With some misgiving, Hornblower put his foot in the stirrup and hauled himself into the saddle. He would have much preferred to inspect the battlefield on foot, but their guide had insisted that the distance was too far to walk.
"Wellington's infantry marched this same distance, in the heat of summer while they were burdened with their small arms and packs," Hornblower pointed out, more than a little irritated.
"That's why I was in the artillery, sir," their guide replied with a short laugh. "It was much better. We got to ride with the guns."
The horse, no doubt sensing Hornblower's mood, dropped its head, nearly jerking the reins from his hands. Several paces behind him, his aide-de-camp pretended not to see. Lieutenant Ellsworth, curse him, sat in the saddle as if he'd been born on a horse.
The sun was still low, its rays slanting lengthwise through the mist. Previous visitors to Waterloo had beaten a bare path across the fields, and discarded wine bottles glinted faintly in the grass. They set out at a walk, their guide pointing to the crumbling earthworks where the cannon had been placed. It was strange that there were still signs of the conflict—piles of rusting shot, broken ammunition chests, the splintered stumps of trees. War at sea was so much cleaner, the merciful waves sweeping away the debris.
Head cocked to one side, the horse kept drifting to starboard until Hornblower dragged it back on course. The damned thing needs a rudder back there instead of a tail, Hornblower thought.
"And that crossroads is where the Duke of Wellington made his headquarters…." Their guide pointed and waved as the horses slowly picked their way up a hill. The slain had long since been carted to the burial pits, but the huge wheels of gun carriages still rose from the grass, the shattered spokes like broken ribs. The guide's voice rose in a mournful chanty. Hornblower scarcely listened. He had heard this tale from the lips of Arthur Wellesley. Officers fallen, regiments lost. Thousands had died in this place. On board a fighting ship, the dead were swiftly consigned to the sea, but here….the days after the battle must have been dreadful beyond his worst imaginings.
At the crest of the hill, their guide halted his horse and swung down from the saddle. The aide-de-camp, in a swirl of coat skirts, vaulted gracefully to the ground. With a great effort, Hornblower managed to dismount without catching his feet in the stirrups or losing the reins or falling facedown in the dirt. The horse, whickering affectionately, leaned over to nibble at Lieutenant Ellsworth's hat.
"And this," the guide told them, "This is where the French marshal led the last charge. Nine thousand horse, and yet the English infantry stood fast under the assault."
Hornblower winced at the thought of charging down that broken terrain; a year's time had done little to smooth the deep furrows where shot had torn the earth. The ridge rose like an island among the misty fields, and only now from this height, above the scene of slaughter, did Hornblower understand the accounts he had read, did he understand what his brother-in-law had told him. There were no tides or prevailing winds to determine the course of the battle, yet still he could see how the shape of the land had driven the opposing armies, as surely as any headwind. It had not been so different from a battle at sea.
Leading their horses, the two English officers followed the guide down the slope. The sun cleared the horizon, burning the mist from the fields below. Thousands of gleaming poppies floated in a haze above the tangled grass.
"A pretty sight, aren't they, sir? They weren't here last June, I can tell you that. They grew after the battle, but who can say why?" Their guide shook his head at this mystery. "Some say there is one for each of the fallen."
"Sprung from the blood of the slain," Hornblower murmured to himself, for that is what the ancient Greeks and Romans had believed, though reason dictated that the dead were irrevocably gone. Nothing was left, not of Bush nor any of the others.
The wind rose, whistling among the wreckage, and the poppies fluttered in crimson waves, bowing back and forth. Someone would discover a scientific explanation—for in Hornblower's universe, the truth was heartless and cold. The torn earth had been enriched by some element in the gunpowder, or carrion crows had carried the seeds from afar. A scientific explanation, not some sentimental nonsense. The sun was very bright in these open fields, and he blinked away tears as his eyes watered from the glare.