Burke at Waterloo by Tom Williams by Tom Williams - Read Online



1814. Napoleon is on Elba and Europe is at peace. But in Paris, Napoleon's agents are plotting his return. James Burke, His Majesty's confidential agent, is sent back into action as he infiltrates plots to assassinate the Duke of Wellington and kill the French king. Pursuing his most deadly foe yet, Burke moves from the defeated soldiers of Paris to the crème de la crème in Brussels to a final showdown on the field of Waterloo as French and British armies clash in the defining battle of the age. The third instalment in the His Majesty's Confidential Agent series; perfect for fans of Richard Sharpe.
Published: Accent Press on
ISBN: 9781682990445
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Burke at Waterloo - Tom Williams

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Chapter One

Our Man in Paris

Major James Burke had once faced a firing squad. The absolute certainty (as it seemed) of death had, he recalled, given him a peculiar calm. It was one of the few times in his life that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

A firing squad, then, held no fears for him. A meeting with Colonel Gordon, on the other hand, was always a cause for anxiety.

‘I don’t know what’s bothering you, sir.’ William Brown was, as usual, infernally cheerful. Sometimes Burke thought that there were advantages to the more traditional valet: a taciturn man, a man of reserve and propriety. But then Brown’s role was hardly that of a traditional valet. A master of secret writing, a wizard with a picklock, and gifted with an unnatural ability to kill quickly and quietly, Brown was the best man Burke could imagine covering his back in a crisis.

Brown was still chattering happily as he brushed down Burke’s uniform coat. ‘It can hardly be bad news now. Old Boney’s safe on Elba and Europe’s at peace. Most likely thing is that Gordon don’t need you any more.’

Now that, Burke thought, really would be good news. For twenty years he had been spying for Britain. His work had not been without its rewards. There had been good times as well as bad, and, if the opportunities for plunder were less than in the regular Army, he had still been able to supplement his pay from time to time at the expense of Britain’s enemies. But it was hardly the life he had imagined when he had left the genteel poverty of Ireland to take up the uniform of a soldier. Perhaps now he would be allowed to return to regular duties. Peace had come, and England was full of men suddenly freed from the Army, but Burke thought there would still be room for him. There was a lot to be said for being a major in a peacetime army. The red coat attracted the ladies and there was always the odd colonial war that offered the possibility of profit without much risk of becoming a casualty of battle. Yes, a respectable post in a decent regiment would suit him well enough. Perhaps that was what Gordon was going to offer.

Burke had always found Gordon less easy to deal with than his predecessor, Colonel Taylor. Burke had the impression that, like himself, Gordon felt that spying was really rather a dirty business. It was as if he didn’t approve of his own job. He certainly didn’t seem to approve of the men who worked for him.

‘You once served as a Staff officer to Sir Arthur Wellesley, I believe.’ His tone suggested that he found it barely credible that someone like Burke might ever have held such an exalted position.

‘Yes, sir. When he was planning the invasion of South America.’

‘An invasion that never happened.’

Burke said nothing. The invasion hadn’t happened because his own work in Spain had suggested that action in the Peninsula would be a more effective way to wage war on Napoleon. Yet Gordon’s tone seemed to suggest that Wellesley’s failure to seize Spanish America was somehow Burke’s fault.

‘It is said,’ Gordon continued, ‘that Sir Arthur never forgets a face.’ He looked at Burke, as if struggling with the idea that Sir Arthur would have remembered that particular physiognomy. Burke thought the implication unfair. He was not a particularly vain man, but he was proud of his looks. He was by now in his early forties, but his brown hair remained thick with barely a touch of grey at the temples and his eyes had lost none of the reckless charm that had won over many a woman throughout his career.

‘Anyway, he seems to have remembered you.’ For a moment, Burke thought this could be the news that he was hoping for. A place on Sir Arthur’s Staff would be the ideal post for him. Gordon’s expression – remote, yet at the same time somehow disapproving – made him realise that, whatever Sir Arthur wanted, it was unlikely that Gordon would be the bearer of glad tidings.

‘He describes you as a bright young man. Still, that was a few years ago.’ Gordon let his eyes drop to the paper on his desk. Burke was sure that he knew the contents by heart, but he waited while his superior re-read the few lines of fine copperplate. ‘There’s trouble in Paris. Bonapartists; plots; sedition. Wellesley needs a man who knows how to fit in. Find out what’s going on. That sort of thing.’

Damn, Burke thought. Spying. And dangerous spying in the heart of what, until a few months previously, had been the heart of the enemy’s empire.

‘Your record,’ Gordon continued, ‘shows that you served with the French.’

‘Regiment of Dillon, sir. Before we were at war.’

Gordon sniffed. ‘The point is that you know how the French army works. You can pose as a veteran. Quartermaster will fit you up with a uniform. Two, actually. You’ll be taking Brown with you.’ He turned back to his papers and began writing. After a moment, Burke realised he was being dismissed. As he walked to the door, Gordon looked up and spoke again.

‘It should suit you. I think you’ll do a good job.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

He left, closing the door quietly behind him and savouring the moment. From Colonel Gordon, those last seven words were praise indeed.

The uniforms arrived at Burke’s quarters the next day, delivered by a young captain with the rest of Burke’s briefing. It was, Burke thought, quite ridiculously straightforward. He would travel to Paris as an officer on attachment to the Duke of Wellington. He would change into the uniform and he would then emerge onto the Paris streets as Major Bergotte. He had used the name before, but many years ago and in a country far away, and he felt it suited him. He would be a victim of the British success in the Peninsula, wounded and cut off from his regiment and only recently able to get back to Paris.

William Brown was to travel separately. He was to take the role of a prisoner of war, lately released by the British and carrying the massive sense of grievance that so many French prisoners felt towards their captors. William’s story was credible enough. Paris was flooded with such men and he, too, had served in the Regiment of Dillon, so he could easily pass as a French soldier. When he did actually fight under French command he barely spoke the language, as all his comrades were British, but the nature of his work with Burke meant that he had acquired a fluency that would once have seemed impossible. The only thing that let him down, as Burke was quick to tell him, was that he looked far too healthy to have just emerged from years in Dartmoor.

‘Well, maybe we could say I was taken prisoner recently.’

‘Hardly. You have to have been in England for long enough to explain why no one in Paris will remember having fought alongside you. You were captured early in the Peninsular campaign and have been rotting in jail ever since.’

William’s expression suggested that he could see the way this was going and didn’t like it.

‘I’m afraid you’re confined to your quarters on a restricted diet. Don’t worry, William.’ Burke smiled reassuringly. ‘We’re not leaving for a couple of weeks. We’ll have you pale, thin, and flabby in no time.’

It was cruel, Burke admitted. William was still walking out with Molly Simkins and, having owned a tavern in Buenos Aires, she had set up in the same line of business when she followed William to London. Her pies were famous in Whitechapel and William would eat there as often as he could slip away from his quarters in the Tower. Burke wondered which William would miss the more, Molly or her pies. It couldn’t be helped, though. A week or two of starvation rations and no sunlight wouldn’t reduce William to the pathetic state of many of the French prisoners, but it would make him just miserable enough to be credible. Burke, on the other hand, would claim to have spent the last few years behind Spanish lines. He would, he decided, have killed several Spaniards as he struggled to rejoin his regiment. He would be a hero, a man that others would look up to. But there had to be a wound. It was not only essential to his story, but experience suggested that a wounded hero had a mystique that was denied heroes who had escaped combat unscathed. So, as he paced his room, imagining the details of his Spanish escapades, he worked on developing a limp. It was not so serious as to require him to walk with a stick, for that would simply make him appear pathetic. In fact, it barely handicapped him at all, but it was visible evidence of the way he had suffered for France. He had been (and he recalled it as vividly as if it had actually happened) dragged from his horse as he had ridden to rescue a brother officer. He had killed three of the Spaniards and thought that he and his comrade might escape when one man, who had feigned injury, had leapt up and driven a knife into the horse’s belly. The horse had reared and he had fallen, breaking his leg in the process. Yes, thought Burke, that would do. And, as he filled in the details in his imagination, he could have sworn that he felt an actual twinge of pain in the leg, as of an old wound, not completely healed.

Over the years, Burke had learned that the bureaucracy of the military grinds exceedingly slowly. That was particularly true now, for the general view was that, after years of war, the country was now at peace. London was flooded with discharged soldiers, many pitifully unprepared for the reality of civilian life and reduced to begging on the streets. As far as the government was concerned, their principal objective was to get as many soldiers as possible home from France to England. Moving James Burke and William Brown in the opposite direction was hardly a priority. So it was a good three weeks before Major Bergotte finally stepped out onto the streets of Paris. His uniform was worn and careful sewing showed where blades had slashed into the fabric. A stain round one such slash suggested that the blade had sliced into flesh as well. The major wore the uniform proudly, though, and he carried himself well, despite a slight limp in his left leg.

No one remarked on his sudden appearance from a nondescript house just off the Rue de Richelieu. He made his way north towards Montmartre. The buildings there still bore scars from the fighting before Paris had surrendered. Something about the place seemed to draw the soldiers of Napoleon’s army and it was not long before he saw others like himself, uniforms patched and shabby, but worn proudly by men who remembered their time following their Emperor’s eagle standards.

He found a café which was obviously a favourite haunt of the veterans. It was not luck that guided his feet there: he had been given the address in his briefing.

Un café, s’il vous plait.

Monsieur.’ The waiter’s acknowledgement carried a tone of respect, which Burke attributed to the rank badges on his epaulettes.

It had been a cold summer in England and now, at the end of September, Paris seemed no warmer. Burke hunched his shoulders against the chill that warned autumn was on its way. When the coffee arrived he was glad of the warmth.

The unseasonal cool seemed to be reflected in the mood of the café’s clientele, who sat quietly over glasses of wine. Burke noticed that few of them ordered coffee or bought a second glass, but the waiters seemed happy for them to sit for hours over a single drink. Every now and then another old soldier would join them and voices would be raised in greeting, but generally they sat in silence.

Burke had spent enough times in the company of French soldiers to feel uneasy at this unnatural quiet. The men sat at the tables around him were clearly not happy, but their silence was not the sullenness of the defeated but rather the quiet of men before action.

Burke sat undisturbed, drank his coffee, and ordered another. Wellington, he decided, had been right. There were thousands of demobilised French troops in Paris. If this lot were remotely typical, Paris was a powder keg.

He found himself lodgings that afternoon. The room was cold and mean and shared the primitive sanitation with a dozen others, but Burke had lived in Paris before and expected no better. The sheets were clean and, he was told, would be changed every two weeks or so and, though he heard rats in the wainscoting, the beasts didn’t show themselves in the open. It would serve.

The next day he set out to explore. Paris was a small place, he thought – much inferior to London. It was easily enough tramped across in a few hours and what he saw reinforced the concern that he had felt in the café. Everywhere, it seemed, there were old soldiers sitting or standing quietly, as if waiting for something. And it was only too obvious what they were waiting for. From time to time the quiet of the cafés where they waited would be broken as somebody started to sing the Marseillaise and, around them, Napoleon’s old soldiers would rise to their feet and join in.

Major Bergotte fell into a routine. He would rise at eight or nine and by ten he would have established himself in the café he had visited on that first morning. He would order a coffee and make it last for an hour or two before he would have a second cup and a brioche. At two sous it seemed to him a bargain, its rich buttery flavour nicely offsetting the slight bitterness of the coffee. It was sustaining, too, and on the strength of the one little bun he would spend the afternoon exploring one or another of the Paris arrondissements. He would return in the evening and order a small but (he thought) remarkably well-cooked meal and then he would sit quietly with a glass of wine until it was time for him to retire for the night.

After a few days of this, the men there were more relaxed in his company. They would greet him with a nod as he arrived, some even saluting in honour of the rank he had held under Bonaparte. He would hear muttered references to l’Empereur and he would catch a glimpse of a tricolour rosette displayed to a friend like a badge of honour before it vanished into a pocket.

As conspiracies went, it seemed remarkably open. It was not so open, though, that anybody would speak about it in front of a stranger – even a stranger wearing the uniform of Bonaparte’s army. This changed on the fifth morning that Major Bergotte spent in the café. He was just finishing his first coffee and wondering about ordering the brioche when a new arrival opened the door and looked hesitantly in. He, too, wore the same old uniform, but it was even more ragged than those worn by the other veterans. The man looked almost as worn out as his clothes: thin and pale, it seemed as if he might collapse at any moment. He saw Major Bergotte and his eyes widened in astonishment. He made his way across the room and, with a visible effort, drew himself to attention and snapped out a smart salute.

The major frowned up at the soldier from his seat and then, suddenly recognising him, rose to his feet and, clapping him on the shoulder, insisted that he sit down and eat.

‘Good God, Jean-Baptiste, I thought you were dead.’

‘I was as good as, sir.’ Jean Baptiste was visibly embarrassed to have become suddenly the centre of attention. ‘The British caught me and they kept me in prison these ten years. It was a terrible place – Dartmoor, they called it.’

Bergotte nodded sympathetically. ‘I’ve heard of it. They say it’s a harsh place.’

‘It was cruel cold in winter, sir, and there was never enough to eat.’ Jean Baptiste made a visible effort to pull himself together. ‘But I’m here, sir, and alive, and that’s more than a lot of my mates. Can’t complain, sir. Not really.’

Several of the other men in the room now came over to introduce themselves. They had heard of Dartmoor. Many of those who had been sent there had died behind its high stone walls. Jean Baptiste’s story drew immediate sympathy. It never occurred to them that somebody looking as wretched as that poor man might, only a few weeks earlier, have been striding proudly around London in the uniform of the British Army. And while they might have been suspicious of either man alone, Baptiste’s recognition of Major Bergotte and the major’s acknowledgement of Baptiste confirmed the credentials of both.

A grey-haired sergeant insisted on buying wine for the two of them, though the state of his uniform suggested he could ill afford it. ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ?’ he asked, quietly.

Burke had been expecting the question. He had been told about it in London and had his answer ready. ‘Yes. And in his resurrection.’

Although the sergeant had spoken quietly, it seemed that everyone in the place had been listening and as Major Bergotte spoke, a cheer went up and one man started to sing the Marseillaise. A few seconds later, everybody had joined in, James Burke and William Brown singing with the best of them.

To a visitor to Paris, the apparent enthusiasm for those who believed in the resurrection might have seemed strange, coming from soldiers whose leader had been notably impatient with Christian dogma. Burke knew, though, that it was not Christ’s resurrection that they celebrated. Their Messiah had all too human form and lived on Elba. But they believed that he would come again to walk among his disciples. He would return, he had told them, with the violets. Napoleon’s troops were waiting for the spring.

Major Bergotte and Jean Baptiste were not exactly friends. The difference in their ranks precluded that. Major Bergotte would leave the café and return to his room. Jean Baptiste would settle down by the Seine to sleep under a bridge. But they shared the companionship of men who had fought together on the losing side. Their suffering – the major’s wound and Jean Baptiste’s imprisonment – was a sort of bond between them, and they became a regular fixture in the café, the major with his coffee and Jean Baptiste with a glass of rough red wine.

Now they were trusted and the tricolour rosettes were displayed openly in front of them. Sometimes men who still served in the army would enter, a white cockade in their headgear. The usual quiet would change sulkily into an unmistakably hostile silence, until the stranger would produce from some hiding place about his person a tricolour rosette, glimpsed for a moment before it vanished away again. Then someone would ask him where he had fought and, for a while, everyone would fall to reminiscing about their days following the Eagles as Napoleon’s armies had marched victoriously the length and breadth of Europe.

The suspicion of strangers was at least sometimes justified. Paris was full of spies. The King knew himself hated by many of his subjects and he, in turn, hated and despised them. From time to time, strangers would turn up in the café, men who seemed too well fed and prosperous for such a place. They would sit quietly, listening to anything that was said around them. The soldiers knew well enough who they were and what their business was and they would taunt them, inviting them to play cards but insisting on calling the king ‘the pig’. ‘Oh, m’sieur, quel dommage! Your queen falls to my pig of spades.’ (They usually won, for Burke noticed that they palmed the court cards.) The spies would grimace, mocked by the ribald laughter of the room, and they would slip away to be replaced a day or two later by others of their sort.

There were, from time to time, other spies – men whose accents gave them away or whose coats were cut in a style not totally familiar in France. Burke identified an Austrian, two Prussians, and a Russian. There was even a little fat Dutchman, who reminded him of the Dutch agent he had killed on his way to South America years earlier.

Burke found that spotting the spies from the various Powers now negotiating the future of Europe was a diverting pastime. It could even be useful, were he to come across these men again, for he had an excellent memory for faces. It did not, though, further his current mission. If there were any Bonapartist plots, he was no nearer discovering them.

Two weeks after Burke had first shown up in the café, he arranged to meet Brown in the Champs de Mars. It was a natural enough place for two old soldiers to bump into each other and natural enough that they should chat as they took the air there.

Burke spoke in French and insisted that Brown did too. ‘There is little danger of us being overheard here, but better safe than sorry. And, besides, it’s best to stay in character.’

‘That’s all right for you, sir. Your character gets to sleep in a bed.’

‘A bit of privation will do you good. Toughen you up. That Molly is making you soft. Her and her steak pies.’

They walked in silence for a few minutes, thinking of Molly’s pies. Burke saw William swallow and would have sworn that the man was salivating at the mere thought of them.

‘We’re not making any progress, William. We need to stir things up a bit.’

‘I don’t see how. We can hardly ask if there’s any plots they haven’t told us about and humbly beg to be included.’

‘There has to be something. Something that will establish us as desperadoes of the first order. Men who should be included in any plots that might be afoot.’

‘Smash a window?’

‘Hardly. We’re talking about soldiers here, William. I don’t think the odd bit of vandalism will impress.’

‘Kill somebody?’

‘I think that’s perhaps going to the opposite extreme. Besides, who would we kill?’

They walked in silence again. Burke found himself thinking of the Dutchman in the café, and that other Dutchman, smothered in his cabin all those years ago. Life had been simpler then, Burke thought. The man had been a spy and an enemy of England, so he had killed him.

Were things so very different now, though? The Dutchman in the café was a spy and, if the Netherlands were Britain’s allies now, that would not last for ever. Would it be such a bad thing if the wretched man were to die?

Burke realised that he was walking more and more slowly. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘Perhaps there is somebody we could kill …’

In the end, they didn’t kill the Dutchman. He didn’t show up in the café for the next three days, and Burke didn’t think he had time to waste. It didn’t matter, anyway. The Russian did just as well.

The Russian wore a thick black beard and a