Somewhere near Roncesvalles, Spain, 1813
Alexander opened his eyes to complete darkness. Where was he?
Blaring sounds and pungent smells seemed vaguely familiar and triggered his memory, but as much as he tried, he couldn’t quite remember where he was. Or who he was. Besides his Christian name, he had no recollection of his life before the moment he woke. A heaviness of the spirit engulfed him, making him tired and despondent. He couldn’t move. His limbs weighed him down onto a hard surface.
Shouts and agonizing screams woke him the next time he regained consciousness. Nearby, someone spoke but he didn’t understand the language. Pain exploded in his head.
Yet another attempt at opening his eyes left him staring at a black wall of nothingness. Was it the same night? Day? He didn’t know. Confusion and hunger gripped his mind and body, leaving no space for rational thinking. So, he gave himself permission to float away.
The same man who had spoken before woke Alexander with soft words. He still couldn’t understand the musical language whispered in his ear, but instead of the black void, spots of gray dotted his vision. If anything, he saw that as a sign of improvement. The pain was also still there, though, pressing at his temples and demanding his entire attention. Even breathing was an unbearable chore.
The next time he woke, lights and shadows played before his eyes. A noticeable lack of shouts and screams made the silence almost eerie. He had grown used to the sounds by now, and it felt strange not to hear them in the background. A foreign hand raised his head, and a moment later he was resting with his upper body at an angle. His attempt to move his own hands failed, and he felt nauseated right away, his body spinning as if he were falling down a well. Hard metal pushed against his lips as someone spoke, maybe to him. It was hard to say when the language was still unknown. Reflexively, he opened his mouth and warm broth trickled down his throat. He didn’t recognize the spices used but the flavor was appealing and it quieted his rumbling stomach.
“Thank you,” he remembered to say in between spoonfuls as the sensation of forever spinning abated somewhat.
“De nada,” the man responded.
Even though Alexander thought he knew what those words meant, he was too tired to think. The worst of the nausea had lessened, but he still felt lightheaded. His eyelids were heavy.
Pale light welcomed him when he woke next. The sound of birds filled the silence. He still couldn’t differentiate any shape, but he could at least see if it was night or day. It was a big change. If he squinted, moving forms appeared at the periphery of his sight, but the act worsened his headache. The smell of roses and rosemary reached his nostrils. It was pleasant but didn’t tell him where he was. He could raise his hands, though—that was new. As it had happened earlier, maybe the day before, the man came back to feed him. They exchanged words, he in English—that was his language he had realized—and his nurse in what he now knew was Spanish, which made for an interesting conversation.
The next morning, a blurry room with white walls and large windows materialized in front of him. Finally, he could see. It didn’t matter that the details were not in focus. The simple fact that he had opened his eyes to a reality he could comprehend made him euphoric. He tried to rise, but his body felt like it weighed a ton. Still, he could reach his face with his hand and was surprised when he found a rather long beard. Tracing the hair with his fingers, he realized that the growth was quite impressive. How long had he been lying in that bed? That mustache wasn’t the making of a week.
When he moved his hand higher, he touched fabric. He gingerly pressed his finger over the rough cotton and a sharp pain made him stop. His head had been bandaged tightly. Fortunately, the hurt ebbed to a dull ache in a matter of seconds.
Something drew his attention when he lowered his hand. There was something shiny on his finger. A ring. He squinted to look at it, to catch the details. There were letters on a flat oval framed by… leaves? He couldn’t be sure about the decoration. The letters were easier to read but it still took him a moment to decipher them. There was a capital A. That made sense since his name was Alexander. And then… a capital H? Yes, it was an H.
So his last name started with an H. It sounded right.
Alexander H. Yes, it sounded like him. If only he could remember what the H stood for… It would come back to him. For now, he needed to get better.
“Señor!” he called when he saw someone walking at the other end of the large room.
A flurry of activity followed. Three persons hurried at his side. From a distance, he couldn’t distinguish traits yet, but from their shapes, he thought that they were all men and wore long dresses—no, not dressed, but tunics. He guessed that they were priests, or monks—he couldn’t remember the differences between Catholic clergymen, but ‘monk’ seemed the right word for these men.
Sounding excited, they spoke to him, asking questions, judging from the rising intonation at the end of their sentences.
“I apologize but my knowledge of Spanish starts and finishes with señor and gracias.” In retrospect, he should have taken the time to learn more when he had the chance, but he had never thought to remain in Spain for more than a season. His faith in the English military’s greatness had been vastly overrated.
With that consideration came the first good memory about his past. His last name still eluded him, but he was a captain
They might have frowned at his statement but kept talking to him. The shortest of the three took a step closer to the bed. This close, he could see the man had gray hair, dark eyes, a large nose, and wrinkles on his forehead. He also had a gentle smile. The monk pointed a knotty finger at Alexander’s head, then when he received permission, he reached for the bandage with a soft touch.
While his companions hovered at the side, the older man unraveled the gaze until it all lay in a heap on Alexander’s lap. The monk leaned closer yet, examining Alexander’s head with his warm hand. He smelled of lavender and roses, and his habit was soft against Alexander’s cheek. When he was done, he leaned away and began asking questions.
Alexander shook his head. “I am sorry but I don’t understand you.”
The monk nodded and brought a finger to his head. He made a happy face at first, then a sad one. After repeating the motion twice, he looked at Alexander expectantly.
“No headache,” he said before curving his mouth into an exaggerated smile. He still didn’t know his last name, or how he had ended up there, but the throbbing pain was gone.
The monk smiled back, looked at the other two, and said something in fast Spanish. Alexander couldn’t distinguish their expressions but thought they smiled back.
Alexander’s examination continued for several minutes, and using gestures and the funniest pantomimes, the monk asked him to move his arms and legs, then to try to rise. As far as commanding his limbs, they both discovered that he could indeed raise them, but he became nauseous when he tried to stand. Feeling faint, he collapsed forward.
The three men moved at once to keep him from hitting the tiled floor. A moment later, he found himself staring at the wooden beams on the ceiling. The fast Spanish continued for several seconds until the worried face of the older monk appeared over him. The man whispered something soothing and cradled his head higher to offer him water.
Helped by the man, Alexander drank from the glass without sloshing any water on himself and counted that as a victory.
Three long months passed before Alexander was able to leave the bed. When he did, he discovered that his right leg had been shattered. Nobody knew how that had happened. At first, he had taken the news bitterly, but with the passing days, he decided to apply his mind and energy to get better. It took him another six months of exercising every day, but the day finally came when he went for a walk around the room. Once that first monumental step was taken, he began getting better and better at an increasing speed. Two weeks after that first milestone, he was able to slowly walk the length of the internal courtyard of what he now knew was a monastery. With time, his understanding of Spanish had become better, and he could exchange a few sentences with the monks to express his most basics needs. More philosophical conversations were not a possibility at the time, but the simple act of talking with fellow human beings was its own reward.
With his physical betterment, his memory had somewhat improved. One night, he awoke screaming. What he had thought at first it was a nightmare was instead the recollection of the moments before he was shot.
He had been riding across Roncesvalles Pass when an enemy party—he supposed French—sneaked upon them and began firing. There had not been any time for heroics. A bullet hit him, and he lost consciousness, only to wake later in the makeshift infirmary that had been hastily put together by the monks. He didn’t know how long he had lain in the field, left for dead, but someone had brought him to the monastery in just his smalls. His uniform must have been stolen, and so had his identity.
By the time he was strong enough to do manual labor, he still had no idea who he was. Besides his Christian name, he only knew for certain that he was of English nationality and that he had been fighting Napoleon Bonaparte. The rest of his story was still uncertain.
So he remained at the monastery, helping the monks and exercising his body to regain his physical strength and the use of his leg. The idea he couldn’t mount a horse ever again made him feel dejected, and he loathed that emotion. Being an invalid for the rest of his life didn’t sit well with him.
“There is a letter for you!” Brother Cosimo came running across the small garden behind the church. He had joined the monastery in the last month and spoke decent English, which had greatly improved Alexander’s life when it came to meaningful conversations.
The monk waved a folded paper in his hand and pressed it into Alexander’s.
“A letter for me?” He had been tending the roses and his hands were dirty with soil that smeared the letter with dark brown prints. Gingerly holding the paper, he looked at the yellow parchment with a frown. “What do you mean a letter for me?”
The mere concept was foreign to him.
“We have found who you are!” He jumped up and down. “Finally!” His excitement was contagious. “You are Alexander Howe!”
Alexander couldn’t help but silently stare at the man for several seconds before he blinked twice and shook his head. “I am Alexander Howe.” He repeated the words in his head. The frown only accentuated. With effort, he hoisted himself up using a cane he had carved during the long and silent nights at the monastery. Even after almost a year, he still dragged his right leg as if it were a dead limb. The traveling physicians who had seen him had been all adamant about the fact he would remain lame. He had not resigned himself to the idea.
“Read it!” The monk pointed at the letter.
Alexander slowly unfolded the parchment. For months, he had been hoping this moment would come. The monks had sent queries all over Spain, looking for answers on his behalf. They had contacted all the remaining English troops, but nobody seemed to know anything about a soldier named Alexander H. who had fallen under enemy fire in the whereabouts of Roncesvalles.
Now that the mystery was about to be solved, there was hesitation in his heart.
Brother Cosimo nodded enthusiastically. “Go ahead!”
Taking a fortifying breath, Alexander opened the letter, which sigil had been previously broken by the Abbot. A few words written in hasty calligraphy confirmed an officer called Alexander Howe had been gone missing since the battle of Roncesvalles. It was signed by a chaplain, who had added as a post scriptum that Alexander Howe’s belongings would be shipped to the monastery promptly.
“That is excellent news, isn’t it?” Brother Cosimo looked at him expectantly.
Alexander nodded and even attempted a smile.
Finally, he could begin the much-anticipated new phase in his suspended life.
Why did he feel disappointment then?
London, Spring 1816
Alexander woke sweating and screaming. For the last three years, he had been suffering from night terrors. The same scene repeated in his fitful dreams. He was walking across the narrow walls of a canyon when people began shouting and pointing up. As he raised his face, the sunrays blinded him. His head ricocheted back, and a moment later, a sharp pain exploded in his head.
“Alexander!” the voice was high and sharp and cut through the fog in his mind.
It was morning already. He should have been working in the stables, not lingering in the loft. A nagging feeling that he wasn’t meant for that life made him irritable. He could wallow in self-pity, but despite not remembering anything of his previous life, he was certain he had never been a whiner. So, he swallowed his disappointment and mentally preparing for another hard day of work.
“Wake up. Lady Charlotte is requesting a groom,” Adam said. The boy had been hired only a few days earlier but took his job seriously.
Alexander didn’t bother correcting the stable boy that he was not sleeping. He grunted, “Lady Charlotte?”
Hurried steps resonated from the ladder. “Hurry up!” Adam’s little face appeared at the landing. “You can’t make the lady wait!”
Alexander jumped on his feet but his right leg didn’t hold his weight, and he flailed his arms around, trying not to fall. He succeeded. “I always forget.” Laughing, he laboriously walked toward the corner, dragging his lame leg behind. On a makeshift stand, he kept a chipped bowl and a pitcher for his ablutions—a habit that had made him stand out with the other grooms. The water was cold when it hit his face but it cleared the last remnants from the nightmare.
“Mr. Ryan says you must wear the wig.” Adam pointed at Alexander’s head with judging eyes.
“I would never gainsay the head groom.” Alexander hated those dust-riddled rats nest the job required them to wear anytime they interacted with the master and ladies of the house. Not that he could complain about how the earl and countess treated the staff.
Under the boy’s supervision, he washed with a wet cloth, making sure he looked presentable. One glance at the broken piece of mirror he had found told him he had seen better days—or so he hoped, not that he could remember them. He then pulled on the Merriweather crimson and black livery with more dancing on his unsteady leg, and finally snagged the white wig from the peg on the wooden column that supported the low roof.
“Need some help here.” Alexander pointedly looked at the black boots resting on the crate where he had polished them to a shine the night before.
Adam glanced at the coveted footwear with envy written all over his still chubby face. Oh, to be young and have such perfectly simple dreams. What had Alexander wished for when he was the stable boy’s age?
“Soon, you will be given a pair,” Alexander said, making the boy smile. “You just keep doing your job well.”
Working in tandem, they were able to push the boots past Alexander’s feet and over his muscular calves. Then he tied his dark blond hair with a leather strap and wore the wig.
“You sure look like one of them,” Adam said, shaking his head in awe.
“One of them?”
The boy nodded. “One of them betters.”
Alexander laughed and mussed the boy’s head on his way to the ladder. With no time to massage the sore muscles, his right leg was still stiff. He wore the leather straps that kept his leg supported and attempted a few steps without the cane. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there yet. He grabbed his carved cane and threw it over the ledge, then he mentally committed to the slow descent and resigned himself to what he knew would be a rather precarious spectacle.
It took him several minutes and lots of pained grunts, but he finally cleared the last step and placed both feet on the hey-covered floor. The effort left him winded. He leaned his forehead against the wooden rung and took a few breaths. Adam, who had silently followed him down, handed him his cane with a nod. As they walked across the stable’s central aisle, Alexander saw the young lady outside, pacing the courtyard on top of her mare.
“She looks like a princess,” Adam commented, a dazed look on his face.
Alexander had only seen the daughter of the earl from a distance. Closer, the young lady was a Diamond of the First Water.
He smiled at Adam and walked in the opposite direction. He stopped at the stall where Winner whinnied and pawed, letting everybody know he was due for some exercise. After saddling the stallion, he walked him out and waited for the lady to circle back to the entrance.
“My lady.” He bowed when the young woman passed before him.
The lady commanded the mare to stop mere inches from Alexander, then looked down. “I will ride in Hyde Park,” she said rather too loud as she raised her eyes. “Bring a pistol,” she added in a colloquial tone.
Alexander nodded at Adam, who immediately left the post where he was gawking at Lady Charlotte. After he was told to bring a pistol, it took a moment for the boy to run in and out of the stables. Tucking the pistol into the waistband of his breeches, Alexander thanked the boy and bowed to the lady. He waited for her to turn completely before securing the cane on a hook on the saddle and vaulting onto the stallion—fortunately, he managed on the first try and without having to ask Adam for help.
After months of strenuous exercise to keep his body in top shape, he had mastered the act when he was still in Spain. At first, the monks had taken turns helping him mount a horse. Then little by little, through rigorous physical activity, he had strengthened his upper torso and arms to be able to do it without anyone’s aid. The rigid leather brace the brothers had made for him was painful to wear but helped him remain on his feet for hours on end. Nobody would imagine his leg didn’t properly work seeing him mounting a horse, and that is how he wanted it. He hated seeing the looks of pity on people’s faces when they discovered he had been wounded during the war.
He wasn’t the only one with more pride than sense. The mighty beast he was riding didn’t like to meekly follow the mare. “Tomorrow, I will let you gallop in a meadow.” The horse snorted as if he knew Alexander was lying.
Lady Charlotte was a superb equestrienne and commanded her mare without resorting to the whip. Sitting elegantly with one leg hooked over the pommel, she stood straight and composed. Alexander couldn’t help but admire her figure. The only daughter of the Earl of Merriweather was undeniably beautiful.
Winner snorted, lowering his head.
“Even though she is my better, she is still a woman,” he reminded the horse. “I can still appreciate beauty when I see it. I am lame, not blind.”
The object of his current monologue took a right and instead of entering Hyde Park’s gate from (Name of the Street), she spurred her mare past the park entrance.
“Where are we going?” Alexander mused, imagining the lady had an assignation. Winner snorted again—the horse was quite the character. “Right. I am not paid to make assumptions.”
Lady Charlotte led him into a trip across London until, much to his surprise, they arrived at White Chapel.
“What are we doing here?” he wondered.
Winner didn’t have an answer for him.