"Now's the time." Nat heard the word passed back by the young engineer officer who had crept forward to reconnoitre: and then an order given in Portuguese.
"Ay, bring up the ladders, you greasers, and let's put it through." This from Teddy Butson chafing by Nat's side.
The two Portuguese companies came forward with the ladders as the storming party moved up to the gateway. And just at that moment there the sentry let off his alarm shot. It set all within the San Vincente bastion moving and whirring like the works of a mechanical toy; feet came running along the covered way; muskets clinked on the stone parapet; tongues of fire spat forth from the embrasures; and then, as the musketry quickened, a flash and a roar lifted the glacis away behind, to the right of our column, so near that the wind of it drove our men sideways.
"All right, Johnny," Dave grunted, recovering himself as the clods of earth began to fall: "Blaze away, my silly ducks—we're not there!"
But the Portuguese companies as the mine exploded cast down the ladders and ran. Half a dozen came charging back along the column's right flank, and our soldiers cursed and struck at them as they fled. But the curses were as nothing beside those of the Portuguese officers striving to rally their men.
"My word," said Teddy. "Hear them scandalous greasers! It's poor talk, is English."
"On with you, lads"—it was Walker himself who shouted. "Pick up the ladders, and on with you!"
They hardly waited for the word, but, shouldering the ladders, ran forward through the dropping bullets to the gate, cheering and cheered by the rear ranks.
But they flung themselves in vain on the gate. On its iron-bound and iron-studded framework their axes made no impression. A dozen men charged it, using a ladder as a battering ram. "Aisy with that, ye blind ijjits!" yelled an Irish sergeant. "Ye'll be needin' them ladders prisintly!" Our three privates found themselves in the crowd surging towards the breastwork to the right of the gate. "Nip on my shoulders, Teddy lad," grunted McInnes, and Teddy nipped up and began hacking at the chevaux de frise with his axe. "That's av ut, bhoys," yelled the Irish sergeant again. "Lave them spoikes an' go for the stockade. Good for you, little man—whirro!" Nat by this time was on a comrade's back, and using his axe for dear life; one of twenty men hacking, ripping, tearing down the wooden stakes. But it was Teddy who wriggled through first with Dave at his heels. The man beneath Nat gave a heave with his shoulders and shot him through his gap, a splinter tearing his cheek open. He fell head foremost sprawling down the slippery slope of the ditch.
While he picked himself up and stretched out a hand to recover his axe a bullet struck the blade of it—ping! He caught up the axe and ran his finger over it stupidly. Phut—another bullet spat into the soft earth behind his shoulder. Then he understood. A fellow came tumbling through the gap, pitched exactly where Nat had been sprawling a moment before, rose to his knees, and then with a quiet bubbling sound lay down again.
"Ugh! he would be killed—he must get out of this!" But there was no cover unless he found it across the ditch and close under the high stone curtain. They would be dropping stones, beams, fire barrels; but at least he would be out of the reach of the bullets. He forgot the chance—the certainty—of an enfilading fire from the two bastions. His one desire was to get across and pick some place of shelter.
But by this time the men were pouring in behind and fast filling the ditch. A fire-ball came crashing over the rampart, rolled down the grass slope and lay sputtering, and in the infernal glare he saw all his comrades' faces—every detail of their dress down to the moulded pattern on their buttons. "Fourth! Fourth!" some one shouted, and then voice and vision were caught up and drowned together in a hell of musketry. He must win across or be carried he knew not where by the brute pressure of the crowd. A cry broke from him and he ran, waving his axe, plunged down the slope and across. On the further slope an officer caught him up and scrambled beside him. "Whirro, Spuds! After him, boys!" sang out Teddy Butson. But Spuds did not hear.
He and the officer were at the top of the turf—at the foot of the curtain. "Ladders! Ladders!" He caught hold of the first as it was pushed up and helped—now the centre of a small crowd—to plant it against the wall. Then he fell back, mopping his forehead, and feeling his torn cheek. What the devil were they groaning at? Short? The ladder too short? He stared up foolishly. The wall was thirty feet high perhaps and the ladder ten feet short of that or more. "Heads!" A heavy beam crashed down, snapping the foot of the ladder like a cabbage stump. Away to the left a group of men were planting another. Half a dozen dropped while he watched them. Why in the world were they dropping like that? He stared beyond and saw the reason. The French marksmen in the bastion were sweeping the face of the curtain with their cross fire—those cursed bullets again! And the ladder did not reach, after all. O it was foolishness—flinging away men like this for no earthly good! Why not throw up the business and go home? Why didn't somebody stop those silly bugles sounding the Advance?
There they went again! It was enough to drive a man mad!
He turned and ran down the slope a short way. For the moment he held a grip on himself, but it was slackening, and in another half-minute he would have lost it and run in mere blind horror. But in the first group he blundered upon were Dave and Teddy, and a score of the King's Own, with a couple of ladders between them; and better still, they were listening to Captain Hopkins, who waved an arm and pointed to an embrasure to the left. Nat, pulling himself up and staring with the rest, saw that no gun stood in this embrasure, only a gabion. In a moment he was climbing the slope again; if a man must die, there's comfort at least in company. He bore a hand in planting the two ladders; a third was fetched—heaven knew whence or how—and planted beside them, and up the men swarmed, three abreast, Dave leading on the right-hand one, at the foot of which Nat hung back and swayed. He heard Dave's long sigh, the sigh, the sob almost, of desire answered at last. He watched him as he mounted. The ladders were still too short, and the leader on each must climb on the second man's shoulders to get hand-hold on the coping. In that moment he might be clubbed on the head, defenceless. On the middle ladder a young officer of the 30th mounted by Dave's side. Nat turned his head away, and as he did so a rush of men, galled by the fire from the bastion to the right, came on him like a wave, and swept him up the first four rungs.
He was in for it now. Go back he could not, and he followed the tall Royal ahead, whose heels scraped against his breast buttons, and once or twice bruised him in the face; followed up, wondering what face of death would meet him at the top, where men were yelling and jabbering in three languages—French, English, and that tongue which belongs equally to men and brutes at close quarters and killing.
Something came sliding down the ladder. The man in front of Nat ducked his head; Nat ducked too; but the body slid sideways before it reached them and dropped plumb—the inert lump which had been Dave McInnes. His shako, spinning straight down the ladder, struck Nat on the shoulder and leaped off it down into darkness.
He saw other men drop; he saw Teddy Butson parallel with him on the far ladder, and mounting with him step for step—now earlier, now later, but level with him most of the time. They would meet at the embrasure; find together whatever waited for them there. Nat was sobbing by this time—sweat and tears together running down the caked blood on his cheek—but he did not know it.
He had almost reached the top when a sudden pressure above forced his feet off the rung and his body over the ladder's side; and there he dangled, hooked by his armpit. Someone grabbed his leg, and, pulling him into place, thrust him up over the shoulders of the tall Royal in front. He saw the leader on the middle ladder go down under a clubbed blow which burst through his japanned shako-cover, and then a hand came down to help him.
"Spuds, O Spuds!"
It was Teddy reaching down from the coping to help him, and he paid for it with his life. The two wriggled into the embrasure together, Nat's head and shoulders under Teddy's right arm. Nat did not see the bayonet thrust given, but heard a low grunt, as he and his friend's corpse toppled over the coping together and into Badajos.
He rose on his knees, caught a man by the leg, flung him, and as the fellow clutched his musket, wrenched the bayonet from it and plunged it into his body. While the Frenchman heaved, he pulled out the weapon for another stab, dropped sprawling on his enemy's chest, and the first wave of the storming party broke over him, beating the breath out of him, and passed on.
Yet he managed to wriggle his body from under this rush of feet, and, by-and-bye, to raise himself, still grasping the sidearm. Men of the 4th were pouring thick and fast through the embrasure, and turning to the right in pursuit of the enemy now running along the curve of the ramparts. A few only pressed straight forward to silence the musketry jetting and crackling from the upper windows of two houses facing on the fortifications.
Nat staggered down after them, but turned as soon as he gained the roadway, and, passing to the right, plunged down a black side street. An insane notion possessed him of taking the two houses in the rear, and as he went he shouted to the 4th to follow him. No one paid him the smallest attention, and presently he was alone in the darkness, rolling like a drunkard, shaken by his sobs, but still shouting and brandishing his sidearm. He clattered against a high blank wall.
Still he lurched forward over uneven cobbles. He had forgotten his design upon the two houses, but a light shone at the end of this dark lane, and he made for it, gained it, and found himself in a wider street. And there the enchantment fell on him.
For the street was empty, utterly empty, yet brilliantly illuminated. Not a soul could he see: yet in house after house as he passed lights shone from every window, in the lower floors behind blinds or curtains which hid the inmates. It was as if Badajos had arrayed itself for a fete; and still, as he staggered forward a low buzz, a whisper of voices surrounded him, and now and again at the sound of his footstep on the cobbles a lattice would open gently and be as gently re-shut. Hundreds of eyes were peering at him, the one British soldier in a bewitched city; hundreds of unseen eyes, stealthy, expectant. And always ahead of him, faint and distant, sounded the bugles and the yells around the Trinidad and the breaches.
He stood alone in the great square. While he paused at the corner, his eyes following the rows of mysterious lights from house to house, from storey to storey, the regular tramp of feet fell on his ears and a company of Foot marched down into the moonlight patch facing him and grounded arms with a clatter. They were men of his own regiment, and they formed up in the moonlight like a company of ghosts. One or two shots were fired at them, low down, from the sills of a line of doorways to his right; but no citizen showed himself and no one appeared to be hit. And ever from the direction of the Trinidad came the low roar of combat and the high notes of the bugles.
He was creeping along the side of the square towards an outlet at its north-east corner, when the company got into motion again and came towards him. Then he turned up a narrow lane to the left and fled. He was sobbing no longer; the passion had died out of him, and he knew himself to be mad. In the darkness the silent streets began to fill; random shots whistled at every street corner; but he blundered on, taking no account of them. Once he ran against a body of Picton's men—half a score of the 74th Regiment let loose at length from the captured Castle, and burning for loot. One man thrust the muzzle of his musket against his breast before he was recognized. Then two or three shook hands with him.
He was back in the square again and fighting—Heaven knew why—with an officer of the Brunswickers over a birdcage. Whence the birdcage came he had no clear idea, but there was a canary-bird inside, and he wanted it. A random shot smashed his left hand as he gripped the cage, and he dropped it as something with which he had no further concern. As he turned away, hugging his hand, and cursing the marksman, a second shot from another direction took the Brunswicker between the shoulders.
At dawn he found himself on the ramparts by the Trinidad breach, peering curiously among the slain. Across the top of the breach stretched a heavy beam studded with sword blades, and all the bodies on this side of it were French. Right beneath it lay one red-coat whose skull had been battered out of shape as he attempted to wriggle through. All the upper blades were stained, and on one fluttered a strip of flannel shirt. Powder blackened every inch of the rampart hereabouts, and as Nat passed over he saw the bodies piled in scores on the glacis below—some hideously scorched—-among beams, gabions, burnt out fire-pots, and the wreckage of ladders. A horrible smell of singed flesh rose on the morning air; and, beyond the stench and the sullen smoke, birds sang in dewy fields, and the Guadiana flowed between grey olives and green promise of harvest.
Below, a single British officer, wrapped in a dark cape, picked his way among the corpses. Behind, intermittent shots and outcries told of the sack in progress. Save for Nat and the dead, the Trinidad was a desert. Yet he talked incessantly, and, stooping to pat the shoulder of the red-coat beneath the chevaux de frise, spoke to Dave McInnes and Teddy Butson to come and look. He never doubted they were beside him. "Pretty mess they've made of this chap." He touched the man's collar: "48th, a corporal! Ugh, let's get out of this!" In imagination he linked arms with two men already stiffening, one at the foot and the other on the summit of the San Vincent's bastion. "King's Own—all friends in the King's Own!" he babbled as he retraced his way into the town.
He had a firelock in his hands ... he was fumbling with it, very clumsily, by reason of his shattered fingers. He had wandered down a narrow street, and was groping at an iron-studded door. "Won't open," he told the ghosts beside him. "Must try the patent key." He put the muzzle against the lock and fired, flung himself against the door, and as it broke before him, stood swaying, staring across a whisp of smoke into a mean room, where a priest knelt in one corner by a straw pallet, and a girl rose from beside him and slowly confronted the intruder. As she rose she caught at the edge of a deal table, and across the smoke she too seemed to be swaying.
Seventeen years later Nat Ellery walked down the hill into Gantick village, and entered the King of the Bells.
"I've come," said he, "to inquire about a chest I left here, one time back along." And he told his name and the date.
The landlord, Joshua Martin—son of old Joshua, who had kept the inn in 1806—rubbed his double chin. "So you be Nat Ellery? I can just mind'ee as a lad. As for the chest—come to think, father sent it back to Trethake Water. Reckon it went in the sale."
"Why, don't 'ee know? When Reub sold up. That would be about five years after the old folks died. The mill didn' pay after the war, so Reub sold up and emigrated."
"Ah! What became of him?"
"I did hear he was dead too," said Joshua Martin, "out in Canady somewhere. But that may be lies," he added cheerfully.
Nat made no further comment, but paid for his gin-and-water, picked up his carpet bag, and went out to seek for a cottage. On his way he eyed the thatched roofs critically. "Old Thatcher Hockaday will be dead," he told himself. "There's work for me here." He felt certain of it in Farmer Sprague's rick-yard. Farmer Sprague owned the two round-houses at the seaward end of the village, and wanted a tenant for one of them. Nat applied for it, and declared his calling.
"Us can't afford to pay the old prices these times," said the farmer.
Nat's eyes had wandered off to the ricks. "You'll find you can when you've seen my work," he answered.
Thus he became tenant of the round-house, and lived in it to the day of his death. No one in my day knew when or how the story first spread that he had been in the army and deserted. Perhaps he let slip the secret in his cups; for at first he spent his Saturday evenings at the King of Bells, dropping this habit when he found that every soul there disliked him. Perhaps some discharged veteran of the 4th, tramping through Gantick in search of work, had recognised him and let fall a damning hint. Long before I can remember the story had grown up uncontradicted, believed in by everyone. Beneath it the man lived on and deteriorated; but his workmanship never deteriorated, and no man challenged its excellence.
About a month before his death (I have this from the postmistress) he sat down and wrote a letter, and ten days later a visitor arrived at the round-house. This visitor the Jago family (who lived across the road) declare to have been Satan himself; they have assured me so again and again, and I cannot shake their belief. But that is nonsense. The man was a grizzled artizan looking fellow well over fifty; extraordinarily like the old Thatcher, though darker of skin—yellow as a guinea, said Gantick; in fact and beyond doubt, the old man's son. He made no friends, no acquaintances ever, but confined himself to nursing the Thatcher, now tied to his chair by rheumatism. One thing alone gives colour to the Jagos' belief; the Thatcher who had sent for him could not abide the sight of him. The Jago children, who snatched a fearful joy by stealing after dark into the unkempt garden and peering through the uncurtained lattice windows, reported that as the pair sat at table with the black bottle between them, the Thatcher's eyes would be drawn to fix themselves on the other's with a stealthy shrinking terror—or, as they put it, "vicious when he wasna' lookin' and afeared when he was."
They would sit (so the children reported) half an hour, or maybe an hour, at a time, without a word spoken between them; but, indeed, the yellow stranger troubled few with his speech. His only visits were paid to the postmistress, who kept a small grocery store, where he bought arrowroot and other spoon-food for the invalid, and the Ring of Bells, where he went nightly to have the black bottle refilled with rum. On the doctor he never called.
It was on July 12th that the end came. The fine weather, after lasting for six weeks, had broken up two days before into light thunderstorms, which did not clear the air as usual. Ky Jago (short for Caiaphas), across the way, prophesied a big thunderstorm to come, but allowed he might be mistaken when on the morning of the 12th the rain came down in sheets. This torrential rain lasted until two in the afternoon, when the sky cleared and a pleasant northwesterly draught played up the valley. At six o'clock Ky Jago, who, in default of the Thatcher, was making shift to cover up Farmer Sprague's ricks, observed dense clouds massing themselves over the sea and rolling up slowly against the wind, and decided that the big storm would happen after all. At nine in the evening it broke.
It broke with such fury that the Stranger, with the black bottle under his arm, paused on the threshold as much as to ask his father, "Shall I go?" But the old man was clamouring for drink, and he went. He was half-way down the hill when with a crack the heavens opened and the white jagged lightning fairly hissed by him. Crack followed crack, flash and peal together, or so quick on each other, that no mortal could distinguish the rattle of one discharge from the bursting explosion of the other. No such tempest, he decided, could last for long, and he fled down to the Ring of Bells for shelter until the worst should be over. He waited there perhaps twenty minutes, and still the infernal din grew worse instead of better, until his anxiety for the old man forced him out in the teeth of it and up the hill, where the gutters had overflowed upon the roadway, and the waters raced over his ankles. The first thing he saw at the top in one lurid instant was the entire Jago family gathered by their garden gate—six of them—and all bareheaded under the deluge.
The next flash revealed why they were there. Against the round-house opposite a ladder rested, and above it on the steep roof clung a man—his father. He had clamped his small ladder into the thatch, and as the heaven opened and shut, now silhouetting the round-house, now wrapping it in white flames—they saw him climbing up, and still up, towards the cross at the top.
"Help, there!" shouted the Stranger. "Come down! O help, you!—we must get him down!" The women and children screamed. A fresh explosion drowned shout and screams.
Jago and the Stranger reached the ladder together. The Stranger mounted first; but as he did so, the watchers in one blinding moment saw the old Thatcher's hand go up and grip the cross. The shutters of darkness came to with a roar, but above it rose a shrill, a terribly human cry.
"Dave!" cried the voice. "Ted!"
Silence followed, and then a heavy thud. They waited for the next flash. It came. There was no one on the roof of the round-house, but a broken stump where the cross had been.
This was the story the yellow Stranger told to the Coroner. And the Coroner listened and asked:
"Can you account for conduct of deceased? Had he been drinking that evening?"
"He had," answered the witness, and for a moment, while the Coroner took a note, it seemed he had said all. Then he seemed to think better of it, and added "My father suffered from delusions sir."
"Hey? What sort of delusions?" The Coroner glanced at the jury, who sat impassive.
"Well, sir, my father in his young days had served as a soldier."
Here the jurymen began to show interest suddenly. One or two leaned forward. "He belonged to the 4th Regiment, and was at the siege of Badajos. During the sack of the city he broke into a house, and—and—after that he was missing."
"Go on," said the Coroner, for the witness had paused.
"That was where he first met my mother, sir. It was her house, and she and a priest kept him hidden till the English had left. After that he married her. There were three children—all boys. My brothers came first: they were twins. I was born two years later."
"All born in Badajos?"
"All in Badajos, sir. My brothers will be there still, if they're living."
"But these delusions—"
"I'm coming to them. My father must have been hurt, somehow hurt in his head. He would have it that my two brothers—twins, sir, if you'll be pleased to mark it—were no sons of his, but of two friends of his, soldiers of the 4th Regiment who had been killed, the both, that evening by the San Vincente bastion. So you see he must have been wrong in his head."
"O, there couldn't be any mistake about me. I was his very image, and—perhaps I ought to say, sir—he hated me for it. When my mother died—she had been a fruit-seller—he handed the business over to my brothers, taking only enough to carry him back to England and me with him. The day after we landed in London he apprenticed me to a brassworker. I was just turned fifteen, and from that day until last Wednesday three weeks we never set eyes on each other."
"Let me see," said the Coroner, turning back a page or two. "At the last moment just before he fell, you say—and the other witnesses confirm it—that he called out twice—uttered two names, I think."
"They were the names by which he used to call my brothers, sir—the names of his two mates in the storming party."
THE TWO SCOUTS
Chapters from the Memoirs of Manuel (or Manus) McNeill, an agent in the Secret Service of Great Britain during the campaigns of the Peninsula (1808-1813). A Spanish subject by birth, and a Spaniard in all his upbringing, he traces in the first chapter of his Memoirs his descent from an old Highland family through one Manus McNeill, a Jacobite agent in the Court of Madrid at the time of the War of Succession, who married and settled at Aranjuez. The authenticity of these Memoirs has been doubted, and according to Napier the name of the two scouts whom Marmont confused together (as will appear in a subsequent chapter) was not McNeill, but Grant: which is probable enough, but not sufficient to stamp the Memoirs as forgeries. Their author may have chosen McNeill as a nom de guerre, and been at pains to deceive his readers on this point while adhering to strictest truth in his relation of events. And this I conceive to be the real explanation of a narrative which itself clears up, and credibly, certain obscurities in Napier.—Q.]
THE TWO SCOUTS
THE FORD OF THE TORMES
In the following chapters I shall leave speaking of my own adventures and say something of a man whose exploits during the campaigns of 1811-1812 fell but a little short of mine. I do so the more readily because he bore my own patronymic, and was after a fashion my kinsman; and I make bold to say that in our calling Captain Alan McNeill and I had no rival but each other. The reader may ascribe what virtue he will to the parent blood of a family which could produce at one time in two distinct branches two men so eminent in a service requiring the rarest conjunction of courage and address.
I had often heard of Captain McNeill, and doubtless he had as often heard of me. At least thrice in attempting a coup d'espionage upon ground he had previously covered—albeit long before and on a quite different mission—I had been forced to take into my calculations the fame left behind by "the Great McNeill," and a wariness in our adversaries whom he had taught to lock the stable door after the horse had been stolen. For while with the Allies the first question on hearing of some peculiarly daring feat would be "Which McNeill?" the French supposed us to be one and the same person; which, if possible, heightened their grudging admiration.
Yet the ambiguity of our friends upon these occasions was scarcely more intelligent than our foes' complete bewilderment; since to anyone who studied even the theory of our business the Captain's method and mine could have presented but the most superficial resemblance. Each was original, and each carried even into details the unmistakable stamp of its author. My combinations, I do not hesitate to say, were the subtler. From choice I worked alone; while the Captain relied for help on his servant Jose (I never heard his surname), a Spanish peasant of remarkable quickness of sight, and as full of resource as of devotion. Moreover I habitually used disguises, and prided myself in their invention, whereas it was the Captain's vanity to wear his conspicuous scarlet uniform upon all occasions, or at most to cover it with his short dark-blue riding cloak. This, while to be sure it enhanced the showiness of his exploits, obliged him to carry them through with a suddenness and dash foreign to the whole spirit of my patient work. I must always maintain that mine were the sounder methods; yet if I had no other reason for my admiration I could not withhold it from a man who, when I first met him, had been wearing a British uniform for three days and nights within the circuit of the French camp. I myself had been living within it in a constant twitter for hard upon three weeks.
It happened in March, 1812, when Marmont was concentrating his forces in the Salamanca district, with the intent (it was rumoured) of marching and retaking Ciudad Rodrigo, which the Allies had carried by assault in January. This stroke, if delivered with energy, Lord Wellington could parry; but only at the cost of renouncing a success on which he had set his heart, the capture of Badajos. Already he had sent forward the bulk of his troops with his siege-train on the march to that town, while he kept his headquarters to the last moment in Ciudad Rodrigo as a blind. He felt confident of smashing Badajos before Soult with the army of the south could arrive to relieve it; but to do this he must leave both Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo exposed to Marmont, the latter with its breaches scarcely healed and its garrison disaffected. He did not fear actual disaster to these fortresses; he could hurry back in time to defeat that, for he knew that Marmont had no siege guns, and could only obtain them by successfully storming Almeida and capturing the battering train which lay there protected by 3,000 militia. Nevertheless a serious effort by Marmont would force him to abandon his scheme.
All depended therefore (1) on how much Marmont knew and (2) on his readiness to strike boldly. Consequently, when that General began to draw his scattered forces together and mass them on the Tormes before Salamanca, Wellington grew anxious; and it was to relieve that anxiety or confirm it that I found myself serving as tapster of the Posada del Rio in the village of Huerta, just above a ford of the river, and six miles from Salamanca. Neither the pay it afforded nor the leisure had attracted me to the Posada del Rio. Pay there was little, and leisure there was none, since Marmont's lines came down to the river here, and we had a battalion of infantry quartered about the village—sixteen under our roof—and all extraordinarily thirsty fellows for Frenchmen; besides a squadron of cavalry, vedettes of which constantly patrolled the farther bank of the Tormes. The cavalry officers kept their chargers—six in all—in the ramshackle stable in the court-yard facing the inn; and since (as my master explained to me the first morning) it was a tradition of the posada to combine the duties of tapster and ostler in one person, I found all the exercise I needed in running between the cellar and the great kitchen, and between the kitchen and the stable, where the troopers had always a job for me, and allowed me in return to join in their talk. They seemed to think this an adequate reward, and I did not grumble.
Now, beside the stable, and divided from it by a midden-heap, there stood at the back of the inn a small outhouse with a loft. This in more prosperous days had accommodated the master's own mule, but now was stored with empty barrels, strings of onions, and trusses of hay—which last had been hastily removed from the larger stable when the troopers took possession. Here I slept by night, for lack of room indoors, and also to guard the fodder—an arrangement which suited me admirably, since it left me my own master for six or seven hours of the twenty-four. My bedroom furniture consisted of a truss of hay, a lantern, a tinder-box, and a rusty fowling piece. For my toilet I went to the bucket in the stable yard.
On the fifth night, having some particular information to send to headquarters, I made a cautious expedition to the place agreed upon with my messenger—a fairly intelligent muleteer, and honest, but new to the business. We met in the garden at the rear of his cottage, conveniently approached by way of the ill-kept cemetery which stood at the end of the village. If surprised, I was to act the nocturnal lover, and he the angry defender of his sister's reputation—a foolish but not ill-looking girl, to whom I had confided nothing beyond a few amorous glances, so that her evidence (if unluckily needed) might carry all the weight of an obvious incapacity to invent or deceive.
These precautions proved unnecessary. But my muleteer, though plucky, was nervous, and I had to repeat my instructions at least thrice in detail before I felt easy. Also he brought news of a fresh movement of battalions behind Huerta, and of a sentence in the latest General Order affecting my own movements, and this obliged me to make some slight alteration in my original message. So that, what with one thing and another, it wanted but an hour of dawn when I regained the yard of the Posada del Rio and cautiously re-entered the little granary.
Rain had fallen during the night—two or three short but heavy showers. Creeping on one's belly between the damp graves of a cemetery is not the pleasantest work in the world, and I was shivering with wet and cold and an instant want of sleep. But as I closed the door behind me and turned to grope for the ladder to my sleeping loft, I came to a halt, suddenly and painfully wide awake. There was someone in the granary. In the pitch darkness my ear caught the sound of breathing—of someone standing absolutely still and checking his breath within a few paces of me—perhaps six, perhaps less.
I, too, stood absolutely still, and lifted my hand towards the hasp of the door. And as I did so—in all my career I cannot recall a nastier moment—as my hand went up, it encountered another. I felt the fingers closing on my wrist, and wrenched loose. For a moment our two hands wrestled confusedly; but while mine tugged at the latch the other found the key and twisted it round with a click. (I had oiled the lock three nights before.) With that I flung myself on him, but again my adversary was too quick, for as I groped for his throat my chest struck against his uplifted knee, and I dropped on the floor and rolled there in intolerable pain.
No one spoke. As I struggled to raise myself on hands and knees, I heard the chipping of steel on flint, and caught a glimpse of a face. As its lips blew on the tinder this face vanished and reappeared, and at length grew steady in the blue light of the sulphur match. It was not the face, however, on which my eyes rested in a stupid wonder, but the collar below it—the scarlet collar and tunic of a British officer.
And yet the face may have had something to do with my bewilderment. I like, at any rate, to think so; because I have been in corners quite as awkward, yet have never known myself so pitifully demoralised. The uniform might be that of a British officer, but the face was that of Don Quixote de la Mancha, and shone at me in that blue light straight out of my childhood and the story-book. High brow, high cheek-bone, long pointed jaw, lined and patient face—I saw him as I had known him all my life, and I turned up at the other man, who stooped over me, a look of absurd surmise.
He was a Spanish peasant, short, thick-set and muscular, but assuredly no Sancho: a quiet quick-eyed man, with a curious neat grace in his movements. Our tussle had not heated him in the least. His right fist rested on my back, and I knew he had a knife in it; and while I gasped for breath he watched me, his left hand hovering in front of my mouth to stop the first outcry. Through his spread fingers I saw Don Quixote light the lantern and raise it for a good look at me. And with that in a flash my wits came back, and with them the one bit of Gaelic known to me.
"Latha math leat" I gasped, and caught my breath again as the fingers closed softly on my jaw, "O Alan mhic Neill!"
The officer took a step and swung the lantern close to my eyes—so close that I blinked.
"Gently, Jose." He let out a soft pleased laugh while he studied my face. Then he spoke a word or two in Gaelic—some question which I did not understand.
"My name is McNeill," said I; "but that's the end of my mother tongue."
The Captain laughed again. "We've caught the other one, Jose," said he. And Jose helped me to my feet—respectfully, I thought. "Now this," his master went on, as if talking to himself, "this explains a good deal."
I guessed. "You mean that my presence has made the neighbourhood a trifle hot for you!"
"Exactly; there is a General Order issued which concerns one or both of us."
I nodded. "In effect it concerns us both; but, merely as a matter of history, it was directed against me. Pardon the question, Captain, but how long have you been within the French lines?"
"Three days," he answered simply; "and this is the third night."
"What? In that uniform?"
"I never use disguises," said he—a little too stiffly for my taste.
"Well, I do. And I have been within Marmont's cantonments for close, on three weeks. However, there's no denying you're a champion. But did you happen to notice the date on the General Order?"
"I did; and I own it puzzled me. I concluded that Marmont must have been warned beforehand of my coming."
"Not a bit of it. The order is eight days old. I secured a copy on the morning it was issued; and the next day, having learnt all that was necessary in Salamanca, I allowed myself to be hired in the market-place of that city by the landlord of this damnable inn."
"I disapprove of swearing," put in Captain McNeill, very sharp and curt.
"As well as of disguises? You seem to carry a number of scruples into this line of business. I suppose," said I, nettled, "when you read in the General Order that the notorious McNeill was lurking disguised within the circle of cantonments, you took it that Marmont was putting a wanton affront on your character, just for the fun of the thing?"
"My dear sir," said the Captain, "if I have expressed myself rudely, pray pardon me: I have heard too much of you to doubt your courage, and I have envied your exploits too often to speak slightingly of your methods. As a matter of fact, disguise would do nothing, and worse than nothing, for a man who speaks Spanish with my Highland accent. I may, perhaps, take a foolish pride in my disadvantage, but," and here he smiled, "so, you remember, did the fox without a tail."
"And that's very handsomely spoken," said I; "but unless I'm mistaken, you will have to break your rule for once, if you wish to cross the Tormes this morning."
"It's a case of must. Barring the certainty of capture if I don't, I have important news to carry—Marmont starts within forty-eight hours."
"Since it seems that for once we are both engaged on the same business, let me say at once, Captain, and without offence, that my news is as fresh as yours. Marmont certainly starts within forty-eight hours to assault Ciudad Rodrigo, and my messenger is already two hours on his way to Lord Wellington."
I said this without parade, not wishing to hurt his feelings. Looking up I found his mild eyes fixed on me with a queer expression, almost with a twinkle of fun.
"To assault Ciudad Rodrigo? I think not."
"Almeida, then, and Ciudad Rodrigo next. So far as we are concerned the question is not important."
"My opinion is that Marmont intends to assault neither."
"But, my good sir," I cried, "I have seen and counted the scaling-ladders!"
"And so have I. I spent six hours in Salamanca itself," said the Captain quietly.
"Well, but doesn't that prove it? What other place on earth can he want to assault? He certainly is not marching south to join Soult." I turned to Jose, who had been listening with an impassive face.
"The Captain will be right. He always is," said Jose, perceiving that I appealed to him.
"I will wager a month's pay—"
"I never bet," Captain McNeill interrupted, as stiffly as before. "As you say, Marmont will march upon the Agueda, but in my opinion he will not assault Ciudad Kodrigo."
"Then he will be a fool."
"H'm! As to that I think we are agreed. But the question just now is how am I to get across the Tormes? The ford, I suppose, is watched on both sides." I nodded. "And I suppose it will be absolutely fatal to remain here long after daybreak?"
"Huerta swarms with soldiers," said I, "we have sixteen in the posada and a cavalry picket just behind. A whole battalion has eaten the village bare, and is foraging in all kinds of unlikely places. To be sure you might have a chance in the loft above us, under the hay."
"Even so, you cannot hide our horses."
"Yes, they're outside at the back. I didn't know there was a cavalry picket so close, and Jose must have missed it in the darkness."
Jose looked handsomely ashamed of himself.
"They are well-behaved horses," added the Captain. "Still, if they cannot be stowed somewhere, it is unlikely they can be explained away, and of course it will start a search."
"Our stable is full."
"Of course it is. Therefore you see we have no choice—apart from our earnest wish—but to cross the ford before daybreak. How is it patrolled on the far side?"
"Cavalry," said I; "two vedettes."
"Meeting, I suppose, just opposite the ford? How far do they patrol?"
"Three hundred yards maybe: certainly not more."
The Captain pursed up his lips as if whistling.
"Is there good cover on the other side? My map shows a wood of fair size."
"About half a mile off; open country between. Once there, you ought to be all right; I mean that a man clever enough to win there ought to make child's-play of the rest."
He mused for half a minute. "The stream is two wide for me to hear the movements of the patrols opposite. Jose has a wonderful ear."
"Yes, Captain, I can hear the water from where we stand," Jose put in.
"He is right," said I, "it's not a question of distance, but of the noise of the water. The ford itself will not be more than twenty yards across."
"Three feet in the middle, as near as can be. I have rubbed down too many horses these last three days not to know. The river may have fallen an inch since yesterday. They have cleared the bottom of the ford, but just above and below there are rocks, and slippery ones."
"My horse is roughed. Of course the bank is, watched on this side?"
"Two sentries by the ford, two a little up the road, and the guard-house not twenty yards beyond. Captain, I think you'll have to put on a disguise for once in your life."
"Not if I can help it."
"Then, excuse me, but how the devil do you propose to manage?"
He frowned at the oath, recovered himself, and looked at me again with something like a twinkle of fun in his solemn eyes.
"Do you know," said he, "it has just occurred to me to pay you a tremendous compliment—McNeill to McNeill, you understand? I propose to place myself entirely in your hands."
"Oh, thank you!" I pulled a wry face. "Well, it's a compliment if ever there was one—an infernally handsome compliment. Your man, I suppose, can look after himself?" But before he could reply I added, "No; he shall go with me: for if you do happen to get across, I shall have to follow, and look sharp about it." Then, as he seemed inclined to protest, "No inconvenience at all—my work here is done, and you are pretty sure to have picked up any news I may have missed. You had best be getting your horse at once; the dawn will be on us in half an hour. Bring him round to the door here. Jose will find straw—hay—anything—to deaden his footsteps. Meanwhile I'll ask you to excuse me for five minutes."
The Spaniard eyed me suspiciously.
"Of course," said I, reading his thoughts, "if your master doubts me—"
"I think, Senor McNeill, I have given you no cause to suspect it," the Captain gravely interrupted. "There is, however, one question I should like to ask, if I may do so without offence. Is it your intention that I should cross in the darkness or wait for daylight?"
"We must wait for daylight; because although it increases some obvious dangers—"
"Excuse me; your reasons are bound to be good ones. I will fetch around my horse at once, and we shall expect you back here in five minutes."
In five minutes time I returned to find them standing in the darkness outside the granary door. Jose had strewn a space round about with hay; but at my command he fetched more and spread it carefully, step by step, as Captain McNeill led his horse forward. My own arms were full; for I had spent the five minutes in collecting a score of French blankets and shirts off the hedges, where the regimental washermen had spread them the day before to dry.
The sketch on the following page will explain my plan and our movements better than a page of explanation:—
The reader will observe that the Posada del Rio, which faces inwards upon its own courtyard, thrusts out upon the river at its rear a gable which overhangs the stream and flanks its small waterside garden from view of the village street. Into this garden, where the soldiers were used to sit and drink their wine of an evening, I led the Captain, whispering him to keep silence, for eight of the Frenchmen slept behind the windows above. In the corner by the gable was an awning, sufficient, when cleared of stools and tables, to screen him and his horse from any eyes looking down from these windows, though not tall enough to allow him to mount. And at daybreak, when the battalion assembled at its alarm-post above the ford, the gable itself would hide him. But of course the open front of the garden—where in two places the bank shelved easily down to the water—would leave him in full view of the troopers across the river. It was for this that I had brought the blankets. Across the angle by the gable there ran a clothes line on which the house-servant, Mercedes, hung her dish-clouts to dry. Unfastening the inner end, I brought it forward and lashed it to a post supporting a dovecote on the river wall. To fasten it high enough I had to climb the post, and this set the birds moving uneasily in the box overhead. But before their alarm grew serious I had slipped down to earth again, and now it took Jose and me but a couple of minutes to fling the blankets over the line and provide the Captain with a curtain, behind which, when day broke, he could watch the troopers and his opportunity. Already, in the village behind us, a cock was crowing. In twenty minutes the sun would be up and the bugles sounding the reveille. "Down the bank by the gable," I whispered. "It runs shallow there, and six or seven yards to the right you strike the ford. When the vedettes are separated—just before they turn to come back—that's your time."
I took Jose by the arm. "We may as well be there to see. How were you planning to cross?"
"Oh," said he, "a marketer—with a raw-boned Galician horse and two panniers of eggs—for Arapiles—"
"That will do; but you must enter the village at the farther end and come down the road to the ford. Get your horse"—we crept back to the granary together—"but wait a moment, and I will show you the way round."
When I rejoined him at the back of the granary he had his horse ready, and we started to work around the village. But I had miscalculated the time. The sky was growing lighter, and scarcely were we in the lane behind the courtyard before the bugles began to sound.
"Well," said I, "that may save us some trouble after all."
Across the lane was an archway leading into a wheelwright's yard. It had a tall door of solid oak studded with iron nails; but this was unlocked and unbolted, and I knew the yard to be vacant, for the French farriers had requisitioned all the wheelwright's tools three days before, and the honest man had taken to his bed and proposed to stay there pending compensation.
To this archway we hastily crossed, and had barely time to close the door behind us before the soldiers, whose billets lay farther up the lane, came running by in twos and threes for the alarm-post, the later ones buckling their accoutrements as they ran halting now and then, and muttering as they fumbled with a strap or a button. Jose at my instruction had loosened his horse's off hind shoe just sufficiently to allow it to clap; and as soon as he was ready I opened the door boldly, and we stepped out into the lane among the soldiers, cursing the dog's son of a smith who would not arise from his lazy bed to attend to two poor marketers pressed for time.
Now it had been dim within the archway, but out in the lane there was plenty of light, and it did me good to see Jose start when his eyes fell on me. For a couple of seconds I am sure he believed himself betrayed: and yet, as I explained to him afterwards, it was perhaps the simplest of all my disguises and—barring the wig—depended more upon speech and gait than upon any alteration of the face. (For a particular account of it I must refer the reader back to my adventure in Villafranca. On this occasion, having proved it once, I felt more confident; and since it deceived Jose, I felt I could challenge scrutiny as an aged peasant travelling with his son to market.)
A couple of soldiers passed us and flung jests behind them as we hobbled down the lane, the loose shoe clacking on the cobbles, Jose tugging at his bridle, and I limping behind and swearing volubly, with bent back and head low by the horse's rump, and on the near side, which would be the unexposed one when we gained the ford. And so we reached the main street and the river, Jose turning to point with wonder at the troops as we hustled past. One or two made a feint to steal an egg from our panniers. Jose protested, halting and calling in Spanish for protection. A sergeant interfered; whereupon the men began to bait us, calling after us in scraps of camp Spanish. Jose lost his temper admirably; for me, I shuffled along as an old man dazed with the scene; and when we came to the water's edge felt secure enough to attempt a trifle of comedy business as Jose hoisted my old limbs on to the horse's back behind the panniers. It fetched a shout of laughter. And then, having slipped off boots and stockings deliberately, Jose took hold of the bridle again and waded into the stream. We were safe.
I had found time for a glance at the farther bank, and saw that the troopers were leisurely riding to and fro. They met and parted just as we entered the ford. Before we were half-way across they had come near to the end of their beat, with about three hundred yards between them, and I was thinking this a fair opportunity for the Captain when Jose whispered, "There he goes," very low and quick, and with a souse, horse and rider struck the water behind us by the gable of the inn. As the stream splashed up around them we saw the horse slip on the stony bottom and fall back, almost burying his haunches, but with two short heaves he had gained the good gravel and was plunging after us. The infantry spied him first—the two vedettes were in the act of wheeling about and heard the warning before they saw. Before they could put their charges to the gallop Captain McNeill was past us and climbing the bank between them. A bullet or two sang over us from the Huerta shore. Not knowing of what his horse was capable, I feared he might yet be headed off; but the troopers in their flurry had lost their heads and their only chance unless they could drop him by a fluking shot. They galloped straight for the ford-head, while the Captain slipped between, and were almost charging each other before they could pull up and wheel at right angles in pursuit.
"Good," said Jose simply. A shot had struck one of our panniers, smashing a dozen eggs (by the smell he must have bought them cheap), and he halted and gesticulated in wrath like a man in two minds about returning and demanding compensation. Then he seemed to think better of it, and we moved forward; but twice again before we reached dry land he turned and addressed the soldiers in furious Spanish across the babble of the ford. Jose had gifts.
For my part I was eager to watch the chase which the rise of the bank hid from us, though we could hear a few stray shots. But Jose's confidence proved well grounded, for when we struck the high road there was the Captain half a mile away within easy reach of the wood, and a full two hundred yards ahead of the foremost trooper.
"Good!" said Jose again. "Now we can eat!" and he pulled out a loaf of coarse bread from the injured pannier, and trimming off an end where the evil-smelling eggs had soaked it, divided it in two. On this and a sprig of garlic we broke our fast, and were munching and jogging along contentedly when we met the returning vedettes. They were not in the best of humours, you may be sure, and although we drew aside and paused with crusts half lifted to our open mouths to stare at them with true yokel admiration, they cursed us for taking up too much of the roadway, and one of them even made a cut with his sabre at the near pannier of eggs.
"It's well he broke none," said I as we watched them down the road. "I don't deny you and your master any reasonable credit, but for my taste you leave a little too much to luck."
Our road now began to skirt the wood into which the Captain had escaped, and we followed it for a mile and more, Jose all the while whistling a gipsy air which I guessed to carry a covert message; and sure enough, after an hour of it, the same air was taken up in the wood to our right, where we found the Captain dismounted and seated comfortably at the foot of a cork tree.
He was good enough to pay me some pretty compliments, and, after comparing notes, we agreed that—my messenger being a good seven hours on his way with all the information Lord Wellington could need for the moment—we would keep company for a day or two, and a watch on the force and disposition of the French advance. We had yet to discover Marmont's objective. For though in Salamanca the French officers had openly talked of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, there was still a chance (though neither of us believed in it) that their general meant to turn aside and strike southward for the Tagus. Our plan, therefore, was to make for Tammames where the roads divided, where the hills afforded good cover, and to wait.
So towards Tammames (which lay some thirty miles off) we turned our faces, and arriving there on the 27th, encamped for two days among the hills. Marmont had learnt on the 14th that none of Wellington's divisions were on the Algueda, and we agreed, having watched his preparations, that on the 27th he would be ready to start. These two days, therefore, we spent at ease, and I found the Captain, in spite of his narrow and hide-bound religion, an agreeable companion. He had the McNeills' genealogy at his finger ends, and I picked up more information from him concerning our ancestral home in Ross and our ancestral habits than I have ever been able to verify. Certainly our grandfathers, Manus of Aranjuez and Angus (slain at Sheriff-muir), had been first cousins. But this discovery had no sooner raised me to a claim on his regard than I found his cordiality chilled by the thought that I believed in the Pope or (as he preferred to put it) Antichrist. My eminence as a genuine McNeill made the shadow of my error the taller. In these two days of inactivity I felt his solicitude growing until, next to the immediate movements of Marmont, my conversion became for him the most important question in the Peninsula, and I saw that, unless I allowed him at least to attempt it, another forty-eight hours would wear him to fiddle-strings.
Thus it happened that mid-day of the 30th found us on the wooded hill above the cross-roads; found me stretched at full length on my back and smoking, and the Captain (who did not smoke) seated beside me with his pocket Testament, earnestly sapping the fundamental errors of Rome, when Jose, who had been absent all the morning reconnoitring, brought news that Marmont's van (which he had been watching, and ahead of which he had been dodging since ten o'clock) was barely two miles away. The Captain pulled out his watch, allowed them thirty-five minutes, and quietly proceeded with his exposition. As the head of the leading column swung into sight around the base of the foot-hills, he sought in his haversack and drew out a small volume—the Pilgrim's Progress—and having dog's-eared a page of it inscribed my name on the fly-leaf, "from his kinsman, Alan McNeill."
"It is a question," said he, as I thanked him, "and one often debated, if it be not better that a whole army, such as we see approaching, should perish bodily in every circumstance of horror than that one soul, such as yours or mine, should fail to find the true light. For my part"—and here he seemed to deprecate a weakness—"I have never been able to go quite so far; I hope not from any lack of intellectual courage. Will you take notes while I dictate?"
So on the last leaf of the Pilgrim's Progress I entered the strength of each battalion, and noted each gun as the great army wound its way into Tammames below us, and through it for the cross-roads beyond, but not in one body, for two of the battalions enjoyed an hour's halt there before setting forward after their comrades, by this time out of sight. They had taken the northern road.
"Ciudad Rodrigo!" said I. "And there goes Wellington's chance of Badajos."
The Captain beckoned to Jose and whispered in his ear, then opened his Testament again as the sturdy little Spaniard set off down the hill with his leisurely, lopping gait, so much faster than it seemed. The sun was setting when he returned with his report.
"I thought so," said the Captain. "Marmont has left three-fourths of his scaling ladders behind in Tammames. Ciudad Rodrigo he will not attempt; I doubt if he means business with Almeida. If you please," he added, "Jose and I will push after and discover his real business, while you carry to Lord Wellington a piece of news it will do him good to hear."
THE BARBER-SURGEON OF SABUGAL
So, leaving my two comrades to follow up and detect the true object of Marmont's campaign, I headed south for Badajos. The roads were heavy, the mountain torrents in flood, the only procurable horses and mules such as by age or debility had escaped the strictest requisitioning. Nevertheless, on the 4th of April I was able to present myself at Lord Wellington's headquarters before Badajos, and that same evening started northwards again with his particular instructions. I understood (not, of course, by direct word of mouth) that disquieting messages had poured in ahead of me from the allied commanders scattered in the north, who reported Ciudad Rodrigo in imminent peril; that my news brought great relief of mind; but that in any case our army now stood committed to reduce Badajos before Soult came to its relief. Our iron guns had worked fast and well, and already three breaches on the eastern side of the town were nearly practicable. Badajos once secured, Wellington would press northward again to teach Marmont manners; but for the moment our weak troops opposing him must even do the best they could to gain time and protect the magazines and stores.
At six o'clock then in the evening of the 4th, on a fresh mount, I turned my back on the doomed fortress, and crossing the Guadiana by the horse ferry above Elvas, struck into the Alemtejo.
On the 6th I reached Castello Branco and found the position of the Allies sufficiently serious. Victor Alten's German cavalry were in the town—600 of them—having fallen back before Marmont without striking a blow, and leaving the whole country four good marches from Rodrigo exposed to the French marauders. They reported that Rodrigo itself had fallen (which I knew to be false, and, as it turned out, Marmont had left but one division to blockade the place); they spoke openly of a further retreat upon Vilha Velha. But I regarded them not. They had done mischief enough already by scampering southward and allowing Marmont to push in between them and the weak militias on whom it now depended to save Almeida with its battering train, Celorico and Pinhel with their magazines, and even Ciudad Rodrigo itself; and while I listened I tasted to myself the sarcastic compliments they were likely to receive from Lord Wellington when he heard their tale.
Clearly there was no good to be done in Castello Branco, and the next morning I pushed on. I had no intention of rejoining Captain McNeill; for, as he had observed on parting—quoting some old Greek for his authority—"three of us are not enough for an army, and for any other purpose we are too many," and although pleased enough to have a kinsman's company he had allowed me to see that he preferred to work alone with Jose, who understood his methods, whereas mine (in spite of his compliments) were unfamiliar and puzzling. I knew him to be watching Marmont, and even speculated on the chances of our meeting, but my own purpose was to strike the Coa, note the French force there and its disposition, and so make with all serviceable news for the north, where Generals Trant and Wilson with their Portuguese militia were endeavouring to cover the magazines.
Travelling on mule-back now as a Portuguese drover out of work, I dodged a couple of marauding parties below Penamacor, found Marmont in force in Sabugal at the bend of the Coa, on the 9th reached Guarda, a town on the top of a steep mountain, and there found General Trant in position with about 6,000 raw militiamen. To him I presented myself with my report—little of which was new to him except my reason for believing Ciudad Rodrigo safe for the present; and this he heard with real pleasure, chiefly because it confirmed his own belief and gave it a good reason which it had hitherto lacked.
And here I must say a word on General Trant. He was a gallant soldier and a clever one, but inclined (and here lay his weakness) to be on occasion too clever by half. In fact, he had a leaning towards my own line of business, and naturally it was just here that I found him out. I am not denying that during the past fortnight his cleverness had served him well. He had with a handful of untrained troops to do his best for a group of small towns and magazines, each valuable and each in itself impossible of defence. His one advantage was that he knew his weakness and the enemy did not, and he had used this knowledge with almost ludicrous success.
For an instance; immediately on discovering the true line of Marmont's advance he had hurried to take up a position on the lower Coa, but had been met on his march by an urgent message from Governor Le Mesurier that Almeida was in danger and could not resist a resolute assault. Without hesitation Trant turned and pushed hastily with one brigade to the Cabeca Negro mountain behind the bridge of Almeida, and reached it just as the French drew near, driving 200 Spaniards before them across the plain. Trant, seeing that the enemy had no cavalry at hand, with the utmost effrontery and quite as if he had an army behind him, threw out a cloud of skirmishers beyond the bridge, dressed up a dozen guides in scarlet coats to resemble British troopers, galloped with these to the glacis of Almeida, spoke the governor, drew off a score of invalid troopers from the hospital in the town, and at dusk made his way back up the mountain, which in three hours he had covered with sham bivouac fires.
These were scarcely lit when the governor, taking his cue, made a determined sortie and drove back the French light troops, who in the darkness had no sort of notion of the numbers attacking them. So completely hoaxed, indeed, was their commander that he, who had come with two divisions to take Almeida, and held it in the hollow of his hand, decamped early next morning and marched away to report, the fortress so strongly protected as to be unassailable.
Well this, as I say, showed talent. Artistically conceived as a ruse de guerre, in effect it saved Almeida. But a success of the kind too often tempts a man to try again and overshoot his mark. Now Marmont, with all his defects of vanity, was no fool. He had a strong army moderately well concentrated; he had, indeed, used it to little purpose, but he was not likely, with his knowledge of the total force available by the Allies in the north, to be seriously daunted or for long by a game of mere impudence. In my opinion Trant, after brazening him away from Almeida, should have thanked Heaven and walked humbly for a while. To me even his occupation of Guarda smelt of dangerous bravado, for Guarda is an eminently treacherous position, strong in itself, and admirable for a force sufficient to hold the ridges behind it, but capable of being turned on either hand, affording bad retreat, and, therefore, to a small force as perilous as it is attractive. But I was to find that Trant's enterprise reached farther yet.
To my description of Marmont's forces he listened (it seemed to me) impatiently, asking few questions and checking off each statement with "Yes, yes," or "Quite so." All the while his fingers were drumming on the camp table, and I had no sooner come to an end than he began to question me about the French marshal's headquarters in Sabugal. The town itself and its position he knew as well as I did, perhaps better. I had not entered it on my way, but kept to the left bank of the Coa. I knew Marmont to be quartered there, but in what house or what part of the town I was ignorant. "And what the deuce can it matter?" I wondered.
"But could you not return and discover?" the general asked at length.
"Oh, as for that," I answered, "it's just as you choose to order."
"It's risky of course," said he.
"It's risky to be sure," I agreed; "but if the risk comes in the day's work I take it I shall have been in tighter corners."
"Excuse me," he said with a sort of deprecatory smile, "but I was not thinking of you; at least not altogether." And I saw by his face that he held something in reserve and was in two minds about confiding it.
"I beg that you won't think of me," I said simply, for I have always made it a rule to let a general speak for himself and ask no questions which his words may not fairly cover. Outside of my own business (the limits of which are well defined) I seek no responsibility, least of all should I seek it in serving one whom I suspect of over-cleverness.
"Look here," he said at length, "the Duke of Ragusa is a fine figure of a man."
"Notoriously," said I. "All Europe knows it, and he certainly knows it himself."
"I have heard that his troops take him at his own valuation."
"Well," I answered, "he sits his horse gallantly; he has courage. At present he is only beginning to make his mistakes; and soldiers, like women, have a great idea of what a warrior ought to look like."
"In fact," said General Trant, "the loss of him would make an almighty difference."
Now he had asked me to be seated and had poured me out a glass of wine from his decanter. But at these words I leapt up suddenly, jolting the table so that the glass danced and spilled half its contents.
"What the dickens is wrong?" asked the general, snatching a map out of the way of the liquor. "Good Lord, man! You don't suppose I was asking you to assassinate Marmont!"
"I beg your pardon," said I, recovering myself. "Of course not; but it sounded—"
"Oh, did it?" He mopped the map with his pocket handkerchief and looked at me as who should say "Guess again."
I cast about wildly. "This man cannot be wanting to kidnap him!" thought I to myself.
"You tell me his divisions are scattered after supplies. I hear that the bulk of his troops are in camp above Penamacor; that at the outside he has in Sabugal under his hand but 5,000. Now Silveira should be here in a couple of days; that will make us roughly 12,000."
"Ah!" said I, "a surprise?" He nodded. "Night?" He nodded again. "And your cavalry?" I pursued.
"I could, perhaps, force General Bacellar to spare his squadron of dragoons from Celorico. Come, what do you think of it?"
"I do as you order," said I, "and that I suppose is to return to Sabugal and report the lie of the land. But since, general, you ask my opinion, and speaking without local knowledge, I should say—"
"Excuse me, but I will send you my opinion in four days' time." And I rose to depart.
"Very good, but keep your seat. Drink another glass of wine."
"Sabugal is twenty miles off, and when I arrive I have yet to discover how to get into it," I protested.
"That is just what am going to tell you."
"Ah," said I, "so you have already been making arrangements?"
He nodded while he poured out the wine. "You come opportunely, for I was about to rely on a far less ruse hand. The plan, which is my own, I submit to your judgment, but I think you will allow some merit in it."
Well, I was not well-disposed to approve of any plan of his. In truth he had managed to offend me seriously. Had an English gentleman committed my recent error of supposing him to hint at assassination, General Trant (who can doubt it?) would have flamed out in wrath; but me he had set right with a curt carelessness which said as plain as words that the dishonouring suspicion no doubt came natural enough to a Spaniard. He had entertained me with a familiarity which I had not asked for, and which became insulting the moment he allowed me to see that it came from cold condescension. I have known a dozen combinations spoilt by English commanders who in this way have combined extreme offensiveness with conscious affability; and I have watched their allies—Spaniards and Portuguese of the first nobility—raging inwardly, while ludicrously impotent to discover a peg on which to hang their resentment.
I listened coldly, therefore, leaving the general's wine untasted and ignoring his complimentary deference to my judgment. Yet the neatness and originality of his scheme surprised me. He certainly had talent.
He had found (it seemed) an old vine-dresser at Bellomonte, whose brother kept a small shop in Sabugal, where he shaved chins, sold drugs, drew teeth, and on occasion practised a little bone-setting. This barber-surgeon or apothecary had shut up his shop on the approach of the French and escaped out of the town to his brother's roof. As a matter of fact he would have been safer in Sabugal, for the excesses of the French army were all committed by the marauding parties scattered up and down the country-side and out of the reach of discipline, whereas Marmont (to his credit) sternly discouraged looting, paid the inhabitants fairly for what he took, and altogether treated them with uncommon humanity.
It was likely enough, therefore, that the barber-surgeon's shop stood as he had left it. And General Trant proposed no less than that I should boldly enter the town, take down the shutters, and open business, either personating the old man or (if I could persuade him to return) going with him as his assistant. In either case the danger of detection was more apparent than real, for so violently did the Portuguese hate their invaders that scarcely an instance of treachery occurred during the whole of this campaign. The chance of the neighbours betraying me was small enough, at any rate, to justify the risk, and I told the General promptly that I would take it.
Accordingly I left Guarda that night, and reaching Bellomonte a little after daybreak, found the vine-dresser and presented Trant's letter.
He was on the point of starting for Sabugal, whither he had perforce to carry a dozen skins of wine, and with some little trouble I persuaded the old barber-surgeon to accompany us, bearing a petition to Marmont to be allowed peaceable possession of his shop. We arrived and were allowed to enter the town, where I assisted the vine-dresser in handling the heavy wine skins, while his brother posted off to headquarters and returned after an hour with the marshal's protection. Armed with this, he led me off to the shop, found it undamaged, helped me to take down the shutters, showed me his cupboards, tools, and stock in trade, and answered my rudimentary questions in the art of compounding drugs—in a twitter all the while to be gone. Nor did I seek to delay him (for if my plans miscarried, Sabugal would assuredly be no place for him). Late in the afternoon he left me and went off in search of his brother, and I fell to stropping my razors with what cheerfulness I could assume.
Before nightfall my neighbours on either hand had looked in and given me good evening. They asked few questions when I told them I was taking over old Diego's business for the time, and kept their speculations to themselves. I lay down to sleep that night with a lighter heart.
The adventure itself tickled my humour, though I had no opinion at all of the design—Trant's design—which lay at the end of it. This, however, did not damp my zeal in using eyes and ears; and on the third afternoon, when the old vine-dresser rode over with more wine skins, and dropped in to inquire about business and take home a pint of rhubarb for the stomach-ache, I had the satisfaction of making up for him, under the eyes of two soldiers waiting to be shaved, a packet containing a compendious account of Marmont's dispositions with a description of his headquarters. My report concluded with these words:—
"With regard to the enterprise on which I have had the honour to be consulted I offer my opinion with humility. It is, however, a fixed one. You will lose two divisions; and even a third, should you bring it."
On the whole I had weathered through these three days with eminent success. The shaving I managed with something like credit (for a Portuguese). My pharmaceutics had been (it was vain to deny) in the highest degree empirical, but if my patients had not been cured they even more certainly had not died—or at least their bodies had not been found. What gravelled me was the phlebotomy. Somehow the chance of being called upon to let blood had not occurred to me, and on the second morning when a varicose sergeant of the line dropped into my operating chair and demanded to have a vein opened, I bitterly regretted that I had asked my employer neither where to insert the lancet nor how to stop the bleeding. I eyed the brawn in the chair, so full of animal life and rude health—no, strike at random I could not! I took his arm and asked insinuatingly, "Now, where do you usually have it done?" "Sometimes here, sometimes there," he answered. Joy! I remembered a bottle of leeches on the shelf. I felt the man's pulse and lifted his eyelids with trembling fingers. "In your state," said I, "it would be a crime to bleed you. What you want is leeches." "You think so?" he asked—"how many?" "Oh, half-a-dozen—to begin with." In my sweating hurry I forgot (if I had ever known) that the bottle contained but three. "No," said I, "we'll start with a couple and work up by degrees." He took them on his palm and turned them over with a stubby forefinger. "Funny little beasts!" said he and marched out of the shop into the sunshine. To this day when recounting his Peninsular exploits he omits his narrowest escape.
I can hardly describe the effect of this ridiculous adventure upon my nerves. My heart sank whenever a plethoric customer entered the shop, and I caught fright or snatched relief even from the weight of a footfall or the size of a shadow in my doorway. A dozen times in intervals of leisure I reached down the bottle from its shelf and studied my one remaining leech. A horrible suspicion possessed me that the little brute was dead. He remained at any rate completely torpid, though I coaxed him almost in agony to show some sign of life. Obviously the bottle contained nothing to nourish him; to offer him my own blood would be to disable him for another patient. On the fourth afternoon I went so far as to try him on the back of my hand. I waited five minutes; he gave no sign. Then, startled by a footstep outside, I popped him hurriedly back in his bottle.
A scraggy, hawk-nosed trooper of hussars entered and flung himself into my chair demanding a shave. In my confusion I had lathered his chin and set to work before giving his face any particular attention. He had started a grumble at being overworked (he was just off duty and smelt potently of the stable), but sat silent as men usually do at the first scrape of the razor. On looking down I saw in a flash that this was not the reason. He was one of the troopers whose odd jobs I had done at the Posada del Rio in Huerta, an ill-conditioned Norman called Michu—Pierre Michu. Since our meeting, with the help of a little walnut juice, I had given myself a fine Portuguese complexion with other small touches sufficient to deceive a cleverer man. But by ill-luck (or to give it a true name, by careless folly) I had knotted under my collar that morning a yellow-patterned handkerchief which I had worn every day at the Posada del Rio, and as his eyes travelled from this to my face I saw that the man recognised me.
There was no time for hesitating. If I kept silence, no doubt he would do the same; but if I let him go, it would be to make straight for headquarters with his tale. I scraped away for a second or two in dead silence, and then holding my razor point I said, sharp and low, "I am going to kill you."
He turned white as a sheet, opened his mouth, and I could feel him gathering his muscles together to heave himself out of the chair; no easy matter. I laid the flat of the razor against his flesh, and he sank back helpless. My hand was over his mouth. "Yes, I shall have plenty of time before they find you." A sound in his throat was the only answer, something between a grunt and a sob. "To be sure" I went on, "I bear you no grudge. But there is no other way, unless—"
"No, no," he gasped. "I promise. The grave shall not be more secret."
"Ah," said I, "but how am I to believe that?"
"I must have even a little more than that." I made him swear by the faith of a soldier and half-a-dozen other oaths which occurred to me as likely to bind him if, lacking honour and religion, he might still have room in his lean body for a little superstition. He took every oath eagerly, and with a pensive frown I resumed my shaving. At the first scrape he winced and tried to push me back.
"Indeed no," said I; "business is business," and I finished the job methodically, relentlessly. It still consoles me to think upon what he must have suffered.
When at length I let him up he forced an uneasy laugh. "Well, comrade, you had the better of me I must say. Eh! but you're a clever one—and at Huerta, eh?" He held out his hand. "No rancour though—a fair trick of war, and I am not the man to bear a grudge for it. After all war's war, as they say. Some use one weapon, some another. You know," he went on confidentially, "it isn't as if you had learnt anything out of me. In that case—well, of course, it would have made all the difference."
I fell to stropping my razor. "Since I have your oath—" I began.
"That's understood. My word, though, it is hard to believe!"
"You had best believe it, anyway," said I; and with a sort of shamefaced swagger he lurched out of the shop.
Well, I did not like it. I walked to the door and watched him down the street. Though it wanted an hour of sunset I determined to put up my shutters and take a stroll by the river. I had done the most necessary part of my work in Sabugal; to-morrow I would make my way back to Bellomonte, but in case of hindrance it might be as well to know how the river bank was guarded. At this point a really happy inspiration seized me. There were many pools in the marsh land by the river—pools left by the recent floods. Possibly by hunting among these and stirring up the mud I might replenish my stock of leeches. I had the vaguest notion how leeches were gathered, but the pursuit would at the worst give me an excuse for dawdling and spying out the land.
I closed the shop at once, hunted out a tin box, and with this and my bottle (to serve as evidence, if necessary, of my good faith) made my way down to the river side north of the town. The bank here was well guarded by patrols, between whom a number of peaceful citizens sat a-fishing. Seen thus in line and with their backs turned to me they bore a ludicrous resemblance to a row of spectators at a play; and gazing beyond them, though dazzled for a moment by the full level rays of the sun, I presently became aware of a spectacle worth looking at.
On the road across the river a squadron of lancers was moving northward.
"Hallo!" thought I, "here's a reconnaissance of some importance." But deciding that any show of inquisitiveness would be out of place under the eyes of the patrols, I kept my course parallel with the river's, at perhaps 300 yards distance from it. This brought me to the first pool, and there I had no sooner deposited my bottle and tin box on the brink than beyond the screen of the town wall came pushing the head of a column of infantry.
Decidedly here was something to think over. The column unwound itself in clouds of yellow dust—a whole brigade; then an interval, then another dusty column—two brigades! Could Marmont be planning against Trant the very coup which Trant had planned against him? Twenty miles—it could be done before daybreak; and the infantry (I had seen at the first glance) were marching light.
I do not know to this day if any leeches inhabit the pools outside Sabugal. It is very certain that I discovered none. About a quarter of a mile ahead of me and about the same distance back from the river there stood a ruinous house which had been fired, but whether recently or by the French I could not tell; once no doubt the country villa of some well-to-do townsman, but now roofless, and showing smears of black where the flames had licked its white outer walls. Towards this I steered my way cautiously, that behind the shelter of an outbuilding I might study the receding brigades at my leisure.
The form of the building was roughly a hollow square enclosing a fair-sized patio, the entrance of which I had to cross to gain the rearward premises and slip out of sight of the patrols. The gate of this entrance had been torn off its hinges and now lay jammed aslant across the passage; beyond it the patio lay heaped with bricks and rubble, tiles, and charred beams. I paused for a moment and craned in for a better look at the debris.
And then the sound of voices arrested me—a moment too late. I was face to face with two French officers, one with a horse beside him. They saw me, and on the instant ceased talking and stared; but without changing their attitudes, which were clearly those of two disputants. They stood perhaps four paces apart. Both were young men, and the one whose attitude most suggested menace I recognised as a young lieutenant of a line regiment (the 102nd) whom I had shaved that morning. The other wore the uniform of a staff officer, and at the first glance I read a touch of superciliousness in his indignant face. His left hand held his horse's bridle, his other he still kept tightly clenched while he stared at me.
"What the devil do you want here?" demanded the lieutenant roughly in bad Portuguese. "But, hallo!" he added, recognising me, and turned a curious glance on the other.
"Who is it?" the staff officer asked.
"It's a barber; and I believe something of a surgeon. That's so, eh?" He appealed to me.
"In a small way," I answered apologetically.
The lieutenant turned again to his companion. "He might do for us; the sooner the better, unless—"
"Unless," interrupted the staff officer with cold politeness, "you prefer the apology you owe me."
The lieutenant swung round again with a brusque laugh. "Look here, have you your instruments about you?"
For answer I held up my bottle with the one absurd leech dormant at the bottom. He laughed again just as harshly.
"That is about the last thing to suit our purpose. Listen"—he glanced out through the passage—"the gates won't be shut for an hour yet. It will take you perhaps twenty minutes to fetch what is necessary. You understand? Return here, and don't keep us waiting. Afterwards, should the gates be shut, one of us will see you back to the town."
I bowed without a word and hurried back across the water meadow. Along the river bank between the patrols the anglers still sat in their patient row. And on the road to the north-west the tail of the second brigade was winding slowly out of sight.
Once past the gate and through the streets, I walked more briskly, paused at my shop door to fit the key in the lock, and was astonished when the door fell open at the push of my hand.
Then in an instant I understood. The shop had been ransacked—by that treacherous scoundrel Michu, of course. Bottles, herbs, shaving apparatus all was topsy-turvy. Drawers stood half-open; the floor was in a litter.
I had two consolations: the first that there were no incriminating papers in the, house; the second that Michu had clearly paid me a private visit before carrying his tale to headquarters. Otherwise the door would have been sealed and the house under guard. I reflected that the idiot would catch it hot for this unauthorised piece of work. Stay! he might still be in the house rummaging the upper rooms. I crept upstairs.
No, he was gone. He had left my case of instruments, too, after breaking the lock and scattering them about the floor. I gathered them together in haste, descended again, snatched up a roll of lint, and pausing only at the door for a glance up and down the street, made my escape post haste for the water meadow.
In the patio I found the two disputants standing much as I had left them, the staff officer gently and methodically smoothing his horse's crupper, the lieutenant with a watch in his hand.
"Good," said he, closing it with a snap, "seventeen minutes only. By the way, do you happen to understand French?"
"A very little," said I.
"Because, as you alone are the witness of this our little difference, it will be in order if I explain that I insulted this gentleman."
"Somewhat grossly," put in the staff officer.
"Somewhat grossly, in return for an insult put upon me—somewhat grossly—in the presence of my company, two days ago, in the camp above Penamacor, when I took the liberty to resent a message conveyed by him to my colonel—as he alleges upon the authority of the marshal, the Duke of Ragusa."
"An assertion," commented the staff officer, "which I am able to prove on the marshal's return and with his permission, provided always that the request be decently made."
They had been speaking in French and meanwhile removing their tunics. The staff officer had even drawn off his riding boots. "Do you understand?" asked the lieutenant.
"A little," said I; "enough to serve the occasion."
"Excellent barber-surgeon! Would that all your nation were no more inquisitive!" He turned to the staff officer. "Ready? On guard, then, monsieur!"
The combat was really not worth describing. The young staff officer had indeed as much training as his opponent (and that was little), but no wrist at all. He had scarcely engaged before he attempted a blind cut over the scalp. The lieutenant, parrying clumsily, but just in time, forced blade and arm upward until the two pointed almost vertically to heaven, and their forearms almost rubbed as the pair stood close and chest to chest. For an instant the staff officer's sword was actually driven back behind his head; and then with a rearward spring the lieutenant disengaged and brought his edge clean down on his adversary's left shoulder and breast, narrowly missing his ear. The cut itself, delivered almost in the recoil, had no great weight behind it, but the blood spurted at once, and the wounded man, stepping back for a fresh guard, swayed foolishly for a moment and then toppled into my arms.
"Is it serious?" asked the lieutenant, wiping his sword and looking, it seemed to me, more than a little scared.
"Wait a moment," said I, and eased the body to the ground. "Yes, it looks nasty. And keep back, if you please; he has fainted."
Being off my guard I said it in very good French, which in his agitation he luckily failed to remark.
"I had best fetch help," said he.
"I'll run for one of the patrols; we'll carry him back to the town."
But this would not suit me at all. "No," I objected, "you must fetch one of your surgeons. Meanwhile I will try to stop the bleeding; but I certainly won't answer for it if you attempt to move him at once."
I showed him the wound as he hurried into his tunic. It was a long and ugly gash, but (as I had guessed) neither deep nor dangerous. It ran from the point of the collar-bone aslant across the chest, and had the lieutenant put a little more drag into the stroke it must infallibly have snicked open the artery inside the upper arm. As it was, my immediate business lay in frightening him off before the bleeding slackened, and my heart gave a leap when he turned and ran out of the patio, buttoning his tunic as he went.
It took me ten minutes perhaps to dress the wound and tie a rude bandage; and perhaps another four to pull off coat and shoes and slip into the staff officer's tunic, pull on his riding boots over my blue canvas trousers—at a distance scarcely discernible in colour from his tight-fitting breeches—and buckle on his sword-belt. I had some difficulty in finding his cap, for he had tossed it carelessly behind one of the fallen beams, and by this time the light was bad within the patio. The horse gave me no trouble, being an old campaigner, no doubt, and used to surprises. I untethered him and led him gently across the yard, picking my way in a circuit which would take him as far as possible from his fallen master. But glancing back just before mounting, to my horror I saw that the wounded man had raised himself on his right elbow and was staring at me. Our eyes met; what he thought—whether he suspected the truth or accepted the sight as a part of his delirium—I shall never know. The next instant he fell back again and lay inert.
I passed out into the open. The warning gun must have sounded without my hearing it, for across the meadow the townspeople were retracing their way to the town gate, which closed at sunset. At any moment now the patrols might be upon me; so swinging myself into the saddle I set off at a brisk trot towards the gate.
My chief peril for the moment lay in the chance of meeting the lieutenant on his way back with the doctor; yet I must run this risk and ride through the town to the bridge gate, the river being unfordable for miles to the northward and trending farther and farther away from Guarda; and Guarda must be reached at all costs, or by to-morrow Trant's and Wilson's garrisons would have ceased to exist. My heart fairly sank when on reaching the gate I saw an officer in talk with the sentry there, and at least a score of men behind him. I drew aside; he stepped out and called an order to his company, which at once issued and spread itself in face of the scattered groups of citizens returning across the meadow.
"Yes, captain," said the sentry, answering the question in my look," they are after a spy, it seems, who has been practising here as a barber. They say even the famous McNeill."
I rode through the gateway and spurred my horse to a trot again, heading him down a side street to the right. This took me some distance out of my way, but anything was preferable to the risk of meeting the lieutenant, and I believed that I had yet some minutes to spare before the second gunfire.
In this I was mistaken. The gun boomed out just as I came in sight of the bridge gate, and the lieutenant of the guard appeared clanking out on the instant to close the heavy doors. I spurred my horse and dashed down at a canter, hailing loudly:—
"A spy!—a barber fellow; here, hold a minute!"
"Yes, we have had warning half an hour ago. Nobody has passed out since."
"At the gate below," I panted, "they sighted him; and he made for the river—tried to swim it. Run out your men and bring them along to search the bank!"
He began to shout orders. I galloped through the gate and hailed the sentry at the tete du pont. "A spy!" I shouted—"in the river. Keep your eyes open if he makes the bank!"
The fellow drew aside, and I clattered past him with a dozen soldiers at my heels fastening their belts and looking to their muskets as they ran. Once over the bridge I headed to the right again along the left bank of the river.
"This way! This way! Keep your eyes open!"
I was safe now. In the rapidly falling dusk, still increasing the distance between us, I led them down past the town and opposite the astonished patrols on the meadow bank. Even then, when I wheeled to the left and galloped for the high road, it did not occur to them to suspect me, nor shall I ever know when first it dawned on them that they had been fooled. Certainly not a shot was sent after me, and I settled down for a steady gallop northward, pleasantly assured of being at least twenty minutes ahead of any effective pursuit.
I was equally well assured of overtaking the brigades, but my business, of course, was to avoid and get ahead of them. And with this object, after an hour's brisk going, I struck a hill-track to the left which, as I remembered (having used it on my journey from Badajoz), at first ran parallel with the high road for two miles or more and then cut two considerable loops which the road followed along the valley bottom.
Recent rains had unloosed the springs on the mountain side and set them chattering so loudly that I must have reined up at least a score of times before I detected the tramp of the brigades in the darkness below me. Of the cavalry, though I rode on listening for at least another two miles, I could hear no sound. Yet, as I argued, they could not be far distant; and I pushed forward with heart elate at the prospect of trumping Marmont's card, for I remembered the staff officer's words, "on the marshal's return." I knew that Marmont had been in Sabugal no longer ago than mid-day; and irregular and almost derogatory as it might be thought for a marshal of France to be conducting a night surprise against a half-disciplined horde of militia, I would have wagered my month's pay that this was the fact.
And then, with a slip of my horse on the stony track, my good fortune suddenly ended, and smash went my basket of eggs while I counted the chickens. The poor brute with one false step came down heavily on his near side. Quick as I was in flinging my foot from the stirrup, I was just a moment too late; I fell without injury to bone, but his weight pinned me to earth by the boot, and when I extricated myself it was with a wrenched ankle. I managed to get him to his feet, but he had either dislocated or so severely wrung his near shoulder that he could scarcely walk a step. It went to my heart to leave him there on the mountain side, but it had to be done, for possibly the fate of the garrison at Guarda depended on it.
I left him, therefore, and limped forward along the track until it took an abrupt turn around a shoulder of the mountain. Immediately below me, unless I erred in my bearings, a desolate sheep farm stood but a short distance above the high road. Towards this I descended, and finding it with no great difficulty, knocked gently at the back door. To my surprise the shepherd opened it almost at once. He was fully dressed in spite of the lateness of the hour, and seemed greatly perturbed; nor, I can promise you, was he reassured when, after giving him the signal arranged between Trant and the peasantry, I followed him into his kitchen and his eyes fell on my French uniform.
But it was my turn to be perturbed when, satisfied with my explanation, he informed me that a body of cavalry had passed along the road towards Guarda a good twenty minutes before. It was this had awakened him. "No infantry?" I asked.
He shook his head positively. He had been on the watch ever since. And this, while it jumped with my own conviction that the infantry was at least a mile behind me, gave me new hope. I could not understand this straggling march, but it was at least reasonable to suppose that Marmont's horse would wait upon his foot before attempting such a position as Guarda.
"I must push on," said I, and instructed him where to seek for my unfortunate charger.
He walked down with me to the road. My ankle pained me cruelly.
"See here," said he, "the senor had best let me go with him. It is but six miles, and I can recover the horse in the morning."
He was in earnest, and I consented. It was fortunate that I did, or I might have dropped in the road and been found or trodden on by the French column behind us.
As it was I broke down after the second mile. The shepherd took me in his arms like a child and found cover for me below a bank to the left of the road beside the stream in the valley bottom. I gave him my instructions and he hurried on.
Lying there in the darkness half an hour later I heard the tramp of the brigade approaching, and lay and listened while they went by.
I have often, in writing these memoirs, wished I could be inventing instead of setting down facts. With a little invention only, how I could have rounded off this adventure! But that is the way with real events. All my surprising luck ended with the casual stumble of a horse, and it was not I who saved Guarda, nor even my messenger, but Marmont's own incredible folly.
When my shepherd reached the foot of the ascent to the fortress he heard a drum beaten suddenly in the darkness above. This single drum kept rattling (he told me) for at least a minute before a score of others took up the alarm. There had been no other warning, not so much as a single shot fired; and even after the drums began there was no considerable noise of musketry until the day broke and the shepherd saw the French cavalry retiring slowly down the hill scarcely 500 yards ahead of the Portuguese militia, now pouring forth from the gateway. These were at once checked and formed up in front of the town, the French still retiring slowly, with a few English dragoons hanging on their heels. A few shots only were exchanged, apparently without damage. The man assured me that the whole 400 or 500 troopers passed within a hundred yards of him and so down the slope and out of his sight.
What had happened was this: Marmont, impatient at the delay of his two brigades of infantry (which by some bungle in the starting did not reach the foot of the mountain before daylight), had pushed his horsemen up the hill and managed to cut off and silence the outposts without their firing a shot. Encouraged by this he pressed on to the very gates of the town, and had actually entered the street when the alarm was sounded—and by whom? By a single drummer whom General Trant, distrusting the watchfulness of his militia, had posted at his bedroom door! Trant's servant entering with his coffee at daybreak brought a report that the French were at the gates; the drummer plied his sticks like a madman; other drummers all over the town caught up their sticks and tattooed away without the least notion of what was happening; the militia ran helter-skelter to their alarm post; and the French marshal, who might have carried the town at a single rush and without losing a man, turned tail! Such are the absurdities of war.