Authors: Tim Jeal
People say that our own age is the most acquisitive yet, and that we are fixated by money in an unprecedented way. In fact I’ve thought for years that the Victorians were much more obsessive about money than we are today. One of the big problems for them was that ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’ were not expected to work for a living but were supposed to exist on private incomes, invariably the result of inheritances of various kinds. So if a parent cut them off, other relations let them down and debts overwhelmed them they were utterly crushed and despairing.
Wandering through the stacks in the London Library one afternoon in 1977 and running my eye along the accounts of numerous Victorian court cases, I came across a case that immediately held my interest. It was about an unprincipled English aristocrat who married a young Catholic woman in Ireland in the 1860s. For much of the nineteenth century the Irish Marriage Act had made it illegal for Catholic priests to marry a Protestant to a Catholic or vice versa in Ireland. Occasionally a caddish Protestant man would deceive a priest into thinking him a Catholic (or bribe him to turn a blind eye to his real religion) in order to trick an innocent Catholic woman into thinking herself genuinely married, only to abandon her later (having had his way with her) on the grounds that their marriage had been a sham.
It occurred to me, as I sat reading these court proceedings arising from such a deception, that there might have been circumstances in which a morally impeccable Protestant man had married a Catholic woman in Ireland because scared to lose her if he waited long enough to marry her elsewhere. Very possibly he had gone through the ineffective ceremony fully intending to marry his ‘bride’ legally in England at a later date. I imagined a troubled aristocrat in precisely this position and furthermore deeply in love and totally committed to behaving honourably. But then an inheritance fails to materialise, a family trust goes bust, and he is shipwrecked in an ocean of debt. Rather than drag his ‘wife’ down with him into a nightmarish life of debtors’ prisons and humiliating penury, he sees no alternative to renouncing his Irish marriage and freeing her.
Yet in such circumstances might the young woman, or her quixotic father, refuse to accept the bankrupt peer’s logic, and take this erstwhile ‘husband’ to court in an attempt to prove that the marriage had been genuine and that his daughter was still an unsullied and virtuous woman? In such a case victory for the former wife or her stand-in would be utterly disastrous for the man who had loved her and had intended a very different outcome. Or victory for the ‘husband’ (thanks to his clever lawyer) could prove equally disastrous for the penurious father and his admirable daughter.
With such thoughts bubbling away, I hurried home to spend the first of many demanding days trying to dream up a plot and a cast of characters convincing enough to make this tragic variation on a narrative involving love, the law, and some very Victorian financial disasters and shenanigans, both moving and convincing. I hope I succeeded.
Shortly after three in the morning, Clinton was wakened by the trumpet call to stables and at once his heart was beating fast. From the squadron lines, across the dark parade ground, came the clash of hoofs on cobbles and the confused neighing of horses being led to water at an unfamiliar hour. The barracks, so still a few minutes before, now resounded to shouts of command and the rumble of boots on the iron troop-room stairs.
By the time his servant came to call him, Clinton had already pulled on cavalry overalls and a heavily frogged patrol jacket. After lighting more candles, the man eased his master into his riding boots, and, when Clinton had checked his revolver, helped him with his sword belt and scabbard slings. Having put on his hussar busby, Clinton chose a cutting whip and then took the cape held out to him. He did not leave the room at once after the trooper’s departure, but stood a while by the window, breathing deeply to rid himself of the slight queasiness at the pit of his stomach. He wished profoundly that the next three or four hours were over.
As adjutant of the 15th Hussars, Clinton Danvers had found little to enjoy during the first six months of his regiment’s tour of duty in Ireland. July 1866, and ahead of him almost a year till the end of the posting. Although the monotony of rural garrison life made many of his brother officers impatient for any form of military offensive, Clinton was more relieved than depressed to have escaped involvement for so long. No lover of the Irish, he had nonetheless never looked forward to receiving orders for direct action against the Fenians. Now that these orders had finally arrived from Dublin, his feelings, in spite of the recent murder of two troopers, remained largely unchanged. Blaming Irish poverty more on the people’s incompetence as farmers than on the rapacity of their English landlords, he felt scant sympathy for the rebels, but the idea of using regular cavalry against a half-armed rabble still pained him—his distaste owing more to pride in his profession than to any tender feelings for the republican Irish. Just as a prize-fighter would feel ashamed to hit a hamstrung man, Clinton considered that
horsemen, skilful enough to split pegs in the ground with their swords at a full gallop, deserved better of their opponents than to be made to feel common butchers.
When Clinton entered the stables, troopers with lanterns were hard at work grooming and saddling horses, their efforts rising to fever pitch as they saw the adjutant arrive. Since the second-in-command was due to retire and the colonel drank heavily, Clinton virtually ran the regiment, and in a way which many officers resented. Compulsory Riding School for all ranks twice a week, except in the hunting season, and the prohibition on manoeuvres of private carts containing officers’ luxuries, were measures which had been fiercely opposed. But with these, as with his insistence that every subaltern learn to shoe a horse, Clinton had got his way in the end. He almost always did. Not that he either was, or seemed to be a martinet. There was too much ease in his manner for that. It was an airy light manner but far removed from swaggering; at his most off-hand, he still somehow conveyed a latent energy that might suddenly burst forth. His pleasure in himself was not vanity, as his detractors claimed, but something in his being: a possession like health or luck which radiated from him. His lips were finely curved, and, even in repose, a faint smile seemed to play around the corners; his eyes too were mobile and expressive, made memorable by flecks of gold in the brown irises. The first impression left by his face was of youthfulness; a closer look revealed a slight hollowness beneath the cheekbones and lines beside his mouth that made him seem a little older than his twenty-seven years. Those envious of Clinton for his outstanding horsemanship and the daunting reputation for courage he had brought back from the Third China War, took some comfort from persistent rumours about the magnitude of his debts. In public though, he gave little indication of concern or depression about his position; and in truth, this resilience did not surprise many of his colleagues. On his father’s death, a decade earlier, Clinton Danvers had become the 5th Viscount Ardmore; and, however much in debt he might be, a handsome cavalry officer with a title could usually count on exchanging these assets for an heiress’s fortune. If Lord Ardmore’s long struggle to avoid this course had been known about in the mess, few of his brother officers would have understood his scruples.
As Clinton walked between the rows of stalls, listening to the rattle of chain collars and the shouts of troop-sergants rising above the splashing of water and scrape of shovels, he started to feel more relaxed. As always, the smell of damp straw and the unique ammoniac tang of the stables pleased him. When his stallion was led out into the yard, he patted his warm flank. Under the horse’s soft
satin coat, he could feel the firm sinewy muscles. Clinton loved the animal’s alert pricked ears and the exact and delicate way he raised his hoofs to paw the ground; movements remarkably light for such a powerful horse. While waiting for him to be saddled, Clinton wandered into the Saddle Room. In the shadowy lamplight,
leather glowed like old mahogany, and bits and stirrup-irons glinted dull blue against the walls.
Watching the stream of troopers coming and going with saddles and bridles, Clinton did not notice a tall athletic looking man enter from the other end of the room. The clink of spurs on the stone flags behind him, made him turn. An officer, roughly Clinton’s age, stood saluting him. Clinton returned the salute and smiled.
‘My troop will be ready to mount in five minutes, sir,’ said the newcomer. Clinton nodded.
‘My lot shouldn’t be far behind.’
Dick Lambert had served with Clinton in China, and they had been imprisoned together shortly before the fall of Peking. The experience had been so harrowing that, four years later, they still rarely spoke of it. Lambert was Clinton’s closest friend in the regiment, and was expected to be the next adjutant when Lord Ardmore bought his majority. Though the light of the oil-lamps was poor, Clinton could tell that Dick was annoyed. Beneath his black moustache his lips were tight and unsmiling.
‘I’ve just seen some gunners limbering-up a 9-pounder.’
‘That’s right,’ replied Clinton breezily.
‘You didn’t say a word about artillery at the conference
‘I didn’t want to argue about one miserable little field-gun.’ Clinton smiled apologetically. ‘Actually it should be rather useful.’
Lambert said nothing for several seconds, but stood slapping his whip against one of his boots. At last he looked up; anger thinly disguised as incredulity.
‘I’m surprised you think the two best troops in the regiment need help from the horse-gunners to deal with fifty Irishmen.’
Clinton picked up a duster and with apparent unconcern ran it over the crupper of a saddle.
‘Could be more than fifty,’ he said soothingly. ‘If they’re the ones who attacked the constabulary barracks at Dromina, some of them are going to have new Enfields. Farm buildings aren’t hard to defend.’
‘So we storm the place while they’re asleep. Attack on both sides … Your plan, my lord.’
‘I’ve changed it.’
Lambert unexpectedly grinned.
‘You can’t intend to blow them to bits with artillery.’
‘Right; so we’re back to storming it … Unless you’re planning a siege.’ Lambert’s ironic expression faded. ‘For God’s sake, Clinton, don’t pay scum like that the compliment of taking field-pieces. You’ll make us the laughing-stock of the army.’
‘Too bad. I’m not going to lose any men. Imagine hand to hand fighting in a warren of small rooms. We’d have troopers shooting each other in the chaos. That’s a job for infantry, not cavalry.’
‘My troop won’t mind that. Don’t we owe them the chance to get even?’
Clinton was well aware of what his friend meant. One of the two soldiers murdered by the Fenians in May had been in Lambert’s troop—a young recruit, shot from behind a hedge while exercising horses. He sighed and shook his head.
‘Sorry, Dick. Kill them and they’ll be martyrs. Let them kill some of us and they’ll be heroes. But take them all alive and they’ll look fools.’ From the square came the trumpet call ‘Prepare to mount’. Lambert looked hard at Clinton as he adjusted the chinstrap of his busby.
‘They’ll just carry on till we give them some real discouragement.’
Clinton clapped Lambert on the back.
‘If my way doesn’t work, we’ll try yours next time.’
Dick remained silent, but from his expression, Clinton sensed that he had now worked out what tactics would be employed.
‘Try again, will we?’ he asked with elevated brows. ‘Lose the kind of gamble you’re taking, and who’ll be fool enough to give either of us a second chance?’
Clinton laughed quietly as he walked to the door.
‘A gamble? Lose? My dear Dick, you know I only bet on certainties.’
‘I find that most comforting, sir,’ replied Lambert gravely.
Their eyes met for a moment, but this time without pretence of ironic detachment. A curious glance passed between them, as fleeting as light on water, but as distinct: a wordless affirmation of complicity; proof of an alliance safe in all essentials from surface differences of opinion on military matters. In any case, as both men knew, decisive execution, even of a poor stratagem, could usually be relied upon to outweigh its defects. Only hesitance or lack of confidence in command were fatal failings, and Clinton had never given Dick cause to reproach him with either. As they walked out into the yard, Clinton touched Lambert’s arm.
‘A bet with you, Captain Lambert? A hundred guineas to a shilling that we’ll take them all alive.’
Lambert’s impassivity suddenly gave way to an affectionate smile, which he quickly suppressed.
‘Course we will, my lord,’ he returned with marvellously feigned incredulity that Clinton could even contemplate any other result. ‘Unlike you, sir,’ he added, ‘I never bet on a certainty … even with odds like that.’
A moment later, Clinton was watching him striding into the gloom to where his troop were dressing on their markers.
When the cavalcade of horsemen left the town of Carrickfeeney and clattered over the stone bridge spanning the river, the sky was only partly overcast and the countryside lay tranquil under the soft and kindly light of the stars. In the water meadows, cows loomed through the greyness like peaceful ghosts under the dim silver of the willow trees. But soon the clouds thickened, and, passing through woods, even with eyes accustomed to the dark, the horses often stumbled on ruts and fissures in the road. The air became oppressive and very still: heavily laden with scents of damp earth and long woodland grass. Coming out of the trees, they rode on through country more prosaically Irish: a patchwork of small irregular fields enclosed by crude earth and stone banks. Here and there, scarcely distinguishable in the darkness, ricks of hay and long piles of peat dotted the approaches to small thatched cabins.
An hour after leaving barracks, the stillness was broken by a rumble of thunder, and after it, a light wind rustled through the ears of the uncut corn. The rain was not slow in coming, and when it did, the downpour was relentless. Only as the first faint smudges of dawn made wan blurs in the thick sky, did the circling storms finally move away, leaving the land sloppy and overflowing. The ditches, choked with summer vegetation, made little impact on waterlogged tracks. Drenched and steaming, the horses all looked black, whether chestnut or bay, and their wet flattened manes made their necks seem strangely thin. Every movement sent little streams of water trickling down from the fur of Clinton’s hussar busby into the gap between the chain fastening of his cape and his skin. The reins in his hands were sodden and greasy and his whole body felt clammy and cold. From every overhanging tree, large drops of water still fell, and the hoofs of the horses in front splattered him with mud. Near the centre of the column, the team of horses pulling the field-gun were having a hard time. Often the gun-crew had to dismount and heave the wheels out of the mud.
Clinton’s original intention had been to rest and feed both men and horses before the attack, but the delays caused by the state of
the roads had now ruled this out. The growing light was not his only reason for anxiety. As so often with similar expeditions against the Fenians, his column was acting on information sold to a resident magistrate and relayed back to the regiment from general
in Dublin. Without these mercenary betrayals, the army would have had few successes against the groups of rebels operating in the countryside. Although Clinton had memorised the informer’s directions, and had added further details culled from army maps, he was still constantly worried in case they took a wrong turning. The information might of course be false; or worse still, a trap. For this reason every trooper rode with a loaded carbine held at the support ready for instant use.
When they passed a disused limestone quarry, listed in the directions, and shortly afterwards entered a thin belt of trees, correctly described as mainly oaks and rowans, Clinton felt more confident. Five minutes later, his doubts were finally allayed. Ahead of them, at the bottom of a shallow depression, stood an isolated group of farm buildings, dominated by a large barn with a slate roof. No detail was wrong. Beside the barn was the farmhouse, with a lean-to shed against the side wall and one bricked-in window at ground level. The place looked derelict and would have seemed deserted were it not for a faint smear of turf smoke issuing from a chimney. As the informer had claimed, the buildings were
by meadow grass and overgrown root-fields. In spite of this lack of close cover, Clinton was momentarily tempted to get it over and do what Lambert would have done in his place, namely order an immediate gallop across the fields and then the storming of the buildings. But he mastered the impulse. It was possible that
posted in the woods had seen their approach and crept back unseen to the farm to alert the rest of the Fenians.