Grey’s hand had been on his dagger for so long that the wire-wrapped hilt had left its imprint on his fingers. His other hand was clenched upon a sabre. He had no command here, but the urge to raise his sword, gather the eyes of his men, hold them, focus them, was overwhelming. He shook his shoulders to loosen them and glanced at Wolfe.

Another volley, close enough this time that several British soldiers in the front lines fell, knocked down by musket fire.

‘Hold, hold!’ The order rattled down the lines like gunfire. The brimstone smell of slowmatch was thick, pungent above the scent of powder-smoke; the artillerymen held their fire as well.

French cannon fired, and balls bounced murderously across the field, but they seemed puny, ineffectual despite the damage they did. How many French? he wondered. Perhaps twice as many, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter.

Sweat ran down his face, and he rubbed a sleeve across to clear his eyes.

‘Hold!’

Closer, closer. Many of the Indians were on horseback; he could see them in a knot on the left, milling. Those would bear watching . . .

‘Hold!’

Wolfe’s arm rose slowly, sword in hand, and the army breathed deep. His beloved grenadiers were next to him, solid in their companies, wrapped in sulphurous smoke from the matchtubes at their belts.

‘Come on, you buggers,’ the man next to Grey was muttering. ‘Come on, come on!’

Smoke was drifting over the field, low white clouds. Forty paces. Effective range.

‘Don’t fire, don’t fire, don’t fire . . .’ Someone was chanting to himself, struggling against panic.

Through the British lines, sun glinted on the rising swords, the officers echoing Wolfe’s order.

‘Hold . . . hold . . .’

The swords fell as one.

‘FIRE!’ and the ground shook.

A shout rose in his throat, part of the roar of the army, and he was charging with the men near him, swinging his sabre with all his might, finding flesh.

The volley had been devastating; bodies littered the ground. He leaped over a fallen Frenchman, brought his sabre down upon another, caught halfway in the act of loading, took him in the cleft between neck and shoulder, yanked his sabre free of the falling man and went on.

The British artillery was firing as fast as the guns could be served. Each boom shook his flesh. He gritted his teeth, squirmed aside from the point of a half-seen bayonet, and found himself panting, eyes watering from the smoke, standing alone.

Chest heaving, he turned round in a circle, disoriented. There was so much smoke around him that he could not for a moment tell where he was. It didn’t matter.

An enormous blur of something passed him, shrieking, and he dodged by instinct and fell to the ground as the horse’s feet churned past, hearing as an echo the Indian’s grunt, the rush of the tomahawk blow that had missed his head.

‘Shit,’ he muttered, and scrambled to his feet.

The grenadiers were hard at work nearby; he heard their officers’ shouts, the bang and pop of their explosions as they worked their way stolidly through the French like the small mobile batteries they were.

A grenade struck the ground a few feet away, and he felt a sharp pain in his thigh; a metal fragment had sliced through his breeches, drawing blood.

‘Christ,’ he said, belatedly becoming aware that being in the vicinity of a company of grenadiers was not a good idea. He shook his head to clear it and made his way away from them.

He heard a familiar sound that made him recoil for an instant from the force of memory – wild Highland screams, filled with rage and berserk glee. The Highlanders were hard at work with their broadswords – he saw two of them appear from the smoke, bare legs churning beneath their kilts, pursuing a pack of fleeing French-men, and felt laughter bubble up through his heaving chest.

He didn’t see the man in the smoke. His foot struck something heavy and he fell, sprawling across the body. The man screamed, and Grey scrambled hastily off him.

‘Sorry. Are you— Christ, Malcolm!’

He was on his knees, bending low to avoid the smoke. Stubbs was gasping, grasping desperately at his coat.

‘Jesus.’ Malcolm’s right leg was gone below the knee, flesh shredded and the white bone splintered, butcher-stained with spurting blood. Or . . . no. It wasn’t gone. It – the foot, at least – was lying a little way away, still clad in shoe and tattered stocking.

Grey turned his head and threw up.

Bile stinging the back of his nose, he choked and spat, turned back, and grappled with his belt, wrenching it free.

‘Don’t . . .’ Stubbs gasped, putting out a hand as Grey began wrapping the belt round his thigh. His face was whiter than the bone of his leg. ‘Don’t. Better . . . Better if I die.’

‘The devil you will,’ Grey replied briefly.

His hands were shaking, slippery with blood. It took three tries to get the end of the belt through the buckle, but it went, at last, and he jerked it tight, eliciting a yell from Stubbs.

‘Here,’ said an unfamiliar voice by his ear. ‘Let’s get him off. I’ll— shit!’ He looked up, startled, to see a tall British officer lunge upward, blocking the musket butt that would have brained Grey. Without thinking, he drew his dagger and stabbed the Frenchman in the leg. The man screamed, his leg buckling, and the strange officer pushed him over, kicked him in the face, and stamped on his throat, crushing it.

‘I’ll help,’ the man said calmly, bending to take hold of Malcolm’s arm, pulling him up. ‘Take the other side; we’ll get him to the back.’ They got Malcolm up, his arms round their shoulders, and dragged him, paying no heed to the Frenchman thrashing and gurgling on the ground behind them.

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Grey’s hand had been on his dagger for so long that the wire-wrapped hilt had left its imprint on his fingers. His other hand was clenched upon a sabre. He had no command here, but the urge to raise his sword, gather the eyes of his men, hold them, focus them, was overwhelming. He shook his shoulders to loosen them and glanced at Wolfe.

Another volley, close enough this time that several British soldiers in the front lines fell, knocked down by musket fire.

‘Hold, hold!’ The order rattled down the lines like gunfire. The brimstone smell of slowmatch was thick, pungent above the scent of powder-smoke; the artillerymen held their fire as well.

French cannon fired, and balls bounced murderously across the field, but they seemed puny, ineffectual despite the damage they did. How many French? he wondered. Perhaps twice as many, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter.

Sweat ran down his face, and he rubbed a sleeve across to clear his eyes.

‘Hold!’

Closer, closer. Many of the Indians were on horseback; he could see them in a knot on the left, milling. Those would bear watching . . .

‘Hold!’

Wolfe’s arm rose slowly, sword in hand, and the army breathed deep. His beloved grenadiers were next to him, solid in their companies, wrapped in sulphurous smoke from the matchtubes at their belts.

‘Come on, you buggers,’ the man next to Grey was muttering. ‘Come on, come on!’

Smoke was drifting over the field, low white clouds. Forty paces. Effective range.

‘Don’t fire, don’t fire, don’t fire . . .’ Someone was chanting to himself, struggling against panic.

Through the British lines, sun glinted on the rising swords, the officers echoing Wolfe’s order.

‘Hold . . . hold . . .’

The swords fell as one.

‘FIRE!’ and the ground shook.

A shout rose in his throat, part of the roar of the army, and he was charging with the men near him, swinging his sabre with all his might, finding flesh.

The volley had been devastating; bodies littered the ground. He leaped over a fallen Frenchman, brought his sabre down upon another, caught halfway in the act of loading, took him in the cleft between neck and shoulder, yanked his sabre free of the falling man and went on.

The British artillery was firing as fast as the guns could be served. Each boom shook his flesh. He gritted his teeth, squirmed aside from the point of a half-seen bayonet, and found himself panting, eyes watering from the smoke, standing alone.

Chest heaving, he turned round in a circle, disoriented. There was so much smoke around him that he could not for a moment tell where he was. It didn’t matter.

An enormous blur of something passed him, shrieking, and he dodged by instinct and fell to the ground as the horse’s feet churned past, hearing as an echo the Indian’s grunt, the rush of the tomahawk blow that had missed his head.

‘Shit,’ he muttered, and scrambled to his feet.

The grenadiers were hard at work nearby; he heard their officers’ shouts, the bang and pop of their explosions as they worked their way stolidly through the French like the small mobile batteries they were.

A grenade struck the ground a few feet away, and he felt a sharp pain in his thigh; a metal fragment had sliced through his breeches, drawing blood.

‘Christ,’ he said, belatedly becoming aware that being in the vicinity of a company of grenadiers was not a good idea. He shook his head to clear it and made his way away from them.

He heard a familiar sound that made him recoil for an instant from the force of memory – wild Highland screams, filled with rage and berserk glee. The Highlanders were hard at work with their broadswords – he saw two of them appear from the smoke, bare legs churning beneath their kilts, pursuing a pack of fleeing French-men, and felt laughter bubble up through his heaving chest.

He didn’t see the man in the smoke. His foot struck something heavy and he fell, sprawling across the body. The man screamed, and Grey scrambled hastily off him.

‘Sorry. Are you— Christ, Malcolm!’

He was on his knees, bending low to avoid the smoke. Stubbs was gasping, grasping desperately at his coat.

‘Jesus.’ Malcolm’s right leg was gone below the knee, flesh shredded and the white bone splintered, butcher-stained with spurting blood. Or . . . no. It wasn’t gone. It – the foot, at least – was lying a little way away, still clad in shoe and tattered stocking.

Grey turned his head and threw up.

Bile stinging the back of his nose, he choked and spat, turned back, and grappled with his belt, wrenching it free.

‘Don’t . . .’ Stubbs gasped, putting out a hand as Grey began wrapping the belt round his thigh. His face was whiter than the bone of his leg. ‘Don’t. Better . . . Better if I die.’

‘The devil you will,’ Grey replied briefly.

His hands were shaking, slippery with blood. It took three tries to get the end of the belt through the buckle, but it went, at last, and he jerked it tight, eliciting a yell from Stubbs.

‘Here,’ said an unfamiliar voice by his ear. ‘Let’s get him off. I’ll— shit!’ He looked up, startled, to see a tall British officer lunge upward, blocking the musket butt that would have brained Grey. Without thinking, he drew his dagger and stabbed the Frenchman in the leg. The man screamed, his leg buckling, and the strange officer pushed him over, kicked him in the face, and stamped on his throat, crushing it.

‘I’ll help,’ the man said calmly, bending to take hold of Malcolm’s arm, pulling him up. ‘Take the other side; we’ll get him to the back.’ They got Malcolm up, his arms round their shoulders, and dragged him, paying no heed to the Frenchman thrashing and gurgling on the ground behind them.

Malcolm lived long enough to make it to the rear of the lines, where the army surgeons were already at work. By the time Grey and the other officer had turned him over to the surgeons, the battle was over.

Grey turned to see the French scattered and demoralised, fleeing toward the fortress. British troops were flooding across the trampled field, cheering, overrunning the abandoned French cannon.

The entire battle had lasted less than a quarter of an hour.

He found himself sitting on the ground, his mind quite blank, with no notion how long he had been there, though he supposed it couldn’t have been much time at all.

He noticed an officer standing near him, and thought vaguely that the man seemed familiar. Who . . Oh, yes. Wolfe’s adjutant. He’d never learned the man’s name.

He stood up slowly, stiff as a nine-day pudding.

The adjutant was simply standing there. His eyes were turned in the direction of the fortress and the fleeing French, but Grey could tell that he wasn’t really seeing either. Grey glanced over his shoulder, toward the hillock where Wolfe had stood earlier, but the general was nowhere in sight.

‘General Wolfe . . . ?’ he said.

‘The general . . .’ the adjutant said, and swallowed thickly. ‘He was struck.’

Of course he was, silly ass, Grey thought uncharitably. Standing up there like a bloody target, what could he expect? But then he saw the tears standing in the adjutant’s eyes, and understood.

‘Dead, then?’ he asked, stupidly, and the adjutant – why had he never thought to ask the man’s name? – nodded, rubbing a smoke-stained sleeve across a smoke-stained countenance.

‘He . . . in the wrist, first. Then in the body. He fell, and crawled – then he fell again. I turned him over . . . told him the battle was won; the French were scattered.’

‘He understood?’

The adjutant nodded and took a deep breath that rattled in his throat. ‘He said—’ He stopped and coughed, then went on, more firmly. ‘He said that in knowing he had conquered, he was content to die.’

‘Did he?’ Grey said blankly. He’d seen men die, often, and imagined it much more likely that if James Wolfe had managed anything beyond an inarticulate groan, his final word had likely been either ‘Shit,’ or ‘Oh, God,’ depending upon the general’s religious leanings, of which Grey had no notion. ‘Yes, good,’ he said, meaninglessly, and turned toward the fortress himself. Ant-trails of men were streaming toward it, and in the midst of one such stream he saw Montcalm’s colours, fluttering in the wind. Below the colours, small in the distance, a man in general’s uniform rode his horse, hatless, hunched and swaying in the saddle, his officers bunched close on either side, anxious lest he fall.

The British lines were reorganising, though it was clear no further fighting would be required. Not today. Nearby, he saw the tall officer who had saved his life and helped him to drag Malcolm Stubbs to safety, limping back toward his troops.

‘The major over there,’ he said, nudging the adjutant and nodding. ‘Do you know his name?’

The adjutant blinked, then firmed his shoulders.

‘Yes, of course. That’s Major Siverly.’

‘Oh. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?’

Admiral Holmes, third in command after Wolfe, accepted the surrender of Quebec three days later, Wolfe and his second, Brigadier Monckton, having perished in battle. Montcalm was dead, too – had died the morning following the battle. There was no way out for the French save surrender; winter was coming on, and the fortress and its city would starve long before its besiegers.

Two weeks after the battle, John Grey returned to Gareon, and found that smallpox had swept through the village like an autumn wind. The mother of Malcolm Stubbs’s son was dead; her mother offered to sell him the child. He asked her politely to wait.

Charlie Carruthers had perished, too, the smallpox not waiting for the weakness of his body to overcome him. Grey had the body burned, not wishing Carruthers’s hand to be stolen, for both the Indians and the local habitants regarded such things superstitiously. He took a canoe by himself, and on a deserted island in the St Lawrence, scattered his friend’s ashes to the wind.

He returned from this expedition to discover a letter, forwarded by Hal, from Mr John Hunter, surgeon. He checked the level of brandy in the decanter, and opened it with a sigh.

My dear Lord John,

I have heard some recent conversation regarding the unfortunate death of Mr Nicholls earlier this year, including comments indicating a public perception that you were responsible for his death. In case you shared this perception, I thought it might ease your mind to know that in fact you were not.

Grey sank slowly onto a stool, eyes glued to the sheet.

It is true that your ball did strike Mr Nicholls, but this accident contributed little or nothing to his demise. I saw you fire upward into the air – I said as much, to those present at the time, though most of them did not appear to take much notice. The ball apparently went up at a slight angle, and then fell upon Mr Nicholls from above. At this point, its power was quite spent, and the missile itself being negligible in size and weight, it barely penetrated the skin above his collar bone, where it lodged against the bone, doing no further damage.

The true cause of his collapse and death was an aortic aneurysm, a weakness in the wall of one of the great vessels emergent from the heart; such weaknesses are often congenital. The stress of the electric shock and the emotion of the duello that followed apparently caused this aneurysm to rupture. Such an occurrence is untreatable, and invariably fatal, I am afraid. There is nothing that could have saved him.

Your servant,

John Hunter, Surgeon

Grey was conscious of a most extraordinary array of sensations. Relief, yes, there was a sense of profound relief, as of one waking from a nightmare. There was also a sense of injustice, coloured by the beginnings of indignation; by God, he had nearly been married! He might, of course, also have been maimed or killed as a result of the imbroglio, but that seemed relatively inconsequent; he was a soldier, after all – such things happened.

His hand trembled slightly as he set the note down. Beneath relief, gratitude, and indignation was a growing sense of horror.

I thought it might ease your mind . . . He could see Hunter’s face, saying this; sympathetic, intelligent, and cheerful. It was a straightforward remark, but one fully cognisant of its own irony.

Yes, he was pleased to know he had not caused Edwin Nicholls’s death. But the means of that knowledge . . . gooseflesh rose on his arms and he shuddered involuntarily, imagining . . .

‘Oh, God,’ he said. He’d been once to Hunter’s house – to a poetry reading, held under the auspices of Mrs Hunter, whose salons were famous. Doctor Hunter did not attend these, but sometimes would come down from his part of the house to greet guests. On this occasion, he had done so, and falling into conversation with Grey and a couple of other scientifically minded gentlemen, had invited them up to see some of the more interesting items of his famous collection: the rooster with a transplanted human tooth growing in its comb, the child with two heads, the foetus with a foot protruding from its stomach.

Hunter had made no mention of the walls of jars, these filled with eyeballs, fingers, sections of livers . . . or of the two or three complete human skeletons that hung from the ceiling, fully articulated and fixed by a bolt through the tops of their skulls. It had not occurred to Grey at the time to wonder where – or how – Hunter had acquired these.

Nicholls had had an eyetooth missing, the front tooth beside the empty space badly chipped. If he ever visited Hunter’s house again, might he come face to face with a skull with a missing tooth?

He seized the brandy decanter, uncorked it, and drank directly from it, swallowing slowly and repeatedly, until the vision disappeared.

His small table was littered with papers. Among them, under his sapphire paperweight, was the tidy packet that the widow Lambert had handed him, her face blotched with weeping. He put a hand on it, feeling Charlie’s doubled touch, gentle on his face, soft around his heart.

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