The night was dark and foggy. The light from the gas lights barely made it from one street light to the next. The fog smelt of dank wood and coal smoke. I pulled my overcoat more closely about me in a forlorn effort to keep out the cold. At last, I came to the welcoming entrance to my club.
"Good evening, Sir," the doorman said with a smile of greeting.
No one had the right to be so cheerful on such a miserable night. As I walked through the front door into the foyer, I was met with its cheerful gas lights. There were no candles or oil lamps here. My own spirits rose with their intensity. A footman approached me and helped me off with my coat. I removed my hat and scarf and gave them to him.
I thanked him and turned to the stairs. Twenty-two stairs on the curving staircase brought me to a wide landing. I entered the dining room on the far side of the landing. I was greeted by the Maître d', who led me to my usual table where he assisted me to seat myself.
"The Special tonight, Sir is comprised of a pair of breaded veal escalops."
"That sounds good. What wine would you recommend to go with it?"
"We have just received a few cases of a premium Burgundy that I think would be suitable, Sir."
"And what would you care for to start with, Sir?"
"How about those fried mushrooms with the cheese and garlic sauce?"
"Very good, Sir. Would you care for a drink while you are waiting?"
"Thank you. A very dry sherry, I think."
The entree was delicious. A dish of mushrooms breaded and fried with garlic. The taste was a delight to the palate, and the quantity was sufficient to enchant without spoiling my appetite. The main course was served with roast potatoes, garden peas, and asparagus. The gravy was something to die for.
As the waiter collected my plate and the vegetable dishes, he left the menu for me. A quick glance to note that it was available, and I selected the raspberry pavlova, followed by cheese and biscuits. The Club served an excellent Camembert.
I completed the meal with a black coffee and a Combier liqueur. Having finished, I requested the waiter to bring me a glass of Calvados in the Smoking Room. I stood, removing the serviette attached to my waist, and crossed to the door to the Smoking Room and found that it seemed empty. I walked to a chair close to the roaring fire that was casting a cheery glow from the fireplace.
There was a copy of the London Gazette on the chair. I picked it up, and sat down. I glanced at the date and it was the 12th day of November, 1854. That was wrong. Today's date is the 27th day of October.
I scanned the front page for news of the war in the Crimea. My son Jeremiah is fighting there, a Cornet of the 17th Lancers in the Light brigade. My interest turned to agitation as I realised the scale of the battle at Balaclava, and the extent of the casualties. As far as I could ascertain from the Gazette, over half the Light Brigade had been killed or wounded. I quickly turned to the list of names of those affected. I first saw the Return of Casualties which listed the numbers, but not their names. My God! Three of their Officers had been killed and four were wounded.
Hurriedly I turned to the list of names on the next page. There I saw the seven named officers, killed or severely wounded. They were gentlemen that I either knew or had been told about by my son. It was devastating.
I was sitting there with my cigar in my hand with the length of the ash gradually increasing. My mind was in a turmoil trying to absorb the news that I had just read. My eyes were staring blankly at the painting Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. It was a copy of the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
"That was good news for you, wasn't it?" A voice suddenly exploded into my consciousness.
"Er ... Sorry, I didn't hear that?"
A gentleman leaned forward in the chair where he had been concealed from me. Wild white hair topped a pair of ruddy cheeks. A pince-nez perched on the end of a stubby upturned nose. Imagine a clean-shaven Father Christmas.
"I said that the paper had good news for you about your son. He survived the charge on the Russian gun positions."
"Er ... Yes! You read it here?"
"No, actually. I was there, at Balaclava. You know. I was so exhausted by the charge down the valley and by the subsequent withdrawal. And now your son is on his way home; escorting some of his men who are to receive awards for gallantry."
"How ... How do you know that?"
"I told you. I was there. Your son gave me such a hard time of it. I was quite done in."
"How do you mean? Do I know you, Sir?"
"Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't properly introduce myself. My name is Horace Odbody. I'm acting as a sort of your family's Guardian."
"Who are you, Sir?"
"In life, I was a cobbler. My brother, Clarence, and I had a shop in Pudding Lane in London. We died from breathing wood smoke on the second day of September in the year of our Lord 1666."
I felt seriously troubled and wondered who had admitted this character to the Club. He seemed to be a little weak in the head. I sincerely hoped that he wasn't violent.
"May I ask how long you have been our family's... ?"
I've been looking after your family for generations."
"Yes. I started with your Grandfather. He was at the first battle of Saratoga in 1777.
"I knew that he had been in the army during the American Revolution, but not what he had done or where he had been."
"Oh. He was there. I had a terrible time keeping him from being killed or even wounded. Then I had to stop him from being captured."
"How did you do that, Sir?"
"I managed to persuade General Burgoyne to send the Cornet to report the news to General Sir Henry Clinton, who in turn sent him to New York with his dispatches calling for reinforcements. It was the only way to keep him out the Americans' hands. I almost messed that up as well."
"How do you mean, Sir?"
"Well I was scouting the road ahead of him, when I came across an approaching column of rebel troops."
"That must have been awkward."
"It was! I had to get him out of the way and couldn't think of a single way of doing it. I finally hit on the idea of making him and his horse thirsty. There was a stream by the road, and I mentally persuaded him to ride down to it, to allow his horse to drink. I had just got him down to the stream when he heard the rebels. Fortunately, the trees were fairly thick where he was, and none of the Americans saw him."
"Then what happened?"
"I managed to manipulate a staff officer in New York to send him to England with dispatches. His ship docked in Liverpool, and there..."
"That must have been when he met my grandmother?"
"That's right. And your father was born the younger of two twins. Naturally he went into the Royal Navy and was a lieutenant on the Royal Sovereign. He nearly lost the ability to sire you when one of the Spanish broadsides hit the side of his ship at the Battle of Trafalgar. I had considerable difficulties in stopping him from being hit by flying splinters. I was glad to see the end of the 'wooden walls', I can tell you."
"I remember as a small boy hearing his tales of the battle. It was one of the reasons that I, myself, went into the Navy. My father was still with Baron Collingwood when the Admiral died. My father was among those who brought him home to be buried with his hero in Saint Paul's Cathedral."
"And now we come to you. I'm sure you remember your exploits at the battle of Navarino?"
"Yes. The last battle at sea before they introduced all those steam kettles. Under sail, it took skill to manoeuvre the Fleet. The wind is so vital. Nowadays you can sail round in circles, if you so desire. Then, it took skill if you were to sail anywhere near close to the wind. Ah, happy days, and now what?"