The Rider In The Dawn by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

A passage from the Memoirs of Manuel (or Manus) McNeill, agent in the Secret Service of Great Britain during the campaigns of the Peninsula (1808-1813). A Spanish subject by birth, and a Spaniard in all his up-bringing, he traces in the first chapter of his Memoirs his descent from an old Highland family through one Mantis McNeill, a Jacobite agent in the Court of Madrid at the time of the War of Succession, who married and settled at Aranjuez. The second chapter he devotes to his youthful adventures in the contraband trade on the Biscayan Coast and the French frontier, his capture and imprisonment at Bilbao under a two years’ sentence, which was remitted on the discovery of his familiar and inherited conversance with the English tongue, and his imprisonment exchanged for a secret mission to Corsica (1794). The following extract tells of this, his first essay in the calling in which he afterwards rendered signal service to the Allies under Lord Wellington.–Q.

If I take small pleasure in remembering this youthful expedition it is not because I failed of success. It was a fool’s errand from start to finish; and the Minister, Don Manuel Godoy, never meant or expected it to succeed, but furthered it only to keep his master in humour. You must know that just at this time, May, 1794, the English troops and Paoli’s native patriots were between them dislodging the French from the last few towns to which they yet clung on the Corsican coast. Paoli held all the interior: the British fleet commanded the sea and from it hammered the garrisons; and, in short, the French game was up. But now came the question, What would happen when they evacuated the island? Some believed that Paoli would continue in command of his little republic, others that the crown would be offered to King George of England, or that it might go a-begging as the patriots were left to discover their weakness. I understand that, on the chance of this, two or three claimants had begun to look up their titles; and at this juncture our own Most Catholic King bethought him that once upon a time the island had actually been granted to Aragon by a certain Pope Boniface–with what right nobody could tell; but a very little right might suffice to admit Spain’s hand into the lucky bag. In brief, my business was to reach the island, find Paoli (already by shabby treatment incensed against the English, as Godoy assured me), and sound him on my master’s chances. Among the islanders I could pass myself off as a British agent, and some likely falsehood would have to serve me if by ill-luck I fell foul of the British soldiery. The King, who–saving his majesty–had turned the least bit childish in his old age, actually clapped his hands once or twice while his Minister gave me my instructions, which he did with a face as wooden as a grenadier’s. I would give something, even at this distance of time, to know what Godoy’s real thoughts were. Likely enough he and the Queen had invented this toy to amuse the husband they were both deceiving. Or Godoy may have wanted my information for his own purpose, to sell it to the French, with whom–though our armies were fighting them–he had begun to treat in private for the peace and the alliance which soon followed, and still move good Spaniards to spit at the mention of his name. But, whatever the farce was, he played it solemnly, and I took his instructions respectfully, as became me.

No: my mission was never meant to succeed: and if in my later professional pride I now think shame of it–if to this day I wince at the remembrance of Corsica–the shame comes simply from this, that I began my career as a scout by losing my way like any schoolboy. But, after all, even genius must make a beginning; and I was fated to make mine in the Corsican macchia.

Do you know it? If not–that is to say, if you have never visited Corsica–I despair of giving you any conception of it. But if chance has ever carried you near its coast, you will have wondered–as I did when an innocent-looking felucca from Barcelona brought me off the Gulf of Porto– at an extraordinary verdure spreading up the mountains and cut short only by the snows on their summits. You ask what this verdure may be, of which you have never seen the like. It is the macchia.

I declare that the scent of it–or rather, its thousand scents–came wafted down on the night air and met me on the shore as I landed at moonrise below the ruined tower, planted by the Genoese of old, at the mouth of the vale which winds up from Porto to the mountains. We had pushed in under cover of the darkness, for fear of cruisers: and as I took leave of my comrades (who were mostly Neapolitan fishermen), their skipper, a Corsican from Bastia, gave me my route. A good road would lead me up the valley to the village of Otta, where a mule might be hired to carry me on past Evvisa, through the great forest of Aitone, and so across the pass over Monte Artica, whence below me I should see the plain of the Niolo stretching towards Corte and my goal: for at Corte, his capital, I was sure either to find Paoli or to get news of him, and if he had gone northward to rest himself (as his custom was) at his favourite Convent of Morosaglia, why the best road in Corsica would take me after him.

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In the wash of the waves under the old tower I bade the skipper farewell, sprang ashore, and made my way up the valley by the light of the rising moon. Of the wonders of the island, which had shone with such promise of wonders against yesterday’s sunset, it showed me little–only a white road climbing beside a deepening gorge with dark masses of foliage on either hand, and, above these, grey points and needles of granite glimmering against the night. But at every stride I drank in the odours of the macchia, my very skin seeming to absorb them, as my clothes undoubtedly did before my journey’s end; for years later I had only to open the coffer in which they reposed, and all Corsica saluted my nostrils.

Day broke as I climbed; and soon this marvellous brushwood was holding me at gaze for minutes at a time, my eyes feasting upon it as the sun began to open its flowers and subdue the scents of night with others yet more aromatic. In Spain we know montebaxos, or coppice shrubs (as you might call them), and we know tomillares, or undergrowth; but in Corsica nature heaps these together with both hands, and the Corsican, in despair of separating them, calls them all macchia. Cistus, myrtle and cactus; cytisus, lentisk, arbutus; daphne, heath, broom, juniper and ilex–these few I recognised, but there was no end to their varieties and none to their tangle of colours. The slopes flamed with heather bells red as blood, or were snowed white with myrtle blossom: wild roses trailed everywhere, and blue vetches: on the rock ledges the cistus kept its late flowers, white, yellow, or crimson: while from shrub to shrub away to the rock pinnacles high over my left shoulder honeysuckles and clematis looped themselves in festoons as thick as a man’s waist, or flung themselves over the chasm on my right, smothering the ilex saplings which clung to its sides, and hiding the water which roared three hundred feet below. I think that my month in prison must have sharpened my appetite for wild and natural beauty, for I skipped as I went, and whistled in sheer lightness of heart. “O Corsicans!” I exclaimed, “O favoured race of mortals, who spend your pastoral days in scenes so romantic, far from the noise of cities, the restless ambition of courts!”

At the first village of Otta, where the pass narrows to a really stupendous gorge and winds its way up between pyramidal crags soaring out of a sea of green chestnut groves, one of this favoured race (by name Giuse) attempted to sell me a mule at something like twice its value. I hired the beast instead, and also the services of its master to guide me through the two great forests which lay between me and the plain of the Niolo, one on either side of the ridge ahead. He carried a gun, and wore an air of extreme ferocity which daunted me until I perceived that all the rest of the village-men were similarly favoured. Of his politeness after striking the bargain I had no cause to complain. He accepted–and apparently with the simplest credulity–my account of myself, that I was an Englishman bound in the service of the Government to inspect and report on the forests of the interior, on the timber of which King George was prepared to lend money in support of the patriot troops. He himself had served as a stripling in Paoli’s militia across the mountains on the great and terrible day of Ponte Nuovo, and by fits and starts, whenever the road allowed our two mules to travel abreast in safety, he told me the story of it, in a dialect of which I understood but one word in three, so different were its harsh aspirates and gutturals from any sounds in the Italian familiar to me.

The mules stepped out well, and in the shade of the ravine we pushed on steadily through the heat of the day. We had left the macchia far below us, and the road wound between and around sheer scarps of grey granite on the edge of precipices echoing the trickle of waters far below. We rode now in single file, and so continued until Evvisa was reached, and the upper hills began to open their folds. From Evvisa a rough track, yet scored with winter ruts, led us around the southern side of one of these mountain basins, and so to the skirts of the forest of Aitone, into the glooms of which we plunged, my guide promising to bring me out long before nightfall upon the ridge of the pass, where he would either encamp with me, or (if I preferred it) would leave me to encamp alone and find his way back to Evvisa.

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So, with the sun at our backs and now almost half-way below its meridian, we threaded our way up between the enormous pine-trunks, in a gloom full of pillars which set me in mind of Cordova Cathedral. From their dark roof hung myriads of cocoons white as satin and shone in every glint of sunlight. And, whether over the carpet of pine-needles or the deeper carpet of husks where the pines gave place to beech groves, our going was always easy and even luxurious. I began to think that the difficulties of my journey were over; and as we gained the bocca at the top of the pass and, emerging from the last outskirt of pines, looked down on the weald beyond, I felt sure of it.

The plain lay at my feet like a huge saucer filled with shadow and rimmed with snowy mountains on which the sunlight yet lingered. A good road plunged down into the gloom of Valdoniello–a forest at first glance very like that through which we had been riding, but smaller in size. Its dark green tops climbed almost to our feet, and over them Giuse pointed to the town of Niolo midway across the plain, traced with his finger the course of the Golo, and pointed to the right of it where a pass would lead me through the hill-chain to Corte.

I hesitated no longer: but thanked him, paid him his price and a trifle over, and, leaving him on the ridge, struck boldly downhill on foot towards the forest.

As with Aitone so with Valdoniello. The road shunned its depths and, leading me down through the magnificent fringe of it, brought me out upon an open slope, if that can be called open which is densely covered to the height of a man’s knees at times, and again to the height of his breast, with my old friend the macchia.

It was now twilight and I felt myself weary. Choosing an aromatic bed by the roadside where no prickly cactus thrust its way through the heather, I opened my wallet; pulled forth a sausage, a crust, and a skin of wine; supped; and stretched myself to sleep through the short summer night.

“The howly Mother presarve us! Whist now, Daniel Cullinan, did ye’ver hear the like of it?”

I am glad to remember now that, even as the voice fell on my ear and awoke me, I had presence enough of mind to roll quickly off my bed of heath away from the road and towards the shelter of a laurestinus bush a few paces from my elbow. But between me and the shrub lay a fern-masked hollow between two boulders, into which I fell with a shock, and so lay staring up at the heavens.

The wasted moon hung directly overhead in a sky already paling with dawn. And while I stared up at her, taking stock of my senses and wondering if here–here in Corsica–I had really heard that inappropriate sound, soon across the hillside on my left echoed an even stranger one–yet one I recognised at once as having mingled with my dreams; a woman’s voice pitched at first in a long monotonous wail and then undulating in semitones above and below the keynote–a voice which seemed to call from miles away–a sound as dismal as ever fell on a man’s ears.

“Arrah, let me go, Corp’ril! let me go, I tell yez! ‘Tis the banshee— who knows it better than I?–that heard the very spit of it the day my brother Mick was drowned in Waterford harbour, and me at Ballyroan that time in Queen’s County, and a long twenty-five miles away as ever the crow flies!”

“Ah, hold your whist, my son! Mebbee ’tis but some bird of the country– bad end to it!–or belike the man we’re after, that has spied us, and is putting a game on us.”

“Bird!” exclaimed the man he had called Daniel Cullinan, as again the wail rang down from the hills. “Catch the bird can talk like yondhar, and I give ye lave to eat him and me off the same dish. And if ’tis a man, and he’s anywhere but on the road, here’s a rare bottle of hay we’ll search through for him. Rest aisy now, Corp’ril, and give it up. That man with the mules, we’ll say, was a liar; and turn back before the worse befalls us!”

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Through my ferny screen I saw them–two redcoats in British uniform disputing on the road not ten paces from my shelter. They moved on some fifty yards, still disputing, the first sunrays glinting on the barrels of the rifles they shouldered: and almost as soon as their backs were turned I broke cover and crept away into the macchia.

Now the macchia, as I soon discovered, is prettier to look at than to climb through. I was a fool not to content myself with keeping at a tolerably safe distance from the road. As it was, with fear at my heels and a plenty of inexperience to guide me, I crawled through thickets and blundered over sharply pointed rocks; found myself on the verge of falls from twenty to thirty feet in depth; twisted my ankles, pushed my head into cactus, tangled myself in creepers; found and followed goat-tracks which led into other goat-tracks and ended nowhere; tore my hands with briers and my shoes on jagged granite; tumbled into beds of fern, sweated, plucked at arresting thorns, and at the end of twenty minutes discovered what every Corsican knows from infancy–that to lose one’s way in the macchia is the simplest thing in life.

I had lost mine pretty thoroughly when, happening on what seemed at least a promising track, I cast my eyes up and saw, on a ridge some two or three hundred yards ahead and sharply outlined against the blue morning sky, a horse and rider descending the slope towards me.

The horse I presently discerned to be a light roan of the island breed: and my first thought was that he seemed overweighted by his rider, who sat erect–astonishingly erect–with his head cased in a pointed hood and his body in a long dark cloak which fell from his shoulders to his knees. Although he rode with saddle and bridle, he apparently used neither stirrups nor reins, and it was a wonder to see how the man kept his seat as he did with his legs sticking out rigid as two vine-props and his arms held stiffly against his sides. I wasted no time, however, in marvelling, but ran forward as he approached and stretched out my hand to his rein, panting out, “O, friend, be good enough to guide me out of this tangle!– for I am a stranger and indeed utterly lost.”

And with that all speech froze suddenly within me: and with good excuse– for I was looking up into the face of a corpse!

His eyes, shaded by the hood he wore, were glazed and wide, his features– the features of an old man–livid in death. As I blenched before them, I saw that a stout pole held his body upright, a pole lashed firmly at the tail of his crupper, and terminating in two forking branches like an inverted V, against which his legs had been bound with leathern thongs.

And again as I blenched from the horrible face my eyes fell on the horse, and I saw that the poor little beast was no less than distraught with fright. What I had taken for grey streaks in his roan coat were in fact lathery flakes of sweat, and he nuzzled towards me as a horse will rarely nuzzle towards a stranger and only in extremest terror. A glance told me that he had been galloping wildly and bucking to free himself of his burden, but was now worn out and thoroughly cowed. His knees quivered as I soothed and patted him; and when I pulled out a knife to cut the corpse free from its lashings, he seemed to understand at once, and rubbed his nose gratefully against my waistcoat.

A moment later the knife almost dropped from my hand at the sound of a brisk hurrah from above, and looking up I saw the stalwart form of the Irish corporal wriggling along the branch of a cork-oak which overhung the slope. He carried his rifle, and, anchoring himself in a fork of the boughs, stared down triumphantly.

“Arrah now,” he hailed, “which of you’s the man that came ashore at Porto and passed through Evvisa overnight? Spake up quick now, and surrender, for I have ye covered!”

He lifted his rifle. I cast my eye over the space of macchia between us, and decided that I had only his bullet to fear.

A poco, a poco,” I called back. “Be in no hurry–piano, my friend: this gentleman has met with an accident to his stirrup!”

“The divvle take your impudence! Step forward this moment and surrender, or it’s meat I’ll be making of the pair of you!”

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And he meant it. I slipped behind the corpse, and hacked at its lashings as his rifle roared out; and for aught I know the corpse received the bullet. With a heave I toppled it and its ghastly frame together headlong into the fern, sprang to the saddle in its place, pointed to it, and with a shout of “Assassino! Assassino!” shook rein and galloped down the path.

A few strides removed me out of further danger from the corporal, perched as he was in an attitude extremely inconvenient for reloading. Of his comrade I saw no signs, but judged him to be foundered somewhere in the macchia. The little roan had regained his wind. He took me down the precipitous track without a blunder, picked his way across the dry bed of a mountain torrent, and on the farther side struck off at right angles into a path which mounted through the macchia towards a wedge-shaped cleft in the foothills to the north. Now and again this path returned to the very lip of the torrent, across which I looked upon cliffs descending sheer for many scores of feet from the heathery slope to the boulders below. At the pace we held it was a sight to make me shiver. But the good little horse knew his road, and I let him take it. Up and up we mounted, his pace dropping at length to a slow canter, and so at an angle of the gorge came suddenly into full view of a grassy plateau with a house perched upon it–a house so high and narrow that at first glance I took it for a tower, with the more excuse because at first glance I could discern no windows.

As we approached it, however, I saw it to be a dwelling-house, and that it had windows, though these were shuttered, and the shutters painted a light stone colour; and I had scarcely made this discovery when one of them jetted out a sudden puff of smoke and a bullet sang over my head.

The roan, which had fallen to a walk–so steep was the pitch of ground immediately beneath the house–halted at once as if puzzled; and you may guess if his dismay exceeded mine. But I reasoned from his behaviour on the road that this must be his home, and the folks behind the window shutters must recognise him. So standing high in my stirrups I waved a hand and pointed at him, at the same time shouting “Amico! Amico!”

There was no answer. The windows still stared down upon us blankly, but to my relief the shot was not repeated. “Amico! Amico!” I shouted again, and, alighting, led the horse towards the door.

It was opened cautiously and held a little ajar–just wide enough to give me a glimpse of a black-bearded face.

“Who are you?” a voice demanded in harsh Corsican.

“A friend,” I answered, “and unarmed: and see, I have brought you back your horse!”

The man called to someone within the house: then addressed me again. “Yes, it is indeed Nello. But how come you by him?”

“That is a long story,” said I. “Be so good as either to step out or to open and admit me to your hospitality, that we may talk in comfort.”

“To the house, O stranger, I have not the slightest intention of admitting you, seeing that the windows are stuffed with mattresses, and there is no light within–no, not so much as would show your face. And even less intention have I of stepping outside, since, without calling you a liar, I greatly suspect you are here to lead me into ambush.”

“Oho!” said I, as a light broke on me. “Is this vendetta?”

“It is vendetta, and has been vendetta any day since the Saturday before last, when old Stephanu Ceccaldi swindled me out of that very horse from which you have alighted: and it fills me with wonder to see him here.”

“My tale will not lessen your wonder,” said I, “when you learn how I came by him. But as touching this Stephanu Ceccaldi?”

“As we hear, they were to have buried him last night at moonrise: for a week had not passed before my knife found him–the knife of me, Marcantonio Dezio. All night the voceri of the Ceccalde’s women-folk have been sounding across the hills.”

“Agreeable sir, I have later news of him. The Ceccalde (let us doubt not) did their best. They mounted him upon Nello here, the innocent cause of their affliction. They waked him with dirges which–now you come to mention them–were melancholy enough to drive a cat to suicide. They tied him upright, and rode him forth to the burial. But it would seem that Nello, here, is a true son of your clan: he cannot bear a Ceccaldi on top of him. For I met him scouring the hills with the corpse on his back, having given leg-bail to all his escort.”

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The Corsican has a heart, if you only know where to find it. Forgetting his dread of an ambush, or disregarding it in the violence of his emotion, Marcantonio flung wide the door, stepped forth, and casting both arms about the horse’s neck and mane, caressed him passionately and even with tears.

“O Nello! O brave spirit! O true son of the Dezii!”

He called forth his family, and they came trooping through the doorway–an old man, two old women, a middle-aged matron whom I took for Marcantonio’s wife, three stalwart girls, a stunted lad of about fourteen and four smaller and very dirty children. Their movements were dignified–even an infant Corsican rarely forgets his gravity–but they surrounded Nello one and all, and embraced him, and fed him on lumps of sugar. (Sugar, I may say, is a luxury in Corsica, and scarce at that.) They wept upon his mane and called him their little hero. They shook their fists towards that quarter, across the valley, in which I supposed the Ceccalde to reside. They chanted a song over the little beast while he munched his sugar with an air of conscious worth. And in short I imagined myself to be wholly forgotten in their delight at recovering him, until Marcantonio swung round suddenly and asked me to name a price for him.

“Eh?” said I. “What–for Nello? Surely, after what has happened, you can hardly bring yourself to part with him?”

“Hardly, indeed. O stranger, it will tear my heart! But where am I to bestow him? The Ceccalde will be here presently; beyond doubt they are already climbing the pass. And for you also it will be awkward if they catch you here.”

I had not thought of this danger. “The valley below will be barred then?” I asked.

“Undoubtedly.”

“I might perhaps stay and lend you some help.”

“This is the Dezii’s private quarrel,” he assured me with dignity. “But never fear for us, O stranger. We will give them as good as they bring.”

“I am bound for Corte,” said I.

“By following the track up to the bocca you will come in sight of the high-road. But you will never reach it without Nello’s help, seeing that my private affairs hinder me from accompanying you. Now concerning this horse, he is one in a thousand: you might indeed say that he is worth his weight in gold.”

“At all events,” said I smiling, “he is a ticklish horse to pay too little for.”

“A price is a price,” answered Marcantonio gravely. “Old Stephanu Ceccaldi, catching me drunk, thought to pay but half of it, but the residue I took when I was sober. Now, between gentlefolks, what dispute could there be over eighty livres? Eighty livres!–why it is scarce the price of a good mare!”

Well, bating the question of his right to sell the horse, eighty livres was assuredly cheap: and after a moment’s calculation I resolved to close with him and accept the risk rather than by higgling over a point of honesty, which after all concerned his conscience rather than mine, to incur the more unpleasant one of a Ceccaldi bullet. I searched in my wallet and paid the money, while the Dezii with many sobs, mixed a half-pint of wine in a mash and offered this last tribute to the vindicator of their family honour.

So when Nello had fed and I had drunk a cup to their very long life, I mounted and jogged away up the pass. Once or twice I reined up on the ascent for a look back at the plateau. And always the Dezii stood there, straining their eyes after Nello and waving farewells.

On the far side of the ridge my ears were saluted by sounds of irregular musketry in the vale behind; and I knew that the second stage in the Dezio-Ceccaldi vendetta had opened with vigour.

Three days later I had audience with the great Paoli in his rooms in the Convent of Marosaglia. He listened to my message with patience and to the narrative of my adventures with unfeigned interest. At the end he said–

“I think you had best quit Corsica with the least possible delay. And, if I may advise you further, you will follow the road northwards to Bastia, avoiding all short cuts. In any case, avoid the Niolo. I happen to know something of the Ceccalde, and their temper; and, believe me, I am counselling you for the best.”

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