Author Topic: Short story: The Last Cup of Tea  (Read 2341 times)

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Short story: The Last Cup of Tea
« on: February 12, 2006, 10:33:18 AM »
I had to write a short story based on English history for the uni, so I'm posting it here. I hope you like it.

The Last Cup Of Tea

In Badajoz, just as in any other place sharing the same longitude, was an early morning and the first sunbeams of the day would have been shining over the tile-roofs of the houses, if it weren’t for the heavy clouds obscuring the sky. The streets were still empty, except for the soldiers of the morning watch, who were in a hurry to replace their brothers in arms on the wall surrounding the town. Everyone in the garrison was under pressure, because Wellington’s army was in front of Badajoz for some time now, and apparently wasn’t going to leave. Night and day the dozen English cannons shelled the thick wall with round-shots. They still didn’t manage to hit the same location twice, which gave the French a reason to be moderately optimistic, but most of them could not hide the growing worry that it was soon going to happen. Then the wall would be breached and the outnumbering Englishmen were going to invade before the Emperor sent reinforcements.
Half a mile from the town, in the bivouac of the united armies of Great Britain and Spain under the command of general Arthur Wellesley, also known as Duke  Wellington, the mood couldn’t be more different. Anxiety reigned all around, because there was some talk that Wellington was going to order an assault that night – whether the wall was breached or not. Soldiers in red, green and dark-blue coats were walking to and fro all over the place and between the white tents. Some of them were carrying out orders; others were in a hurry for the morning inspection, and still others, who had already completed their morning routine, were just strolling. And there were yet others, who had gathered around the campfires, warming their limbs and waiting for the tea in the cauldron to boil.
Towards one of these campfires was heading a young British cavalier mounted on a beautiful silver palomino. At the beginning of the Peninsular War the combination of a British officer-cavalier and a horse of the Spanish breed was not so common, but during the course of the war lots of animals were lost in battle or in some ludicrous situation, and then the army was forced to buy new ones from the local merchants. It was definitely cheaper than shipping them from good ol’ England.
When he was approximately ten-fifteen yards away from the campfire, the cavalier tightened his keep of the rein and said to the animal. ‘Rih, halt!.’ The stallion stood nailed to the ground. Its master jumped from the saddle and stroked its mane. ‘Good boy!’ He turned his eyes on the soldiers around the fire looking for a familiar face, but there seemed to be none. One of the men had a little flute and was playing a popular tune, while a fellow of his was trying to deepen the sensation with quickly made up lines.

‘I bid ye farewell my ma’ and dad,
Cause I am getting wed today.
King George’s army is to be my bride,
Or so says Old Bailey.’

‘Hey, boy!’ the cavalier shouted at young the rifleman, who was standing near and was listening to the improvised duo. ‘Come ‘ere and hold my reins!’
‘Aye, sir!’ the boy ran to the horse and carried out the order.
‘Where’s cap’n Pierce?’
‘In his tent, sir. Right behind you.’
The officer turned on his heels, headed towards the specified tent and entered it.
‘Kitzie, my friend!’ that’s how he addressed his fellow, captain Kitzel Pierce. Kitzel was sitting on one of the two folding chairs next to the low table with his eyes fixed on some papers and a look of weariness on his face. That was of course until he heard his name.
‘Danny, old boy! Glad you dropped by.’ He raised from the chair to shake hands with his friend and quickly relaxed back. ‘How are you doing?’
‘You know, the usual. With this siege going, we cavaliers have nothing to do at all and just wander around.’ He made a little pause. ‘How are things with you?’
‘Dulled to death, old boy. All day long I fill forms – for tea, blankets, powder and everything else that comes along with the most tedious job in the army,’ sulked Kitzel.
‘The train’s annoying, isn’t it?’ half sympathetically, half jestly asked Daniel.
‘Tell me about it. The only time of the day when I’m not busy filling bloody forms is when I am stocktaking, which trust me is even worse. And we should not forget the morning inspection, which damps my spirits right before breakfast.’ Saying this, Kitzel lashed angrily at the table and accidentally littered the forms about the floor. ‘Damn it! Care for some tea?’
‘Yeah, sure.’
‘Virgil! Tea!’ Cried out Kitzel. ‘I’m telling you - there’s nothing as boring as the train. I wish they’d left me behind in Lisbon. I’d still be filling forms, but at least I’d be seeing women. Not like those lousy Spanish guerilla women. I’m talking about real bathed, powdered, perfumed women. I’m talking about ladies.’
‘Oh, the ladies!’ Daniel sighed dreamily. ‘Do you remember Lizzy?’
‘Lizzy the nurse. Of course I do.’ Grinned Kitzel. ‘She had her eye on you, didn’t she?’
‘There was some attraction,’ blushed Daniel.
‘Danny, you dog!’ Kitzel grinned even more. ‘Some attraction? That girl was literary feasting her eyes on you. You’re too good of a catch. Lieutenant Daniel Denudy, heir of an industrial tycoon and three barges.’
‘Hold it there, Kitzie. My older brother is the heir. All I got was the small mansion and an officer’s rank. My father should have at least bought me captain’s stripes, like yours did. Then I could stay in the back, issuing orders instead of charging towards French muskets risking my hide.’
‘Believe me, Danny – I’d love to trade places with you so that I’d be wounded and sent back to Lisbon. Then maybe I’d be nursed by your Lizzy,’ facetiously winked Kitzel. ‘Hell! I’m even ready to be in the Forlorn Hope and take some of the frogs’ bayonets with my chest if it’d get me away from here,’ he sighed. ‘Where’s that Virgil?’ He raised and looked out. ‘Would you look at that! He’s holding the rein of you horse.’ He glanced at his friend and the looked back at the outside. ‘Virgil, leave that horse and go get us some tea!’
‘Right away, sir!’
Kitzel settled back into the folding chair and looked Daniel in the eyes. ‘We’re in the army of the wealthiest empire out there, yet we have our tea in mess-tins, God damn it!’ He frowned. ‘Last time I saw porcelain, it was back in the mess in Lisbon.’
‘I’ve heard Nosy has a whole set of china. If you manage to get an audience with him, maybe you’ll be served tea with it.’ Daniel never missed the chance to nettle his friend.
‘I go to see the Duke on train matters only – that is if we require more provisions, new rifles and etcetera. And no one stays in his quarters long enough to have tea. Wellington’s always “too busy”.’
At that moment Virgil entered the tent and left a couple of mess-tins full of tea on the table, where the forms used to be.
‘Thank you Virgil!’ said Kitzel. The boy muttered something that should have sounded like ‘You’re welcome’ and left the tent. ‘Damned tins!’ Kitzel exclaimed angrily. ‘Did you know that some of the folk use them to melt the paraffin with which they smear their boots?’
‘Are you serious?’ Daniel shook his head in disbelief. ‘So what are they drinking then? Paraffined tea I presume?’
‘This is no laughing matter, old boy! The army is but a stepmother to the regulars – it never pampers them. Not King George’s army.’
‘Do you think that the frogs are better supplied than we are?’ asked Daniel.
‘No idea.’ Kitzel pondered for a while. ‘Though I do hope the ones in Badajoz are going to save some of their cognac for us. It’s nice to poor some liquor down the throat once in a while. Back in Lisbon I managed to smuggle a couple of bottles, but there’s nothing left in them now.’
‘You’ll probably have the chance to check the frogs’ reserves yourself by tomorrow. There’s talk that we’re charging tonight.
‘I heard so too. But we’re charging only if the artillery breaches the wall’ said Kitzel and took a sip of the tea. ‘Otherwise we’d have to climb the wall by escalades – it will be a massacre. Too many of our men will die that way.’ He paused for a second. ‘However, if the wall is breached, then that’s another story. The only suicides will be in the Forlorn Hope.’
‘I wonder who is going to lead them?’
‘Nosy is going to decide in the last possible moment. He always does.’
‘You should go and offer yourself for the job!’ joked Daniel. ‘Then you’ll have tea together. With the china set.’
Kitzel couldn’t keep his face straight. ‘With my luck he’d tell me I’m too valuable for the train and he doesn’t want to lose me.’
They were silent for a moment as they both drank from their mess-tins. Then Kitzel left his on the table and bent to gather the forms he had scattered on the ground. ‘The Forlorn is usually led by some beardless lieutenant with no chance for promotion.’ Kitzel’s face was now very serious. ‘Wellington summons the poor bugger in his quarters, tells him the grave news and toys him with tales of sure promotion,’ he sighed and took another sip of the tea.
‘Captain Pierce!’ Some fair-haired corporal entered the tent. ‘You are being called for by general Wellington, sir.’
Kitzel looked at him and said, ‘Good, I’m coming right away.’ He stood up, went to his couch and took the red jacket, which he had left there. He hastily put it on and turned to his friend. ‘Nosy probably has more papers for me. You should wander around at noon. Virgil’s making soup and I’ll get us some nice sausages. The train has some advantages too, you know.’
‘Well, I’ll see you at lunch then!’ replied Daniel as he watched his friend sneak out of the tent. ‘Good old Kitzie,’ he thought. ‘I’ll just wait for him here.’ He stood from the folding chair and walked two steps to the couch where he dropped off to sleep.
The large tent of the headquarters of the commander-in-chief was situated on the north end of the bivouac, near the artillery squad and in order to reach it, captain Pierce and the corporal had to pass through a small grove. It took them about five minutes and when they finally reached its outskirts they had clear view of the fortress wall of Badajoz. Approximately a hundred yards to the left of the gate, there was a huge gap in the wall, wide enough to be marched through by seven or eight men.
‘Good Gracious! When did that thing happen?’ Kitzel didn’t believe his eyes.
‘Half an hour ago, sir,’ replied the corporal. ‘There’s two more to the north.’
‘So we are attacking after all?’
‘It seems so, sir.’
A minute later they reached Wellington’s headquarters and without waiting for invitation, Kitzel walked in. Wellington was sitting behind a solid cherry writing desk and was conversing with lieutenant MacPherson, who was sitting comfortably in one of the two leather-clad chairs opposite the desk. Kitzel’s presence did not go unnoticed and the general addressed him. ‘Captain Pierce! Sit down, please!’ he said and glanced to the empty chair.
‘My Lord! Colonel!’ Kitzel sit down.
‘Would you like some tea?’ asked Wellington.
‘Yes, sir. Thank you!’ he replied.
‘Henry, would you serve the gentleman a cup of tea! Thank you!’
The corporal, who apparently had followed Kitzel inside, went to the back of the tent and returned with a silver tea tray, which had a teapot, a milk-jug and a single porcelain cup on it. He left the tea tray on the edge of the desk, poured tea into the cup and asked. ‘Milk, sir?’
‘No, thank you!’
The corporal moved the cup away from the tea tray, took the tray in his hands and retired from the tent.
‘Come on, drink!’ said Wellington in almost imperious manner. The captain took a small sip. ‘How is it?’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘And should be – it’s imported from Ceylon. From my personal supplies.’ He made a short pause. ‘Now. As you may have noticed, we managed to breach the wall a while ago. Not once, but thrice.’
‘Yes, sir. I saw one of them on the way here.’
‘I assume you know what it means, don’t you Pierce?’ asked Wellington.
‘We are attacking tonight, sir?’
‘Correct, Pierce. At midnight we are to launch a diversion, storming our main forces to the wider western breach. According to the intelligence from our Spanish scouts, Badajoz’s garrison is rather small in numbers. What we are hoping to achieve, is to drive all or at least most of the Bonnies to defend that section of the wall. Simultaneously,’ Wellington glanced at the colonel, ‘Mister MacPherson and a small detachment will attempt to surprise the guards at the northern breach and make way into the town.’
‘What does it have to do with me, sir? Kitzel couldn’t hold back and asked. ‘I am only in charge of the train.’
The answer came from the lieutenant. ‘You will take command of the Forlorn Hope on the western breach.’
In a twinkling of an eye, Kitzel’s face became white as a ghost. Cold sweat rushed down his forehead. He reached for his cup and took another sip. His hands were shaking. ‘Me, sir?’ He didn’t want to believe what he had just heard.
‘Oh, come on, captain! Don’t tell me you like it in the train. It’s a dead end job.’ Said Wellington. On numerous occasions you’ve asked me to transfer you to a position, where you would have a chance to prove yourself. Isn’t that so?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Kitzel heard himself saying.
‘If you command the Forlorn Hope, the major straps will be yours for sure,’ the lieutenant interfered. ‘You will then take charge of your own regiment.’
‘Only if I live through,’ murmured Kitzel.
‘Do not tell me you are afraid, captain!’ Wellington was furious. ‘We are waging a war here. This is not some clerk office. We are brave men, who risk their lives in the name of Great Britain and its higher interests. That’s what we are. There’s no place for fear amongst us. Only for bravery and selflessness.’ The general fell silent for a moment and fixed his eyes on Kitzel. There was almost a religious fervour in those eyes. ‘Tonight’s battle will predetermine the outcome of the war. It will be part of history. Don’t you want to be part of history, Pierce?’
Kitzel hung down his head. ‘I want to, sir.’
‘That’s my boy! A genuine hero!’ The general cheered for an instant, but then again became serious. ‘Now, the lieutenant and I have to discuss some of the details on the assault, so feel free to leave. I’ll be seeing you again after supper to give you precise instructions.’
Kitzel left his unfinished tea on the desk, slowly raised from the chair and stepped out.

Inspired by the books of Bernard Cornwell

Historical reference: Badajoz was under siege for 21 days, from March16, 1812 to April 6, 1812. After the castle was taken over, the red jacket of Lt. James MacPherson was put in place of the French flag, to indicate the fall of the town. The English paid dearly for their win, as some 5000 soldiers were killed while storming the wall.
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