A taster from the new Babbitt novel – out later this year.
Set in the South-West of England in the summer of 1645, after the decisive battle at Naseby, Hollie Babbitt – now Colonel Babbitt, and hating every minute of it – finds himself commanding a rapidly-disintegrating company, in an increasingly bitter army.
There is, of course, no contest as to where his loyalties lie. And it isn’t with his masters in Parliament.
Fairfax was at prayer and could not be disturbed, so Hollie ambled up and down the landing outside his general’s personal quarters indulging in a habit which drove Het mad, a tendency to, literally, kick his heels. If you happened to be wearing spurred boots on a stone-flagged hall it was quite a diverting pursuit. The musical chime was a rather soothing backdrop to Hollie’s internal mental writhing. Did he, or did he not, need a lieutenant? And if he had to – if Fairfax insisted, and he might well – who the hell would it be, that he could trust, to not only turn a blind eye to Hollie’s somewhat independent accounting practises, but to translate the troop’s less conventional means of support into something that looked good on paper. And Chedglow. Who the hell was going to replace Chedglow in command of his troop of itinerant God-botherers? For a minute, Hollie was inclined to promote his own appalling father, just for the hell of it. They’d had one slavering hellfire preacher in charge already, they’d be used to being spat on at close range by their commanding officer – and they’d miss the Old Testament if they didn’t get a healthy dose every day with breakfast. On the other hand, it’d mean he’d have to deal with Elijah being stern and godly at him on a daily basis, and that he could not bear. Luce didn’t want it, even if he’d been any bloody good at it, which he wouldn’t be. (Too nice by half, that lad.) He’d have said Calthorpe, once, but Calthorpe had copped it at Marston Moor. Eliot or Ward – sweet Jesus Christ almighty, no.
The bottom line was, since the New Model Army had come in, most of the new lads were decent, obedient, dutiful plain troopers, who served their God and their commanding officer with zeal and efficiency, who turned out to drill smart and eager, who observed the Sabbath and said grace at length before their meals – and they were as stolid as bullocks in a field. They did what they were told. They thought what they were told. And if they didn’t, they sure as hell didn’t trust their thoughts with a commander they didn’t know from a hole in the ground. They were good lads and they were as efficient a fighting body as he’d ever clapped eyes on but what they were not, for the most part, was independent. The Army didn’t like independent thinkers. No, that wasn;t fair. The Parliament didn’t like independent thinkers. Look at Lilburne – denied a command under the New Model for refusing to take the Covenant, earlier this year.
No, Hollie was short of like minds, and the one thing he liked at his hand was men who not only knew what they were doing, but could do it without it having been written out for them longhand. Efficient drill was well and good but it didn’t give you initiative. Venning, now, Venning was competent and efficient and knowledgeable but he either could not or would not think for himself. Luce the same – had the ideas, but didn’t have the confidence, the brass neck, to go off and do them independently. General Fairfax had been bloody clever: he’d got a hold of anybody who looked like they might have both the fire and the skill, and he’d promoted them already. (Said Colonel Babbitt, who knew whereof he spoke, having been promoted already.) Cullis wouldn’t touch an independent command with a shitty stick. Russell, even were he fit for service, couldn’t be trusted not to go off half-cocked, left to his own devices.
Split ’em up. It was all he could think of, break Chedglow’s lads up and take a score apiece amongst the rest of the company. After Naseby Hollie wasn’t sure he could trust himself to deal with them fairly, as a troop. Not sure if you could discipline men for rape, mutilation and massacre in the Lord’s name, not in the New Model. When Hollie could have called his command his own – when he didn’t have as many regulations to sign to as the lowest of his troopers – he’d have shot the lot of the bastards, personally, one at a time or collectively it didn’t bother him.
“I see you’re as hot at hand as ever, colonel.”
He stopped musing and looked at Fairfax. Greying, pouchy-eyed, sallow. Christ, he looked ill. “Ah,” he said warily, and then stalked – trying not to jingle – into Fairfax’s quarters. “That’d be it.”
“Was expecting you before this, mind.” Fairfax said nothing unkind, it wasn’t his way, he’d just turn those fierce dark eyes on you and look mournful. “Where are you quartered, Colonel Babbitt? I sent a messenger, but he was unable to locate you?”
“Oh, you know me, usually end up round and about with Pettitt. What’s up?”
“Sir,” Fairfax prompted, and he came up short, because Black Tom Fairfax was not only his commander but his friend – he’d carried Fairfax’s little daughter on the front of his saddle one black night across Yorkshire, fleeing the Malignants two years back. Fairfax had sent some of that little daughter’s outgrown baby-things, at Thomazine’s birth. Fairfax was a North Countryman, same as Hollie was, an exile in this lush green landscape. They talked to each other in their own home accents, betimes, not the stiff and formal words of a commander and his subordinate. Fairfax looked at Hollie and cocked an eyebrow but did not smile. “How is your wife, Colonel Babbitt?” And then without waiting for an answer, “It won’t do, sir. It won’t do at all. I won’t ask for an explanation -”
“But I’ll give you one,” Hollie cut in, because he was bloody cross at that last implication. “Supposed to leave Russell in Leicester, was I? In his condition, in a town relieved of siege not a week past? Aye, I did go home to Essex, and I took Hapless with me, and Luce come because he reckoned it’d kill him doing the sixty miles on a horse so soon after Naseby. So that’s where I was, and if the Army couldn’t do without me holding its hand for three days, all I can say is God help it.”
“You went without asking leave, colonel.”
“All right, if you want to make a paper exercise of it – sir – mark me down as absent without leave and dock me according. Or have me bloody shot or whatever else it is you do wi’ soldiers that misbehave, these days.”
“Goring has abandoned the siege at Taunton.”
“Good for Goring. What?”
“You heard. Goring’s headed for Yeovil. At speed.” And then, finally, Fairfax’s lean, dark face creased in a rusty smile. “If you’d been any later, you’d probably have bumped smack into him. I’m not sure which of you would have been more surprised.”
“Quite. I had hoped that you might be able to send some of your troops out to reconnoitre the Royalist position.”
“I’m hardly the least conspicuous spy in the Army. Sir.”
“Did I ask you to go personally, colonel? Anyway. You weren’t there. I asked someone else.”
“Sir.” Fairfax wouldn’t tear you off a strip. He’d just take whatever it was you liked to do, off you, and give it to someone else.
“I hope your horse is rested, colonel. Lord Goring has deployed his men along the line of the Yeo, from Yeovil to Langport. My father has decided to base his infantry at Crewkerne, and we will be shortly joining them.”
“I trust that will not interfere with any of your other engagements, Colonel Babbitt?”
“Sir.” He couldn’t quite stifle a sigh, and Fairfax shot him a stern look.
“You will be ready within the hour, colonel. ”