Story type: Literature
I ENTER THE CELLARS.
It happened on a broiling afternoon in July 1812, and midway in a fortnight of exquisite weather, during which Wellington and Marmont faced each other across the Douro before opening the beautiful series of evolutions–or, rather, of circumvolutions–which ended suddenly on the 22nd, and locked the two armies in the prettiest pitched battle I have lived to see.
For the moment neither General desired a battle. Marmont, thrust back from Salamanca, had found a strong position where he could safely wait for reinforcements, and had indeed already collected near upon forty thousand of all arms, when, on the 8th, Bonnet marched into camp from Asturias with another six thousand infantry. He had sent, too, to borrow some divisions from Caffarelli’s Army of the North. But these he expected in vain: for Bonnet’s withdrawal from Asturias had laid bare the whole line of French communication, and so frightened Caffarelli for the safety of his own districts that he at once recalled the twelve thousand men he was moving down to the Douro, and in the end sent but a handful of cavalry, and that grudgingly.
All this I had the honour to predict to Lord Wellington just twelve hours before Bonnet’s arrival on the scene. I staked my reputation that Caffarelli (on whom I had been watching and waiting for a month past) would not move. And Lord Wellington on the spot granted me the few days’ rest I deserved–not so much in joy of the news (which, nevertheless, was gratifying) as because for the moment he had no work for me. The knot was tied. He could not attack except at great disadvantage, for the fords were deep, and Marmont held the one bridge at Tordesillas. His business was to hold on, covering Salamanca and the road back to Portugal, and await Marmont’s first move.
The French front stretched as a chord across an arc of the river, which here takes a long sweep to the south; and the British faced it around this arc, with their left, centre, and right, upon three tributary streams–the Guarena, Trabancos, and Zapardiel–over which last, and just before it joins the Douro, towers the rock of Rueda, crowned with a ruinated castle.
Upon this rock–for my quarters lay in face of it, on the opposite bank of the stream–I had been gazing for the best part of an idle afternoon. I was comfortable; my cigarritos lay within reach; my tent gave shade enough; and through the flapway I found myself watching a mighty pretty comedy, with the rock of Rueda for its back-scene.
A more satisfactory one I could not have wished, and I have something of a connoisseur’s eye. To be sure, the triangular flapway narrowed the picture, and although the upstanding rock and castle fell admirably within the frame, it cut off an animated scene on the left, where their distant shouts and laughter told me that French and British were bathing together in the river below and rallying each other on the battles yet to be fought. For during these weeks, and indeed through the operations which followed up to the moment of fighting, the armies behaved less like foes than like two teams before a cricket-match, or two wrestlers who shake hands and afterwards grin amicably as they move in circles seeking for a hitch. As I lay, however, the bathing-place could only be brought into view by craning my neck beyond the tent-door: and my posture was too well chosen to be shifted. Moreover, I had a more singular example of these amenities in face of me, on the rock of Rueda itself.
The cliff, standing out against the sun’s glare like ivory beneath the blue, and quivering with heat, was flecked here and there with small lilac shadows; and these shadows marked the entrances of the caves with which Rueda was honeycombed. I had once or twice resolved to visit these caves; for I had heard much of their renown, and even (although this I disbelieved) that they contained wine enough to intoxicate all the troops in the Peninsula. Wine in abundance they certainly contained, and all the afternoon men singly and in clusters had been swarming in and out of these entrances like flies about a honeypot. For whatever might be happening on the Trabancos under Lord Wellington’s eye, here at Rueda, on the extreme right, discipline for the while had disappeared: and presumably the like was true of Marmont’s extreme left holding the bridge of Tordesillas. For from the bridge a short roadway leads to Rueda; and among the figures moving about the rock, diminished by distance though they were, I counted quite a respectable proportion of Frenchmen. No one who loves his calling ever quite forgets it: and though no one could well have appeared (or indeed felt) lazier, I was really giving my eye practice in discriminating, on this ant-hill, the drunk from the sober, and even the moderately drunk from the incapable.
There could be no doubt, at any rate, concerning one little Frenchman whom two tall British grenadiers were guiding down the cliff towards the road. And against my will I had to drop my cigarette and laugh aloud: for the two guides were themselves unsteady, yet as desperately intent upon the job as though they handled a chest of treasure. Now they would prop him up and run him over a few yards of easy ground: anon, at a sharp descent, one would clamber down ahead and catch the burden his comrade lowered by the collar, with a subsidiary grip upon belt or pantaloons. But to the Frenchman all smooth and rugged came alike: his legs sprawled impartially: and once, having floundered on top of the leading Samaritan with a shock which rolled the pair to the very verge of a precipice, he recovered himself, and sat up in an attitude which, at half a mile’s distance, was eloquent of tipsy reproach. In short, when the procession had filed past the edge of my tent-flap, I crawled out to watch: and then it occurred to me as worth a lazy man’s while to cross the Zapardiel by the pontoon bridge below and head these comedians off upon the highroad. They promised to repay a closer view.
So I did; gained the road, and, seating myself beside it, hailed them as they came.
“My friend,” said I to the leading grenadier, “you are taking a deal of trouble with your prisoner.”
The grenadier stared at his comrade, and his comrade at him. As if by signal they mopped their brows with their coat-sleeves. The Frenchman sat down on the road without more ado.
“Prisoner?” mumbled the first grenadier.
“Ay,” said I. “Who is he? He doesn’t look like a general of brigade.”
“Devil take me if I know. Who will he be, Bill?”
Bill stared at the Frenchman blankly, and rooted him out of the dust with his toe. “I wonder, now! ‘Picked him up, somewheres–Get up, you little pig, and carry your liquor like a gentleman. It was Mike intojuced him.”
“I did not,” said Mike.
“Very well, then, ye did not. I must have come by him some other way.”
“It was yourself tripped over him in the cellar, up yandhar.” He broke off and eyed me, meditating a sudden thought. “It seems mighty queer, that–speaking of a cellar as ‘up yandhar.’ Now a cellar, by rights, should be in the ground, under your fut.”
“And so it is,” argued Bill; “slap in the bowels of it.”
“Ah, be quiet wid your bowels! As I was saying, sor, Bill tripped over the little fellow: and the next I knew he was crying to be tuk home to camp, and Bill swearing to do it if it cost him his stripes. And that is where I come into this fatigue job: for the man’s no friend of mine, and will not be looking it, I hope.”
“Did I so?” Bill exclaimed, regarding himself suddenly from outside, as it were, and not without admiration. “Did I promise that? Well, then”–he fixed a sternly disapproving stare on the Frenchman– “the Lord knows what possessed me; but to the bridgehead you go, if I fight the whole of Clausel’s division single-handed. Take his feet, Mike; I’m a man of my word. Hep!–ready is it? For’ard!”
For a minute or so, as they staggered down the road, I stared after them; and then upon an impulse mounted the track by which they had descended.
It was easy enough, or they had never come down alive; but the sun’s rays smote hotly off the face of the rock, and at one point I narrowly missed being brained by a stone dislodged by some drunkard above me. Already, however, the stream of tipplers had begun to set back towards the camp, and my main difficulty was to steer against it, avoiding disputes as to the rule of the road. I had no intention of climbing to the castle: my whim was–and herein again I set my training a test–to walk straight to the particular opening from which, across the Zapardiel, I had seen my comedians emerge.
I found it, not without difficulty–a broad archway of rock, so low that a man of ordinary stature must stoop to pass beneath it; with, for threshold, a sill of dry fine earth which sloped up to a ridge immediately beneath the archway, and on the inner side dipped down into darkness so abruptly that as I mounted on the outer side I found myself staring, at a distance of two yards or less, into the face of an old man seated within the cave, out of which his head and shoulders arose into view as if by magic.
“Ah!” said he calmly. “Good evening, senor. You will find good entertainment within.” He pointed past him into absolute night, or so it seemed to my dazzled eyes.
He spoke in Spanish, which is my native tongue–although not my ancestral one. And as I crouched to pass the archway I found time to speculate on his business in this cavern. For clearly he had not come hither to drink, and as clearly he had nothing to do with either army. At first glance I took him for a priest; but his bands, if he wore them, were hidden beneath a dark poncho fitting tightly about his throat, and his bald head baffled any search for a tonsure. Although a small book lay open on his lap, I had interrupted no reading; for when I came upon him his spectacles were perched high over his brows and gleamed upon me like a duplicate pair of eyes. He was patently sober, too, which perhaps came as the greatest shock of all to me, after meeting so many on my path who were patently the reverse.
I answered his salutation. “But you will pardon me, excellent sir, for saying that you perhaps mistake the entertainment I seek. We gentlemen of Spain are temperate livers, and I will confess that curiosity alone has brought me–or say, rather, the fame of your wonderful cellars of Rueda.”
I put it thus, thinking he might perhaps be some official of the caves or of the castle above. But he let the shot pass. His lean hands from the first had been fumbling with his poncho, to throw back the folds of it in courtesy to a stranger; but this seemed no easy matter, and at a sign from me he desisted.
“I can promise you,” he answered, “nothing more amusing than the group with which you paused to converse just now by the road.”
“Eh? You saw me?”
“I was watching from the path outside; for I too can enjoy a timely laugh.”
No one, I am bound to say, would have guessed it. With his long scrag neck and great moons of spectacles, which he had now drawn down, the better to study me, he suggested an absurd combination of the vulture and the owl.
“Dios! You have good eyes, then.”
“For long distances. But they cannot see Salamanca.” His gaze wandered for a moment to the entrance beyond which, far below and away, a sunny landscape twinkled, and he sighed. But before I could read any meaning in the words or the sigh, his spectacles were turned upon me again. “You are Spanish?” he asked abruptly.
“Of Castile, for that matter; though not, I may own to you, of pure descent. I come from Aranjuez, where a Scottish ancestor, whose name I bear, settled and married soon after the War of Succession.”
“A Scot?” He leaned forward, and his hands, which had been resting on his lap, clutched the book nervously. “Of the Highlands?”
I nodded, wondering at his agitation.
“Even so, senor.”
“They say that all Scotsmen in Spain know one another. Tell me, my son “–he was a priest, then, after all–“tell me, for the love of God, if you know where to find a certain Manuel McNeill, who, I hear, is a famous scout.”
“That, reverend father, is not always easy, as the French would tell you; but for me, here, it happens to be very easy indeed, seeing that I am the unworthy sinner you condescend to compliment.”
“You?” He drew back, incredulous. “You?” he repeated, thrusting the book into his pocket and groping on the rocky soil beside him. “The finger of God, then, is in this. What have I done with my candle? Ah, here it is. Oblige me by holding it–so–while I strike a light.” I heard the rattle of a tinder-box. “They sell these candles”–here he caught a spark and blew–“they sell these candles at the castle above. The quality is indifferent and the price excessive; but I wander at night and pick up those which the soldiers drop–an astonishing number, I can assure you. See, it is lit!” He stretched out a hand and took the candle from me. “Be careful of your footsteps, for the floor is rough.”
“But, pardon me; before I follow, I have a right to know upon what business.”
He turned and peered at me, holding the candle high. “You are suspicious,” he said, almost querulously.
“It goes with my trade.”
“I take you to one who will be joyful to see you. Will that suffice, my son?”
“Your description, reverend father, would include many persons–from the Duke of Ragusa downwards–whom, nevertheless, I have no desire to meet.”
“Well, I will tell you, though I was planning it for a happy surprise. This person is a kinsman of yours–a Captain Alan McNeill.”
I stepped back a pace and eyed him. “Then,” said I, “your story will certainly not suffice; for I know it to be impossible. It was only last April that I took leave of Captain Alan McNeill on the road to Bayonne and close to the frontier. He was then a prisoner under escort, with a letter from Marmont ordering the Governor of Bayonne to clap him in irons and forward him to Paris, where (the Marshal hinted) no harm would be done by shooting him.”
“Then he must have escaped.”
“Pardon me, that again is impossible; for I should add that he was under some kind of parole.”
“A prisoner under escort, in irons–condemned, or at least intended, to be shot–and all the while under parole! My friend, that must surely have been a strange kind of parole!”
“It was, and, saving your reverence, a cursed dirty kind. But it sufficed for my kinsman, as I know to my cost. For with the help of the partidas I rescued him, close to the frontier; and he–like the fool, or like the noble gentleman he was–declined his salvation, released the escort (which we had overpowered), shook hands with us, and rode forward to his death.”
“A brave story.”
“You would say so, did you know the whole of it. There is no man alive whose hand I could grasp as proudly as I grasped his at the last: and no other, alive or dead, of whom I could say, with the same conviction, that he made me at once think worse of myself and better of human nature.”
“He seems, then, to have a mania for improving his fellow-men; for,” said my guide, still pausing with the candle aloft and twinkling on his spectacles, “I assure you he has been trying to make a Lutheran of me!”
Wholly incredulous as I was, this took me fairly between wind and water. “Did he,” I stammered, “did he happen to mention the Scarlet Woman?”
“Several times: though (in justice to his delicacy, I must say it) only in his delirium.”
“He has been ill; almost desperately ill. A case of sunstroke, I believe. Do I understand that you believe sufficiently to follow me?”
“I cannot say that I believe. Yet if it be not Captain Alan McNeill, and if for some purpose which–to be frank with you–I cannot guess, I am being walked into a trap, you may take credit to yourself that it has been well, nay excellently, invented. I pay you that compliment beforehand, and for my kinsman’s sake, or for the sake of his memory, I accept the risk.”
“There is no risk,” answered the reverend father, at once leading the way: “none, that is to say, with me to guide you.”
“There is risk, then, in some degree?”
“We skirt a labyrinth,” he answered quietly. “You will have observed, of course, that no one has passed us or disturbed our talk. To be sure, the archway under which you found me is one of the ‘false entrances,’ as they are called, of Rueda cellars. There are a dozen between this and the summit, and perhaps half a dozen below, which give easy access to the wine-vaults, and in any of which a crowd of goers and comers would have incommoded us. For the soldiers would seem–and very wisely, I must allow–to follow a chart and confine themselves to the easier outskirts of these caves. Wisely, because the few cellars they visit contain Val de Penas enough to keep two armies drunk until either Wellington enters Madrid or Marmont recaptures Salamanca. But they are not adventurous: and the few who dare, though no doubt they penetrate to better wine, are not in the end to be envied. . . . Now this passage of ours is popularly, but quite erroneously, supposed to lead nowhere, and is therefore by consent avoided.”
“Excuse me,” said I, “but it was precisely by this exit that I saw emerge three men as honestly drunk as any three I have met in my life.”
For the moment he seemed to pay no heed, but stooped and held the candle low before his feet.
“The path, you perceive, here shelves downwards. By following it we should find ourselves, after ten minutes or so, at the end of a cul de sac. But see this narrow ledge to the right–pay particular heed to your footsteps here, I pray you: it curves to the right, broadening ever so little before it disappears around the corner: yet here lies the true path, and you shall presently own it an excellent one.” He sprang forward like a goat, and turning, again held the candle low that I might plant my feet wisely. Sure enough, just around the corner the ledge widened at once, and we passed into a new gallery.
“Ah, you were talking of those three drunkards? Well, they must have emerged by following this very path.”
“Excuse me, but for a scout whose fame is acknowledged, you seem fond of a word which Bonaparte (we are told) has banished from the dictionaries. Ask yourself, now. They were assuredly drunk, and your own eyes have assured you there is no wine between us and daylight. My son, I have inhabited Rueda long enough to acquire a faith in miracles, even had I brought none with me. Along this ledge our three drunkards strolled like children out of the very womb of earth. They will never know what they escaped: should the knowledge ever come to them it ought to turn their hair grey then and there.”
“Children and drunkards,” said I. “You know the byword?”
“And might believe it–but for much evidence on the other side.”
But I was following another thought, and for the moment did not hear him closely. “I suppose, then, the owners guard the main entrances, but leave such as this, for instance, to be defended by their own difficulty?”
“Why should any be guarded?” he asked, pausing to untie a second candle from the bunch he had suspended from his belt.
“Eh? Surely to leave all this wine exposed in a world of thieves–“
The reverend father smiled as he lit the new candle from the stump of his old one. “No doubt the wine-growers did not contemplate a visit from two armies, and such very thirsty ones. The peasants hereabouts are abstemious, and the few thieves count for no more than flies. For the rest–“
He was stooping again, with his candle all but level with the ledge and a few inches wide of it. Held so, it cast a feeble ray into the black void below us: and down there–thirty feet down perhaps–as his talk broke in two like a snapped guitar-string, my eyes caught a blur of scarlet.
“For God’s sake,” I cried, “hold the light steady!”
“To what purpose?” he asked grimly. “That is one whom Providence did not lead out to light. See, he is broken to pieces–you can tell from the way he lies; and dead, too. My son, the caves of Rueda protect themselves.”
He shuffled to the end of the ledge, and there, at the entrance of a dark gallery, so low that our heads almost knocked against the rock-roof, he halted again and leaned his ear against the wall on the right.
“Sometimes where the wall is thin I have heard them crying and beating on it with their fists.”
I shivered. The reader knows me by this time for a man of fair courage: but the bravest man on earth may be caught off his own ground, and I do not mind confessing that here was a situation for which a stout parentage and a pretty severe training had somehow failed to provide. In short, as my guide pushed forward, I followed in knock-knee’d terror. I wanted to run. I told myself that if this indeed were a trap, and he should turn and rush upon me, I was as a child at his mercy. And he might do worse: he might blow out the light and disappear. As the gallery narrowed and at the same time contracted in height, so that at length we were crawling on hands and knees, this insanity grew. Two or three times I felt for my knife, with an impulse to drive it through his back, seize the candles and escape: nor at this moment can I say what restrained me.
At length, and after crawling for at least two hundred yards, without any warning he stood erect: and this was the worst moment of all. For as he did so the light vanished–or so nearly as to leave but the feeblest glimmer, the reason being (and I discovered it with a sob) that he stood in an ample vaulted chamber while I was yet beneath the roof of the tunnel. The first thing I saw on emerging beside him was the belly of a great wine-tun curving out above my head, its recurve hidden, lost somewhere in upper darkness: and the first thing I heard was the whip of a bat’s wing by the candle. My guide beat it off.
“Better take a candle and light it from mine. These creatures breed here in thousands–hear them now above us!”
“But what is that other sound?” I asked, and together we moved towards it.
Three enormous tuns stood in the chamber, and we halted by the base of the farthest, where, with a spilt pail beside him, lay a British sergeant of the 36th Regiment tranquilly snoring! That and no other was the sound, and a blesseder I never heard. I could have kicked the fellow awake for the mere pleasure of shaking hands with him. My guide moved on.
“But we are not going to leave him here!”
“Oh, as for that, his sleep is good for hours to come. If you choose, we can pick him up on our return.”
So we left him, and now I went forward with a heart strangely comforted, although on leaving the great cellar I knew myself hopelessly lost. Hitherto I might have turned, and, fortune aiding, have found daylight: but beyond the cellar the galleries ramified by the score, and we walked so rapidly and chose between them with such apparent lack of method that I lost count. My one consolation was the memory of a burly figure in scarlet supine beneath a wine-tun.
I was thinking of him when, at the end of a passage to me indistinguishable from any of the dozen or so we had already followed, my guide put out a hand, and, drawing aside a goatskin curtain, revealed a small chamber with a lamp hanging from the roof, and under the lamp a bed of straw, and upon the bed an emaciated man, propped and holding a book.
His eyes were on the entrance; for he had heard our footsteps. And almost we broke into one cry of joy. It was indeed my kinsman, Captain McNeill!
CAPTAIN MCNEILL’S ADVENTURES.
“But how on earth came you here?” was the unspoken question in the eyes of both of us; and, each reading the reflection of his own, we both broke out together into a laugh–though my kinsman’s was all but inaudible–and after it he lay back on his pillow (an old knapsack) and panted.
“My story must needs be the shorter,” said I; “so let us have it over and get it out of the way. I come from watching Caffarelli in the north, and for the last four days have been taking a holiday and twiddling my fingers in camp here, just across the Zapardiel. Happening this afternoon to stroll to this amazing rock, I fell in with the reverend father here, and most incautiously told him my name: since which he has been leading me a dance which may or may not have turned my hair grey.”
“The reverend father?” echoed Captain Alan.
“He has not,” said I, turning upon my guide, who stood apart with a baffling smile, “as yet done me the honour to reciprocate my weak confidences.”
Captain Alan too stared at him. “Are you a priest, sir?” he demanded.
He was answered by a bow. “You didn’t know it?” cried I. “It’s the one thing he has allowed me to discover.”
“But I understood that you were a scholar, sir–“
“The two callings are not incompatible, I hope?”
“–of the University of Salamanca: a Doctor, too. My memory is yet weak, but surely I had it from your own lips that you were a Doctor?”
“–of Moral Philosophy,” the old man answered with another bow. “Of the College of the Conception–now, alas! destroyed.”
“The care with which you have tended me, sir, has helped my mistake: and now my gratitude for it must help my apologies. I fear I have, from time to time, allowed my tongue to take many liberties with your profession.”
“You have, to be sure, been somewhat hard with us.”
“My prejudice is an honest one, sir.”
“Of that there can be no possible doubt.”
“But it must frequently have pained you.”
“Not the least in the world,” the old Doctor assured him, almost with bonhomie. “Besides, you were suffering from sunstroke.”
My kinsman eyed him; and I could have laughed to watch it–that gaze betrayed a faint expiring hope that, after all, his diatribes against the Scarlet Woman had shaken the Doctor–upon whom (I need scarcely say) they had produced about as much effect as upon the rock of Rueda itself. And I think that, though regretfully, he must at length have realised this, for he sank back on the pillow again with a gentle weariness in every line of his Don Quixote face.
“Ah, yes, from sunstroke! My cousin”–here he turned towards me–“this gentleman–or, as I must now learn to call him, this most reverend Doctor of Philosophy, Gil Gonsalvez de Covadonga–found me some days ago stretched unconscious beside the highroad to Tordesillas, and in two ways has saved my life: first, by conveying me to this hiding-place, for the whole terrain was occupied by Marmont’s troops, and I lay there in my scarlet tunic, a windfall for the first French patrol that might pass; and, secondly, by nursing me through delirium back to health of mind and strength of body.”
“The latter has yet to come, Senor Capitano,” the Doctor interposed.
And I: “My cousin, your distaste for disguise will yet be the death of you. But tell me, what were you doing in this neighbourhood?”
“Why, watching Marmont, to be sure, as my orders were.”
“Your orders? You don’t mean to tell me that Lord Wellington knows of your return!”
“I reported myself to him on the nineteenth of last month in the camp on San Christoval: he gave me my directions that same evening.”
“But, Heavens!” I cried, “it is barely a week ago that I returned from the north and had an hour’s interview with him; and he never mentioned your name, though aware (as he must be) that no news in the world could give me more joy.”
“Is that so, cousin?” He gazed at me earnestly and wistfully, as I thought.
“You know it is so,” I answered, turning my face away that he might not see my emotion.
“As for Lord Wellington’s silence,” Captain Alan went on, after musing a while, “he has a great capacity for it, as you know; and perhaps he has persuaded himself that we work better apart. Our later performances in and around Sabugal might well excuse that belief.”
“But now I suppose you have some message for him. Is it urgent? Or will you satisfy me first how you came here–you, whom I left a prisoner on the road to Bayonne and, as I desperately thought, to execution?”
“There is no message, for I broke down before my work had well recommenced; and Wellington knows of my illness and my whereabouts, so there is no urgency.”
He glanced at the Doctor and so did I. “The reverend father’s behaviour assuredly suggested urgency,” I said.
“And was there none?” asked the old man quietly. “You sons of war chase the oldest of human illusions: to you nothing is of moment but the impact of brutal forces or the earthly cunning which arrays and moves them. To me all this is less hateful than contemptible, in moment not comparable with the joy of a single human soul. Believe me, my sons, although the French have destroyed my peerless University–fortis Salamantina, arx sapientia–I were less eager to hurry God’s avenging hand on them than to bring together two souls which in the pure joy of meeting soar for a moment together, and, fraternising, forget this world. Nay, deny it not: for I saw it, standing by. Least of all be ashamed of it.”
“I am not sure that I understand you, holy father,” I answered. “But you have done us a true service, and shall be rewarded by a confession–from a stubborn heretic, too.” I glanced at Captain Alan mischievously.
My kinsman put up a hand in protest.
“Oh, I will prepare the way for you,” said I: “and by and by you will be astonished to find how easy it comes.” I turned to the Doctor Gonsalvez. “You must know, then, my father, that the Captain and I, though we follow the same business and with degrees of success we are too amiable to dispute about, yet employ very different methods. He, for instance, scorns disguises, while I pride myself upon mine. And, by the way, as a Professor of Moral Philosophy, you are doubtless used to deciding questions of casuistry?”
“For twenty years, more or less, I have presided at the public disputations in the Sala del Claustro of our University.”
“Then perhaps you will resolve me the moral difference between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding under a wig? For, in faith, I can see none.”
“That is matter for the private conscience,” broke in Captain Alan.
“Pardon me,” suggested the Doctor; “you promised me a narrative, I believe.”
“We’ll proceed, then. Our methods–this, at least, is important–were different: which made it the more distressing that the similarity of our names confused us in our enemies’ minds, who grossly mistook us for one and the same person: which not only humiliated us as artists but ended in positive inconvenience. At Sabugal, in April last, after a bewildering comedy of errors, the Duke of Ragusa captured my kinsman here, and held him to account for some escapade of mine, of which, as a matter of fact, he had no knowledge whatever. You follow me?”
The Doctor nodded gravely.
“Well, Marmont showed no vindictiveness, but said in effect, ‘You have done, sir, much damage to our arms, and without stretching a point I might have you hanged for a spy. I shall, however, treat you leniently, and send you to France into safe keeping, merely exacting your promise that you will not consent to be released by any of the partidas on the journey through Spain.’ My cousin might have answered that he had never done an hour’s scouting in his life save in the uniform of a British officer, and nothing whatever to deserve the death of a spy. Suspecting, however, that I might be mixed up in the business, he gave his parole and set out for the frontier under the guard of a young cavalry officer and one trooper.
“Meanwhile I had word of his capture: and knowing nothing of this parole, I posted to Lord Wellington, obtained a bond for twelve thousand francs payable for my kinsman’s rescue, sought out the guerilla chief, Mina, borrowed two men on Wellington’s bond–the scoundrel would lend no more–and actually brought off the rescue at Beasain, a few miles on this side of the frontier. One of our shots broke the young officer’s sword-arm, the trooper was pitched from his horse and stunned, and behold! my kinsman in our hands, safe and sound.
“It was then, reverend father, that I first heard of his parole. He informed me of it, and while thanking me for my succour, refused to accept it. ‘Very well done,’ say you as a Doctor of Morality. But meanwhile I was searching the young officer, and finding a letter upon him from the Duke of Ragusa, broke the seal. ‘Not so well done,’ say you: but again wait a moment. This letter was addressed to the Governor of Bayonne, and gave orders that Captain McNeill, as a spy and a dangerous man, should be forwarded to Paris in irons. There was also a hint that a request for his execution might accompany him to Paris. And this was a prisoner who, on promise of clemency, had given his parole! Now what, in your opinion, was a fair course for our friend here, on proof of this dirty treachery?”
“We will reserve this as Question Number Two,” answered the Doctor gravely, “and proceed with the narrative, which (I opine) goes on to say that Captain McNeill preferred his oath to the excuse for considering it annulled, collected his escort, shook hands with you, and went forward to his fate.”
“A man must save his soul,” Captain McNeill explained modestly.
“You are to me, sir, a heretic (pardon my saying it); which prevents me from taking as cheerful a view as I could wish concerning your soul. But assuredly you saved your honour.”
“Well, I hope so,” the Captain answered, picking up the story: “but really, in the sequel, I had to take some decisions which, obvious as they seemed at the time, have since caused me grave searchings of heart, and upon which I shall be grateful for your opinion.”
“Am I appealed to as a priest?”
“Most certainly not, but as a Professor–a title for which, by the way, we have in Scotland an extraordinary reverence. I rode on, sir, with my escort, and that night we reached Tolosa, where the young Lieutenant– his name was Gerard–found a surgeon to set his bone. He suffered considerable pain, yet insisted next morning upon proceeding with me. I imagine his motives to have been mixed; but please myself with thinking that a latent desire to serve me made one of them. On the other hand, the seal of Marmont’s letter had been broken in his keeping; a serious matter for a young officer, and one which he would naturally desire to defer explaining. At Tolosa he accounted for his wound by some tale of brigands and a chance shot at long range. On the morrow we rode to Irun and crossed the Bidassoa. We were now on French soil. Throughout the morning he had spoken little, and I too had preferred my own thoughts. But now, as we broke our fast and cracked a bottle together at the first tavern on the French shore, I opened fire by asking him if he yet carried the Marshal’s letter with the broken seal. ‘To be sure,’ said he. ‘And what will you do with it?’ I went on. ‘Why, deliver it, I suppose, to the Governor of Bayonne, to whom it is addressed.’ ‘And, when asked to account for the broken seal, you will tell him the exact truth about it and the rescue?’ ‘I must,’ he answered; ‘and I hope my report will help you, sir. It will not be my fault if it does not.’ ‘You are an excellent fellow,’ said I; ‘but it will help me little. You do not know the contents of that letter as I do–not willingly, but because it was read aloud in my presence by the man who opened it.’ And, before he could remonstrate, I had told him its purport. Now, sir, that was not quite fair to the young man, and I am not sure that it was strictly honourable?”
Captain McNeill paused with a question in his voice.”
“Proceed, sir,” said the Doctor: “I reserve this as Question Number Three, remarking only that the young man owed you something for having saved his life.”
“Just so; and that is where the unfairness came in. He was inexpressibly shocked. ‘Why,’ he cried, ‘the Marshal had put you under parole!’ ‘So far as the frontier,’ said I. ‘The promise upon which I swore was that I would not consent to be released by the partidas on my journey through Spain. Once in France, I could not escape his vengeance. Now for this very reason I have a right to interpret my promise strictly, and I consider that during the past half-hour my parole has expired.’ ‘I cannot deny it,’ he allowed, and took a pace or two up and down the room, then halted in front of me. ‘You would suggest, sir, that since this letter was taken from me by the partidas, and you and I alone know that it was restored, I owe you the favour of suppressing it.’ ‘Good Heavens! my young friend,’ I exclaimed, ‘I suggest nothing of the sort. I may ask you to risk for my sake a professional ambition which is very dear to you, but certainly not to imperil your young soul by a falsehood. No, sir, if you will deliver me to the Governor of Bayonne as a prisoner on honourable parole–which I will renew here and extend to the gates of that city only–and will then request an interview for the purpose of delivering your letter and explaining how the seal came to be broken, with Joly’– this was the trooper–‘for witness, you will gain me all the time I hope to need.’ ‘That will be little enough,’ objected he. ‘I must make the most of it,’ said I; ‘and we must manage to time our arrival for the evening, when the Governor will either be supping or at the theatre, that the delay, if possible, may be of his creating.’ ‘I owe you more than this,’ said the ingenuous youth. ‘And I, sir, am even ashamed of myself for asking so much,’ I answered.
“Well, so we contrived it; entered Bayonne at nightfall, presented ourselves at the Citadel, and were, to our inexpressible joy, received by the Deputy-Governor, who heard the Lieutenant’s report and endorsed the false paper of parole which Marmont had given me, and which, in fact, had now expired. The fatal letter Lieutenant Gerard kept in his pocket, while demanding an interview with the Governor himself. This (he was told) could not be granted until the morning–‘the Governor was entertaining that night’–and with a well-feigned reluctance he saluted and withdrew. Outside the Deputy’s door we parted without a word, and at the Citadel gate, having shown my pass, which left me free to seek lodgings in the city, I halted, and, under the sentry’s nose, dropped a note into the Governor’s letter-box. I had written it at Hendaye, and addressed it to the Duke of Ragusa; and it ran–
“MONSIEUR LE MARECHAL,–I send this under cover of the Governor from the city of Bayonne, out of which I hope to escape to-night, having come so far in obedience to my word, which appears to be more sacred than that of a Marshal of France. My escort having been overpowered between Vittoria and Tolosa, I declined the rescue offered me, but not before your letter to the Governor had been broken open and its contents read, in my presence. This letter also I saw restored to its bearer, who during its perusal lay unconscious, of a severe and painful wound in his sword-arm. I beg to assure you that he has behaved in all respects as a gentleman of courage and honour: and, conceiving that you owe me some reparation, I shall rely on you that his prospects as a soldier are not in any way compromised by the miscarriage of your benevolent plans concerning me.”
I laughed aloud, and even the Doctor relaxed his features.
“Bravo, kinsman!” said I. “If Marmont hates one thing more than another it’s to see his majestic image diminished in the looking-glass. But– faith! I’d have kept that letter in my pocket until I was many miles south of Bayonne.”
“South? You don’t suppose I had any intention of escaping towards the Pyrenees? Why, my dear fellow, that’s the very direction in which they were bound to search.”
“Oh, very well,” said I–a trifle nettled, I will confess–“perhaps you preferred Paris!”
“Precisely,” was the cool answer. “I preferred Paris: and having but an hour or two to spare before the hotels closed, I at once inquired at the chief hotels if any French officer were starting that night for the capital. The first-named, if I remember, the Hotel du Sud–I drew blank. At the second, the Trois Couronnes, I was informed that a chaise and four had been ordered by no less a man than General Souham, who would start that night as soon as he returned from supping with the Governor. I waited: the General arrived a few minutes before ten o’clock: I introduced myself–“
“General Souham,” I groaned. “Reverend father, I have not yet tasted the wine of Rueda: it appears to me that the fumes are strong enough. He tells me he introduced himself to General Souham!”
“–and, I assure you, found him excellent company. We travelled three in the chaise–the General, his aide-de-camp, and your fortunate kinsman. A second chaise followed with the General’s baggage. He and the aide-de-camp at times beguiled the road with a game of picquet: for myself, I disapprove of cards.”
“Doubtless you told them so at an early stage?” I suggested, with a last effort at irony.
“I was obliged to, seeing that the General challenged me to a partie; but I did not, I hope, adopt a tone inconsistent with good fellowship. We travelled through to Paris, with a few hours’ break at Orleans–an opportunity which I seized to purchase a suit of clothes more congruous than my uniform with the part I had to play in Paris. I had ventured to ask General Souham’s advice, and he assured me that a British officer, though a prisoner on parole, might incur some risk from the Parisian mob by wearing his uniform in public.”
“Cousin,” said I, “henceforth pursue your tale without interruption. There was a time when, in my folly, I presumed to criticise your methods. I apologise.”
“On leaving the tailor’s shop I was accosted by a wretched creature who had seen me alight from the chaise in His Majesty’s uniform, and had followed, but did not venture to introduce himself until I emerged in a less compromising garb. He was, it appeared, a British agent–and a traitor to his own country–and I gathered that a part of his dirty trade lay in assisting British prisoners to break their parole. He assumed that I travelled on parole, and insinuated that I might have occasion to break it: and, with all the will in the world to crack his head, I let the mistake and suspicion pass. For a napoleon I received the address of a Parisian agent in the Rue Carcassonne, whose name I will confide in you, in case you should ever require his services. For truly, although I had some difficulty in persuading him that I broke no faith in seeking to escape from France (a point in which self-respect obliged me to insist, though he himself treated it with irritating nonchalance), this agent proved a zealous fellow, and served me well.
“He fell in, too, with my proposals, complimented me on their boldness, and advanced me money to further them. I took a lodging au troisieme in the Faubourg St. Honore, and for a fortnight walked Paris without an attempt at concealment, frequenting the cafes, and spending my evenings at the theatre. Once or twice I encountered Souham himself, with whom I had parted on the friendliest terms: but he did not choose to recognise me–perhaps he had his good-natured suspicions. I lived unchallenged, though walking all the while on a razor’s edge. I had reckoned on two fair chances in my favour. There was a chance that the Governor of Bayonne, on finding himself tricked, would for his own security suppress Marmont’s letter, trusting that the affair would pass without inquiry: and there was the further chance that Marmont himself, on receipt of my note, would remember the magnanimity which (to do him justice) he usually has at call, and give orders whistling off the pursuit. At any rate, I spent a fortnight in Paris; and no man questioned or troubled me.
“On the same morning that I paid my second weekly bill the agent called on me with a capital plan of escape, which (being a facetious fellow) he announced as follows: ‘I wish you good morning, Mr. Buck,’ he began. ‘Sir,’ I answered, ‘I have no claim to such a designation. My pleasures in Paris have been entirely respectable, and I dislike familiarity.’ ‘Mr. Jonathan Buck, I should have said.’ ‘Sir,’ I corrected him, ‘if your clients are so numerous that you confuse their names, I must remind you that mine is McNeill.’ ‘Pardon me,’ he replied, ‘you have this morning inherited that of an American citizen who died suddenly last evening in an obscure lodging near the Barriere de Pantin; and, in addition, a passport now waiting for him at the Foreign Office, if you have the courage to claim it. You resemble the deceased sufficiently to answer a passport’s description: and if you secure it, I advise a speedy departure, with Nantes for your objective.’ Accordingly, that same evening I left Paris for the Loire.”
“You had the coolness to apply for that passport?”
“And the good fortune to obtain it. If anything, my dear fellow, deserves the degree of astonishment your face expresses, it should rather be my consenting to use disguise, and so breaking through a self-denying ordinance on which you have sometimes rallied me. Suspense–the danger from Bayonne hourly anticipated–had perhaps shaken my nerves. To be brief, I travelled to Nantes as Mr. Jonathan Buck, and in that name took passage in a vessel bound for Philadelphia and on the point (as I understood) of lifting anchor.
“I slept that night on board the Minnie Dwight–this was the vessel’s name–in full hope that my troubles were at an end. But next morning her captain came to me with a long face and a report that some hitch had occurred between him and the port authorities over his clearing-papers. ‘And how long will this detain us?’ I asked, cutting short an explanation too technical for my understanding. He answered that he had been to his Consul to protest, but could promise nothing short of a week’s delay.
“Well, I saw nothing for it but to shut the cabin-door, make a clean breast of my fears, and desire him to help me in devising some new plan. He was a good fellow, and ingenious too; for after he had dashed up my hopes with the news that a similar embargo lay on all foreign ships in the port, his face cleared, and, said he, ‘There’s no help for it, but you must play the sea-lawyer and I the brutal tyrant. It’s hard, too, upon a man who treats his crew like his own children, and victuals his ship like an eating-house: but a seaman’s rig and forty dollars is all you need, and with this you’ll fare off to the American Consul’s and swear that I’ve made life a burden to you.’ ‘Why forty dollars?’ I asked. He winked. ‘That’s earnest money that when you reach the United States you’ll have the law of me for ill-usage.’ ‘And what shall I get in exchange?’ ‘You will get a certificate enabling you to pass from port as a discharged sailor seeking a ship.’ I thanked him warmly, and agreed; climbed down the ship’s side in my new rig, waved an affecting farewell to my benevolent tyrant, and sought the American Consul who (it seemed) was used to discontented seamen. At all events, he accepted without suspicion his share in the dishonouring comedy, took my forty dollars, and made out my certificate.”
Here the Captain glanced at Doctor Gonsalvez, who blinked.
Said I: “Even a Protestant must sometimes understand the relief of confession.”
“Armed with this,” he went on, “I made my way to the mouth of the Loire, to St. Nazaire, between which and Le Croisic lies a small island where, in the present weakness of the French marine, English ships of war are suffered to water unmolested. For ten napoleons I bribed an old fisherman to row me out at night to this island, which we reached at daybreak, and to our dismay found the anchorage empty. We cast our nets, however, for a blind, and taking a few fish on our way, worked slowly down to the south-west, where my comrade (and a faithful one he proved) had heard reports of an English frigate nosing about the coast. Sure enough, between breakfast and noon we caught sight of her topmasts: but to reach her we must pass in full view and almost within point-blank range of a coast battery. We were scarcely abreast of it when a round-shot plumped into the sea ahead of us and brought us to, and almost at once a boatful of soldiers put off to board us.
“Their object, it turned out, was merely to warn us not to pass the battery, or the chances were five to one that the Englishman would capture us. In no way discomposed, my friend maintained that we (he passed me off as his son) must either fish or starve; that we had come a long distance, knew every inch of the coast, and ran no danger. He backed this up by bribing the soldiers with our whole morning’s catch, and in the end they contented themselves by insisting that we should wait under the battery until nightfall and so depart. And this we did: but in the meanwhile, pretending our anxiety to avoid her, we cross-questioned the soldiers so precisely on the Englishman’s bearings that, when darkness fell and we slipped our anchor, we ran straight down on her without the slightest difficulty. She was the Agile sloop of twenty-four guns, and from her deck I waved good-bye to the fisherman, scarcely more delighted by my safety than he by his napoleons, which in my gratitude I had raised to fifteen.
“The Agile landed me in Plymouth without mishap: and so end my adventures. I ought to add, however, that, though my own conscience held no reproach for my trick upon Marmont, I sought and obtained permission from the War Office to select a prisoner of my own rank and exchange him with France; and with him I sent a precise account, which will afford some amusement to the Duke of Ragusa’s enemies if he happen to have any at headquarters. You, my cousin, will doubtless consider this mere supererogation, but I should be glad of the reverend Doctor’s opinion.”
“We will reserve this,” said the Doctor, “as Question Number Five.”
“And you promptly reshipped for Lisbon, followed the army to Salamanca, and resumed your work?” said I.
“Even so: but I suspect that these adventures have rattled me. I am not the man I was: else I had not succumbed so easily to a mere coup-de-soleil. Will the reverend Doctor complete the narrative by describing how he found me?”
“In a ditch,” said the reverend Doctor placidly. “My college was destroyed: my beloved Salamanca in ruins. ‘To a philosopher,’ said I, ‘all the world is a home; but especially such wine-vaults as are found in Rueda.’ I saddled, therefore, my mule; loaded her with a very few books and still fewer sticks of furniture; more frugal even than Juvenal’s friend Umbricius, cui tota domus redo, componitur una. On my road, and almost under the shadow of this rock, my mule shied in the most ladylike fashion at sight of a redcoat prostrate in the dust. The rest you can guess: but assuredly I did not guess at the time that I had happened on one whose story will–if ever God restores me to my University–so illustrate my lectures as to make them appear that which they will not be–an entirely new set of compositions.”
“Well,” said I, “the hour is late: and however cheerfully you men of conscience and of casuistry may look forward to spending the night in these caves, I have seen enough, and have enough imagination at the back of it, to desire nothing so little.”
“I will escort you,” said the Doctor.
“That was implied,” I answered: and after shaking hands with my kinsman and promising to visit him on the morrow, I suffered myself to be guided back along the horrible passages. On the way the Doctor Gonsalvez paused more than once to chuckle, and at each remove I found this indulgence more uncanny.
In the great cellar we came upon the sergeant of the 36th, still slumbering. I stirred him with my foot, and, sitting up, he amicably invited us to join him in a drink. I did so, the Doctor drawing it from the spigot into a pail.
“Might be worse!” hiccupped the sergeant, watching me.
I agreed that it might be a great deal worse. Between us we steered him out, through the tunnel, along the ledge, and so to the archway under which Venus sparkled in the purple heaven. Here the Doctor bade us good-night, and left me to pilot my drunkard down the cliff. At the foot he shook hands with me in a fervour of tipsy gratitude: and I returned the grasp with an empressement, a passion almost, the exact grounds of which unless he should happen to read these lines and remember the circumstances–contingencies equally remote–he will spend his life without surmising.