The Stranger from the SeaBy: Winston Graham
On Thursday, the 25th October, 1810, a windy day with the first autumnal leaves floating down over the parks and commons of England, the old King went mad.
It was an event of consequence not only to the country but to the world. Among those it directly affected were four Cornishmen, a merchant, a soldier, a diplomat and a doctor.
Of course it was not the first time: twenty-two years earlier he had gone insane for a long enough period to bring the legislative affairs of the country to a standstill. Again in 1801 and in 1804 there had been short periods of aberration, enough to give rise to anxiety on the part of his doctors and his ministers. To begin with, this latest attack seemed little different from the others. Except that he was older, and nearly blind, and that his favourite daughter was dying ...
The first symptom was that he began to talk. All through the day - non-stop - and most of the night too. One sentence in five was rational, the rest were irrelevances strung together like rags on a kite, blowing as the wind took them. He addressed his sons: those who like Octavius were dead he thought alive; those who were alive - and there were many of them - he thought dead. He laughed aloud and crawled under the sofa and was brought out with the greatest difficulty.
The Whigs tried unsuccessfully to hide their gratification. The Prince of Wales was devotedly of their party, and if he became Regent he would at once dismiss the Tory mediocrities who had clung to office for so many years. The long sojourn in opposition was nearly over.
Napoleon too was gratified and made no greater attempt to hide his pleasure. The Whigs were the party of peace: those who did not secretly admire him were at least convinced that it was futile to wage war on him. They agreed with him that he could never be beaten and were anxious to come to terms. They would be his terms.
Almost exactly four weeks before the King's illness, three horsemen were picking their way down a stony ravine in the neighbourhood of Pampilosa. The second in line was a middle-aged man, tall, good-looking if a little gaunt, wearing a riding habit and a cloak of good quality but well worn and of no particular nationality; the two others were younger, small, wiry, ragged men in the uniform of the Portuguese army. There had been a road, a dusty track, since they set out in the early morning from Oporto, but lately it had deteriorated and become so overgrown that one only of the two soldiers could pick it out among the scrub oak, the cactus, the boulders, the rotted trees. He led the way.
As dusk began to fall the older man said in English to the man behind: 'How much farther?'
There was talk between the soldiers. 'Garcia says the Convent of Bussaco should be but three leagues or so distant now, senhor.'
'Will he find it in the dark?'
'He has never been there, but there should be lights.'
'If it has not been evacuated. Like all else.'
'At the request of your general, senhor.'
They rode on, the small sturdy horses slipping and sliding down the rough descent. All the way they had come across deserted farmhouses, burnt crops, dead animals, overturned ox-carts, the trail of evacuation and destruction. There had been corpses too, teeming with flies, usually old people who had collapsed in flight. But it was clear that the countryside was not as deserted as it seemed. Here and there foliage stirred; figures appeared and disappeared among the olive trees; several times shots had been fired, and once at least the balls had flown near enough for discomfort. The peasants were fleeing from the invader but many of the men were staying behind to harass him as best they could. The Ordenanza, or militia men, were also in evidence; in woollen caps, short brown cloaks and threadbare breeches, armed with anything from butchers' knives to old blunderbusses, and riding wild ragged ponies, they arrived suddenly in clouds of dust or wheeled against the skyline blowing briefly on crescent-shaped horns. Twice the Englishman had had to produce his papers, in spite of his Portuguese escort. He did not fancy the fate of any stragglers of the invading army. But then the behaviour of the invading army had invited every sort of retaliation.
It was a mild September night but no moon. A few mist clouds drifted across the spangled stars.
They reached a dried-up river bed beneath a cliff, and the leading soldier dismounted and cast about him like a bird dog seeking a new scent. The Englishman waited patiently. If they were lost they could sleep well enough in their cloaks; a night among the stunted chestnut trees would do no one any harm, and they had food and water to last.
Then a bent figure emerged from behind a clump of aloes. Indistinguishable as to age and sex, it approached cautiously and there was whispered talk. The soldier turned and said:
'We are closer to the convent than we thought, senhor, but it will be necessary to make a detour. The French army is directly ahead of us.'