The website of David F Porteous
The website of David F Porteous
Hello. The following short story was produced for a thing, with a strict limit of 1,200 words. I thought I'd share it here.
By David F Porteous
Sigurd McAlpine left as confirmed bachelor, dashing colonel and heir to some small fortune. He fought Napoleon – successfully by all accounts – and returned from France, no more married and no less dashing, to find that his father had passed during the Battle of Waterloo itself. And everyone agreed this was rotten luck.
The new Lord McAlpine occupied the suite of rooms at the family castle in Dumfries and had been installed at the estate barely a week when the gift arrived.
Crated carefully and packed about with straw, it was a large Venetian mirror of antique construction; rectangular and bordered with gothic angels and swirls of brass cloud where some original gilding remained. The glass, though darker than contemporary mirrors, had a warmth and character that spoke of true craftsmanship. With the mirror came a note in a familiar, terse hand.
McAlpine, a gift of France – to me, and now yours. Regards, Wellington.
In truth, McAlpine had no great association with the Duke of Wellington, and while he had performed his orders to the Field Marshall’s satisfaction, they were not friends. So the gift, lavish in itself, was all the more valued for being unexpected. McAlpine wrote a brief note of thanks – Wellington would appreciate no other kind of thanks – and had the mirror hung in the drawing room, where he might remark on its provenance to anyone who visited.
Dumfries did nothing to compete with London for company, and McAlpine was not surprised when no visitors came. Still he enjoyed the mirror, and would find himself staring into every day for no reason.
It was a week after he received the Duke’s gift when the second mirror arrived. Smaller than the first, just as well packed, its frame was wooden, but carved in some dark wood not native to Britain. With this mirror came a letter.
My Lord, I understand that you fought with my husband at Waterloo and will be aware that he died fighting for his King and Country. In his will he left you this remembrance of him. Kind regards--
The signature had been smudged, as if the woman who wrote it had been crying, and McAlpine could not guess as to the name. Half a dozen officers of his acquaintance or in his service had perished at the Château d'Hougoumont and the letter might reasonably have been from any of them. The mirror was hung in the drawing room also, though in a place of lesser importance than that afforded to the mirror sent by Wellington.
McAlpine gave the coincidence no more thought until the following week – when a third mirror arrived. This one was plain, of no great age or value, and McAlpine sent it to the attic, returned to its packing, after reading the note.
Sir. My son died at Waterloo. He was in your regiment. This mirror was his only possession of value. Your servant, John Michaelmas.
McAlpine had vague recollection of a Michaels or a Michaelmas – a sergeant, or a corporal – but there was no return address, and he put the thought of replying from his mind as he put the letter into the fire. The sincerity with which the three mirrors had been offered to him put a joke beyond possibility, yet he could not escape the feeling that he was being mocked.
Business called him to Edinburgh and McAlpine spent a month in the city meeting with merchants and lawyers, settling bills and receiving investments, putting the last of his father’s estate to rest. He returned to Dumfries to find the head of his household – an aged castellan who wore the livery of a London butler, in style forty years previous – almost in tears and obviously fearful of some ill-treatment from his master.
In the Lord’s absence, some fifteen mirrors had arrived, the latest only an hour before McAlpine’s carriage. Their sizes varied, as did their quality, from handspan vanity mirrors to pieces almost as proud as Wellington’s. Each came with a note.
You knew my father.
He was killed at Waterloo.
He fell defending Hougoumont.
In the fire.
He died in the fire.
McAlpine burned all the letters. The mirrors he distributed as best he could, until he felt every room was crowded with reflections of himself. Perhaps not dashing as he had been, perhaps running to fat as his father had, and perhaps his eyes were marked from lack of sleep.
When had the dreams begun? Was it the night after the battle? Or only some days later? He remembered the order which had come from Wellington.
Hold position at any cost.
An axeman broke the gate. He held.
Cannons smashed the walls. He held.
The French set fire to Hougoumont. Still he held.
In the sound of rifles and screaming he heard the distant fife. Then he was no more dreaming, and he stood in the Château, and also in his bedchamber. The windows were blue-black and a half moon illuminated the slumbering fields and forests of Dumfries. But the mirrors blazed with light; through them he saw Waterloo, as much as could be seen through smoke – guns as far away as thunder, and fire so close he could feel the heat on his face.
The marching music of the fife – high, shrill, like the song of a bird – was coming from the drawing room and he ran there, covering his mouth against the smoke. In the Wellington mirror he saw their approach.
They were not the relief troops that had come to hold the line that day; in bloodied livery, their death wounds worn like medals, advanced the fallen. He recognised their faces, though they were slackened by the grave; grim and grey as hanging meat.
A dead-eyed sergeant gripped the frame of the mirror as if it were a window ledge. He put one leg over, and stepped into the room. His throat – torn like sacking – flapped when he spoke, and his words were incomprehensible. But he stood straight at attention, as he would have in life, in the presence of his commander.
They all stood at attention.
McAlpine saw the colours carried by his dead regiment and knew his duty. With his nightshirt for a uniform, and with the sergeant’s assistance, he climbed through Wellington’s mirror and returned to the battle.
* * *
At the speed of law it was eventually determined that McAlpine had abandoned his life, or fallen to unknown ill-fortune, and an executor was appointed to determine the legitimacy of claims and pass the estate to the Lord’s legal heir – whoever that was found to be.
The executor, pouring over the papers of the estate, found the note that had accompanied the first mirror, and the tear-stained letter that came with the second – both written in the familiar, terse hand that matched the signature and ledgers of the Lord McAlpine.
Understanding some of what had transpired – these events being far from unusual after the war – he burned all remaining notes and, assisted by the butler, smashed every mirror to pieces.