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Title: Truths and Roses
Rating: K (Suitable for ages 13 and above)
Disclaimers: With the exception of Thomas Mostyn and Gerald Fitzgerald, all names given in this story are fictional and any relation to actual persons, living or dead, is purely incidental.
Story summary: After Waterloo, a wounded British officer writes a letter he could never have imagined it to be in him to write. Brussels, June, 1815.
Author's Note: Any factual errors that occur within are my own. Thoreau wrote that "truths and roses have thorns about them" and in cases that involve human pride, this is an accurate observation.

Even as simple an act as holding a pen made his arm and shoulder throb mercilessly. The pain felt akin to a searing bed of embers trapped beneath his skin and he had to bite hard onto his lip to keep from making any noise of suffering. The slightest sound would bring Mister Mostyn to his cot, a thimble of laudanum ready in hand. It was half a miracle the assistant surgeon had not come by on his rounds before now. He would heartily disapprove of his patient's sitting up, never mind sitting up with a tray across his lap to serve as a writing desk. But this letter needed desperately to be written.

With a grimace and long sigh, Peter Pettion dipped the borrowed pen into the borrowed inkwell. The words had formed themselves inside his head but setting them to paper would be a difficult task. Good thing he was well used to accomplishing difficult tasks, he thought bitterly. Write the damn letter, fool, he told himself. The ink was blotching on the paper where he held the pen motionless and he steeled himself. Moving even just his hand sent ripples of white-hot agony up his arm and across his shoulder, but he had to fight past the pain.

The pen began to scratch against the rough paper, his copperplate entirely lacking its ordinary neatness.

Dear sir,

You will not know me, but I have heard much of you in the past. I would first wish to express my sincere apologies for loathing you, wholly unmet, with the blind carelessness of a foolish young man. But I must explain that, for it seems quite a nonsensical thing to apologise for. I am acquainted with James Pettiton, who served in the first American war. He is, as I am certain you will recall, infamous for his lack of courage in the face of the enemy.

Damn it. Even those few lines were too much for him. Peter had to remove the pen from his fingers with his left hand, reaching awkwardly across his body to return the pen to the inkwell. He attempted to flex his stiff and aching right hand, and was rewarded by a tear-inducing wave of agony in his shoulder. Perhaps he should call for Mister Mostyn - but no. No. He needed to be clearheaded and a dose of laudanum would only cloud his mind. This was only a trifling pain, he told himself, and with his left hand retrieved the pen and fitted it carefully into his right hand. Just write the damn letter.

His stories of the war were more the rantings of a man aware that he had been exposed for what he was than the honest recollections of a soldier. The tragedy of his failing is only magnified by the fact that I believed every word utterly and without a second thought reviled the officers, yourself foremost, who had appeared to conspire so wickedly against him.

Just thinking about his father made his stomach churn. He had managed, with general success, to avoid wasting energy remembering the man, but now it could not be avoided. James Pettiton was a coward. There was no evading that simple truth. His flight from the enemy in the heat of battle was the sort of scandal that ruined lives. It had absolutely ruined Peter's. He eased his grip on the pen slightly and succeeded in scratching an uneven line across the page.

It was to expunge the stain that I wrongfully believed to exist on the family's reputation that I joined the Army. For my regiment I had chosen the Enniskilings and with them I served in the Peninsular. The soldiering life, I am perfectly happy to say, agreed much better with me than it did my disgraced relation and yet I did not fully realise the falsehood that he is until the conclusion of the battle lately fought here in Belgium. I was present at Badajoz and even that cannot equal this recent contest in ferocity.

I must here pause to confess, sir, that I write this from Brussels, where I am resident in a regimental hospital. My present state renders me barely able to hold a pen, which is the cause of the untidyness of my hand and which I hope you will forgive. I stood in the line with the Enniskilings but a few days ago, and was thus treated to a display of unthinking and steadfast gallantry that I shall never forget. My battalion numbered a few men less than seven hundred at dawn of the day. At the setting of the sun, it was composed of a mere two hundred unwounded souls.

His vision was blurring again, but this time not because of the wildfire of pain burning up his arm and shoulder. It was barely two days since the battle and thinking back to it, remembering how the ranks continually shrank under unrelenting French fire, made Peter's heart squeeze. The battalion had held its ground with the utmost courage and had paid the dearest cost for that. He remembered seeing Corporal Ryan fall in the act of ramming down a fresh cartridge. He remembered offering his canteen to the badly wounded Roo, only to watch the water dribble untasted from the Galwayman's powder-stained lips. He remembered -


The letter. He had to finish the letter. If he permitted himself to stray down that particular path of memories, he would go out of his mind. That was simply unacceptable. Peter grit his teeth against the fresh wave of searing ache in his arm, stretched his wrist as much as he dared, and dipped the pen into the inkwell.

It is no exaggeration, sir, to state that we had not faced a more desperate combat in any of the years in the Peninsular. Nor is it an exaggeration, or indeed self-promotion, to say that I was the sole officer left on his feet by day's end. It was on that day that I discovered, at long last, that the blight that is James Pettiton is no more than an anomaly. His disgrace is, I most fervently believe, quite overshadowed. For I, sir, have the dubious honour of being his son, though I have come to view that connection as one formed purely by circumstance.

I confess I cannot plainly give a reason for my writing, save that I recall many an occasion when the cruelty of his brother officers toward himself was related by Mr Pettiton. It struck me in recent days that as your name arose a multitude of times in the course of those tales, I could do no worse than to express to you my sincerest regrets for that gentleman's conduct, and add my hope that the low esteem he must rightly be held in by yourself and others may not extend to those who share his name.

I remain, sir, ever your humble servant,

Peter Pettiton

The pen slipped from his fingers, dribbling ink onto the page beneath his scrawling signature. He could no longer muster the strength to hold the pen, or even to pick it up again. The whole of his body felt afire, the worst of the bone-searing heat radiating from his right shoulder. Perhaps he had overreached his endurance in writing but it had needed to be done. He felt a measure of relief at finally accomplishing this small thing, which might not even have the desired effect. That, however, was not for him to worry over. He had done the correct thing and was determined to be satsified with that.

"Surgeon!" He called in a cracking voice. His defiance of orders to move as little as possible would earn him a stern reprimand but he did not care. All that mattered now was seeing the letter safely sent off.

Mister Mostyn appeared within a minute, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow and splattered with bloodstains, both fresh and long-dried. The poor fellow looked utterly exhausted, Peter realised, but he was still on his feet. Somehow. "What is it?"

"I must have this letter posted."

The assistant surgeon eyed the makeshift writing desk with distinct disapproval, but did not comment on it. "Under frank?"

"No. I have - there is coin in my jacket." Peter curled the fingers of his right hand into a loose fist and tried not to groan at the sharp spike of pain this small movement caused. "It requires an address as well. I cannot..."

Mostyn shook his head, lifting the tray from the cot. "Clearly. To whom is it intended?"

"Major Jonathan Collins, at the Chatham Division of Royal Marines."

The assistant surgeon sprinkled sand onto the letter, waited until the ink had dried, then carefully shook the page so the used sand fell to the floor. "The next you take a notion to compose any correspondence, I will see that an orderly is at hand to write for you."

Peter merely nodded, watching as Mostyn folded the single sheet then wrote the address in an infuriatingly neat script. There were no materials for sealing the letter in the room but that could be easily seen to elsewhere. Mostyn retrieved the small coin purse from the tattered remains of Peter's jacket and from it removed the necessary cost of postage.

"Anything else?"

"No. I - thank you."

Mostyn called for an orderly, who on appearing was directed to clear away the letter-wrting implements, and see to it in future that the major had no futher unattended access to them. The assistant surgeon paused before leaving to look Peter over with a critical eye, and remarked, "You'll not be here that much longer, anyway. Orders are to send the worst of the wounded home. Be pleased. You're leaving this earthbound imitation of Hell."

Peter could only stare at the assistant surgeon's back as he departed, the letter and coins in hand. Mostyn's bitterness was apparent, almost like a living force. Then again, Mostyn had been there with them in the square, he and Fitzgerald working past their limits to tend to the wounded. What must he feel, to know he was obliged to remain behind while others, albeit those who most needed it, were being sent home? In such an instance, it was perfectly reasonable for him to feel bitter, Peter supposed.

He reached back with his left arm and eased himself down with great care until he was lying supine. The straw-stuffed mattress offered little in the way of cushion and the pressure of his weight made the still very much raw wounds in his back throb afresh. He'd be relieved of that when his next dose of laudanum was delivered, so he could bear it. Anyway, he had done what had needed doing and he was content with that.


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April 2017


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