The fatigue manifest in his visage, and his manner, which was that of a person of quality, persuaded me to devote my attention to the messenger, and to defer my scrutiny of the message.
The missive, which had been the object of his exertions, had been hindered by weeks in the transport; and a further hourís delay in reading could be of no import. In any case, I was not sanguine that its content would receive from me the welcome he might have anticipated. This opinion I kept to myself, out of delicacy for his feelings.
He had endured such suffering in the consummation of his task, as to afflict the constitution of a gentleman attuned more thoroughly to a life of ease than to perilous adventures. He had argued and haggled for three days before securing a captain prepared to tackle stormy seas; experienced elation at reaching the Dutch coast; then seen all quite literally dashed upon the rocks, being himself one of the few to wade ashore; and, with benefit of neither friend nor mastery of the language, and having lost all but the precious letter itself, he had, with fortitude and resourcefulness, traversed hostile country, to find my person and press the document into my hand.
No tent in my encampment could pretend to emulate the comfort of his London existence, but the gentleman was made comfortable, in relation to that discomfort which he had but lately endured.
Only then did I break the seal on the communication.
I stood at the entrance canopy of my tent, and unfolded the single sheet, but my attention was commanded by the fortress, where soaring towers perched upon natureís precipitous rock. This formidable edifice was surely erected, not by mere humans, but by supernatural powers. By what demonic talents had men secured foundations on terrain hostile to the passage of a goat; by what superhuman effort had they piled stone upon stone when no purchase for a scaffold, and no safe perch for a person, offered themselves on this isolated rock outcrop. The effect, by whatever means it had been achieved, was that the fortress of the Prince of Weisbergen could be approached only by one steep and winding road, upon which any traveller presented a most sporting target to the garrison, and from which an attack on the heavily armed castle was impracticable.
I had considered the persuasions of every strategy, but the topography concluded upon a single outcome: that I disport my forces so as to control the approach to the fortress, and wait for the occupants to starve; and that the Prince remain within his lofty palace and attend the arrival of the French to relieve him. This latter event portrayed itself to me as remote in time and probability. The French cared not a fig for the Prince of Weisbergen; moreover, the best service he could render their unworthy cause, was to engage the attentions of my English army in a long and wasteful wait for developments. Stalemate suited the French very well.
I had invested considerable energies into confirming the fortressís impregnability, and had become as persuaded as any man could be, that an attack would effect the wholesale and unwholesome despatching of hundreds of English souls, in return for no more than the entertainment of the bored garrison of Weisbergen.
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In this regard I had been assiduous in my duty; yet I became aware, as I stood with the missive in my fingers, that an irrational aversion to fine handwriting upon stiff paper had crept upon me. In short, I did not like reading correspondence.
As Fate placed obstacles in the pathway of serious communication, so the same fickle mistress ensured rumours of my death took wing, and without hindrance or delay, assaulted the ears of my beloved in England. Henrietta reacted as I should have hoped; resolutely refused to accept as fact that which was unconfirmed, and wrote forthwith to me. Her letter cheated Fateís obstructions and arrived in my hands in a timely fashion, so that I could respond in person, declaring: as I move my pen and profess my love, so I evidence that I am not deceased. My consciousness embraced the difficulties she must encounter. Our plan to oppose the marriage which her parents desired for her was beset with difficulty, even had I been in Oxford at her side. To be rumoured buried did not enhance my cause.
We shall not know how matters would have landed, had the drunken messenger who carried the precious cargo of my letter not been imprisoned in London. When the scoundrel obtained his release, and proceeded to Oxford, neither Henrietta nor her family was in residence, but had decamped to Bath, whereat he failed to locate their entourage, and returned to Oxford bearing my precious words, and a demand for more payment. A loyal member of Henriettaís retinue then set off for Bath, at speed on horseback, thereby missing the arrival of news that the family had embarked upon the long and arduous journey to Northumberland, the better to further plans for her marriage. On discovering this intelligence, being now more distant from the fair personage for whom the correspondence was destined, though Destiny made fair play to deny the fact, he laudably changed horses and travelled thither, presenting my letter into her tender hands ten weeks from the setting of pen to paper. Too late. The families had conferred, and the secretly grieving lady felt committed to devote her delightful presence to another, or, she believed, suffer a disgrace unthinkable to any that loved her. She wrote to me and, but one week later, I held before my weeping eyes the unravelling of my dreams. Nor did she dare to entrust to an untrustworthy page any tenderness which would, if perused by other eyes, have ruined her. The bare facts were in my possession, and she begged that I suppress my inclination to embark on ventures with no certain outcome, for fear of a deleterious effect upon her reputation.
I turned away from these thoughts, looked away from the forbidding castle, and read the letter from London.
Englandís allies expected a success, to signal the hope of an outcome to the long war; and if England could not supply such an indication, then she should, by the expenditure of sinew and muscle, and the spilling of blood and loss of life, establish that resolute leadership which the wavering foreigners were beginning to doubt. The letter spoke of England, but it meant me. I was to attack the Fortress of Weisbergen with every man at my disposal; to deploy every cannon; to raise every siege ladder; to mine every corner of the castle.
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The Kingís ministers required that I should do my duty; which, to a military man, in a profession where devotion to duty is the aspiration and habit of all, is a call as acceptable as it is familiar; but which, to a mind raised in civilised debate, is the empty demand of one who has no reason in his argument. The certain prospect of sacrificing my men for nothing did not please me.
The Prince of Weisbergen, like all your German princelings, readily engaged in war at the behest of a major nation such as England or France, supplying the means by which continental wars were frequent and prolonged. The destruction of these miniature states would be an inhibition to the pursuit of future wars, and a contribution to the peace of Europe; but their annihilation was repeatedly circumnavigated, by the witty deployment of a consistent strategy, namely the changing of sides when under pressure. The Princeís cousin, Duke Leopold of Schwarzhausen, had recently abandoned his neutrality to fly the pennants of the French, and I felt certainty in the prospect of the long held enmity between the cousins provoking a felicitous outcome, specifically the withdrawal of Weisbergen from the war. That this had not already come to pass was ascribable to a simple fact: the Prince didnít know; and his lamentable ignorance was in turn readily explicable, by the presence of my forces preventing any commerce with that portion of the World which rested outside the walls of his fortress. I had tried to tell him, but my efforts to communicate were frustrated at every attempt, by a man unwilling to listen.
I spoke to the London messenger, with restraint and discretion, of my reservations as to the outcome of an attack; and further, of the circumstance that the balance of events had altered between the penning of the words in London and their reading in Germany. I found ears as uncompromising as those of the Prince himself, and the gentleman asseverated that of which I was already aware, that an Englishman should do his duty. To die on the steep road to the fortress, if that were my fate, I could accept, on account of the letter; and not the letter from the Kingís ministers, but the letter from my beloved Henrietta. I remained, nevertheless, reluctant in my inclination to sacrifice the army in its entirety.
I therefore expressed, in strong terms, the necessity of providing an opportunity of accommodation with the Prince, who might even now be preparing to surrender his starving stomach, or to withdraw from an unwelcome alliance with Leopold of Schwarzhausen. It behoved us, I insisted, to present a letter to the Prince calling upon him to make peace, and then, should he not respond in a manner acceptable to English honour, we would attack immediately.
With some reluctance at that which he considered my prevarication, the gentleman agreed; and further, accepted that he had the dignity and bearing to be presented as the envoy of our gracious King, whereas I was but a soldier. Delicately, we broached the sensitive conundrum of his dress, now less impressive than before its immersion in the North Sea and dragging through two countries and many hard adventures. A senior officer, now lost, had left behind a ceremonial uniform which I proposed as most suitable. I asked that since the garments would in due course return to the officerís family, the small amount of personal correspondence in the pockets should remain in situ.
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To accompany and protect the gentleman on the three mile trek up the mountain road, I selected two good men whose freedom I had purchased from Newgate, where, to avoid the certainty of being hanged at Tyburn, they readily embraced the probability of being drawn and quartered at Weisbergen. Each of these two persons had committed the folly of killing a single man, for which they would face the noose; whereas the wise kill by the thousand, and are acclaimed as Kings or Emperors. I was not certain as to their return, but to lose two, in contradistinction to the loss of all, was bearable to the military mind.
Notwithstanding the white flag they bore aloft, all three were shot dead as soon as in range of the fortress. Any sensation of shock, outrage or astonishment, was mitigated by my awareness that all previous missions had met the same end, which is why I had ceased their promotion. I was sad that the brave gentleman may never be identified, since I, and only I, knew who he was, and the clothes and papers upon him suggested his personage to be quite other than the truth.
That evening, I carried a candle outside the tent, smoothed together my two letters, both beautifully crafted on paper of the finest quality, offered a corner to the candle, and watched as the flame rose eagerly, before allowing the flare to fall upon the ground and burn itself to nothing.
It is incontrovertible that a manís actions shall be influenced by the communications which he receives. However, should he not receive any communications, then he is not influenced in any way, and proceeds with a freedom of action which might otherwise be unavailable.
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© Roger Woodward, 2013