under his current legal name—Robert Johnstone.
“When you have discharged this service to me successfully, I will personally see to it that you are transferred back to England forthwith, per our agreement, with a promotion to colonel and a plum assignment in the Royal Military College, training the future officer corps. You will then be able to spend your remaining career and retirement with your family, in safety, having earned the respect of the country and the Crown for your lifetime of gallant service.”
And so Stephen de Villiers, now Robert Johnstone, was banished from his homeland and sent to his death in the services of the East India Company.
Dominique was delighted that her husband’s brother, Jean-Pierre, had just returned from a three-year absence in France, where he had been pursuing his medical training. Her joy was quickly dimmed when she found that, instead of being excited to see his family again, he seemed distracted, dejected, and at a loss as to what to do with himself. She had anticipated that he would be full of stories about his experience in France, joyful to see all his loved ones again, and anxious to start his medical practice. Instead, he moped about, forlorn and depressed. He did his best to hide his feelings and would have gotten away with it, had it not been for Dominique, who sensed that something was wrong. Jean-Pierre and Dominique had always been good friends, even while growing up as teenagers. When Armand, his older brother, was courting Dominique, Jean-Pierre had been their most whole-hearted supporter. When they got married two years after Jean-Pierre left for Paris, the letter he wrote upon receiving the news was full of joy and congratulations. He had been overjoyed again a few months ago, when he had learned that he was to be an uncle, and offered solicitously to look after her during the delivery, for which he had every intention of being present.
Yet here he was, back in Bengal, but his mind and heart seemed to be elsewhere. Dominique had to get to the bottom of the mystery. She suspected there was a woman behind his misery and she dragged it out of him.
He had run into little Céline Bouchard while in Paris—their Céline from Chandernagore, who had been sent to finishing school in Paris. She had blossomed into a lovely young woman, and he was quite taken with her. Dominique was delighted. She knew the Bouchards well—Claude Bouchard was a prominent factor in the French India Compagnie of which Dominique’s father was the directeur général. They had been neighbors in Chandernagore for many years. She remembered Céline as a lovely little girl with a bubbly personality—a tomboy who would climb trees with the boys, go swimming in the lake with them, or jump off an overhanging branch or cliff ledge into the river below just for the fun of it. Coincidentally, she had left for Paris several years before, at around the same time Jean-Pierre had, only she was to be at a finishing convent school, while Jean-Pierre studied medicine. Apparently she had now grown up, and their paths had crossed in France. Céline would be an excellent foil for her serious brother-in-law, Dominique thought happily, so why was he so miserable?
Glumly, Jean-Pierre told her that Céline did not seem to return his interest and had rebuffed his clumsy overtures, preferring instead flirtations with the slightly younger set of idle, wealthy, carefree boys from some of the better Parisian families.
“Stupid girl!” Dominique admonished the absent Céline. “Ignoring a handsome young doctor, whom any woman in her right mind would be saying novenas to find, in favor of some feckless youth who only wanted to get inside her skirt.”
“Now, now, Dominique, be fair. She is still a teenager and feels more comfortable with boys her own age. She wants to live first and have a little fun before settling for some serious old fellow like me.”
“Stupid, stupid girl!” exclaimed Dominique unrepentantly. “Just look at you. Dashingly handsome beyond words—all you Malveaux men are—clever, well-mannered, and a true gentleman. What’s wrong with that idiot?”
“Maybe girls don’t like gentlemen. Maybe they like bad boys . . . look at you, for example.”
“Wait till she comes home from France next month,” persisted Dominique, ignoring the reference to her choice of Jean-Pierre’s rakishly wild brother, Armand. “I’ll give her a good talking to. You just leave it to me. I’ll have you in her good graces one week after she steps off that boat.”
“And what do you mean, look at me?” bristled Dominique, responding at last to Jean-Pierre’s remark. “Yes, Armand’s wild and charming ways attracted me, in spite of his bad-boy reputation. But you have to admit, it was a good choice. Look at him now—responsible, reliable, and well respected; a devoted husband and soon-to-be father.”
“You certainly have tamed him,” teased Jean-Pierre mischievously, knowing that would get under her skin.
He was right. Dominique clipped him on the back of his head. “I have not tamed him,” she protested sharply. “No one could tame Armand. It’s one of the things I love about him.”
Jean-Pierre’s despondency over his rejection by Céline seemed to have sucked the confidence out of the normally self-assured young man. To Dominique, he seemed to have lost his customary self-esteem and poise and projected the hangdog demeanor of a callow youth. It hurt her to see someone she loved and respected behave this way, and she tried her best to buck him up—reminding him of his excellent qualities, of the many girls who had chased him quite shamelessly, and the respect that all the adults had for him, especially since he had returned from Paris with a full-fledged license to practice medicine.
“Just wait till you set up your practice,” she said. “You’ll have the world at your feet, and Céline will be begging for your attentions.”
“She certainly didn’t do that in Paris,” replied Jean Pierre, wallowing in his misery. “I asked her out twice: once for an evening walk in the park and another time to attend a new show in Montmartre, where I had pulled a lot of strings to get the best tickets. Both times she made some excuse that she couldn’t go, yet I ran into her at those same places accompanied by one or the other of the young swains who were always hanging around her. She even saw me both times and turned and giggled something to her boyfriend, and they both laughed heartily. I felt so humiliated.”
“Slut!” she exclaimed cruelly.
“You don’t know that,” objected Jean-Pierre, rising chivalrously to Céline’s defense. “I’m sure she was not carrying on in that way. She was always out with different boys and seemed to be enjoying her popularity in a girlish sort of way. She just doesn’t like me. Maybe I’m too boring for her . . . or too serious . . . or too old.”
“You are not too old. You’re only six years older than she is. Just the right age for a husband.”
“But maybe she’s not looking for a husband. She’s young—in her first year out of school. Maybe she’s just looking to have some fun and will settle down later,” reflected Jean-Pierre hopefully, but not very convincingly.
“Right! And in the process she’ll lose the best suitor in the field,” scolded Dominique.
Jean-Pierre smiled wryly at her partisan reproach.
“Worse yet, she could run the risk of getting a bad reputation for her wild ways, and then you won’t want her—damaged goods,” Dominique snapped with righteous indignation.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I don’t think I’d be able to bear it. I have this uncontrollable fixation on her. No one else will do. If she does something disreputable, I don’t know how I would react. I’m afraid I would still love her and be willing to forgive—that is, if she realized that she did love me at last.”
“Then you’d be a damn fool!” Dominique responded angrily, irritated that a silly girl should get off so easily and frustrated with Jean-Pierre for not showing more gumption. “If she disgraces herself, let her pay the price. I’m sure I can find a lovely match for you. Beautiful, desirable girls come and go like flowers with every new season. This is Céline’s season, but it will pass—sooner than she thinks. But you will stay forever—like a rock!” She hugged Jean-Pierre’s arm and nestled her curly head on his shoulder lovingly.
“I’ll find you some lovely young girl, I promise,” she said. “Someone who will be worthy of you. I wish I had a little sister . . . or a cousin. But I will find someone.”
“Don’t look too hard. I’m determined to win Céline—when she returns from Paris. But don’t tell anyone of all this . . . promise me. I don’t want anyone else to know, in case it doesn’t go well.”
“Hmpff!” sniffed Dominique. She had drawn a line in the sand, and Céline Bouchard stood on the other side.
By the time Major Saunders and his battalion sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and arrived on the Indian subcontinent, the situation on the ground had changed. Robert Clive had been given a charter by the East India Company to strengthen its defenses in Fort William, Kolkata. The company was anticipating hostilities with the French trading post in Chandernagore because of the war between the two countries in Europe and their commercial rivalry in Bengal, as a result of which both countries had begun to expand their fortifications.
The new nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daulah, had begun to grow restless with the French, Dutch, and English trading settlements in his domain, and, despite their trade, tax, and tariff agreements, he became suspicious of their intent and warned them to stop rebuilding. The French, concerned with their vulnerability, did so. The acting British governor general of Kolkata, Roger Drake, responded that they were doing it for their own defense. This incensed the young and impetuous nawab, who rapidly began to build a large army. The Madras Council of the East India Company decided it would be best if they were to further reinforce Fort William in Kolkata as soon as possible. So, instead of disembarking at Madras as initially planned, part of Major Saunders’s force, consisting of an artillery battery and supporting infantry, continued to sail up the Bay of Bengal to shore up Fort William’s defenses. The major took Ensign Robert Johnstone with him to keep an eye on him.
Ensign Johnstone, to his surprise, found that the whole operation of expanding Fort William and rebuilding its defenses was a satisfying project, and he put his shoulder to it with gusto. The camaraderie of the officers on the long voyage east provided many evenings of easy discussion over pints of bitters in the officers’ mess. He even enjoyed drilling and training the raw recruits, who had been pressed into service from the civilian writers at the East India Company and the local residents of the three villages associated with Fort William. He appreciated the respect of the indigenous people toward their European masters, and his status as an officer boosted his confidence and self-esteem. Now that the specter of having to sacrifice his life for his country no longer haunted him, he found the routine of military life quite pleasing. The menacing hand of Phillip de Villiers, dangling the sword of Damocles over his head from the thin thread of family honor, had been removed, and Robert thrived under this newfound freedom. Major Saunders’s practical approach to battlefield behavior played a large part in this transformation. His attitude toward battlefield courage was distinctly different from that of Robert’s father, Phillip—and he was a combat veteran of unquestionable honor. He knew that his primary task was to build the morale of his officers, and he often expounded on battlefield behavior and the natural fear humans have of death.
“I don’t consider fear of death a dishonorable thing in a soldier. In fact, in a battle, I don’t want anyone around me who is not afraid to die. Anyone who is not afraid of death is a damn fool. It makes him careless, and carelessness will get you, and others about you, killed,” Major Saunders would say. “I want men around me who are capable of handling the fear and doing their duty nevertheless. That is true courage. I don’t want my men to be too eager to lay down their lives for their country. I want them fighting defiantly and desperately to live, so they can kill more of the enemy. That’s infinitely more effective than dying bravely.”
All this made perfect sense to Ensign Johnstone, and he was heartened that a much-decorated soldier like Major Saunders considered fear to be normal. He was determined to keep his own fear under control and not let Saunders down, when the time came.
The transformation that had been wrought in him was miraculous; it was as though when he shed the name Stephen de Villiers and took the name Robert Johnstone, he had become a whole new man.
3 The French Military Cantonment
Alain Malveaux, filled with the sap of youth, was overjoyed with the way things were turning out in his young life. He marveled at the sudden turn of events that had transformed the boredom of a life of wealth and ease at his father’s plantation in Chandernagore into the excitement and opportunity that fell upon him now like the monsoon rain. Ever since the summons from St. Cyr L’École had been delivered five months ago, life had been a dizzying blur of activity and enjoyment. He was absolutely chuffed that he had been selected to attend the prestigious military academy where France trained its officer corps. In a few months he would be shipping off to begin his two-year training in his home country, which he had never seen, having been born in India. Meanwhile, he was marking time here in the French cantonment in Chandernagore, as advance preparation for his future career.
Free-spirited and swashbuckling by nature, Alain accepted life as it came and embraced these new developments with energy and enthusiasm. He exuded the grace and the cavalier spirit of medieval French adventurers: his boyish figure, dashingly handsome in his military uniform; his carefree and outgoing demeanor; his politeness and charm with the ladies; his eagerness to learn and his respect for his superiors in the regiment (and everybody there was his superior); he was a delightful addition to the French contingent at Chandernagore.
Alain could not keep the smile off his face as he thought about these things, while brushing down the glossy coat of the new mount he had been assigned—a spirited stallion who had just been trained for military duty. He loved doing this chore, even though there were servants who could have done it for him. He enjoyed bonding with his new horse and speculated idly about what he was going to name him. He thought grandly about selecting a name to celebrate some of the great battles in French history—or better yet, some of the great heroes, like Roland—but he kept coming back to the notion of naming the steed Bouchard, in honor of the new girl in his life, Céline Bouchard. He was sure she would be immensely pleased by that.
The first 50 pages of The Company and the Crown
“Ah, Céline,” he reflected, with a quickening of his pulse and a stirring in his loins. She was yet another of the wonderful blessings that had showered down on him recently. He still marveled at how rapidly that relationship had progressed. Of course, since they had both grown up in Chandernagore, their paths had often crossed, and he had known her for several years. But they had been children then. More recently, she had been away for two years in a finishing school in France and had only now returned as a desirable and delightful young woman.
He remembered, with pleasure, the first time they had set eyes on each other since her return, at the regiment party celebrating Valentine’s Day. He was standing by the band, talking and joking with a small group of young officers when she entered the room with her family. All heads had turned to look at her. Sensing the stares, she swung her shoulder-length, soft, wavy, brown hair with a flourish, revealing a small, pert nose; large, almond-brown eyes; and full red lips, a replica of Cupid’s bow, perfectly planted in creamy-white skin. Her eyes singled out his, and they both smiled spontaneously in recognition and approval of how well the other had turned out. The attraction was instantaneous and mutual. No other soldier had a chance with this delightful prize for the rest of the evening. Shamelessly, they danced every dance together, unmindful of what others thought or whether they were being unsociable toward the rest of the party.
That winter of 1756 was the most wonderful of their young lives. They were madly in love. Wars raged around them, and lives and fortunes were in dire peril; but life for them was pure ecstasy. There was a lull in hostilities, and all that could be done in the cantonment was to prepare their defenses. Alain pitched into this with the gusto of youth, and when his day’s work was done, he was a regular visitor at the Bouchard home.
Being in love was a novel experience for both Alain and Céline, and, as he continued grooming his horse, Alain recalled the progression of his and Céline’s passion with increasing arousal, marked by the stiffening in his britches. He remembered what it was like to hold Céline close, as he did that first Valentine’s Day, when he met her. He remembered the excitement he felt a few days later when he kissed her outside her front door before returning to the barracks that night; the sweetness of her lips was exquisite, despite their inexperienced technique.
She had said to him at that time, “There’s this girl, Ghislaine, in my school in Paris, who says that the proper way to kiss is to slightly open your mouth and let the lips linger on each other. Ghislaine says that you can lightly taste each other’s lips with your tongue, and even let the tongues lightly flick against each other . . . Shall we try it?” He was more than eager to experiment, and they smooched each other awkwardly, searching for the technique that Ghislaine had recommended.
His reminiscences grew even more erotic as he remembered how the kissing had progressed to touching a few days later; his nervousness as he fumbled to open the front of her dress; and her half-hearted resistance as he revealed her breasts.
“What are you doing?” she protested weakly.
“I want to touch them—kiss them,” he said hoarsely. “They’re beautiful.”
She arched her back and bent her head forward, running her fingers through his soft, curly hair. “Ghislaine says it is more exciting if you suck them,” she encouraged him, sighing with pleasure when he was only too happy to comply. He knew he was satisfying her when she gently removed his mouth from one breast, only to insert the other in its place.
“My knees are feeling weak—I’m getting . . . all wet . . . down there,” she whispered passionately in his ear, taking the lobe into her mouth and gently chewing on it.
“Down where?” he croaked, hopefully.
“You know where,” she said, squeezing her breast hard against his mouth and her pelvis into his, till she could feel the stiff hardness of his youth through his britches, raising the surge of passion a few more notches in his loins.
He remembered, with increasing amazement at his boldness, how he had then reached under her skirt and into her underwear, into the soft bush of hair between her legs to discover that she was, indeed, wet down there.
“Here?” he asked, placing his fingers between her legs, exploring the wet mysteriousness of her secret places.
“Yes,” she said, egging him on, “Ghislaine says it feels even better if you go inside.”
He didn’t need more encouragement than that, inserting two middle fingers into the wet sanctity of her most closely guarded privacy, pressing harder and harder as she responded against his hand, culminating in a wild climax as he sucked her breast harder and harder.
“I love you,” he said, lifting his head from her breast to kiss her lips.
“I love you too,” she acknowledged and kissed him hard again, while he continued to move his fingers inside her.
“I’m finished now,” she said after a while, removing his hand.
He pulled his hand away and inspected the wetness, gingerly sniffing at it and then tentatively tasting it with his tongue.
“Don’t do that!” she said, moving his hand away from his lips, although he noticed that she was pleased.
“Why? It tastes . . . nice. I like the taste of you.”
“Do you do that to all the girls you meet?” she asked uncertainly.
“No! Never!” he protested. “You’re the first. I have never loved anyone before. You’re the first girl I have even kissed.”
“Me too!” she said happily. “I have never done this with anyone before—never loved anyone like I love you.”
It was a good thing he was alone in the stables, grooming his horse, as these memories flooded into his mind—else it would have been hard to explain the prominent erection in his pants. Bouchard—he had made up his mind that that was what he would call his horse—nuzzled his crotch with curiosity, sniffed and sneezed, and, looking into his master’s eyes, bared his teeth with the knowing snigger one male gives another.
This line of thinking was too good for Alain to curtail, so he let it have full rein. He recalled the following evening, during his regular visit, as they were kissing in the twilight, in the seclusion of the gazebo in the Bouchards’ front compound, that she wanted to touch him too when he had his fingers inside her. To his eternal embarrassment, when she opened his pants and held him in her hands, stiff and throbbing with the stuff of life, he ejaculated with the first squeeze, and his essence pulsed out of him in beats of uncontrollable ecstasy. As she squeezed him harder and harder with one hand, she collected his outpourings in the cupped palm of the other, her lips thickening and nipples hardening with lust at this primal phenomenon. She giggled at his discomfiture after he had finished.
As the days progressed, the locomotive of their passion gathered steam and, predictably, clattered rapidly out of control, as more experimentation, with greater and greater frequency, stoked the fires in their loins.
A few evenings later, she looked at him hesitantly as they had their hands on each other and said with a shy and serious look, “Will you think ill of me if I say something to you?”
“Is it more of what Ghislaine says?” he inquired hopefully. “That girl knows of what she speaks,” he added with a conspiratorial chuckle.
“Yes. But promise me you won’t think I’m a bad girl,” she persisted.
“I promise,” he said readily, curious now, and eager to hear more of the exciting practices of the experienced Ghislaine.
“One night, when we were in the convent, a number of us girls got together and smuggled a couple of bottles of wine into our small dormitory. Six of us shared a room. While the rest of the school was asleep, we had a candlelight party—whispering and giggling, and enjoying the thrill of being mischievous. After we had all loosened up with the wine, the talk turned to boys, and Ghislaine began bragging about her experiences and all the wicked things she had done. Of course we were all curious, because most of us had no experience at all, so we listened eagerly. That was when she taught us all how to kiss properly and some of the other things I have told you of. But she also said something that interested me then—which I hope you don’t think makes me a bad person. It shocked me at first, and many of us thought it was really disgusting—but I’m not so sure now.” She paused.
“Tell me. Tell me,” he said eagerly. “I won’t think you are bad.”
“I can’t say it to you,” she said, hesitating. “I feel embarrassed.”
“Come on! Tell me,” he pleaded. “Haven’t I liked everything that Ghislaine says?”
“Yes . . . but you might think that this is really . . . sinful. I cannot even look at your face and say it,” she protested feebly.
“Then whisper it in my ear. That way I won’t see your face.”
She did so, feeling him swell even more in her hand with every revelation. He held her close, throbbing with anticipation, paralyzed by shock at the unexpected disclosure.
“But . . . isn’t that a terrible sin? . . . Is it safe? . . . I mean . . . isn’t it . . . dirty? . . . I mean . . . won’t it make you sick . . .?” he sputtered in profound disbelief that this practice was even to be contemplated.
“Yes, of course it’s a sin. Everything we are doing is a sin. I am dreading having to go to confession and admit all the things we have done. What will the Monsignor think of me?”
“Then . . .” he prodded.
“But Ghislaine says you won’t get sick. She says that in the olden days people did get sick because they didn’t keep themselves clean down there. But now it’s different, and the stuff that we will taste is not the waste discharge from our bodies but the body’s fluids that make human life—how can that be unhealthy?”
The drumbeats inside his chest traveled to, and echoed inside, his cranium, accelerating into a staccato crescendo, as the prospect of this novel experiment fueled uncontrollable sexual desires. In the overpowering desire of the moment, she lowered her face to his loins, pulled her lace underwear off with her other hand, and maneuvered him into position so he could minister to her with his tongue as well. The maddening excitement, accompanied by the novel smells and tastes of the activity, carried them into wild paroxysms of pleasure such as they had never experienced before, and they gave themselves to it with animal abandon—willing the episode to continue forever. Eventually it did abate, and they lay entangled in this unfamiliar position, uncertain how to react after their uncontrollable passion was spent.
Should they be ashamed of what they had done? Should they rejoice? What did each of them think of the other? Did he think she was a slut? Did she think he was a cad? What would others say if they knew? They had a nagging suspicion that they had crossed the line of decent behavior. But it had felt so good!
They were young, and now that they had tasted the thrill of sex, they could not get enough of it. He urged her to divulge more of what Ghislaine had said, eager to try every technique that the worldly girl had imparted to her impressionable classmate. “Tell me more. Tell me more,” was his constant refrain.
“Ghislaine says that there is a period of time during a girl’s monthly cycle when you could actually have intercourse without getting a baby. After the monthly bleeding stops, for about ten days the body is building up the womb, and it is not ready to receive the egg; during this time you can make love without getting pregnant.”
“Really! Then why don’t the adults tell us that?”
“Probably because they know that if they do, we will be doing it all the time,” concluded Céline.
And so, the whispered revelations of a precocious teenager in a French convent became the basis of the sex education of Céline Bouchard and Alain Malveaux. Three months after they met on Valentine’s Day, they first made love, and their teenaged bodies reveled in the joys of their union. They were careful—enjoying each other without inhibition for ten days during her safe period; satisfying each other every other way they could think of during the next ten; then abstaining altogether during Céline’s monthly cycle. They had the pattern down cold. They had broken the code. They were in heaven.
Every evening after his duties at the regiment were over, Alain would visit Céline, and in the privacy of her gazebo they would play their forbidden and exciting games, which often began with the words, “Ghislaine says . . .”
The whirlwind romance of the young couple raged on unencumbered by interference from either one’s family. Everybody seemed either to be unaware of their affair or to look on with favor and indulgence and to rejoice in their happiness. Everybody except one, and he nursed his feelings of rejection in silence, curling into the womb of despondency to get away from the world, much to the disappointment of his sister-in-law, who looked on helplessly, disgusted that he had given up without a fight. Jean-Pierre was frozen into inaction by the whirlwind courtship that his younger brother had begun with the object of his own affections. To be fair to Alain, he had had no idea of his brother’s interest in Céline. But what would he have done if he had? Their romance had swept in like a cyclone, flooding everything in sight, sweeping away all opposition with its gale-force winds. It was unstoppable, and all Jean-Pierre could do was stand aside helplessly and brood.
Céline blossomed like the hibiscus that cordoned off the gazebo. She was naturally beautiful anyway, and with the added glow of being in love, deepened by the fulfillment of her sexual cravings, she emerged from the chrysalis of youth into full, ravishing womanhood. Young males are sometimes slower to develop—Alain would gradually be transformed from a handsome teenage boy into a dashing, confident young man. It was only a matter of time.
The only blight on their horizon was Alain’s looming departure for France in July, to begin his training at St. Cyr. The two young people swore eternal, undying love for each other, with the promise that each would stay true and wait for Alain’s return to India in two years as a full-fledged French officer.
__________ o __________
The French commandant at Chandernagore banged his fist in frustration on his antique desk, imported from France. “That black bastard!” he railed at his staff officers. “You can never trust the swine. Now he wants us to provide him artillery support for his attack on Fort William. First he asks for a little. Then he demands some more, and soon he will have us engaged in full hostilities with the English. We are not ready for this. May God damn Siraj ud Daulah to hell!”
“Sir. Impertinent as it is, I believe that there is an underlying threat to his request for artillery support. If we do not provide it, we will be the next to go, after the nawab takes Fort William. We have a very uneasy cessation of hostilities with the English, anyway. When it is advantageous to them, the English will break the ceasefire in a heartbeat. We have no choice but to comply or lose Chandernagore in a month,” cautioned his chief of staff, Major La Rochelle.
“You are right, Major, but I don’t like it. In the long run, the English will make us pay dearly for this. However, it is the short run that is more pressing now. If we do not do what he says, Chandernagore will be past history for us. Send one artillery battery under Captain Laurent to back up the nawab, but tell them to provide support from the rear only—I don’t want to lose a single cannon, or even one man.”
__________ o __________
Siraj ud Daulah, the newly appointed nawab of Bengal had succeeded his father, Aliverdi Khan, in April 1756. His father had impressed on Siraj his own fears that the Europeans would continue to exert their influence and gain strength in the country and his belief that they needed to be kept under control. Through negligence, poor decision making, and complacency, the Bengal Council of the East India Company had failed to build their defenses adequately in the region in the recent past. On June 3, 1756, Siraj ud Daulah, sensing an opportunity to cripple European ambitions, attacked and took the smaller, nearby British fort at Cossimbazar without a struggle, captured all their guns and ammunition, and prepared to march on Kolkata. The only shot fired was by the British commander who, rather than surrender, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out.
President Drake of the Bengal Council tried desperately to get help from Fort George in Madras and, laughably enough, from the local French and Dutch garrisons against whom he had been building up his defenses to begin with. But it was too late.
Despite recent improvements, Fort William was in terrible shape. In 1742 a ditch had been started to surround the entire settlement—the fort, Company outbuildings, and European houses—to protect it from the Marathas. But the ditch was never completed and through the years had begun to fill with debris. The ditch was now hastily cleared, but it did not surround the entire settlement, so the enemy just went around it. Siraj ud Daulah’s forces attacked Fort William on June 16. The British women and children were removed from their houses and brought into the fort for safety. After two days of street fighting, British troops were forced to retreat to the rear of the fort, abandoning the outlying buildings, marketplaces, and English houses to the nawab’s troops, who fired on them from the rooftops of the outbuildings. The fort’s defenses had been sadly neglected: the bastions were crumbling and could not support the weight of the cannons, many of which were unusable anyway; sections of the wall surrounding the fort had been excavated years before to allow more light and air.
On June 19 the Company president and his council and most of the military command emptied out the treasury, boarded the Company ships docked on the Hoogly River on the west side of the fort, and slipped out, leaving it to be defended by a small band under the leadership of the Company surgeon, John Zephaniah Holwell. They silently drifted down the river with the tide, without hoisting sail, and eventually found shelter in a Dutch pilot station in the town of Fulta, a few miles downstream, where they would bide their time waiting for reinforcements, left to contemplate their cowardly behavior.
The final attack on the fort was expected to come up the three main thoroughfares from the south, the east, and the west.
Major Saunders’s detachment was part of the defense contingent that was left behind. His new artillery battery was set up on a small hill guarding the south entrance. They were the newest pieces and therefore in the best condition to withstand the main assault, which would come up the southern thoroughfare. His infantrymen, bolstered by the civilians who were pressed into service, led by young veteran Lieutenant Coltrane and trained by Ensign Johnstone over the previous few days, were assigned the task of protecting the battery from the Indian infantry advance.
As predicted by Phillip de Villiers, Saunders’s force would be the tip of the spear—consequently, his son would be “in the thick of it.”
4 The Battle of Fort William
On June 20, 1756, Siraj ud Daulah began his attack on Fort William.
The British mustered all their defenders to their positions and realized to their chagrin that they totaled only 515, including some 300 civilians, who had been pressed into service. The nawab, Siraj ud Daulah, had over 50,000 men—and, as the British were soon to discover, a battery of French artillery to lend bombardment support that Siraj sadly lacked.
As anticipated, the main body of assault troops attacked up the southern thoroughfare of the Fort William compound and ran smack-dab into Major Saunders’s defensive troops. The French artillery did not have the same range as the new British guns and had to be silent till they moved closer, behind a phalanx of Indian infantry soldiers.
Major Saunders’s artillery, unaware of the French artillery hidden in the rear, opened fire, landing its shells in the Indian ranks, and it became immediately apparent to the Bengalis that this battery had to be taken down. The French cannons were still out of range. The Indian soldiers kept up their slow advance on the long, low climb up the southern thoroughfare, now impeded by Lieutenant Coltrane’s infantry troop, of which Johnstone was a part.
Coltrane lined up his men well in front of the artillery and commenced an orderly defensive by his infantry. Before long, Coltrane was hit by a musket bullet, and his body had to be dragged back to the safety of the artillery battery, while Ensign Johnstone assumed command of the defense. This leadership position was thrust upon him far sooner than his experience had prepared him for.
“Load—Aim—Fire!” he called out in his shrill, boyish voice. His sword was drawn and raised aloft, and he brought it down sharply when he shouted, “Fire!”
Musket bullets sang their refrain as the Indians returned fire.
One civilian recruit turned to run. Ensign Johnstone saw him, drew his pistol, aimed it at his back, and hesitated. About to turn around and let the man go, he saw another soldier look at him hopefully and, sensing Johnstone’s hesitation, begin to follow his comrade. Their eyes met, and Johnstone calmly turned around again, holding the pistol steadily with a two-handed grip, took careful aim, and shot the fleeing soldier in the buttocks. The man crumpled, screaming, to the ground. Johnstone and the second soldier stared at each other, and the man saw no mercy in Johnstone’s gaze—only determination. Shamefaced, he turned around and faced the enemy.
“Load—Aim—Fire!” The steady refrain continued.
The battle continued like this, at a stalemate, for what seemed like an eternity. It was actually only five minutes, but when bullets are flying around you, any one of which could rip a hole through your chest, five minutes can seem like a very long time.
Watching through telescopes from opposite ends of the field of battle were two interested officers. Major Saunders observed Johnstone’s performance with satisfaction—Captain Laurent, the French artillery officer, with reluctant admiration.
Observing the boyish face, the curls under his hat, the slender, youthful form, and the intense look in the eyes of the young English ensign leading the defense, the French Captain could only note the remarkable parallel to his own young aide, Cadet Alain Malveaux, youngest son of a wealthy French plantation owner in Chandernagore, whom he had adopted as his special charge, mentoring him and grooming him for his impending entrance into St. Cyr as a cadet. He had thought long and hard about permitting Malveaux to participate in this military engagement, and what tipped the scales in Alain’s favor was that if this was he, Laurent, who was involved, he would want to be included. This was to be Alain’s baptism of fire—an excellent opportunity to get used to the sights and sounds of battle, the smell and excitement of danger, without serious risk of getting hurt. They had overwhelming numbers; their orders were to fire from a distance and not engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. They would advance behind the Indian infantry wall till they got into range, and the infantry took out the big British guns; then they would take the British position on the hill and bombard the fort—and Alain would have his first taste of battle—all in relative safety.
__________ o __________
Despite the slow but steady advance of the Indian infantry, Ensign Johnstone resolutely held his ground. The enemy advance was stopped. The British musketeers were beginning to inflict casualties—the artillery, even more—but the firing did not abate in spite of this. Johnstone’s resistance had effectively stalled the Indian advance.
“Enough of this English stripling,” thought the French captain. Turning to his lieutenant, he ordered, “Send a rider to the front line and tell the Bengali officer in charge to direct their fire at the young English officer. Cut him down.”
The lieutenant turned to his left and relayed the order to the second lieutenant beside him: “Send a rider to the front. Tell them to cut the young English officer down.”
The second lieutenant turned to Cadet Malveaux on his left and ordered, “Send a rider to the front—cut the young officer down.”
Cadet Malveaux turned to his left and had begun to relay the command—“Cut the . . .”—when he realized that there was no one to whom he could relay the order. Abruptly he spun back to the second lieutenant. “Cut the young officer down?” he asked for confirmation, and, receiving a nod of assent, crisply saluted the lieutenant and lifted his voice smartly in a toast: “Vive la France!” Then he turned his mount and dashed at a gallop toward the front line.
“Vive la France?” said the astonished second lieutenant to the lieutenant.
“Vive la France?” repeated the equally puzzled lieutenant to the captain—and they all laughed.
“Young boys! He thinks he’s at the theater,” said the amused captain with a chuckle as they watched the lad gallop off toward the Bengali front to deliver the command. To their surprise, he didn’t stop at the front line to instruct the infantry to direct their fire at the English ensign, as they had anticipated, but continued at a fast gallop, saber lifted aloft in a one-man cavalry charge. It was then that they understood the reason for his toast—“Vive la France!” He had misunderstood, thinking that the order was for him personally to cut the English officer down.
“Mon Dieu! The stupid fool! The brave, stupid fool!” gasped the captain, as they stared in helpless horror at what would be the inevitable outcome.
Ensign Johnstone gaped in disbelief at this cavalry charge of a single rider. He and his men were transfixed into stunned inaction by the unexpectedness of the attack and stared in disbelief as the rider rapidly closed the gap. The lad was so close, Johnstone could see his handsome young face with a slight crop of fuzzy hair beginning to adorn his lip. It was obvious that he, Johnstone, was the target of this quixotic charge. He directed his infantrymen—“Hold your fire!” Then, pointing with his sword at the rider as he bore down on them, and waiting until he was at almost point-blank range, he finally and reluctantly called out—“Fire!”
The horrified French officers saw the hail of musket shots hit Malveaux in the chest and lift him backward in the saddle, and they saw him fall in a heap on the ground. They were speechless.
“Dear God! What will I tell his mother!” lamented the captain.
After a long pause, the lieutenant offered sadly, “Tell her the last words on his lips were, ‘Vive la France!’”
The young French cadet’s mount stood uncertainly by his master’s side, the reins dangling loosely over his neck, indifferent to the bullets flying all around him from both directions—reluctant to leave the boy who had taken such good care of him. After a while, he unwillingly turned and began a slow canter back to the French lines.
__________ o __________
The fighting continued. The body of the young French cadet lay in the dust between the warring parties. The British infantry were putting up a stubborn resistance against the attacking Indian horde and had succeeded in halting the advance.
“Send another rider, and this time make sure he tells the Indian infantry to direct their fire at the young English officer—no misunderstandings this time,” ordered the French captain roughly.
“I will go myself, sir,” promised his lieutenant.
It didn’t take long for the order to produce results. A shot from the first volley directed at the ensign knocked off his hat, and it was comical to watch him scramble to retrieve it, despite the life-and-death situation, crush it down on his head, and continue issuing commands: “Load—Aim—Fire!”
Looking through his telescope, the French captain laughed and handed the telescope to his lieutenant, saying, “I wonder if he knows that his hat is on backward.” A musket shot hit Johnstone in the shoulder and spun him around, a large bloodstain spreading on his tunic. But still he continued shouting: “Load—Aim—Fire!”
Another shot hit him in the chest and knocked him to the ground. Immediately his phalanx of musketeers glanced over at him, paused, and made as if to flee. He struggled to his feet and glared at them, tottering uncertainly and using his sword to prop himself up.
“Get back!” he yelled, and, drawing his pistol, he warned, “I will shoot the first man who tries to run.”
They knew he meant business, as he had done it before, so they reluctantly reassumed their positions.
A cheer had gone up from the Indian lines when they saw the Englishman fall, and now they began to advance closer. Realizing that it was only a matter of time before his battery was overrun, Major Saunders decided to move the heavy guns from the hill to the inside of the fort, where they would make their last stand. He sent a messenger to Ensign Johnstone, ordering him to hold back the advancing enemy until their battery of cannon was removed from the hill and then to retreat into the gates of the fort. He had watched the earlier proceedings through his telescope from the hill at the gun battery and was proud of the way the ensign had conducted himself. He wondered whether the boy’s father would be proud; all he had seemed to want was for his son to be killed. It looked quite likely that he would get his wish today.
The French captain watched through the telescope with reluctant admiration as the English ensign commanded his troop of musketeers in their steady, organized retreat. He had broken the ranks into two. While the lead line was ordered to “Load—Aim—Fire,” the second group was ordered to drop back three paces, drag their dead and wounded with them, and take their position to “Load—Aim—Fire.”
None of this was lost on Major Saunders, either, as he organized the movement of his heavy artillery back into the nearby gates of the fort.
The Indian infantry kept getting closer, continuing to aim at the English ensign, as ordered. He took another hit in the leg, and the red stain on his trousers joined the bright-red stains on the white tunic under his red coat. But he gamely continued to lead his men.
The French captain, choking back the lump in his throat at the young man’s bravery, croaked to his lieutenant, “Spare the officer.”
“Yes, sir!” It was not only an acknowledgment of the order, but also an expression of agreement with it—and off the lieutenant raced on his mission of mercy.
The damage had been done. Ensign Johnstone was barely able to stand, but his troop held together. He would not have been able to lift his pistol to shoot anyone who fled, and they knew it. He was unable to lift his saber to signal them to fire. His voice was so hoarse, he could no longer call out the commands: “Load—Aim—Fire.” But he had set the example. They had established their rhythm and performed their duty like seasoned veterans. Still, he stood at the end of their line, erect and defiant, leading an orderly fallback.
Finally, Major Saunders’s cannons were back in the fort, but the south gate was still open for Ensign Johnstone’s troops. They were only thirty yards away from the gates, and the Indians were almost on them when he finally croaked, “Retreat!” and was proud to see that each able-bodied musketeer assisted in dragging a wounded or dead comrade back into the fort with him. Johnstone could hardly stand, let alone retreat or offer resistance, so he stood his ground and faced the enemy as they swarmed past him toward the fort. Then he collapsed as the gates closed behind the last of his troops, leaving him with the enemy in the confusion outside. Watching from a rampart was Major Saunders.
The stout defense of the southern thoroughfare was to no avail. The Indians just swarmed through other breaks in the defensive walls and took Fort William that same day.
__________ o __________
In the final moments before the fort fell, Major Saunders, leading the resistance of a troop of musketeers from the top of the ramparts, observed a contingent of French horsemen approach the fort to retrieve the body of their fallen young comrade, who had so foolishly charged the line of musketeers led by Ensign Johnstone. To his surprise, he also saw them retrieve Johnstone’s body, which was lying in a bloody heap not far from the Frenchman’s. He didn’t know whether to be outraged or relieved. As a European, he had a natural bias that led him to expect better treatment for a prisoner from a fellow European, familiar with the chivalric rules of engagement on that continent, than from the Indians, whom he still considered savages.
It didn’t take long for his position to be overrun, and he was also taken prisoner.
The bodies of the dead defenders of Fort William were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch by the Indian soldiers, without any attempt to identify them or prepare a list of the dead.
__________ o __________
In the mass confusion of the early hours after hostilities had ceased, Major Saunders boldly demanded a meeting with the French captain and bullied his way into his presence. He had to confirm whether Ensign Johnstone was alive or dead.
The English major and the French captain stared each other down.
“What have you done with my ensign’s body?” demanded Major Saunders.
The French captain prickled at the insolence of this captured English officer, daring to bully his captors. With lofty French arrogance, he replied dismissively, “Would you rather have his body thrown into the ditch like the others?”
“Is he dead, then?” asked Major Saunders. “I want to see him.”
“Not yet. But our surgeon does not expect him to survive the night.”
“He is getting medical treatment, then?”
“We are enemies—not savages,” the captain responded, taking the high ground. “He is getting the same treatment as our young Cadet Malveaux.”
“Is your cadet alive also?” asked Saunders, softening his tone as he remembered the fusillade that had stopped that young man’s charge.
“He is in worse condition than your ensign—many more shots to the chest.”
“I request your permission to see my ensign. He is a personal acquaintance. I would like to report to his family.”
The Frenchman nodded and waved toward an open door.
The bodies of the young men lay on two narrow tables—their tunics ripped open, the wounds on their chests in plain view. Both of them had already been scrubbed clean; a surgeon and his assistant busied themselves between the two tables, sterilizing, removing the bullets, stanching the flow of blood, and attempting to sew up the wounds. Words were superfluous. Both the boys lay pale and motionless on the tables; only the doctor knew they were alive.
The captain asked the doctor for his report.
“There is no hope for either of them,” the doctor said, shaking his head grimly. “I expect them to draw their last breaths any minute now. They have lost too much blood . . . it took too long to get them here.”
Major Saunders looked at the two young boys and was struck by the parallel between them. Both as slender as reeds, extraordinarily handsome, almost girlishly so, with their soft, clean cheeks, well-formed lips and noses, each with a big mass of curly hair lying unkempt on the rough sheet. What a cruel waste of the flower of English and French youth.
“Thank you,” he said simply to the doctor and the captain. “May I remove his necklace to return to his family?”
The captain nodded.
Saunders gently unclasped the necklace and scapular medal that Phillip de Villiers had wanted as proof of his son’s death and put it in his pocket. Without asking permission, he removed the insignia of rank from Johnstone’s uniform and put it in his pocket with the necklace. “What will you do with him?”
“We will bury them together in the French cemetery in Chandernagore—side by side.”
“I’ll tell his mother that,” said Saunders by way of gratitude.
“Tell her also that he fought bravely,” added the French captain.
“He did,” acknowledged Saunders. “So did yours—I was proud of them both.”
“So, you saw it all?” asked the captain—one weary soldier looking into the eyes of another, accepting the harsh reality of their nations’ conflict.
“Yes. I was on a hill with the artillery—like you.”
“I will write up a commendation for gallantry. I’m sure it will be approved,” said the captain.
“I will do likewise,” said Saunders, who then added, “When I am able to,” acknowledging his status as a prisoner. He turned to go.
“What name shall I put on the marble cross?” asked the captain.
On the paper pad lying on the surgeon’s side table, Saunders wrote, “Ensign Robert Johnstone.” Again, he turned to go.
“What shall I do if he survives?” asked the captain, addressing the unlikeliest prospect.
“I am going to report him as killed in action,” Saunders replied.
“But, what if . . .”
“The official report is that he is dead,” interrupted Saunders. “To the British military he no longer exists. Tell him I said that—he will know what to do.”
__________ o __________
Major Dudley Saunders was not an experienced war veteran for nothing. Within the hour, he used the continuing celebrations of victory by the Indians and the kerfuffle following the battle to give his inexperienced captors the slip. He escaped from the fort before they rounded up all the prisoners and threw them into what was to go down in history as one of the most infamous prisons used after a military operation—the Black Hole of Calcutta.