News about the retreat and evacuation of Toulon spread to Gibraltar from the smallest and fastest ships before the larger ships, heavily laden with passengers, arrived. The various wives and other loved ones of the soldiers gathered information about when the flotilla was expected to arrive, and put on their best dresses and waited for the soldiers to disembark, hoping that everything was alright. None of them had heard any news in weeks, and so everyone was nervous, although there was some comfort in knowing that they were all nervous together and that they would be able to see what was going on before too long. In that hope and expectation they readied themselves.
Clarissa had a bit more to worry about, perhaps, than the rest of them. She did not know that he had ever received, much less replied, to any of her messages about going to Gibraltar, and she did not know if he expected her at all, much less what she would find or if he was in fact alright. Still, she was determined to be there for him and to see if conditions were right for them to marry and settle down, at least as much as it was possible to settle down in such a line of business.
With a large number of ships in the harbor, it took a long time for the ships to disembark. As might be expected, the soldiers’ ships had the higher priority over the ships where the refugees were put, and so it was that the first few ships came and disgorged the soldiers who had survived months of being under fire and seeking to defend Toulon, if ultimately unsuccessfully. A great many of the women were able to see their husbands and their loved ones, most of whom were a bit worse for the wear after being at sea and being under such conditions in a besieged city. There were many hugs and kisses and tender and affectionate greetings between those who had not seen each other for quite some time.
Clarissa was among those women who waited, not seeing their loved ones leave the ships that had been set aside for the soldiers. This waiting became awkward, as Clarissa was not known to the other officers of the regiment, and even those who had known about her second-hand had never met her or knew that she was in Gibraltar. And so it was that Clarissa and these other women waited with a pit in their stomach, uncertain whether they were to receive news of what was going on. After the soldiers had finished disembarking, it was time for the French refugees to disembark, if only for a little while, before they would be taken elsewhere, depending on where there was room for so many who had escaped death at the hands of the victorious French.
Fortunately for Clarissa, her wait was not as long as was the wait for some of the other nervous women on the wharf. The first ship of civilians that released its nervous and uncertain cargo showed Roland seeking to give encouragement to some of the leaders of that group of people who would have to set a good example for the rest of them about how to endure the difficulties of life in exile in English, where one would be without one’s property or the acquired years of personal knowledge, and where it might even be necessary to learn new languages and adapt to foreign English ways.
When Roland saw Clarissa, he was very surprised, but ran up to her and gave her a warm and tight embrace.
“How long have you been here?”
“I have been here almost two months,” Clarissa said, relieved that he was alive and well.
“I do not know how long it has been since I saw a letter or wrote one.”
Roland was silent and thoughtful. “I do not know how to say the half of it. It is a miracle that I got out of it alive, praise be to God.”
“I am glad you are safe and sound.”
“I am safe, but I am not sure how sound I or anyone else coming from Toulon is.”
“What do you mean, my love?”
“I think it will be a long time before any of us sleep soundly or wake up refreshed after what we have seen and suffered.”
“I am so sorry,” Clarissa said, holding Roland tightly. “Do you have to go now or do we have time to talk some?”
“I do need to report to the barracks, as I have not been with my regiment. I was among the last to leave the city, helping as many people as I could onto the boats and to safety here. Those we could not help, it is better not to speak of it.”
The two of them walked arm in arm toward the barracks, and Clarissa looked with concern at the women left behind.
“What happened to the men left behind?”
“Some lie in foreign soil, some I did not see buried, and some are, I hope, still prisoners of the French with the possibility of future exchange.”
“Was it all disaster?”
Roland thought about how to respond both honestly and graciously. “It was a brave battle and a long siege. Most of us remain alive to fight another day. That is all the glory there was in it.”
“Are you happy to see me?”
“Very happy, but still very surprised. I thought you would wait behind in England.”
“I could not bear to wait so far away, so after my foster father got advice from officer’s wives about how best to deal with having loved ones away at war, I figured I must come here and share in the experience as best as possible.”
“Where do you live then, and how?”
Clarissa told her about the place she rented near the barracks, about her small household of servants, about how she socialized with the fellow officer’s wives who remained in Gibraltar, and how a local barrister’s firm with connections to those the family had long dealt with in England and various overseas territories was handling her finances and that she was well within her budget and that he had nothing to worry about there.
Roland laughed, and then he thought to himself that it had been a long time since he had laughed, and it felt a bit strange after all that had happened. After collecting his thoughts, he replied that he was satisfied that she was able to manage a household so skillfully and that he looked forward to talking more about such matters, although much would depend on the post-mortem of the siege that was even then going on, and that had begun as soon as the men left Toulon to return to Gibraltar.
With tender and affectionate hugs Clarissa and Roland parted when they reached the barracks, close enough to witness other tender partings going on between other soldiers and their wives or sweethearts, each of them slightly awkward to share the experience under the observation of othe others, but all equally determined not to bring up the discomfort first. After parting, Clarissa found herself among several other women she had gotten to know over the past few weeks.
“I was so worried about whether he was alright, and then he ended up being with some of the good people of the town rather than with his regiment.”
“It was likely because he spoke such good French that he was left to handle such matters rather than return with the troops.”
“Yes, I think that likely as well. I am glad that you have found comfort and encouragement today.”
The senior most wife among the group had a look on her face that led Clarissa to ask her what she was thinking. “I think we ought to go to our sisters who still wait for their people and give such comfort and encouragement as we can.” The rest nodded their assent and the group of women went back to the wharf.
There they found women, some of them women among their own acquaintance, others local women they did not know as well, and many hugs were given, with tears of concern and anxiety about the well-being of those who did not return with the rest of the troops. The group of officer’s wives took down the names of the men who were still unaccounted for, and resolved to go to the barracks and ask for some sort of word for these people if it pleased the waiting women. It did.
After another walk to the barracks, for this day was apparently full of surprising exercise to work out the nervousness of waiting for so long, the officer’s wives were able to make their request for a status report on the men who had not returned on the ships with the rest. The officer on duty, with heaviness in his heart, took down the names and directions of the women who were waiting, as well as the men that they were waiting for, and promised that he or someone else would go to them as soon as possible with what news and information they had, but that it could not be done tonight as it was too late in the day and much still needed to be addressed. With this answer the women had to be content, for no better answer was being offered to them.
After saying farewell to the women and offering such kind encouragement as she could as to her hope for a positive resolution and a good outcome, Clarissa returned home. When she got inside her home she sat down and wondered whether or not she wished for the chair to swallow her up. She had seen Roland, but something was different and she knew not what. He had not proposed marriage to her then and there, during the romantic peak of their meeting each other again.
Yet if she was somewhat troubled to think about such matters, she may have been comforted to know that she was far from alone in wondering about them.