"What can be the matter?" the colonel said again; "the whole regiment seems to have gone mad."
"We shall know in a minute," Captain Manley said; "they are coming in this direction."
"Look at that fellow Sambo," exclaimed Carruthers; "he looks madder than all the rest."
In spite of the intense surprise which all were feeling, there was a general laugh, for the black was performing antics like one possessed; his cap was gone, he jumped, he yelled, he waved his arms, with a drumstick in each hand, wildly over his head, he twisted round and round; he seemed really out of his mind. Suddenly he left the crowd, and rushed on ahead at full speed towards the group of officers, still leaping and yelling and waving his drumsticks.
The officers instinctively drew together as he approached, for they thought that the gigantic negro was really out of his mind. He stopped suddenly as he came up to them, and tried to fall into his usual attitude of attention.
"Oh, Massa Colonel," he said in hoarse, sobbing tones, "only to think, only to think. Scuse Sam, sar, but Sam feel he's going to bust right up wid joy, massa. Dat no matter, but only to think. Bress de Almighty, sar! only to think!"
None of the officers spoke for a minute in answer to these disjointed exclamations. They were affected at the man's great emotion. His black skin was still strangely pale, his eyes were distended, his lips quivered, tears were rolling down his cheeks, and his huge frame was shaken with sobs.
"Calm yourself, Sam—be calm, my man," the colonel said kindly. "Try and tell us what has happened. What are the men so excited about? What is the matter with them?"
"Oh, Massa Colonel," Sam said, "me try tell you all 'boat it. Only to think, sar, dose boys cum back again; dose boys, sar, bress dem, dat jumped into de water and got drowned just to save dis poor niggar, sar. Dey cum back again; only tink ob dat!"
The officers looked at one another in surprise.
"I do believe he means the Scudamores! colonel," Captain Manley exclaimed; "but no, it is impossible, no one could have lived five minutes in that sea, and we know that they could not have been picked up, for we were the last ship in the fleet."
"Yes, yes, sar, dat's dem, dey cum back sure enuff," Sam said.
Then Carruthers exclaimed, "I do believe it is so; there are a couple of boys on the shoulders of the men in the middle of the crowd. Yes, and, by Jove, it is the Scudamores. Hurrah! I am glad."
There was a general exclamation of pleasure from the whole group, for the regret for the boys, who had, as was believed, perished in the performance of such a gallant action, had been general and sincere, and Captain Manley lifted his cap and said reverently, "Thank God, these gallant lads are saved;" and those around, although some of them were but little addicted to prayer, repeated the words and imitated the action.
Carruthers would have stepped forward in his eagerness to greet his former school-fellows, but Captain Manley laid his hand quietly on his shoulder and said in a low tone, "Wait, Carruthers, let the colonel welcome them."
And now the crowd came up to the cottage, those in front falling back as they approached, so as to let the grenadiers come forward with their burden. The boys were lowered to the ground, and stood at once at attention; their faces were both flushed with excitement, and their eyes swollen with tears, so much were they both moved by the welcome which had greeted them.
There was a dead silence for a moment, and then Colonel Tritton said in a loud, clear voice, which was heard all over the throng of men, "I am glad, lads, to see you back again. I never expected to have seen you again after we caught a glimpse of you as the sea washed you away. You have seen how the men have welcomed you, and I can assure you that the pleasure of the officers that two such gallant young fellows should have been saved is no less than that of your comrades. A braver act than that which you performed was never done. I shake hands with you, and congratulate you in the name of the whole regiment." And, suiting the action to the words, Colonel Tritton stepped forward and shook the boys warmly by the hand, amidst a great cheer upon the part of the whole regiment. Then he held up his hand for silence again. "Bugler, sound the assembly; fall in, my lads, or we shall be late. Come in here, boys; you can get something to eat, and tell us in a few words how you were saved, for, even now that I see you it seems almost impossible."
THE PASSAGE OF THE DUORO—TALAVERA.
Very severe was the drill and discipline, and not very abundant was the food, and there was a general feeling of pleasure when, by the general concentration of the army at Coimbra, it was evident that active operations were about to commence. On the 5th of May 9000 Portuguese, 3000 Germans, and 13,000 British troops were assembled. Sir Arthur was already there, and upon the 6th General Beresford marched with 10,000 men, and orders were issued for the rest of the army to march out early the next day.
The Norfolk Rangers were in high glee that night, and many were the tales told by the old soldiers of former engagements in which they had taken part. Next morning, at daybreak, the tents were struck, the baggage packed, and the wagons loaded. The people of Coimbra came out in crowds to see the troops march, and many were the blessings and good wishes poured out as the long line wound through the streets of the city.
Hill's division was the last, and the rain was pouring down with great force by the time they started. The march, however, was not a very long one, for Beresford's division, which was to operate upon the Upper Duoro, had a long distance to make, and it was necessary that all should be ready for simultaneous action. For this purpose the army halted the next day, and upon the 9th marched to Aveiro on the River Vonga. Here a large flotilla of boats was found, and the Norfolk Rangers with two other regiments were ordered to embark at once. The Portuguese fishermen entered heart and soul into the business, and in perfect silence the little flats were rowed up the lake of Ovar.
The soldiers were greatly crowded in the boats, and were glad, indeed, when just as morning dawned they landed at the town of Ovar.
By this movement they were placed upon the right flank of Francheschi, the general who commanded the advanced division of the French army. Soon after they had landed the French were attacked in front, and finding their flank turned, and the whole British force, which they had believed to be seven days' march away, in their front, they fell back hastily.
To their great disappointment, the Rangers took no share in this the first skirmish of the war. But Hill's orders were not to press on the enemy's rear. Three days more of marching and skirmishing brought them close to the Duoro on the evening of the 11th. The enemy crossed that evening and destroyed the bridge, and during the night the British troops were all brought up, and massed behind the hill called the Serra. This hill stood upon a sharp elbow which the river makes just above the town of Oporto, and the British were here completely hidden from Marshal Soult, who had no idea that they were so close at hand. Indeed, knowing that the bridge was broken and that all the boats had been carefully taken over to that side of the river, the Marshal dreamt not that Sir Arthur would attempt to cross, but imagined that he would take boats lower down near the mouth of the river and there endeavor to cross. To prevent such an attempt Soult had massed his army below Oporto.
The troops were ordered to pile arms, and eat their breakfast, but to keep in position. "I wonder how we are to cross the river, Tom?" Peter said. "It is three hundred yards across, with a rapid current, no man in the world could swim that, and carry his musket and ammunition across."
"I expect Sir Arthur is reconnoitering, Peter; I saw him go up the hill to that convent there; he must be able to see from there right over Oporto."
An hour passed, and then two or three officers were seen coming down from the hill; one went up to General Hill, who happened at that moment to be talking to Colonel Tritton. "You are to prepare to cross, sir, Colonel Waters has discovered a small boat brought across by a Portuguese in the night. They are going to cross to that great convent you see upon the other side. They will bring back boats with them, and you will cross at once, take possession of the convent, and hold it against any force that may be brought against you until reinforcements arrive."
Very quickly were the orders passed, and with a smile of satisfaction the men took their arms and fell in. They were moved near the river, and kept under shelter of some houses.
"Keep near me," Colonel Tritton said to Tom and Peter, "I may want you to carry messages, there will be no sounding of bugles to-day."
Keeping under the shade of some trees so that they could command a view of the river without being seen from the opposite side, Colonel Tritton with two of his officers and his two buglers, watched what was going on. A few paces ahead of them were Generals Paget and Hill, like themselves, watching the daring experiment. Behind, under shelter of the houses, were the troops in dense masses. The Rangers, as the first regiment in General Hill's division, were in front, and would naturally be the first to cross. It was a most anxious moment, as Colonel Waters and two Portuguese pushed the tiny boat from shore and pulled across stream. The bulk of the Serra Hill hid the river at this point, and even the convent opposite, from the sight of the French army formed up below the town, but there were no doubt stragglers all over the city, and the whole baggage of the French army was in retreat by the road to Valarga which ran at a short distance behind the convent.
Most anxiously their eyes were strained upon the opposite bank, from which they expected to see the flash of musketry, as the little boat neared the convent. All, however, was as still as death. Behind them they heard a rumble, and looking round saw eighteen guns on their way up the hill. From this eminence they could command the ground around the Seminary, as the convent across the water was called, and thus afford some aid to the troops as they crossed.
There was a murmur of satisfaction as the boat neared the opposite shore, and after lying still for a moment to reconnoiter the convent, pulled boldly up to the landing-place, where its occupants disembarked and entered the Seminary. Their absence was not long. In a few minutes they reappeared with eight or ten men, and then at once entered and cast off three large boats moored along side.
The boys could hardly repress a cheer as they saw them fairly under weigh. An officer now left the side of the General, and came to Colonel Tritton, "You will get your first company in readiness to embark, sir; do not let them show themselves until the last moment."
Colonel Tritton joined his men. "Captain Manley, take your company forward, when the first boat touches the shore embark. Let there be no noise or confusion."
"God bless you, Peter," Tom said, as they separated; "your company won't be many minutes after us;" for the bugler of the first company was ill, and Tom was ordered to take his place.
As the boat touched the shore Captain Manley ordered the leading files of his company to come from under cover and take their place in the boat. Twenty-four men entered, and when the other boats were also full Captain Manley took his place, followed by his bugler, and the boats pushed off again.
There was a dead silence in the boat, broken only by the sound of the oars as the Portuguese tugged manfully at them, each oar being double-banked by a soldier. The rest sat with their muskets in their hands, their pouches open ready for use, and their eyes fixed upon the shore. All was quiet, and with a sigh of relief, and a hearty hurrah muttered under their breath, the men leapt from the boat and ran up to the Seminary.
It was a large building with a flat roof, and the enclosure around it was surrounded by a high wall which swept round to the water's edge on either side. The only entrance was through a stout gate studded with iron. This was already closed and barred; the captain at once distributed his men at the upper windows of the Seminary, with orders not to show themselves until the alarm was given.
They had scarcely taken their places when they were joined by the occupants of the second boat, while those of the third, in which General Paget himself crossed, were but a minute or two later. Just as they touched the shore, however, there was a sudden shout heard, this was followed by others, and in five minutes a wild hubbub was heard in the town. Drums beat to arms, and it was evident that the enemy were at last awake to the fact that the British had effected a lodgment upon their side of the stream.
"We shall have it hot presently," Captain Manley said to Tom. "They will be a quarter of an hour before they can get round here, and we shall have the three boats back by that time. The one we came in is half-way across already."
Seven or eight minutes later a heavy column of men was seen pouring out of the upper gate of the town. As they got into the open ground, they threw out clouds of skirmishers, and pushed down towards the convent. A heavy fire was at once opened upon them by the English guns upon the Serra Hill. There was no longer any need for concealment. The soldiers in the convent took their places at the windows, and as they did so could hear the loud hurrahs of their comrades as they crowded down to the bank upon the other side of the river to await their turn to embark. Before the enemy were within musket-shot, three boat loads more had been landed, and there were, therefore, 150 men now in the convent. From the gates of the city the French artillery came pouring out, and, taking up a position upon an eminence, opened fire upon the convent just as the infantry had got within musket-range.
So suddenly did the noise of the enemy's cannonade, the crashing of the balls against the thick walls of the Seminary, the rattle of the enemy's musketry, and the louder roar of the muskets of the defenders, blended on both sides with shouts and cheers, break out, that for a minute or two Tom felt almost bewildered. He had no time, however, to think, for an officer came up to Captain Manley. "The general is up on the roof; he wants a bugler sent up to him."
Captain Manley nodded to Tom, who followed the aide-de-camp on to the roof. Here he could see all that was passing, and an exciting sight it was. Crowds of French soldiers were approaching the wall, keeping up a tremendous musketry fire, whilst behind them three batteries of field-guns were sending their messengers of death. From every upper window of the convent the answering flashes came thick and fast, while overhead hummed the shot from the British guns, on the Serra Hill. Oporto itself was in a state of uproar. Drums were beating, trumpets sounding, bells clanging, while from the house-tops the population, men and women, were waving their handkerchiefs to the English, gesticulating and making all sorts of pantomimic expression of joy.
Looking at the river behind, Tom saw with pleasure that some more boats had been obtained, and that strong reinforcements would soon be across. The whistling of the bullets and the hum of the round shot were incessant, and Tom acknowledged to himself that he felt horribly uncomfortable—much more uncomfortable than he had any idea that he should feel under fire. Had he been actively engaged, he would have hardly experienced this feeling; but to stand impassive under a heavy fire is trying to the nerves of the oldest soldier. He was angry with himself that he was not more indifferent to the whizzing of the balls; but the sensation of discomfort under fire is beyond the control of the will, and it is no unusual thing to see a young soldier who, later in the day, may display an almost reckless courage, yet at first flinch whenever balls hiss close by him, in spite of all his efforts to the contrary. Tom was able, however, to control any outward manifestation of his feelings, and took his place a few paces behind General Paget, who was standing with one of his officers by his side, watching the force which, momentarily increasing, was, in spite of the British fire, making its way onward towards the gate.
It was evident that the general considered the danger to be pressing, as he once or twice looked back to see how quickly the reinforcements were crossing the river. The first time that he did so, his eye fell on Tom. "Get behind those big chimneys, lad. There is no use in exposing yourself unnecessarily."
Tom obeyed the order with alacrity, and, once in shelter, was soon able to bring his nerves under control, and to look round the corner of his shelter without flinching when the bullets sang past. In five minutes General Hill joined Paget on the roof, and just as he did so the latter was severely wounded and fell.
Tom ran forward to assist him, and, kneeling beside him, partially supported him until four men came up and carried him below. The position of the little garrison was now very precarious, the artillery fire concentrated upon them was heavy, and the French swarmed up to the wall, which they in vain endeavored to climb. The English kept up a tremendous fire upon them, cheering constantly as fresh reinforcements arrived, or as the enemy was momentarily repulsed.
Tom had now lost all nervousness, and was standing eagerly watching the fight, when a ball knocked his shako off. The general happened to turn around at the moment. "That was a narrow escape," he said with a smile. "What is your name, lad?"
"Scudamore, sir," Tom answered.
"Scudamore—Scudamore. Yes, I remember the name now. You are one of the lads General Craufurd spoke to me about. I want to see you. Come to me to-morrow with your brother. Go down now and join your company; I do not want you here."
Tom gladly went down, for he longed to be doing something. He soon found his company, and, taking up a firelock of one of the men who had fallen, was soon hard at work loading and firing into the assailants. For an hour the strife continued. Fortunately General Murray had found some boats three miles higher up the stream, and had crossed, thus menacing the enemy's line of retreat. Suddenly a great pealing of bells were heard in Oporto, with shouting and cheering, and the house-tops were covered with people waving their handkerchiefs. The French were evacuating the town. The inhabitants at once took across some large barges to Villa Neva, a suburb lying across the river and just below the Serra Hill. Here Sherbrooke began to cross.
It was now the time for the English to take the offensive. There were now three battalions in the seminary, and as the French drew sullenly off to join the column now flowing steadily out from Oporto along the Valonga road, the gates were thrown open, and the English passing out formed outside the walls, and poured volley after volley into the retreating foe. Had Murray fallen upon their flank, the disaster of the French would have been complete; but this general feared that the enemy would turn upon him, and destroy his division before assistance could arrive, and he therefore remained inactive, and allowed the long column of fugitives to pass unmolested.
For the next eight days the English army followed hotly in pursuit, and several skirmishes occurred; but Soult effected a most masterly retreat, saving his army, when it seemed upon the brink of destruction, by leaving his guns and baggage behind him, and leading his men by paths over mountains supposed to be impassable for any large body of men. He lost altogether 6000 men in this short campaign. This included 3600 prisoners either captured in action or left behind in the hospitals, and 1400 killed. The number of guns left behind was fifty-eight. The English had only 300 killed and wounded.
Sir Arthur's plans for the invasion of Spain were not yet complete, and he accordingly halted his army to await supplies and reinforcements. During this time the young buglers had no opportunity of calling upon Major-General Hill. The transport supplied by the Spanish Government had failed grossly, and the troops were badly fed at a time when, taking long marches, they most required support. The first day after they halted the boys determined that they would, as soon as they were off duty, call upon General Hill. While parade was going on, however, they saw the general ride up to Colonel Tritton, and enter into conversation with him. The bugler, who was standing near, was ordered to sound the call for the officers to assemble in front; and when they did so, Colonel Tritton left the general's side and spoke a few words with them. There was a short conversation, and then the colonel rejoined the general's side, and the officers returned to their places. The colonel now rode forward to the center of the line, and said in loud tones, "Men, I have a piece of news to tell you which I think that you will be glad to hear. Upon my arrival at Lisbon I reported the gallant conduct of Tom and Peter Scudamore in rescuing one of their comrades when washed overboard in the Bay of Biscay. Captain Merivale, of the "Latona," also reported it, and General Hill, when he heard the circumstances, was also good enough to send home a report recommending them for promotion. He has received an answer from the Commander-in-Chief announcing that they are both granted commissions in this regiment as a reward for their act of distinguished gallantry. The regiment is dismissed."
As the men fell out they gave a loud and general cheer, and Tom and Peter were surrounded by their comrades, who shook them by the hand, and congratulated them upon their promotion. The boys were too much surprised and affected to speak, and they had scarcely recovered from their bewilderment, when Carruthers came up to them, and led them to the colonel. Here General Hill first, and then all the officers, warmly shook hands with them. The boys were much touched by the warmth with which they were received, and were soon hurried off to the tents of the officers. Several of the ensigns were slight young men, and they insisted upon rigging the boys out in uniform, and the boys had the less scruple in accepting the kind offer, inasmuch as they expected every day to enter Spain, when the baggage would be cut down to the smallest possible proportion, and the officers as well as the men be obliged to leave almost everything behind them. Sam was delighted at the promotion of his friends, and asked to be appointed their servant, a request which was at once acceded to. The regiment had now been three months in Spain, and the boys had continued to work hard at Spanish, devoting several hours a day to its study, and talking it whenever they could find an opportunity—no difficult matter, as Portugal was full of Spanish who had crossed the frontier to avoid the hated yoke of the French.
The delay in invading Spain was caused partly from want of transport, but more by the utter incapacity of the Spanish Junta or government, and by the arrogance and folly of Cuesta, the Spanish Commander-in-Chief, who was always proposing impracticable schemes to Wellington, and, inflated with Spanish pride and obstinacy, believed that his own worthless troops were fully a match for the French, and was jealous in the highest degree of the British general.
At last, on the 27th of June, the British army advanced. Scarcely had they made a day's march, however, when the utter faithlessness of the Spaniards became manifest. The provisions and transport promised were not forthcoming, and from the very day of their advance the British were badly fed, and indeed often not fed at all; and so great were their sufferings during the campaign—sufferings caused by the heartlessness of the people whom they had come to deliver from a foreign yoke, that the British soldiers came to cherish a deep and bitter hatred against the Spanish; and it was this intense feeling of animosity which had no little to do with the cruel excesses of the English soldiery upon the capture of Burgos and San Sebastian.
After many delays from these causes, the British army reached Oropesa upon the 20th July, and there formed a junction with Cuesta's army. Upon the 22d the allied armies moved forward, and upon the same day the Spaniards came in contact with the French, and should have inflicted a severe blow upon them, but the ignorance and timidity of the Spanish generals enabled the enemy to draw off and concentrate without loss.
The British troops had now been for many days upon half rations, and Sir Arthur gave notice to the Junta, that unless his requisitions were complied with, he should retire from Spain. Cuesta, however, believing that the French were retreating in haste, pushed his army across the river Alberche, with the vain idea of defeating them, and entering Madrid in triumph. Sir Arthur, seeing the fatal consequences which would ensue, were the Spaniards attacked alone, laid aside his previously-formed resolution, and put his army in motion across the Alberche. The position of the allied armies was now most dangerous—far more so, indeed, than the English general supposed. Badly informed by the Spanish, he greatly underrated the enemy's forces. Taking advantage of the delay caused by the want of provisions and carriage, Soult, Victor, and Ney were marching their forces from various points, and concentrating to crush the invading army. Upon the 26th the French met the Spanish army. General Zayas, who commanded the Spanish advance of 4000 infantry and 2000 cavalry, scarcely offered any resistance, his men broke and fled in disorder, and the panic would have spread to the whole Spanish army, had not General Albuquerque brought up 3000 more cavalry and held the French at bay, while Cuesta retreated in great disorder. The Spanish loss by dispersion and flight was no less than 4000 men, and the whole army would have been broken up had not General Sherbrooke advanced with his division, and placed it between the French and the flying Spaniards.
The allies now recrossed the Alberche and took up a position to cover Talavera. Sir Arthur chose a strong defensive position, as it was evident that the Spanish were worse than useless in the open field. The Spaniards were placed with their right resting upon Talavera, their left upon a mound whereon a large field-redoubt was constructed. Their front was covered by a convent, by ditches, stone walls, breastworks, and felled trees; and thus, worthless as were the troops, they could scarcely be driven from a position almost impregnable.
The line beyond the Spanish was continued by Campbell's division, next to which came that of Sherbrooke, its left extending to a steep hill. Mackenzie and Donkin had not yet fallen hack from the Alberche. Hill was in rear. The British troops, including the German legion, were 19,000 strong, with thirty guns. The Spaniards had 33,000 men and seventy guns. The Spanish contingent could, however, be in no way relied upon, and were, indeed, never seriously engaged. The real battle was between the 19,000 British troops and 50,000 French. The French attacked the British outposts with great impetuosity, and Mackenzie and Donkin were driven in with a loss of 4000 men. The latter took up his position with his brigade on the hill on Sherbrooke's left; the former took post with Campbell's division, to which he belonged. The French cavalry now galloped up towards the portion of the line held by the Spanish, and discharged their pistols at them, whereupon 10,000 Spanish infantry and the whole of their artillery broke and fled in wild confusion. For miles they continued their flight, but in the evening the Spanish cavalry were sent round in pursuit, and drove some 4000 of these cowards back to their lines. Seeing the wild confusion which was raging on the allies' right, Victor resolved, although evening was at hand, to make a sudden dash upon the hill upon their left, which, held only by Donkin's brigade, was the key of the position. The hill was very steep upon the front, or French side, while towards the rear it sloped gradually. Ruffin's division was ordered to the attack, followed by Villette in support, while Lapisse was ordered to engage the German legion, which was on the left of Sherbrooke's division.
Hill's division was lying down behind the hill when Ruffin's troops advanced to the attack. There was no expectation of an attack that evening, and the woods and increasing darkness covered the movements of the French troops. Weary and hungry, the English soldiers, disgusted at the inhuman neglect of the Spaniards, and furious at their cowardice, were chatting over the events of the day and discussing the chances, by no means bright, of the expected battle to-morrow. All that day they had had no food whatever save a small portion of grain, served out raw and unground. Tom and Peter had been chatting with the officers, who were grouped under a tree, when Sambo came up to them and beckoned them aside.
"Look here, Massa Tom, here six eggs; tree for you, tree for Massa Peter."
"Thank you, Sam, that is capital; but you know you will get into a row if you get caught taking things."
"Me no take 'em, massa. Old hen give them to me."
"How was that, Sam?"
"Well, Massa, me saw her sitting on nest. Me went up and said to her, 'Give me some eggs, old girl.' She say 'Cluck.' I says, 'Cluck means yes, I suppose?' She say 'Cluck' again. Clear 'nuff that, so me take eggs, eat tree, bring six, young massa."
"I am afraid, Sam," Tom said, laughing, "your story would hardly save you from the triangles, if you had been caught. However, as it is rude to return a present, of course you cannot take them back to the hen. I suppose they are raw?"
"Yes, massa; no good make fire; make hole bofe ends, suck 'em."
"All right, Sam; it is not the nicest way, but, under the circumstances, perhaps it is the best; at any rate, I am too hungry to wait till we can get a fire lighted."
So saying, the boys sucked the raw eggs, and then joined the men, when, just as they did so, first a dropping rifle shot, and then a perfect roar of musketry broke out upon the hill above them. It needed no order to be given. The men fell into their places and prepared to climb the hill and assist Donkin's brigade, which was evidently unable alone to resist the attack. Knapsacks were thrown off, firelocks tightly grasped, and the regiment impatiently awaited orders to advance. None were more impatient than the colonel, who after a few minutes, seeing by the fire that the English were falling back, and that the French had gained the crest of the hill, waited no longer for orders, but gave the word for the regiment to advance. They were but half way up the hill when General Hill himself galloped down to meet them, and then turning, led the way beside Colonel Tritton.
General Hill had had a narrow escape. Donkin had repulsed the French who attacked him in front, but his force was insufficient to guard the whole crest of the hill. Consequently, the enemy had come up round his flank, and were now in actual possession of the crest. General Hill, ignorant of this, had ridden with his brigade-major right into the midst of the French before he found out his mistake. His brigade-major, Fordyce, was killed, his own horse wounded, and his bridle seized by a French grenadier. He had, however, broken away, and had ridden off under a storm of bullets.
With a cheer the Norfolk Rangers followed their gallant leader. They reached the crest, poured a tremendous volley into the enemy, and charged with the bayonet. The French, of whom but a small portion had as yet gained the crest, were unable to resist the impetuous onslaught, and at once gave way.
The Rangers were now joined by the 48th and the 29th, so that these, with Donkin's brigade, formed a strong body of troops. The French, who had fallen back, now united with their main body, and the attack was renewed with all the force of Ruffin's division. The heavy mass pressed upwards, in spite of the destructive fire of the British, and were within twenty yards of the crest, when, with a hearty cheer, the English troops burst upon them with the bayonet, and the French again fell back, broken and disheartened.
This ended the fighting on the 27th of July. Long lines of bivouac fires soon blazed upon either side. The wounded were carried down the hill to the field-hospital, which had been erected under its cover, and the men, eating their scanty supper, wrapped themselves in their great coats, and were soon asleep. The officers chatted for a short time longer, but as all were tired, and the next day was sure to be a severe one, they, too, soon lay down by their fire.
When morning broke, it was seen that the enemy had massed a large force of artillery upon a hill just opposite to the one held by the English. Soon afterwards Ruffin's division, as before supported by Villette, advanced to the attack, covered by the tremendous fire from his artillery. The British had no adequate force of artillery to reply to the iron storm, and the balls swept through their lines, mowing down their ranks, and causing great loss. The regiments in reserve lay down to avoid the iron shower, while the Rangers and 48th prepared to resist the French when they came within fighting distance.
As their men approached the summit of the hill, the French artillery was obliged to cease playing in that direction, and turned its attention to the British center, while a fierce musketry contest took place between the French and Hill and Donkin's men.
The ground was rough, and the troops on both sides, broken up into small bodies, fought desperately. General Hill was wounded, and the British troops fell fast. The French, however, suffered even more, and, as Hill brought up his reserve, the English gained ground foot by foot, until they drove them again down the steep side of the hill. As the French retired, their artillery once more opened fire to cover their retreat.
A pause now ensued; the French in this brief contest had lost 1400 men, and the British had suffered severely. The French then held a council of war, and determined to attack along the whole line in force. Hours passed away; the English munched their corn, smoked their pipes, and watched the enemy scattered over the plain. The weather was very hot, and the men of both sides went down to a little stream which divided their positions, drank, and filled their water-bottles in perfect amity. Some of the officers, who spoke French conversed with the French officers, exchanged cigars for brandy, and joked and laughed as if they had been the best of friends.
At one o'clock the French drums were heard to beat, and the men were soon formed in order. Tom and Peter stood with a group of officers on the brow of the hill. Nothing could be finer than the sight. Far away the view stretched over the country, thickly wooded, and with chateau and farm-houses scatted here and there. Through the trees the dense masses of the French could be seen, as they moved in columns towards the positions from which they were to attack. Upon an eminence, nearly opposite to their position, the boys could see a long line of the French artillery. Far away, to the right, rose the churches of Talavera, while behind the hill were the British and Spanish cavalry, ready to charge should the French endeavor to turn the British left by pushing round its foot. Fifty paces from the officers of the Norfolk Rangers sat Sir Arthur Wellesley, on horseback, watching attentively through a field-glass the movements of the enemy, and at a short distance behind him were his staff. The British troops were standing in easy order, a little behind the crest of the hill, so as to be sheltered from the artillery fire with which the French were sure to cover the advance of their column of attack.
"This is a grand sight, Peter," Tom said, "but I wish they would begin; it makes one fidgety waiting for it."
Scarcely had Tom spoken when, as if in answer to his wish, a series of jets of white smoke puffed out from the opposite hill, and two or three seconds later came the thunder of eighty guns, and the whizzing sound of as many balls. Instinctively the group drew back a pace, but it was not upon them that this tremendous fire was opened. It was directed against the right of the British line, and almost at the same moment a cloud of skirmishers appeared among the trees, followed by the dark columns of Sebastiani's division.
Upon these the English guns at once opened fire; but rushing forward with their usual impetuosity, they cleared away the obstacles which had been raised across the British front, and charged with fury against the British position. Campbell's division, however, assisted by Mackenzie's brigade and two Spanish battalions, stood firm, and driving back the skirmishers, advanced in line, cheering loudly. The head of the French column withered away under their tremendous fire, and, pushing forward, they overlapped it, and drove them back with terrible loss, capturing ten guns. Then Campbell prudently recalled his men to their first position, and the British artillery, which had necessarily been silent while friend and foe were mingled together, opened furiously upon the French as they tried to re-form upon their supports. A Spanish cavalry regiment dashed down upon their flank, and they retired again in great disorder.
Every incident of the fight could be seen from the British position on the hill, and the troops almost held their breath with excitement as the British lines clashed against the head of the French column, and a loud shout of triumph burst out spontaneously as the French broke and fled.
But it was now the turn of the left. Already Villette's division, preceded by the Grenadiers and supported by Ruffin's division, was advancing, and the British cavalry were ordered to charge them. The ground was, however, quite unfit for cavalry. Colonel Arentschild, a very experienced officer, who commanded the German Hussars, drew up his regiment at the edge of a deep cleft which crossed their front, and refused to take his men to certain destruction. The 23d Dragoons, however, dashed into the ravine. Men and horses rolled over in all directions; still, they got across, and, charging furiously between the French infantry regiments, which poured in a terrible fire, fell upon a brigade of Chasseurs in their rear. Victor sent up his Polish lancers and Westphalian light horse to the assistance of the Chasseurs, who already outnumbered the 23d, and this gallant regiment was completely broken, the survivors escaping to the shelter of Bassecourt's Spanish division, which lay beyond the hill, having lost 257 men and officers.
Tom and Peter did not see this disastrous affair, for on the approach of the enemy's column they fell into their places in the ranks. It was, however, in vain that the French tried to gain the crest of the hill, their efforts at this point being indeed far more feeble than they had been either in the morning or upon the previous night. It was in the center that their great effort was made. Here Lapisse threw his division against that of Sherbrooke, and, covered by his own artillery and by the guns upon the hill, charged right up to the position. The British, however, repulsed them, and the guards, carried away by the excitement of the moment, followed them with reckless ardor. The French reserves of infantry and cavalry came up, the artillery plied the British with shot and shell, the fugitives rallied and again came to the attack, and the Guards fell back in confusion. The Germans next to them, severely pressed, began to waver, and for a time it seemed that the British, victorious upon both flanks, were yet to lose the battle by being broken in the center.
Now, however, the 48th, which Sir Arthur had ordered down from the hill when he saw the rash advance of the Guards, was seen advancing in line through the disordered masses. Wheeling back, it allowed the retreating regiments to pass through it and then again formed and fell upon the flank of the victorious French column. The French paused in their advance, the Guards and Germans rallied and came back again to the fight, the shots of the British guns plowed lines in the column, the French wavered, and, as the British light cavalry trotted up with the intention of charging them, fell back, and drew off to their first position amidst shouts of victory along the whole length of the British line.
Thus the battle ceased, each party occupying the ground it had held in the morning. The British loss in killed, wounded, and missing, in the two days' fighting, was 6200; that of the French 7400. Had the British been in a condition to have sallied from their position and pursued the retiring enemy, the victory would have had far greater results; but, exhausted and half-starved, the British were incapable of following up their advantage.
The next morning at daybreak, the French army quitted its position, and, retiring across the Alberche, formed line of battle there, and awaited the attack, should the English take the offensive. This they were in no position to do, although in the course of the day Craufurd had come up with the 43d, 52d, and 95th Regiments. These three regiments had heard of the first day's fighting from the Spanish fugitives, and had marched with all speed to the assistance of their friends. They had, carrying their kit and ammunition, weighing from 50 lb. to 60 lb., actually marched sixty-two miles in twenty-six hours in the hottest season of the year, one of the greatest feats recorded in military history.
The Rangers had suffered heavily, and in the two days' fighting had lost thirty-eight killed and 109 wounded. Among the former were two officers, while several others were wounded. The Scudamores had, fortunately, both escaped without a scratch. The inhumanity of the Spaniards was now more markedly shown than ever. Although both in Cuesta's army, and in the town of Talavera provisions were abundant, yet the inhabitants carefully concealed them, while both the wounded and fighting men of the British army were in want. So great was the misery and indignation of the soldiers at this shameful treatment, from those for whom they were doing so much, that they would willingly have attacked the Spanish army and plundered the town; and from this period to the end of the war the British hated the Spanish with a deep and bitter hatred.
Wellesley now received news that Soult had crossed the mountains through the pass of Banos, which had been left undefended by the Spanish, and was marching upon his rear. Believing that Soult had only 13,000 men with him—whereas in fact, he had 50,000—Sir Arthur left the Spanish army at Talavera in charge of the hospitals, with 6000 sick and wounded, and retraced his steps, with the intention of giving battle to this new enemy.
Upon the 3d, however, he learned the real strength of Soult's army, and upon the same day heard that General Cuesta had basely retreated from Talavera, without having provided any transport whatever, according to his promise, for the British sick and wounded. All of these who had strength to crawl rejoined the British army, but 1500, who were unable to walk, were left behind, and fell into the hands of the French, by whom they were treated with far greater kindness and attention than they had been by the Spanish. Upon the 4th Cuesta joined Sir Arthur, and at six o'clock next morning the only possible course for safety was adopted. Victor was advancing from Talavera, Soult was hurrying from Placentia to cut off the retreat of the British, and accordingly Sir Arthur fell back upon Arzobispo, on the Tagus.
The artillery, the baggage and wounded, first crossed the bridge, and at two o'clock the entire army was across. So great was the hunger of the men that a herd of swine happening to be seen close to the line of march, the soldiers ran upon them, shot and bayoneted them, and devoured them raw. Taking up a strong position, guarding the bridges of the Tagus, the British army remained quiet until the end of August. During this time they became so weakened by starvation that they could scarcely walk; a great portion of the cavalry horses, and nearly all the baggage animals died of hunger, and at last, Sir Arthur, finding that no remonstrances availed with the Junta, fell back again to the Portuguese frontier by slow marches, for the army was so utterly enfeebled that it resembled a vast body of invalids, rather than an army of unbeaten soldiers.
A PAUSE IN OPERATIONS.
Talavera was fought in July, 1809, and for four months longer Sir Arthur Wellesley kept his troops on the Spanish frontier, where his presence served as a check against any invasion, even by a very formidable army, of Portugal. After the utter bad faith and cowardice shown by the Spanish, the great commander was determined never again to trust in their promises, or to undertake any movement dependent for success upon their co-operation. The Junta then declared that the Spaniards would alone and unaided sweep the French beyond the Pyrenees, and a Spanish army of 45,000 infantry, 7000 cavalry, and 60 guns advanced in November against Madrid. It was met by a French army of 24,000 infantry, 5000 cavalry, and 50 guns. The battle began at eleven in the morning, and by three the French, with a loss of only 1700 killed and wounded, had utterly routed the Spanish, with a loss of 5000 killed and wounded, 45 guns, and 26,000 prisoners! After this signal and disgraceful defeat, Lord Wellington—for he had now been raised to the peerage—felt that nothing whatever could be done at present in Spain, and so fell back into Portugal, where for many months he occupied himself in preparing to meet the storm which would, he knew, fall ere long upon that country. The Portuguese authorities were as incapable, as untrustworthy, and as intractable as were those of Spain; but here, happily, Lord Wellington had more power. England was paying large subsidies towards keeping up the Portuguese army, which was commanded by Lord Beresford, having under him many British officers. The Portuguese troops were hardy, obedient, and far braver than the Spaniards; but difficulties often arose in keeping the army together, because the Portuguese Government, although England was paying the principal expenses of the army, yet starved their soldiers, and often kept them for months without pay. It was only by the strongest remonstrances, and by the oft-repeated threat that he would embark the British troops, and abandon Portugal altogether, unless these and other abuses were done away with, that Lord Wellington succeeded in reducing this incapable and insolent Government to reason.
Reinforcements arrived but slowly from England, for a considerable portion of the available troops of England were frittered away in holding Cadiz and in an expedition to Sicily. In these two places some 25,000 English troops were wasted—a force, which, had it been added to Wellington's army, would have enabled him to take the field against the French, instead of being forced to remain in Portugal for upwards of a year without discharging a single shot against the enemy. Tom and Peter Scudamore, however, were not destined to remain inactive all these weary months. One day in November, just before the army fell back from the Spanish frontier, General Hill was dining at mess with the regiment; for, rough as was the accommodation, the officers had succeeded in establishing a general mess. The conversation turned upon the difficulty of discovering what force the various French generals had at their disposal, the reports received by the Commander-in-Chief being often ridiculously incorrect. There was also an immense difficulty in communicating with the guerilla chiefs who, almost always beaten when they came to blows with any considerable bodies of the French, yet managed to harass them terribly by cutting off convoys, falling upon small parties, and attacking outposts and bands of foragers. Knowing every mountain pass and road, these men could, if they would, keep Lord Wellington informed of every considerable movement of the enemy, and might in return receive instruction for acting, when required, in concert before the communication of an advancing army, or might create a diversion by uniting their bands, and threatening some important post.
The next day the boys went to Colonel Tritton's quarters, and, referring to the conversation of the day before, said that they were willing to carry any messages that the general might require sent, and to obtain any information wanted.
"Nonsense, boys, you would be hung as spies before you had been gone a week."
"I don't think so, sir," Tom said; "we have had very little to do during the six months we have been out here except to learn the language of the country, and I think now we could pass very well as Spanish boys. Besides, who would suspect boys? We are quite ready to chance detection if we can be allowed to go."
"I don't like it, boys; you are too young. Well, if not too young," he said, in answer to a movement of Tom's to speak, "we all like you too well to run the risk of hearing you have been hung like a couple of young puppies."
"You are very kind, colonel; but you know you promised to give us a chance if you could, and having a chance of course means having extra danger; but I really don't think that there would be any great danger in it."
"Well, boys," Colonel Tritton said, after a few moments' thought, "I do not feel justified in refusing your application, and will mention it to General Hill. There are very few officers in the army who speak Spanish fluently, and you being boys would, as you say, avert suspicion. But I tell you fairly that I hope General Hill will at once refuse to entertain the idea."
"Thank you, sir," the boys said. "Of course that is all we could ask you to do."
The next day, after parade was over, Colonel Tritton walked on to General Hill's quarters at a sort of half farm-house, half country-seat, a short distance from the village, round which the Rangers were encamped. As he came up to the house, General Hill came out from his door talking to a Spanish officer, who had the day before brought some despatches from one of the Spanish generals to Lord Wellington.
Colonel Tritton joined them, and they stood talking together upon the state of affairs in Spain, and of the advance of the Spanish army on Madrid, which was then just taking place. As they did so two very ragged, unkempt Spanish boys, shoeless and wretched-looking, limped up, and began to beg. General Hill shook his head, and the Spaniard impatiently motioned them away.
"Por Dios," one whined; "give us something; we are starving. The French have burnt down our houses, and killed our fathers and mothers—we are starving. 'Por l'amor de Dios!'"
"What's the poor little beggar say?" General Hill asked the Spaniard.
"The usual story—house burnt, father and mother killed, starving. I dare say it's all a lie."
"Where did you live?" he asked in Spanish.
"In the village of Oros, near Valencia."
"And how did you come here?"
"The French burnt the village because the guerillas had killed a party of theirs in it, and they killed all the people, and then carried off the mules and horses, and took us to drive some of them. That was four months ago. We had to drive till the other day at Tamanes, when our men beat the French; our mules were taken, and, as they did not want us as drivers we had nothing to do but to come on in hopes that the kind English would give us food."
The Spanish officer translated what the boy said, and General Hill remarked, "Yes, that was a brilliant affair of the Duke del Pasque's. Here," he called to an orderly, "give these boys some bread. I will see what can be done for them afterwards. I am afraid nothing. Poor little wretches! their story is a very common one."
The boys received the bread with a great show of thankfulness, and, sitting down by the roadside, began to munch it with great appetite. The Spanish officer now mounted his horse and rode off, while General Hill and Colonel Tritton remained standing where he had left them. Colonel Tritton then told General Hill of the Scudamores' request to be allowed to penetrate into Spain as spies or with dispatches.
"The young pickles!" General Hill laughed. "What will they be wanting to do next? Pooh, pooh! it would be out of the question."
"I believe they do really speak Spanish exceedingly well." Colonel Tritton said. "They generally act as interpreters for us, and none of the officers speak Spanish with anything like the same fluency."
"As far as the language goes, they might get on, perhaps," General Hill said; "but they look as thorough English boys as you could see. They would be detected at once."
"Yes," Colonel Tritton said, "they are both thorough English boys; I should know them anywhere. What a contrast to the miserable, limping, hang-dog lads there! Poor little chaps! Why, upon my word, I believe the fellows are laughing."
General Hill looked sharply at them, and, as he looked from one to the other, he said sarcastically, "Poor little chaps indeed! You said that very naturally, Tritton. It really does you credit as an actor."
Colonel Tritton looked at the general with an expression of blank astonishment.
"What," said the general, "were you really taken in too"
"Taken in?" repeated Colonel Tritton vaguely.
"Don't you see, Tritton, those poor little chaps you are pitying so are those two young scamps we were talking about."
Colonel Tritton stared in astonishment at the boys, and then, as he recognized them, he joined the general in a shout of laughter, while the two boys stood up and saluted with an attempt at gravity which was only partially successful, so amused were they at the astonishment of their colonel, as well as pleased at the success of their disguise.
Just at this moment there was a sound of tramping horses, and directly afterwards an officer rode up, followed by four or five others, and at a short distance in the rear by an escort of orderlies. The boys needed not the exclamation of General Hill, "Here is Wellington." They knew who the rider was, who checked his horse as he reached the gate, for they had often seen him as he rode through the camp. A slight man, very careful and neat in his dress, with an aquiline nose and piercing eyes. Peter was rising as he drew up his horse, when Tom said, "Don't get up, Peter; go on with your bread. It would look absurd for us to salute now, and would draw attention to us," he went on, as Lord Wellington dismounted, threw the bridle off his horse to an orderly, and saying to General Hill, "I wanted to see you; come in." Colonel Tritton went into the house, followed by the two officers. "We'll stop here till they come out again, Peter. Perhaps General Hill may speak to him about us. At any rate, we will keep up our disguise till they've gone. Let us play at odd and even." It was a game of which Spanish boys are very fond, and they may be seen in any of the Spanish towns sitting by the houses on door-steps in the sun playing. It was half an hour before the general came out again. He was about to mount his horse, when he glanced at the boys, who were sitting against the wall a few paces off, seemingly absorbed in their play, and paying no attention whatever to him. Suddenly he changed his mind, dropped his rein, and walked up to them.
"What are you playing for?" he asked abruptly in Spanish.
"Reals, senor," Tom said looking up, but not moving.
"You are poor; how can you pay?" asked the general.
"Oh! we don't pay," Tom laughed. "We keep count. I owe him twelve thousand now. I will pay him when I get rich. He can wait." And he held out his closed hand again for Peter to guess the number of stones it contained.
"Come inside," Lord Wellington said abruptly, and, turning led the way into the house again, followed by General Hill, Colonel Tritton, and the two boys.
"It is not often I change my mind," he said to General Hill; "but for once I do so now. When you told me about these lads, I refused to employ them on such dangerous service, even when you told me of the courage and coolness which they exhibited on the voyage. Now I have tried them myself, I see that they will do. If they could keep up their disguise when I spoke to them suddenly, and answer without hesitation or any excitement which could have shown that they were not what they pretended to be, they can do so with a French general. I am no judge of the purity of their Spanish; but as you tell me they deceived a Spanish officer just now, they will be able to pass with Frenchmen. Now, lads," he went on turning to them, "you have thought over, of course, the risks you are going to run, and are prepared, if detected, to be hung like dogs." The boys bowed.
"You will receive detailed instructions through Colonel Tritton, together with such despatches as I may wish sent. They will be written as small as possible. You will not go for a week; devote all your time to studying the map. The largest size we have shall be sent to your colonel this afternoon. Of course you will be supplied with money, and for anything you can think of likely to assist you, speak to Colonel Tritton. You are beginning well, young sirs. If you like, you ought to made a noise in the world. Now, Hill, I must be off."
And the general left the room with the officers, while the boys were stammering out their thanks.
"Where did you dress up, boys?" Colonel Tritton asked them after the general had ridden off. "You did not come out from camp like this I hope?"
"No, colonel; we changed in that little wood there."
"What have you colored your skins with?"
"We got some iodine from the doctor, sir, and mixed it with water till it was just thick enough to tinge our skin. It will wash pretty well off with plenty of scrubbing, but we mean to use walnut juice when we start; it lasts much longer, and is a better brown."
"I am not sure, boys, that you had not better leave your faces alone, they and your hands are so sunburnt that you would pass well enough, though you must dye your arms and legs. Fortunately, your hair is pretty dark, for you can't well carry dye. Think well over all these things, for your lives may depend on some trifle of this kind. I shall see you at mess."
So saying, Colonel Tritton walked on, leaving the boys to follow at their leisure. Just as they were about to turn off to make for the woods they saw a soldier coming along the road.
"That's Sam, if I am not mistaken, Peter, we will have some fun with him. We can trust him to say nothing in the regiment about meeting us like this."
The two boys accordingly sat down by a low wall by the roadside, and as Sam came up talked away to each other in Spanish. He passed without paying any attention to them. After he had gone a few yards, Tom said in a deep, loud voice, "Sambo." The black halted suddenly, and turned round. First he looked angrily at the boys, then he went to the side of the road and looked over the wall. Then with a very perplexed air he looked up and down the road.
"Who dat have impudence to call dis colored gentleman Sambo," he said to himself. "Some fellow did, dat for sartin, not dose little Spanish trash, dey not know Sam's name, some rascal in regiment; he's hid somewhere. I pound him to squash when I find him."
Muttering thus he turned to proceed on his way, but before he had gone twenty yards, he again heard a deep shout. "Here, you, Sambo."
The black jumped as if he was shot, "My golly," he exclaimed, and then walked back to the boys, who were talking together, shook his head and again looked over the wall. Then he stooped down to the boys, and shook his fist in their faces, "You little debils, you call Sambo, I pound you to squash." The boys both leapt to their feet with an air of intense surprise and alarm, and began to cry out in Spanish.
"No, can't be you," Sam said, "dis chile must be witched, no place for men to hide, sartin not dem boys. Stone wall can't call Sambo all by self, Sam's going out of mind. Oh! Lor, dis berry bad affair," and Sam sat down by the roadside with a face of such perfect bewilderment and dismay that the boys could stand it no longer, but went off together into a scream of laughter, which caused Sam to jump to his feet again. "What you larf for, what you larf for, you little rascals, you play trick, eh? you call Sambo, who taught you dat name?" and he seized the two boys and shook them furiously.
"Oh! Sam, Sam, you will kill us with laughing," Tom got out at last. "Do leave go, man, or we shall choke," and as Sam, astonished, loosed his hold, the boys sat down and laughed till their sides ached.
"Golly," exclaimed the negro, as he looked at them, "Dose boys again. What on earth you do, Massa Tom, Massa Peter, in dose ragged close, what you dress up like two beggars for? Lor! how you take in dis chile, me tink you little Spanish trash, sure enuff." It was some time before the boys could compose themselves, and then Tom made Sam sit close by his side.
"Look here, Sam, this isn't a joke, this is a serious business and before I tell you anything about it, you must promise to keep the secret strictly, as it would do us a great deal of harm if it was known." Sam declared at once that if they tore him to pieces with wild horses he would say nothing. Tom then explained the whole thing to him and Sam at once declared that he would go too.
"Quite impossible, Sam. You do not speak a word of Spanish and although at any of the seaport towns you could pass as a runaway sailor, there could be no possible reason for your wandering about the country with two Spanish boys."
Sam thought for some time. "Now dat berry unlucky Massa Tom, dat Sam play big drum. Big drum fine music, but big drum not go well by self. If Sam had played fiddle, Sam could go, but Sam couldn't go nohow with big drum."
"I should think not, Sam, with the name of the regiment painted on it. No, no, you must stay behind. There won't be any fighting now till the spring, and by that time we shall be back with the regiment."
"But what you do without Sam? who black Massa's boots? who brush his clothes?"
Tom laughed. "These clothes would fall all to pieces, if they were brushed much, Sam, and at present we have no boots to be blacked."
"Where you get dose clothes, Massa Tom," Sam asked, examining with great disgust the rags the boys had on.
"We bought some peasant's clothes about our size, and the first beggar boys we saw we offered to exchange. You should have seen their faces of astonishment. When we got the clothes we made them into a bundle, and took them to the bakehouse, and got the baker to put them into the oven for a few hours to kill anything there might be in them. Now, Sam, it is time for us to be going. It will take us an hour's scrubbing to get the color off us. Be sure you keep our secret."
WITH THE GUERILLAS.
It was on a fine morning at the end of March that a cortege of muleteers and mules left the little town of Alonqua. It was now four months since the Scudamores left the army, and in the intervening time they had tramped through a large portion of Spain. They had carried with them only a dozen or so little despatches done up in tiny rolls of the length and about the thickness of a bodkin, These were sewn inside the lining of their coats, in the middle of the cloth where it was doubled in at the seams, so that, even were the clothes to be examined carefully and felt all over, the chances of detection were slight indeed. They had each, on starting, half a dozen pieces of Spanish gold coin sewn between the thicknesses of leather of the soles of each of their shoes, for they did not start in the beggar clothes in which they had first disguised themselves. Their clothes were, indeed, worn and somewhat patched, but were of stout material, and they wore shoes, but no stockings. They had, indeed, the appearance of Spanish boys of the peasant class. The weather in the north of Spain is often very cold in winter, and the boys felt that, with rags and bare feet, they should suffer severely. All that they had to say and do had been learned by heart. The names and addresses of the agents of the British Government at every town had been laboriously learned before starting, and, as Peter said ruefully, it was worse than a dozen Greek impositions.
At each place of any importance they would find the person to whom they were instructed to apply, would accost him with some password, and would be put up by him while they remained there. When they had gained the intelligence they required—of the number of French troops in the place and its neighborhood, a knowledge always obtained by going round, counting the men on parade, or, in the case of small villages, finding out easily enough from a peasant the number, quartered there, they would write a report on the number the intentions as far as they could learn them, the amount of food in store, and the sentiments of the population, would enclose the despatch in a goose-quill and give it to their host, who was responsible for forwarding it.
In a great number of cases, indeed, the man to whom they were accredited was a muleteer. These men hated the French with a hatred even more deep and deadly than that of other Spaniards, for, in addition to the national causes of hatred, their mules were constantly being requisitioned or seized by the troops and they themselves forced to accompany the army for long distances at a nominal rate of pay for themselves and their animals. Then, too, they were in close connection with the guerillas, for whom they carried goods up into the mountains from the towns, and when the chance came would leave their animals in the mountains and join in cutting off an enemy's convoy. They acted as messengers and spies too, and took their friends in the hills early news of intended movements of the enemy. Many a day had the boys traveled in the company of these muleteers, merry, careless fellows, singing and talking to their mules, apparently the best-natured of men, until something would be said which would recall the hated foe, and then their black eyes would flash, their fingers clutch their knife-handles, and they would pour out long strings of deep Spanish oaths. Great was the surprise of these men on receiving the password from two boys, but they never hesitated an instant in taking them in, in giving them hospitality as long as they remained, and in either accompanying them to the next town, or handing them over to the charge of some comrade going in that direction. Not even to them did the Scudamores ever betray that they were not what they were taken to be, two Spanish boys employed by the English commander as messengers. Often they were questioned how the English had come to entrust important communications to two boys, and their reply always was that their father and mother had fled to Portugal from the French, and were living there near the English lines, and that they had offered their lives in case of their sons' treachery.
This system of hostages seemed probable enough to their questioners, and if the boys' fare was rather harder, and their treatment more unceremonious than it would have been had they said that they were British officers in disguise, they ran far less risk of detection from an accidental word or sign. Indeed it would have been next to impossible for them, had they desired it, to convince any one of their identity. There was no fear now of their accent betraying them. Since they had left the army they had never, even when alone together, spoken in English. They made the rule and kept to it for two reasons, the one being that they found that if they did not get into this habit of always speaking Spanish, they might inadvertently address each other in English, and thus betray themselves; the second, that they wanted to learn to speak absolutely like natives. This they had in the four months thoroughly learned to do. At first their pronunciation and occasional mistakes excited curiosity when asked questions as to the part of Spain from which they had come, but their constant communication with their muleteer friends had quite removed this, and for the last two months not one person had doubted that they were not only Spanish, but that they came from the northern provinces.
Hitherto they had journeyed principally between large towns and over country held by the French, but that part of their work was finished; they had accurately computed the number of the army with which Massena was to advance shortly to besiege Ciudad Rodrigo, and they had now to carry the despatches to the guerilla leaders. Hitherto they had not in a single instance excited suspicion. Not a Frenchman had asked them a question, and no adventure of anything like an exciting nature had taken place. They were now, however, entering into a country entirely different from that which they had hitherto traversed. The northeast of Spain is wild and mountainous, and offers immense natural facilities for irregular warfare. Through the various passes of the Pyrenees lead all the roads from France, whether to Vittoria on the great road to Madrid, or through Navarre to Catalonia. Here and there fortified towns still held out against the French, and the town of Gerona, in Catalonia, had only fallen after a six months' regular siege, and a desperate defense which fully rivals that of Saragossa. Is it not a little singular that the Spaniards, who in the open field were, with a few remarkable exceptions, absolutely contemptible, yet frequently defended towns with wonderful fortitude, courage, and desperation. It may, indeed, be said that in every siege where the Spaniards were commanded by brave and resolute chiefs they behaved admirably. This great range of hill country was the stronghold of the guerillas, and every convoy from France had to be protected by a large force, and even then often suffered greatly from the harassing attacks of their active enemies.
The bands of the guerilla chiefs differed greatly in strength, varying from merely ten or a dozen men to three or four thousand, and indeed each band varied continually. The men, when not required, would scatter to their homes, cultivate their little patches of ground, and throw down the spade and take up the rifle again when they heard of a convoy to cut off, or an invading column to beat back. The bands, too, would vary in proportion to the renown of their chiefs. An energetic man, who, at the head of a handful, had performed some daring feats, would find himself a week afterwards the leader of many hundreds, while a chief who was slow and dilatory would find his band melt away like snow in summer.
The character of the warfare depended much upon the character of the French generals. A few of these kept the troops under their command sternly in hand, would permit no plundering, and insisted upon their fair treatment of the Spaniards. These in turn wanted nothing better than to remain quietly in their homes, and the guerilla bands would melt away to nothing. Other generals, furious at the savage nature of the warfare, and the incessant toil and loss entailed upon their troops, allowed the latter to do as they pleased, and burning houses and dead bodies marked their course. Then the peasantry, now turned guerillas, retaliated as savagely, giving no quarter, sacrificing all prisoners, and putting the wounded to death, sometimes with torture. On both sides horrible atrocities were committed.
The guerillas were armed partly with rifles and carbines, partly with muskets landed on the coast by the British Government, who also, from time to time, sent powder and money to assist them to continue their resistance to the French. Although nowhere really formidable, yet, being scattered over a great extent of country, these bands occupied very large bodies of French troops, who would otherwise have been disposable for general operations in the field. The English commander-in-chief had, of course, no shadow of authority over the guerillas, or, indeed, over any of the Spanish troops, and his communication to them simply asked what arms and ammunition they required, and begged them to send him a list of the number of men they could each throw on the French communications and lines of retreat in case he should find himself in a position to make a general advance against them. He also recommended most strongly the bearers of the despatch to their care. It was to the chief known as Nunez that they were now bound. The mule train was nominally destined for Vittoria, to which town the leader had got a pass, specifying the number of mules and the nature of the goods they carried, from the French commandant at Alonqua, for no one was allowed to take the goods about the country without a pass, in order to prevent supplies being forwarded to the mountains. This pass, however, only mentioned twelve mules with four drivers, and this was the number which started from Alonqua. Another score of mules, however, joined them at a short distance from the town where a by-road turned off. Some of these had gone out from the town unloaded, as if taken out to graze, others had not entered the town, but had come direct from the sea-coast by by-paths with powder, and had been awaiting the departure of Garcias, the name of the leader of the party. They had eight men with them, all armed to the teeth.
"Is it all right, Garcias?"
"All right," the leader said; "they have sent out their squadrons on the other road, so I think we are safe for to-day."
"What boys have you got there with you?"
"They have business with Nunez; letter from the coast."
The cavalcade was now in motion again, and wound gradually up into the hills. Presently they came to a point where four roads met. A clump of trees grew hard by, and the boys gave a start of horror at seeing the bodies of six French soldiers swinging from them. "Ay, that's Nunez's work, I expect," Garcias said coolly. "There were three of his men swinging there last week, so as a lesson he has hung up six of the French. He is a rough boy to play with, is Nunez."
At sunset the party slept in a small farm, and at daybreak continued their journey. They were now in the heart of the mountains, and their path lay sometimes up deep ravines, sometimes along rocky ledges. At last, about midday, they entered a valley in which stood a small village. "That's Nunez's head-quarters to-day," Garcias said; "to-morrow he may be no one knows where."
"But does he have to sally out by the wretched road by which we have come?" Tom asked.
"No, no," Garcias replied; "he would not catch much prey that way. There are three other ways out of the valley. That winding path you see there leads up to Santona. That road on the other side leads out on to the plain, and thence to Vittoria; while the footpath over the brow opposite leads right down into the wide valley through which the main north road runs. So you see this is a handy spot. From that brow we can see the convoys going to and from France, and can pour down upon them if they are weak; while, if a column is sent in search of us, we can vanish away long before they can catch us. Nunez does not use the direct road over the brow for his attack, but follows the Santona or Vittoria road for a while, and then makes a swoop round. He does not want to bring the French up to this village, for his family and the families of many of the men live here."
As they approached the village, they found that there was a good deal of bustle going on. Armed men were coming out of the cottages, and gathering in a group round a rough stone cross, which stood in the center of a sort of green. "We are just in time," Garcias said; "Nunez is starting on some expedition or other."
When they reached the spot there were nearly two hundred men assembled. They greeted Garcias with shouts of welcome as he arrived. "Ah, ah! Garcias, just in time. Our last skin of wine was emptied last night; we will bring some more up to-morrow; but if you had not come we should have had to start thirsty, and that's unlucky besides being unpleasant."
"Where is Nunez!" Garcias asked.
"Here he comes," was the reply; and the boys turning saw a figure approaching, which by no means answered to the expectation of the celebrated guerilla chief. He was small and almost humpbodied, but very broad. His head seemed too large for his body, and a pair of fierce eyes gleamed out from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. His mustache was thin and bristly and his month wide, but with thin lips. The boys could understand the reputation for cruelty and mercilessness which attached to this sinister-looking figure, but there was none of the savage power which they had expected to see in so celebrated a leader.
"Any news, Garcias?" he asked shortly, as he came up.
"None, captain, except that these boys have brought some despatches for you from the English Lord."
Nunez looked sharply at them, and held out his hand without speaking. Tom gave him the little quill.
The guerilla opened it, read the contents, and, saying briefly, "An answer to-morrow," strode on to his men, and in a few minutes they were defiling out at the end of the valley.
"That hardly seems a strong enough body to attack a French convoy, Garcias," Tom remarked.
"No, it would not be, but there is only a part of his band here; the rest will join him at some place agreed on—perhaps ten miles from here. I believe he has about thousand men under his orders. Now come along; we shall be none the worse for dinner," and, leaving his men to unload the mules, he led the way into the little posada, or inn.
"Ah! Mother Morena," he said to an old woman who was crouching near a blazing wood fire, "warming yourself as usual; it's well you've a good fire, for you will be able to get us some dinner all the more quickly. Twelve of us altogether, and all as hungry as wolves."
"Ah!" exclaimed the old woman crossly; "it seems as if I were never to have an hour's quiet, just as all that roaring, greedy lot, with their Mother Morena here and Mother Morena there, and their grumbling at the olla, and their curses and their quarrels, are off, and I think I am going to have a quiet afternoon, then you come in with your twelve hungry wolves."
"Ah! mother, but wolves don't pay, and we do, you see."
The frugal supper over, the boys laid down on the benches, and were soon asleep. The next day passed slowly, for the band were not expected to return until late at night—perhaps not until the next morning, as the pass where the attack would be made was some fifteen miles off, and the convoy might not pass there until late in the afternoon. The boys soon made friends with some of the women and children of the place, to whom they told stories of the great cities of the plain, and of the great water which washed the shores of Spain. The greater portion of the Spanish peasantry are incredibly ignorant, and very few of the inhabitants of this village had ever gone beyond the mountains. Walking about in the village, but apparently mixing but very little in the games of the other children, were two little girls, whose gay dress of rich silk seemed strangely out of place in such a spot.
Tom asked one of the women who they were, and she replied, with a toss of the head, "They are the captain's children. The last time the band went out they found among the baggage and brought up here, the dresses of the children of some fine lady, and the captain kept them all as part of his share, just as if there were no children in the village whom it would become a great deal better than those stuck-up little things. Not," she said, softening a little, "that they were not nice enough before they got these things; but since they came their heads have been quite turned by the finery and they are almost too grand to speak to their old playfellows."
"Is their mother alive?"
"No, poor thing, she was killed by the French when the village she lived in was burned by them, because some of them were found hung in the neighborhood. The captain was away at the time and the children were out in the woods. When he came back he found them crying by the side of their mother's body, in the middle of the burning village. So then he took to the mountains, and he never spares a Frenchman who falls into his hands. He has suffered, of course, but he brought it upon himself, for he had a hand in hanging the French soldiers, and now he is a devil. It will be bad for us all; for some day, when the French are not busy with other things, they will rout us out here, and then who can blame them if they pay us for all the captain's deeds? Ah! me, they are terrible times, and Father Predo says he thinks the end of the world must be very near. I hope it will come before the French have time to hunt us down."
The boys had a hard struggle not to smile, but the woman spoke so earnestly and seriously, that they could only shake their heads in grave commiseration for her trouble; and then Tom asked, "Is the captain very fond of the children?"
"He worships them," the woman said; "he has no heart and no pity for others. He thinks no more of blood than I do of water; but he is as tender as a woman with them. One of them was ill the other day—a mere nothing, a little fever—and he sat by her bedside for eight days without ever lying down."
"I suppose," Tom said, "they never bring prisoners up here?"
"Yes, they do," the woman said; "not common soldiers; they kill them at once; but sometimes officers, if they want to exchange them for some of ours who may have been taken, or if they think they are likely to get a high ransom for them. But there, it always comes to the same thing; there, where you see that mound on the hillside, that's where they are. They blindfold them on their way up here, lest they might find their way back after all. Only one or two have ever gone down again. I wish they would finish with them all down below; they are devils and heretics these French; but I don't care about seeing them killed. Many of us do, though, and we have not many diversions up here, so I suppose it's all for the best."
"I wish that fellow had given us our answer before he went away," Tom said to Peter when they were alone. "I hope he won't bring any prisoners up here; these massacres are frightful, and one side seems as bad as the other. Well, in another month we shall have finished with all this work, and be making for the frontier again. Shan't I be glad when we catch sight of the first red-coats!"
In the middle of the night the boys were roused by a general bustle, and found that a messenger had just arrived, saying that the expedition had been successful, that a portion of the enemy had been cut off, their rear-guard destroyed, and that the whole band would be up soon after daylight. The village was astir early, but it was not until nine o'clock that the guerilla band arrived. The boys saw at a glance that they were stronger in numbers than when they started, and that with them were some twenty or thirty baggage animals.
The women flocked out to meet them with shrill cries of welcome. The booty taken was not of any great value in money, but was more valuable than gold to the guerillas.
Each one of the band carried, in addition to his own piece, a new French musket, while in the barrels on the mules were powder and ball; there were bales of cloth, and some cases of brandy and champagne, and a few boxes and portmanteaus of officers' baggage. In the rear of all, under a strong guard, were two French officers, both wounded, a lady and a child of some seven or eight years old.
After a boisterous greeting to their wives, the band broke up, and scattered over the village, three or four men remaining to guard the captives, who were told to sit down against a wall.
The whole band were soon engaged in feasting, but no one paid the least attention to the prisoners. The lady had sunk down exhausted, with the little girl nestled close to her, the officers faint and pale from loss of blood, leaned against the wall. One of them asked the guards for some water, but the men paid no attention to the request, answering only with a savage curse. Tom and Peter, who were standing by, immediately went to the inn, filled a jug with water, and, taking a drinking horn and some bread, went back. One of the guards angrily ordered them back as they approached.
"I am not going to free them," Tom said, soothingly; "there can be no reason why they should die of thirst, if they are enemies."
"I am thirsty myself," one of the guard said, "and it does us good to see them thirst."
"What, has no one brought you anything to drink?" Tom said, in a tone of surprise. "Here, Peter, you give this bread and water to these prisoners; I will run to Mother Morena's and bring some wine for the guard."
The guard would not allow Peter to approach the captives until Tom arrived with a large jug of wine, and a cold fowl, which he had obtained at the inn. These the Spaniards accepted, and allowed the boys to give the water to the prisoners. All drank eagerly, with every expression of thankfulness, the lady seizing Peter's hand and kissing it as he handed the horn to the child. The lady was a very bright, pretty woman, though now pale and worn with fatigue and emotion, and the child was a lovely little creature.
The boys, on leaving the prisoners, hurried to Garcias.
"What are they going to do with the prisoners, Garcias?"
"They have brought them up here to exchange for Nunez's lieutenant, who was taken last week. One of the men went off last night to Vittoria with a letter to offer to exchange. One of the officers is a colonel, and the young one a captain. The lady is, they say, the wife of General Reynier."
"Then they are safe," Tom said joyfully, "for, of course the French would exchange a guerilla against three such prisoners."
"Yes," Garcias said, "they are safe if Vagas has not been shot before the messenger gets to Vittoria. The messenger will hear directly he gets there, and if they have finished Vagas, he will come straight back, for his letter will be of no use then."
"But the French would pay a ransom for them."
"Yes; but the captain is never fond of ransoming, and if the news comes that Vagas is shot it is all up with them."
"But they will never murder a woman and child in cold blood!" Tom said, in tones of indignant horror.
"Women are killed on both sides," the muleteer said, placidly. "I don't hold to it myself, but I don't know, after all, why a woman's life is a bit more precious than a man's. Vagas's wife and children are here, too, and if the news comes of his death, she would stir the band up to kill the prisoners, even if the captain wanted to save them, which he certainly will not do."
"When is the messenger expected back?"
"If he goes to Vittoria and finds Vagas is alive, and arranges for the exchange, he won't be back till late to-night, perhaps not till to-morrow; but, if he hears, either on the way or directly he gets there, that he is dead, he may be back this afternoon." Soon after this conversation Garcias was sent for to the chief, and returned with a small note, which he handed to the boys as the answer to the despatch, and urged them to go at once. The boys said that they could not leave until they saw the end of this terrible drama which was passing before their eyes. It was early in the afternoon when a man was seen coming along the path from Vittoria. A hundred eager eyes examined him, and ere long it was declared as certain that it was the messenger. The boys' heart sank within them as they saw the fierce look cast by the Spaniards in the direction of the prisoners, for every one in the village was well aware of the meaning of this early return. The boys had arranged upon the course they would pursue, and they at once hurried to Garcias.
"Please come with us at once to Nunez. We want to see him before the messenger arrives."
"I will come with you," Garcias said; "but if you think that any talking of yours will persuade Nunez to move out of his way, you are mistaken. It is more likely to cost you your own lives, I can tell you; however, I gave you the promise I would do my best for you when you started with me, and I will go with you now, though what you want to interfere for here is more than I can make out. Pshaw! what matters two or three of these accursed French, more or less?"
As they neared the chief's house they saw him coming towards them. His brow was as black as thunder; he was evidently prepared for the news of his lieutenant's death.
"These messengers want to speak to you for a moment," Garcias said.
The chief stopped with an impatient gesture.
"Senor," Tom said, with a dignity which surprised the chief; "we are not what we seem. We are two English officers, and we have come to beg of you, to implore you, not to tarnish the cause for which you fight by shedding the blood of women and children."
The boys had agreed that it would be altogether hopeless to try to save the French officers.
"British officers, indeed," exclaimed Nunez, "a likely story. Do you know them as such, Garcias?"
"No," Garcias said bluntly, "I never guessed at it; but now they say so, I think it's likely enough, for they don't seem to see things in the same way as other people."
"I can give you proof of it," Tom said, calmly, pulling up the sleeve of his coat, and showing a cicatrix in his forearm. Taking a knife from his pocket, he cut into the skin, and drew forth a tiny silver tube. This he opened, and handed to Nunez a paper signed by Lord Wellington, declaring the bearers to be British officers, and requesting all loyal Spaniards to give them every assistance.
The captain read it through, and flung it down. "You may be officers," he said contemptuously; "but if you were Lord Wellington himself, I would not spare these accursed French. Listen!" and as he spoke a howl of rage ran from the other end of the village, and told too plainly the nature of the tidings the messenger had brought.
"I again protest," Tom said firmly. "I protest, as a British officer, and in the name of humanity, against this cold-blooded murder of a woman and child. It is a disgrace to Spain, a disgrace to the cause, it is a brutal and cowardly act."
The guerilla furiously drew a pistol; but Garcias placed himself between him and Tom. "I have promised him a safe conduct," he said, "and have given my word for his safety. He is only a boy, and a young fool; don't trouble with him."
Fortunately at this moment, for the guerilla was still irresolutely handling his pistol, a crowd was seen coming towards them, headed by a woman who seemed frantic with rage and grief. All were shouting, "Death to the assassins! death to the French!" The chief at once moved forward to meet them.
Tom and Peter gave a significant glance towards each other, and then Tom turned to go back towards the house which Nunez inhabited, while Peter hurried towards the spot where the prisoners were kept. Already a crowd was assembling who were talking threateningly at the French officers. Peter made his way through them until he stood by the lady, who, with her child clinging to her neck, looked in terror at the angry crowd, whose attention, however, was directed to the officers, who stood looking calmly indifferent to their threats and insults.
"Do you speak Spanish, madam?" Peter asked, leaning over her.
She shook her head.
"Do you speak English?" he asked, in that tongue.
"Yes, yes, a little." the lady said, eagerly; "who are you? What is this fierce crowd about?"
"Hush!" Peter said. "I am a friend. Listen. In a few minutes they are going to shoot you all." The lady gave a stifled cry, and pressed her child close to her. "Remember, when they come to you, ask for a priest; gain a few minutes, and I hope to save you and the child."
So saying, he slipped away into the crowd again. He had scarcely done so when Nunez arrived, accompanied by many of his men. The crowd fell back, and he strode up to the French officers. "French dogs," he said, "you are to die. I spared you to exchange, but your compatriots have murdered my lieutenant, and so now it's your turn. You may think yourselves lucky that I shoot you, instead of hanging you. Take them to that wall," he said, pointing to one some twenty yards off.
The Frenchmen understood enough Spanish to know that their fate was sealed. Without a word they took each other's hands, and marched proudly to the spot pointed out. Here, turning round, they looked with calm courage at the Spaniards, who formed up with leveled muskets at a few paces distance. "Vive la France! Tirez," said the elder, in a firm, voice, and in a moment they fell back dead, pierced with a dozen balls.
Peter had turned away when Nunez appeared on the scene, to avoid seeing the murder, and with his eyes fixed in the direction in which Tom had gone, he listened almost breathlessly to what should come. The French lady had sat immovable, cowering over her child, while her countrymen were taken away and murdered. As Nunez passed where she crouched, he said to two of his men, "Put your muskets to their heads, and finish them!" As the men approached, she lifted up her face, pale as death, and said,—
"Un pretre, uno padre!"
"She wants a priest," the men said, drawing back; "she has a right to absolution."
There was a murmur of assent from those around, and two or three started to the priest's house, situated only a few yards away, being one of the end houses of the village. The priest soon appeared, came up to the spot, and received orders to shrive the Frenchwoman. He attempted a remonstrance, but was silenced by a threat from Nunez, and knowing from experience of such scenes that his influence went for nothing with Nunez and his fierce band, he bent over her, and the crowd drew back, to let them speak unheard. At this moment, to Peter's intense relief, he saw Tom approaching with the captain's two children walking beside him. Absorbed in what was passing before them, no one else looked round, and Peter slipped away and joined his brother. They came within twenty yards of the crowd, and then paused.